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    Veterans Group Ordered To Stop Fundraising In Ohio

    Questions raised about legitimacy of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association

    May 29, 2010
    Heading into the weekend when the nation honors those who made the ultimate sacrifice., the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, which claims to be a legitimate nonprofit organization, was told to stop all fundraising activities in Ohio.

    The order was issued by Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray after it was determined that the association's registration documents contained false and misleading information.

    Recent news accounts questioning the fundraising and expenses by the U.S. Navy Veterans Association in other states prompted the Attorney General's Charitable Law Section to examine the organization's activities in Ohio.

    "There are serious questions being raised about the legitimacy of this organization and its fundraising activities in Ohio and across the country," said Cordray. "We're going to shut down this organization's fundraising activities unless and until it can provide satisfactory answers to our questions. We need to do this to protect the hard-earned reputations of all our legitimate nonprofit veterans organizations in Ohio."

    Lack of accountability

    In a letter to the U. S. Navy Veterans Association and the individuals named as its directors, the AG cites numerous violations of the state's registration requirements. They include:

    • Listing a UPS mailbox as the organization's principal place of business

    • Failing to provide phone numbers for the organization's offices

    • Failing to provide addresses for directors, trustees and executive personnel

    Additionally, investigators in the Charitable Law Section have been unable to locate any of the three people listed on the registration documents as having final responsibility for the custody of contributions in Ohio. The addresses listed for these individuals are all UPS mailboxes and the phone numbers listed are all cell phones that connect to the same voicemail box for the U.S. Navy Veterans Association.

    Watch out for scams

    "While we honor our veterans on this Memorial Day weekend, we must remain vigilant of those fundraising organizations that seek to deceive donors and siphon off money from legitimate organizations serving our veterans," said Cordray. He offered the following guidelines and suggestions to keep in mind when considering a charitable contribution:

    • Recognize that the words "veterans" or "military families" in an organization's name do not necessarily mean that your donation will actually go to these worthy causes. Some phony charities deliberately use names, seals and logos that look or sound like those of respected, legitimate organizations.

    • Donate to charities with a track record and a history. Charities that spring up overnight may disappear just as quickly and never deliver any money to your intended beneficiaries.

    • Ask questions about the charity's specific programs and services and where the charity is located. Ask for written information to evaluate before making a gift. Charities in good standing are happy to provide information about themselves; scammers will be more resistant to answering basic questions.

    • Ask what percentage of your donation will actually go to the charitable cause and the specific programs you support. Solicitors are required to provide this information under Ohio law.

    Veterans Group Ordered To Stop Fundraising In Ohio...
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    Survey Suggests Many Drivers Are Clueless

    New York drivers worst in insurance company survey

    By Mark Huffman

    May 28, 2010

    One reason the highway is an increasingly dangerous place is because too many drivers don't know what they are doing, an insurance company study suggests.

    GMAC Insurance conducted an online survey, posing 20 questions taken from state driving license exams. The results showed many respondents might have flunked if it had been a real test.

    For example 85 percent of respondents did not know how to react to a traffic signal where the light was yellow. Others showed confusion on other questions or admitted to unsafe habits like texting while driving.

    If the test results were averaged out nationally, the study suggests nearly 20 percent of licensed drivers -- some 38 million motorists -- "may be unfit for roads" and wouldn't pass a state-issued written exam if taken today, the study said. The average test score fell from 76.6 percent in 2009, and 78.1 percent in 2008.

    "It's discouraging to see that overall average test scores are lower than last year," said Wade Bontrager, senior vice president, GMAC Insurance. "American drivers need to make safety a top priority and be aware of the rules of the road at all times. The National Drivers Test allows everyone to brush up on their driving knowledge with a brief refresher course."

    Score breakdown

    Where are the nation's worst drivers? Motorists from New York had the worst record on the survey, followed by drivers in New Jersey, Washington, California and Rhode Island.

    Drivers in Kansas did the best, followed by Oregon, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. In general, drivers in the Midwest seemed to be the most informed about the rules of the road while drivers in the Northeast fared worst.

    Men over age 45 tended to score the highest, the survey shows, while men overall outscored women, who admitted to engaging in more distracting behavior while behind the wheel.

    Lack of attention

    Additional questions from the survey reveal drivers conduct a variety of distracting behaviors behind the wheel; approximately one in four participants admitted to driving while talking on a cell phone, eating and adjusting the radio or selecting songs on an iPod. However, only five percent reported they text while driving.

    Overall, a significantly higher percentage of females than males reported engaging in the following distracting situations: conversation with passengers, selecting songs on an iPod or CD/adjusting the radio, talking on a cell phone, eating, applying make-up and reading.

    One reason the highway is an increasingly dangerous place is because too many drivers don't know what they are doing, an insurance company study suggests....
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      Teens and Alcohol Make Bad Memorial Day Mix

      Alcohol-related ER visits spike during holiday

      Underage drinking is a growing problem, and a new study suggests it's often worse over the Memorial Day weekend.

      The study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reveals that teens' alcohol-related trips to hospital emergency rooms are 11 percent higher during the Memorial Day weekend than they are on an average day.

      The latest Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) report estimates that on an average day, there are 519 hospital emergency department visits involving underage alcohol use. For the three day Memorial Day weekend, however, the number of daily hospital emergency department visits jumps to 577.

      The study also shows that the daily level of hospital emergency department visits involving those under age 21 that used alcohol combined with other drugs is 27 percent higher during this holiday weekend than the level on an average day (199 visits versus 156 visits).

      "Underage drinking poses an enormous public health risk -- approximately 5,000 people die each year from alcohol-related injuries connected to underage drinking," said SAMHSA Administrator, Pamela S. Hyde, J.D. "Moreover, studies have shown that children who begin drinking before age 15 are six times more likely to develop alcohol problems than people who start drinking after they reach age 21."

      Hyde says the study highlights the need for parents, families and communities to promote prevention messages and efforts designed to help young people enjoy themselves without engaging in underage drinking or drug use.

      The study was developed as part of the agency's strategic initiative on data, outcomes, and quality -- an effort to inform policy makers and service providers on the nature and scope of behavioral health issues. It is based on the 2008 DAWN report. DAWN is a public health surveillance system that monitors drug-related hospital emergency department visits reported throughout the nation.

      Teens and Alcohol Make Bad Memorial Day Mix: Underage drinking is a growing problem, and a new study suggests it's often worse over the Memorial Day weeken...
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      Suit Takes On Experian's "Free" Credit Reports

      Allegations now covered by new FTC regulation

       Given the continuing credit crunch and the efforts of many consumers to dig themselves out of a financial hole, the offer of a "free credit report" provides a tempting opportunity to see just how deep that hole is.

      Unfortunately, such offers are almost never what they seem, a truism reaffirmed by a class action lawsuit filed last week. The suit, filed in New Jersey state court, claims Experian's and both offer a "free credit report," but provide it only if consumers agree to purchase a credit monitoring service.

      The complaint says the caveat violates New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) and the state's Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty, and Notice Act (TCCWNA). The CFA prohibits sellers from making fraudulent or misleading statements about the product or service they are selling. The TCCWNA, in turn, prevents a seller from including in a contract any provision that violates another law -- in this case the CFA.

      According to the complaint, lead plaintiff Melissa Toll logged onto last December to get a copy of her credit report and credit score. Toll didn't realize, however, that she was also signing up for the "Triple Advantage" credit monitoring service, which costs $14.95 per month unless the consumer cancels it within seven days.

      The suit contends that, understandably, Toll "believed that the 'free' credit report offered by Defendants...and repeatedly referred to as 'free' by the Defendants, would in fact be free of charge."

      Fortunately for consumers, a new federal law passed in the months since Toll signed up for her credit report prohibits the very conduct referenced in the suit. The Free Credit Reports Rule, implemented by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in April, requires creditors to clearly disclose any conditions attached to the offer of a free credit report.

      Both and now contain such a disclosure. warns consumers that: "When you order your free report here, you will begin your free trial membership in Triple Advantage Credit Monitoring. If you don't cancel your membership within the 7-day trial period, you will be billed $14.95 for each month that you continue your membership." has received a considerable number of complaints about, many of which tell a story similar to Toll's.

      The suit requests an injunction barring future violations of CFA and TCCWNA, disgorgement of fees collected by Experian, "maximum statutory damages," and attorneys' fees. The suit also asks for CFA-authorized "treble damages," which allow a court to "award threefold the damages sustained" by a plaintiff.

      Under federal law, consumers are entitled to free government-provided credit reports once every year. Those reports can be obtained at, the FTC's website or by calling 877-322-8228.

      Given the continuing credit crunch and the efforts of many consumers to dig themselves out of a financial hole, the offer of a "free credit report" provide...
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      Oregon Latest State to Sue U.S. Fidelis

      Auto warranty company accused of misleading consumers

      Oregon has become the latest state to sue U.S. Fidelis, also known as National Warranty Services, accusing it of illegally misleading consumers about extended vehicle protection plans.

      This company misled Oregon consumers by selling deceptive vehicle warranty plans, said Oregon Attorney General John Kroger. When the plans arrived in the mail and consumers made claims, they discovered that the fine print left them with almost no coverage at all.

      U.S. Fidelis, also known as National Warranty Services, sells extended vehicle protection plans for consumers that are supposed to pick up when original warranties expire.

      The lawsuit alleges that Oregon consumers who paid for the extra coverage were misled into believing that the plan would cover most if not all repairs just like a dealer-provided warranty. But according to the lawsuit, the U.S. Fidelis extended protection plans included so many exceptions that consumers were usually left out in the cold when their cars broke down.

      The lawsuit also alleges that U.S. Fidelis misrepresented the level of coverage consumers would receive and pressured them into signing up quickly or risk losing special benefits. Some consumers were told that they were eligible to receive special rates that never materialized. Consumers who asked to see the actual conditions of the contract were ignored.

      U.S. Fidelis is also accused of violating the Do Not Call registry.

      The Better Business Bureau has received more than 1,400 complaints about U.S. Fidelis and its affiliates. Assistant Attorney General Simon Whang is handling the case for the Oregon Department of Justice.

      Last month, eight states and the District of Columbia filed lawsuits against U.S. Fidelis and Credexx Corporation of Irvine, CA, dba Auto One Warranty Specialists (Auto One).

      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.

      Oregon Latest State to Sue U.S. Fidelis...
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      Mortgage Rates Fall to New Low

      Investments flowing into U.S. bonds give homebuyers a break

      May 27, 2010

      Thanks to a collapsing euro, which has pumped billions into U.S. dollars, mortgage rates have fallen to a new record low, hitting 4.92 percent for a 30-year fixed rate loan, according to

      The average 15-year fixed mortgage held steady this week at 4.34 percent, as did the larger jumbo 30-year fixed rate at 5.75 percent. Adjustable rate mortgages rose this week, with the average 3-year ARM climbing to 4.52 percent and the 5-year ARM rising to 4.26 percent.

      The angst of investors around the globe about European debt, slower growth in China, and saber-rattling on the Korean Peninsula all feed into what is known as the "fear trade." That fear trade has helped bring yields on U.S. Treasury securities considerably lower and mortgage shoppers have been direct beneficiaries. Mortgage rates are closely related to yields on long-term government bonds and nervous investors equate to lower mortgage rates.

      The last time mortgage rates were above 6 percent was Nov. 2008. At that time, the average rate was 6.33 percent, meaning a$200,000 loan would have carried a monthly payment of $1,241.86. With the average rate now 4.92 percent, the monthly payment for the same size loan would be $1,063.89, a savings of $178 per month for a homeowner refinancing now.

      Bankrate's national weekly mortgage survey is conducted each Wednesday from data provided by the top 10 banks and thrifts in the top 10 markets.

      Mortgage Rates Fall to New Low...
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      Should I Sell Gold for Cash?

      Some do's and don't's for those considering a sale

      For many consumers, money is tighter than it's ever been and a lot of folks scrambling for immediate avenues to ease the strain on their monthly budgets. With the price of gold reaching record highs of well over $1,000, ads have prompted millions to sift through their valuables for rings, chains, and coins they are willing to part with.

      However, Washington state Attorney General Rob Mckenna cautions the allure of the promised "fast cash" has many hastily submitting items they may know little about to companies they haven't researched. This has created an industry tailor-made for a recession and a hotbed of opportunity for consumer scams.

      By far the most frequent consumer complaint regarding these services involves a low payout. In fact, there are widespread reports of people sending in hundreds of dollars worth of items only to receive a check for a paltry amount -- sometimes even less than $1.

      While these companies guarantee satisfaction, some are reported to have practices in place to make the process as difficult as possible for the seller in hope they simply give up trying to recoup the submitted items.

      When seeking to trade valuables in for cash, it is important for consumers to be equipped with as much information as possible to safeguard yourself in the transaction.

      McKenna offers these tips for selling gold:

      Understand what you have

      Have the item(s) appraised. While not required by law, reputable U.S. jewelry makers stamp pieces to designate karat level and include the name or trademark of the company endorsing the mark. However, misleading or fraudulent jewelry markings are not unheard of.

      Going to a jeweler for an appraisal will yield the most accurate results. Scrap values don't reflect the craftsmanship or antique value. You can find credentialed appraisers at the websites of the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers and the American Society of Appraisers .

      Shop around

      Payouts will vary, but it is important to remember that with more middlemen involved, you'll receive less. A study by Consumer Reports found that mail-in companies offered 11-29 percent of market value for 18-karat jewelry, while jewelers and pawn shops paid upwards of 70 percent for the same pieces.

      Because the price of gold fluctuates, call businesses on the same day to ask what they pay for gold. As nice as it would be, you will not be compensated $1,000 for every ounce of gold you have. That figure applies to quantities of pure gold only.

      Mary of Danville, IN, believes she got "ripped off" by Cash4Gold. "I sent them two gold rings, a watch, two bracelets and a necklace and only got $35.00 back," she tells "I sent the very same identical items to and got 135.00 back. We certainly know who the thieves are". Mary acknowledges she'd have been better off had she researched Cash4Gold before sending her jewelry to them.

      'A bird in the hand...'

      Once you send in your gold to a company, you have surrendered a fair amount of power in the transaction. If you decide to mail your jewelry, choose a reputable company that offers free insured shipping that you can track online.

      Provide a detailed description of what you're sending. Keep a copy of the paperwork, along with photographs of the items. Some consumers have complained that they sent 14-karat gold items that were falsely appraised as 10-karat and quoted accordingly. Unfortunately, once the items are in the company's hands, there is little for a consumer to do to overcome this information asymmetry other than request the items back.

      Beware of superlatives

      Claims such as, "We pay the highest prices!" or "America's #1 Gold Refiner!" are red flags because they are nearly impossible to substantiate. The most reputable companies will generally steer clear from these misrepresentations and quote a price upfront with values updated daily. Transparency is always worth more than images of fanned currency.

      At the end of the day, doing your homework is the best way to protect yourself and your valuables. But in these tenuous economic times, it is important to remember that selling old jewelry or scrap gold is not a long-term financial solution. While you may be compensated enough to cover a month's worth of bills, you will not get rich.

      Approaching the transaction with this understanding and conducting an adequate amount of due diligence will help ensure a fair deal.

      Help from Uncle Sam may be in the offing. Congress is considering legislation designed to make sure that consumers who decide to sell their gold get a fair shake.

      Should I Sell Gold for Cash?...
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      House Bill Mandates 'Black Boxes' For All Cars

      Wide-ranging measure also includes mandatory emergency braking system

      On a 31-21 vote, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has approved a bill that, among other things, would require all vehicles sold in the U.S. to be equipped with a "black box" that records crash data by 2015.

      The Motor Vehicle Safety Act now goes to the full House for debate. The Senate is considering a similar measure.

      Included in the bill is a requirement for automakers to provide an emergency brake override system that could stop the car if the throttle were stuck in the open position. That provision was added in the wake of Toyota's well-publicized unintended acceleration problems that forced a large recall earlier this year.

      The measure also includes a provision increasing the maximum penalty on carmakers that fail to report defects. Toyota has paid a record $16.2 million fine in connection with its unintended acceleration problems.

      Some tougher provisions of the bill were removed after objections from the auto industry. However, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said it is generally in favor of most of the bill's provisions, including the emergency brake override system and the inclusion of a "black box" data recorder.

      In testimony before the committee earlier this month, Alliance CEO Dave McCurdy tempered his support of the black box provision with a few concerns when the original wording called for "black boxes like those found in airplanes."

      "The typical airplane black box costs $22,000, which is close to the average price of a new car," McCurdy told the committee. "In my opinion, Rep. Green's legislation -- H.R. 5169, the Event Data Recorder Enhancement Act -- is a better approach."

      Under Green's measure, the Secretary of Transportation would set the standards for automobile "black boxes."

      The measure would give new power to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. NHTSA would be authorized to order recalls that "present a substantial likelihood of death or injury to the public."

      To increase NHTSA's budget, the measure would add a $9 tax per car -- ultimately to be paid by the purchaser -- with the money going directly to fund the agency's operations.

      The idea for "black boxes" in cars has been around since the 1970s. It was first advanced by the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency that investigates airplane accidents. The agency made the recommendation to both NHTSA and the automobile industry.


      When Event Data Recorders were introduced in the last decade, hundreds of consumers wrote to federal auto safety regulators objecting to a new rule establishing minimum requirements for automobile "black boxes" and data recorders. Privacy advocates said they were concerned the data would fall into the wrong hands and would contribute to government "spying" on drivers.

      Many vehicles currently collect data in onboard computers that are part of the vehicle electronics system. Toyota analyzed data from the computers earlier this year when it investigated a number of sudden acceleration reports.

      The legal website says there are many misconceptions about a vehicle "black box," saying its best uses are for diagnosing vehicle related problems, not to settle legal issues arising from accidents.

      "Motorists should be very concerned about this device," the website warns. "The automobile black box should never be used as a stand-alone device. The use of physical evidence, such as impact data, skid / yaw marks, initial / resting positions of vehicle(s), in conjunction with the black box, as well as common sense is essential to obtain the correct resultant. "

      On a 31-21 vote, HECC has approved a bill that, among other things, would require all vehicles sold in the U.S. to be equipped with a "black box" that reco...
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      Six Signs the Debt Settlement Pitch Is A Scam

      Look for red flags that tell you you're being taken for a ride

      By Mark Huffman

      May 26, 2010
      Consumer debt, including credit card debt, is at an all time high, and that has led to an explosion of questionable "debt settlement" companies that claim they can almost magically solve your debt problems. All you have to do is pay a hefty fee, in advance.

      If only it were that easy. For people drowning in debt, the siren song from the debt settlement marketer can sound enticing. Desperation leads many consumers to reach out to these companies, only to find they are left in even worse financial shape.

      If you are overwhelmed by debt, you probably should talk with someone for advice -- but not someone who is trying to sell you an expensive service. To help you weed out the scammers from those who may actually be able to help, here are six signs that the debt settlement company is a scam.

      1. They claim they will contact your creditors and settle you accounts for "pennies on the dollar"

      How do they do that -- wave a magic wand? Why is your credit card company, for example, going to happily agree to accept taking a loss on your account. They probably won't, until they have exhausted all their options.

      2. They claim to "Guarantee 100 percent success"

      Think about that one for a minute. Does any enterprise ever achieve 100 percent success at anything? To believe that, you would have to believe that the debt settlement company has a magic formula.

      3. They tout a "new government program" to bail out credit card debtors

      By now everyone has heard all about the various "bail outs" and many people have obviously wondered why they aren't getting bailed out. Debt settlement companies want you to believe that the government -- President Obama in particular -- has come up with a program to provide money just for you.

      4. They promise they can stop all debt collection calls or lawsuits

      Consumers being harassed by bill collectors find this pitch almost irresistible. Unfortunately, no one can stop a legitimate debt collector from contacting you about a legitimate debt, as long as they follow the rules. If you think a debt collector is being abusive, you should contact your state attorney general, not a debt settlement company.

      5. They charge you a full fee, in advance

      Scammers like to get paid in advance. In fact, they insist on it. They want to have received all your money before you figure out you've been scammed. Many states have recently passed laws prohibiting advance fees for debt settlement services. Whether your state has or not, its never a good idea to pay in full in advance.

      6. They tell you not to contact creditors

      A scammer will tell you not to talk to your creditors because they don't want you to get correct information. As long as they can keep you in the dark, they can keep extracting fees. In fact, if you are in over your head, you should talk to your creditors about your situation and express a willingness to set up a payment plan.

      To deal with your debt you have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is usually with a budget. Work out a realistic plan to make ends meet, putting money aside to work down your debt.

      If you need someone to talk to, a credit-counseling agency can advise you on managing your money and making a budget, and usually can offer free education materials. Find a credit counselor through a college or university. Or contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling , a 50-year old organization that carefully screens member firms.

      Six Signs the Debt Settlement Pitch Is A Scam...
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      Eight Ways To Avoid Future Credit Card Pitfalls

      Consumers need new rules for the new credit card rules

      May 26, 2010

      The credit card reform legislation Congress passed one year ago is now mostly in effect. Much of it took effect in February and the remainder becomes effective August 22, 2010. But does that mean your problems are over? Probably not. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) says it's possible consumers could face account changes in the future, such as interest rate increases on future transactions and the imposition of new fees or penalties.

      Here are eight ways to avoid potential pitfalls in the new world of credit cards.

      1. Understand your right to cancel a credit card before certain significant account changes take effect.

      Under the new law, card issuers now must generally tell customers about certain changes in account terms -- in areas such as interest rate and fee increases -- 45 days in advance, up from 15 days in the past. In that same notice, they must inform consumers of their right to cancel the card before certain account changes take effect. These notices may come with your credit card bill or through a separate communication.

      "It's important to read everything from your card issuer, even what appears to be junk mail," said Kathleen Nagle, FDIC Associate Director for Consumer Protection. "Be aware of when the new rate or fee will take effect, so you can have enough time to shop around for a new card, if necessary."

      Consumers who notify their card company to cancel their card before fees are increased or certain other significant changes take effect will still be required to repay the outstanding balance, but they cannot be required to repay it immediately. However, the card company can increase the minimum monthly payment, subject to certain limitations.

      Also note that there are exceptions to the 45-day notice requirement. For example, you will generally not receive advance notice of a rate increase on a card with a variable interest rate that will fluctuate based on an advertised index, such as the prime rate.

      2. Keep an eye on your credit limit.

      Some people, even those with good credit histories, have recently seen their credit limits cut back. Reductions in credit lines can be harmful because your borrowing power will be diminished. Also remember that your credit score is based, in part, on what percentage of your credit limit you are using and how much you owe. Borrowers who carry large balances in proportion to their credit limit may see their credit scores fall. And a lower credit score can make it difficult or more expensive to get new credit in the future.

      How can you reduce the risk that your credit limit will be cut or your credit card account will be canceled? One factor that credit card companies consider is how you pay your bills.

      "It's important to show a steady, timely payment history," said Evelyn Manley, a Senior Consumer Affairs Specialist at the FDIC.

      Paying all your credit-related bills by the due date -- that includes your credit card bills as well as your car loan, mortgage and other debts -- shows that you're a responsible borrower.

      Also, pay as much of your credit card bill as you can each month. If possible, pay in full, but definitely try to pay more than the minimum balance due.

      What should you do if you've already had your credit limit cut? Put a renewed focus on lowering the amount of money you owe on your credit cards.

      Also, consumers who have difficulty making their minimum payments on time may benefit from speaking with a reputable credit counselor to get help or guidance at little or no cost.

      3. Decide how you want to handle transactions that would put you over your credit limit.

      Under the new law, no fees may be imposed for making a purchase or other transaction that would put your account over the credit limit unless you explicitly agree, in advance, that the credit card company can process these transactions for you and charge a fee.

      "Even if you agree to over-the-limit fees, you have the right to change your mind down the road," said Luke W. Reynolds, Chief of the FDIC's Community Outreach Section. "You would simply instruct your card issuer to deny any transactions that would exceed your credit limit and would trigger a fee."

      In either case, he said, "you still should monitor how much you've charged on your card so you don't exceed the credit limit."

      4. Be cautious with "no-interest" offers.

      Many retailers, such as electronics or furniture stores, promote credit cards with "zero-percent interest" on purchases for a certain amount of time. These cards allow you to buy big-ticket items, perhaps a sofa or a stereo system, without paying interest for anywhere from six months to more than a year. While the chance to avoid interest payments sounds like a terrific deal, keep in mind that if you don't follow the rules for these offers, this "no-interest" special could end up being expensive.

      The reason is, with many of these offers, you must pay off the entire purchase by the time the promotional period ends to take advantage of the zero-rate offer. If you don't, the lender will charge you interest from the date you bought the item. You would then have to pay interest -- at the lender's standard rate -- from the date of purchase. And if the Annual Percentage Rate or APR on the retailer's card is higher than what you would pay on another card you have, the extra costs could really add up. The APR is the cost of credit expressed as a yearly rate, including interest and other charges.

      5. Keep only the credit cards you really need and then periodically use them all.

      Some consumers have too many credit cards. Among the concerns: Those extra cards can lead some people to overspend. Also, having many cards with no existing balance or a very low balance can reduce your credit score because prospective lenders can conclude that you have the potential to use them and get into debt.

      For the average person, two or three general-purpose cards are probably enough. Consider canceling and cutting up the rest. However, also remember that closing a credit card account can temporarily lower your credit score, especially if the cancelled card was one you owned and used responsibly for many years.

      With the credit cards you do keep, remember to avoid large balances on them in relation to the credit limit. And in the new environment, it also may be beneficial to periodically use all of your cards. Here's why. Even if you pay your card bill in full each month and never pay interest, using your card earns money for the card company because merchants pay a fee each time you use the card. So, consumers who regularly use their cards and repay their debt may be considered valued customers, even if they pay on time and don't pay interest. "Regular purchases promptly paid off may be enough to reduce the risk of a credit line reduction, inactivity fees and other penalties," said Susan Boenau, Chief of the FDIC's Consumer Affairs Section.

      6. Do your research before paying high annual fees for a "rewards" card.

      Rewards sound great in advertisements for credit cards, but the points formula can be complicated, the rules are subject to change, and the benefits may not be as generous as you think. You should always read the fine print and be realistic about your likely use of the card before you accept an expensive annual fee in return for rewards.

      7. Take additional precautions against interest rate increases.

      "Although the law puts new limits on interest rate increases, you need to remain vigilant," Manley said. For example, while card companies cannot increase the interest rate on existing balances except in certain circumstances, they may raise rates on extensions of credit for new purchases as long as proper notice is provided.

      "If you receive a notice that your interest rate is increasing," Manley said, "determine whether you have another way to make future purchases, such as by waiting until you have saved enough money for the purchase or by using a card with a lower interest rate."

      Rate increases also may come in another form. For example, some fixed-rate cards may be converted to variable-rate cards after a notice has been sent to cardholders. This would result in variable rates being applied to new balances.

      Also note that a credit card company can increase the rate on an existing balance if the consumer fails to send the minimum payment within 60 days of the due date. So, it's very important to avoid being more than 60 days late on a credit card. If you miss a due date, you can avoid a "penalty" interest rate on that existing balance by getting your payment in within 60 days.

      And if you're more than 60 days late and that does trigger a rate increase, get current on your credit card payments as soon as possible and then start consistently paying on time. Card issuers are required to reduce the penalty rate if they receive prompt payments for six months.

      In general, what else can you do to get the best rates? Keep in mind that a credit score is built up over long periods, not just over one or two years, so make all your loan payments on time. Even if you have past blemishes, you can improve your credit score over time by managing your credit well. Be aware that if you can only afford to pay the minimum amount due, you probably won't get the best rates. But if you can pay more than the minimum each month -- as much more as possible -- that will work in your favor.

      Also, carefully read the terms of a new credit card before using it. If the card has a high interest rate or fees, shop around for a better offer.

      8. Parents of young adults have a new opportunity to teach responsible management of credit cards.

      The new law includes protections for young consumers, including a requirement that anyone under 21 who wants to obtain a credit card must have a qualified co-signer on the account or must prove he or she alone can repay any debt. This is intended to protect young people from getting overwhelmed by credit card debt. But it also offers an opportunity for parents to teach their kids about responsible use of credit cards.

      "Parents should have discussions with their children about how credit cards should be used and repaid," said Reynolds. "They may even want to make sure their kids have taken a financial education course before they have access to a credit card."

      If you're considering co-signing for a credit card with a young adult, it's best to have an understanding that you will get early notice of any troubles, including late payments, so you can keep on top of the credit card and work out problems with the lender before your own credit record is damaged.

      "One way or another," Reynolds added, "parents should make clear their expectation to their child -- the cardholder -- that the child will pay the credit card bill on time, and that the child keeps this fact in mind when using the card."

      And what if, despite your best planning, your child (or any other co-signer for a credit card or loan) can't or won't make the payments? As a co-signer, you are obligated to pay the debt to the lender, and not doing so can damage your own credit score.

      Here are eight ways to avoid potential pitfalls in the new world of credit cards....
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      NJ Reaches Settlement With Sansone Auto Dealerships

      Dealerships accused of covering up prior damage to used vehicles

      May 26, 2010
      Four dealerships within the "Sansone Auto Network" in New Jersey have agreed to settle a state lawsuit by paying $175,000 and revising their business practices.

      The state charged that the four Sansone dealerships, located in Middlesex and Monmouth counties, violated the state's Consumer Fraud Act and Motor Vehicle Advertising Regulations by failing to disclose to consumers prior damage to used vehicles, prior rental or fleet use of used vehicles, and that the price posted or advertised for a used motor vehicle did not include licensing costs, registration fees and taxes.

      "Our laws and regulations require disclosure of material facts to consumers prior to their purchase of a motor vehicle," said Attorney General Paula T. Dow. "We expect full compliance, so consumers can make informed decisions before spending their hard-earned money."

      The four dealerships included in the consent judgment are Fords National Auto Mart, Inc., which does business as Sansone Ford Lincoln Mercury in Ocean Township; Paladin Chevrolet, which does business as Sansone Chevrolet in Avenel; Sansone Plaza Dodge, Inc., which does business as Sansone Dodge in Ocean Township; and Sansone Management Corp., which does business as Sansone's Route 1 Auto Mall in Avenel.

      Two of these dealerships -- Sansone Chevrolet and Sansone Dodge -- entered into a consent order with the Division of Consumer Affairs in 2004 to resolve allegations similar to the ones contained in the 2009 lawsuit.

      Adjusting business practices

      Without admission of liability or any wrongdoing, the defendants agreed to the following business practices to settle the state's lawsuit:

      • not engage in any deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of their business in the state and comply with all applicable state and/or federal laws, rules and regulations;

      • discern the prior use of a motor vehicle offered for sale or lease and disclose such information to consumers prior to their purchase or lease of the motor vehicle;

      • discern whether a motor vehicle offered for sale or lease has been involved in an accident or otherwise sustained damage and disclose such information to consumers prior to their purchase or lease of the motor vehicle;

      • when disclosing prior use and/or prior damage to a motor vehicle via Carfax or similar vehicle history report, clearly and conspicuously identify the link as Carfax (or similar vehicle history report), along with a designation of "Free Vehicle History Report" within the description of the motor vehicle;

      • include the statement that "price(s) include(s) all costs to be paid by consumer, except for licensing costs, registration fees, and taxes" in any website or other advertisement;

      • in any ad, clearly and conspicuously disclose whether a motor vehicle had been previously damaged and that substantial repair or body work has been performed on it, when defendants know or should have known of such repair or body work;

      • in any advertisement of a used motor vehicle at an advertised price, clearly and conspicuously disclose the motor vehicle's prior use, when such prior use is known or should have been known, unless previously and exclusively owned or leased by individuals for their personal use; and

      • in any advertisement of a motor vehicle at an advertised price, include the statement that "price(s) include(s) all costs to be paid by consumer, except for licensing costs, registration fees, and taxes."

      The defendants face imposition of an additional maximum $200,000 in civil penalties if the terms of the Consent Judgment are violated during the next 12 months.

      "We expect compliance with this settlement, and we will again act to protect consumers, if any violations occur," said Sharon Joyce, acting director of the Division of Consumer Affairs.

      The $175,000 payment required under the Consent Judgment includes $83,232.58 in civil penalties and $91,767.42 in reimbursement to the state for its attorneys' fees and investigative costs.

      NJ Reaches Settlement With Sansone Auto Dealerships...
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      MetLife Uses Software to Deny or Limit Claims, Suit Says

      Conduct is called at odds with terms of policy

      A recently-filed class action accuses MetLife of using a software program to improperly deny insurance claims. The complaint charges that MetLife uses computer 'fee-review' software -- known as 'Decision Point' -- to improperly limit and exclude from coverage part of Plaintiff's and the Class's reasonable medical expenses incurred after a covered occurrence.

      The suit says that MetLife uses Decision Point to justify its denial of claims without first deciding whether those claims are reasonable. Indeed, according to the complaint, Decision Point software is not designed to determine whether a charge is 'reasonable' or 'unreasonable,' though MetLife uses it for this very purpose.

      Rather, the software is simply intended to determine what percentage of the customer's costs are covered by comparing those costs with a set benchmark figure.

      According to the complaint, [i]nsurers such as Met select a particular 'percentile' payment benchmark and any amount of the charge that exceeds that payment benchmark is capped and excluded from coverage. Further, Decision Point software does not (and cannot) analyze in any way whether a submitted charge incurred by its insured is higher [or] lower than the usual and customary charge for the medical services rendered.

      The suit contends that MetLife's use of Decision Point to deny claims constitutes a breach of contract, since the company does not determine, as the policy requires it to do, whether any submitted medical payments claim is reasonable. Moreover, Met's Policy does not define 'reasonable' expenses, or for that matter, what constitutes 'unreasonable' expenses. For every medical payment benefit reduced with [Decision Point], Met simply reduces the benefits based upon predetermined and undisclosed limitations of its own selection.

      The lead plaintiff in the suit is Back Doctors LTD, a medical office in Swansea, Illinois, led by Dr. Kathleen Roche. According to the suit, Roche treated patients who were injured in covered occurrences, and charged usual and customary fees for her service. When she submitted the claims to MetLife, however, the insurer excluded part of her charges based on an undisclosed fee review algorithm.

      Additionally, the suit claims that MetLife is unable to vouch for the accuracy of the Decision Point software, which is licensed by Ingenix, a third party corporation owned by managed health care conglomerate United Healthcare Corporation.

      According to the complaint, MetLife is unable to substantiate the accuracy or propriety of its fee review determination or verify the components of the algorithm used to purportedly make 'reasonable' or 'unreasonable' determinations, and has never inquired whether fee review based coverage limitation and Policy exclusion determinations are consistent with Policy requirements and definitions.

      The suit contends that MetLife saved untold dollars on claims that it should have paid under the express terms of the policy. In addition to the breach of contract claim, the suit charges MetLife with violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act.

      MetLife Uses Software to Deny or Limit Claims, Suit Says...
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      2010 Nissan, Infiniti Trucks, SUVs Recalled

      Nissan North America is recalling several 2010 Nissan and Infiniti trucks and SUVs to fix a problem with the front suspension.

      The company said some lower control link assemblies might not be properly welded. If the weld separates, vehicle handling could be affected, possibly causing a crash.

      The affected models and model years are:

      INFINITI / QX56 2010
      NISSAN / ARMADA 2010
      NISSAN / FRONTIER 2010
      NISSAN / TITAN 2010
      NISSAN / XTERRA 2010

      The affected vehicles were manufactured from November 19, 2009 through March 3, 2010.

      Dealers will repair the vehicles free of charge when the recall begins in June.

      Owners may contact Nissan at 1-800-647-7261.

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

      2010 Nissan, Infiniti Trucks, SUVs Recalled...
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      iPhone the 'Worst Phone Ever?'

      Website amassing data for dropped call class action suit

      A new website is setting the stage for a class action lawsuit regarding the Apple iPhone's apparent propensity to drop calls. The site lets iPhone users upload their internal phone data, including the number of calls that their respective phones have dropped. The site administrators plan to aggregate the data and file a lawsuit on behalf of everyone who has used the site.

      The website calls the iPhone "the best portable computer ever made, while at the same time being the worst phone ever because it drops calls all the time," and urges users to "run Apple and AT&T; through the ringer."

      The site's administrators, Cory Forsyth and Dan Albritton, know firsthand the frustration that goes with a phone that constantly drops calls. According to the website, the pair "make[s] games that people play with cell phones, and every time that a client of ours does a demo with an iPhone that drops, or a player out in the world has the same thing happen, it diminishes the coolness of what we do."

      Additionally, Forsyth and Albritton report that their "office is in Times Square, NYC, and our iPhones are completely useless there. It drives us bananas every day, and we're offended that AT&T; is going to try to charge for their femtocell service."

      Widespread dissatisfaction

      The site provides a potential outlet for AT&T; wireless users fed up with the network's ability -- or lack thereof -- to carry calls. A March survey conducted by research outfit ChangeWave found that AT&T; drops 4.5 percent of all calls, far more than any of its rivals: Sprint drops 2.4 percent, T-Mobile 2.8 percent, and Verizon only 1.5 percent.

      The survey also found that only 23 percent of AT&T; users count themselves "very satisfied" with their cellular service, compared with 35 percent of Sprint customers and 49 percent of Verizon customers.

      The survey further reported that "while Verizon has its all-time best dropped call rating in the current ChangeWave survey, AT&T; has just reached its all time worst rating on this all important measure." Indeed, a similar survey conducted in September 2008 found AT&T; and Verizon less than a point apart, with AT&T; dropping 3.6 percent of calls and Verizon 2.7 percent.

      Ironically, though, the iPhone itself is preventing AT&T; users from jumping ship, at least for now. The ChangeWave survey reported that, despite AT&T;'s abysmal ratings, only eight percent of its customers plan to switch providers. That number is nearly identical to Verizon's seven percent, and considerably lower than Sprint's 10 percent and T-Mobile's 14 percent.

      According to the survey, "AT&T;'s low churn attributable to the huge advantage it continues to maintain as the exclusive U.S. service provider for the Apple iPhone."

      Whether AT&T; will be able to maintain its customer base in the long term is an open question. The network still boasts the fastest 3G network, according to a Gizdomo study , although T-Mobile is making gains in that area. More importantly, the carrier's exclusivity agreement with Apple is slated to end in 2012, meaning that other wireless companies will potentially be able to offer the iPhone on their own networks.

      The ChangeWave survey suggests this will be a vulnerability for AT&T.; In addition to the company's current status as the only iPhone provider, the survey found an "unprecedented level of pent up demand for the iPhone among Verizon subscribers." Fifty-three percent of Verizon users said they would buy a Verizon iPhone, with 19 percent describing themselves as "very likely" to do so.

      "If Verizon were ever to offer the iPhone, the evidence points to it having a profound and likely transformational impact on the industry," according to the survey.

      In the meantime, frustrated iPhone users can let off some steam at WorstPhoneEver. While sharing cell phone data raises obvious privacy concerns, Forsyth and Albritton say that "there is no personal or uniquely identifying information in the files," although they do warn that "whatever data you give us is no longer entirely 'yours' anymore."

      iPhone the 'Worst Phone Ever?'...
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      U.S. Identifies Chinese Manufacturers of Problem Drywall

      Urges Chinese manufacturers to 'examine their responsibilities' to affected families

      By Truman Lewis

      May 25, 2010

      The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has released a list of drywall manufacturers whose drywall emitted high levels of hydrogen sulfide in testing conducted for the agency. Of the samples tested, the top ten reactive sulfur-emitting drywall samples were all produced in China.

      Some of the Chinese drywall had emission rates of hydrogen sulfide 100 times greater than non-Chinese drywall samples, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which conducted the tests for the CPSC. There is a strong association between hydrogen sulfide and metal corrosion, blamed for damage to plumbing, heating and other essential elements in homes where the defective drywall was used.

      "Homeowners who have problem drywall in their homes are suffering greatly", said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. "I appeal to these Chinese drywall companies to carefully examine their responsibilities to U.S. families who have been harmed and do what is fair and just".

      The defective drywall emits an egg-like sulfur smell, corrodes metal fixtures, and besides causing corrosion can contribute to health problems ranging from wheezing to asthma and even pneumonia.

      The following list identifies the top 10 drywall samples tested that had the highest emissions of hydrogen sulfide, along with the identity of the manufacturer of the drywall and the year of manufacture, from highest to lowest.

      • Knauf Plasterboard (Tianjin) Co. Ltd.: (year of manufacture 2005) China
      • Taian Taishan Plasterboard Co. Ltd.: (2006) China
      • Shandong Taihe Dongxin Co.: (2005) China
      • Knauf Plasterboard (Tianjin) Co. Ltd.: (2006) China
      • Taian Taishan Plasterboard Co. Ltd.: (2006) China
      • Taian Taishan Plasterboard Co. Ltd.: (2006) China
      • Shandong Chenxiang GBM Co. Ltd. (C&K Gypsum Board): (2006) China
      • Beijing New Building Materials (BNBM): (2009) China
      • Taian Taishan Plasterboard Co. Ltd.: (2009) China
      • Shandong Taihe Dongxin Co.: (2009) China

      Other Chinese drywall samples had low or no detectable emissions of hydrogen sulfide as did tested samples that were manufactured domestically.

      U.S. and Chinese officials met in Beijing in May to discuss the problem. The U.S. delegation pressed the Chinese government to arrange a meeting between CPSC and the Chinese drywall companies identified as producing defective drywall.

      Last month, CPSC released the results of drywall emissions tests conducted by the Berkeley Labs. They showed showed a connection between certain Chinese drywall and corrosion in homes. In addition, the patterns of reactive sulfur compounds emitted from drywall samples show a clear distinction between certain Chinese drywall samples manufactured in 2005/2006 and other Chinese and non-Chinese drywall samples.

      Earlier this year, CPSC and HUD issued an identification protocol to help consumers identify problem drywall in their homes. Last month, CPSC and HUD issued remediation guidance to assist impacted homeowners.

      Also last month, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana awarded seven Plaintiffs $2,609,129.99 for damage to their homes in connection with the use of Chinese drywall. The suit was brought against Chinese manufacturer Taishan Gypsum Co., Ltd.

      Attorneys for the plaintiffs said the ruling found that Chinese drywall from Taishan was different than domestic drywall because it had significantly higher average concentrations of strontium and detectable levels of elemental sulfur.

      Most of the homes affected by the defective drywall are in the Southeast. In many cases, the affected homes were built or remodeled in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

      Some drywall OK

      Chinese drywall samples and domestically-produced brands that showed little or not hydrogen sulfide emission in the Lawrence Berkeley tests included:

      • Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin: (2009) China;
      • Tiger ShiGao JianCailiangpianzhuang: (2006) China;
      • USG Corporation: (2009) U.S.;
      • Guangdong Knauf New Building Material Products Co. Ltd.: (2009) China;
      • Knauf Plasterboard (Wuhu) Co. Ltd.: (2009) China;
      • CertainTeed Corp.: (2009) U.S.;
      • Georgia Pacific Corp.: (2009) U.S.;
      • Dragon Brand, Beijing New Building Materials Co. Ltd.: (2006) China;
      • CertainTeed Corp.: (2009) U.S.;
      • Pingyi Baier Building Materials Co. Ltd.: (2009) China;
      • Panel Rey S.A.: (2009) Mexico;
      • Lafarge North America: (2009) U.S.;
      • National Gypsum Company: (2009) U.S.;
      • National Gypsum Company: (2009) U.S.;
      • Georgia Pacific Corp.: (2009) U.S.;
      • Pabco Gypsum: (2009) U.S.; Temple-Inland Inc.: (2009) U.S.; and
      • USG Corporation: (2009) U.S.

      The complete test results are available online.

      U.S. Identifies Chinese Manufacturers of Problem Drywall...
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      Dermatologists Say People Uninformed About Tanning Risks

      Survey exposes a number of myths about exposure to the sun

      The expression "tan and rested" is supposed to suggest someone in peak health, but dermatologists beg to differ. There is nothing healthy, says the American Academy of Dermatology, about a deep suntan.

      The "Suntelligence: How Sun Smart is Your City?" online survey polled more than 7,000 adults nationwide to determine their knowledge, attitudes and behaviors toward tanning, sun protection and skin cancer detection. Twenty-six cities were ranked based on respondents' answers to several questions in each category.

      "Our survey showed that despite our repeated warnings about the dangers of UV exposure and the importance of proper sun protection, many people could not correctly answer true/false statements on the subject," said dermatologist Zoe D. Draelos, MD, FAAD, consulting professor at Duke University School of Medicine. "Identifying what areas people need to improve their understanding of tanning and sun protection allows dermatologists to concentrate our educational efforts in these areas to increase knowledge, which could eventually help reduce the incidence of skin cancer in future generations."

      The academy said its survey uncovered a series of "myths" about tanning. For example, the survey found that two thirds of respondents incorrectly believe that some types of ultraviolet rays are safe for your skin. In reality, the academy says, sunlight consists of two types of harmful rays: ultraviolet A (UVA) rays and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays.

      Exposing tanning 'myths'

      UVA rays, which pass through window glass, penetrate deeper into the thickest layer of the skin known as the dermis. UVA rays can cause suppression of the immune system, which interferes with the immune system's ability to protect a person against the development and spread of skin cancer.

      UVB rays are the sun's burning rays, which are blocked by window glass, and are the primary cause of sunburn.

      "Quite simply, all forms of UV exposure, whether from natural sunlight or artificial light sources found in tanning beds, are unsafe and are the No. 1 preventable risk factor for skin cancer," Draelos said.

      The survey found that 52 percent of people responding to the survey believe getting a base tan is a healthy way to protect skin from sun damage. Not so, says the academy.

      A tan is a sign of damage to the skin from UV radiation. Every time a person tans, the skin becomes damaged and this damage accumulates over time. This accumulated damage, in addition to accelerating the aging process, also increases a person's risk for all types of skin cancer.

      "A base does very little to protect your skin, and since tanning damages the skin, getting a base tan could do more harm than good." said Dr. Draelos. "The only way to prevent sunburn is to protect your skin through using sunscreen, wearing protective clothing and seeking shade."

      Not smarter

      When it comes to tanning beds, 37 percent said it was a smarter way to get a tan. In fact,the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the International Agency of Research on Cancer panel has declared UV radiation from the sun and artificial light sources, such as tanning beds and sun lamps, as a known carcinogen.

      Indoor tanning equipment, which includes all artificial light sources, emits UVA and UVB radiation. It has been shown that the amount of the radiation produced during indoor tanning is similar to the sun, and in some cases might be stronger, the academy says.

      "Despite claims by those in the tanning industry that UVA rays used in indoor tanning are safer because they do not cause sunburn, scientific evidence proves that this claim is untrue," said Draelos. "UVA rays cause deeper skin damage and are linked to melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. In fact, studies show that melanoma is increasing faster in females 15-29 years old than males in the same age group. And in females 15-29, the torso is the most common location for developing melanoma, which we suspect is due to high-risk tanning behaviors -- including indoor tanning."

      Contrary to popular belief, UVB protection from the sun's burning rays, provided by commercial sun screens, does not actually increase proportionately with a designated SPF number. For example, an SPF of 30 screens 97 percent of UVB rays, whereas an SPF of 15 screens 93 percent of UVB rays, and an SPF of 2 screens 50 percent of UVB rays.

      Draelos also notes that inadequate application of sunscreen may result in a lower SPF than the product contains.

      "Regardless of the SPF you use, wearing sunscreen should not provide a false sense of security about protection from UVB exposure," Draelos said. "No sunscreen can provide 100 percent UVB protection, but using a higher SPF provides greater UVB protection than a lower SPF. It's important to remember sunscreen must be reapplied regularly and be part of an overall sun-protection plan that includes hats, sunglasses, protective clothing and seeking shade."

      Dermatologists Say People Uninformed About Tanning Risks...
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      FDA Issues Urgent Alfalfa Sprout Recall

      Recall linked to Salmonella outbreak in ten states

      Caldwell Fresh Foods of Maywood, Calif., is voluntarily recalling all of its alfalfa sprouts marketed under the Caldwell Fresh Foods, Nature's Choice, and California Exotics brands. The firm's alfalfa sprouts have been linked to an outbreak of Salmonella Newport infections in consumers in ten states.

      Salmonella is a bacterium that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems.

      As of May 20 and since March 1, 2010, a total of 22 cases of Salmonella Newport infections have been confirmed in Arizona (1), California (11), Colorado (1), Idaho (1), Illinois (1),Missouri (1), New Mexico (1), Nevada (2), Oregon (1), and Wisconsin (2). Six of the cases have been hospitalized. No deaths have been reported.

      The sprouts were distributed to a variety of restaurants, delicatessens and retailers, including Trader Joe's and Wal-Mart stores. Consumers and restaurant and delicatessen operators should not purchase, eat or use raw sprouts from Caldwell Fresh Foods. The sprouts should be returned to the place of purchase for a refund and disposal.

      The recall affects raw alfalfa sprouts packaged and labeled as: Caldwell Fresh Foods alfalfa sprouts - 4-ounce plastic cups and one pound plastic bags and in 2-pound and 5-pound plastic bags in cardboard boxes with sticker affixed with the printed words "Caldwell Fresh Foods"; Nature's Choice alfalfa sprouts - 4-ounce plastic cups; California Exotics brands alfalfa sprouts - 5-ounce plastic clamshell containers. No other alfalfa sprouts are implicated in the outbreak.

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it is investigating the outbreak in cooperation with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the California Department of Public Health, and public health agencies in other affected states. FDA, with the California Department of Public Health, is inspecting the firm's facility and collecting samples. Caldwell Fresh Foods is cooperating in the investigation and has recalled all of its alfalfa sprouts from commerce.

      FDA Issues Urgent Alfalfa Sprout Recall...
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      How to Control Food Cravings

      New research suggests your imagination can be a powerful tool

      May 21, 2010
      Food cravings are the scourge of every dieter. When you fall below your normal caloric intake for the day, your body often cries out for something to eat - anything from pizza to peanut butter.

      Why do we get intense desires to eat certain foods? Although food cravings are a common experience, researchers have only recently begun studying how food cravings emerge.

      Psychological scientists Eva Kemps and Marika Tiggemann of Flinders University, Australia, review the latest research on food cravings and how they may be controlled in the current issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

      We've all experienced hunger, where eating anything will suffice, but what makes food cravings different from hunger is how specific they are. We don't just want to eat something; instead, we want barbecue potato chips or cookie dough ice cream.

      Many people experience food cravings from time to time, but for certain individuals, these cravings can pose serious health risks, researchers warn. For example, food cravings have been shown to elicit binge-eating episodes, which can lead to obesity and eating disorders. In addition, giving in to food cravings can trigger feelings of guilt and shame.

      Where do food cravings come from?

      Many research studies suggest that mental imagery may be a key component of food cravings - when people crave a specific food, they have vivid images of that food. Results of one study showed that the strength of participants' cravings was linked to how vividly they imagined the food.

      Mental imagery takes up cognitive resources, or brain power. Studies have shown that when subjects are imagining something, they have a hard time completing various cognitive tasks.

      In one experiment, volunteers who were craving chocolate recalled fewer words and took longer to solve math problems than volunteers who were not craving chocolate. These links between food cravings and mental imagery, along with the findings that mental imagery takes up cognitive resources, may help to explain why food cravings can be so disruptive: As we are imagining a specific food, much of our brain power is focused on that food, and we have a hard time with other tasks.

      Use your imagination

      How do you get these powerful cravings under control? New research findings suggest that that this relationship may work in the opposite direction as well. It may be possible to use cognitive tasks to reduce food cravings.

      The results of one experiment revealed that volunteers who had been craving a food reported reduced food cravings after they formed images of common sights. For example, they were asked to imagine the appearance of a rainbow. Even imagining different smells seemed to work.

      In another experiment, volunteers who were craving a food watched a flickering pattern of black and white dots on a monitor, similar to an untuned television set. After viewing the pattern, they reported a decrease in the vividness of their craved-food images as well as a reduction in their cravings.

      According the researchers, these findings indicate that "engaging in a simple visual task seems to hold real promise as a method for curbing food cravings."

      The authors suggest that "real-world implementations could incorporate the dynamic visual noise display into existing accessible technologies, such as the smart phone and other mobile, hand-held computing devices." They conclude that these experimental approaches may extend beyond food cravings and have implications for reducing cravings of other substances such as drugs and alcohol.

      When you fall below your normal caloric intake for the day, your body often cries out for something to eat - anything from pizza to peanut butter....
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      GM Recalling 1.5 Million Vehicles

      Heated washer fluid system can overheat, posing fire hazard

      May 21, 2010

      General Motors has announced the recall of 1.5 million 2007-2009 model cars, trucks and crossovers to disable a heated washer fluid system module that could pose a fire risk. There are no known injuries or crashes related to the condition.

      Because the feature will be disabled, GM said it will pay $100 to the owner or lessee of each vehicle.

      "While our analysis shows the number of incidents is very small compared with the number of vehicles on the road, we want our customers to have complete peace of mind," said Jeff Boyer, executive director of Safety. "We always want to make sure customers can count on the safety and quality of their GM vehicle."

      Dealership service personnel will remove the heated washer fluid module and reroute washer fluid hoses. Customers will begin receiving recall letters this month, but they can contact their dealer at any time to make an appointment to have the heated washer system removed, the company said.

      "This was a unique technology available from only one supplier, and that supplier has stopped manufacturing, which left no opportunity to collaborate on an improved design," Boyer said. "We want to be clear that the voluntary payment to customers is for the loss of the feature, not the recall."

      Models included in the recall are the 2006-2009 model year Buick Lucerne; Cadillac DTS; Hummer H2; 2008-2009 model year Buick Enclave; Cadillac CTS; 2007-2009 model year Cadillac Escalade, Escalade ESV, Escalade EXT; Chevrolet Avalanche, Silverado, Suburban, Tahoe; GMC Acadia, Sierra, Yukon, Yukon XL; Saturn Outlook; and 2009 model year Chevrolet Traverse.

      Most of the vehicles, 1,365,070, are in the United States; there are 98,794 affected vehicles in Canada; 26,228 in Mexico, and 38,093 exports.

      The heated washer fluid system was recalled in August 2008 because a short circuit on the printed circuit board could overheat the control-circuit ground wire. Dealers at the time installed an in-line fuse in the heated washer module wiring.

      The government closed its initial investigation after the 2008 recall. GM continued to monitor the performance of the heated washer fluid module in the field and continued communications with NHTSA.

      In June 2009, a new and second failure mode was identified by GM with the first confirmed report consisting of smoke only. Since then, GM has been made aware of five fires.

      GM Recalling 1.5 Million Vehicles...
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      FTC Settlement Reins in New York-based Prepaid Calling Card Distributor

      Consumers got only about half the advertised calling time

      May 20, 2010

      The Federal Trade Commission reached its third settlement as part of a recent agency crackdown on fraud in the prepaid calling card industry that has forced companies to pay more than $4 million.

      The latest agreement requires New York-based Diamond Phone Card, Inc. and its principals to pay $500,000. It also bars them from misleading consumers about the talk time that their calling cards provide, and requires them to clearly disclose in the same language that they are marketed all fees associated with their cards.

      The FTCs July 2009 complaint against Diamond Phone Card like the FTCs complaints against other calling card companies alleged that the company made false claims about the number of calling minutes their cards deliver, and that it failed to properly disclose maintenance and other hidden fees. Some fees were disclosed in nearly illegible print on the bottom of the companys advertisements. The FTCs testing showed that consumers received only about half the advertised minutes from Diamond prepaid calling cards.

      Unlike Diamond Phones ads, the FTCs message here is clear, said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. If you deceive consumers about the prepaid calling cards youre selling, we will take you to court and force you to give up the money you made through deceptive sales tactics.

      The complaint named the company and its principals, Nasreen Gilani, Samsuddin Panjawani, and Faiez Farishta. The FTC alleged that they marketed calling cards to recent immigrants for calls to a wide range of international locations, including the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, India, Pakistan, and Guatemala.

      The FTC has established a joint federal-state task force in 2007 to deal with deceptive marketing practices in the prepaid calling card industry. The task force also includes representatives from the Federal Communications Commission and more than 35 states. The settlement has been filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

      In approving the settlement, Commissioners Edith Ramirez and Julie Brill urged Congress to expand the FTCs authority to take action and seek fines against telecommunications carriers and distributors that engage in unlawful conduct by deceptively marketing prepaid calling cards.

      For immigrants from Latin America, Africa, Asia and elsewhere around the world, American military families, and other consumers, prepaid calling cards can serve as a critical lifeline to friends and family, Commissioners Ramirez and Brill said. Noting the widespread deceptive practices in the marketing of these cards, the Commissioners said, "the time has come to give the FTC more powerful tools to tackle fraud in the prepaid calling card industry.

      FTC Settlement Reins in New York-based Prepaid Calling Card Distributor...
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      California Charges Mortgage Relief Scammers Stole $2.3 Million

      Fraudulent telemarketers operated from 'tricked-out' boiler room, officials say

      May 20, 2010
      California authorities have arrested nine men and charged them with 97 criminal counts for allegedly stealing at least $2.3 million from more than 1,500 desperate homeowners who were promised loan modifications but received no relief.

      Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. said the men worked out of a Southern California boiler room, tricked out in high-roller style with a roulette wheel and other casino equipment.

      "This company was just a boiler room, long on promises and upfront fees but short on foreclosure relief," Brown said. "Its operators cruelly defrauded citizens trying valiantly to hang on to their homes."

      Arrested Tuesday and Wednesday night were Gregg Scott Quinn, 37, of Camarillo and Juan Pierre Washington, 40, of Winnetka, who worked as company sales managers and supervisors. They are being held at Los Angeles County Jail.

      A work station in the Canoga Park boiler room. State photo.

      Gary Arnold Eisenberg, 71, of Westwood, a top telemarketer with the company, and Ira Itskowitz, 58, a sales manager, each spent more than five years in federal prison for previous fraud convictions and are already in federal custody for violating parole in connection with their participation in the scheme, Brown said.

      The four principal owners of the business, Niv Iskin, 30, of Reseda, Reviv Karpman, 38, of Tarzana, Tomer Kogman, 29, of Receda and Avraham Yechizkia, 34, of Encino; and a sales manager, Barel Iskin, 23, of Woodland Hills, are still being pursued by law enforcement.

      Brown's office initiated its investigation in March 2009 in response to numerous consumer complaints against the defendants' Canoga Park-based loan modification business, which operated as Mason Capital Group, LLC and Gretchen Fox and Associates.

      When agents executed a search warrant at the office, they found a Las Vegas casino-themed sales floor complete with craps, poker and black jack tables fashioned as workstations, and a roulette wheel that top-selling telemarketers spun for cash bonuses.

      Between January 2008 and June 2009, the four owners took in at least $2.3 million in up-front fees, which ranged from $1,000 to $5,000, from more than 1,500 homeowners throughout the country, Brown's office said. In almost every case, no loan modifications were completed, as promised. Financial records indicate that the four owners spent hundreds of thousands on private school tuition, travel, entertainment, shopping and other personal expenses while running Mason Capital Group, LLC and Gretchen Fox and Associates.

      To corral sales, the four owners used a telemarketing operation that targeted homeowners facing mortgage payment increases or foreclosure. During an initial call, the telemarketers touted the company's team of "attorneys, forensic accounting personnel, and loan negotiators" available to negotiate reductions in interest rates, monthly payments and principal balances; their suppos! ed 90% to 100% loan modification success rate and refund guarantee. The telemarketers then collected financial information from homeowners to determine if they "qualified" for the company's services.

      Soon after the initial call, homeowners received a follow-up call to inform them that their case had been "reviewed" and "approved." Telemarketers closed sales by insisting the approval would expire unless homeowners acted quickly, while reminding them about the refund guarantee if promised results were not achieved.

      In fact, the company completed very few loan modifications, rarely contacted lenders, failed to honor the refund guarantee, employed unlicensed "loan processors" and had no legal staff negotiating with lenders.

      While homeowners waited, they were told their loan modifications, or refunds, would be voided if they tried independently to contact their lender. Many lost their homes to foreclosure as a result.

      To skirt the state's foreclosure laws, avoid paying refunds and conceal profits, the owners changed company names, claimed bankruptcy and shifted loan modification files to another business they created called, American Financial Group, LLC.

      Investigators located victims in dozens of California cities, including: American Canyon, Anaheim, Antioch, Artesia, Atwater, Bakersfield, Ceres, Chico, Cotati, Cloverdale, Crestline, Delano, Elk Grove, Encino, Fountain Valley, Fremont, Fresno, Guerneville, Hanford, Hayward, Hercules, Hood, Indio, La Jolla, Lancaster, Laguna Hills, Lodi, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Manteca, Modesto, Montclair, N. Hollywood, Newhall, Newman, North Highlands, Oakdale, Oakland, Ontario, Palmdale, Pittsburg, Pleasanton, Poplar, Porterville, Redding, Richmond, Riverbank, Rodeo, Sacramento, San Jose, San Pablo, Santa Clara, Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Stanton, Stockton, Tracy, Tulare, Turlock, Union City, Upland, Valley Village, Van Nuys, Visalia, W. Sacramento and Yuba City.

      Brown said his office will seek restitution for the victims.

      By law, all individuals and businesses offering mortgage foreclosure consulting or loan modification and foreclosure assistance services must register with Brown's office and post a $100,000 bond. It is also illegal for loan modification consultants to charge up-front fees for their services.

      Non-profit housing counselors certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provide free help to homeowners. To find a counselor in your area, call 1-800-569-4287.

      California Charges Mortgage Relief Scammers Stole $2.3 Million...
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      FCC Finds Less Wireless Industry Competition

      But consumers have more smartphones to choose from

      May 20, 2010
      If you've sometimes thought there's not a lot of difference in the deals you get from Verizon Wireless, Sprint, or AT&T, you're not alone. The Federal Communications Commission is openly questioning the amount of competition in the wireless industry.

      In its annual report on the state of competition in the mobile wireless industry, the FCC finds there appears to be increasing concentration in the mobile wireless market. One widely-used measure of industry concentration indicates that concentration has increased 32 percent since 2003 and 6.5 percent in 2008.

      "Specifically, the report confirms something I have been warning about for years -- that competition has been dramatically eroded and is seriously endangered by continuing consolidation and concentration in our wireless markets," said Michael Copps, one of the three Democrats on the Commission. "We are going to need an extra dose of vigilance going forward and use whatever policy levers we have available to ensure good outcomes for American consumers," he said.

      The report found that providers continue to invest significant capital in networks, despite the recent economic downturn. One source reports capital investment at around $25 billion in both 2005 and 2008, while another shows that capital investment declined from around $25 billion to around $20 billion during the same period.

      Because industry revenue has continued to grow, both sources show that capital investment has declined as a percentage of industry revenue over the same period, from 20 percent to 14 percent.

      The report also tracks the changes in how consumers are using wireless services. At the end of 2008, some 90 percent of the U.S. population had some type of mobile wireless device.

      More smartphones

      Handset manufacturers have introduced a growing number of new smartphones -- 67 in 2008 and 2009 -- that provide mobile Internet access and other data services, and provide many of the functionalities of personal computers.

      The report also shows that data traffic has grown significantly, with the increased adoption of smartphones and data consumption per device. Especially as mobile wireless broadband usage grows, access to spectrum becomes increasingly important for competition.

      While many wireless service providers have access to significant amounts of mobile spectrum, most of the spectrum below 1 GHz, in both the cellular band and the 700 MHz band, is not widely held.

      In mid 2009 the U.S. Government began an investigation of competition in the wireless industry. The FCC is currently considering ways to provide more spectrum to wireless companies to meet a growing demand for smartphones and other mobile devices.

      FCC Finds Less Wireless Industry Competition...
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      Texas Cracks Down On Tanning Salon Promotion

      San Antonio salon promoted alleged health benefits of tanning

      With the increased skin cancer concerns associated with tanning, you wouldn't think a tanning salon would go so far as to actually claim tanning is good for you. But Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says that's exactly what a San Antonio salon operator did.

      Abbott has gone to court, charging Curtis Ryan, Lynda Ryan and their son Tony Ryan, operators of Euro Tan, routinely solicit customers using colorful brochures and a Web site - both of which include statements about the health benefits associated with using a tanning salon.

      For example, Abbott says the defendants improperly claimed that tanning reduces the incidence of melanoma because of the delivery of high doses of Vitamin D to the skin. The claims misstated the tanning beds' approved uses. Under state and federal law, the defendants' tanning beds are only approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for cosmetic tanning of the human body.

      In addition, Euro Tan claimed "research" showed that increased dosages of Vitamin D can benefit those with autism, autoimmune illnesses, other cancers and chronic pain. Other medical-related claims in the defendants' brochure indicated their tanning beds would lower blood pressure, decrease pre-menstrual syndrome symptoms, increase muscle strength and improve the immune system.

      Abbott says the tanning salon also promoted an unapproved medical device. The defendants claimed that their "mineral wrap" could eliminate cellulite and detoxify fat cells, which constitutes a medical claim. A company Web page posting asked rhetorically, "Is Sunscreen Causing Cancer?" and, while urging the responsible use of sunscreens, the Web site implied that tanning salon customers can dispense with sunscreens altogether.

      The state's enforcement action charges the defendants with violating the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, as well as various Texas Health and Safety Code laws. The FDA has not approved tanning beds as Vitamin D delivery devices or devices that reduce cancer or other health risks. Any advertisements for these unapproved uses are false and violate state law, Abbott said.

      Under the Texas Health and Safety Code, tanning salons are prohibited from claiming that indoor tanning devices provide any health or medical benefits. The state's enforcement action also cites the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA), which prohibits deceptive advertising.

      The attorney general seeks an injunction to halt the misleading practices. The office seeks civil penalties of up to $20,000 per violation of the DTPA, as well as $25,000 per day for each violation of the Health and Safety Cod

      Texas Cracks Down On Tanning Salon Promotion...
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      Digital Copiers Could Be an Identity Theft Threat

      Copiers retain scanned documents on their hard drive, posing possible security breach

      By Mark Huffman

      May 19, 2010

      Sources of identity theft are well known. If you respond to a spam email, there's a good chance your identity will be stolen.

      Likewise, large mainframe computers with your medical records or credit card account information could compromise your identity if a hacker should break in.

      But here's a source you might not have considered: in millions of offices across the country there are digital photocopiers that retain the copied information on a hard drive. If the copied information includes your personal data, that too could be the source of identity theft.

      Similar to computers, hard drives have become routine for midsize to large photocopiers, especially those built since 2005. All images scanned on the machines are stored in the hard drive, including documents with personal data such as medical history, Social Security numbers and bank account numbers.

      Adding to the insecurity, these photocopiers are often connected to an office network and businesses may fail to place a strong password in order to gain access. The lack of a password or a weak password could enable web-savvy hackers to gain access to the network and steal stored data.

      Businesses may think they have a bullet proof security system in place, but unless they have included their digital copier in the plan, there may be a gaping security flaw.

      "Business owners are required under Maryland's Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) to take steps to protect consumers' personal information," said Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. "Without taking necessary precautions, copier hard drives could be resold to third parties, possibly in a foreign country, where identity theft is harder to control."

      Business owners and office administrators have several options to protect stored data:

      • "Disk Scrubbing." Businesses can purchase software that scrubs the disk or removes all the data from hard drives. This prevents even the smartest cyberthief from finding any data to steal.

      • Encryption software. Software to prevent data from being stored at all or to encrypt data can be found online. Some photocopier manufacturers, such as Sharp or Xerox, offer packages with their products.

      • Passwords. Place a password on the copier that cannot be easily guessed, such as a numerical password similar to a PIN. The copier would then require the password to gain access to the stored data.

      Businesses that maintain personal information should protect that information and dispose of it in a manner that renders it unreadable. Improperly disposing of consumers' personal information could be considered a security breach.

      Digital Copiers Could Be an Identity Theft Threat: Sources of identity theft are well known. If you respond to a spam email, there's a good chance your ide...
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      Senate Bill Targets Deceptive Web Marketers

      Lawmakers address negative option marketing abuses after years of complaints

      Nothing gets consumers angrier than to be signed up for some membership program, without their knowledge, when they make an online purchase. The Senate will consider a measure that could make such practices a thing of the past.

      Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D- WV), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, has introduced legislation, the Restore Online Shoppers' Confidence Act, to end the deceptive online sales tactics that have been the subject of a year-long Commerce Committee investigation.

      A Commerce Committee staff report, the second of two reports, charges Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty - the companies that used aggressive sales tactics to enroll online consumers in services without their consent - developed policies designed to prevent online consumers from getting their money back when they called to question the mystery charges on their credit and debit cards.

      "Tricking consumers into buying goods and services they do not want is completely unacceptable," Rockefeller said. "It's not ethical, it's not right, and it is not the way business should be done in America."

      Rockefeller said the committee's investigation uncovered misleading practices and, as a result, offending companies have been forced to change their ways. He says his bill will ban these deceptive online sales practices once and for all."

      So-called "loyalty" programs are offered by companies that contract with other online merchants to share their customers' credit card information. The sharing company either receives a flat fee or a percentage of every "sale."

      Unsuspecting consumers

      An unsuspecting consumer might be enrolled in one of these programs and charged a monthly fee by accepting a "free" gift or a discount at the end of their transaction. Their acceptance of the discount constitutes their agreement to enroll in the membership program, though most consumers are unaware of the linkage, and are completely unaware that the merchant with whom they have just made a purchase is sharing their credit card information.

      Rockefeller says the first staff report, released in November 2009, revealed how Affinion, Vertue, and Webloyalty used a set of online sales tactics to charge millions of consumers for membership clubs and services the consumers did not want and were unaware they had purchased. The report found that these companies bilked millions of Americans out of more than one billion dollars by partnering with hundreds of legitimate websites that were willing to share their customers' billing information, including credit and debit card numbers, for financial gain.

      The new Commerce Committee staff report shows what happened when consumers called Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty to get their money back for the services they were unknowingly charged for. Findings of the new report include:

      Refund mitigation

      • In a practice known as "refund mitigation," the three companies created scripts and policies intended to minimize the amount of money they would have to return to consumers who had inadvertently enrolled in the clubs. For consumers who insisted on refunds, the companies employed a variety of tactics to keep the refund amounts as small as possible, including requiring customers to obtain refunds by completing written affidavits.

      Magic words

      • Each company instructed their call center representatives not to issue refunds to consumers, unless the consumers mentioned certain key words like "attorney general," "Better Business Bureau," or "bank representative." These policies were designed to satisfy those consumers who were most likely to create additional "customer noise" problems and reputational damage for the companies. Consumers who did not mention the "magic words" did not receive full refunds.

      Multiple memberships

      • Because they could encounter the aggressive sales tactics of Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty while shopping on hundreds of different websites, online shoppers were frequently enrolled inadvertently in multiple membership clubs offered by the same company. Consequently, many customers who called Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty to cancel one membership and request a refund were actually enrolled in more than one of the companies' clubs. Webloyalty and Vertrue trained their agents not to inform consumers about these additional memberships.

      Failure to follow credit card rules

      • Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty violated MasterCard and Visa's rules for credit card and debit card transactions and American Express placed the companies in monitoring programs for merchants with high rates of disputed charges from cardholders (known as "chargebacks"). Between 2006 and 2008, the three largest credit card companies processed 1.4 million chargeback requests and over 10 million refunds, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, from cardholders disputing charges from Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty. Despite these rule violations and the high volume of consumer complaints, the three companies enjoyed uninterrupted access to the payment systems operated by Visa, MasterCard, and American Express until late 2009. Once Chairman Rockefeller notified the credit card companies of the aggressive online sales tactics in December 2009, the companies quickly took action to ensure that Affinion, Vertrue, Webloyalty, and their e-commerce partners were in compliance with their rules for merchants and that their cardholders were no longer subject to the misleading "data pass" process.

      Rockefeller says his bill will help put an end to the deceptive online sales tactics uncovered by the Commerce Committee's E-commerce investigation by requiring them to clearly disclose the terms of the offers to consumers, and to obtain consumers' billing information, including full credit or debit card numbers, directly from the consumers. It would also prohibit retailers from sharing consumers' billing information including credit and debit card numbers, to post-transaction third party sellers, like Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty.

      Webloyalty issued a statement in response to the Commerce Committee's report, saying it has already taken action to mend its ways.

      "We have evolved our business practices over time based on our independent analysis as well as in response to feedback from consumers, industry groups, lawmakers and regulators," the company said in a statement. "We believe that the practices we adopted in January 2010 - including requiring consumers to enter their full credit card information to enroll in our programs - represent significant enhancements to our business practices."

      Nothing gets consumers angrier than to be signed up for some membership program, without their knowledge, when they make an online purchase....
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      Checks Going Out to Victims of Medical Billing Scam

      3,500 consumers were defrauded by phony work-at-home scheme

      May 19, 2010
      This week, an administrator working on behalf of the Federal Trade Commission mailed checks to 3,500 consumers nationwide who were defrauded by a group of marketers accused of hawking phony business opportunities. Consumers who were victims of this scam will receive a total of $95,000 in redress.

      These are legitimate checks, and the FTC urges consumers to cash them.

      The reimbursement stems from the February 2008 settlement of a case brought as part of a Commission-led law enforcement sweep that included more than 100 actions filed by the FTC, the Department of Justice, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and other agencies in 11 states. In this case, known as EDI Healthclaims, the FTC alleged that scammers used mass mailings to consumers offering a work-at-home business opportunity to earn easy money electronically processing health-care providers medical claims for insurance reimbursement.

      According to the FTC, the defendants misled consumers by stating they would help them find their first medical billing client and give them a list of providers in their area looking for billing help after the consumers paid a licensing fee of between $4,985 and $5,985.

      Consumers, who were promised they would earn at least $1,200 a month, often made nothing and lost their up-front fee, according to the FTCs complaint.

      The redress checks are valid for 60 days from the date they are issued. Consumers should call 1-877-678-0676 with any questions. The FTC never requires the payment of money up front, or the provision of additional information, before consumers cash redress checks issued to them.

      Checks Going Out to Victims of Medical Billing Scam...
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      Don't Get Burned By Tanning Addiction

      Large numbers of young, white women admit to being 'tanorexic'

      Hollywood has glamorized the "tan and fit" look, and as a result, millions of people flock to tanning booths throughout the year to maintain a bronze "glow." But the health costs can be quite high, as researchers have linked exposure to ultraviolet light with skin cancer.

      Amber Peterson, 31, used to visit tanning booths every other day for 10 years until she was diagnosed with the deadliest form of skin cancer at age 26. After surgery to remove the melanoma and several lymph nodes, this blond-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned woman is currently cancer-free. She has since traded in tanning beds for self-tanner in a bottle.

      "I was addicted to tanning. I liked the look and feel of being tan, but it could have cost me my life," Peterson said. "Despite the warnings, no one thinks that they are going to get skin cancer. I never thought that this would happen to me. I am just lucky to have survived."

      Peterson is not alone. Julie Casey, 37, has been tanning once or twice a week since childhood. Only she has not been able to kick the tanning addiction, and she rarely uses sunscreen.

      "While I recognize the risks, I crave being tan and get depressed if I do not visit the tanning booth on a regular basis," Casey said. "This makes it very difficult for me to break the habit."


      Casey is a self-described "tanorexic." Tanorexia, or an addiction to tanning, is common among young, white females. Approximately 20 percent of 18 - 29 year-olds use indoor tanning booths, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Dermatologists at Loyola University Health System believe tanning addictions are a legitimate health problem.

      "When a person visits a tanning booth, the body releases endorphins," said Anthony Peterson, MD, director, Department of Dermatology, Loyola University Health System. "These chemicals produce the same feelings of euphoria that entice drug addicts and alcoholics."

      This may explain why the indoor tanning business is booming. Thirty million Americans visit tanning salons each year despite the risk for wrinkles and the dangers of ultraviolet radiation. Ultraviolet radiation causes approximately 90 percent of skin cancers, according to Dr. Peterson, and the risk for melanoma increases by 75 percent if you tan indoors before age 35.

      "Excessive tanning is a serious health concern in our society," Dr. Peterson said. "We have to treat this like any other addiction and educate young women about its dangers to curb this behavior."

      Don't Get Burned By Tanning Addiction...
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      Iowa Sues Louisiana Used Car Dealer

      Allegedly deceived consumers with false-promise ads

      May 18, 2010

      That deal on a used car might not be as good as you think. For example, an "emergency liquidation" might not mean the dealer has to slash prices. It may be just a gimmick to get you on the lot.

      That's the reasoning behind Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller's lawsuit against Smart Automotive Group of Louisiana, which Miller says used deceptive "false-premise" ads for used-car sales events in Iowa.

      "We alleged they used deceptive ads to trick consumers into thinking used cars and trucks were being sold at bargain prices at special sales events when in fact vehicles were from dealers' regular used-vehicle inventories," Miller said.

      According to the lawsuit, Smart Automotive sale ads falsely used terms such as "Seized and Repossessed Vehicle Event," "Statewide Used Vehicle Liquidation," "Emergency Disposal Event," and other deceptive and misleading terms that were not true.

      Smart Automotive Group sold promotional advertising and sales packages to Iowa auto dealers to increase sales of the dealers' used vehicles, the suit said. Such packages "are designed to trick consumers into believing the vehicles come from a source other than the dealer's usual used vehicle inventory and are available at lower than usual retail prices," the suit said. Miller called the practice "false-premise" deceptive advertising.

      "The problem is that such ads mislead customers into thinking vehicles must be sold quickly and at bargain prices, when that is not the case," Miller said. "Consumers are misled, and sometimes they end up paying prices that are even higher than normal."

      The suit also alleged Smart Automotive Group used other misleading ads or tactics, such as scratch-off prize cards, as "a subterfuge designed to trick consumers into visiting the dealership," subjecting consumers to undesired sales pitches.

      The suit also said Smart Automotive sometimes sent in sales teams who "use high-pressure sales tactics to sell consumers vehicles under false pretenses."

      The suit was filed Friday morning in Polk County District Court in Des Moines. It asks the court to order civil penalties up to $40,000 per violation of the Consumer Fraud Act, order restitution for consumers, and prohibit future violations.

      Defendants named in the lawsuit are Smart Automotive Group, LLC, located at 1329 Gardenia Drive, Metairie, LA, and Bernard E. Burst III of New Orleans, President of Smart Automotive Group.

      Iowa Attorney General Miller filed a lawsuit against Smart Automotive Group of Louisiana, alleging the company used deceptive "false-premise" ads for used-...
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      Oregon Cracks Down on 'Charities' that Claim to Help Veterans

      State files three lawsuits, reaches settlements with two groups

      May 18, 2010

      Oregon Attorney General John Kroger today announced three lawsuits and two settlements in a major initiative to crack down on non-profits and fundraisers that claim to help U.S. veterans but keep most of the money they raise.

      Our society owes an immense debt to our veterans, said Attorney General Kroger. There are too many organizations that claim to be helping veterans, but are instead enriching themselves. We are going to stop this.

      Settlements totaling $180,000 have been reached with Center Stage Attractions, a professional fundraising firm based in Florida that used a Salem, Ore., call center, and its client charity, The Veterans Fund. Center Stage was accused of making false statements to potential donors, including falsely claiming how donations would benefit veterans and sending false pledge invoices. The Veterans Fund allowed Center Stage to keep 80 percent of the money raised in its name and did little to monitor Center Stages conduct.

      Center Stage and The Veterans Fund have both agreed to never solicit funds in Oregon again. Center Stage has agreed to pay $150,000 and The Veterans Fund agreed to pay $30,000 to resolve the Departments allegations.

      The Oregon Department of Justice also filed three other lawsuits against groups soliciting donations for veterans.

      The first of those lawsuits is against Veterans of Oregon & Members of the Community (VOMC) and its fundraiser, Associated Community Services (ACS). Although ACS has raised more than $500,000 on behalf of VOMC, little if any of the money benefited the homeless and hospitalized vets that donors were told they were helping.

      ACS kept 80 percent of the money it raised. In addition to misleading donors, the defendants are charged with violating Oregons no-call law and breaching fiduciary duties associated with operating as a charity. VOMC is accused of using the small fraction of the money it received to pay the expenses of the head of the charity and others to travel around the state awarding medals.

      Another lawsuit was filed against Community Support (CS), a large national fundraiser that is accused of violating settlements it had previously reached with Oregon, including violating the do-not-call rule and failing to clearly disclose its professional fundraising status to donors. CS typically keeps at least 80 percent of the money it raises for veterans and other charities.

      The final lawsuit is against No Veterans Left Behind Association, an Oregon-based non-profit.

      Since mid 2009, defendants and their paid solicitors set up booths in front of major retail stores in several Oregon counties, selling veterans-related gear and soliciting cash donations. They told store owners and shoppers that No Veterans Left Behind was an all-volunteer group that gave between 75 to 80 percent of its donated proceeds directly to needy veterans. In fact, as the lawsuit alleges, the persons who ran the organization kept at least 80% of the donations for their own use. At least $17,000 was allegedly donated and used improperly.

      The Attorney General seeks, among other things, a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to shut down No Veterans Left Behind and preserve what may be left of the donations and proceeds.

      Oregon Cracks Down on 'Charities' that Claim to Help Veterans...
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      New York Charges SmartBuy Preyed on Soldiers, Military Families

      Company sold grossly over-priced merchandise at exorbitant interest rates, suit alleges

      May 18, 2010

      New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo today filed a lawsuit against three nationwide lenders and their affiliated companies for preying on members of the military by selling them grossly overpriced electronics and then trapping them in illegal and open-ended credit plans. Cuomo has also notified Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of the Army John McHugh of the findings of his investigation.

      Cuomos suit is against Frisco Marketing of N.Y., LLC, doing business as SmartBuy and SmartBuy Computers and Electronics; Integrity Financial of North Carolina, Inc.; Britlee, Inc., doing business as MilitaryZone; GJS Management, Inc. and 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.

      SmartBuy operated in Watertown, N.Y. near Fort Drum, home of the U.S. Armys 10th Mountain Division. The lawsuit seeks to ban the companies from doing business in New York State, obtain restitution for all victims, and nullify all of the deceptive sales contracts.

      Cuomos investigation determined that SmartBuy and its affiliates purchased laptops, gaming systems, televisions, and electronics from other retailers and then relabeled the items for sale at grossly inflated prices. The company then aggressively targeted members of the military - some of whom were about to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan - and their families to get them to purchase the items.

      The investigation found that salespeople were trained to specifically seek out people in uniform and people with military-style haircuts.

      National network

      SmartBuy is part of a national network of companies and individuals that seek to profit by defrauding members of the military, Cuomo said. Our lawsuit not only seeks to bar them from ever doing business again in the state, but also to vindicate the countless soldiers who were preyed upon and defrauded by SmartBuy and its affiliated companies.

      Cuomos investigation found that SmartBuy peddled products that were marked up 225 to 325 percent above the original retail price and financed the sales illegally.

      The sales were made only to members of the military through monthly direct withdrawals from payroll, known as allotments, and backed up with agreements giving the company access to the soldiers bank accounts. The soldiers were rarely told the final price of the product up front, nor was it explained that they were really opening a line of credit.

      If a soldier defaulted, SmartBuy and its affiliates illegally contacted the soldiers commanding officers. The tactic put service members in an untenable situation because Army regulations forbid soldiers from putting themselves in a financially precarious situation.

      In New York, SmartBuy, until recently, operated a storefront and kiosk in the Salmon Run Mall in Watertown. Once the business was notified of the Attorney Generals impending legal action, SmartBuy abruptly shut down the location. Since Cuomos office filed its notice of proposed litigation against the company last month, the Attorney Generals Watertown office has received more than 50 additional complaints about SmartBuy.

      Although SmartBuy stated that its interest rates were between 10 and 19.2 percent, the effective interest rate averaged to 244 percent after adding the undisclosed markups, and an additional compounded 35 percent kickback retained by the financing end of the scheme (Rome Finance and Integrity Financial). None of the lenders involved are licensed in any state.

      Hard sell

      The Attorney Generals investigation found that soldiers were approached by aggressive sales representatives with enticements of good deals. Among the instances of fraud perpetrated by SmartBuy and its affiliated companies:

      • In August 2008, a soldier preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, where his wife was already serving, was told he could get a really good deal by bundling a purchase including a laptop, iPod, camcorder, and PSP for a monthly $90 direct withdrawal (allotment) from his paycheck. In reality, the final price SmartBuy charged was at least double the normal retail price for the items. Two days later, he attempted to return the unopened items, but he was told by the manager he could not return them without paying a $400 restocking fee in cash.

      • In April 2009, a soldier currently serving in Iraq visited the SmartBuy store with his wife and purchased a 47 LCD TV for $4,632.17, plus an additional 12 percent interest. His wife later found the same model for sale at Sams Club for approximately $1,100.

      • In June 2007, a soldier was told by a SmartBuy sales representative that she could get him a good deal on a computer. He ended up in an agreement allowing SmartBuy to charge him $3,945 for the item, which would be available for pickup in two days. That same day, after speaking with his wife and finding the same computer elsewhere for $800, he canceled his order and allotment. Approximately one year later, he began receiving phone calls and emails from a finance company attempting to collect on the nonexistent debt, even while he was deployed in Afghanistan. After he returned home in 2010, a company representative contacted the soldiers commanding officer over the nonexistent debt. At this point, the company was trying to collect $4,800 from the soldier.

      In 2008, SmartBuys collective locations across the country brought in between $32 and $36 million. At the Watertown location, SmartBuy financed more than $4 million in unsecured debt to military customers. Attorney General Cuomos investigation has determined that all SmartBuy locations across the country are set up in close proximity to large military establishments and communities. Among the findings of the investigation:

      • SmartBuys merchandise was actually purchased from other retailers, including Sams Club, Costco and Wal-Mart. A former employee told investigators she witnessed a coworker taking merchandise purchased from the local Sams Club and preparing it by removing any Sams Club stickers and identifiers from the boxes.

      • Before hiring, a prospective employee reported being asked by personnel from SmartBuys corporate office how they felt about selling overpriced items to customers.

      • The operation did not typically hire military service members at SmartBuy because they would then know what we did here, according to a former employee.

      Cuomos lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court of Jefferson County, seeks to:

      • Bar the defendants from doing business in New York State

      • Order the defendants to pay restitution to all consumers who purchased items at the Watertown location through the operations fraudulent and illegal financing arrangements

      • Declare all financing agreements entered into in New York as part of this scam to be null and void

      • Direct the business and owners to disgorge all profits derived from each consumer transaction at the Watertown store

      • Obtain $5,000 in civil penalties for each deceptive or illegal act, plus $2,000 in costs per act

      The defendants operated a similar scheme in Tennessee, which ultimately led to a 2009 court order shutting down the operation in that state. Rome Finance, its agents, assigns, and representatives or affiliates were permanently banned from conducting any business in the State of Tennessee in that case.

      Consumers who did business with SmartBuy or any of its affiliated organizations are urged to contact Attorney General Cuomos Office at 800-771-7755 or email

      Other SmartBuy stores across the country include:
      • Fayetteville, NC (Fort Bragg), Cross Creek Mall
      • Killeen, TX (Fort Hood), Killeen Mall
      • Colorado Springs, CO (Fort Carson), The Citadel
      • Lawton, OK (Fort Sill), Central Mall
      • El Paso, TX (Fort Bliss), Cielo Vista Mall
      • Savannah, GA (Fort Stewart/Hunter Army Airfield), Oglethorpe Mall
      • San Diego, CA (Camp Pendleton), Horton Plaza (closed early 2010)

      New York Charges SmartBuy Preyed on Soldiers, Military Families...
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      States to Review United-Continental Merger

      Ohio Attorney General to lead the review

      MY 17, 2010

      The announcement earlier this month that United Airlines and Continental Airlines will merge continues a trend of consolidation in the airline industry.

      With two major carriers joining forces, what will be the impact on consumers? Will there be fewer flights and higher ticket prices? Several state attorneys general are asking those questions.

      A number of states have announced plans to jointly review the proposed merger to ensure that consumers won't be adversely affected.

      Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, who will lead the multi-state review, noted that the $3.2 billion proposed deal to combine the third and fourth largest airlines in the United States could have a huge impact.

      A merger this large may have staggering ramifications for the industry, for consumers, and for the broader economy, Cordray said. Ohio has a lot on the line with this deal. Cleveland is a Continental hub, which is very important both for our states travelers and economy. I feel strongly that it is in the best interest of Ohioans for us to take a leading role in reviewing this proposed deal. We will work closely with other states and the Department of Justice to ensure that state and federal antitrust laws are not violated.

      Cordray said that the review will focus on ensuring that competition is not reduced through higher fares, fewer choices in flights or a drop in service quality. He also wants to make sure Cleveland Hopkins International Airport remains a viable hub.

      With all the problems for taxpayers associated with corporations that become too big to fail, we need to be especially diligent as antitrust enforcers in looking carefully at the potential effects of consolidation in critical sectors of our economy, such as the airline industry, Cordray said.

      Cordray co-chairs the National Association of Attorneys General antitrust committee, which addresses issues of federal/state cooperation and areas of common interest regarding antitrust enforcement, including multi-state litigation and federal/state legislative and policy proposals.

      States to Review United-Continental Merger...
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      2010 Nissan Altimas Recalled

      Nissan is recalling a small number of 2010 Altimas because some structural welds may be out of specification, which could affect vehicle crash performance.

      Dealers will inspect the vehicles and, if necessary, repair them free of charge.

      The affected units were assembled from April 7, 2010 through April 13, 2010.

      Owners may contact Nissan at 1-800-647-7261.

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

      2010 Nissan Altimas Recalled...
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      Bill Would Protect Consumers Who Sell Gold Jewelry

      FTC tells Congress it believes the legislation is needed

      With rising gold prices and a continuing recession, more consumers are selling their jewelry to businesses that advertise on television and the Internet. Congress is consideration legislation to make sure consumers aren't cheated.

      The Federal Trade Commission says it has begun to see complaints from consumers who are seeking to make ends meet by selling gold jewelry, watches, and other family heirlooms containing precious metals. Consumers complain that some online jewelry buyers provide a price quote only if asked.

      In some cases, consumers submit their items and receive payment only after buyers have melted their items into their raw form. Once that happens, dissatisfied consumers have limited recourse.

      The proposed Guarantee of a Legitimate Deal Act would make sure that consumers have a chance to consider and reject a specific offer to buy their precious metals before an online purchaser melts or resells the items. It also would require businesses that offer to buy consumers jewelry or precious metals to insure items they ship back to consumers who decline their offers.

      In addition, the measure would give the FTC the authority to seek civil penalties, which would serve as a powerful deterrent and make it easier for the agency to take action against buyers who violate the law.

      Jim Kohm, Associate Director of the Enforcement Division of the FTCs Bureau of Consumer Protection, testified before a House subcommittee, saying that the FTC supports the proposed legislation.

      Bill Would Protect Consumers Who Sell Gold Jewelry...
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      States Pressure to Stop Charging for Abuse Review

      Newspaper-owned site charges $19.95 to review abusive, inappropriate postings

      By Truman Lewis

      May 17, 2010
      Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and 22 other state attorneys general are urging Internet message board host to improve consumer protections and eliminate its $19.99 fee for priority review to eliminate abusive or inappropriate posts.

      In a letter to Topix CEO Chris Tolles, Blumenthal and his colleagues expressed significant concerns with the Forums and Polls pages and the websites $19.99 fee to expedite review of inappropriate posts., of Palo Alto, CA, describes itself as a top ten online newspaper destination, which encourages readers to post comments about news items or other matters of community interest. Topix LLC is a privately held company with major investments from Gannett Co., The McClatchy Company and Tribune Company.

      Blumenthal said Topix should do more, and charge nothing, in exchange for enforcing its own terms of use intended to protect victims, particularly children, from online abuse.

      We are calling on Topix to abandon its outrageous pay-to-police policy and I urge consumers to join us in telling Topix to stop exploiting pain and abuse on its site, Blumenthal said. Forcing victims to pay in exchange for promptly stopping abusive, obscene and harassing Internet posts is exploitive financial bullying. The perpetrators, not victims, should be charged this unconscionable fee for making false or abusive posts.

      Topix earns a dime off of other peoples devastation -- making money from mistreatment when victims pay up to protect themselves or their children from online bullying and abuse. This backwards system must be stopped immediately to protect children and others -- as well as Topixs own reputation.

      Our coalition is calling on to do the right thing and stop a system that harms consumers twice -- first by the abusive poster and then by the unconscionable removal fee.

      An initial investigation by Connecticut and Kentucky found that the Forums and Polls section of Topix is routinely used to post abusive, vulgar and obscene comments, often about children, in blatant violation of Topixs terms of service. The forums also appear to operate without moderators.

      Blumenthal and Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway first contacted Topix in February and asked that the website respond to their concerns and make changes. Topix proposed only minor changes, and failed to eliminate its pay-to-police fee.

      Blumenthal and fellow attorneys general have asked Topix to:

      • Eliminate the $19.99 fee for expedited review. Charging consumers $19.99 for an expedited review of abusive posts that violate the Topix Terms of Service is unconscionable. Topix should abandon the fee and develop alternative measures to screen and promptly remove abusive posts that violate their terms of service, including hiring additional personnel, if necessary, to timely review abuse reports.

      • Improve disclosures regarding the feedback system. In addition to ending the $19.99 expedited review option from the flag abuse drop down link, Topix should make its feedback and flagging options more clear and concise so that consumers can understand how to protect themselves and their children.

      • Reduce time for reviewing abuse reports. A 7-14 day turnaround time for reviewing abuse reports is inadequate. Topix should review complaints more promptly, as MySpace and Facebook have done -- within 72 hours for routine abuse reports and 24 hours for emergency reports.

      • Improve screening of abusive posts. Abusive posts continue to dominate many of the forums. Topix should immediately revamp its technology to block improper posts and repeat offenders, and explore additional technological measures to block abusive and hateful posts before they are posted.

      The attorneys general from the following states and jurisdictions have joined Connecticut and Kentucky in writing to Topix: Arizona, Arkansas, Guam, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, N. Mariana, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington.

      States Pressure to Stop Charging for Abuse Review...
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      Getting the Most Out Of Social Security

      The Boomer's guide to a key retirement income stream

      When Social Security was created in 1935, it was designed to be part of a three-tier retirement plan that would include Social Security benefits, income from a pension, and personal savings. Unfortunately, because of the recent economic downturn and high unemployment, especially among older workers, Social Security benefits are, for many, playing a greater financial role and, for some, it is the only retirement income they can count on.

      As tens of millions of Boomers enter those years in which we qualify for Social Security, it becomes increasingly important to understand how the program works, if for no other reason than to determine when you should apply in order to receive the greatest financial benefit.

      In a nutshell, to qualify for Social Security retirement benefits, you have to have worked for at least 10 years which is about the length of time it takes to accumulate the four credits a year or 40 credits that make you eligible.

      Social Security is funded by the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) or, for the self-employed, through SECA (Self-Employment Contributions Act) which is put into The Social Security Trust Funds which are the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) Trust Fund and the Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund. The OASI Trust Fund began in 1937; the DI Trust Fund in 1957. These trust funds are managed by the Department of the Treasury. Basically, out of each dollar that is contributed from payroll or self-employment contributions, roughly 85 cents goes to Social Security and 15 cents goes to Medicare.

      Here are seven key factors you need to know about Social Security:

      1. When Should I Take it?

      This is the #1 Social Security question to consider.

      In general, the longer you wait to start your benefits, the larger the amount of monthly payouts you will receive (but over a shorter period of time). How do you know if you should start earlier or later? It depends on each individual and family and on a number of factors such as:

      • Your projected life expectancy based on your family history (how long did your parents live?)
      • Any pre-existing conditions that might shorten your life span?
      • Are you still working?
      • Do you need the income now or can you delay starting payments?

      What it means to take Social Security at 62

      If you start your Social Security benefits at age 62, you will permanently reduce the amount of money you will receive by as much as 30% than if you had waited just four more years till the normal or full retirement age for most Boomers.

      For example, lets say your monthly retirement benefit is $1,000 if you start taking it at 66, which is your full retirement age. However, if you begin to collect Social Security at 62, your monthly payment would be reduced to $750 for most Boomers or to just $700 if you were born in 1960 or later. Also, if you are still working, there is a cap on earnings of approximately $14,000. That means with any earnings over that amount there is a $1 reduction in monthly benefits for each $2 you earn until the year you reach your full retirement age. In that year, $1 in benefits will be deducted for each $3 you earn over $37,680. (However, once, you reach full retirement age, there is no longer any cap on earnings to be able to get your full benefits.)

      Keep in mind, however, that with each year between 62 and your full retirement age of 66 (or 67), the reduction in your benefits is not as great. Here is what those reductions will be if you retire at:

      63, it is about 25 percent
      64, it drops to 20 percent
      65, it is just 13.3 percent
      66, it is about 6.7 percent

      What it means to take Social Security at your full retirement age

      Year of Birth

      Full Retirement Age




      66 years, 2 months


      66 years, 4 months


      66 years, 6 months


      66 years, 10 months



      (If you were born on January 1 in any year, refer to the previous year)

      When you reach what is called full retirement age (FRA), which is 66 for the majority of Boomers see the chart below for your exact age -- your benefits increase substantially compared to what they would have been at age 62. (What the Social Security Administration (SSA) considers full retirement age does increases by two months every year for anyone born in 1955 through 1959 and to age 67 for those Boomers born in 1960 and later.) Use the chart to determine your full or normal retirement age for applying for Social Security benefits.

      As noted above, if you want to continue working after youve reached your full retirement age, there is no cap on earnings as a factor in what your Social Security payments will be. (But it might impact on whether or not you have to pay taxes on your Social Security benefits.)

      If you wait until 70

      The benefit of waiting until age 70 to start your Social Security benefits is that you will get delayed retirement credits of 8%, every year, from your full retirement age until age 70. If you also continue working, and contribute more through FICA or SECA, the amount you will get monthly when you do start collecting may get even higher.

      There is a catch, however. Financial advisor Julie Jason says that by waiting, Youre betting on longevity. But you may get as much as 76% more each month by waiting until age 70 than if you began getting payments at age 62. So if you can afford to wait, most experts agree you should try to go for starting your benefits at age 70.

      2. How much money can I expect?

      Financial advisor Robert J. DiQuollo suggests that Boomers put some time into carefully reading their annual statement from the Social Security administration. Thats the four-page statement you get every year, four months before your birthday. DiQuollo says, Many clients dont realize how much their benefit actually is until they apply. I think thats because people dont pay attention to Social Security or read their statement. Here it is, right on your own statement but they never focused on it.

      So look at your statement to see what you are projected to get if you apply for benefits at ages 62, 66, or 70. But consider this fact as well: In 2010, the maximum monthly Social Security payment to someone retiring at age 66 is $2,346 (and the average payment is around $1,000 a month).

      3. Social security also includes a spousal benefit

      As long as you have been married for 10 years, once your spouse is eligible for Social Security benefits, you are eligible for a spousal benefit, which is half of your spouses monthly payout. However, if your own Social Security payment is higher, based on your own work history, you can get your own benefit rather than your spousal benefit.

      4. Social security also includes divorced spouse benefits

      You are entitled to a divorced spouse's insurance benefits on your exs Social Security record if:

      • Your ex is entitled to Social Security benefits;
      • You have filed an application for divorced spouse's benefits (it doesnt matter if your ex has filed for benefits);
      • You are not entitled to a retirement benefit based on a primary insurance amount which equals or exceeds one-half the worker's primary insurance amount;
      • You are age 62 or over;
      • You have not remarried;
      • You were married for at least 10 years before the date the divorce became final.
      • You have been divorced for 2 or more years.

      5. Getting benefits is not automatic; you need to apply

      It is recommended that you apply for benefits about three months before the date you want your benefits to start. You can apply for benefits right on the SSA website: At that website, you can get a quick benefit estimate based on your actual Social Security earnings record at You also can get more detailed benefit calculations at

      Here are the documents you need to apply:

      • Your Social Security card (or a record of your number);
      • Your birth certificate;
      • Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful immigration status if you (or a child) were not born in the United States;
      • Your spouses birth certificate and Social Security number if he or she is applying for benefits based on your earnings;
      • Marriage certificate (if signing up on a spouses earnings or if your spouse is signing up on your earnings);
      • Your military discharge papers if you had military service; and
      • Your most recent W-2 form, or your tax return, if you are self-employed.

      Whether you are going to apply at 62, 66, or 70, you are going to need a certified birth certificate (or, for spousal benefits, a marriage certificate). Make sure you have one on hand rather than waiting until the last minute and trying to rush the process of requesting a replacement certificate, which might take one or more months.

      6. You may have to pay income tax on your Social Security benefits

      SSA notes that about one-third of people who get Social Security have to pay income taxes on their benefits. Check with your accountant to find out what taxes you and your spouse can expect to have to pay on your benefits, if anything, based on what benefits you are receiving, any other earned income, and other factors.

      7. You can do a do over if you want to restart your start date.

      What if you realize you made a mistake about when you take your benefits? Well, you can actually pay back the money that you received and reset your benefits without penalty.

      Michael B. Friedman, Chair of the Geriatric Mental Health Alliance of New York and an Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University School of Social Work, started taking his Social Security benefits last year, when he was 66, and his earnings projection was also quite low. But then it turned out that he earned far more than he anticipated; his financial planner suggested to him that he repay the monthly income that he received from Social Security and re-apply so he would get a higher monthly payment, which he did.

      Remember, Social Security was never intended to be your complete retirement income. It was set up to replace just some of your earnings when you or your spouse retire.

      As Charles Farrell, investment advisor with Northstar Investment Advisors in Denver and author of Your Money Ratios (Avery, 2010) points out, For most people, Social Security will be somewhere between twenty to forty percent of their retirement income. However, according to an AARP Public Policy Institute report, Older Americans in Poverty: A Snapshot, for older adults who are in poverty, 59% depend on Social Security for all or nearly all of their family income.

      To avoid finding yourself in such a situation, dont just count on Social Security to fill your retirement income needs. Boomers in our 60s (and certainly those in their late 40s and 50s) are still young enough to work harder to put more money into our retirement savings account, pay down any debt without incurring more debt, downsize and lower our overhead as we save or safely invest any additional income from the sale of our homes or goods.

      Contact the local Social Security office for help in determining the ideal time for you to apply to begin collecting your Social Security benefits. But before you decide to put in for Social Security benefits, if you have a financial advisor, make sure you discuss Social Security as part of your retirement planning strategy. Your family is depending on you to make the best decision for your particular economic situation.

      Finally, as time goes by, make sure you reevaluate your time frame for applying if your work and retirement goals change because of health or other factors which might alter your initial plan about when to apply for your Social Security benefits.



      Associations and Research Centers

      • AARP
      • Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College. Started in 1998, research and training center focusing on such key retirement issues as Social Security, pension plans, and older worker labor market trends.
      • Employee Benefit Research Institute Membership association that conducts research on employee benefit issues including their annual Retirement Confidence Survey

      Articles, press releases, or reports

      It becomes increasingly important to understand how the program works to determine when you should apply in order to receive the greatest financial benefit...
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      BP Facing Nearly 100 Suits

      Once again, bayou denizens, chefs and tourism promoters fear the worst

      The pipe threaded inside the leaking oil pipe a mile under the surface of the Gulf of Mexico did not work. It was hoped it would save some of the oil spewing like a volcano from BP's hole in the bottom of the sea and pump it aboard a waiting ship sitting overhead. It didn't work. We heard the news from Fox on Sunday morning.

      There was both good and bad news later Sunday. The good news is BP is taking oil up the mile-long pipe to the mother ship hovering above the gushing volcano, according to BP spokesman Mark Proegler. The bad news is Proegler can not say how much of the oil is being captured or what percentage of the discharge is being diverted to the holding ship above.

      Kent Wells, BP's senior vice president for exploration and production, said during a news conference that the amount being drawn was gradually increasing, but it would take several days to measure it.

      Proegler had indicated earlier, at the Joint Spill Command Center in Louisiana, that the tube was capturing most of the oil coming from the broken pipe. This particular break is thought to be contributing about 85 percent of the crude in the overall leak. But estimates of the size of the leak vary wildly.

      Potentially worse news is that computer models show the oil either already in the Gulf Stream or within three miles. Which means the U. S. Eastern Seaboard is at risk. And possibly the United Kingdom, where BP has home offices in London.

      How much?

      The oil is leaking at least 210,000 gallons a day, according to BP and the U. S. government. It is ten times that amount, say other scientists.

      "When you hear officials disagreeing like that you wonder if they know how to handle this." We are listening to a table of local oystermen at Shukes, a popular oyster house in Abbeville, home of the first commercial oyster fishery in Louisiana..

      "Wonder, my ass!" responded a frustrated oysterman. "I know, they do not."

      The only good news today: Shukes has just announced they have a two-week supply of oysters on ice.

      We have spent the week in Acadiana, the French-Canadian, Creole region of Louisiana. This is Cajun Country. It is home to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and their football team, the Ragin Cajuns, and also home to Louisiana's oil industry.

      "America does run on oil," retired U. L. marine biologist Mark Konikoff, a vocal supporter of the oil industry, reminded us.

      Indeed, it does. But California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced last week that all oil drilling would be banned from California's golden shores, causing local Lafayette radio talk-show host, Ken Romero, to say in a recorded radio spot that California should be barred from receiving Louisiana oil. Not likely given the fluidity of the product, but indicative of the faith many here place in Big Oil.

      Of course, Big Oil has made the region rich. It may be asking too much to grasp how it may now make its culture non-existent if, in fact, the Gulf becomes a dead sea. But the truth is that -- as always -- no one knows what is going to happen. Think how much wealthier Rupert Murdoch would be if The Wall Street Journal printed tomorrow's stock prices.

      New way'a doin'

      At a Native American Pow Wow this weekend at the Tunica-Biloxi Reservation and Paragon Casino Resort, at Marksville, it was not hard to find people who have seen total cultural and economic change. "We will just find a new way'a doing," was pretty much the consensus among Pow Wow attendees.

      All around us is the prosperity of Louisiana's first land-based gambling casino sitting on the edge of where recently there was an longtime air of hopelessness, we heard a feathered dancer telling the audience, "Our people are survivors."

      In New Orleans, the smell of oil is noticeable even to those most resistant to noticing. At Pascal's Manale, the Napoleon Avenue restaurant that invented New Orleans Barbecued Shrimp -- a succulent dish far removed from simply tossing some shrimps on the BBQ -- our waiter placed steaming bowels before us and tied bibs around our necks.

      The shrimp were as fine as Judy Sherrod remembered from her youth. Sherrod was in New Orleans for a photography workshop. She drinks two beers with her shrimp, and wears a safari jacket of the type you associate with a world adventurer.

      "I've recently returned to New Orleans, after many years." During those years she has been busy compiling a body of work titled: "Exploring the Mystery of Easter Island."

      Neither of us could smell oil in the air that day. Nor taste it in our food. However, a few days later the smell was very noticeable.

      "The feeling I get in the pit of my stomach is like the feeling I got when all those generals and politicians and industrialists kept assuring us about the war in Vietnam," said French Quarter resident L. A. Norma.

      "Now, after Katrina and Rita, we finally got our tourist industry back. Now this!" Norma sighed.

      And, perhaps most frightening, we still do not know what "this" is going to end up being, as we enter the fourth week of BP's big oil volcano at the bottom of the sea.


      Leonard Earl Johnson is a former cook, merchant seaman, photographer and columnist for Les Amis de Marigny, a New Orleans monthly magazine. Post-Katrina, he has decamped to Lafayette, La. Columns past, present and future are at

      BP Facing Nearly 100 Suits...
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      Controversy Surrounds Tests of Nutro Dry Cat Food

      Company denies its product contains 'worrisome' levels of Vitamin D3

      Controversy is swirling around recent tests on a sample of Nutro dry cat food, which detected what two leading veterinarians consider worrisome levels vitamin D3.

      The veterinarians recommended additional testing to confirm the finding, but also told the blood work performed on the sick feline that ate the food is not consistent with vitamin D toxicity. The non-profit group that hired a private lab to test the food disagrees and calls the Nutro sample one of the most deadly pet foods we've tested to date.

      Nutro disputes that assessment and the labs findings, saying tests it performed on the same lot of cat food revealed the product is safe.

      An analysis performed earlier this month on a sample of Nutro Chicken Meal and Rice cat food -- identified as lot number 09 01 10 11:03 and purchased in February 2010 -- revealed the product contained 197 IU/g of vitamin D3, according to the Pet Food Products Safety Alliance (PFPSA).

      I was shocked by these results, said Don Earl, founder of PFPSA. The vitamin D was so high in this sample that I called the lab to see if that was really what they meant. That level is off the chart.

      Earl said he hired NPA Laboratories in California to analyze the sample for vitamin D when he learned a healthy, one-year-old, indoor male cat was on deaths door after eating the Nutro food for five days. He suspected high levels of vitamin D might be the culprit for the felines illness, which he said included vomiting, diarrhea, weakness to the point of being unable to stand and considerable pain.

      I look at things that should be in the food to see if they are in the wrong amounts and if the ingredients and supplements are formulated correctly, Earl said, adding that previous tests on this sample of Nutro food detected what he called high levels of calcium. Vitamin D is an essential vitamin in the right amount, but its toxic in the wrong amount. And this is a huge amount.

      More evidence needed

      Two veterinarians contacted by about the test results agreed the levels of vitamin D3 in the sample are concerning and should be further investigated. But they cautioned Earl and worried pet owners not to jump to conclusions based on one test.

      I appreciate what he (Earl) is doing, said Dr. Justine Lee, emergency critical care veterinary specialist and associate director of veterinary services for the Pet Poison Helpline (PPH). I commend him for advocating for healthy pet food. But it needs to be done in a way that is accurate and we have to make sure the information is medically and scientifically accurate.

      Dr. Lee and her colleague, Dr. Lynn Hovda, director of Veterinary Services and toxicologist with PPH, said another sample of this Nutro cat food should be tested by a certified lab to verify NPA Laboratories results.

      A single sample submitted at a single point in time is certainly cause for concern, but it needs to be scientifically verified, the veterinarians said, adding whatever lab tests the food should sign and notarize a statement that confirms its analyzing the sample for Vitamin D3.

      On its Certificate of Analysis, NPA Laboratories stated it tested the Nutro cat food for Vitamin D. contacted the lab, which confirmed it tested the sample for vitamin D3. And the levels of vitamin D3 the lab reported in the Nutro sample are troublesome, Drs. Lee and Hovda said.

      The fact that cholecalciferol (Vitamin D3) is the Vitamin D source in the sample is worrisome as D3 is generally associated with a higher incidence of toxicity than ergocalciferol (Vitamin D2), they told us. In the world of toxicology, Vitamin D3 toxicity is associated with a total amount ingested based on the animals body weight (IU ingested/kg body weight). learned the cat that ate the Nutro food tested weighs 12 pounds -- or 5.45 kilograms (kg).

      Assuming the cat ate 2 ounces of food (56 grams which is a fairly normal amount) and that the cholecalciferol level is 197/gram of food, (the) total amount ingested would be 11032 IU /5.45 kg or 2024 IU cholecalciferol/kg BW, Drs. Hovda and Lee wrote in response to our questions. If you assume the cat ate 4 ounces of food and that the cholecalciferol level is 197 IU/gram of food, the total amount ingested would be 22064 IU/5.45 kg or 4048 IU cholecalciferol/kg BW.

      High doses of vitamin D3 can cause various health problems in cats and dogs, the veterinarians said.

      Ingested doses of 4000 to 5000 IU/kg body weight of D3 are associated with mild clinical signs such as anorexia, lethargy, and vomiting, they said. Blood work changes (serum chemistry) occur but become very striking when the ingested amount is 15,000 to 20,000 IU/kg body weight.

      At this level, the calcium level becomes very elevated and severe and may be irreversible or non-responsive to treatment, they added. The likelihood of depositing calcium in various body organs (kidney, heart, etc.) increases, resulting in severe, acute kidney failure which often times can result in chronic kidney changes. This would be the same for both dogs and cats.

      But the blood work performed on the cat that ate this sample of Nutro food does not indicate any type of vitamin D toxicity, Drs. Hovda and Lee told us.

      This cat has a high white blood cell count, Dr. Lee said. This type of count is almost always seen with feline leukemia. Any veterinarian looking at this blood work would agree that its not consistent with vitamin D3 toxicity.

      She added: Weve been contacted by veterinarians reading various pet food forums about this (test result) and weve told them that the blood work is not consistent with vitamin D toxicity.

      Earl disagrees

      Earl, who is not a veterinarian but has done considerable research on this issue, respectfully disagrees.

      The information that I found in the Hazardous Substances Data Bank had clinical information on vitamin D toxicity that was an across-the-board match for what was found in the vets lab work, he told us.

      On his organizations Web site, Earl cites various studies and reports that support his contention. And he doesnt mince any words about a link between Nutros cat food, the felines illness, and vitamin D toxicity.

      The pet owner's cat nearly died after eating the food for 5 days and the symptoms appeared to be consistent with toxic levels of Vitamin D, he states, adding the cats condition gradually improved after it stopped eating the Nutro food. Based on the above, unbiased, peer reviewed, independent research, this food is one of the most deadly has tested to date. No reasonable person, of average intelligence, could view the research, data, circumstances and symptoms, without reaching the inevitable conclusion this food was the sole cause of this pet's near death experience.

      Asked what action Nutro should take in response to these latest test results, Earl said: They need to recall this food. Its deadly.

      Drs. Hovda and Lee arent convinced that Nutro needs to take such drastic measures. But they encouraged the pet food giant to address this issue.

      We are neither opposed to nor in favor of Nutro pet foods, but hope that the company responds in a professional and courteous manner, they said. Mistakes can be made, as we have learned before, and this may be due to calculation errors or mixing errors; if this occurs, obviously we feel that the company should thoroughly investigate this and take responsibility to evaluate this.

      Nutro: It's safe

      In a written statement, Nutro told us it investigated this matter and determined the cat food is safe.

      As a result of a consumer inquiry regarding possible elevated levels of Vitamin D in one lot of NUTRO NATURAL CHOICE Chicken Meal and Rice cat food, we sent a retained sample -- taken at our factory from this specific lot -- for independent testing, the company wrote. The test results confirm our previous analysis that the Vitamin D levels are well within AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) requirements and achieve the target Vitamin D level designed for this food.

      NUTRO NATURAL CHOICE cat food does not contain elevated levels of Vitamin D, the statement added.

      Nutro told us today that it sent its retained sample of cat food to a company called Covance, which it claims has expertise in Vitamin D analysis.

      They performed testing for Vitamin D3 and found the level to be 566 IU/kg, which is 628 IU/kg for dry matter, said the companys Corporate Communications Manager, Julie Lawless. The AAFCO minimum for cat adult maintenance is 500 IU/kg and the maximum is 10,000 IU/kg for dry matter.

      Lawless also told us the company ran routine tests on the food the cats owner submitted to Nutro. That sample, however, was not analyzed for vitamin D because the cats blood work -- and conversations with the owners veterinarian -- did not indicate the feline had a vitamin D toxicity problem, Lawless said.

      Asked if the company would post its test results, Lawless said: We have provided the lab results directly to the consumer.

      In its written statement, Nutro disputed Earls findings and the conclusions he reached about the companys food.

      Claims of elevated levels of Vitamin D are being reported on the website of the Pet Food Product Safety Alliance (PFPSA), the company said. Our test results clearly indicate that PFPSAs information is incorrect. In addition to the test results, a number of facts question the validity of the PFPSA claims. Conversations with the consumers own veterinarian did not indicate that food was the cause of the cats illness.

      Nutro also said the cats blood work did not show the feline had vitamin D toxicity.

      Blood test results presented on the website are not consistent with a diagnosis of a cat that has been consuming elevated levels of Vitamin D, the company said.

      Nutro also claims its food is safe and did not play a role in the cats illness.

      At Nutro, quality and safety are our most important priorities. We stand by the safety of our food. The consumers cat is now in good health and we are gratified that our food did not contribute to its recent illness. attempted to interview the cats owner for this story, but she declined.

      We also contacted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about these latest test results on Nutros cat food. Earl told us he reported the findings to the agency, but said the FDA didnt seem interested because he didnt have the bag the food came in.

      A spokeswoman for the FDAs Center for Veterinary Medicine said she couldnt discuss an individual's FDA consumer complaint with us. Thats private, confidential information, said spokeswoman Laura Alvey.

      Meanwhile, Earl said he still has some of the Nutro cat food his organization tested and is willing to share it with anyone who wants to run another independent analysis.

      What I'd rather see, though, is if someone could find unopened bags close to that lot date and test those instead, he said. Unfortunately, opened bags always seem to generate unclean hands arguments.

      If had suites of chrome and glass offices, and a 7-figure budget, we could do things I only wish we could do now, he added. As things are, about the best we can do is put the puzzle pieces together and hope someone with better resources will take it to the next level. I'm always glad to work with fellow travelers.

      Controversy is swirling around recent tests on a sample of Nutro dry cat food, which detected what two leading veterinarians consider worrisome levels vita...
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      'Tax Resolution' Firm Charged With Misleading Customers

      Texas AG cites nearly 1,000 complaints about defendants' conduct and business practices

      May 14, 2010
      A company that purports to help consumers who are having tax problems has problems of its own in Texas.

      Houston-based TaxMasters, Inc., and its chief executive officer, Patrick Cox, are facing multiple violations of the state's Deceptive Trade Practices Act and Debt Collection Act.

      According to the enforcement action filed by Attorney General Greg Abbott, the defendants unlawfully misled customers about their service contract terms, failed to disclose its no-refunds policy, and falsely claimed that the firm's employees would immediately begin work on a case -- despite the fact that TaxMasters did not actually start to work on a case until its customers paid in full for services, even if that delayed response meant taxpayers missed significant IRS deadlines.

      "In the midst of a national economic downturn, TaxMasters used a nationwide marketing campaign to offer services for distressed taxpayers who needed help dealing with the IRS," Abbott said. "A state investigation and nearly 1,000 customer complaints indicate that the defendants routinely misled customers about the nature of their tax resolution service agreements -- and worse, attempted to enforce those improper agreements through unlawful debt collection tactics. The state's enforcement action seeks to prohibit the defendants from continuing to violate the law and seeks restitution for the financially struggling taxpayers who were harmed by the defendants' unlawful conduct."

      TaxMasters advertises a tax resolution service for federal taxpayers who have received notice from the IRS of an audit, garnishment, lien, levy or tax deficiency. Citing a self-styled "national advertising campaign" and high-profile "endorsements," the company claims to have "one of the most effective tax relief teams in the tax representation business."

      However, a state investigation -- and nearly 1,000 complaints submitted to the Office of the Attorney General and the Better Business Bureau of Houston -- indicate the defendants have unlawfully misled their customers and failed to disclose material facts about their service agreements.

      'Free' coonsultation

      TaxMasters' ads encourage taxpayers to call its toll-free number for a "free consultation" with a "tax consultant." Court documents indicate callers are not connected to an employee qualified to give tax advice, but rather with a TaxMasters sales representative who recommends a "solution" for between $1,500 and $9,000 or more.

      According to court documents, many callers were offered an installment plan so that they could pay the defendants' fee over a specified period of time. However, callers who asked to see written terms and conditions prior to making a payment were informed that a credit card or bank account number is necessary to generate a written TaxMasters service contract.

      As a result, TaxMasters customers were unaware -- and the defendants' personnel did not have a practice of disclosing -- multiple aspects of the TaxMasters service agreement that were harmful to taxpayers.

      For example, the company did not disclose that all customer payments submitted to TaxMasters are non-refundable. Because customers were not provided written contracts and sales personnel did not reveal the no-refunds policy, customers did not know that they would not be able to recover any installment payments they submitted to TaxMasters -- even if they ultimately decide to cancel before TaxMasters actually did any work on their tax case.

      The state's enforcement action also cites TaxMasters for failing to reveal that it would not begin work on a case until all installment payments had been remitted and the entire fee was paid. Multiple complaints indicate that customers entered into an installment agreement with the understanding that TaxMasters would immediately begin work on their case -- only to discover later that no action was taken.

      Customers often learned there was a problem when they received a notice from the IRS indicating that an important deadline had been missed or that additional fees and penalties had accrued.

      Court documents also indicate the defendants failed to disclose TaxMasters' requirement that customers pay the entire service fee -- even if they opt to cancel their contract. Because customers are not provided a written contract, they were not properly informed that agreeing to make a single payment over the telephone obligated them to pay the entire fee quoted by sales personnel.

      Further, not only did TaxMasters attempt to obligate its customers to a fee in the absence of a signed contract, the defendants used unlawful debt collection tactics to enforce the unauthorized obligation.

      Failure to disclose

      According to the state's enforcement action, the defendants not only failed to disclose material terms and conditions governing its services, but also failed to properly provide the "tax resolution" services that were advertised.

      Customer complaints obtained by the AG's office cite TaxMasters for failing to contact and consult with the IRS on the client's behalf; failing to appear on the client's behalf at an IRS audit or hearing; failing to postpone or stop a wage or bank account garnishment; and failing to stop a levy or lien against a client's property.

      When customers who were unhappy with the defendants' services sought refunds, TaxMasters refused to return the customers' money. Court documents indicate TaxMasters not only refused to honor refund requests, it also pursued debt collection efforts against clients who cancelled their contracts.

      The state's enforcement action also charges TaxMasters with unlawfully threatening to pursue customers in Harris County courts, even if those customers did not reside in the county. Under Texas law, entities seeking to enforce a consumer contract can only do so in a county where the agreement was executed or where the consumer resides.

      The AG is seeking restitution for each TaxMasters customer who was financially harmed by the defendants' unlawful conduct. In addition, it is asking for civil penalties of up to $20,000 for each violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

      'Tax Resolution' Firm Charged With Misleading Customers...
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      Ford Windstar Axles Falling Apart, Suit Charges

      Class action says Ford ignored widespread problem

      By Jon Hood

      May 14, 2010
      A group of Ford Windstar owners has filed a class action lawsuit in federal court in Pennsylvania, alleging that their vans' rear axles are rusting out, rendering the cars unfit, unsafe, and unmerchantable.

      The plaintiffs say that a design defect collects and traps water [in the axle], causing it to rust from the inside out. Specifically, the suit alleges that the cylinder is hollow and unsealed, making it easy for liquid to enter, and lacks drainage ports, meaning that the water then gets stuck inside the cylinders and has no way of getting out.

      Inevitably, the suit says, this combination leads to rust which weakens these axles, which bear significant loads while the vehicle is being operated, and renders the vehicle's axle susceptible to failing while the vehicle is being operated. The suit says that the defect is present in all Windstars for model years 1999 through 2003.

      The suit contends that the defect is well-known to both Ford and others in the automotive community, but that the company has failed to take any action to address the problem.

      This design flaw has resulted in documented failures of the axle assembly, some of which have been reported to have occurred during highway, high speed travel, the suit alleges. Despite knowing of the problem, the plaintiffs say that Ford has failed to remedy the defects or offer replacements for their defective, unfit and potentially dangerous products.

      The plaintiffs note that the flaw has never been the subject of a recall or service bulletin, and say that Ford has never warned consumers in any fashion that their vehicles might be prone to sudden failure during operation.

      Lead plaintiff Aaron Martin, of Avondale, Pennsylvania, learned the hard way that his rear axle was in less than prime condition. According to the suit, Martin's axle cracked and completely failed while he was driving the van shortly after buying it earlier this month.

      The suit comes two weeks after a New York Times article revealed that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has received over 200 complaints about Windstar axle failures, but has never opened an investigation. The article cited a Ford spokesman's contention that [m]ost of the axle failures occurred after 100,000 to 150,000 miles, well beyond the factory warranty.

      A NHTSA spokeswoman quoted in the article seemed equally unconcerned, saying only that each complaint is read as it is received and reviewed for a potential defect trend. As a result, were more interested in the content of the complaints than categorization.

      The Windstar, which debuted in 1994 and was discontinued in 2004, has had its share of problems. Earlier models were well known for their failing head gaskets and tendency to roll over.

      The plaintiffs are mainly seeking injunctive relief compelling the defendant to refund the total value of the vehicles owned by the plaintiff and the class members, or institute a recall program during which the vehicles will be repaired at no cost to the owners. The suit, which is brought on behalf of anyone who bought or leased a subject Windstar and still owns the van, alleges breach of implied and express warranties.

      A group of Ford Windstar owners has filed a class action lawsuit, alleging that their vans' rear axles are rusting out, rendering the cars unfit, unsafe, a...
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      J.D. Power: Consumers More Picky When Shopping for Lawn Mowers

      Honda ranks highest in customer satisfaction with walk-behind lawn mowers for second straight year

      By James Limbach

      May 13, 2010
      If the grass-cutting season hasn't arrived yet where you are, you can be sure that it'll be there before long. That means shopping for a lawn mower, if you don't already have one, or replacing that workhorse you've been using for the last umpteen years.

      People seem to be taking that chore seriously. According to the J.D. Power and Associates 2010 Walk-Behind Lawn Mower Study, a larger proportion of buyers are considering more than one lawn mower brand, compared with 2009.

      The study measures customer satisfaction with walk-behind lawn mowers by examining six key factors: durability; ease of use; maintenance; performance; price; and warranty. The study is designed to provide information that helps customers with purchase decisions, as well as to assist lawn mower manufacturers in their efforts to improve customer satisfaction and brand loyalty.

      Honda ranks highest in satisfying customers with walk-behind lawn mowers for a second consecutive year, achieving a score of 766 on a 1,000-point scale. Honda performs particularly well in three of six factors: ease of use, durability and performance. John Deere (760) and Toro (742) follow Honda in the ranking.

      Robert of Wesley Chapel, FL, bought a Honda, but isn't particularly happy with it."I carried it in for broken throttle -- this was the second time I have had to carry it in for the same problem within eight months of purchase," he tells He says the manager of the store where he bought the mower told him he should have purchased extra warranty coverage. "I told her I didn't think I would need extra coverage on a $693.99 lawnmower -- especially in a eight month span of owning it."

      Michael of Audubon, PA, says he thought he was buying a Toro mower, but " you are not buying a Toro just the name.Toro had a great reputation and you get these companies buying just the name and well it is crap. The mower since the first week I got was trouble. The push handle would not lock in place so the handle would be useless and would not allow you to mow. I found out that TORO was made by Murray and Murray was made by MTD. You do not know this when you buy it,they just use the TORO name to sucker people in."

      The study also finds that this year, nearly 70 percent of walk-behind lawn mower owners say that they considered more than one brand while shopping, compared with 62 percent in 2009. In addition, since only approximately one-third of lawn mower shoppers selected the brand they wanted to purchase prior to visiting a retailer, there is ample opportunity for lawn mower manufacturers to influence decisions at the point of purchase.

      "Most walk-behind lawn mower shoppers go to a retailer without doing much research beforehand and primarily rely on in-store displays to educate themselves about the different brands and models available," said Christina Cooley, senior manager of the real estate and construction industries practice at J.D. Power and Associates. "Without spending much time up front investigating what lawn mower best meets their needs, the shopper is likely to base their decision mainly on price."

      J.D. Power and Associates offers the following tips to consumers who are shopping for a walk-behind lawn mower:

      • The lifespan of a lawn mower averages between seven to 10 years, and consumers typically spend approximately $300 on their walk-behind mower, on average. Therefore, it pays to research several brands and models to determine the best lawn mower for your needs before making the investment. Without performing this research, the lawn mower may fall short of your expectations.

      • In conducting your research, seek out the following: manufacturer and retailer websites; recommendations from friends and family; in-store product displays; and retail staff.

      • Visit multiple retailers. Many lawn mower owners choose a store at which to shop first, and then select a lawn mower from the brands that are available there. Going to more than one retailer may present you with more options from which to choose.

      In addition, it's a good idea to look at lawn mower ads carefully to make sure the machine you think you're buying is the one you get.

      The 2010 Walk-Behind Lawn Mower Study is based on responses from more than 2,900 owners who purchased a new lawn mower within the past 24 months and who have used their lawn mower a minimum of four times.

      J.D. Power: Consumers More Picky When Shopping for Lawn Mowers...
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      Michigan Files Charges in $2 Million Ponzi Scheme

      Broker accused of selling bogus securities to senior citizens

      May 13, 2010

      Another securities broker stands accused of running a Ponzi scheme, this time in Michigan, where Attorney General Mike Cox says investors were fleeced of $2 million.

      Scott Pionk, 42, of Clinton Township, formerly employed as a securities broker with Michigan Securities, Inc., is accused of using fraudulent practices to sell unregistered securities not related to his employment.

      Between 2003 and April 2010, Pionk sold $2,088,960 of Select Financial Securities to at least 14 different investors. He allegedly told the investors that Select Financial Securities were backed by government owned or leased buildings, which would pay approximately seven or eight percent and were very low risk.

      However, Cox says Select Financial Securities were not registered with the Office of Financial and Insurance Regulation and none of the money was used to purchase any other legitimate security. Several of the victims were senior citizens.

      "During these difficult economic times, there are individuals who are preying on their fellow citizens and trying to make a fast buck at the expense of others," said Cox. "Financial scams are devastating to the honest, hardworking victims, and my office will not tolerate it."

      The complaint alleges that Pionk pocketed the money he received from the investments by writing checks out to himself and withdrawing money from ATM machines in casinos. He stands charged with nine felony counts of selling unregistered securities, nine felony counts of selling nonexistent securities and converting the money to his own use, and other charges.

      Another securities broker stands accused of running a Ponzi scheme, this time in Michigan, where Attorney General Mike Cox says investors were fleeced of $...
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      Sunrise Herbal to Pay Restitution to Conn. Consumers

      Consumers complained of unauthorized charges and shipments

      May 12, 2010

      Sunrise Herbal Remedies, Inc. and its owner Valerie Hawk-Hoffman will make full refunds to Coninecticut consumers -- a total of $88,000 -- settling a state lawsuit alleging unwanted deliveries and abusive collection practices.

      Connecticut Attorney Genral Richard Blumenthal sued the company and Hawk-Hoffman in 2007 on behalf of Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) Commissioner Jerry Farrell, Jr. More than 370 consumers have filed complaints about Sunrise Herbal -- also known as Sage Advice, Inc. and Herbs and Teas -- with Blumenthals office and DCP.

      Hawk-Hoffman and her company agreed to a settlement ensuring full restitution to all consumers who complained to DCP and Blumenthals office. She and her company denied any wrongdoing in the settlement.

      This settlement guarantees full restitution -- 100 cents on the dollar -- for as many as 400 consumers who allege Ms. Hawk-Hoffman and her company sent and billed them for products they never ordered, Blumenthal said. Some consumers who placed a single order alleged they instead received monthly shipments. Others complained of signing up for once monthly deliveries only to be sent products two or three times a month. Still others complained of difficulties in canceling orders, as well as allegedly abusive collection practices for moneys they said they did not owe.

      Sunrise Herbal and Hawk-Hoffman sold herbal products at seminars, over the phone and on the Internet, saying the items provided a wide range of benefits, including increased energy, stress relief and an improved love life.

      The herbal packages cost $40 to $129 each. A majority of consumers told Blumenthals office and DCP they believed they were buying one order, only to be signed up for regular shipments. The average consumer estimated their loss at about $200.

      Sunrise Herbal to Pay Restitution to Conn. Consumers...
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      Colorado Bars Firm From Selling Immigration Forms

      Business accused of defrauding people trying to become U.S. citizens

      May 12, 2010

      Colorado Attorney General John Suthers says he's obtained a court order barring a business from engaging in fraud in the sale of services to consumers seeking immigration assistance.

      The Colorado Springs business, called the Immigration Center, and its owners and operators, Charles Doucette, Deborah Stilson and Alfred Boyce, are accused of defrauding consumers in search of assistance in obtaining or completing federal immigration forms.

      The Office of the Attorney General filed a lawsuit against Doucette and the Immigration Center in August 2009 and alleged that the business had engaged in deceptive trade practices, including posing as or claiming an affiliation with the federal government.

      According to the complaint, Doucettes business advertised itself as being able to help immigrants obtain and complete various immigration forms in exchange for fees ranging from $300 to $700. The Immigration Centers non-refundable fees were for filing the forms, which were available free of charge from the federal government. The Immigration Center also did not provide consumers with assistance from attorneys or anyone with expertise in immigration law.

      Under the courts order against the Immigration Center, the business will be barred from engaging in immigration-assistance services and will be required to pay the state a total of $2.5 million in restitution and civil penalties. The court also approved a settlement between the state and Doucette. Under the settlement Doucette and Stilson will pay $85,000 in fines and restitution and will not be allowed to engage in the business of selling government forms or assistance with those forms.

      Doucette and Stilson also will be required to desist any marketing associated with any immigration-assistance business, including taking down any Web sites associated with their businesses.

      The Immigration Center also did business under the names U.S. Immigration Center,, U.S. Government Help Line, Liberty Legal Services, Maydene Media, Immigration Forms & Services, and Immigration Forms & Documents.

      Colorado Bars Firm From Selling Immigration Forms...
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      White House Wants Fewer Food Ads Directed At Kids

      Task force says one in three children obese or overweight

      May 12, 2010

      A White House report on childhood obesity calls the condition an "epidemic" and a "national health crises," saying one of every three children is overweight or obese.

      The Task Force on Childhood Obesity, which issued the report, is a key part of First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign to reduce the problem of obesity in America.

      "We have a roadmap for implementing our plan across our government and across the country," Michelle Obama told reporters Tuesday.

      The White House said the campaign would rely on persuasion and education rather than new federal laws. That said, the task force said food marketers -- especially food targeted at children -- should reduce their advertising. It said cartoon characters should only be used to promote healthy foods.

      The report includes a total of 70 recommendations for specific action steps, many of which can be implemented right away and are minimal or no-cost.

      "By looking across both the private and public sector and various government entities, these recommendations articulate a comprehensive approach to combating childhood obesity," said Jeffrey Levi, Ph.D., Executive Director of Trust for America's Health. "The Childhood Obesity Task Force should be commended for setting such specific goals that will help direct the action needed to address this national epidemic."

      Looking for action

      But Levi suggests more than persuasion is needed.

      "It is now the responsibility of the administration and Congress to ensure that sufficient resources are provided so that each recommendation can be realized," he said. "Each agency must develop implementation plans for those recommendations for which it is responsible."

      Among the recommendations for federal action are:

      • Increase resources for school meals.

      • A multi-year Healthy Food Financing Initiative should be created to leverage private funds to address the problem of food deserts.

      • The FDA and USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service should collaborate with the food and beverage industry to develop and implement a standard system of nutritional labeling for the front of packages.

      • If voluntary efforts to limit marketing of less healthy foods and beverages to kids do not achieve substantial success, the Federal Communications Commission should consider new rules regarding commercials during children's programming.

      • Federal policies should promote more physical activity by updating the President's Challenge, reauthorizing the Surface Transportation Act to enhance livability and physical activity, having the EPA assist school districts with setting guidelines for new schools to consider promotion of physical activity, and enhancement of the Federal Safe Routes to Schools Program.

      • The Federal government should provide guidance on how to increase physical activity, improve nutrition, and reduce screen time in early child care settings.

      White House Wants Fewer Food Ads Directed At Kids...
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      2005 Toyota Recall Under Federal Review

      Did the carmaker report problem within five days, as required by law?

      In September 2005, Toyota announced what, at the time, was its largest ever recall. The carmaker pulled in 978,000 pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles sold in the U.S. because a steering relay rod on the vehicles may fracture, causing a loss of control.

      The recall included the 1989-1996 model years and included power-steering equipped 4Runner sport utility vehicles and compact pickups and T-100 pickups.

      Now, nearly five years later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating that recall, suggesting Toyota might have violated rules for informing safety regulators about vehicle problems.

      Specifically, NHTSA wants to know if Toyota reported the steering defect within five days of discovering it, as it is required to do by law. The agency might be a little suspicious, since Toyota has agreed to pay a record $16.4 million fine for not reporting what it knew about its sudden acceleration problems for four months.

      In 2004, Toyota conducted a recall in Japan for Hilux trucks with steering relay rods prone to fatiguing, cracking and possibly breaking, causing the vehicle to lose steering control. At that time, Toyota informed NHTSA that the safety defect was isolated to vehicles in Japan and that the company had not received similar field information within the U.S.

      In 2005, however, Toyota informed NHTSA that the steering relay rod defect was present in several models sold in the U.S. and conducted a recall.

      Pre-2004 complaints

      Late last week, NHTSA said it was alerted to a number of complaints filed with Toyota by U.S. consumers prior to the 2004 Hilux recall in Japan. As a result, NHTSA has decided to open an investigation into whether Toyota met its legal obligation to conduct a timely recall of vehicles with the defect in the United States.

      "Safety is our number one priority and we take our responsibility to protect U.S. consumers seriously," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "With new assurances from Toyota about their efforts to improve safety, I hope for their cooperation in getting to the bottom of what happened."

      NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said, "NHTSA has taken swift action since first receiving copies of these complaints on Friday. Our team is now working to obtain documents and information from Toyota to find out whether the manufacturer notified NHTSA within five business days of discovering a safety defect in U.S. vehicles."

      2005 Toyota Recall Under Federal Review...
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      Avoid Moving Scams This Summer

      Doing a little homework can keep you from becoming a victim

      By James Limbach

      May 11, 2010
      We're entering the time of year when a lot of people pickup up everything and move --across town, across the country or, perhaps, to the other side of the world.

      In fact, more than 37 million Americans -- or about 13 percent -- move to a different home every year, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

      Following a few simple rules when looking for a mover will go a long way toward protecting you from being victimized by scammers, advises Better Business Bureau (BBB) and the American Moving & Storage Association (AMSA).

      Complaints galore

      Unfortunately, every year, BBB receives extremely serious complaints from consumers who have fallen prey to dishonest and sometimes unlicensed moving companies.

      BBB received more than 8,400 complaints against movers in 2009. Complaints to BBB about movers are primarily about damaged or lost goods and final prices in excess of original estimates. In a common worst-case scenario, the moving company will essentially hold the customer's belongings hostage and require potentially thousands of dollars to unload the truck. receives its share of complaints about movers.

      Diana of Klamath Falls OR, says that during a move from Temple TX, North American van lines "dropped and broke some of our things, lost nine boxes and someone broke into our file cabinet and stole four years of tax papers. As result of this our identity was stolen. I have had credit used by our people, and our bank account was used by someone."

      "A nightmare," is the way Elizabeth of Picayune, MS describes her move from Iowa to Mississippi by Atlas Van Lines. "They damaged most of my new furniture," she tells and "are now saying that it was damaged before the move! What can I do they aren't willing to pay! I have had many sleepless nights." Worse yet, she says she was quoted a moving price of $16,000 and that "was raised to $40,000 due to overweight."

      "Virtually anyone with a truck and a Web site can claim to be a mover and they can't all be trusted to adhere to standards for honesty and ethical conduct," said AMSA President and CEO Linda Bauer Darr. "When it comes to such an important decision, you can save a lot of heartache by doing just a little homework to track down the companies that put customer service and integrity first. For interstate moves, that means an AMSA certified ProMover."

      "Checking a mover's credentials is critical and easy. Last year alone, consumers relied on BBB more than 1 million times for finding a trustworthy mover," said Stephen A. Cox, President and CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. "When making the final choice, go with a BBB Accredited Businesses or, at the very least, choose a business that has a good rating with BBB."

      Avoiding the scam artists

      BBB and AMSA offer the following checklist for finding a trustworthy moving company:

      • Research the Company Thoroughly. While state regulations vary, all interstate movers must, at minimum, be licensed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and are assigned a motor carrier number you can verify. Also check the company's rating with your BBB, which maintains more than 17,000 reliability reports on movers across North America. Having at least a satisfactory BBB rating is one of seven screenings that AMSA relies on when authorizing its interstate mover members to display the ProMover logo, the sign of a quality, professional mover that has pledged to abide by the organization's Code of Ethics.

      • Get at Least Three In-Home Estimates. No legitimate mover will offer to give you a firm estimate on-line or over the phone. Also keep in mind that the lowest estimate can sometimes be an unrealistic low-ball offer that can cost you more in the end.

      • Know Your Rights. Research your rights as a consumer with both the state you currently reside in and the location to which you are moving. Also enlist the help of BBB or local law enforcement if the moving company fails to live up to its promises or decides to hold your belongings hostage.

      More tips and information on how to choose a mover and plan your move are available at AMSA and your Better Business Bureau.

      Avoid Moving Scams This Summer...
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      USDA Proposes New Food Safety Rules

      Aimed at reducing foodborne illness from chicken and turkey products

      The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has unveiled new chicken and turkey safety regulations that is says will reduce the number of Salmonella and Campylobacter illnesses each year.

      USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) also released a compliance guide to help the poultry industry address Salmonella and Campylobacter and a compliance guide on known practices for pre-harvest management to reduce E. coli O157:H7 contamination in cattle.

      "There is no more important mission at USDA than ensuring the safety of our food, and we are working every day as part of the President's Food Safety Working Group to lower the danger of foodborne illness," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "The new standards mark an important step in our efforts to protect consumers by further reducing the incidence of Salmonella and opening a new front in the fight against Campylobacter."

      After two years under the new standards, FSIS estimates that 39,000 illnesses will be avoided each year under the new Campylobacter standards, and 26,000 fewer illnesses each year under the revised Salmonella standards.

      The standards are the first-ever for Campylobacter, and mark the first revision to the Salmonella standards for chicken since 1996 and for turkeys since the first standards were set in 2005. The performance standards set a level in percentage of samples testing positive for a given pathogen an establishment must achieve, and play a key role in reducing the prevalence of foodborne pathogens and preventing harm to consumers.

      Long overdue

      Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), says the changes will have a big impact on food safety and are long overdue.

      "USDA promised it would continuously update its performance standards, but the agency never delivered on this promise, until now," DeWaal said. "Performance standards are the metric for measuring whether a company is maintaining control over the pathogens that are often present on poultry, and which cause millions of illnesses each year."

      The President's Food Safety Working Group has set a goal of having 90 percent of all poultry establishments meet the revised Salmonella standard by the end of 2010.

      By revising current performance standards and setting new ones, FSIS said it is encouraging establishments to make continued improvement in the occurrence and level of pathogens in the products they produce. FSIS developed the stricter performance standards using recently completed studies that measure the baseline prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter in young chicken (broiler) and turkey carcasses nationwide.

      FSIS is seeking comment on the performance standards and two compliance guides announced in the Federal Register Notice. FSIS expects to begin using the standards after analyzing the comments and, if necessary, making any adjustments.

      The USDA has unveiled new chicken and turkey safety regulations that is says will reduce the number of Salmonella and Campylobacter illnesses each year....
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      States Target Abusive Debt Settlement Firms

      New laws prohibit advance fees for little or no service

      Responding to escalating consumer complaints, more and more states are beginning to get tough with debt settlement firms.

      Many of these companies promise desperate consumers they can help them reduce their credit card and other debt, but often charge hefty up-front fees and offer little in the way of help.

      In Illinois last week the General Assembly gave final passage to a bill to prohibit debt settlement firms from engaging in unfair and abusive practices. The measure now moves to the Governor's desk for his signature.

      "Debt settlement operators target hardworking people with crushing credit card balances. They claim they're able to pay off your debt for a fraction of what's owed, but most times, this turns out to be a scam," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. "They take your money and almost never reduce your debt. This legislation provides Illinois consumers with the strongest protection in the nation by stopping debt settlement operators from getting paid without providing a legitimate service. This law will allow them to collect a fee only when they settle your debt."

      The bill prohibits debt settlement companies from charging upfront fees, except for a one-time $50 enrollment fee. Instead, debt settlement companies can collect a fee only when they settle a debt, and even then they can charge no more than 15 percent of the savings achieved.

      Madigan said the legislation was crafted in response to the sharp rise in complaints against deceptive debt settlement operators. The complaints led Madigan to investigate and file seven lawsuits beginning in 2009 against debt settlement companies targeting Illinois consumers.

      Oregon settlement

      In Oregon, meanwhile, Attorney General John Kroger has announced an agreement with Credit Solutions of America (CSA) that cracks down on the Texas-based debt settlement company's alleged practice of charging high upfront fees and encouraging consumers to quit paying their creditors.

      "CSA's existing Oregon customers may be entitled to a partial refund if they are not satisfied with the service they get," Kroger said.

      CSA is the largest debt settlement company in the country and has a national client base. Oregon consumers complained that CSA charged very high up-front fees and encouraged clients to stop paying their creditors. There were frequent allegations that a lack of effort on behalf of CSA resulted in litigation and costs levied against consumers.

      Kroger says Oregon's new law prohibiting such up-front fees was a very important tool in obtaining a resolution to this case. House Bill 2191 protects consumers by limiting fees the companies can charge, preventing misleading advertising, and requiring better disclosures, among other things. The law also requires debt management companies to register with the Department of Consumer and Business Services.

      As a result of this settlement, four Oregon consumers will receive a total of about $2,600 in restitution. In addition, 800 Oregon consumers who are current clients of CSA are promised a refund of pre-paid fees proportional to any success the company had in resolving their debt if they are not fully satisfied with services rendered by CSA.

      Earlier this year Minnesota sued American Debt Settlement Solutions, Inc. of Boca Raton, Florida; Debt Rex USA, LLC of Dallas, Texas; FH Financial Service, Inc. of Dallas, Texas; Morgan Drexen, Inc. of Anaheim, California; Pathway Financial Management, Inc. of Garden Grove, California; and State Capital Financial, Inc. of Hallandale Beach, Florida, claiming the six companies violated the state's new debt settlement law.

      States Target Abusive Debt Settlement Firms...
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      Pampers Parents Irritated at P&G; Push-Back

      Company has known of problem for months, it tells trade journal

      By Mark Huffman

      May 10, 2010
      Proctor and Gamble, maker of Pampers disposable diapers, let it be known last week that it had had just about enough of parents blaming it for their babies' diaper rash.

      Jodi Allen, P&G's Vice President for Pampers, issued a statement saying parents have been using social media to spread "completely false rumors" that the newly introduced Pampers Dry Max diapers are causing unusually severe rashes, even chemical burns.

      "These rumors are being perpetuated by a small number of parents, some of whom are unhappy that we replaced our older Cruisers and Swaddlers products while others support competitive products and the use of cloth diapers. Some have specifically sought to promote the myth that our product causes 'chemical burns.'"

      What do parents who have reported these incidents think about the P&G response? Candice, of Smithton, Ill., called it "irresponsible."

      "How dare they make a comment that parents are making "false accusations" about the health of their children," she asked "I would never make a claim against a person or organization/company that degraded their credibility without a full investigation of the facts."

      Proctor and Gamble says it has investigated, and turned over its evidence to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and selected news media outlets. Reuters reports that it received a copy of a statement from a pediatric dermatologist, obtained by the company, that suggests there's nothing in the diaper to cause a rash.

      "I have seen absolutely no increase in rashes since the introduction of the newer model," Dr. Loraine Stern, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, wrote in a statement provided to Reuters by Pampers. "The pictures on the Internet show what looks like classical rashes, not chemical burns. I have full confidence in recommending that my patients continue to use Pampers with Dry Max."

      A pediatrician interviewed by KIRO-TV in Seattle said he has seen nothing in the new Pampers Dry Max that would cause a severe rash. But he says that doesn't mean a small group of children with hyper-sensitive skin couldn't have severe reactions.

      "And I'm not sure in their studies if Proctor and Gamble actually studied that sub-group of kids which is called atopic dermatitis because these kids cannot tolerate exposure to very common materials such as water for a very long period of time and they do get blistering rashes," Dr. Patrick Colletti told the TV station.

      No surprise

      What P&G fails to add in its hard-nosed statements is that it has been monitoring the diaper rash issue since late last year.

      In an interview with Advertising Age, Ms. Allen said she has been having daily conference calls about the problem for months. Four P&G employees are stationed in a "listening post" monitoring press and social media reports and Ms. Allen said she reads transcripts from the company's call center daily.

      The company claims that it conducts "extensive follow-up calls" when it gets complaints and invites parents to visit a pediatrician at the company's expense, but claims no one has yet done so.


      Complaining parents say they're mystified at P&G's response. Stacy, of Greenfield, Ohio, told that she's a loyal Pampers customer.

      "I had always been a Pampers user for both my children so when the new Dry Max came out I couldn't wait to try them," she said. "I bought a box and the next morning my son woke up not only with a horrible burn marks on his bottom but he had a severe allergic reaction all over his entire body!"

      Stacy says her pediatrician specifically asked her if she had recently changed diapers, saying he had heard other reports connected to Pampers.

      Pampers Parents Irritated at P&G Push-Back...
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      Maryland Orders Halt to 'Free Rent' Pyramid Scheme

      Scheme made 'employees' out of investors

      Maryland's Securities Division has issued a cease and desist order against a firm authorities say was operating a pyramid scheme that dangled a rent-free apartment as a lure.

      The order names Diversified Marketing Consultants, Inc., d/b/a DMC and ShopD2Z, Lamondes D. Williams, and related entities Digital Zone Electronics Warehouse and Mainline Properties LLC, operating in the metro-Baltimore area.

      The company is accused of violating Maryland's securities laws by operating a fraudulent investment scheme that offered "employment" in a venture to recruit others, with the promise of profit and the use of an apartment for a year.

      Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler says the investigation revealed that DMC was soliciting investments into a supposed down-line program that would make "employees" out of investors, and promised commissions and use of an apartment or car.

      At meetings held in area hotels, Williams and others allegedly raised over $800,000 by offering the opportunity to invest in DMC for as little as an initial $100 followed by monthly payments of $100. In exchange, investors acquired the right to receive income based on the investor's recruiting other "employees." More than 115 investors/employees also took advantage of an offer, for the advance payment of a few thousand dollars, to receive use of an apartment for a year. They all now face eviction, Gansler said.

      According to the order, DMC and its agents failed to disclose to potential investors that no one was selling products but that the DMC income was based on recruiting other individuals, that commissions and rent would come from payments made by subsequent investors, and that DMC did not have sufficient funds to pay everyone's rent.

      "This has all the earmarks of a pyramid or ponzi scheme," said Gansler. "When there is no identified source of income except other investors, the risk of loss increases sharply. In addition, neither the company nor its promoters are registered with the Securities Division as required by Maryland law to sell securities."

      The Securities Division brought the action not only to halt the registration violations, but also because of the material misrepresentations and omissions made in connection with the DMC investment program, including not disclosing the fact that Williams had been previously convicted in a Maryland court for promoting a similar pyramid investment scam, and ordered in that case to pay $146,000 in restitution.

      "The law requires that investors be given material facts that could affect their investment decision," said Gansler. "This case emphasizes the need to verify with the Securities Division - before you invest -- that any investment opportunity is registered and is free of complaints."

      Maryland Orders Halt to 'Free Rent' Pyramid Scheme...
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      New Law Helps Credit Card Holders Pay Down Balance Faster

      CARD Act can also help lower interest paid and improve credit scores

      By James Limbach

      May 10. 2010
      Credit card borrowers who pay more than the minimum payment each month can reap big savings under the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009, a Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) analysis finds.

      Under the new law, borrowers can pay down existing credit card debt sooner by paying less interest than under the old rules, all the while improving their credit score. The CRL analysis estimates that for each dollar above the minimum that a customer pays, he or she may save two dollars in interest.

      Interest rates have been a sore point with credit card holders.

      "In February 2010 I paid $20.00 less than the full balance on my credit card. This resulted in an 'interest' charge of $49.14 on my next statement," says Jerry of Brenham, TX. He tells that the complete balance on that statement was paid in full and on time including the $49.14 charge. The following month another "interest" charge of 33.47 was added to the balance. "When I spoke with the customer service rep, he explained that the balance shown on my statement was not the amount the bank claimed was owed. And even if I paid the new balance due, there would be additional 'interest' charges added to my next bill, because I would have not paid the secret amount the bank wanted me to pay."

      This kind of thing, Jerry claims, "constitutes a deceptive trade practice. How can I guess the true balance due if the bank sends a false bill and then claims a failure to pay some concealed amount?"

      "We want Americans to know that the new law's changes to credit card practices can work for them," says Joshua Frank, CRL's senior researcher on the credit card industry. "We urge credit card customers to make the most of this new law by paying as much as possible above the minimum."

      While paying more than the minimum has always been a good idea, the new law allows the strategy to earn even greater benefits. Under the law, any amount that customers pay above the required minimum must be applied to the balance in their credit card account carrying the highest interest rate. That's the opposite of what credit card issuers had been doing for years, when they applied payments to the lowest-rate balances first -- maximizing interest charges.

      The technique worked for credit card issuers because most people were unaware of the practice and, even if they knew, could have done little about it. Frank says the new law puts borrowers in the driver's seat. But, he cautions, to benefit they have to take control and pay more than the minimum.

      The CRL analysis, "Capitalizing on New Consumer Protections: Four Tips to Rid Yourself of Credit Card Debt Sooner and Save Money," advises credit card holders to:

      • Pay more than the minimum amount due each month.

      • Watch out for hair-trigger interest rate hikes. While rates on existing balances can be raised only if a borrower falls behind by two months, the new law still allows issuers to raise rates on new purchases or cash advances for any reason.

      • Decline offers to opt-in for over-the-credit-limit coverage because this lets the issuer extend additional credit at exorbitant cost.

      • Avoid credit cards requiring grievances be settled through mandatory arbitration rather than in the courts. CRL research has found mandatory arbitration favors issuers over consumers

      For its new analysis, CRL studied several scenarios with different types of balances and interest rates. One that is common in the market featured a borrower whose credit card had one balance for purchases and another balance for cash advances, which carry a higher interest rate. By paying an extra $100 above the minimum in one month, this borrower saved $224 in interest expenses over the life of the loan.

      New Law Helps Credit Card Holders Pay Down Balance Faster...
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      Social Security Changes Keep Men Working Longer

      Trend of earlier retirement ended with 1980s changes to Social Security

      The decline in the generosity of Social Security benefits for workers who recently reached their 60s has been the leading cause of a trend toward delayed retirement of older men, a new national study suggests.

      Between the periods of 1988-1992 and 2001-2005, there was a 4.7 percentage point increase in the number of men aged 55 to 69 in the workforce. The new study found that between 25 and 50 percent of that increase can be explained by declining Social Security benefits, according to David Blau, co-author of the study and professor of economics at Ohio State University.

      "Older individuals don't get the same level of Social Security benefits when they retire as they once did, and that has been one reason why a significant number of men continue to work longer than they otherwise might have," Blau said.

      These results give a glimpse of what may happen if the federal government opts to further decrease benefits to shore up Social Security's bottom line, as many experts expect.

      "This issue is very important because Social Security is in financial imbalance, and one way to correct that imbalance is for people to work longer and delay receiving their benefits," Blau said. "These results suggest that less generous benefits have the desired effect of inducing people to work longer."

      Blau conducted the study with Ryan Goodstein of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Their study appears in a recent issue of The Journal of Human Resources.

      The researchers use data from a variety of sources, including the Social Security Administration, the Current Population Survey and the Survey of Income and Program Participation. With these data, they were able to look at labor force participation of men aged 55 to 69 between the years of 1962 and 2005.

      Trend reverses

      One contribution of this study is that it looks at labor force participation rates for more than 40 years, so that long-term trends can be identified and explained, according to Blau. In addition, the study looked at a wide range of factors, in addition to Social Security benefits, that could explain why older men leave or stay in the labor force, such as changes in company pensions, retiree health insurance, and the large increase in employment of older women.

      The average age of retirement declined during most of the period of the study, from the early 1960s to the late 80s. This was a continuation of a trend that dates back at least to 1900.

      This research, like many previous studies, could not identify the major reasons for this decline, Blau said. Results suggest that rising generosity of Social Security benefits offered during this time played a role in men retiring early, but it was not the main story.

      However, experts speculate that a general rise in living standards and well-being led people to value leisure more and gave them the opportunity to retire earlier, he said.

      While the main reasons for the declining retirement age from the 60s to the 80s remain unknown, Blau said the results are clear that new Social Security rules put in place in the 1980s have pushed men to stay in the workforce longer -- even after changes in workplace pensions, retiree health benefits and other factors are taken into account.

      "Average retirement ages had been declining in the United States for decades, so a turnaround like we saw beginning in the late 80s is a significant change," Blau said. "It's clear that changes in Social Security benefits played a major role in that turnaround."

      The study, supported by a grant from the National Institute on Aging, identified two Social Security changes in particular that have led older men to work longer: the increase in the full retirement age beyond age 65, and the financial incentives offered to older workers to delay retirement even beyond the full retirement age.

      "These two features of Social Security that were changed in 1983 played a substantial role in persuading men to work longer," Blau said.

      But while changes in benefits played the largest role in leading men to delay retirement, the study found these changes weren't the only reasons.

      One important factor identified by the study was the increasing number of older married women in the workforce. In the early 1960s, there weren't many older women working outside the home, but that number has increased substantially over time.

      The marriage factor

      How does that affect men's retirement? Blau noted that men tend to be a few years older than their wives, and if couples want to retire at the same time, husbands often have to work a few years longer than they otherwise might.

      The final important factor in later retirement ages was the increasing education levels of older men. In the early 1960s, the period first covered by this study, the majority of older men in the workforce were high school dropouts. But by the 2000s, dropouts were a small minority.

      Other studies have shown that more highly educated people tend to retire later than those with less education, so it is no surprise that more people are retiring later these days.

      Blau noted that the United States is not alone in seeing these changes in retirement patterns. Western European countries and Japan also saw the drop in retirement ages until the late 80s and early 90s, and then a steady increase since then.

      Nearly all these countries have experienced the same demographic trends and Social Security trends that encouraged workers to retire earlier, at least up to the late 80s, according to Blau. Now, a decline in fertility rates in advanced economies has left fewer younger workers to support retirees, and has resulted in reduced benefits in government programs like Social Security and workers staying on the job longer.

      The big question is whether the trend toward later retirement will continue, Blau said. The education effects found in this study are unlikely to play a major role in the future, and the effects of older married women in the work force may continue to push men's retirement back further, but only marginally. The biggest impact will continue to be changes in Social Security benefits, he said.

      The full retirement age for Social Security will increase from 66 to 67 for workers born in 1960 and later, so that may induce older workers to remain employed longer. After that, no major changes are in store for Social Security benefits -- at least for now.

      "Most experts think it is inevitable that there will be further reductions in Social Security benefits to keep the program financially balanced," Blau said. "Those changes may very well lead to even later retirements."

      Social Security Changes Keep Men Working Longer...
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      Pampers Parents Liars? That's P&G's Answer to Complaining Consumers

      Safety regulators launch investigation into 'chemical burn' complaints

      Parents who've complained that reformulated Pampers caused severe diaper rash in their children are liars, a Procter & Gamble executive claims.

      "For a number of weeks, Pampers has been a subject of growing but completely false rumors fueled by social media that its new Dry Max diaper causes rashes and other skin irritations," said Jodi Allen, P&G Vice President for Pampers. "These rumors are being perpetuated by a small number of parents, some of whom are unhappy that we replaced our older Cruisers and Swaddlers products while others support competitive products and the use of cloth diapers. Some have specifically sought to promote the myth that our product causes 'chemical burns.'"

      Allen offered no documentation for her allegations, simply labeling the complaints of parents false. But an analysis of complaints filed with finds that most come from parents who were loyal Pampers customers until they encountered problems with the reformulated "Dry Max" Pampers.

      Earlier today, Lorea of Paso Robles, Calif., said that her six-month-old son recent developed "this burn-like rash that looks as though it is melting his skin off." Lorea said that she has "always loved Pampers Swaddlers and would recommend them to anyone" but now warns her friends against them.

      "Pampers have always been my diapers of choice but that has now changed," said Amy of Gretna, Neb., who said she has used Pampers on her four children over the last eight years with no difficulty. But she said her eight-month-old son now has a rash that "nothing would cure."

      While P&G haughtily dismisses parents' claims, others are taking them seriously. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Health Canada have opened investigations after receiving complaints from parents. And a Seattle law firm said it is investigating possible claims against Procter & Gamble.

      Keller Rohrback L.L.P. said its investigation includes both Pampers Swaddlers Diapers with Dry Max and Pampers Cruisers Diapers with Dry Max. Parents wanting to learn more about the firm's investigation can call 800.776.6044 or email

      In her statement, P&G's Allen said the company has "comprehensively and thoroughly investigated these and other claims and have found no evidence whatsoever that the reported conditions were in any way caused by materials in our product."

      "To date, there have been in excess of two billion diaper changes using the new product, with only a handful of rash complaints, none of which were shown to be caused by the type of materials in our product. In fact, we have received fewer than two complaints about diaper rash for every one million diapers sold, which is average for our business and does not deviate from the number of calls we received prior to Dry Max," she said.

      P&G did not respond to's requests for comment.

      Facebook protest

      When one parent launched a page on Facebook protesting the new product, more than 3,000 other parents signed on as friends.

      It's not just parents in the U.S. who are complaining. Rebecca, of Rochdale, in the UK, has a similar story.

      "I have used Pampers nappies for five years on all my boys and never had a problem before, but recently they have been constantly leaking and gel crystals are going everywhere," she told I am using Pampers baby dry and they're splitting and my son had a handful of crystals."

      Pampers Parents Liars? That's P&G's Answer to Complaining Consumers...
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      Luggage Fees TopConsumer Reports'Survey of Travel Gripes

      Rudeness among the 24 most frequent complaints involving airlines hotels, and rental-car companies

      By James Limbach

      May 6, 2010

      Travelers have a lot to gripe about, but what bugs them most are luggage charges and add-on airline ticket fees, according to a survey by Consumer Reports.

      Travelers also were very annoyed by rude or unhelpful staff, whether at airlines, hotels, or rental-car companies.

      In a nationally representative survey conducted in January, CR asked 2,000 consumers to score three lists of travel gripes covering rental-cars, airlines, and hotels for a total of 24 items on a 1-to-10 scale, 1 meaning an experience "does not annoy you at all" and 10 meaning it "annoys you tremendously."

      Luggage charges (8.4 overall) and added airline ticket fees (8.1), top the list, but rude or unhelpful staff at rental-car companies (7.9), hotels (7.8) and airlines (7.7) were also among the more annoying things that rub travelers the wrong way while traveling.

      Dave of Orlando, FL, cites a prime example. He tells, "I was disrespected by the most arrogant and pompous group of people I have ever had the displeasure of dealing with in my life," while renting a car from Thrifty at Memphis airport. "When I checked in the rental vehicle I was told that one of the bugs on the windshield was instead a small nick in the glass. I explained it had bugs on it when I rented it and I still thought it was one of the many bugs on the windshield. Then his attitude changed and the guy was now accusing me of intentionally putting a nick in a windshield and covering it with bugs. He demanded that I fill out paperwork...or I could be 'arrested right now.'" Dave says he will never do business with Thrifty again.

      The complete report on how travelers ranked all 24 annoyances is available in the June issue of Consumer Reports.

      Among the highlights:

      • Poor communication about airline delays (7.1) annoyed people slightly more than the delays themselves (6.8).

      • Airline travelers who hog your seat (7.0) and carry-on space (6.7) are less annoying that some other irritants. Many people give crying babies and unruly kids (4.9) on planes a pass and have apparently gotten used to puny or no airline snacks, (5.1) and long lines for security and check-in (5.2).

      • Women travelers are somewhat more annoyed than men. Among complaints for which the gender gap was sufficient: pricey in-room hotel snacks (6.8 women, 5.2 men); insufficient or chintzy hotel bedding (7.2 women, 6.2 men), and high-pressure pitches for extra rental-car coverage or upgrades (7.1 women, 6.0 men).

      • Some gripes, annoyed respondents under age 50 much more than those 50 and older. Those included rude or unhelpful airline staff (8.6 under 50, 8.0 50 or older), rental-car pitches (6.8 under 50, 6.1 50 or older), and absence of the ordered car (6.5 under 50, 5.4 50 and older), However, older folks are far more ticked off than younger people by those unruly kids on planes (4.5 under 50, 5.3 50 and older).

      The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a telephone survey of a nationally representative probability sample of telephone households. 2,000 interviews were completed among adults aged 18+. Interviewing took place from January 21-25. The margin of error is +/- 2 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level.

      Luggage Fees Top Consumer Reports' Survey of Travel Gripes...
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      Tennesseans Urged to Be Aware Of Potential Price Gougers

      Consumers should be on the lookout for exorbitant prices for fuel, cleaning supplies

      With waters from the weekend's devastating floods in West and Middle Tennessee now receding, Attorney General Bob Cooper is calling on consumers in the state to be on the lookout for potential price.

      Some individuals may take advantage of the terrible acts of nature by unreasonably or excessively raising the prices they charge for goods and services that are essential and vital to the health and welfare of storm ravaged consumers.

      Some examples of basic items people need to watch for possible extraordinary rising prices are: hotels and fuel rates; sump pumps; generators; shop vacuums; cleaning products and building supplies.

      "This is a time when our thoughts and prayers are rightfully with those affected by the floods and their potential aftermath," Cooper said. "While most Tennesseans would never take advantage of anyone in this tragedy, we are prepared to enforce the law against anyone who needlessly raises prices to take advantage of our fellow Tennesseans and visitors."

      The AG, in conjunction with the Tennessee Division of Consumer Affairs, reminds consumers and businesses that they will pursue price gougers. In the horrific aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, the Office of the Attorney General took action against several gas stations and hotels in violation of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act with inflated gas prices.

      The price-gouging act specifically states that it is illegal to set prices that are grossly in excess of the price generally charged immediately prior to the disaster. The price-gouging act is automatically activated when the Governor declares a disaster. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen declared a State of Emergency at 12:30 on May 1.

      Another law makes illegal "unreasonably raising prices or unreasonably restricting supplies or essential goods, commodities or services in direct response to a . . . natural disaster," regardless of whether the event occurred in Tennessee. Penalties for violations of the act are up to $1,000 per violation and are Class B misdemeanors.

      The Attorney General, in conjunction with the Division of Consumer Affairs, can request that a court issue injunctions and order civil penalties of up to $1,000 for each violation. The State can also seek refunds for consumers.

      Tennesseans Urged to Be Aware Of Potential Price Gougers...
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      Iowa Sues Bankrupt US Fidelis

      Joins a list of states taking the extended warranty marketer to court

      By Mark Huffman

      May 6, 2010

      Iowa is the latest state to haul bankrupt US Fidelis into court, charging the marketer of extended car warranties with consumer fraud.

      Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller accused the St. Louis-area company of using robo-calls and direct mail to sell auto service contracts that were falsely portrayed as if they were warranties offered by auto manufacturers.

      "We alleged this company used an intensive campaign of trickery, deception and harassment to mislead Iowa consumers," Miller said.

      Defendants named in the lawsuit are U.S. Fidelis, Inc. (which formerly was known as National Auto Warranty Services, Inc., and "Dealer Services"); Darain Atkinson; and Cory Atkinson. U.S. Fidelis is located at Wentzville, Missouri.

      U.S. Fidelis was one of the companies that deluged consumers with direct mail and phone calls, including repeated telemarketing calls to consumers on the U.S. "Do Not Call" registry, Miller charged. Much of that abusive marketing ended when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) took legal action last year against the company making "robo-calls" for the companies marketing the so-called extended warranties.

      Miller said U.S. Fidelis now is bankrupt and has ceased contacting consumers, but the lawsuit aims to have a court completely prohibit the company and Darain and Cory Atkinson from participating in similar ventures in the future. The lawsuit also seeks civil penalties and reimbursement to consumers.

      US Fidelis also faces Lawsuits by the attorney generals of Idaho, Kansas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Washington and Wisconsin.

      In his suit Miller said US Fidelis's marketing plan was to sell auto service contracts "by lying to consumers about the identity of the seller, misrepresenting the nature of the products, and engaging in a campaign of abusive telemarketing of consumers." He said the company attempted to deceive consumers that their own vehicle's manufacturer was contacting them to extend the manufacturer's warranty, when that was not the case.

      "We allege that through trickery and by creating a false sense of urgency, U.S. Fidelis deceived consumers into believing they needed to purchase a contract to keep their warranties in place," Miller said. "But U.S. Fidelis has no connection to any auto manufacturer, and the product it was selling was nowhere near as extensive as a manufacturer's warranty."

      Iowa Sues Bankrupt US Fidelis...
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      FDA Describes Dirty Conditions At Tylenol Plant

      Congress launching an investigation

      Late last week the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urged consumers to stop using Children's Tylenol and other over-the-counter products made by McNeil Consumer Healthcare. This week the agency explained why.

      FDA said its inspectors encountered thick dust and contaminated ingredients at the Fort Washington, Pa., plant producing the products. Some equipment was covered with grime, there was a hole in the ceiling in one room and pipes were patched with duct tape.

      On closer inspection, FDA said it found raw ingredients contaminated by an unspecified bacteria, a lack of quality control procedures and poor handling of complaints. Among the complaints, the agency said, were 46 reports of "dark material" in the liquid products between June 2009 and April 2010. While bacteria were present in the plant, FDA said its tests failed to detect it in any finished product.

      Johnson & Johnson, which owns McNeil Consumer Healthcare, has suspended production at the Pennsylvania plant and promised to do better.

      "The quality issues that the FDA has observed, many of which we had recently identified in our own quality reviews and communicated to the FDA, are unacceptable to us, and not indicative of how McNeil Consumer Healthcare intends to operate," the company said in a statement. "While the chance of serious adverse medical reaction is remote, we apologize to those who rely on our medicines for the concern and inconvenience this recall may have caused. We will provide a detailed response to the FDA on their observations, and work diligently to ensure that they are addressed."

      The company said it would not restart operations until it has taken the necessary corrective actions and can assure the quality of products made there.

      FDA has urged parents to select private label alternatives for the over-the-counter medications and said it was considering possible further regulatory action.

      Meanwhile, Congress is getting into the act. Both the chairman and ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform issued a joint statement saying they are "deeply concerned" about the recall.

      Chairman Edolphus "Ed" Towns (D-NY) and Ranking Member Darrell Issa (R-CA) have announced that the committee has opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding a major recall of children's medication.

      FDA Describes Dirty Conditions At Tylenol Plant...
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      Pampers Parents Say New Diapers Causing Blisters

      New 'Dry Max' product was introduced in March

      May 6, 2010
      In the last six weeks, parents around the world who use Procter & Gamble's Pampers diapers have reported strange rashes on their children's skin. Many of the parents are convinced the diaper is causing the rash. Most of the complaints are aimed at new "Dry Max" Swaddlers and Cruisers, introduced in March.

      "After purchasing Pampers Cruisers Size 4 diapers with Dry Max, my daughter Isabel began to get a very severe diaper rash with open sores and burns," Kathryn, of Woodbury, Minn., told "It caused so much discomfort that she screamed at changing time and began to hold her urine and bowel movements."

      In the course of a month Kathryn said she took her child to Urgent Care twice and to her pediatrician. She said a prescription for dystatin didn't work and neither did a prescription strength burn cream.

      "We also had x-rays done because we began to think she was having severe stomach issues," Kathryn said. "Diet changes and allergy testing were not helping and the rash continued."

      Changing diapers helped

      After a friend told her about similar complaints about Pampers on the Web, Kathryn tried a different brand of diaper.

      "After 48 hours of changing the brand of diapers, our daughter's rash is 75 to 80 percent better and is now comfortable again."

      Company denies it

      Procter & Gamble denies there's a problem and says it monitored 300,000 diaper changes over six years to be sure the new diapers are safe, according to a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune article.'s call to a P&G spokesman for comment was not returned by deadline.

      The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) told the Star Tribune it was investigating more than a dozen complaints about Dry Max. Health Canada is also investigating parental gripes, the agency said.

      The company says the new diapers are twice as absorbent and lighter than earlier versions. But the rash of complaints prompted Ad Age magazine to call the new diaper roll-out a marketing blunder akin to New Coke.

      Facebook protest

      When one parent launched a page on Facebook protesting the new product, more than 3,000 other parents signed on as friends.

      It's not just parents in the U.S. who are complaining. Rebecca, of Rochdale, in the UK, has a similar story.

      "I have used Pampers nappies for five years on all my boys and never had a problem before, but recently they have been constantly leaking and gel crystals are going everywhere," she told I am using Pampers baby dry and they're splitting and my son had a handful of crystals."

      Pampers Parents Say New Diapers Causing Blisters...
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      C&T, Sorelle, Golden Baby Drop-Side Cribs Recalled

      C&T International/Sorelle is recalling about 170,000 drop-side cribs.

      The cribs drop-side hardware can disengage from the tracks, causing the drop side to detach from the crib. When the drop-side partially detaches, it creates space between the drop side and the crib mattress. The bodies of infants and toddlers can become entrapped in the space, which can lead to strangulation and/or suffocation.

      Complete detachment of the drop sides can lead to falls from the crib. In addition, slats can detach from the sides of the cribs. Infants and toddlers can then become entrapped, strangle or fall out of the crib.

      CPSC and C&T/Sorelle have received reports of 104 incidents of drop-side and slat detachments in C&T/Sorelle drop-side cribs. Six infants received bruises and abrasions to the head, face, torso or leg from becoming entrapped or falling after the drop side collapsed. An additional five infants who were entrapped or fell were found by their parents and were not injured.

      This recall involves C&T International, Sorelle and Golden Baby wood cribs. The full-size cribs were sold in natural, white and cherry finishes. The model number and/or model name is printed on a label affixed to the footboard or headboard under the Caution statement.

      The cribs were sold at childrens product stores and other retailers nationwide from January 2000 through March 2010 for between $300 and $600. They were made in Italy, Latvia, Brazil, China and Vietnam.

      CPSC urges parents and caregivers to immediately stop using the recalled cribs and find an alternative, safe sleeping environment for their baby. Consumers should contact C&T/Sorelle to receive a free replacement kit. For four of the older models of the cribs the Hampton, Jackie, Nina and Rita models -- the firm may be unable to supply a part to repair the crib and will, instead, provide consumers with a $100 voucher towards the purchase of another C&T product.

      Contact: For additional information, contact C&T/Sorelle toll-free at (877)791-9398 between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. ET Monday through Friday or visit the firms website at

      The following cribs are included in the recall (arger photos).

      Alessandra; Model Number: 180

      Alex 3 in 1; Model Number 910

      Amelia; Model Number 185

      Chelsea; Model Number 100

      Federica; Model Number 170

      Glenda/Toscana; Model Number 350

      Hampton; Model Number 303

      Jackie; Model Number 440

      Jessica; Model Number 810

      Lana; Model Number 240

      Leonardo; Model Number 395

      Marisa; Model Number 680

      Martina; Model Number 135

      Mirabella; Model Number 930

      Nadia; Model Number 245

      Natasha; Model Number 900

      Nico; Model Number 630

      Nina Pine; Model Number 710

      Noelle; Model Number 999

      Pagodina; Model Number 195

      Rita; Model Number 490 - Manufactured
      between 2001 and October 2007

      Rosa; Model Number 870

      Rosemary; Model Number 925

      Silver; Model Number 485

      Important Message from CPSC: CPSC reminds parents not to use any crib with missing, broken, or loose parts. Make sure to tighten hardware from time to time to keep the crib sturdy. When using a drop-side crib, parents should check to make sure the drop side or any other moving part operates smoothly. Always check all sides and corners of the crib for disengagement. Disengagements can create a gap and entrap a child. In addition, do not try to repair any side of the crib. Babies have died in cribs where repairs were attempted by caregivers.

      The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

      C&T, Sorelle, Golden Baby Drop-Side Cribs Recalled...
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      Missouri Court Orders 'Sham' Charity to Pay Restitution

      Only one percent of funds went to charity

      With so much need in the world, scam artists have no trouble finding a worthwhile charity to impersonate, exploiting consumers' good will and willingness to help. The latest example comes from Missouri.

      The St. Louis County Circuit Court has ordered Sidney Young and a group called Our American Veterans, Inc., to pay restitution and civil penalties of $118,252 for deceptive solicitations in Missouri.

      Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster calls the group "a sham nonprofit corporation," which he said claims to help homeless veterans when in fact, the vast majority of OAVI's revenue went straight into the pockets of Sidney Young, his family, and OAVI's employees and contractors. The group is based in Fort Valley, Georgia.

      Koster said Young used telemarketers to convince potential donors that their donations would be distributed to "as many veterans as possible." He said that in 2007 and 2008, at least 632 Missourians gave more than $16,500 to OAVI.

      Koster said OAVI never meant its primary purpose to be assisting veterans. He said that in reality, less than one percent of the donations actually went to veterans, and not one Missouri veteran ever received assistance from OAVI.

      Koster filed suit against Our American Veterans, Inc., in May when he launched "Operation Broken Charity," an initiative to crack down on fraudulent fundraisers claiming to help police, firefighters, and veterans.


      "It's contemptible that people would take advantage of decent, charitable Missourians by promising to use their money help the brave people who keep us safe," Koster said. "This action should be a message to fraudulent charity fundraisers that we will not tolerate this behavior."

      Koster said that in addition to the restitution and civil penalties, the court issued an order permanently barring the defendants from soliciting in Missouri.

      Consumers should be very careful when asked to donate to charities or relief efforts, such as the ones that have sprung up in the wake of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.

      Here are some red flags that indicate the organization calling you for a donation is not legitimate.

      • High pressure or threatening telemarketers who want you to contribute immediately.

      • Someone calls and thanks you for a pledge you don't remember making.

      • Copycat names. Names that might be misleading or deceiving.

      Before contributing to any organization that's unfamiliar to you, ask that the information to be sent to you in writing. Ask how much of your gift will be used directly for the charity. Ask how much will go toward administrative costs. Legitimate charities have no problem giving you this information.

      If you're contacted by someone who says they represent a well-known charity, don't rush to write a check. Don't hesitate to contact the charity to find out if they know about the appeal and have authorized it.

      Above all, never give out your personal or financial information over the phone, or at the door.

      Missouri Court Orders 'Sham' Charity to Pay Restitution...
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      'Alcoholism Cure Foundation' is Fraud, Suit Says

      FTC, Florida seek damages, injunction

      By Jon Hood

      April 5, 2010
      A lawsuit brought by Florida and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) accuses The Alcoholism Cure Foundation (ACF) of defrauding consumers with a bogus "permanent cure" for alcoholism, and of threatening to expose the medical records of customers who fall behind on their monthly payments.

      The suit, filed in federal court in Jacksonville, says that ACF has advertised its "permanent cure" since at least 2005. According to the complaint, the company provides "individual dietary supplement regimens for consumers and...purported doctor monitoring and support," but doesn't employ anyone with "doctorates or licenses related to the treatment of alcoholism."

      The company offers programs for two categories of consumers: Heavy Drinker and Very Heavy Drinker. The programs each start out at an introductory rate and then level off at around $180 per month and $270 per month, respectively. Customers must purchase the prescribed supplements separately, inflating an already hefty bill.

      Once a customer has signed up for one of the programs, ACF continues to charge his credit card or PayPal account every month without notice. ACF made at least $693,000 between 2005 and 2009, according to the complaint.

      'Medical certainty'

      The company's current web page is "under construction," but a cached version proclaims that "Today's The Day We Cure Your Alcoholism." The site promises the "best technology to end alcohol abuse permanently," and says that customers can "'enjoy a few drinks' -- without cravings." The site goes so far as to say that ACF's program represents "Medical certainty. There is no alcoholism if you replace missing molecules your brain seeks in alcohol."

      According to the suit, a consumer who wants to sign up for an ACF program must complete an online assessment, choose either the "Heavy Drinker" or "Very Heavy Drinker" program, and provide payment information.

      However, the complaint says that ACF's web page "fail[s] to identify adequately what terms and conditions consumers purportedly agree to by submitting their Assessment form," and that "even if consumers are aware of a Terms and Conditions page, it is indecipherable and internally inconsistent."

      And customers who don't know or understand the terms and conditions pay a very heavy price. According to the suit, consumers who try to cancel their subscription are told that they must remain in the program for at least five months before ACF will release them.

      Additionally, ACF "require[s] consumers to submit 'Proof of Continued Drinking' to prove that they are not cured. ...Defendants state the submission should include, among other items, notarized notes from the consumer's doctor and five friends stating that the consumer continues to drink, liquor receipts from the previous two months, and several kinds of laboratory testing."

      Making matters worse, ACF plays hardball with consumers who renege on their "obligations." According to the complaint, the company threatens delinquent consumers with "litigation and the attendant 'unwanted publicity.'" ACF has taken several consumers to small claims court in Florida.

      Worse, the company continues to charge consumers' credit cards or PayPal accounts, "often in amounts far exceeding the monthly subscription fee," and in some cases discloses their private medical records to the Better Business Bureau.

      The suit requests unspecified damages, as well as a permanent injunction to prevent future violations of state and federal law.

      'Alcoholism Cure Foundation' is Fraud, Suit Says...
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      Trump University a Scam, Suit Claims

      Students say they spent thousands of dollars and got nothing in return

      A group of consumers has filed suit against Trump University, the financial institution that holds itself out as a vehicle to instant wealth and happiness, alleging that the only thing they got from the school was a massive amount of debt.

      According to the suit, Trump University promises big things, assuring consumers that "it's the 'next best thing' to being Donald Trump's next 'Apprentice." Indeed, the company's website promises that students can, depending on their goals, "become the next real estate mogul," "become your own success story," or "learn wealth strategies."

      But the plaintiffs say it didn't take long before they realized that "[t]he primary lesson Trump University teaches its students is how to spend more money buying more Trump seminars."

      According to the complaint, when the plaintiffs first arrived at Trump University, the faculty sought to reassure them about the high cost of the seminars they were being offered. Specifically, the plaintiffs say they were told they would get all their money back at their first real estate closing, and that they stood to make "tens of thousands of dollars" every month after that. And, in addition to the seminars, the plaintiffs say they were promised, among other things "a one-year apprenticeship, a one-on-one mentorship ... [and] a 'power team' consisting of real estate [professionals]."

      Lead plaintiff spent $60,000

      As it turned out, Trump University might have oversold itself a bit. According to the suit, the one-year apprenticeship turned out to be a three-day seminar; the one-on-one mentorship, paradoxically, "consisted of no practical insights and no mentorship"; and the members of the "power team" were only interested in lining their own pockets.

      The suit also says students were asked to raise their credit card limits and prepare "detailed financial statements," ostensibly so that they would have enough money to cover their first real estate investment opportunity. In reality, though, the plaintiffs claim Trump University was just making sure that the students would have enough money to cover the Trump Gold Program, which clocks in at an eye-popping $34,995.

      According to the suit, lead plaintiff Tarla Makaeff was talked into signing up for the program after Trump University speaker Tiffany Brinkman guaranteed that her first real estate deal "would earn her in the ballpark of $35,000." Makaeff spent $60,000 on Trump courses over a one-year period, and ended up having to turn down the only two real estate deals that came her way, as "both were flawed and appeared unprofitable."

      Allegations resemble other suits

      Unfortunately, Trump University isn't unique. Last September, a suit against Millionaire University claimed that students spent over $20,000 on "real estate investment opportunities," only to end up with property that no one was willing to buy. The homes were in "high crime, highly vandalized areas," and, in case that wasn't enough, Millionaire University saturated neighborhoods with "five or more of the same model close proximity to one another," making resale almost impossible.

      Trump University was founded by Donald Trump, the real estate tycoon and host of The Apprentice, the NBC reality show in which contestants compete to be Trump's second-hand man. The school's home page features a characteristically intense-looking Trump next to the headline, "Are YOU My Next Apprentice? Prove it to me!" A button below the challenge instructs visitors to "Join Now. It's Free."

      The plaintiffs are demanding a full refund for the money they spent on Trump University courses, an injunction prohibiting Trump from falsely advertising the school, and all suit-related costs, including attorneys' fees. The suit alleges breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, negligent misrepresentation, fraud, and violation of several California consumer protection statutes.

      A group of consumers has filed suit against Trump University, alleging that the only thing they got from the school was a massive amount of debt....
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      California Charges Crooks Recycled Imported Trash

      Rogue recyclers trucked millions of cans, bottles from Arizona, Nevada

      May 5, 2010
      California officials have shut down three beverage-container recycling fraud rings in which rogue entrepreneurs trucked millions of cans and bottles from Arizona and Nevada to illegally claim California Redemption Value (CRV) refunds.

      Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. said that in total, the fraud rings robbed the state of more than $3.5 million used to operate the state's recycling program as well as to promote recycling throughout California. Thirty-one individuals have been arrested.

      "These bands of thieves have been caught red-handed running tons of cans and bottles from across the state's border and fraudulently collecting money through the California Redemption Value program," Brown said. "Defrauding the state's recycling program is not a way to make easy money. We are looking for you and you will be caught."

      Conviction of redemption fraud and the importation of recyclable materials is a felony if the redemption amount is over $400.

      In one case originating in Nevada, a ring imported to California 1.6 million pounds of cans and bottles -- enough, if not compacted, to fill 464 18-wheelers.

      In another case, cans were not only hauled from the Phoenix area to Moreno Valley for the CRV deposit, they were filled with sand to add weight for an increased deposit return.

      In a third case, agents looking for one recycling fraud suspect along Interstate 8 observed yet another truck carrying thousands of cans. That observation spurred a two-month investigation, resulting in the arrest of the owner of a recycling center and three other suspects.

      California is one of 11 states with a bottle and can redemption program. Among its neighbors, Oregon has a program, but Nevada and Arizona do not. When a person purchases a bottle or can in California, the CRV is paid at the checkout stand. When the container is redeemed at one of the state's 2,000 recycling facilities, the CRV is returned to the consumer. For beverage containers weighing less than 24 ounces, the CRV is 5 cents; for containers 24 ounces and greater, the CRV is 10 cents. For aluminum, the CRV equals $1.57 per pound.

      When an out-of-state can or bottle is fraudulently redeemed in California, the program loses money because money is paid out for a container for which the CRV was never paid. This robs the CRV program, which relies on unclaimed CRV to administer the program and support a variety of activities that promote recycling across the state.

      "Recycling fraud is a crime against California consumers and we take it very seriously," said CalRecycle Director Margo Reid Brown. "Our inspectors work closely with state and local law enforcement to root out and prosecute criminals who steal the money used to repay Californians and support our state's recycling programs. These arrests are evidence that recycling fraud will not be tolerated."

      California's program began in 1987, following legislation passed in 1986. Today, about 80 percent of bottles and 84 percent of aluminum cans purchased in the state are returned for recycling.

      "Californians are doing a great job recycling their bottles and cans," added Attorney General Brown. "We don't want people intent on committing recycling fraud to harm a program that is working well."

      To combat recycling fraud, CalRecycle staff visits major recycling processors to inspect loads of beverage containers delivered for CRV reimbursement. In 2009, the department removed 25 recycling centers from the state program for submitting fraudulent claims. CalRecycle refers recycling fraud cases to the Department of Justice for criminal investigation and prosecution.

      Here's how the three recycling fraud rings were broken up in April by the Department of Justice:

      1. Department of Justice special agents observed Mariano Dejesus-Solis collecting and storing recyclable materials at his Las Vegas residence, as well as at several storage facilities in North Las Vegas. Twice a week, Dejesus-Solis and his accomplices drove 16-foot and 24-foot rental trucks filled with approximately 5,000 pounds of aluminum cans and bottles to a storage facility in Montclair (San Bernardino County) where the loads were parceled out to accomplices who would take them to recycling centers. The group defrauded the CRV program an estimated $2.5 million by illegally importing more than 1.6 million pounds of cans and bottles. On April 8, 15 suspects were arrested in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, with assistance from local law enforcement.

      2. In the Phoenix area, a group collected used beverage containers from consumers and purchased some from recycling centers at a reduced rate and then transported them to a residence in Moreno Valley (Riverside County). Daily, members of this group took multiple smaller loads to the Perris Valley Recycling Center (Riverside County) to redeem the CRV refund, defrauding the CRV fund an estimated $1 million. On April 20, a search warrant resulted in the seizure of 50,000 pounds of bottles and cans, with an estimated CRV value of $100,000. Many cans contained sand to add weight. Twelve people were arrested.

      3. On Interstate 8 near Winterhaven, Calif. and Yuma, Ariz. agents with the Imperial County and San Diego Major Crimes Teams were looking for a CRV fraud suspect when they encountered another suspected CRV fraud ring -- two men transporting a large quantity of aluminum cans in a truck. This observation launched a two-month investigation, with assistance from CalRecycle, which resulted in the April 23 arrests of four people, including Michael Barshak, the owner and operator of ACE Recycler, a recycling center in San Diego. Agents have initially estimated that the ring's operation, which spanned four months, transported 40,000 pounds of cans with an approximate value of $135,000.

      Brown Jr. said that in total, the fraud rings robbed the state of more than $3.5million used to operate the state's recycling program as well as to promote...
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      Bisphenol A Found In Most Canned Goods

      Container industry disputes the findings, says researchers 'pursued a clear agenda'

      By Mark Huffman

      May 4, 2010
      Levels of bisphenol A (BPA) in amounts shown to cause health problems in laboratory animals are present in most canned food, according to a new study released by The National Work Group for Safe Markets, a coalition of public health and environmental health groups.

      The study, No Silver Lining, tested food from 50 cans from 19 U.S. states and one Canadian province for BPA contamination.

      Over 90 percent of the cans tested had detectable levels of BPA, some at higher levels than have been detected in previous studies.

      BPA is a widely used chemical in the container industry. It has properties that make plastic bottles more rigid and is also present in plastic liners of tin cans. The study said it tested canned fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, soups and tomato products.

      One can of DelMonte green beans had the highest levels of BPA ever found in canned food, at 1,140 parts per billion, the report said.

      While the Food and Drug Administration says current levels of BPA found in plastic containers are not harmful, some health advocates take a different view, pointing to studies suggesting the chemical ends up in the products within the containers.

      In Washington, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) embraced the report, saying it demonstrates that too much of the chemical ends up in food and beverages. She says exposure to even low doses of BPA, a synthetic sex hormone, has been linked to cancer, abnormal behavior, diabetes and heart disease, infertility, developmental and reproductive harm, and obesity.

      Bill would ban BPA

      Feinstein has introduced legislation that would ban BPA in cans, in addition to other food and beverage containers. The Senator said she is hopeful that the Food Safety Act will include language that protects consumers from BPA exposure.

      "I was pregnant with my second child at the time of this study, and I hate to think I exposed her to BPA through the canned foods I ate, especially when there is evidence that even small amounts of this chemical can cross the placenta and impact prenatal development," said Bobbi Chase Wilding of Clean New York, report co-author.

      Dr. George Lundgren, a family physician, was biomonitored and discovered BPA in his own body.

      "Diabetes and obesity are increasing at such a rate in my own practice that diet and lack of exercise alone can't explain it away," Lundgren said. "The fact that there is no labeling on products that expose us to a chemical that may be linked to serious health problems is disturbing."

      In the last two years many retailers have stopped selling some products, such as infant formula bottles, containing BPA. Now there are signs some manufacturers are following suit.

      "General Mills announced it is removing BPA from its organic tomatoes' cans, so we know that companies that want to do the right thing, but we need the FDA to commit to an outright ban protect consumers," said Mike Schade, from Center for Health, Environment & Justice, also a co-author.

      Taking issue

      But the packaging industry is taking issue with the report.

      "We are extremely disappointed that in their zeal to educate consumers, the workgroup pursued a clear agenda. In doing so, it failed to provide readers with the full story on BPA in canned foods," said Dr. John Rost, chairman of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance Inc.

      Rost said the plastic coatings of cans, which contain BPA, provide an important protection against foodborne illness and, as yet, there is no substitute.

      Bisphenol A Found In Most Canned Goods...
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      Most Social Network Users Post Risky Information, Survey Finds

      Around $4.5 billion lost annually to viruses, spyware and phishing

      May 4, 2010

      Everyone, it seems, is benefiting from the growing numbers of consumers using social networks such as Facebook and MySpace - including criminals.

      The number of online U.S. households using these networks has nearly doubled in the past year the latest and Consumer Reports State of the Net survey found that 52 percent of adult social network users have posted personal information such their full birth date which can increase their risk of becoming a victim of cybercrime.

      The survey results, tips to protect users' information online and ratings of security software are featured in the June issue of the magazine.

      "Many people use social networking sites to share personal information and photos with their friends quickly and easily," says Jeff Fox, Technology Editor for Consumer Reports . "However there are serious risks involved which can be lessened by using privacy controls offered by the sites."

      The CR National Research Center conducted a nationally representative survey of 2,000 online households in January. It found that nine percent of social network users experienced some form of abuse within the past year, such as malware infections, scams, identity theft or harassment.

      Users who post information such as a full birth date -- month, date, and year -- (38 percent), photos of children (21 percent), children's names (13 percent), home street address (eight percent) and details when away from home (three percent) are especially vulnerable to becoming victims of abuse.

      And cybercrime can be costly. CR estimates that consumers have lost $4.5 billion over the past two years and replaced 2.1 million computers compromised by malware.

      Seven things to stop doing on Facebook NOW!

      Social networks are a fast and easy way to share information and photos with friends. Incidents of crime can be lessened and possibly avoided by changing the following habits:

      • Using a weak password. Avoid simple names or words that can be found in a dictionary, even with numbers tacked on the end. Instead, mix upper- and lower-case letters, numbers and symbols. A password should have at least eight characters. One good technique is to insert numbers or symbols in the middle of the word.

      • Listing a full birth date. Listing a full birth date -- month, day and year -- makes a user an easy target for identity thieves, who can use it to obtain more personal information and potentially gain access to bank and credit card accounts. Choose to show only the month and day or no birthday at all.

      • Overlooking useful privacy controls. Facebook users can limit access for almost everything that is posted on a profile from photos to family information. Consider leaving out contact info, such as phone number and address.

      • Posting a child's name in a caption. Don't use a child's name in photo tags or captions. If someone else does, delete it by clicking Remove Tag. If a child isn't on Facebook and someone includes his or her name in a caption, ask that person to remove the name.

      • Mentioning being away from home. Three percent of Facebook users surveyed said they had posted this information on their page. Doing so is like putting a "no one's home" sign on the door. Be vague about the dates of any vacations.

      • Being found by a search engine. To help prevent strangers from accessing a profile, go to the Search section of Facebook's privacy controls and select Only Friends for Facebook search results. Be sure the box for Public Search isn't checked.

      • Permitting youngsters to use Facebook unsupervised. Facebook limits its members to ages 13 and older, but children younger than that do use it. If there's a young child or teenager in the household who uses Facebook, an adult in the same household should become one of their online friends and use their email as the contact for the account in order to receive notification and monitor activity.

      Free security programs

      Consumer Reports State of the Net survey found that 40 percent of online U.S. households had at least one virus infection in the past two years so it's important for consumers to protect their computers with security software. Although almost all new PCs come with a free trial version of a subscription security suite from a company such as Symantec or McAfee, CR's latest tests confirm that consumers can skip paying for these programs and still be safe online.

      Avira AntiVir Personal 9 offers ample protection for most -- free of charge -- and was among the best anti-malware programs, but it persistently tries to sell you its untested $27 pay version, which adds some features. Microsoft Security Essentials is also free, but less obtrusive. Although it scored lower overall than Avira, Microsoft's program was a little better at identifying Web sites that host malware.

      Consumers willing to pay for special protection or extra features such as a spam filter and a browser toolbar should consider Symantec Norton Internet Security 2010 ($70) or BitDefender Internet Security 2010 ($50). Both security suits include firewalls that are a little better than those built into recent versions of Windows, as well as fine anti-spam protection.

      According to CR, Symantec's suite is one of the best products tested for detecting websites that host malware and for speed in scanning a hard drive for threats. BitDefender costs less and can work with non-Microsoft e-mail programs such as Thunderbird.

      Most Social Network Users Post Risky Information, Survey Finds...
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      Food Safety Bill Would Ban BPA

      Recent amendments make legislation more controversial

      By Mark Huffman

      May 4, 2010
      The Food Safety Modernization Act, which is headed for a Senate vote this week, enjoys bipartisan support, in part because of the recent rash of foodborne illness events over the last few years.

      But a recent amendment to the bill, outlawing the chemical BPA in plastic food containers, has drawn opposition from the food industry, which has generally been supportive of the bill.

      The amendment was offered by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), a long-time BPA foe. Feinstein says the National Toxicology Program in the Department of Health and Human Services has citied "some concern" that BPA may affect neural development in fetuses, infants and children at current human exposures. She says dozens of additional peer-reviewed scientific papers have also found evidence of adverse health effects such as increases in breast and prostate cancer risk, heart disease, liver abnormalities and diabetes.

      The Food and Drug Administration's official stand, at least for the moment, is the amount of BPA found in food and beverage containers does not pose a threat to human health.

      BPA is used in a wide variety of consumer products, including food containers, water bottles and baby bottles, although many retailers, including Wal-Mart, have dropped children's products containing the chemical.

      Amends Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act

      The Act, which gained traction following several high profile Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks over the last three years, amends the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to expand the authority of the Secretary of Health and Human Services to regulate food, including by authorizing the Secretary to suspend the registration of a food facility.

      It would also require each food facility to evaluate hazards and implement preventive controls on a regular basis. Food manufacturers would be assessed new fees to pay for recalls and facility re-inspections.

      The House of Representatives passed its version of the bill last July, gaining bipartisan support in a 283-142 vote. Under the terms of the legislation, the FDA's proposed powers include creating a registry of food producers and importers that would be updated regularly, the ability to quarantine potentially unsafe food products from entering particular geographic areas, and levying a fee of $500 on food facilities to fund the new oversight and investigation procedures.

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      States Subpoena Craigslist Records

      'Blatant' prostitution ads still appear on site, attorneys general charge

      By Truman Lewis

      May 3, 2010
      A coalition of 39 state attorneys general charges that Craigslist continues to display blatant prostitution ads in its "adult services" section and elsewhere on its popular Web site. The AGs are supporting a wide-ranging subpoena that seeks access to the company's records.

      The subpoena was issued by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who said the "Craigslist brothel business seems booming -- belying its promise to fight prostitution.

      The best evidence is thousands of ads that remain on Craigslist -- skimpily and slickly disguised with code words," Blumenthal said. In November 2009, Blumenthal and other AGs wrested an agreement from Craigslist, which agreed to shut down its "erotic services" section and relaunch it as an "adult services" category, with stricter enforcement of rules and higher fees.

      But Blumenthal charges that the higher fees have accomplished little, except to increase Craigslist's revenue. He cited recent news media reports that Craigslist may be profiting "in the tens of millions" from prostitution ads, rather than turning over the ad proceeds to charity, as it promised in 2008.

      "If it is breaking its promises to the public, it may be breaking the law," Blumenthal said. "The truly dangerous and darkest side of these ads is their potential to enable and even encourage human trafficking and child exploitation. This lucrative online red light district has real victims -- women and children virtually entrapped and exploited."

      It's not clear, though, what action, if any, Craigslist is legally required to take. At the time of the 2009 agreement, Kurt Opfahl, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, noted that existing law provides immunity to services such as Craigslist for actions taken by users. However, he said law enforcement officials can subpoena companies like craigslist for user information such as phone and credit card numbers.

      Might be evil?

      In an April 29 blog posting, Craiglist CEO Jim Buckmaster rejected demands from Twitter users that Craigslist shut down its adult services section.

      Buckmaster said the Twitter campaign was similar to the reasoning of "at least one" attorney general who he said has "essentially demanded that all of Craiglist personal be shut down."

      Buckmaster said the reasoning behind the demands is that casual sex is "evil" and that, therefore, Craigslist personal are evil and should be shut down.

      "We will continue to work with our partners in law enforcement and advocacy groups, and reach out to potential new ones, as we strive to do the best job we can in combating human trafficking, while preserving the full-fledged classifieds (complete with all of the free personals categories) that CL users (and the general public) want and deserve," Buckmaster said.

      The subpoena to Craigslist seeks, among other things:

      • All documents describing the manual review process used to review potentially objectionable advertisements, including the total number of employees assigned to such review, and the number of advertisements eliminated or rejected as a result of these procedures;

      • Information about each advertisement eliminated, rejected or the subject of law enforcement communication;

      • Communications from law enforcement regarding advertisements involving or relating to suspected illegal activity and Craigslists steps in response;

      • All documents substantiating Craigslists claim that recently implemented new proprietary technical measures designed to further reduce the volume of inappropriate ads in the personals section*have eliminated the majority of inappropriate ads in the casual encounters subsection, and have, in fact reduced the total volume of all ads in that section by approximately 50%.

      • All documents describing Craigslists telephone verification system for its erotic services or adult services sections, including the total number of ads eliminated or rejected as a result of these procedures;

      • All documents relating to the permanent blocking by Craigslist of telephone numbers due to the posting of unlawful or inappropriate advertisements, including the total number of accounts blocked;

      • All documents describing the credit card verification procedures used to block the accounts of persons who violate Craigslists terms of use, including the total number of accounts blocked as a result of these procedures;

      • All documents relating to communications between Craigslist and any persons, companies, or other entities which offer or sell services and/or software designed to facilitate circumvention of Craigslists terms of use.

      • All documents relating to the contribution of 100 percent of the net revenues from the sale of advertisements in Craigslists erotic services or adult services category, including, but not limited to any decisions to limit or cease such contributions.

      States Subpoena Craigslist Records...
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      Gamers Mad at Sony for Yanking PS3's Linux Compatibility

      California class action alleges self-serving bait-and-switch

      By Jon Hood

      May 3, 2010
      A group of Linux users has filed suit against Sony, upset about the company yanking Linux capability from its PlayStation 3 (PS3) game console.

      When PS3 made its debut in 2006, it gave users the option to run a so-called alternate operating system, something that couldn't be said of Nintendo Wii or Xbox. The "Install Other OS" feature was popular among gamers who used Linux, the Unix operating system that is free to download.

      But a software update released on April 1 neutered the option, labeling it a security risk. Although the update was technically optional, gamers who failed to install it would no longer be able to watch BluRay movies, play new games, or download copyright-protected videos from a central server.

      Forgoing the update would also deny users access to the PlayStation Network, a prerequisite to playing online games and participating in PS3 chat, the system's bustling online forum.

      The suit, filed last week in federal court in California, says Sony ramped up PS3 sales by marketing the system as Linux-friendly, then threw gamers under the bus once the money was in the bank.

      "Sony knowingly and willingly accepted monetary benefits from Plaintiff and the Class, but Sony did not honor its obligations," according to the suit. "Rather, Sony benefited from the sales of PS3s with the Other OS function which it then forced purchasers to either disable or forgo other important PS3 functions."

      The suit says Sony's alleged bait-and-switch constitutes an "unfair and deceptive business practice perpetrated on millions of unsuspecting consumers."

      According to the complaint, lead plaintiff Anthony Ventura "chose to purchase a PS3, as opposed to an Xbox or a Wii, because it offered the Other OS feature." The plaintiffs point out that the PS3 console is "substantially more expensive" than many of its counterparts, and that, "[a]t the time of its launch, the PS3 was the most expensive gaming console available, retailing for $599.00 in part because it is capable of far more than merely playing games at home."

      The suit also says Sony caught many gamers off guard, relying only on the update to tell them that Linux capability would soon be defunct. According to the complaint, "Sony did not provide any other notice to its customers that it would disable [the capability]. In fact, a substantial number of Sony's customers only realized that Sony had unilaterally disabled the Other Advertised Features when they attempted to use those features on April 1, 2010."

      Jon of Cincinnati, Ohio, wrote on April 2, the day after the update was released. His complaint echoed the lawsuit: "An advertised launch feature 'OtherOS' has been disabled in a required firmware update. No compensation or additional features has been offered. This was one of the 2 reasons I bought a PS3 versus an Xbox360."

      The suit is brought as a putative class action on behalf of "all persons who purchased a PS3 during the period November 17, 2006 to March 27, 2010 and who did not resell their PS3 before March 27, 2010."

      The suit alleges breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, unjust enrichment, and violations of the California Unfair Competition Law and California's Consumer Legal Remedies Act. The plaintiffs are seeking restitution for the money they spent on their game consoles.

      Gamers Mad at Sony for Yanking PS3's Linux Compatibility...
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      FDA Warns Consumers to Avoid Vita Breath

      New York health officials find excessive levels of lead

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers not to purchase or consume Vita Breath, a dietary supplement manufactured by American Herbal Lab Inc. of Rosemead, Calif.

      The agency says the product, marketed at health fairs and on the Internet for treatment of breathing ailments, may contain hazardous levels of lead.

      The FDA was notified by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene about a patient with lead poisoning who reported taking Vita Breath and two other herbal products.

      New York authorities analyzed a sample of Vita Breath and reported it contained 1,100 parts per million of lead. This level is more than 10,000 times higher than FDA's maximum recommended level for lead in candy.

      The FDA said it has collected and is currently analyzing its own samples of Vita Breath.

      People with high blood levels of lead may show no symptoms, but the condition may cause damage to the nervous system and internal organs. Acute lead poisoning may cause a wide range of symptoms, including abdominal pain, muscle weakness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, and bloody or decreased urinary output.

      Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning. Lead poisoning can be diagnosed through clinical testing, and individuals who have taken Vita Breath should talk to their health care providers about testing.

      The FDA said it is working with state officials in New York and California to further investigate Vita Breath.

      FDA Warns Consumers to Avoid Vita Breath...
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