Browse by year
 | 

Second Timeshare Repurchaser Settles With Vermont

Customers of Timeshare Relief, Inc., to receive $91,000 in refunds

Second Timeshare Repurchaser Settles With Vermont...

June 30, 2010
A Torrance, California, company will offer over $91,000 in consumer refunds and pay $50,000 to the State of Vermont to settle claims that it violated Vermont law in three different ways in arranging for the repurchase of timeshares.

Vermont Attorney General William H. Sorrell used word of the settlement, the second of its kind in the past eight months, to warn out-of-state companies offering a financial benefit to Vermonters not to violate the State's consumer laws, or "they will find that doing so is an expensive proposition."

On eight occasions between 2007 and 2010, representatives of Timeshare Relief, Inc., solicited consumers in Burlington to transfer ownership of their unused timeshares and thus relieve the owners of timeshare maintenance fees, taxes and other costs. The company advertised these meetings with a mailing that invited Vermonters to find out about the "Guaranteed Timeshare Relief Solution."

Consumers in the lurch

A number of consumers who met with Timeshare Relief understood the invitation to mean that the company would offer to pay them for their timeshares; in fact, they had to pay several hundred to several thousand dollars to transfer ownership of their timeshares. The AG's office considered this to be a deceptive trade practice.

In addition, many of the consumers were also given a "Financial Benefits Worksheet" that indicated that they might be eligible for a tax deduction as an offset against their payment to Timeshare Relief, when in fact such a deduction is available only in those rare cases where the primary reason for buying the timeshare was for investment. The attorney general claimed this to be a deceptive trade practice as well.

In addition, through June 2008, Timeshare Relief did not comply with the requirement of Vermont law that whenever goods or services are sold at a transient location like a hotel, the buyer must be given specified notice of his or her right to cancel the transaction.

Restitution

Under the settlement, Timeshare Relief will:

• Offer those 28 of its customers who did not receive proper notice of their right to cancel an opportunity to cancel the transaction within ten business days and get all of their money back. Letters to this effect will be sent out in the next month, and Timeshare Relief will pay up to $84,000 under this provision.

• Send to another 28 customers a check in the amount of $250 to compensate them for the time and money they spent traveling to attend the company's presentation.

• Pay the State of Vermont $50,000 in civil penalties and costs.



More

Illinois Charges Countrywide Discriminated Against Minority Borrowers

African-American, Latino homebuyers were steered into risky subprime loans, suit charges

Illinois Charges Countrywide Discriminated Against Minority Borrowers...

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed a lawsuit against Countrywide, a subsidiary of Bank of America, for unlawfully discriminating against African American and Latino borrowers in home mortgage sales, in violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act and the Illinois Fairness in Lending Act.

Countrywides illegal discriminatory lending practices destroyed the wealth and dreams of thousands of African American and Latino homeowners, Madigan said. Bank of America needs to be held accountable by taking financial responsibility for cleaning up the devastation of the predatory company that it chose to take over.

Madigans complaint alleges that the former mortgage giant steered African American and Latino borrowers into risky subprime mortgages more often than similarly-situated white borrowers. The complaint also alleges that minority borrowers paid more for mortgages across Countrywides product line, including its prime loans.

Significantly, Madigans analysis of Countrywide loan data found that the racial disparities could not be explained by objective factors, such as borrowers credit scores or debt-to-income ratios.

At the height of the housing bubble, Countrywide was the largest mortgage lender in the country and in Illinois. Countrywide was also the states top seller of subprime loans. Bank of America bought Countrywide in 2008.

The failure of millions of higher-cost, or subprime, mortgages nationwide is largely responsible for triggering the ongoing foreclosure crisis and resulting economic recession.

Madigans lawsuit is the result of a two-year investigation of Countrywides lending policies and practices that were in place during the years directly preceding the collapse of the housing market. The Attorney General issued a fair lending subpoena to Countrywide in March 2008, after a Chicago Reporter study of federally collected mortgage lending data for the Chicago area found that, in 2006, Countrywide Financial Corporation sold higher-cost loans to 50.9 percent of its African American borrowers and 33.8 percent of its Latino borrowers, while only 19.5 percent of the companys white borrowers received high-cost loans.

The Attorney General's investigation included a statistical analysis of data from over 83,000 Countrywide mortgages originated in Illinois from 2005 through 2007. Madigans office also interviewed former Countrywide employees and mortgage brokers, and spoke with Countrywide borrowers about their home loans.

Bad odds

As outlined in the complaint, Madigans analysis of Countrywides loan data found that the odds that African American and Latino borrowers would receive a higher-cost subprime mortgage from Countrywide were three times greater than those of white borrowers. In addition, Madigans investigation found that Countrywide charged African American and Latino borrowers higher interest rates and fees on loans spanning the companys range of products, including its prime products, as compared with similarly-situated white borrowers.

Madigans investigation further found that the disparities in Countrywides subprime sales and loan pricing were the result of Countrywide policies that gave employees and mortgage brokers almost unlimited discretion in the selection and pricing of loans.

Its disturbingly clear that if you were an African American or Latino borrower who walked into a Countrywide store, you likely paid more for your mortgage than a white borrower, Madigan said. Countrywide effectively imposed a surcharge on mortgage loans based on race and ethnicity.

The Attorney Generals lawsuit asks the court to find that Countrywide engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination, enter an injunction against Countrywide to permanently prohibit the company from discriminatory acts as described in the complaint, make restitution to all victims of Countrywides discrimination, pay civil penalties of $25,000 for each violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act, and order any other relief that the court deems equitable.

The filing is the second lawsuit Madigan has brought against Countrywide. In 2008, she filed a consumer fraud lawsuit against the lender for its major role in driving the foreclosure crisis, and in November 2008, she led negotiations that resulted in an $8.7 billion settlement of that lawsuit with Bank of America.

It is also the second fair lending lawsuit Madigan has brought against a major mortgage lender. In July 2009, Madigan filed a lawsuit against Wells Fargo for violating the states fair lending and civil rights laws, becoming the first state attorney general in the nation to sue a federally-chartered lender for its role in creating the foreclosure crisis. The Wells Fargo litigation is ongoing.

Steered minority borrowers

Specifically, Madigans complaint alleges that Countrywides retail employees and mortgage brokers had the discretion to choose the type of products offered to borrowers and to manipulate borrowers financial information that was entered into the companys automated underwriting system. As a result of this discretion, the complaint alleges, minority borrowers were steered into subprime mortgages when they qualified for prime loans.

The Attorney General further alleges that Countrywide failed to institute an adequate system for automatically referring eligible borrowers from subprime to prime. Although the company added an Uplift protocol to its underwriting system in 2002 to supposedly prevent prime-eligible borrowers from being placed into subprime loans, Madigan alleges that the Uplift program failed as a safeguard because it depended on a combination of automated underwriting and human discretion. When interviewed by Madigans office, former Countrywide employees and brokers reported that they had rarely or never seen subprime loans uplifted to prime.

Minority borrowers paid more

Madigans complaint alleges similar abuses of discretion in the pricing of Countrywides loans. As outlined in the lawsuit, Countrywide provided employees and brokers with rate sheets that spelled out the mortgage interest rates borrowers qualified for, based on certain credit factors. However, Madigan found that Countrywide gave employees and brokers discretion to sell borrowers loans with higher interest rates than those indicated by the rate sheets.

The complaint also alleges that Countrywides broad discretionary pricing policies allowed employees and brokers to use a number of devices to increase the interest rates on loans. These included manipulating the amount of cash a borrower took out on a refinance, which would increase the loan-to-value ratio, and adding features to the loan such as a prepayment penalty or an adjustable interest rate.

More

School's Out At Video Professor

'Transitioning to a new business plan,' company says

The Colorado firm, which offered free samples of its computer tutorial CDs and was a source of numerous consumer complaints about its negative option marke...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 30, 2010

Chances are, you won't be seeing those commercials for Video Professor, which once dominated cable-TV, anytime soon.

The Colorado firm, which offered free samples of its computer tutorial CDs and was a source of numerous consumer complaints about its negative option marketing, has drastically reduced operations.

"It seems as though Video Professor is now out of business," Joanne, of Vineland, N.J., told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Joanne came to that conclusion, she said, because she tried to return some merchandise to the company in late April but was told by UPS that it was unable to deliver it.

The Denver Post reported earlier this month that the company had slashed its operations and was giving away its products. It said the parking lot was nearly empty and the building lobby was closed and dark.

When a reporter called the offices, she heard a recording that said Video Professor "is currently transitioning to a new business plan."

The old business plan drew plenty of complaints. Video Professor commercials promised a free CD, with company president John Scherer explaining, "We're so sure you'll like this product you'll turn to us for all your computer learning needs."

But consumers who got the free CD's often found they were enrolled in a negative option subscription plan unless they cancelled it within a very short time. The additional CDs were anything but free.

"I ordered Video Professor with the impression that I was only to try it for the shipping and handling charges," Caroline, of Sacramento, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com "I changed my mind about it. I called to cancel but it was too late. I sent it back at the post office. In a few days a large amount of $189.95 appeared on my credit card. Thirty days later new charge appeared on my card for another video professor that I did not order of $389.95."

Recess

Unfortunately for Caroline and other consumers, finding someone at Video Professor to talk with is going to be tough. The company's website says the customer service department has been closed, it is no longer processing credit card transactions, and can't make refunds.

Joanne from New Jersey advises those who paid by credit card to report it as an unauthorized charge and demand a charge-back.

"Do not take no for an answer," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I just got off the phone with my credit card company and had no trouble whatsoever."

On its website, Video Professor promised customers they would get a refund at some point, but didn't say when. As recently as four years ago, the company was one of Colorado's success stories, with 300 employees and more than $100 million in annual revenue.

More

New York Expands Probe of Foreclosure Rescue Firms

Attorney general warns 31 companies to cease and desist

New York Expands Probe of Foreclosure Rescue Firms...

June 30, 2010
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is sending over 30 cease-and-desist letters to mortgage rescue companies warning them to end immediately all misleading and illegal conduct. A total of 213 companies have now been put on notice.

Cuomo says his investigation into the mortgage rescue industry, which is continuing, revealed many companies routinely collect illegal up-front fees from homeowners on the brink of foreclosure and then fail to help them lower their mortgage payments or save their home as promised.

Thousands of New Yorkers have been affected by mortgage rescue scams. After sending cease-and-desist letters to over 180 mortgage rescue companies last week, the Attorney General's office received consumer complaints and uncovered more evidence that indicated additional companies might be abusing New York homeowners.

Mortgage rescue companies target homeowners facing foreclosure by claiming to be able to modify home mortgage loans and lower monthly payments. Often, these companies engage in deceptive and illegal marketing practices to lure customers and then fall short on their promises. After using a mortgage rescue company, homeowners can find themselves in worsened financial circumstances and at greater risk of losing their homes.

"The letters that we are sending out to mortgage rescue companies across the United States intend to stop bad companies in their tracks," Cuomo said. "Many of these companies take money from homeowners who cannot afford to pay it and make a bad situation worse. We are telling these companies to immediately cease any wrongdoing and to make sure their business practices are all above board, or they are going to be held accountable by my office."

Cease and desist

The attorney general's cease-and-desist letters -- which are going to 31 additional companies -- warn mortgage rescue companies to end any illegal, deceptive, and misleading practices, including:

• Charging up-front fees for consulting services;

• Failing to enter into written contracts with homeowners, in the language the homeowners use, that fully disclose the exact nature of, and fees for, the services to be provided;

• Failing to allow homeowners to cancel their contracts, without any penalty, within five business days after signing and failing to provide homeowners with notice of this right in the contracts;

• Using any deceptive and misleading advertising practices, including: false guarantees regarding success rates, false 100 percent money-back guarantees, and fabricated consumer testimonials;

• Using any advertisements designed to give consumers the false impression that a company is affiliated with the government or a government-sponsored program.

Cuomo says the foreclosure catastrophe has claimed the homes of thousands of New Yorkers across the state. As of May 2010, there are 64,778 foreclosed properties in New York; in May 2010 alone, one in every 1,982 housing units had received notice of foreclosure, according to the Attorney General's Office.

More

Court Halts International Identity Theft Scheme

More than $10 million in unauthorized charges on consumers' credit and debit cards

Court Halts International Identity Theft Scheme...

June 30, 2010
A federal court has put a halt to an elaborate international scheme that used identity theft to place more than $10 million in bogus charges on consumers' credit and debit cards.

The court order, which is in effect pending a trial, came at the request of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

As part of the scam, more than a million consumers were hit with one-time charges of $10 or less, and their payments were routed through dummy corporations in the United States to bank accounts in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Elaborate scheme

The defendants, using phony company names resembling real companies, and information taken from identity theft victims in the United States, opened more than 100 merchant accounts with companies that process charges to consumers' credit and debit card accounts, according to the FTC complaint.

The FTC believes the defendants may have run credit checks on the identity theft victims first, to be sure they were creditworthy. They also cloaked each fake merchant with a virtual office address near a real merchant's location, a phone number, a home phone number for the "owner," a Web site pretending to sell products, a toll-free number consumers could call, and a real company's tax number found on the Internet.

'Money mules'

The FTC says that with spam e-mail, the defendants recruited at least 14 "money mules" -- people in the United States they paid to form 16 dummy corporations, open associated bank accounts to receive the card payments, and transfer the money overseas. The defendants used debit cards linked to these bank accounts to set up telephone service, virtual addresses, and websites that helped deceive the card processors, according to the complaint.

The "money mules" responded to spam e-mail pretending to seek a U.S. finance manager for an international financial services company. The FTC has not figured out how the defendants obtained the stolen identities or consumers' credit and debit account numbers. Consumers' payments were sent to bank accounts in Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Kyrgyzstan.

None of the consumers affected by the scam had contact with any of the defendants. Most consumers either didn't notice the charges on their bills or didn't seek chargebacks because of the small amounts -- charges ranged from 20 cents to $10. Those who called the toll-free numbers that appeared on their bills either found them disconnected or heard recorded messages instructing them to leave a message, but no calls were returned.

Charges filed

The defendants are the 16 sham companies: API Trade LLC, ARA Auto Parts Trading LLC, Bend Transfer Services LLC, B-Texas European LLC, CBTC LLC, CMG Global LLC, Confident Incorporation, HDPL Trade LLC, Hometown Homebuyers LLC, IAS Group LLC, IHC Trade LLC, MZ Services LLC, New World Enterprizes LLC, Parts Imports LLC, SMI Imports LLC, SVT Services LLC -- and one or more persons who are unknown to the agency at this time.

The FTC charged them with making unauthorized charges to consumers' credit cards in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act. The court froze the defendants' assets and ordered them to stop operating, pending final resolution of the case.

More

Vintage Car Business Pays $140,000 In Consumer Restitution, Fines and Costs

Connecticut company sold cars without customers' approval and pocketed proceeds

Vintage Car Business Pays $140,000 In Consumer Restitution, Fines and Costs ...


ConsumerAffairs.com

June 29, 2010
A Salisbury, Connecticut, vintage car business and its owner have been ordered to pay a total of $140,295 in restitution to consumers and civil penalties and court costs to the state.

The court found that Arthur Glen Kurrus of Falls Village and his business, Paradise Garage, also known as Evolution Motor Sports, LLC:

• Disposed of vehicles without permission;

• Misrepresented the condition, year, mileage and specifications of cars for sale;

• Failed to turn over sales proceeds;

• Billed for unauthorized repairs.

"Instead of paradise, Kurrus' business was hell -- a vintage vehicle black hole that consumed cars and cash," said Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who sued Kurrus and his company in 2007.

The court ordered Kurrus to pay four consumers $100,134 in restitution, as well as $27,500 in civil penalties and $12,661 in court costs to the state.

Consumers big winners

Blumenthal called the court's decision "a victory for consumers defrauded and deceived by Kurrus, compelling him to pay more than $100,000 in damages and refunds."

According to the AG, Kurrus sold cars without permission, failed to provide proceeds, charged consumers for unauthorized repairs and grossly misrepresented vehicle condition, mileage and other vital information. One consumer purchased from Kurrus a supposed 1961 Jaguar in good condition only to receive a rusted, damaged 1963 model needing major motor work.

"Kurrus betrayed his customers, turning their cool ride dreams into nightmares" said Blumenthal. "They entrusted expensive automobiles to Kurrus only to see them repaired and sold without their permission, and even disappear."

Court-ordered restitution

The court ordered restitution to consumers in the following amounts:

• $50,000 to William Cooling Jr. of New York, N.Y. Around 2003, Cooling's father hired Kurrus to restore a 1950s Jaguar XK, but the vehicle disappeared. Kurrus eventually agreed to pay Cooling $50,000, but never provided the money;

• $19,724 to Simon Pinniger of Aspen, Col. In 2003, Pinniger verbally authorized Kurrus to perform about $20,000 in repairs to a 1959 Jaguar, but Kurrus later attempted to charge him more than $71,000. Pinniger never agreed to additional work. The restitution returns Pinniger's payments beyond the originally agreed upon $20,000;

• $14,410 to Charles Moore of Dripping Springs, Tex. In 2006, Moore bought a Jaguar from Kurrus on eBay for $14,900. The eBay ad said it was a 1961 model with a 3.8-liter engine in good working order, special carburetors and no rust. When Moore received the vehicle, he determined it was a 1963 with a 2.4-liter motor needing ring and valve work, regular carburetors and a damaged and severely rusted body. Kurrus offered to resell the car on eBay correctly listing the information. In fact, he corrected only the year and never resold the car or refunded Moore's money;

• $16,000 to Frank O'Brien of New Jersey. Around 2002, Kurrus sold O'Brien a 1967 Austin Healy. Kurrus told O'Brien the car's mileage was 38,558 when in fact it was 87,764, and that he owned the vehicle, which he did not.

Blumenthal said that the state is seeking an order permitting sale of two Porsches seized from Kurrus to help provide restitution to consumers.

Kurrus also faces criminal charges.

More

Bottled Water: Keeping It Safe

All bottled water is not created equal

Bottled Water: Keeping It Safe...

By James Limbach
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 29, 2010
Seems like you can't go anywhere these days without seeing someone sucking on a bottle of water. The International Bottled Water Association says more than eight billion gallons of it were consumed worldwide last year alone.

But -- is it good for you? Bottled water comes under the watchful eye of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is charged with ensuring that it's safe to drink.

FDA has regulations that focus specifically on bottled water, including:

• "standard of identity" regulations that define different types of bottled water

• "standard of quality" regulations that set maximum levels of contaminants --including chemical, physical, microbial, and radiological contaminants -- allowed in bottled water

• "current good manufacturing practice" (CGMP) regulations that require bottled water to be safe and produced under sanitary conditions

Types of bottled water

FDA describes bottled water as water that's intended for human consumption and sealed in bottles or other containers with no added ingredients, except that it may contain a safe and suitable antimicrobial agent. (Fluoride may also be added within the limits set by FDA.)

The agency classifies some bottled water by its origin. Those classifications include:

• Artesian well water. This water is collected from a well that taps an aquifer -- layers of porous rock, sand, and earth that contain water -- which is under pressure from surrounding upper layers of rock or clay. When tapped, the pressure in the aquifer, commonly called artesian pressure, pushes the water above the level of the aquifer, sometimes to the surface. Other means may be used to help bring the water to the surface.

• Mineral water. This water comes from an underground source and contains at least 250 parts per million total dissolved solids. Minerals and trace elements must come from the source of the underground water. They cannot be added later.

• Spring water. Derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface, this water must be collected only at the spring or through a borehole that taps the underground formation feeding the spring. If some external force is used to collect the water through a borehole, the water must have the same composition and quality as the water that naturally flows to the surface.

• Well water. This is water from a hole bored or drilled into the ground, which taps into an aquifer.

Bottled water may be used as an ingredient in beverages, such as diluted juices or flavored bottled waters. However, beverages labeled as containing "sparkling water," "seltzer water," "soda water," "tonic water," or "club soda" aren't included as bottled water under FDA's regulations. These beverages are instead considered to be soft drinks.

Treated water

Some bottled water also comes from municipal sources -- in other words, the tap. Municipal water is usually treated before it is bottled. Examples of water treatments include:

• Distillation. Water is turned into a vapor, leaving minerals behind. Vapors are then condensed into water again.

• Reverse osmosis. Water is forced through membranes to remove minerals.

• Absolute one micron filtration. Water flows through filters that remove particles larger than one micron -- .00004 inches -- in size. These particles include Cryptosporidium, a parasitic pathogen that can cause gastrointestinal illness.

• Ozonation. Bottlers of all types of waters typically use ozone gas, an antimicrobial agent, instead of chlorine to disinfect the water. (Chlorine can add residual taste and odor to the water.)

Rhiannon from Chattanooga, TN, has problems with tap water. Aquafina, she writes ConsumerAffairs.com, advertises " 'pure water' on their bottles, so I buy it. Then they admit they were really repackaging tap water. I do not drink tap water because it contains contaminants. I now have a case of water that I cannot drink and I have ingested unknown contaminants from their not pure water."

Heather from Brooklyn, NY, writes ConsumerAffairs.com that she purchased a sports bottle of Poland Spring water, "took a sip and smelled what seemed to be the scent of cat urine. I put pressure on the bottle a couple more times to smell the air coming out of the bottle to make sure this was accurate. I'm repulsed and worried I drank ammonia or cat urine."

Danny, of Woodbury, NY says Poland Spring's home delivered 5-gallon "pure spring water" was "filled with -regular 'faucet water' having a strong taste and smell of chlorine." He claims "because of the high uncontrolled level of chlorine ,a very dangerous health hazard is created." He believes clients are also cheated, "getting regular faucet water, with less FDA control, sold as natural spring water."

FDA says bottled water that has been treated by distillation, reverse osmosis, or another suitable process may meet standards that allow it to be labeled as "purified water."

Quality and safety

Federal quality standards for bottled water were first adopted in 1973. They were based on U.S. Public Health Service standards for drinking water set in 1962.

The 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act gave regulatory oversight of public drinking water (tap water) to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). FDA subsequently took responsibility, under the FD&C; Act, for ensuring that the quality standards for bottled water are compatible with EPA standards for tap water.

Each time EPA establishes a standard for a contaminant, FDA either adopts it for bottled water or finds that the standard isn't necessary for bottled water.

In some cases, standards for bottled water and tap water differ. For example, because lead can leach from pipes as water travels from water utilities to home faucets, EPA has set its limit for lead in tap water at 15 parts per billion (ppb). For bottled water, for which lead pipes aren't used, the lead limit is set at five ppb.

For bottled water production, bottlers must follow the CGMP regulations put in place and enforced by FDA. Water must be sampled, analyzed, and found to be safe and sanitary. These regulations also require proper plant and equipment design, bottling procedures, and record keeping.

In addition, FDA oversees inspections of bottling plants. The agency inspects bottled water plants under its general food safety program and has states perform some plant inspections under contract.



More

Pennsylvania Sues BlueHippo

Despite suits at federal and state levels, officials say computer marketer still ripping off consumers

Pennsylvania Sues BlueHippo...

Pennsylvania has become the latest state to sue BlueHippo, the Maryland-based finance company that sells older, cheap computers at hugely inflated prices to people with poor or no credit.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett said the civil lawsuit was filed in Commonwealth Court against Joseph K. Rensin, of Ellicott City, Md., the owner, CEO and Chairman of the Board of BlueHippo Funding, 7000 Security Boulevard, Baltimore Maryland. Rensin and his business also operated as BlueHippo Capitol, of Vienna, Virginia and BlueHippo Capitol, of Las Vegas, Nevada.

"BlueHippo used a national campaign of television and radio ads, telemarketing calls and Internet websites to sell computers, flat screen TVs and other electronic equipment -- claiming to offer 'payments you can afford' for 'top of the line' products," Corbett said. "In reality, BlueHippo was little more than a sham designed to collect as much money as possible from consumers while delivering little, if anything, in return."

According to the lawsuit, consumers often paid more than twice the value of the items that they had purchased, received lesser quality items or failed to receive anything for their money. In other instances, the company did not provide rebates or gifts that were offered as part of a sale, or failed to pay consumer refunds when promised.

"BlueHippo allegedly used advertising language such as 'perfect for back to school' and 'get yours now,' which suggested fast delivery times," Corbett said. "While many customers believed they would receive their products in a timely manner, most were delivered months later -- or, in some cases -- not at all."

Trouble with the feds

Last November, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asked a federal court to find Blue Hippo in contempt of a 2008 court order that required it to end abusive consumer practices.

Since the order, the FTC estimates Blue Hippo has collected more than $15 million from consumers to finance computers, but delivered neither the financing nor the financed computers.

The FTC alleged that fewer than one percent of consumers who signed up with BlueHippo received the financed computers for which they applied, and undisclosed conditions to redeem "store credits" were rigged to discourage consumers from using them.

ConsumerAffairs.com continues to receive many complaints about BlueHippo, such as this one from Pamela, of Patterson, Calif.

'I smell a rat'

"I thought I was purchasing a computer. After I sent $100 to get the payments going, they told me it was a layaway and I don't get the computer until it's paid in full," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I smell a rat. I could go to any store I want for a layaway and pay two times less."

According to the Pennsylvania lawsuit, BlueHippo did not actually have any of the products they claimed to be selling. Instead, consumers were persuaded to make a series of weekly or bi-weekly payments to BlueHippo, and only after a history of successful payments would the products supposedly be ordered and shipped.

Corbett said that during sales calls, consumers were often asked for bank account information, with BlueHippo making immediate withdrawals from their accounts long before consumers received any written information about the financing terms or other conditions about the purchase.

Additionally, BlueHippo is accused of conducting telemarketing without properly registering in Pennsylvania, operating as a loan broker without registering with the state Department of Banking, violating the Installment Sales Act and failing to register corporations and fictitious business names with the Pennsylvania Department of State.

Corbett said the lawsuit seeks full restitution for all consumers who were harmed by BlueHippo's unfair business practices, along with fines and penalties of up to $1,000 for each violation of Pennsylvania law, or fines of up to $3,000 for each violation involving a senior citizen.

More

Feds Bust Massive Unauthorized Charge Scam

Elaborate scheme was centered overseas

A federal court has halted an elaborate international scheme that used identity theft to place more than $10 million in bogus charges on consumers credit a...

June 28, 2010
A federal court has halted an elaborate international scheme that used identity theft to place more than $10 million in bogus charges on consumers credit and debit cards.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which requested the order, said more than a million consumers were hit with one-time charges of $10 or less, and their payments were routed through dummy corporations in the United States to bank accounts in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The alleged scheme was, at the same time, both simple and elaborate. The defendants, using phony company names resembling real companies, and information taken from identity theft victims in the United States, opened more than 100 merchant accounts with companies that process charges to consumers credit and debit card accounts, according to the FTC complaint.

The FTC believes the defendants may have run credit checks on the identity theft victims first, to be sure they were credit worthy. The defendants also cloaked each fake merchant with a virtual office address near a real merchants location, a phone number, a home phone number for the owner, a Web site pretending to sell products, a toll-free number consumers could call, and a real companys tax number found on the Internet.

Money mules

The FTC alleged that with spam e-mail, the defendants recruited at least 14 money mules people in the United States they paid to form 16 dummy corporations, open associated bank accounts to receive the card payments, and transfer the money overseas. The defendants used debit cards linked to these bank accounts to set up telephone service, virtual addresses, and Web sites that helped deceive the card processors, according to the complaint.

The money mules responded to spam e-mail pretending to seek a U.S. finance manager for an international financial services company. The FTC has not determined how the defendants obtained the stolen identities or consumers credit and debit account numbers. Consumers payments were sent to bank accounts in Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Kyrgyzstan.

None of the consumers affected by the scam had contact with any of the defendants. Most consumers either didnt notice the charges on their bills or didnt seek chargebacks because of the small amounts charges ranged from 20 cents to $10. Consumers who called the toll-free numbers that appeared on their bills either found them disconnected or heard recorded messages instructing them to leave a message, but no calls were returned.

The defendants are the 16 sham companies API Trade LLC, ARA Auto Parts Trading LLC, Bend Transfer Services LLC, B-Texas European LLC, CBTC LLC, CMG Global LLC, Confident Incorporation, HDPL Trade LLC, Hometown Homebuyers LLC, IAS Group LLC, IHC Trade LLC, MZ Services LLC, New World Enterprizes LLC, Parts Imports LLC, SMI Imports LLC, SVT Services LLC and one or more persons who are unknown to the agency at this time. The FTC charged them with making unauthorized charges to consumers credit cards in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act. The court froze the defendants assets and ordered them to stop operating, pending final resolution of the case.

More

Keeping Pets Safe This 4th of July

ASPCA offers tips for pet safety during the holiday and throughout the hot summer months

Keeping Pets Safe This 4th of July...

By Lisa Wade McCormick
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 28, 2010
Celebrating the Fourth of July with fireworks and good food is a tradition with families nationwide.

But those celebrations can be dangerous to the four-legged members of your family, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) warns.

To protect your pets this Independence Day, the ASPCA recommends:

• Never use fireworks around pets: Lit fireworks can cause severe burns or trauma to the face and paws of curious pets. Unused fireworks also pose a danger because many contain potentially toxic substances, including potassium nitrate, arsenic and other heavy metals;

• Avoid taking pets to loud, crowded firework displays: Keep pets in a quiet, protected, and escape-proof part of your home;

• Don't leave alcoholic drinks where pets can reach them: Pets that ingest alcohol can become intoxicated and weak, severely depressed, or lapse into a coma. Death from respiratory failure is also possible in severe cases, the ASPCA warns;

• Never put glow jewelry on pets or let them play with it: The luminescent substance in these products is not highly toxic, but if ingested, can cause excessive drooling and gastrointestinal irritation. Intestinal blockage can occur if pets swallow large pieces of the plastic containers;

• Keep citronella candles, insect coils, and oil products out of pets' reach: Ingestion of these products can cause stomach irritation and possible central nervous system depression in pets, the ASPCA said. The oils can also cause aspiration pneumonia in pets that inhale the products;

• Use animal-friendly products only: Never apply sunscreen or insect repellents on your pets that are not specifically labeled for use on animals. Ingestion of sunscreen products can cause drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, excessive thirst, and lethargy in pets. The misuse of insect repellents that contain DEET can also lead to neurological problems, the ASPCA said.

• Keep matches and lighter fluid out of pets' reach. Some matches contain chlorates, which can damage blood cells, cause difficulty breathing, or kidney disease in severe cases. Lighter fluid can irritate a pet's skin. And if ingested, it can cause gastrointestinal irritation and central nervous system depression. Lighter fluid can also trigger aspiration pneumonia and breathing problems if it's inhaled;

• Keep pets on their regular diet. Any change, even for one meal, can give pets severe indigestion and diarrhea, the ASPCA said. This is especially true with older animals, which have more delicate digestive systems and nutritional requirements. Remember onions, chocolate, coffee, avocado, grapes and raisins, salt and yeast dough are potentially toxic to pets. The blistering "dog days" of summer can also pose serious health risks to pets, the ASPCA cautioned.

"Even the healthiest pets can suffer from dehydration, heat stroke and sunburn if they're overexposed to the heat," said Dr. Steven Hansen, a veterinary toxicologist and senior vice-president of ASPCA Animal Health Services.

But there are simple ways to keep pets safe from the scorching sun and other summer dangers, including:

• Keep pets cool and hydrated: Give pets plenty of water. They can dehydrate quickly in the heat. And make sure pets have a shady place to escape the sun's burning rays. When the temperature is blazing, don't let dogs linger on hot asphalt. A dog's body can heat up quickly and its sensitive paw pads can burn;

• Never leave pets alone in a parked vehicle: "On a hot day, even with the windows open, a parked automobile can become a furnace in no time, and heatstroke can develop, which is potentially fatal," warned Dr. Louise Murray, director of Medicine at the ASPCA's Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital;

• Watch for signs of overheating and heat stroke in pets: "The symptoms of overheating in pets include excessive panting or difficulty breathing, increased heart and respiratory rate, drooling, mild weakness, seizures, and an elevated body temperature of over 104 degrees," Dr. Murray said. "Animals with flat faces, like pugs and Persian cats, are more susceptible to heat stroke since they cannot pant as effectively. These pets, along with the elderly, the overweight, and those with heart or lung diseases, should be kept cool in air-conditioned rooms as much as possible."

• Read and follow the directions on flea and tick products: The ASPCA said products that contain the chemical permethrin can be deadly to cats. Never use a flea and tick product intended for a dog on a cat -- or those made for cats on dogs. Use the products as directed;

• Keep pest control products away from pets: Rodenticides (mouse and rat baits), insecticides, herbicide lawn and flea and tick products can be harmful to cats and dogs if ingested. Avoid walking dogs in areas sprayed with insecticides or herbicide lawn products;

• Never leave pets unsupervised around a pool: Not all animals are good swimmers. Introduce pets to water gradually and make sure they wear flotation devices while on boats. Rinse off dogs after they swim in a pool to remove chlorine or salt from their fur. And try to keep dogs from drinking pool water, which contains chlorine and other chemicals that could cause stomach upset;

• Beware of High Rise Syndrome: "During warmer months, we see an increase in injured animals as a result of 'High-Rise Syndrome,' which occurs when pets fall out of windows or doors and are seriously or fatally injured," said Dr. Murray. "Pet owners need to know that this is completely preventable if they take simple precautions." Those steps include keeping all unscreened windows or doors closed and making sure adjustable screens are tightly secured.

The ASPCA advises pet owners to contact their veterinarians if their dogs or cats ingest a potentially toxic substance this summer. Pet owners can also contact the ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center, which offers emergency assistance 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at (888) 426-4435. A $65 consultation fee may be charged.



More

How To Cancel A Credit Card

Simply calling an 800 number isn't enough

But if you decide you should close an account, make sure it's really closed. Let the cautionary tale from Jack, of Topeka, Kan., serve as a warning....

More

Does Our Energy Future Lie In Natural Gas?

MIT study says under-utilized fuel could pay big dividends

Does Our Energy Future Lie In Natural Gas?...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 28, 2010
With a blown deep-water oil well spewing thousands of barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, oil is looking less attractive to some as an energy source. Could natural gas be a potential replacement?

Energy researchers at MIT think it could play a much bigger role in our energy future, especially as a replacement for coal, used to create electricity. In a report, the researchers predict gas-fired generators will eventually replace older, inefficient coal plants.

They aren't alone. Others see gas as a much more desirable energy source that, not only could produce electricity, but also power the nation's cars and trucks.

Natural gas is abundant and, best of all, it's plentiful in the United States. Some business leaders, including T. Boone Pickens, have argued for years in favor of increased reliance on U.S. natural gas, saying it would greatly reduce reliance on foreign oil and keep more U.S. dollars at home.

The MIT researchers like it for another reason. Unlike oil and coal, natural gas is a very clean fuel.

The just-completed two-year study, managed by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), examined the scale of U.S. natural gas reserves and the potential of this fuel to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Based on the work of the multidisciplinary team, with advice from a board of 16 leaders from industry, government and environmental groups, the report examines the future of natural gas through 2050 from the perspectives of technology, economics, politics, national security and the environment.

92-year energy supply

The researchers note the U.S. has a significant natural gas resource base, enough to equal about 92 years' worth at present domestic consumption rates. Much of this is from unconventional sources, including gas shales.

While there is substantial uncertainty surrounding the producibility of this gas, the researchers said, there is a significant amount of shale gas that can be affordably produced.

Not surprisingly, the natural gas industry hailed the report.

"We hope that policymakers will read and consider the report's recommendation for greater use of natural gas as they develop plans to help our country move to a secure, economically beneficial and cleaner way of using energy," America's Natural Gas Alliance said in a statement.

More

Vitamin D May Help Seniors Stay Sharp

But people tend to get less Vitamin D as they grow older

Vitamin D May Help Seniors Stay Sharp...

June 28, 2010
A recent government-funded study suggests senior citizens and baby boomers entering their Golden Years can slow cognitive decline by getting plenty of vitamin D.

Cognitive function is measured by the level at which the brain is able to manage and use available information for activities of daily life. Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of age-related dementia, affects about 47 percent of adults aged 85 years or older in the United States. Identifying nutritional factors that lower cognitive dysfunction and help preserve independent living provides economic and public health benefits, according to authors.

The study, which was supported by Agricultural Research Service, the National Institutes of Health, and others, was led by epidemiologist Katherine Tucker with the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University in Boston, Mass. Tucker collaborated with HNRCA laboratory directors Irwin Rosenberg, Bess Dawson-Hughes and colleagues.

Critical component

Metabolic pathways for vitamin D have been found in the areas of the brain involved in planning, processing, and forming new memories. This suggests that vitamin D may be implicated in cognitive processes.

The study involved more than 1,000 participants receiving home care. The researchers evaluated associations between measured vitamin D blood concentrations and neuropsychological tests. Elders requiring home care have a higher risk of not getting enough vitamin D because of limited sunlight exposure and other factors.

The participants, ages 65 to 99 years, were grouped by their vitamin D status, which was categorized as deficient, insufficient, or sufficient.

Only 35 percent had sufficient vitamin D blood levels. They had better cognitive performance on the tests than those in the deficient and insufficient categories, particularly on measures of "executive performance," such as cognitive flexibility, perceptual complexity, and reasoning. The associations persisted after taking into consideration other variables that could also affect cognitive performance.



More

Ohio Seeks Restraining Orders Against Sham 'Veterans' Group

Attorney General concerned about 'charity' group's ties to shady practices

Ohio Seeks Restraining Orders Against Sham 'Veterans' Group...

June 28, 2010
Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray is seeking emergency court orders to prevent a Florida-based "veterans" charity from collecting contributions in his state. The U.S. Navy Veterans Association (USNVA) is being investigated by several states.

Cordray also noted troubling revelations that the man who appears to have orchestrated the sham charity made hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions to candidates throughout the United States and in Ohio.

Applications for a temporary restraining order against the group and its officers target UPS mail drops rented by USNVA in those counties in Hamilton and Fairfield counties. The AG is seeking permission to hold contributions that arrive while the investigation continues.

In May, Cordray ordered USNVA to stop contacting Ohio residents for contributions after determining that the group's registration documents were plagued with irregularities. Those documents contain false and misleading information, including the names of association officers who appear to be fictional.

"Our investigators have not been able to locate any of the Ohio officers of the USNVA, although, oddly enough, the organization's national counsel is based here," Cordray said. "Through the counsel, USNVA has advised us that it does not consider the order to be valid and that it does not have to comply with our order to cease and desist fundraising in Ohio."

The Attorney General says the closer he looks at the organization, the more outrageous its conduct appears. "Since 2003, Ohioans have contributed close to $1.9 million to the U.S. Navy Veterans Association," he said. "However, the evidence is mounting that the operation is misrepresenting its mission. It is trading on the good name of our armed forces and patriotic Americans to solicit funds that it says will be used to assist veterans directly. Instead, it appears the funds are going to political campaigns. That is fraudulent and deceptive."

Cordray says the information emerging about USNVA and Bobby Thompson, the individual connected with it, is troubling. "No one can locate Thompson now -- he has disappeared. This is extremely questionable behavior on behalf of a man who had access to millions of dollars raised in the name of Navy veterans."

While very little concrete evidence is available how those funds were spent helping vets or their families, Cordray says "a great deal of information is available about political contributions made by Thompson personally to candidates or through the political action committee he created and to which he was the sole contributor, NAVPAC."

Until this is straightened out, Cordray says he wants "all Ohioans to know not to contribute to the U.S. Navy Veterans Association."

More

Florida Sues Auto Loan Modification Operation

Firm promised to reduce car payments up to 50 percent - for a fee

There are plenty of schemers out there preying on desperate homeowners by promising to help them get mortgage modifications. But the bogus pitch isn't just...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 27, 2010

There are plenty of schemers out there preying on desperate homeowners by promising to help them get mortgage modifications. But the bogus pitch isn't just limited to home loans.

In Florida, Attorney General Bill McCollum this week filed a lawsuit against a Broward County company accusing it of deceptive and unfair trade practices related to automobile loan modifications.

According to the complaint, Auto Relief Group, its subsidiaries and owners John J. Boyle and John J. Boyle III falsely represented in national television and radio commercials that they could reduce consumers' car payments by up to 50 percent. The Florida Attorney General's Office was granted an injunction to freeze the company's assets and appoint a receiver to take possession and control of the company.

An investigation by the Attorney General's Economic Crimes Division revealed that Auto Relief Group representatives allegedly told undercover investigators they qualified for loan modifications that would reduce their monthly auto loan payment up to 50 percent. The only catch? The consumer had to make up-front payments ranging from $299 - $375.

The company also represented that they had "relationships" with lending entities which would allow them to negotiate substantial payment reductions, McCollum said. Investigators determined these lenders had previously notified Auto Relief Group of their non-negotiation policies, but Auto Relief Group continued to send modification requests to these lenders.

In the majority of cases when lenders agreed to modifications of car loans, the modifications consisted of only minor deferments of payments due, not reductions of the interest rate charged. McCollum said his office is still working to locate victims, but the investigation indicates the company may have collected several hundred thousand dollars in up-front fees from consumers each month.

In addition to the injunction, the Attorney General's Office is seeking full restitution on behalf of all victimized consumers, civil penalties, and reimbursement for fees and costs related to the investigation.

More

Phony Health Inspectors Target Restaurants

Callers try to pry personal information out of restaurateurs

Phony Health Inspectors Target Restaurants...

June 27, 2010
In a scam sweeping the U.S. and Canada, con artists posing as health inspectors are targeting restaurants, apparently as part of an identity theft scheme.

Investigators say the scam involves a series of phone calls. The first caller tells the restaurant that it will receive an automated call providing a numeric confirmation code. A second caller, claiming to be a health inspector, requests the code and seeks to set up an in-person restaurant inspection. The caller threatens fines if the restaurant doesn't cooperate.

Officials in Stanislous County, Calif., issued an alert last week stating, This phony inspector scheme is part of a larger fraud involving setting up verified accounts with a national online auction service. The fraudster then uses the accounts in other schemes.

Washington State Department of Health officials said theyve heard from local health authorities that businesses in Snohomish, Pierce and King counties have recently received calls.

Local reports also suggest that the callers may have requested personal information, such as cell phone numbers. So far, local authorities arent aware of any restaurants that bit at the ploy.

The Washington State Attorney Generals Office said anyone who receives a call like this should refuse to participate. Public health inspectors carry official photo identification and do not announce their visits.

Business owners who believe they may have been victims of this scam should file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov.

More

Driveway Deal or Sidewalk Scam?

Summertime scams hit snow-belt homeowners where they live

Homeowners should look out for groups of traveling scam artists offering roof repair, driveway paving and sealing and other summertime home upkeep....

June 27, 2010
Homeowners should look out for groups of traveling scam artists offering roof repair, driveway paving and sealing and other summertime home upkeep, Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray warns.

"Known by law enforcement as 'travelers,' these professional thieves make their way through Ohio and other northern states in the summer months," Cordray said. "They offer to pave driveways or repair roofs for a very low price, but they intentionally deceive homeowners and do extremely shoddy work."

Travelers often target middle-class homeowners, especially those over 60. Travelers generally dress professionally, speak politely and drive well-maintained vehicles, giving homeowners the false impression that they are trustworthy.

In many cases, travelers lie to homeowners, telling them their driveway or roof needs to be repaired. They work quickly, paving a driveway in less than an hour. Later, the asphalt will crack or will fail to set properly, leaving the homeowner's driveway a gooey mess. Other times, travelers "seal" a driveway or roof with a useless mixture of diesel oil and paint that will wash off in the rain.

Weeks later, some travelers revisit their previous victims to offer phony follow-up repairs or more seal-coating. Again, the work is completely substandard, even if the victim does not realize it.

Homeowners can protect themselves by learning to recognize the signs of a traveler, including contractors who:

• Come to their door uninvited
• Notice a problem with their roof or driveway
• Say they have leftover materials
• Offer unbelievably low prices
• Accept cash or check only
• Promise an unconditional guarantee on the work
• Start work immediately
• Take only 30 minutes to an hour to finish the job

Consumers also should check a company's reputation with online review sites, their local consumer affairs office or their state's attorney general's office and the Better Business Bureau before paying any money.

More

Toyota Recalls, Halts Sales of Lexus Hybrid

Latest quality issue for beleaguered carmaker

Toyota Recalls, Halts Sales of Lexus Hybrid...

Toyota is dealing with another recall issue, this time with its luxury nameplate Lexus. The Japanese carmaker said its is recalling 17,000 Lexus HS 250 hybrid models because U.S. government tests show they could leak fuel in a rear-end crash.

Toyota also said it will halt sales of all HS 250 hybrids while it searches for a remedy to the problem.

In April, Toyota temporarily halted sales of its GX 640 hybrid after Consumer Reports labeled the SUV unsafe after it performed poorly during standard emergency handling tests. Sales resumed after Toyota modified the settings in the car's onboard computer.

"We want to assure our customers that their safety and satisfaction are our top priorities," Toyota said in a statement. "We take the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) test results very seriously and appreciate the NHTSA bringing its concerns to our attention."

In a recall notice Friday NHTSA said the defect in the Lexus hybrid could result in a fire during a rear-end collision. In the late 1970s the Ford Pinto had a similar problem, which was blamed on 27 deaths. While the Pinto never recovered from the recall, Toyota says its confident it can fix the problem.

"Our engineers conducted similar testing during the development of the new HS 250h and the vehicle performed safely," the company said. "While we are investigating and vigorously working to understand the different test results, we have stopped delivery of the involved vehicles. As soon as the issue is better understood and/or a remedy is developed, we will contact every owner."

Customers who have any questions or concerns should contact their local Lexus dealer or Lexus Customer Satisfaction at 1-800-25LEXUS or 1-800-255-3987, Toyota said.

This is the latest quality setback for the carmaker, which has recalled millions of cars this year to address unintended acceleration and braking issues in some models. Since September, Toyota has recalled more than 10 million vehicles.

More

Consumer Advocates Jubilant as House, Senate Reach Agreement on Financial Reform

Obama calls it 'toughest financial reform since the Great Depression'

Consumer Advocates Jubilant as House, Senate Reach Agreement on Financial Reform...

By Truman Lewis
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 25, 2010
After months of jaw-boning, horse-trading and hushed conversations in smoke-free steakhouses, House and Senate negotiators have reached agreement on financial reform legislation that consumer advocates are calling a big win for consumers. Banking industry lobbyists are calling it something else.

The 2,000-page legislation, which the Consumer Federation of America called a "major achievement," would establish a new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, an independent regulator that would be housed within the Federal Reserve. Its job would be to monitor mortgages, credit cards, payday loans and other personal finance products that are now regulated by a far-flung web of government agencies that don't always confer face to face, much less see eye to eye.

President Obama called the measure "the toughest financial reform since the ones we created in the aftermath of the Great Depression" and said the measure "represents 90 percent of what I proposed when I took up this fight."

But while consumer leaders say the new agency will be more efficient and more effective than the existing hodge-podge, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce thinks otherwise.

"It is a reform bill that, ironically, lacks effective reform," said Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue. "Rather than addressing the core causes of the financial crisis, this bill adds new regulatory agencies to an already antiquated system and grows a bloated, ineffective bureaucracy.

"It exacerbates uncertainties for Main Street and Americas job creators, and consumers will pay the ultimate price in higher fees, less choice, and fewer opportunities to responsibly access credit," Donohue said.

What it does

Besides creating the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection -- will it be called BOCFIP, do you think? -- the House-Senate version would provide:

Free credit scores You would have a right to see your credit score if you were turned down for a loan or were offered an interest rate you thought was excessive. Currently, you can see your credit report but not your score.

Tighter mortgage standards Standardized federal rules would replace widely -- sometimes wildly -- varying state regulations. Among the provisions: homeowners would not be hit with pre-payment penalties for paying off mortgages early.

Debit card fees Score one for store owners, who would be allowed for the first time to set minimums for credit card purchases. The Fed would also be permitted to ride herd on MasterCard, Visa and other big card issuers to ensure they are charging "reasonable and propotional" fees to merchants.

Slightly tighter auto financing rules Politically powerful car dealers managed to get themselves removed from oversight by BOCFIP but, as what you might call a trade-in allowance, the Federal Trade Commission will be authorized to develop rules to protect car buyers from predatory financing.

Wall Street reined in The legislation contains some very complex, intricate and even confusing provisions that are portrayed as heading off future finiancial collapses. Trial lawyers are ecstatic that investors will be able to sue Moody's, Standard and Poor's and other business rating agencies when things go sour. CEO pay will be scrutinized and derivatives will be traded publicly. This doesn't affect consumers directly but, as we all learned the hard way the past few years, when Wall Street gets the flu, the rest of us get pneumonia.

'Toughest in our history'

Taking on the skeptics, President Obama said the the package amounted to "the toughest consumer financial protections in our history, while creating an independent agency to enforce them.

"Now there will be one agency whose sole job will be to look out for you," he said at a White House briefing today. "Credit card companies will no longer be able to mislead you with pages and pages of fine print. You will no longer be subject to all kinds of hidden fees and penalties, or the predatory practices of unscrupulous lenders."

Consumer leaders, who had feared lobbyists would ride roughshod over the bill's tougher provisions, were generous in their parise.

This bill marks the biggest transformation of financial regulation in this country since the Great Depression, said Consumer Federation of America Legislative Director Travis Plunkett.

Its high time that consumers have a cop on the beat to rein in abusive and deceptive financial products and services. The bill sets up an autonomous consumer bureau with independent funding, which are key elements for an effective regulator, Plunkett said.

U.S. PIRG Consumer Program Director Ed Mierzwinski said that Congress had "rejected the self-serving efforts of some two thousand Wall Street lobbyists who spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past 18 months to weaken reforms targeting the practices that sparked the financial mess they caused for consumers and taxpayers.

Without a doubt, the centerpiece of reform is the establishment of the new, independent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with only one job: protecting consumers who buy financial products at banks and non-bank lenders, from mortgage companies to payday lenders. While the bureau will not regulate predatory car dealer practices, a last minute compromise gives the Federal Trade Commission new authority over car dealers who initiate loans," Mierzwinski said.

Financial advisers, who will be only slightly more tightly regulated under the legislation, were guarded in their comments.

I'm not sure it does anything to address how the last crisis happened and to prevent another one from happening, said J. Preston Byers, an adviser with ClearBridge Wealth Management, quoted by industry newsletter InvestmentNews. To me, it was a rushed bill and the administration needed a win.

More

Cemetery Swindler Pays $4 Million Restitution

Michigan man accused of betraying grieving families

A Michigan cemetery operator has repaid $4.2 million in cemetery trust funds he embezzled from Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan....

June 25, 2010
A Michigan cemetery operator has repaid $4.2 million in cemetery trust funds he embezzled from Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Last September, Robert Earl Nelms was convicted of embezzlement and failing to properly administer numerous funeral contracts over a three year period. His sentencing had been delayed pending completion of his restitution payment to the Court. Now that restitution has been received, Nelms is expected to be sentenced before Kent County Circuit Judge George S. Buth as soon as a date can be set.

"Stealing from the dead is a heartbreaking betrayal to grieving families," said Attorney General Mike Cox. "Michigan citizens who have laid their loved ones to rest have a right to know their wishes will be honored and protected."

The restitution funds were wired to an escrow account overseen by Ingham County Circuit Court Judge James Giddings. The Michigan Cemetery Commissioner and the Court-Appointed Conservator of Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens will work with the Court to direct the restitution back to the pilfered trust accounts.

Nelms, of Indiana, is expected be sentenced to a prison term of 20-120 months for the embezzlement charge and 20-60 months for the failure to trust count. Under Michigan law, the terms of incarceration are served concurrently. Cox said his office anticipates that all of Nelms' Michigan victims will see their trust accounts fully restored.

Charges cover two states

In December 2007, a joint Attorney General and Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth (DELEG) investigation uncovered the theft, resulting in criminal charges and forcing Nelms to lose control of Chapel Hill Cemetery.

In total, it is alleged Nelms stole more than $24 million from cemeteries and funeral homes he controlled in Michigan and Indiana. He did this by selling cemetery products and services but failing to deposit the required portion in trust for cemetery upkeep and consumers' use. Approximately $4.2 million dollars were from the Grand Rapids cemetery, with Nelms facing charges in Indiana for the rest.

This is the second defendant convicted by Cox for involvement in a major theft of cemetery trust funds. Carter Green of Nevada was convicted in Wayne County Circuit court in December of 2007 for his role in aiding co-defendant Clayton Smart.

Smart is accused of embezzling as much as $70 million in cemetery trust funds from 28 Michigan cemeteries. He is awaiting trial in Tennessee on related charges. Upon completion of that trial, Smart will be transferred to Michigan for arraignment on charges filed by Cox.

More

Scores of Paxil Birth Defects Cases Settled

Terms of agreements kept confidential

GSK the manufacturer of Paxil has agreed to settlements in nearly 200 individual cases claiming that the antidepressant caused birth defects....

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 24, 2010
The manufacturer of Paxil has agreed to settlements in nearly 200 individual cases claiming that the antidepressant caused birth defects.

Most of the cases allege that babies born to mothers taking Paxil suffered from heart defects. The leading case, brought on behalf of Lyam Kilker, contended that he was born with no fewer than three cardiac defects, including a hole between the two chambers of his heart that disrupted the aorta.

That case is so far the only one to have gone to trial. Last October, a Philadelphia jury awarded Kilker's family $2.5 million in compensatory damages. At trial, the plaintiffs said that animal testing suggested to manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) that the drug might cause problems, but that the company failed to follow up sufficiently with additional tests.

Cover-up indicated

Even worse, a company memo introduced into evidence talked about covering up any test results that showed a potential danger. "If neg, results can bury," read the memo by GSK executive Bonnie Rossello in 1997, before any tests were conducted.

GSK stood firm in its position after the verdict was handed down.

"While we sympathize with Lyam Kilker and his family, the scientific evidence does not establish that exposure to Paxil during pregnancy caused his condition," the company said in a statement.

Still, the writing was on the wall, at least judging by the company's decision to settle scores of cases less than a year later. The fact that the Kilker jury deliberated for only seven hours before announcing the verdict could not have been comforting for the company either.

On the defensive

The nature of the cases put GSK at a distinct disadvantage as well.

"When you're dealing with children with birth defects that's a concern for any company," attorney Jamie Sheller told Law.com.

In 2005, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned doctors about a study showing that babies born to women who took Paxil during the first trimester of pregnancy had a higher rate of major birth defects. The study, which involved 3,500 pregnant women, showed that those on Paxil were twice as likely to have a child with defects than women on other antidepressants.

In the wake of the study, the FDA put out a statement warning that "[h]ealthcare professionals are advised to carefully weigh the potential risks and benefits of using [Paxil] in women during pregnancy and to discuss these findings as well as treatment alternatives with their patients."

The terms of the settlements are to remain confidential. At least 600 cases have been filed alleging that Paxil is responsible for congenital birth defects, and an attorney for the plaintiffs said that up to 100 other cases have already settled. GSK has also paid approximately $1 billion in settlements of Paxil-related cases not involving birth defects.

Paxil, which was introduced in 1992, generates nearly $3 billion in annual sales. The drug is used to treat a wide variety of psychological maladies, including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.



More

Evenflo Recalls Drop-Side Cribs

Evenflo Recalls Drop-Side Cribs...


Evenflo is recalling about 750,000 Jenny Lind drop-side cribs because they pose an entrapment and strangulation hazard to infants.

The cribs drop sides can malfunction, detach or otherwise fail, causing part of the drop side to fall out of position, creating a space into which an infant or toddler can roll and become wedged or entrapped, which can lead to strangulation or suffocation. A child can also fall out of the crib. Drop-side incidents can also occur due to incorrect assembly and with age-related wear and tear.

Incidents/Injuries: CPSC and Evenflo have received 31 reports of drop sides that malfunctioned or detached. One involved the entrapment of a seven month old boy between the drop side and the crib mattress. He sustained bumps and bruises to his head. Nine children fell out of the crib when the drop side detached, unlocked or fell off. Seven of those children sustained minor injuries, including bumps, bruises and cuts. Fourteen other incidents involved no injuries.

In addition, CPSC has received two reports of children who became entrapped when the mattress support detached in one corner of cribs manufactured between 2000 and 2004.

The following Evenflo crib models are included in this recall. The model number is located on a label on the bottom beam of the headboard.

MODEL NUMBERSMODEL NAMES
012614Evenflo Jenny Lind Crib, Maple
0126141Evenflo Jenny Lind Crib, Maple
012615Evenflo Jenny Lind Crib, White
012616Evenflo Jenny Lind Crib, Oak
012617Evenflo Jenny Lind Crib, Natural
014614Evenflo Jenny Lind Convertible Crib, Maple
014615Evenflo Jenny Lind Convertible Crib, White
014616Evenflo Jenny Lind Convertible Crib, Oak
014617Evenflo Jenny Lind Convertible Crib, Natural
0151614Evenflo Jenny Lind Hidden Hardware Crib, Maple
0151615Evenflo Jenny Lind Hidden Hardware Crib, White
0151616Evenflo Jenny Lind Hidden Hardware Crib, Oak
0151617Evenflo Jenny Lind Hidden Hardware Crib, Natural
0161614Evenflo Jenny Lind Hidden Hardware Crib, Maple
0161615Evenflo Jenny Lind Hidden Hardware Crib, White
0161617Evenflo Jenny Lind Hidden Hardware Crib, Natural

The cribs, made in Mexico and China, were sold at childrens product stores and various other retailers nationwide from January 2000 through November 2007 for about $200.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled drop-side cribs and contact Evenflo to receive a free repair kit that will immobilize the drop side. A repair kit for the mattress support system is also available for cribs with model numbers starting with 012 and 014 that were manufactured between 2000 and 2004. In the meantime, find an alternate, safe sleep environment for the child, such as a bassinet, play yard or toddler bed depending on the childs age. The repair kits will be provided to consumers within the next several weeks.

For additional information, contact Evenflo at (800) 356-2229 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday or visit the firms web site at http://safety.evenflo.com

Cautionary note

Federal safety regulators remind 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, parents should not try to repair any side of the crib. Babies have died in cribs where repairs were attempted by caregivers. Age is a factor in the safety of any crib. At a minimum, CPSC staff recommends that you not use a crib that is older than 10 years. Many older cribs may not meet current voluntary standards and can have numerous safety problems.

The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

More

CPSC Recalls 2 Million More Cribs

More than 9 million dangerous cribs recalled since 2005

CPSC Recalls 2 Million More Cribs...


After high-profile recalls of drop-side cribs that can suffocate infants, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has expanded its recall to include two million cribs made by seven companies.

The beds included in the recall were made by Child Craft, Delta Enterprises Corp., Evenflo, Jardine Enterprises, LaJobi, More on this recall and Simmons Juvenile Products Inc.

Some, but not all, are the drop-side cribs, which pose a danger to infants who become trapped in the gap between the mattress and the side of the crib. Included in this latest recall is the Child Craft brand "Crib 'N' Double Bed" full size stationary-side crib with dowel.

The crib's stationary side can be assembled upside-down but still appears to be assembled correctly. If assembled upside-down, the crib side contains a hazardous five-inch gap at the top of the crib. Infants or toddlers can become entrapped in this gap, which can lead to entrapment, strangulation or other injuries.

CPSC has received four reports of children becoming entrapped between the dowel and the crib's stationary front side. In two of those reports, the child was trapped by his/her head and was in danger of being strangled. In the other two reports, the child was trapped by his/her arm. This hazard can occur on both the front and back sides of the crib, the agency said.

Listed below are cribs included in the latest recall.

747,000 Delta drop-side cribs

Improper installation can cause the mattress platform to collapse.

This recall involves Delta drop-side cribs with three different types of drop-side hardware and Delta cribs with wooden stabilizer bars that support the mattress platform.

  • Delta Enterprises Corp.

 

750,000 Jenny Lind drop-side cribs distributed by Evenflo

CPSC and Evenflo have received 31 reports of drop sides that malfunctioned or detached. One involved the entrapment of a seven-month-old boy between the drop side and the crib mattress. He sustained bumps and bruises to his head. Nine children fell out of the crib when the drop side detached, unlocked or fell off. Seven of those children sustained minor injuries, including bumps, bruises and cuts. Fourteen other incidents involved no injuries. In addition, CPSC has received two reports of children who became entrapped when the mattress support detached in one corner of cribs manufactured between 2000 and 2004.

306,000 Bonavita, Babi Italia and ISSI drop-side cribs manufactured by LaJobi

This recall involves all models of Bonavita, Babi Italia and ISSI drop-side cribs manufactured by LaJobi. The cribs have drop-side hardware that contains metal or plastic pegs that are recessed into either the drop side or the headboard and footboard of the crib. A label on the headboard of the crib identifies the manufacturer as LaJobi.

  • LaJobi

130,000 Jardine drop-side cribs imported by Toys R Us

The cribs' drop sides can malfunction, detach or otherwise fail, causing part of the drop side to fall out of position, creating a space into which an infant or toddler can roll and become wedged or entrapped, which can lead to strangulation or suffocation.

  • Jardine Enterprises

156,000 Million Dollar Baby drop-side cribs

CPSC and Million Dollar Baby have received 43 reports of drop side failures. There were eight reports of children being entrapped between the mattress and drop side resulting in three reports of bruises to the head or upper body. Additionally, three children fell out of the crib when the drop side failed but they were not injured.

  • More on this recall

50,000 Simmons drop-side cribs

The cribs' drop sides can malfunction, detach or otherwise fail, causing part of the drop side to fall out of position, creating a space into which an infant or toddler can roll and become wedged or entrapped, which can lead to strangulation or suffocation. A child can also fall out of the crib. Drop-side incidents can also occur due to incorrect assembly and with age-related wear and tear. Style numbers are printed on a permanent label on the headboard.

  • Simmons Juvenile Products Inc.

In the last five years more than nine million cribs have been recalled because of a potential hazard to children. Drop-side cribs are blamed for the deaths of 32 children since 2000, CPSC said.



More

McDonald's Faces Possible Happy Meal Suit

Consumer group says including toys with unhealthy meals 'creepy and predatory'

McDonald's Faces Possible Happy Meal Suit...

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has given McDonald's an ultimatum: do away with the Happy Meal toys or lawyer up.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit served McDonald's with notice of intent on Tuesday, giving the company 30 days to drop the toys before it finds itself defending against a class action complaint. CSPI contends that including toys with "unhealthy junk food" is illegal under consumer protection statutes in California, Texas, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia.

CSPI founder Michael Jacobson, who claims to have invented the phrases "empty calories" and "junk food," said "multi-billion-dollar corporations make parents' job nearly impossible by giving away toys and bombarding kids with slick advertising."

The group went so far as to compare McDonald's with a child molester in a statement.

"McDonald's is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children," said CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner. "It's a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction."

Difference of opinion

McDonald's sees things slightly differently.

"We couldn't disagree more with the misrepresentation of our food and marketing practices," reads a statement from company spokesman William Whitman. "McDonald's is committed to a responsible approach to our menu, and our Happy Meal offerings. We have added more choice and variety than ever before, a fact that has been widely reported and recognized."

The Happy Meal toy has been a staple of the meal since its introduction in 1979. For a number of years, McDonald's partnered with Disney to provide toys inspired by recently-released family films. Disney ended the relationship in 2006, however -- a decision that insiders speculated was based on the increasing amount of scrutiny put on the nutritional value of McDonald's menu choices.

Other challenges

This is hardly the first time that McDonald's has faced a potential nutrition-related lawsuit. In 2005, the company settled a suit concerning its use of trans fats, agreeing to pay $7 million to the American Heart Association and another $1.5 million for a public advertising campaign alerting the public to the dangers of those fats.

In 2008, the company announced that it would begin cooking its fries and other baked items with a new, zero-trans-fat oil.

And the CSPI isn't the only one taking on the Happy Meal toy specifically. In April, Santa Clara County, California, officially prohibited restaurants from including toys with any high-calorie meals, a category into which Happy Meals conveniently fall.

County supervisor Ken Yeager told The Los Angeles Times that the new ordinance "prevents restaurants from preying on children's' love of toys."

What's next?

So what does it all mean? Is it only a matter of time before the Happy Meal toy -- or the Happy Meal itself -- becomes a thing of the past?

Anything is possible, but McDonald's has a strong incentive to keep kids coming through the doors. In 2003, Happy Meals accounted for fully 20 percent of the company's business, a number that translates to $3.5 billion annually.

More

Pro-Pet Dog Vitamins Recalled After Salmonella Scare

Bacterium can also affect humans who handle infected products

Pro-Pet Dog Vitamins Recalled After Salmonella Scare...

By Lisa Wade McCormick
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 23, 2010
A salmonella scare has prompted an Ohio company to recall some of its vitamins for dogs.

United Pet Group of Cincinnati is pulling all unexpired lots of its Pro-Pet Adult Daily vitamin supplement tablets for dogs because of the possible contamination.

The company took this action out of an abundance of caution after one lot of the product tested positive for salmonella, a bacterium that can cause food poisoning.

The recalled vitamins -- sold in retail stores nationwide -- come in 100-count white plastic bottles with a light blue label and have a UPC of 26851-01800. All bottles with expiration dates on or before 06/13 are included in this action.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said salmonella can affect pets and humans who handle products contaminated with the bacterium.

Pets with salmonella infections may become lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting, the FDA said. Some pets will only experience decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain.

Infected -- but otherwise healthy pets -- can still spread the bacterium to other animals or humans, according to the FDA. Consumers with pets that consumed the recalled vitamins and have these symptoms should contact their veterinarians.

The FDA warned that people who handle dry pet food or treats tainted with salmonella can also become infected. The risk is greater for those who have not thoroughly washed their hands after having contact with the contaminated products or any surfaces exposed to them.

Symptoms of salmonella poisoning in humans include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and fever. In rare cases, salmonella can cause arterial infections, arthritis, and other serious health problems, the FDA said. Anyone who experiences these symptoms after handling a salmonella-tainted pet product should contact their physician.

United Pet Group said consumers should immediately stop giving their dogs the recalled vitamins. For more information about this action, pet owners can contact the company at 1-800-645-5154, extension 3.



More

Survey Shows Smokers Still Believe In 'Light' Cigarettes

New rules bans 'light' and 'mild' from cigarette marketing

Survey Shows Smokers Still Believe In 'Light' Cigarettes...

June 23, 2010
New rules took effect this week barring cigarette companies from using words like "light, "low," or "mild" to describe their products. But research shows smokers still want to believe that some cigarettes are safer than others.

A survey sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Consumer Healthcare shows many smokers will choose the cigarettes in lighter-colored packaging because they incorrectly believe these cigarettes would be less harmful to their health or make it easier to quit smoking.

The survey shows more than one-third of smokers misunderstand the health impact of "light" or "mild" cigarettes. Almost half of smokers surveyed -- 44 percent -- say they typically smoke "light" or "ultra light" cigarettes, with one-quarter of these smokers saying they do so because they mistakenly believe "light" cigarettes are less harmful and/or easier to quit than regular cigarettes.

Label changes

Sixty-eight percent of smokers also say the changes prohibiting the words "light" or "mild" will not make it difficult for them to identify their preferred type of cigarettes. Eighty-seven percent say even without the words on the label, they will be able to identify what would constitute "light" cigarettes by the color and design of the packaging.

"Research has shown that many smokers choose light cigarettes because they believe these cigarettes may be less harmful to their health, and even make it easier to quit smoking," said Saul Shiffman, Ph.D., professor in the departments of psychology and pharmaceutical science at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Scientific Advisor at Pinney Associates, which provides consulting services to GlaxoSmithKline. "Repackaged light cigarettes with different colors are just as deadly as packs bearing the lights descriptor."



More

SEC Charges New York Firms With Mortgage Fraud

Advisor accused of causing tens of millions in losses

SEC Charges New York Firms With Mortgage Fraud...

June 22, 2010
The Securities and Exchange Commission has charged a New York-based investment adviser and three of his affiliated firms with fraudulently managing investment products tied to the mortgage markets as they came under pressure in 2007.

The complaint follows last week's announcement by the Justice Department of 485 mortgage fraud-related arrests in Operation Stolen Dreams.

The SEC alleges that, at the direction of its owner and president Thomas Priore, ICP Asset Management LLC defrauded four multi-billion-dollar collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) by engaging in fraudulent practices and misrepresentations that caused the CDOs to lose tens of millions of dollars. Priore and his companies also improperly obtained tens of millions of dollars in advisory fees and undisclosed profits at the expense of their clients and investors.

"ICP and Priore repeatedly put themselves ahead of their clients," said Robert Khuzami, Director of the SEC's Enforcement Division. "Instead of acting as fiduciaries, they took advantage of a distressed market to line their own pockets."

According to the SEC's complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, ICP began serving in 2006 as the collateral manager for what were known as the Triaxx CDOs, which invested primarily in mortgage-backed securities. ICP's affiliated broker-dealer ICP Securities LLC and its parent company Institutional Credit Partners LLC also are charged in the SEC's complaint.

Inflated prices

The SEC contends that ICP and Priore directed more than a billion dollars of trades for the Triaxx CDOs at what they knew were inflated prices. ICP and Priore repeatedly caused the Triaxx CDOs to overpay for securities in order to make money for ICP and protect other ICP clients from realizing losses. The prices for such trades often exceeded market prices by substantial margins. In some trades, ICP caused the CDOs to pay a price that was substantially higher than the price another ICP client paid for the security earlier the same day.

"The CDOs were complex but the lesson is simple: collateral managers bear the same responsibilities to their clients as every other investment adviser. When they violate their clients' trust, we will hold them accountable, said " George S. Canellos, Director of the SEC's New York Regional Office.

According to the SEC's complaint, ICP and Priore caused the CDOs to make numerous prohibited investments without obtaining necessary approvals, and they later misrepresented those investments to the trustee of the CDOs and to investors. The prices of many of these investments were intentionally inflated to allow ICP to collect millions of dollars in advisory fees from the CDOs.

The SEC further alleges that ICP and Priore executed undisclosed cash transfers from a hedge fund they managed in order to allow another ICP client to meet the margin calls of one of its creditors. Priore subsequently misrepresented the transfers to the hedge fund's investors.

More

Warning: Scammers Using Bogus Online Rental Ads

Would-be renters are enticed to send money to non-existent property owner

Warning: Scammers Using Bogus Online Rental Ads...

June 22, 2010
Phony rental ads continue to pop-up online with the sole purpose of stealing money from unsuspecting renters, warns Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood.

The scammers steal the details of the homes and even the pictures from the actual real estate listing, making the listings seem like the real thing, says Attorney General Hood. These ads are placed on Craigslist and other online classifieds for properties that are actually for sale, not rent.

Prospective renters typically fall victim after responding to an online classified for a rental property. The scammer duplicates postings from legitimate real estate sites and re-posts these ads after altering them. Often, the scammers use the brokers real name to create a fake email, which gives the fraud more legitimacy.

When the victim sends an email through the classified ad site inquiring about the home, a response comes from someone claiming to be the owner. The owner claims he and his wife are currently on missionary work in a foreign country. Therefore, he needs someone to rent their home while they are away. The victim is asked to send money to the owner in the foreign country via a wire service, which goes to the scammer and the victim loses the money.

Hood advises consumers to be skeptical of any solicitation where:

• The deal sounds too good to be true. Scammers often lure victims by listing a rental for a very low price. Compare listings, and if the rental comes in suspiciously low, walk away.

• The landlord is located elsewhere and prefers to communicate via e-mail. Scammers might say they have just been relocated out of the country for a job or missionary work - dont believe it. Deal locally with people you can meet in person.

• The landlord requires a substantial deposit before handing over the keys or even showing the home. Dont pay any money before inspecting the home, inside and out.

• The landlord asks the renter to wire money through wire transfer services such as Western Union or MoneyGram. Money sent via wire transfer service is extremely difficult to retrieve and once the scammers have picked it up there is little chance of getting the money back.

Anyone who suspects they have been a victim of this scam or any other, should contact their state's attorney general or local consumer affairs department. Suspected abuse posted on the Craigslist site may be reported to: abuse@craigslist.org.

More

AG Focuses On Foreclosure Rescue Scams In Ohio

Two businesses sued for deceiving consumers who hoped to save their homes

AG Focuses On Foreclosure Rescue Scams In Ohio...

June 22, 2010
As part of a national mortgage fraud sweep dubbed "Operation Stolen Dreams," Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray has filed lawsuits against two Ohio foreclosure rescue businesses for failing to provide services for which consumers paid.

JLS & Associates Financial Services LLC (JLS), based in Cleveland, and Freedom Equity Savings LLC (FES), located in the Columbus area, are accused of defrauding homeowners across the state out of thousands of dollars.

"Both of these businesses targeted Ohioans throughout the state who were in dire need of foreclosure prevention help," said Cordray. "They promised services that were not delivered and in many cases consumers ended up worse off than they were before they dealt with these companies."

Money for nothing

JLS is accused of charging consumers more than $1,000 each in upfront fees with the promise to save their homes from foreclosure. In the end, the promised services were not provided and some consumers' homes ended up in foreclosure.

The lawsuit charges JLS with several violations of Ohio's Consumer Sales Practices Act, including failure to deliver and unfair, deceptive and unconscionable acts or practices. The case, filed in Lucas County Common Pleas Court, seeks civil penalties, injunctive relief and victim restitution.

FES is registered to do business in Ohio as well as nine other states: Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas. The company utilizes a sophisticated-looking website and phone solicitations to attract consumers and charges up to $3,250 in fees.

The lawsuit also alleges that upon contact, FES claims that it can arrange loan modifications for consumers that will result in a reduction of monthly payments. FES is charged with violations of the Consumer Sales Practices Act including: failure to deliver; making misleading statements of opinion; unfair, deceptive and unconscionable acts or practices and violations of Ohio's Debt Adjuster Act and Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Cordray is seeking civil penalties, injunctive relief and victim restitution.

Other actions

In addition to these two new cases, as part of "Operation Stolen Dreams" Cordray secured default judgments in the following three foreclosure rescue scam cases:

• State of Ohio v. Foreclosure Assistance USA, Inc./American Foreclosure Professionals Inc., Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas

• State of Ohio v. United Law Group Inc., Franklin County Court of Common Pleas

• State of Ohio v. Foreclosure Home Assistance LLC d/b/a Global Home Rescuers, Artice Gordon and Wanda Sanchez-Gordon, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court

All three default judgments required the businesses to stop operating in Ohio and to pay civil penalties and consumer restitution.

Since January 2009, Cordray has filed lawsuits against 11 foreclosure rescue businesses operating in Ohio including those announced today and has issued more than 30 cease and desist notices. He has secured default judgments against five of those companies for $900,000 in civil penalties and restitution.

Operation Stolen Dreams is a mortgage fraud sweep initiated by U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder as part of the United States Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force.

More

FBI Warns of 'Telephone Denial-of-Service' Attacks

Criminals flood consumers' phone lines while raiding bank account

FBI Warns of 'Telephone Denial-of-Service' Attacks...

June 22, 2010
Imagine getting hundreds or thousands of calls on your home, business, or cell phone, tying up the lines. And when you answer, you hear anything from dead air to recorded messages, advertisements, or even phone sex menus.

Its annoying, no doubt. But it could be more than that it could be a sign that youre being victimized by the latest scam making the rounds. This telephone denial-of-service attack could be the precursor to a crime targeting your bank accounts, the FBI warns.

Denial-of-service attacks, by themselves, are nothing new computer hackers use them to take down websites by flooding them with large amounts of traffic.

In a recent twist, criminals have transferred this activity to telephones, using automated dialing programs and multiple accounts to overwhelm the phone lines of unsuspecting citizens.

Why are they doing it? Turns out the calls are simply a diversionary tactic: while the lines are tied up, the criminals masquerading as the victims themselves are raiding the victims bank accounts and online trading or other money management accounts.

Here, in a nutshell, is how the whole thing works:

Weeks or months before the phone calls start, a criminal uses social engineering tactics or malware to elicit personal information from a victim that this persons bank or financial institution would have like account numbers and passwords. Perhaps the victim responded to a bogus e-mail phishing for information, inadvertently gave out sensitive information during a phone call, or put too much personal information on social networking sites that are trolled by criminals.

Using technology, the criminal ties up the victims various phone lines.

Then, the criminal either contacts the financial institution pretending to be the victimor pilfers the victims online bank accounts using fraudulent transactions. Normally, the institution calls to verify the transactions, but of course they cant get through to the victim over the phone.

If the transactions arent made, the criminals sometimes re-contact the financial institution as the victim and ask for it to be done. Or they add their own phone number to victims accounts and just wait for the bank to call.

By the time the victim or the financial institution realizes what happens, its too late.

While the lines are tied up, the criminals are raiding victims accounts.

The FBI said it first learned about this emerging scheme through one of its private industry partners, which told how a Florida dentist lost $400,000 from his retirement account after a denial-of-service attack on his phones.

And as of April of this year, the agency said there has been a noticeable surge in telephone denial-of-service attacks, with numerous incidents having been reported in several Eastern states.

To help fight these schemes, the FBI has teamed up with the Communication Fraud Control Association comprised of security professionals from communication providers to analyze the patterns and trends of telephone denial-of-service attacks, educate the public, and identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

Ultimately, though, its individual consumers and small- and medium-sized businesses on the front line of this battle. So, the FBI advises, take precautions: never give out personal information to an unsolicited phone caller or via e-mail; change online banking and automated telephone system passwords frequently; check your account balances often; and protect your computers with the latest virus protection and security software.

And if you think you may have been targeted by a telephone denial-of-service attack, contact your financial institution and your telephone provider, and file a complaint with the FBIs Internet Crime Complaint Center.

More

Natural Balance Pulls Sweet Potato, Chicken Dry Dog Food

FDA finds salmonella bacterium during routine testing

Natural Balance Pulls Sweet Potato, Chicken Dry Dog Food...

By Lisa Wade McCormick
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 21, 2010
Natural Balance has pulled some of its Sweet Potato & Chicken dry dog food off the market because of possible salmonella contamination.

The California company took the action after a random sample analyzed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tested positive for the bacterium that can cause food poisoning. That sample had a Best By date of June 17, 2011, the FDA said.

The only products involved in this recall are the Natural Balance Sweet Potato & Chicken dry dog food in 5-pound and 28-pound bags with the "Best By" date of June 17, 2011, the company said. The UPC on the 5 pound bag is 7-23633-9000-4 and the UPC on the 28-pound bag is 7-23633-99002-8.

Natural Balance said there are no reports of any illnesses linked to the recalled food, which was manufactured on December 17, 2009.

Upon hearing from the FDA, I immediately went to our Director of Customer Service, a licensed Registered Veterinary Technician, to check call logs for any complaints with this product, the companys president, Joey Herrick, wrote in a June 18, 2010, letter posted on Natural Balances Web site. Our Customer Service department closely tracks and monitors complaints for any potential issues; and I heard no reports in our weekly meetings, so I was not surprised when I found we did not have a single complaint about this product.

Herrick said he also hired an independent lab to test the companys retention sample from the recalled lot.

Those test results also came back negative, he said, including a link to the findings by Zoologix. I reported our test results and call logs to the FDA, but due to the positive result they had found, they recommended a recall.

The company distributed the recalled food in pet specialty stores in the following 26 states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Herrick said his company has strict testing protocols and he was surprised by the FDAs findings.

"In my mind, I asked, How can this happen? I spent over $900,000 putting in our laboratory to test our products before we release them. We tested samples from the production run when it was manufactured six months ago, and the results came back negative.

He added: I believe that we are the only pet food company that has built an in-house lab as an added check and gives you the test results in real time on our website. We hold the finished product in our warehouses for two to three days, until that testing is completed. We only release product to be shipped when the testing is negative.

Not perfect

Nonetheless, Herrick conceded there is no perfect testing protocol.

But the alternative is not testing at all, he wrote. That wouldnt work for me. I wouldnt be able to sleep at night knowing we arent testing every product before it goes out, to help make sure our products are the best in the business. Any testing is much safer for you and your pets than the alternative, which is not testing at all.

The FDA said salmonella can affect pets and humans who handle products contaminated with the bacterium. Symptoms of salmonella poisoning in humans includes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and fever. In rare cases, salmonella can cause arterial infections, arthritis, and other serious health problems, the FDA said. Anyone who experiences these symptoms after handling the recalled pet food should contact their physician.

Pets with salmonella infections can be lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting, the FDA said. Some pets may have decreased appetite, fever, and abdominal pain.

The FDA warned that infected -- but otherwise healthy pets -- can still spread the bacterium to other animals or humans. Pet owners with dogs that ate the recalled food and exhibit these symptoms should contact their veterinarians, the FDA said.

Natural Balance said pet owners can return any of the recalled food for a full refund. For more information, pet owners can contact Natural Balance at (800) 829-4493 or check the companys Web site.

 

 

 

More

FDA Warns Consumers About Magic Power Coffee

Coffee marketed as sexual enhancement product is dangerous, agency says

FDA Warns Consumers About Magic Power Coffee...

An instant coffee marketed as a dietary supplement for sexual enhancement won't make you more attractive to the opposite sex and could be dangerous as well, warns the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The product is Magic Power Coffee, which contains an active drug ingredient that can dangerously lower blood pressure, the agency said.

The FDA said consumers who have Magic Power Coffee should stop using it immediately. Sexual enhancement products that claim to work as well as prescription products are likely to expose consumers to unpredictable risks and the potential for injury or even death.

In the case of Magic Power Coffee, the FDA said it collected and analyzed the product and determined that the product contains hydroxythiohomosildenafil. This is a chemical similar to sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra.

Hydroxythiohomosildenafil, like sildenafil, may interact with prescription drugs known as nitrates, including nitroglycerin, and cause dangerously low blood pressure. Consumers and health care professionals should be aware of this problem and the health hazard it presents.

When blood pressure drops suddenly, the brain is deprived of an adequate blood supply, which can lead to dizziness or lightheadedness.

"Because this product is an instant coffee labeled as an 'all natural dietary supplement,' consumers may assume it is harmless and poses no health risk," said Deborah M. Autor, director of FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, Office of Compliance. "In fact, Magic Power Coffee can cause serious harm." To date, the FDA is not aware of any adverse events associated with the use of this product.

The product is distributed on Internet sites and online auctions by multiple independent distributors participating in an online multi-level marketing scheme. It is sold in a 2-serving box and a 12-serving carton containing six 2-serving boxes.

The FDA advises consumers who have experienced any negative side effects from sexual enhancement products to consult a health care professional and to safely discard the product. Consumers and health care professionals should report adverse events to the FDA's MedWatch program at 800-FDA-1088 or online.

During the past several years, the FDA has found many products marketed as dietary supplements for sexual enhancement that contain undeclared active ingredients of FDA-approved drugs, analogs of approved drugs or other compounds that do not qualify as "dietary ingredients."

"The FDA is committed to protecting public health and stopping the illegal marketing of unapproved drugs," said Autor. "We support vigorous law enforcement and criminal prosecution of violators of safe drug laws.



More

Consumers Warned To Avoid 'Sweepstakes' Letter

Solicitation seeks fee for collecting winnings; consumers taken to the cleaners

Consumers Warned To Avoid 'Sweepstakes' Letter...

June 21, 2010
Oregon Attorney General John Kroger is warning consumers not to respond to an unsolicited "sweepstakes" letter claiming that the recipient has "won" money and only needs to pay a small fee to obtain it.

The state's Department of Justice (DOJ) Consumer Hotline has received calls inquiring about a letter from the "Data Release Division" based in Jericho, New York. The letter claims to be a "guaranteed sweepstakes award," notifying the recipient they have won $1.4 million.

In reality, this letter is a deceptive solicitation than seeks money from unsuspecting consumers.

The DOJ has sent a letter to the "Data Release Division" ordering the company to cease mailing this deceptive letter or face sanctions for violating Oregon's the Unlawful Trade Practices Act.

Bogus sweepstakes and lottery offers are among the most common scams that seek to rip off consumers. In 2009, more than 1,000 Oregon residents reported losing in excess of $700,000 to sweepstakes, lottery and other scams.

Kroger offers the following advice regarding unsolicited telephone calls, mail or e-mail claiming that the recipient won a sweepstakes or lottery:

• Participating in a foreign lottery is illegal. Often these schemes are closely tied to organized crime.

• Never pay-to-play in a sweepstakes.

• Beware of fake organizations using similar names to more well-known groups in an attempt to trick consumers.

• Government agencies do not sponsor sweepstakes.

• Never wire money to receive a prize. Con artists frequently send victims fake checks as a "first down-payment" of their winnings, asking that a percentage be wired back under the misrepresentation that it will be used to "pay taxes" associated with the "winnings." These fake checks can sit in one's checking account for up to a week before ultimately bouncing.

• Beware of requests for income, credit card ownership, or bank accounts as a condition of participating in the sweepstakes or lottery.

• Do not participate in sweepstakes, or respond to advertisements, that resemble a check, bill, or invoice.

More

Banks Prepare for New Overdraft Rules

Power shifts to consumers starting July 1

Banks Prepare for New Overdraft Rules...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 21, 2010
Starting July 1, new Federal Reserve rules will prevent banks from automatically charging overdraft fees when debit customers exceed their account balance.

Currently, when a consumer goes into the red, banks automatically honor the purchase but tack on a hefty fee -- usually around $35. Starting next month, banks will not be able to enroll a consumer in this "courtesy" overdraft protection unless the consumer "opts in," specifically agreeing to the coverage.

In addition, some banks have announced they will no longer charge an overdraft fee if a customer's credit card purchase puts them just a few dollars over the limit. Other institutions, like Bank of America, have already discontinued its courtesy overdraft protection, based on customer feedback.

Banks, of course, are hoping many consumers will "opt in" for the continued overdraft coverage, since overdraft fees add up to billions of dollars in revenue for the industry. But as a consumer, you will now have the power to choose.

What you should know

Starting July 1, your bank must first get your permission to apply its standard overdraft practices to everyday debit card and ATM transactions before you can be charged overdraft fees. To grant this permission, you will need to respond to the notice and opt in.

This is important because, if you take no action, you will not be granted the overdraft protection, but you will also not be charged overdraft fees. If you do not opt in, beginning August 15, 2010, your bank's standard overdraft practices won't apply to your everyday debit card and ATM transactions, according to the Fed. These transactions typically will be declined when you don't have enough money in your account, but you will not be charged overdraft fees.

If you open a new account on or after July 1, 2010, your bank cannot charge you overdraft fees for everyday debit card and ATM transactions unless you opt in. If you open a new account before July 1, 2010, your bank will treat you as an existing account holder: you will receive a notice about your bank's standard overdraft practices and will have to decide if you want them for everyday debit card and ATM transactions.

Whatever your decision, the new overdraft rules give you flexibility. If you opt in, you can cancel at any time. If you do not opt in, you can opt in later.

It's important to remember that the new rules do not cover checks or automatic bill payments that you may have set up for paying bills such as your mortgage, rent, or utilities. Your bank may still automatically enroll you in its standard overdraft practices for these types of transactions. If you do not want your bank's standard overdraft practices in these instances, talk to your bank; you may or may not have the option to cancel.

More

Boomers: Don't Outlive Your Money

7 ways to stretch your assets to match your longevity

The more Boomers plan for, and are prepared for, retirement, whatever their age, the better the outcome when that day occurs and, hopefully, they wont run...

A few years ago, I took my mother, who was then in her early 80s, to a local senior center. We arrived early in time for socializing but there werent many people present. Then, around 11:30 a.m., the room started to fill up and soon every seat was taken.

Over 100 seniors had crowded into that room and I wondered if a famous celebrity was scheduled to speak, or it was possibly a special celebration. No, the main attraction was being able to get lunch for a dollar.

The room was filled with former teachers and workers of a wide variety of occupations and professions. What they all had in common was that now they were living on a fixed income. Was that going to be me someday? I wondered, shuddering at the thought.

Like many Boomers, I share that worrisome question thats on so many of our minds: Will I outlive my money? Younger Boomers, in their late 40s and 50s, at least have the luxury of time to make back some of the losses to their 401Ks or to build up more retirement funds reduced or eliminated by the pullback in the stock market.

But what can us older Boomers do? Many have pretty much given up on being able to retire, at least in the foreseeable future. And no one wants to be a burden to their children or anyone else for that matter. Everyone wants to ideally live in a financially independent way. So its time for Boomers of all ages to ask ourselves: how much money will I need to continue to pay my bills, take an occasional vacation, and not have to turn to anyone else for help as I enter the final decades of my life?

According to the National Vital Statistics Reports of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, United States Life Tables 2004, in 1900, the median age at death in the United States was just 58. As noted in that same report, by 2004, life expectancy had become, on average for the total population, 77.8. However it is not that uncommon today to find men and women living into their late 80s, 90s, and even over 100, some 30 to 40 years after being eligible for Social Security, a number that is predicted to soar for the Boomer population as it ages.

Darrin Courtney, a Boston area certified financial planner, agrees that the issues for the Boomers in their late 40s and 50s are different from those in their 60s. Courtney recommends that younger Boomers educate themselves about how long life expectancy is today and start to think about how they're going to pay for those extra years.

Take your time and dont rush into things, Courtney says. Work with someone you trust to do the research and to find the best mix of investment products and solutions. Carefully make a diversified decision about how to best meet your goals, knowing it might not be possible to meet all of them.

Worse than death

How widespread a concern is it to wonder if you will outlive your money? According to Jeff Faust, Senior specialist for external communications for Allianz Life, a provider of life insurance and annuities, a study conducted in May 2010 with more than 3,200 men and women between the ages of 44 and 75, found that 61% percent of those surveyed noted that they feared outliving their income more than they feared death. (Allianz is not without its critics. See Consumer Complaints about Allianz).

The study also found that 31% were unclear about what their expenses would be in retirement and 36% had no idea if their income would last.

Obviously with 78 million Boomers, and so many different situations, there is no one answer. But in researching the topic, I realized that there is the reality of poverty those who truly are poor and are trying to live on just their Social Security in retirement and are in need of government or private aid to get by.

Then there are those that I call the PP psychological poor. This is the group that has a fixed income that is much higher than the poverty level, possibly even over $100,000 a year from pension income as well as earnings from dividends and investments. However, those in the PP group may see themselves as outliving their money because they are earning less in retirement than they earned when they were working.

Be clear on your expenses

A few years back, Catherine Kitcho, a business consultant, started to worry about whether or not she and her husband would outlive their money. She did a lot of research into the topic and in 2007 her book Happy About Being a Baby Boomer: Facing Our Newfound Longevity was published.

Catherines approach was not to do an income projection analysis of the retirement years but to focus on a projection of what expenses you will need to cover. That way you can see your estimated expenses compared to your projected and, if there is a shortfall, at least you would have a specific number that you know you have to make up.

Besides future expenses, you also need to know what your current assets are (as well as your debts). Moreover, you need to take into consideration some of the costs related to aging that you are probably not dealing with yet. If you have an aging parent, you may be watching them spending money on these expenses and wondering how you will handle these costs when the time comes for you as well:

• Long term care costs if you or a loved one become sick and you need part-time, full-time, or even live-in assistance
• Once you hit Medicare and you get Medicare to cover health care, since it does not cover all of the health care costs, the cost of the supplemental insurance to pick up any costs that are not covered.
• Lifestyle costs: if you wish to travel or, if you wish to downsize your home, the cost of moving.
• The cost of living in an assisted living residential center or a nursing home.
• Legal services for preparing wills, trusts, health care directives, and any other specialized documents related to your estate.

7 Ways to Avoid Outliving Your Money

Solution #1: Keep Working

As long as you keep working and postpone taking Social Security for as long as possible so that you get a bigger payout, you should have more funds to work with in those years when you can no longer work.

You need not continue in the same job you are in now. You could switch to another job (See "Boomers Looking for Work" or even another career, or start your own business.

But the key is to keep one or more income streams coming in so you are not trying to live only off your pension, if you have one, or off your savings or investment dividends.

Solution #2: Make What You Have Last Longer By Becoming More Frugal

Judy Woodward Bates, who coined the term Bargainomics, has a weekly show on how to save money on Fox-6 TV in Birmingham, Alabama and is the author of Bargainomics: Money Management by the Book. She credits her grandmother who showed her by example how to be frugal and also her own parents who, when Judy decided to get married at the age of 17, announced to her that if she was going to do that, she and her husband would also have to make it on their own financially, and they did.

Judy is 57 and married to a 60-year-old who retired at the age of 53 and has worked sporadically ever since. She prides herself on the fact that they have never had a large income and never needed one because weve learned to live and live well within our income. Judy is dedicated to spreading the word that it is possible to happily live within your means. Here are some of her tips:

She doesnt eat out unless its a two for one deal or its an early bird special. Shes a big advocate of getting discount coupons to help offset the cost of eating out through www.restaurant.com or www.currentcodes.com. (Shell often go to www.currentcodes.com first, get a code, and then go to www.restaurant.com so she will pay just $3 for a $25 off certificate that would have cost her $10 without the code.)

She uses a local entertainment.com book and if shes going to any major city for even a couple of days, she will get one of those books because it helps her save a lot of money. She especially likes the certificates for movie ticket admissions through www.entertainment.com since you can get multiple movie tickets for $6 that would have cost $10.

There are links and additional suggestions at Judys website -- www.bargainomics.com.

Solution #3: Pay Off Your Debt and Avoid Incurring New Debt

Youve heard it before: Getting out of the credit card debt conundrum as you head into your potential retirement years is more important than ever before. Make it one of your top financial priorities. See Digging Out of Debt. Be careful not to make the problem worse by falling into the arms of a debt settlement company. Nearly all of these are scams.

Solution #4: Downsize or Relocate

Instead of waiting around for the housing market to come back, consider selling your home, if you can, and moving into a smaller one. You could save on the cost of the upkeep of your home including lower property taxes and heating and electric bills. You might want to rent instead of buying with any profits you do get from the sale.

As I discuss at greater length in Boomers Ponder Where to Spend the Rest of Their Lives, where you live can be one of the biggest cost issues that Boomers need to address. In addition to moving to a smaller home, you can also consider relocating to a less expensive community within your state or another state, or even to another country where your dollars will go further.

Solution #5: Stay Healthy

Avoiding expensive health care costs, related to having a chronic disease that necessitates custodial or nursing care, is one of the best ways to preserve your funds while you age. (Even if you think a family member is going to provide unpaid custodial care, he or she may have to give up working part-time or full-time to take care of that family member so it is not really free care.)

If there are any conditions that may impact your health that you can proactively prevent by changing your behavior, such as by giving up smoking, losing excess weight that makes you prone to diabetes or heart conditions, eating a healthier diet so you keep your cholesterol lower, or increasing physical exercise, which will also help reduce your risk of heart disease, do it. (See How to Live Better and Longer.)

Solution #6 Consult with an Elder Care Attorney or Financial Advisor about Asset Protection

Certified financial planner Darrin Courtney points out that most financial planners will offer a free consultation to help you to decide if working with an expert is the right step for you. An elder care attorney might also be able to advise you on an asset protection plan that makes the most sense for you and your family.No two situations are the same so, if possible, seek out help and work with someone who has the expertise and credentials to guide you and your spouse into making the best financial decisions in your older years so you avoid outliving your money.

Courtney also notes that most local chapters of the Financial Planners Association (FPA) may offer pro bono assistance you if you cannot afford to pay for the services of a financial planner. (For more information, see Pro Bono at the FPA website.)

Solution #7 Consider Long Term Care Insurance

It may be hard to think about it now, but if you or your spouse requires long term care, it can quickly deplete your savings especially if you are not eligible for Medicaid. Eligibility for Medicaid is a whole other discussion because of the financial eligibility requirements, that vary from state to state, as well as the five-year look-back period into the assets of the Medicaid applicant, and a set of requirements about what type of care is covered.

In a nutshell, if financial tests are met, nursing home care is usually covered by Medicaid; assisted living is not.

An option to consider is long term care insurance. Every policy is different based on what is offered and the monthly premium will vary according to the age that you get the policy, your overall health, and what you put into the policy. Still, there are some general rules of thumb from Michael A. Masiello, a financial planner who runs a firm, Masiello & Associates, out of Rochester, New York.

As Masiello says, You start burning through assets at $10,000 a month to cover the cost of care and it makes the cost of the premium look relatively inexpensive. What might those premiums be? For a 50 year old in good health, the premium would probably be $4,000 to $8,000 a year; for a 60-year-old, in good health, $6,000 to $10,000 a year. The cost goes up quite a bit as you age with a healthy 75-year-old having to pay $8,000 to $15,000 a year. Is that a lot of money a year? It certainly sounds like it. But if you consider that by paying those annual premiums you may get as much as $200,000 to $300,000 coverage when you need it for long term care, it is a different story.

Like annuities, long-term care insurance is fraught with peril. It's essential to research the topic thoroughly and be sure to choose a financially-sound underwriter. The Kaiser Family Foundation has published a study that is a must-read. Check consumer sites to see first-person consumer accounts of their experiences.

The Bigger Picture

D. Drummond Osborn is a 48-year-old fee-only financial advisor who has been working with Boomers for the past 20 years. He has experience with clients whose assets range from $100,000 to many millions. But, as Osborn notes, The zeros in front of the decimal may differ, but the fear of running out of money is often the same.

Notes Osborn, While a healthy relationship with money needs to be a balance of intellect and emotion, I have found that most individuals address the issue from one perspective or the other. The intellect has them eyeing an imaginary number that the retirement planning industry tells them will make them happy, while the emotional side either has the sky falling or a c'est la vie attitude. I require the Boomers I work with to create a balance - beginning the process of how they want to live and the legacy they wish to leave behind -- and THEN start talking about the numbers. While this approach doesn't negate the possibility of running out of money, it does empower the Boomer to address the reality of their financial life. There are almost always ways to avoid running out of money; unfortunately the majority of Boomers are unwilling to face the right/hard choices.

Planning and Being Prepared

As Darrin Courtney says, Its not a bad idea to plan for a thirty-year retirement. Put away as much as you can. Pay down debt. Seriously consider perhaps working a little longer and delaying getting Social Security rather than taking it at 62 because you want to get your hands on it.

So it all comes back to those P words: planning and being prepared. The more Boomers plan for, and are prepared for, retirement, whatever their age, the better the outcome when that day occurs and, hopefully, they wont run out of money.

More

Volkswagen HID Headlights Defective, Suit Says

Automaker accused of starting 'clandestine program' to pay back certain customers

Suit says that because of manufacturing defect, the headlights "appear to function normally when first turned on, but will sporadically shut off while the ...

More

Texas Charges Bally's Total Fitness With Deception

Past customers were sent fake 'past due' notices

Texas Charges Bally's Total Fitness With Deception...

The State of Texas has filed suit against Bally Total Fitness Corp., charging the health club chain with unlawfully attempting to mislead its former customers into paying "past due" membership fees they do not owe.

Bally, based in California, operates 24 fitness centers in and around the Dallas, Houston and San Antonio areas. An investigation by the attorney general's office revealed that between summer 2009 and March 2010, Bally mailed more than 11,000 misleading "past due" notices to former members in an attempt to encourage them to rejoin their former gym. The notices created the false impression that former members had outstanding dues that needed to be paid.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says more than 1,000 Texans made payments to Bally after receiving the past due notices. However, company representatives who were contacted by past members about past due notices acknowledged that the notices were not a collection effort, but rather an attempt to get former members to renew their memberships.

According to court documents filed by the state, Bally's notices claimed that recipients owed at least one month's overdue fees -- fees for which the notice demanded immediate payment. Some of Bally's past due notices even claimed that failure to remit a payment could result in a negative entry on the former members' credit reports.

The enforcement action, filed earlier this month, charges Bally with attempting to confuse its former members with deceptive bills so they would make payments that were not actually owned -- thus effectively reinstating a previous membership.

The attorney general is seeking civil penalties of up to $20,000 for each violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, as well as restitution for Bally's former customers that suffered financial harm. The attorney general also charged Bally with violating the Texas Finance Code by misrepresenting the "debt" to past members.

More

Medicare Recipients Target of New Scam

Scammers taking advantage of confusion about one-time $250 benefit

Medicare Recipients Target of New Scam...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 18, 2010
The Affordable Care Act passed by Congress and signed by President Obama earlier this year contains some important benefits for Medicare recipients. And scammers across the country have taken notice.

Starting last week many Medicare recipients began receiving e a one-time, tax-free $250 rebate check. Those who qualify for the tax-free $250 rebate will automatically receive their check, no additional information or actions are required to receive the rebate.

The check is designed to address a coverage gap in Medicare prescription drug plans. Medicare recipients on expensive or numerous drugs can find themselves paying the full cost of their prescription out-of-pocket while in the coverage gap.

The term "donut hole" refers to the coverage gap under Plan D, where Medicare stops paying pharmaceutical coverage at $2,830 before it starts paying again at $4,550. The one-time $250 tax-free rebate check for seniors that enter the "donut hole" is the federal government's first step toward closing the Medicare prescription drug coverage gap.

Scam artists are already trying profit by spreading misinformation about the $250 rebate checks. Oregon Attorney General John Kroger has already received reports of the scam in his state. He warns seniors not to give out personal information to anyone calling about the $250 rebate check.

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto says scammers are calling seniors pretending to be connected to the Medicare program. They tell potential victims that they need to "verify" certain information. Masto says that's not true.

"Once you reach the threshold with Medicare, the rebate will be issued automatically," she said. "Do not give out personal information to anyone contacting you regarding your check."

Medicare recipients do not need to provide any personal information like their Medicare, Social Security, or bank account number to receive the rebate check. There are no additional forms to fill out. The rebate is tax-free.

Anyone who tells you anything different is trying to scam you. Medicare recipients can make sure the government has their correct home address by calling Social Security at 1-800-772-1213.

More

Gulf Dispersant Making Matters Worse, Suit Says

Plaintiffs say chemical is ineffective, hazard to health

Gulf Dispersant Making Matters Worse, Suit Says...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 18, 2010
The dispersant BP is using to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf is actually more toxic than the oil itself, a Louisiana class action lawsuit claims. In an unrelated filing, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell filed a brief asking that consolidated cases stemming from the Deepwater Horizon explosion be heard in the Eastern District of Louisiana federal court.

The dispersant suit, filed today in a New Orleans federal court, seeks $5 million on behalf of Gulf coast residents and those working to clean up the spill. The action also targets Nalco Holding Company, the corporation that manufactures the dispersant, known as Corexit.

According to the complaint, the 1.3 million gallons of dispersant used so far have caused a toxic chemical to be a permanent part of the sea bed and food chain in the bio structure. The plaintiffs say that the chemical is actually four times more lethal than the oil itself, and that BP has allowed an even more dangerous condition to exist in the Gulf of Mexico than if the oil was allowed to float to the shoreline.

Nalco issued a press release on Thursday asserting that federal testing has concluded that the use of the COREXIT dispersant remains a safe, effective, and critical tool in mitigating additional damage in the Gulf. The statement quotes Nalco's chief technology officer, Dr. Mani Ramesh, as saying that the dispersant is safe.

The use of the dispersant has had no impact on marine life. These latest [federal] tests underscore previous findings that show COREXIT rapidly biodegrades and does not bio-accumulate, Ramesh said. The oil continues to be the primary hazard in the Gulf -- for workers, wildlife and vegetation. Dispersants have prevented more oil from reaching our shoreline.

Making it worse?

Still, a 2005 study by the National Research Council found that in some circumstances Corexit had no effect whatsoever, and occasionally even made conditions worse.

Additionally, Corexit has been banned in the United Kingdom -- where BP is based -- since 1998, when it was found hazardous to the food chain.

A May article in The New York Times reported that Corexit ranks far above dispersants made by competitors in toxicity and far below them in effectiveness in handling. Specifically, the article singled out Dispersit, a competing chemical, as being almost twice as effective in cleaning up oil spills while being, at most, one-half as toxic.

And Corexit, which was used in response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska, has been identified as a possible contributor to serious health problems suffered by recovery workers there, the Times noted. Specifically, a number of maladies that included kidney and liver problems were thought to be connected to the chemical 2-butoxyethanol, an ingredient in Corexit 9527. Both that dispersant and an updated sibling, Corexit 9500, are being used to clean up the Gulf spill.

At least one of the plaintiffs' attorneys is suggesting that Corexit got the nod because former officials from BP and ExxonMobil sit on Nalco's board.

Basically the oil companies are selling themselves their own product, said attorney Arlen Braud. That can be the only explanation as to why they didnt use the better ones.

Caldwell's filing

In his filing with the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, Caldwell said the Eastern District of Louisiana is the most appropriate venue for consolidated proceedings citing the courts proximity and connection to the disaster, as well as the convenience for affected litigants and witnesses.

The impacts from this catastrophe are, and will continue to be, most keenly felt by Louisiana's citizens including the families of those Louisiana offshore workers who lost their lives in the explosion, those who were injured, the fisherman and their families who depend on Louisiana's natural resources for a living, and the citizens who live along Louisiana's coastline, which is already fragile and disappearing at alarming rates, Caldwell said.

More

JD Power: U.S. Cars Tops in Initial Quality

Domestic brands outshine imports in survey for the first time

JD Power: U.S. Cars Tops in Initial Quality...

June 17, 2010

For decades German carmakers, then the Japanese, held the crown for the best in automotive quality. But now, for the first time, the best-made cars come from the U.S., according to J.D. Power and Associates' Initial Quality Study, conducted annually for the past 24 years.

Overall, the industry average for initial quality is 109 problems per 100 vehicles (PP100) in 2010, increasing slightly from 108 PP100 in 2009. However, initial quality for U.S. brands as a whole has improved by 4 PP100 in 2010 to an average of 108 PP100. That's slightly better than the initial quality of import brands, which averages 109 PP100 in 2010.

Ford is responsible for much of the U.S. improvement. The Ford Focus made big improvements in the 2010 survey, but so did the Dodge Ram 1500 LD and Buick Enclave.

In particular, initial quality of Ford models has improved steadily for the past nine years, the survey shows. In addition, as a corporation, Ford Motor Company (including Volvo) has 12 models that rank within the top three in their respective segments in 2010-more than any other corporation.

General Motors Company has 10 models that rank within the top three in their segments.

Initial quality performance demonstrated by U.S. brands in 2010 contrasts sharply with consumer sentiment from one year ago. According to data collected by the J.D. Power Web Intelligence Division between May and July 2009, much of the online consumer discussion about automotive quality centered around the difficulties U.S. automakers were facing, and perceptions that these problems were largely caused by poor product quality.

Impressive strides

"Domestic automakers have made impressive strides in steadily improving vehicle quality, particularly since 2007," said David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power and Associates. "This year may mark a key turning point for U.S. brands as they continue to fight the battle against lingering negative perceptions of their quality.

"However, there is still a long road ahead, and domestic manufacturers need to consistently prove to consumers that they can produce models with quality that equals or beats that of the import brands. Achieving quality comparability is the first half of the battle; convincing consumers-particularly import buyers-that they have done this is the second half."

According to J.D. Power's Web Intelligence Division, online consumer conversations about vehicle quality have recently shifted to a more concrete tone. In 2010, consumers are more often discussing quality as it applies to their own personal vehicle purchase decisions, rather than how domestic brands overall are affected by perceptions of low quality.

Initial quality of new models and major redesigns continues to improve in 2010, led by new launches from Ford, Honda, Lexus,Mercedes-Benz and Porsche.

The all-new Honda Accord Crosstour and the redesigned Ford Mustang, Ford Taurus and Lexus GX 460 each rank highest in initial quality in their respective segments. The Ford Fusion, Mercedes-Benz E-Class Coupe and Sedan and Porsche Panamera also launch with notably high initial quality levels.

Historically, newly launched models have incurred substantially more quality problems than carryover models, on average. However, more than one-half of all models launched during the 2010 model year perform better than their respective segment averages. In addition, 12 all-new and redesigned models rank within the top three in their respective segments. Meanwhile, initial quality of carryover and freshened models has declined for the 2010 model year.

"With automakers committing huge budgets for the design, engineering, production and marketing of all-new models and major redesigns, hitting the quality mark out of the gate is critical," said Sargent. "Getting initial quality right on model launches can serve dual purposes for automakers-boosting profitability and also inspiring consumer confidence in the overall quality of their models. Having a strong quality image is essential for automakers to be able to compete in today's market-both in the U.S. and around the globe."

The Initial Quality Study serves as the industry benchmark for new-vehicle quality measured at 90 days of ownership. The study is used extensively by manufacturers worldwide to help them design and build better vehicles and by consumers to help them in their vehicle purchase decisions.

Initial quality has been shown over the years to be an accurate predictor of long-term vehicle durability, which directly impacts consumer purchase decisions. The study captures problems experienced by owners in two distinct categories-design-related problems and defects and malfunctions.

2010 highlights

Porsche leads the overall nameplate rankings, averaging 83 PP100. Following in the rankings are, respectively, Acura (which moves from 14th rank position in 2009 to second in 2010), Mercedes-Benz (which improves from sixth rank position in 2009 to third in 2010), Lexus and Ford (which moves into the top five for the first time since the inception of the study). MINI posts the largest improvement in 2010, reducing problems by 32 PP100 from 2009.

Toyota's problem count increases by 16 PP100, moving it from sixth rank position in 2009 to 21st in 2010.

"Clearly, Toyota has endured a difficult year," said Sargent. "Recent consumer concerns regarding Toyota's quality are reflected in the nameplate's performance in the 2010 study. That said, Toyota's success was built on a well-deserved reputation for quality, and there is little doubt that they will do everything possible to regain that reputation."

Ford and Lexus each garner three segment awards. Ford captures awards for the Focus, Mustang and Taurus, while Lexus receives awards for the GS, GX and LS models. The Lexus LS has the fewest quality problems in the industry, with just 55 PP100.

Chevrolet, Honda and Toyota receive two awards each. Chevrolet models earning awards are the Avalanche (in a tie) and the Tahoe. Honda receives awards for the Accord and the Accord Crosstour, while Toyota receives awards for the FJ Cruiser and Sienna.

Also receiving segment awards are: Acura RDX, Cadillac Escalade, GMC Sierra LD (in a tie), Hyundai Accent, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Nissan Frontier, Scion xB and Volvo C70.

More

Tough Economic Conditions Putting Pressure On Working Dads

CareerBuilder's annual Father's Day survey offers tips for navigating through difficult economic times

Tough Economic Conditions Putting Pressure On Working Dads ...

June 17, 2010

Even as they look ahead to Father's Day, many working dads are experiencing heavier workloads, added stress and less time spent with their families because of the struggling economy.

CareerBuilder's Annual Father's Day Survey finds one-in-10 working dads said their spouse or significant other has become unemployed in the last 12 months, with half indicating that it is causing stress at home. Forty-two percent of those polled are the sole provider for their household and nearly one-in-ten (nine percent) have taken on a second job in the last 12 months to provide for their family.

Leaner staffs are creating more demands at the office, making it harder for working fathers to achieve a healthy work/life balance. Sixty-three percent said they work more than 40 hours per week. Three in ten (31 percent) working dads who take work home reported they typically bring work home five days a week or more. Thirty percent bring work home on the weekends.

Heavier workloads and longer hours are resulting in less quality time with family. Close to four- in-ten (37 percent) working dads said they spend two hours or less with their children each workday. More than three-in-ten (35 percent) reported they missed two or more significant events in their child's life due to work in the last year.

"Especially in tough times, working dads have to be more creative and strategic to successfully juggle both work and family commitments," said Jason Ferrara, VP Corporate Marketing at CareerBuilder and father of two. "Employers understand the importance of working dads' time away from the office and continue to place an emphasis on work/life balance through benefits that encourage employees to better manage their schedules. However, year over year, we find that nearly half of working dads do not take advantage of the flexible work arrangements offered to them."

Keeping your balance

Ferrara recommends the following tips for working dads navigating through difficult economic times:

• Keep everyone in the mix. Remember -- communication is a two-way street. Besides just listening to what is going on in your family's lives, talk about what is going on in your office, so everyone understands why you are away or have to do some work when you are home.

• Learn to say "no." In addition to actual work, sometimes activities associated with your job can take a toll on your free time. Determine what additional activities you can turn down and which are necessary so that you can free up more of your time outside of the office.

• Develop a master family calendar. Add every family member's schedule to one master calendar so there are no surprises. Also, save vacation days for important events and talk to your supervisor about flexible work arrangements.

• Play now, work later. Put down your Blackberry and avoid checking e-mails until after your children have gone to sleep.

• Plan a family event in your office. Take advantage of the summer months when school is out and the office may be less hectic by scheduling a kid-friendly potluck or other event with co-workers and their families.

More

Feds Arrest 485 In Mortgage Fraud Sweep

Largest ever crackdown on mortgage-related crimes

Feds Arrest 485 In Mortgage Fraud Sweep: Federal prosecutors say a crackdown on mortgage fraud over the last three months has resulted in 485 arrests....

June 17, 2010

Federal prosecutors say a crackdown on mortgage fraud over the last three months has resulted in 485 arrests, the largest collective enforcement effort ever brought to bear in confronting mortgage fraud.

Since March 1, the crackdown -- called Operation Stolen Dreams -- has involved 1,215 criminal defendants nationwide, including 485 arrests, who are allegedly responsible for more than $2.3 billion in losses. Additionally, to date the operation has resulted in 191 civil enforcement actions that have resulted in the recovery of more than $147 million.

"Mortgage fraud ruins lives, destroys families and devastates whole communities, so attacking the problem from every possible direction is vital," Attorney General Eric Holder said. "We will use every tool available to investigate, prosecute and prevent mortgage fraud, and we will not rest until anyone preying on vulnerable American homeowners is brought to justice."

In a speech today, Holder also revealed that the Justice Department yesterday unsealed an indictment and arrested two defendants who allegedly targeted the Haitian-American community in Miami, often claiming they would assist them with immigration and housing issues, but then instead using victims' personal information to produce false documents to obtain mortgage loans.

In Chico, California, Holder said, a prominent home builder, caught with a significant amount of unsold new homes as the housing market cooled, allegedly used straw buyers to sell his houses at inflated prices with undisclosed sales rebates. Holder said the scheme inflated prices on other homes in the area, creating artificially high comparable sales and affecting the overall new-home market. To date, he says, thirty-eight of the homes have fallen into foreclosure and ten more have been the subject of short sales - all in one city.

Ghost loans

"In Detroit, just yesterday we charged several individuals who are part of a more than $100 million, 70-plus person 'ghost loans' scheme," Holder said.

In the scheme, the conspirators posed as mortgage brokers, appraisers, real estate agents and title agents and used straw buyers to obtain around 500 mortgages on only 180 properties.

"From home buyers to lenders, mortgage fraud has had a resounding impact on the nation's economy," said Mueller. "Those who prey on the housing market should know that hundreds of FBI agents on task forces and their law enforcement partners are tracking down your schemes and you will be brought to justice."

Federal officials says unlike previous mortgage fraud sweeps, Operation Stolen Dreams focused not only on federal criminal cases, but also on civil enforcement, recovering money for victims and increasing cooperation with state and local partners.

The operation was conducted in conjunction with the Department of Justice - including the FBI, U.S. Attorneys Offices, the U.S. Trustee Program and other components - as well as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of the Treasury, the Federal Trade Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the U.S. Secret Service, the National Association of Attorneys General and the National District Attorneys Association.

More

How To Turn Down The Volume On Those World Cup Vuvuzelas

Consumer Reportstackles the task of eliminating the buzz heard 'round the world

How To Turn Down The Volume On Those World Cup Vuvuzelas...

June 17, 2010
Is there a more annoying sound on Earth than those horns you hear people blowing non-stop during the matches of the World Cup 2010 in South Africa?

The horns are called vuvuzelas, and they seem to be getting as much international coverage as the matches themselves.

Despite calls to ban the long plastic trumpets, the racket they make probably isn't going to diminish on TV broadcasts anytime soon.

Complaints about the horns' incessant buzzing are coming from nearly quarter: high-profile players (who can't communicate over the drone), concerns from health experts (who say the loud blaring may affect hearing loss), and claims by World Cup broadcasters that they've stepped up audio filtering to screen out the vuvuzela racket.

Fortunately, TV viewers who can't stand the noise have a few options.

Consumer Reports Blogger Nick K. Mandle recommends skipping the purported vuvuzela "filter." One apparent quick fix getting media attention promises to kill the noise of the vuvuzela using "phase cancellation." The makers of the Anti-Vuvuzela Filter (which costs about $3.50) instruct users to play the downloadable MP3 alongside their TVs speakers.

"Depending on the circumstances" says the sale site, "the resulting sound wave may be so faint as to be inaudible to human ears." CR says in its test, the noise just became twice as irritating.

Mandle says instead, go into your TVs sound settings and turn the treble all the way down. It won't eliminate the vuvuzelas, but it tones down their highest-pitch, buzzsaw-in-the-brain frequencies.

Some TVs with more advanced sound controls have equalizers that let you adjust various sound wave frequencies. Playing with them might bring the vuvuzela decibels down, though perhaps at the expense of hearing the commentators a bit less well.

One of the CR testers found that if the TV is hooked up to a surround sound system, the vuvuzelas could be almost eliminated by lowering the volume of the left and right speakers (which carry crowd noises) and pumping up the volume of the center speaker (which carries the commentators' voices) via the sound system's settings menu.

As a last resort, of course, there's the mute button.

Despite the horrendous sound, many fans have found that concentrating on the game itself makes the vuvuzelas far less of a nuisance.

More

Feds Arrest Former Taylor, Bean & Whitaker Chairman

Lee Farkas accused of 'stunning' scheme to defraud investors, taxpayers

Feds Arrest Former Taylor, Bean & Whitaker Chairman...

The government has charged a former mortgage executive of attempting to defraud investors and the Troubled Asset Relief Fund (TARP), created by Congress during the banking crisis to buy toxic assets from troubled financial institutions.

Federal prosecutors charged that Lee Farkas, former chairman of failed Taylor, Bean & Whitaker Mortgage Corp., engineered a multibillion-dollar fraud and also attempted to obtain more than $550 million from the TARP program.

Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breur called the alleged fraud "truly stunning in its scale and complexity."

Farkas was arrested last night in Ocala, Fla., and charged in a 16-count indictment for his alleged role in a more than $1.9 billion fraud scheme that contributed to the failures of Colonial Bank, one of the 50 largest banks in the United States in 2009, and TBW, one of the largest privately held mortgage lending companies in the United States in 2009, according to a U.S. Justice Department statement.

An indictment unsealed today in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia charges Farkas, of Ocala, Fla., with one count of conspiracy to commit bank, wire and securities fraud; six counts of bank fraud; six counts of wire fraud; and three counts of securities fraud. The indictment also seeks approximately $22 million in forfeiture from Farkas.

Farkas' lawyer said his client would plead "absolutely not guilty."

Farkas and his co-conspirators allegedly engaged in a scheme to misappropriate more than $400 million from Colonial Banks Mortgage Warehouse Lending Division in Orlando, Fla., and approximately $1.5 billion from Ocala Funding, a mortgage lending facility controlled by TBW. Farkas and his co-conspirators allegedly misappropriated this money to cover TBWs operating losses.

According to the government, the fraud scheme contributed to the failures of Colonial Bank and TBW. The indictment further alleges that Farkas and his co-conspirators committed wire and securities fraud in connection with their attempt to convince the United States government to provide Colonial Bank with approximately $553 million in TARP funds.

"Taxpayers have paid a hefty price for the crimes related to the current financial crisis, and investors in Colonial and Ocala Funding were among those directly affected by this conspiracy," said Neil MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Court documents allege that the scheme began in 2002, when Farkas and his co-conspirators ran overdrafts in TBW bank accounts at Colonial Bank in order to cover TBWs cash shortfalls. Farkas and his co-conspirators at TBW and Colonial Bank allegedly transferred money between accounts at Colonial Bank to hide the overdrafts.

After the overdrafts grew to tens of millions of dollars, Farkas and his co-conspirators allegedly covered up the overdrafts and operating losses by causing Colonial Bank to purchase from TBW more than $400 million in what amounted to fake mortgage loan assets, including loans that TBW had already sold to other investors and fake interests in pools of loans. Farkas and his co-conspirators allegedly caused Colonial Bank to hold these purported assets on its books at their face value when in fact the mortgage loan assets were worthless.

Court documents also allege that Farkas and co-conspirators caused TBW to hide impaired-value mortgage loans that it was unable to sell. Through a series of sham transactions, the conspirators allegedly hid impaired-value loans on Colonial Banks books for a period of years in some cases.

According to court documents, Farkas and his co-conspirators at TBW also misappropriated hundreds of millions of dollars from Ocala Funding. Ocala Funding sold asset-backed commercial paper to financial institution investors, including Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas Bank. Ocala Funding, in turn, was required to maintain collateral in the form of cash and/or mortgage loans at least equal to the value of outstanding commercial paper.



More

Dissatisfaction With Banks Increases Interest In Prepaid Cards

Mintel finds consumers likely to pursue options to traditional accounts

Dissatisfaction With Banks Increases Interest In Prepaid Cards...

By James Limbach
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 16, 2010
Consumers' discontent with banks has been obvious for quite some time now and may have reached a tipping point.

A new report published by market and consumer information concern Mintel finds that consumers might be willing to act on that dissatisfaction and look for alternatives to their traditional checking accounts.

Unhappiness with banks is legion, and ConsumerAffairs.com has received an earful over the years.

Aaron of Augusta, GA, says Bank of America continues to come up with new ways to keep you from your money. "No matter what type of check is deposited (this time a Federal Contracting Check under $2000), they held it for 10 days with no exceptions," he writes. "To me this amounts to stealing my money, because I know they receive payment in about two days. This is not the first time they have done this. Nevertheless, I am doing my best to get away from these criminals."

"CitiBank won't cash it's own checks!" writes Thomas of Oakland, CA."I attempted to cash a CitiBank check a friend wrote to me at the CitiBank branch. After asking me to sign the check and then entering my California driver's license details into the computer, and asking me how I wanted me cash, the teller decided she also needed my fingerprint. When I refused she, then her supervisor, and then the branch manager refused to cash the check."

An alternative

In a new Mintel survey, 19 percent of those asked said they would be interested in using prepaid cards to pay bills, rather than a banking account. More importantly, 25 percent of households earning more than $100K per year -- the more profitable and desirable customers for banks -- agreed that they would be interested in using prepaid cards. Their main motivation is to avoid overdraft and/or other types of banking fees.

"This is significant, because if banks were to lose mass affluent customers, it could have a considerable impact on their bottom lines," says Susan Menke, Ph.D., vice president and behavioral economist at Mintel Comperemedia. "This means that the traditional category of the 'underbanked,' previously characterized by lower-income households and recent immigrants, now has the potential to include individuals with higher incomes who are leaving their banks for less traditional ways of handling their financial transactions."

Opportunity for prepaid providers

What are the most popular ways for prepaid providers to offer incentives to attract this new class of customer? According to Mintel, approximately six in 10 people say they would be interested if a rebate or cash-back were offered for using the prepaid card and seven in 10 find purchase discounts at merchants to be an attractive offer.

"There are a number of trends that appear to be springing out of dissatisfaction with the banking system, and the use of prepaid cards could be indicative of a larger trend -- that customers are becoming more open to using new or unfamiliar methods for conducting their transactions," adds Menke.

There is some good news for banks, however. Only three percent of survey respondents say they would prefer to have their salary loaded on a prepaid card rather than direct deposit to a bank, cash or a check.

More

Suit: Prius Seatbelt Failed

Pennsylvania plaintiff rendered quadriplegic in head-on accident

Although McCosh was wearing her seatbelt at the time of the accident, the suit alleges that the belt failed to tighten to the extent necessary to keep her ...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 16, 2010
A Pennsylvania woman claims in a lawsuit that the seatbelt on her Toyota Prius failed during a head-on accident, causing her "catastrophic spine and spinal cord injuries" that rendered her a quadriplegic.

Jacqueline McCosh, was making a right-hand turn off of Blevins Road in Hopewell Township, Pennsylvania, when another driver crossed the double yellow line and ran head-on into her 2006 Prius. Although McCosh was wearing her seatbelt at the time of the accident, the suit alleges that the belt failed to tighten to the extent necessary to keep her in her seat.

The complaint, filed last week in Philadelphia County Court, contends that "the driver's occupant restraint system and seatbelt system had an unreasonable propensity to 'spool out'...and was incapable of properly restraining occupants wearing their seatbelt and failed to adequately restrain and contain occupants of the vehicle."

The suit charges that Toyota "knew or should have known that the subject Prius was defective, unsafe and not crashworthy," and that it sold the vehicle "willfully, recklessly, wantonly and with a reckless disregard for the safety of the American motoring public."

McCosh says Toyota failed to test its seatbelts adequately to ensure they functioned properly, failed to warn customers of the danger inherent in the Prius's seatbelts and "misrepresent[ed] the safety of the Toyota Prius including the driver's side seatbelt system."

The suit says that, in addition to medical expenses, McCosh and her husband "have suffered lost wages, disability and the impairment of Jacqueline McCosh's earning power and capacity," along with "a permanent diminution in the ability to enjoy life and life's pleasures." The McCoshes have also experienced "past pain and suffering, mental anguish and...emotional distress," the suit says.

It's been a rough year for Toyota, which in January recalled millions of cars due to the danger of unintended acceleration, an issue that began drawing attention last fall. The automaker stopped selling cars for nearly a week after announcing the recall, and is now facing hundreds of class action suits relating to the defect, many of which have been consolidated into a single action in a California federal court.

Along with Toyota, the suit names as defendants Tokai Rika, which designs and manufactures seatbelts for Toyota; and Adam Kaisler, the driver of the car that hit McCosh. The suit charges Toyota and Tokai Rika with negligence, strict liability, breach of warranty, and loss of consortium.

More

Harvard Study Sees 'Significant Challenges' For Housing

Unemployment still a drag on the market, researchers say

Harvard Study Sees 'Significant Challenges' For Housing...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 15, 2010
In the middle of the last decade, Americans' net worth was surging, thanks to escalating home prices. But those days are over, and a new study suggests they won't be back anytime soon.

In its "State of the Nation's Housing" study, researchers at Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies point to housing affordability as one of the biggest obstacles to a real estate rebound. That might come as a shock to homeowners who have seen the value of their homes plunge 20 percent or more in some markets.

But even with falling prices, many consumers are finding a home purchase is still beyond their reach, either because they can't qualify for a loan or lack the income to buy a house, even at a depressed price.

Even as the worst housing market correction in more than 60 years appeared to turn a corner in 2009, the fallout from sharply lower home prices and high unemployment continued.

"By year's end, about one in seven homeowners owed more on their mortgages than their homes were worth, seriously delinquent loans were at record highs, and foreclosures exceeded two million," the authors write. "Meanwhile, the share of households spending more than half their incomes on housing was poised to reach new heights as incomes slid. The strength of job growth is now key to how quickly loan distress subsides and how fully housing markets recover."

But unemployment remains stubbornly high. Even the latest job creation numbers show the lion's share of new employment is temporary slots filled by census workers.

Tax credit

Improved affordability for first-time homebuyers and a federal first-time buyer tax credit were vital to an early housing rebound, the report found. Indeed, even though tighter lending standards sapped some strength from the market, the increase in sales to first-time buyers drove all the gains in existing home sales in 2009.

As a result of lower home prices and interest rates, mortgage payments on a median-priced home (assuming a 90 percent loan-to-value ratio) dropped below 20 percent of median household income -- the lowest level on records dating back to 1971.

The study found conflicting evidence about the direction of real estate values. After sliding sharply for several months, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) purchase price index turned higher in February and March, while the S&P;/Case-Shiller index showed steady declines from September 2008 through the end of March 2010.

"Clear evidence of a home price recovery therefore had yet to emerge," the authors said.

Until more Americans are working again and incomes are rising, home prices will stay stagnant or go lower still, the study concludes.

More

BMW Recalls 2008-2011 1-Series Models

BMW Recalls 2008-2011 1-Series Models...


BMW is recalling certain 2008-2011 BMW 1-series vehicles. The company said that the seat belt pre-tensioner insulation could ignite.

The company has not yet provided a remedy or an owner notification schedule.

Owners may contact BMW at 1-800-525-7417.

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

More

Texan Agrees To Halt Unauthorized Sales of Prescription Drugs, Devices

Owner offered prescription products, including Botox-like drugs, for sale online

Texan Agrees To Halt Unauthorized Sales of Prescription Drugs, Devices...

June 14, 2010
The state of Texas has wrapped up its case against a woman who unlawfully marketed and sold prescription drugs, including instructions for botulinum toxin injections, over the Internet.

State investigators say Laurie D'Alleva and her Mansfield-based businesses, Discount Medspa and Ontario Medspa, improperly marketed cosmetic enhancement prescription devices and prescription drugs over the Internet. She also provided links to video instructions for "do-it-yourself" injections of botulinum toxin.

To resolve the state's enforcement action, D'Alleva agreed to pay the state $125,000 in civil penalties, attorneys' fees and the Texas Department of State Health Services' investigative costs.

The drugs and devices marketed by D'Alleva are available only to purchasers who have prescriptions from licensed medical professionals. Thus, she improperly made those products available to people without requiring prescriptions. Further, she did so without licenses to dispense, distribute or sell prescription products, as required by state law.

Variety of products

Products that D'Alleva offered for sale included: Dysport and "Freeze," which both contain botulinum toxin; several prescription saline solutions and creams; an anti-depressant to lift libido; the human chorionic gonadotropin hormone for weight loss; and the prescription device Restylane for face augmentation.

Court documents filed by the state indicate that an undercover investigator purchased a "Newbie Starter Kit," which contained the prescription Restylane in a filled syringe, a 50-unit Freeze product containing purified neurotoxins, one package of Bacitracin, empty syringes and needles, and other pharmaceuticals.

Multiple charges

D'Alleva and her businesses are charged with multiple violations of the Texas Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act and the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. According to investigators, the defendant falsely -- and unlawfully -- claimed that prescription-only products were available to all purchasers without restrictions.

Further, although D'Alleva promoted her membership with an organization called the Texas Medical Council -- which she said granted her the authority to sell prescription-only products -- no such organization actually exists.



More

Canadian Chocolate Suit Inches Toward Settlement

Action alleged price-fixing among top candy manufacturers

Canadian Chocolate Suit Inches Toward Settlement...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 14, 2010
Canada gets an occasional jealous stare from its neighbors to the south for its comprehensive health care system and clean city streets, but soon Canadians might really have something to brag about: free chocolate.

A class action suit brought against several chocolate companies is potentially nearing its completion, as the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled on Friday that a proposed settlement could proceed. The suit, filed in 2008, claims the Canadian arms of several chocolate manufacturers -- including Nestle, Hershey, Mars, and Cadbury Adams -- colluded to artificially inflate the price of such candy staples as M&Ms;, Oh Henry!, Smarties, and Caramilk bars.

The suit portrays the defendants as dark underlords of the candy world, alleging that representatives from each company secretly met to discuss the conspiracy, and that the companies withheld their products from stores that sold candy at lower-than-recommended prices.

The settlement offer was made solely by Cadbury Adams, which said it would be willing to pay $5.7 million to extricate itself from the proceedings. Cadbury also agreed to provide potentially valuable information about the other three defendant companies. None of those companies is on board with the offer, and Hershey has announced that it is appealing the judge's decision to let the settlement go forward.

Still, attorneys for the plaintiffs are optimistic.

"We were able to negotiate a very favorable settlement," said Luciana Brasil, an attorney involved in the proceedings. "If we're able to ultimately resolve all the claims against the other parties, then all [plaintiffs] are going to potentially benefit. Whether that will mean a direct financial benefit or some other kind of benefit, we don't know."

But Charles Wright, another lawyer involved in the suit, said the average consumer has lost so little money in the alleged scheme that he wouldn't even be entitled to a single candy bar.

"It's going to take a lot of chocolate bars to make the claim big enough to make it worth anybody's while to evaluate it individually," Wright said.

The suit, which grew out of an investigation by Canada's Competition Bureau, was brought on behalf of any person who bought one of the subject products in Canada between 2001 and 2008.

More

Scientists See Food Chain Dangers in Oil, Dispersants

BP spill damage not limited to Gulf creatures; humans at risk too

Scientists See Food Chain Dangers in Oil, Dispersants...


Jeff Phillips, Environmental Contaminants Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, rescues a Brown Pelican from the Barataria Bay in Grand Isle, La., June 4, 2010. State and federal wildlife services pulled approximately 60 oil-covered Brown Pelicans in two days from the Barataria Bay area. (FWS Photo)Wildlife biologist Doug Inkley is haunted by memories of the thousands of dead jellyfish he saw floating in thick black oil-tainted water during his recent trip to the Gulf of Mexico.

But the senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation(NWF) is just as frightened about the images no one has yet seen from BPs catastrophic oil spill, which is spewing thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf each day.

Hes worried about the damage the oil -- and the dispersants used to break it down -- are doing to the fragile marine life below the surface.

That is a rich marine community filled with deep water coral reefs, squid, fish, mussels, crabs, and shrimp, said Inkley, who spent a week in Venice, Louisiana, surveying the region. The vast majority of the impact is on those marine species that are out of sight. But they should not be out of mind.

Oil is toxic and it affects marine life, he added. It gets in the gills of fish and causes breathing difficulties. And it no doubt is having an impact on plankton. One needs to be concerned about the marine ecosystem and the food chain effects from this.

Compounding this environmental nightmare, he said, are the more than one million gallons of dispersants BP has released into the fertile fishing water.

BP, with the permission of our government, is adding dispersants to the oil at a subsea depth of 5,000 feet, Inkley said. That is causing the oil to break up and be more widely dispersed. There are not as many oil slicks forming on the surface, which means potentially less damage to the birds. But youre trading one type of damage for another type of damage.

Those dispersants contain chemicals. And chemicals can kill fish and wildlife. If they dont kill them, they can impair their ability to reproduce.

A coalition of more than 250 environmental and public health officials echoed many of Inkleys concerns. The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition has urged Congress to add provisions that ensure the safety of these dispersants in a bill pending on Capitol Hill to overhaul the countrys antiquated law that governs toxic chemicals.

Under the 34-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the government doesnt require companies that make dispersants to disclose the chemicals in their products. The law also doesnt mandate companies to sufficiently test products to ensure their safety, the coalition said.

'Rolling the dice'

We are rolling the dice with the health of workers and marine life in the Gulf by using dispersants that we know very little about, said Andy Igrejas, the coalitions director.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires two short-term tests of acute toxicity on fish and shrimp for dispersants to be used in any quantities, he and coalition members said. There is also limited short-term data on the individual ingredients used in the dispersants and virtually no data on toxicity to surface- or bottom-dwelling organisms, land animals and plants, or birds.

The limited testing that was conducted (on the dispersants) indicates they are neither the least toxic nor the most effective among available alternatives, the coalition wrote in a statement released a few days ago. In addition, under current law the dispersant ingredients are allowed to remain secret despite their use in unprecedented quantities, and in ways never anticipated by regulators.

As a result of these failures, the health of the workers in the Gulf and the ocean itself may face added threats on top of those posed by the leaking oil.

A doctor who recently visited the Gulf confirmed the fishermen hired by BP to help with the clean-up effort are scared about the health risk they may face from exposure to the dispersants and the oil.

Theyre talking about their health symptoms and their concerns about the oil spill and the dispersants, said Dr. Gina Solomon, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Theyre smelling odors. Theyre feeling sick and they have particular concerns about the dispersants because there are so many unknowns about them.

I wish I could reassure them that its okay, but without more data on the environmental and health effects of these chemicals, its tough to make science-based determinations of safety.

The company initially declined to release the chemicals in the 1.1 million gallons of Corexit dispersants used in the Gulf because of proprietary reasons, coalition members said.

Some information was provided about them (last week), but theres not enough information on effects of those chemical because the law didnt require them to be fully tested, Solomon said.

Treatment delayed

The fishermen also delayed seeking medical treatment because they were afraid BP would fire them if they voiced any concerns, said a chemist and community activist who has helped workers in the Gulf.

We were having fishermen going out dealing with the oil and the dispersants and they were having severe health impacts, said Wilma Subra of New Iberia, Louisiana. But most of the chemicals (in the dispersants) were proprietary and we didnt have a good idea on the components and the potential health impact. Many of the fishers were also scared to speak out when they had health impacts because they were led to believe that BP would fire them.

Their wives spoke up for them.

And they received the message that if you dont be quiet, BP will fire you, Subra said. In late May, when the workers were brought in to the hospital. Thats when the proprietary issue came up.

The medical staff didnt know what they were exposed to because they didnt have a list of the chemicals in the dispersants, she added. EPA released what chemicals are in the dispersants (last week), but before that, the people who went for medical assistance were not able to get treatment because the doctors didnt know the chemicals they were exposed to.

This problem illustrates why its critical for companies to disclose the toxins in their products, Subra and other members of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition said.

This (spill) has impacted a large number of fishing communities, Subra said. And this information is desperately needed immediately. Not a month after an event occurs.

But the toll the apocalyptic spill -- the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history -- is having on humans is only part of this tragic story, scientists say. Marine and wildlife in the region will be impacted by the oil and toxic dispersants for years maybe even decades.

Biologist Richard Murphy with the Jean-Michel Cousteaus Ocean Futures Society, who has recently gone on dives in the oil-laden Gulf waters, said marine life is especially at risk.

When I see the birds and the horrible images that are now coming out from the Gulf on whats happening at the surface, I think wait a minute, whats happening below the surface? said Murphy, Ph.D., the societys director of Science and Education. We ought to pay attention to those chemicals and the impact theyre having on our marine environment.

Polluted womb

Whats happening below the surface may be far more important than the images were seeing at the surface. To illustrate his point, Murphy compared Mother Earth and her waters to a woman and her unborn child. If you think of about a human embryo in an aquatic medium, the place has to be absolutely clean and pristine environment, he said. Now think about the ocean. That is the womb of the planet for these green organisms that are now spawning and reproducing.

And now that womb is polluted with oil and toxic chemicals.

The ripple effects from all this contamination will likely spread to our entire food chain, Murphy said, And those implications are staggering.

Its beyond scary, he said. All organisms make up our food chain and the food we harvest is being exposed to an incredible number of different chemicals.

NWFs biologist Inkley shares those fears.

During his recent trip to Louisiana, he spent time on the water and in the air to get a firsthand look at the damage from the oil that has poured into the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20. One image struck a chilling chord with him.

Im sitting on the Gulf, 50 miles from the spill site, and there is half-inch thick layer of sticky black and brown oil, like it just came out of the ground, with thousands of dead jelly fish, he recalled. The smell was overwhelming and I just dont know how any living creature could survive swimming in it. But what I saw is just the tip of the iceberg. The impact from all this will last for years, if not decades.

There are other pictures the scientist can't forget too.

Theyre photographic evidence of the pain and suffering this crisis has already inflicted on wildlife in the area,

Theyre the pictures of helpless pelicans mired in oil.

Thats horrifying, Inkley said. It shows how helpless all life is in that area and how vulnerable it is to this spill. Right now is nesting season for brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills, and a host of other birds. Knowing that it only takes a drop or two of oil to kill a developing chick in an egg, I could not help but feel a great sense of loss as I watched birds return to their nests after diving for food in the oily waters of the Gulf.

Asked to assess BPs response to this environmental crisis, Inkley called it inappropriate.

The effort I saw was severely lacking given that I saw one skimmer operating in four days, he told us. There are not enough skimmers or boom to protect the wetlands. And we (the NWF) dont believe that BP should be left in charge of accessing the damage. They have a vested interest in minimizing the damage.

The media and the public should also be allowed to see the extent of the damage from this disastrous spill, which has oozed oil into the Gulf for more than 55 days. Reporters have not been allowed to take pictures in certain areas and people have been pushed off beaches, Inkley said. Something is wrong.

I believe BP has been totally inappropriate in its actions responding to this spill. Theyve withheld information. They claim theyre transparent, but their transparency has an opaque screen.

Heroic volunteers

In the midst of this environmental tragedy, however, Inkley said there are many heroic deeds underway by the volunteers helping the sick and injured wildlife in the region.

When you have an animal come in that is covered with oil, there is much more involved than simply cleaning it, he said. The people working in the area have specialized training in handling and treating wildlife. They wash them off and attend to their other needs, like fixing any broken bones. Its a complicated process with dedicated people.

This is important work, especially with the endangered populations, he added. Thats the case with all five types of sea turtles in that area. All are threatened or endangered. And some of these sea turtles dont mature until they are a couple of decades old. If we lose the adults and take them out of the population it will have an effect for yearsif not decades.

But where do you release the animals once theyre clean and healthy?

Their nests and breeding grounds are now tainted with oil and toxic chemicals.

If this (spill) keeps spreading, I dont know where youre going to re-release them, Inkley said. Birds have a strong tendency to return to that (nesting) area. Sea turtles have a tendency to go back to their same nesting beach. So even if we get an animal rehabilitated, it may get into trouble again. That is why its so important to get this oil spill stopped and stopped now.

Inkley also said its important to start work now on long-term restoration plans for the Gulf.

And we need to look at a clean energy future and end our dependency on carbon-based fuels, he said. Youve never heard of a wind turbine exploding. There are huge costs associated with our dependency on oil and gas, and environmental disasters are no longer a hidden cost.

The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition said revamping the TSCA reform bill -- with provisions that address the safety of dispersants --- will also help protect the environment, wildlife, and marine life.

The coalition said those provisions should include:

Limiting Trade Secrets: Under the current law, dispersant manufacturers routinely claim the chemicals and product ingredients are confidential business information. The coalition wants the new law to give the EPA authority to force companies to disclose the chemicals in the dispersants and their concentrations -- when the publics interest exceeds private interests. Inkley supports this provision. If theyre dumping these dispersants into our nations waters we have the right to know whats in them.

Testing Long-term Effects: Only a few short-term aquatic toxicity tests of dispersants are now required and individual ingredients are rarely subject to any mandated testing, the coalition said. The new law must require testing sufficient to identify long- as well as short-term effects on the marine environment, wildlife, workers, and local residents, the coalition said;

Proof of Safety: The EPA is currently not required to assess the safety of dispersants or their ingredients. The coalition said the new law must place the burden of proof on the dispersant makers to demonstrate the safety of their products;

Sufficient Regulatory Authority: The EPA must now prove unreasonable risk in order to restrict or control the use of dispersant ingredients. The coalition wants the new laws to give the EPA authority to disallow use of any dispersant that fails to meet safety requirements, and to immediately halt or alter dispersant use where on-the-ground conditions warrant. Meanwhile, Inkley said he will continue to monitor the damage in the Gulf and plans to head back to the region soon.

How to help

What about those who cant travel to the region now, but still want to help the animals and people impacted by this spill?

They can assist with the recovery and clean-up effort, Inkley said, by:

Making a donation to the National Wildlife Federation. Consumers can donate online or by texting the word Wildlife to 20222 to contribute $10. Some school classes are holding bake sales and rising money for us that we will put to good use, Inkley said. We have established a special fund for Gulf Coast Restoration.

Volunteer with the organizations Gulf Coast Surveillance team. But dont go down on your own, Inkley said.Go down when its necessary.

Contact your elected officials. Call up Congress and tell them we need a clean energy future, Inkley said. "It will save future animals from horrific consequences.

Inkley said hes not sure when BP will stop the leak.

And every day the oil continues to gush into the Gulf and the toxic dispersants continue to be used solidify his fears that the wildlife, marine life and people in the region will be impacted for years to come.

I hope you can call me in five years and say: Dr. Inkley, you were wrong. The Gulf is fine. I would love to be wrong. But I dont think I am. I think we will be seeing an impaired ecosystem with wildlife populations below their levels for years, maybe even decades. And it will be a long time before the people recover their livelihoods.

More

After Injury, Uninsured More Likely to Die

Researchers say they are surprised by results of study

After Injury, Uninsured More Likely to Die...

June 14, 2010
In a typical hospital emergency room, patients are treated for a variety of trauma, with some surviving and some dying.

A new study suggests having health insurance increases the odds a trauma patient will remain among the living.

The University of Buffalo study analyzed 193,804 patients from 649 facilities who suffered gunshot wounds or auto accident injuries. Patients covered by any of the insurance plans studied -- Medicaid, Medicare, private and managed care organizations such as HMOs -- had better mortality rates for all injuries than persons without insurance, the analysis showed.

Dietrich Jehle, MD, UB professor of emergency medicine and first author on the study, says these findings suggest the causes of this difference are many and probably are not based just on quality of care.

"Generally we don't know a trauma patient's insurance status when we treat them initially in the emergency department, which makes us ask if there are differences in these populations other than the delivery of care," Jehle said. "This finding was a little surprising."

Both race and insurance status are independent predictors of mortality rates for trauma outcomes, the researchers found, and of the two, insurance status, specifically lack of coverage, is the most significant.

"This is not unexpected, since uninsured adult patients in general have a 25 percent greater morality rate than insured adults for all medical conditions," he said.

Several possible factors

Lack of insurance could influence mortality in a number of ways, said Jehle. With no way to pay for care, people may delay getting treatment. Those without insurance frequently are from ethnic groups who face language or literacy problems, and may be afraid to go to a hospital.

Other factors could include differences in risk-taking behaviors. Studies have shown a relationship between not wearing seat belts and lack of health insurance, and that the uninsured are likely to drive older, less safe vehicles.

In addition, says Jehle, people without insurance have poorer health status in general, which would lessen their ability to survive a traumatic injury, and they often are treated differently.

"Research shows that, for other than trauma injuries, the uninsured may actually receive less aggressive treatment and fewer diagnostic procedures," he said. He adds that universal health coverage could change these statistics.

"For instance, there would be no need for patients to delay treatment with universal health coverage, and such coverage could improve the overall health status of injury victims and increase their survival rates," he said.

The study data were extracted from the National Trauma Data Bank for 2001-05. The researchers concentrated on patients between the ages of 18 and 30 to eliminate those more likely to have chronic health conditions, leaving 191,666 patients in the analysis with complete data, including 150,332 blunt trauma patients and 41,334 penetrating trauma patients.



More

Boomers Come Face to Face With Alzheimer's

The latest 'sandwich generation' encounters dementia in loved ones

Boomers Come Face to Face With Alzheimer's...

Although there are the Betty Whites of the world – hosting Saturday Night Live at the age of 88 with her wit and split-second timing and even starring in a new sitcom – the harsh reality is that, after the age of 65, and most definitely after the age of 85, dementia becomes more and more likely.

What used to be called senility, dementia comes in many forms. The most common, representing 60-80% of all dementias, is Alzheimer’s. It is a progressive and degenerative disease that causes mental deterioration such as memory loss and disorientation. Although there are drugs that can slow its progression, especially if taken in the earliest stages, it is not reversible or curable.

The diabolical truth about Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is that they turn the later years of our aging, which should be a time to remember, reflect, and enjoy life to its fullest, into a time of confusion, memory loss, and the decline of other cognitive functions.

Today we'll look at the most common dementias including vascular dementia, which, unlike Alzheimer’s, may be reversible by proper management of cardiovascular risk factors, described below, as well as lifestyle and diet changes. We’ll explore how to get an accurate diagnosis if you suspect your loved one (or you) has dementia so treatment can begin as soon as possible, and if you are caring for a loved one with dementia, how you can be most helpful to your loved one and to yourself.

Common Types of Dementia

Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia according to the Alzheimer’s Association, is a neurological degenerative disease; it is estimated to be present in one in ten persons over the age of 65 and as many as 50% of those over the age of 85. It is a progressive degenerative disease that leads to the loss of neurons in the brain. Its symptoms include impairment in judgment, memory, reasoning, and decision-making.

As the disease progresses, it can lead to the inability to perform basic everyday and self-care functions such as feeding, dressing or bathing oneself; becoming more socially isolated, and depression, may also occur. It is the 7th cause of death. (Early-onset dementia, before the age of 60, is relatively rare, but it does occur. See “Boomer Love.”

Vascular dementia, the second most common type of dementia, occurs when the blood vessels to the brain are not supplying enough blood flow, causing a decline in memory and cognitive ability. According to neurologist Dr. Ralph Sacco, president-elect of the American Heart Association, there are multiple risk factors in vascular dementia; some, fortunately, are caused by lifestyle choices and, if those choices change, the risk factors can be reduced or eliminated.

Those risk factors include: high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease. Other lifestyle factors Boomers should be aware of as causes of vascular dementia include smoking, inactivity, and drinking too much alcohol, and a poor diet.

As Dr. Sacco says, “Many of the things that cause trouble to the heart also cause trouble to the arteries to the brain. To improve brain function and heart function, focus on healthy eating and living, and prevent high blood pressure.”

Mixed Dementia is dementia that is caused by two medical conditions, most frequently Alzheimer’s and Vascular Dementia.

Lewy Body Dementia (LBD) is the overall term for two types of dementia: dementia with Lewy Bodies and Parkinson’s Disease Dementia. In the United States, the Lewy Body Dementia Association estimates that there are 1.3 million individuals with this form of dementia, but it is often misdiagnosed and grouped together with other types of dementia.

What distinguishes Lewy Body Dementia is that there are gait (walking) and sleeping issues as well as dementia and cognitive changes. According to the Lewy Body Dementia Association, the illness is caused by abnormal protein deposits that disrupt the brain’s normal functioning, depleting the brain chemical acetylcholine, causing a disruption in perception, memory, thought processes, and behavior. Again, there are drugs that can slow the progression but not stop it.

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) is defined as the cognitive and memory impairment that occurs in older individuals, estimated by the Alzheimer’s Association to occur in 10-20 percent of those aged 65 and up. It is usually associated with aging, such as misplacing the car keys or forgetting someone’s name. It can also be a precursor to Alzheimer’s, or it can stay at the same level, or someone’s behavior can even return to normal. A study by the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech, based on interviews with 99 families where one member had MCI, provides a useful guide of “Strategies to Compensate for Memory Loss” such as making daily to-do lists and keeping important papers and bills in a place where it is visible rather than filed away.

Additional dementias, although rarer than those listed and described above, include Frontotemporal Dementia, including Pick’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jacob Dementia (CJD), Huntington’s Disease, Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH), and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

Diagnosing Dementia

Jacqueline Marcell is the author of “Elder Rage, or Take My Father… Please! How to Survive Caring for Aging Parents ,” and a radio host. She says, “Dementia starts very subtly and very intermittently, gradually comes and goes for many years, so most of the time the loved one appears normal. The subtle signs are often missed unless you are aware of what to look for and you are with the person all the time.” (Marcell gave up her 15-year career as a television executive to devote herself to helping other caregivers based on her personal experiences caring for her elderly parents, who both had Alzheimer’s and who were not properly diagnosed with the disease for over a year.)

Dr. Todd Semla, PharmD, pharmacist and past president of the American Geriatrics Society (AGS), recommends getting your elderly parents evaluated, “particularly if you’re concerned about driving and safety and leaving the stove on.”

If you think your loved one is showing signs of dementia, go with him or her to your family physician who may also make a referral a geriatrician, a neurologist, or a center for aging for further testing.

In “How to Keep Your Brain in Shape,” there are ten warning signs of Alzheimer’s, according to the University of South Florida’s Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute. They include difficulties with language, remembering where things are, personality, mood, or behavior changes; time and place disorientation; and difficult performing everyday tasks. Other dementias, like Lewy Body Dementia, also have symptoms that resemble Parkinson’s disease including changes in gait such as shuffling, walking stiffly, a proneness to falling, or tremors. http://www.lbda.org The Lewy Body Dementia Association points out that another sign of the disease is REM Sleep Behavior Disorder (RBD) which includes moving, gesturing, or speaking during sleep.

Dementia is sometimes diagnosed through a Mini Mental or a Mini Mental State Evaluation (MMSE). This is a test that asks a series of questions to evaluate someone’s cognitive ability and tries to quantify any brain function losses. The test is scored with a maximum of 30 points; anything below 20 signals cognitive deficiencies. Questions include: “What is today’s date?” “What city are we in?” When three words are said, the person being tested is asked to repeat all three words. Other parts of the test include asking the person to write a sentence as well as to read the words on a card.

Another test is the Mini-Cog, a three-minute test that asks someone to recall three items as well as to draw a clock.

CT (or CAT) scans, MRIs, and PET Scans are imaging procedures that make it possible to see changes occurring in the brain, making it possible to arrive at an earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer’s rather than waiting until behavioral changes occur. The would allow for earlier intervention, medications, treatment and lifestyle decisions such as where to live. (See “Diagnosing Alzheimer’s Early: Neurologists, Imaging Scientists Use Medical Physics to Spot Disease in Blood Vessels").

Treatments

The medicines used to treat Alzheimer’s disease include the cholinesterase inhibitors (donepezil, rivastigmine, and galantamine) and the NMDA antagonist, memantine. (Some of the names of popular commercial versions of these medications are Aricept®, Excelon®, Razadyne®, and Namenda®)Although none of these drugs can cure Alzheimer’s, studies have found that in some patients, they may improve some of the memory issues.

But do the drugs really help? As geriatric pharmacist Dr. Todd Semla says: “I tell people that you’ll find that one third will have a response that will be noticeable, another third will not tolerate the medication, and another third, and the drugs won’t appear to have done anything, adversely or beneficially.”

You and your loved one with dementia will have to work closely with a physician or neurologist to figure out which drugs, the proper dosage and in what combination will work best with whatever type of dementia your loved one has. Monitor the person taking the drugs for any possible side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea that might necessitate either adjusting the dosage or switching to another medication.

Other treatments include physical therapy for those with dementia related to Parkinson’s or Lewy Body Disease as well as seeing a social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist for the depression that often accompanies dementia.

Dealing with a loved one with dementia

Usually the memory changes do not happen overnight so enjoy your parent or loved one with dementia the way he or she is at whatever stage he or she is at now. Sadly, in most cases, it is only going to get worse. Try to avoid obsessing about your parent not remembering what day of the week it is if he or she still remembers who you are. That could change as their ability to recall who people are could be altered dramatically in a month, a year, or three years.

One key question everyone dealing with a loved one with dementia wants to know is whether or not they should tell them something they think is untrue. I found a variety of opinions on this.

Jacqueline Marcell, whose parents had dementia, found it worked best for all of them if she went along with their view of things such as allowing her parent to believe that a certain relative was still alive because to tell them that she was not would be upsetting.

But as Dr. Joe Verghese, a geriatrician specializing in neurology, cognition and motor aging, emphasizes, it depends on the patient. Dr. Verghese, says that “in general, it’s okay to try and correct the patient’s mistaken perception if they can take it. I would do it gently and to give clues about why that can’t be the case and try to get them to realize it.”

You can also help your loved one with their memory challenges by creating memory “triggers.” I recently read to my mother several letters that my late father had written to her back in 1943 and 1944. They were separated because he was serving as a captain in the Army in World War II. My mother had not heard those letters in 67 years and she was genuinely moved by what my father wrote. It helped make my late father, who died 14 years ago of a brain tumor and with whom my mother was happily married for 54 years, a stronger memory for her. She found it comforting to hear those letters because it reminded her in a concrete way of how much he loved her.

One of the most difficult types of dementia-related situations to cope with is if the dementia is accompanied with behavioral problems.

Much to the shock and dismay of those caring for a parent who used to be sweet and passive, if they have dementia with behavior issues, they can suddenly become aggressive and even verbally or physically abusive. As hard as it is, the only way to deal with these sudden outbursts is to avoid taking them personally.

Comfort yourself, if possible, with the realization that “it’s the disease” talking. You should also get expert advice about the safest environment for your loved one with dementia with behavior problems to be in. You want to make sure he or she is not a danger to himself or herself or to others, including you.

In addition to dealing with the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of your loved one’s dementia, remember that you also have to attend to custodial and legal issues. Who will take care of such everyday tasks as paying bills, as well as other caregiver and legal concerns? Registered nurse and lawyer Carolyn L. Rosenblatt discusses these issues in her book “The Boomer’s Guide to Aging Parents: The Complete Guide.” (See also: “Role Reversal for Boomers: Caring for Your Aging Parents.”)

Whether your loved one with dementia lives with you, independently, in an assisted living situation, a nursing home, or a dementia group home, you may find that you need support for yourself. It may help to join a support group with other caregivers with loved ones who have dementia. This way you will be able to meet other caregivers who have parents at different stages in the disease. Of course, if your parent is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, or Lewy Body Dementia, and you are still able to share and do things together, you might find it more disconcerting than comforting to hear about those who can no longer recognize their loved ones. A support group should be educational as well as emotionally beneficial; you may want to try out several groups till you find one that is a comfortable fit.

Taking care of the caregiver

Caring for someone with dementia can be very stressful and demanding so remember to take care of you. Reach out to your friends and family. Keep up with your own healthcare appointments even though you may be sick of going to doctors because you may be going on so many appointments with your aging parent. But that has nothing to do with taking care of your own physical and dental health. As the Family Caregiver Alliance points out in, “Taking Care of You: Self-Care for Family Caregivers,” “If you are a baby boomer who has assumed a caregiver role for your parents while simultaneously juggling work and raising adolescent children, you face an increased risk for depression, chronic illness and a possible decline in quality of life.”

If your parent or loved one has any kind of irreversible dementia, be prepared that the day may come when you are not recognized. It will be a traumatic moment for you. This is the part of dementia that is so frustrating and challenging to everyone touched by it. It is also unpredictable. There can be moments of great clarity and times when the dementia seems to have disappeared or it can progress so that the past is completely erased. So enjoy each moment that you do have together now for you truly do not know how long that clarity, that ability to share and even to remember together, will last.

What boomers can do to reduce their chances of dementia

Neurologist Sacco points out that researchers are finding out that even some of the dementias that we used to think were totally related to aging and not preventable, are actually impacted by our lifestyle. There are changes we can make to promote a healthy brain that may slow down and possibly even reduce or eliminate the development of dementia including Alzheimer’s. As Dr. Sacco notes, “We don’t just want a long life, we all want a healthy one.”

As noted in “How to Keep Your Brain in Shape” we have learned that the same behaviors that lead to heart health (See “Heart Health for Boomers,”) impact on brain health and reduce the risk of getting vascular dementia.

If you find yourself falling into the Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) category of dementia disorders, there are coping strategies you can implement to offset your memory loss. Rehearse the names of people you will be seeing again at a social or business function. That will help cut down on the likelihood of going blank under pressure. Make sure you put all key appointments in one central appointment book. And consult with a physician to see if there are any reversible causes to your MCI and if any of the medications used to treat Alzheimer’s should be prescribed.

Keep up on the research and literature about Alzheimer’s and dementia. New studies and drug trials hold out much more hope for the Boomer generation in slowing down, or reversing, these diseases. And remember, there are steps you can take now to slow mental deterioration, perhaps long enough for science to one day find a cure.

Resources

Associations

Articles and Reports

Books

  • Michael C. Campbell, “When Mom and Dad Need Help.” Painesville, OH: Iffenwen Publishing Company, 2010. (See the section on Alzheimer’s/Dementia Care Communities in Chapter Three, “What Types of Housing and Care Options are Available?”)
  • Hugh Delehanty and Elinor Ginzler. Caring For Your Parents: The Complete AARP Guide. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2006. (See Chapter 5, “The Brain.”)
More

When It Comes to Obesity, It's Location, Location, Location

Five socioeconomic factors account for much of the variability in childhood obesity rates

When It Comes to Obesity, It's Location, Location, Location...

Where children live may have a lot to do with their risk of becoming obese, according to a new study by the Seattle Children's Research Institute.

Researchers studied kids living in King County, Washington and found obesity most common in those living in neighborhoods with the least-educated females, most single-parent households, lowest median household income, highest proportion of non-white residents, and fewest homes owned.

Together, these five socioeconomic factors accounted for 24 percent of the variability in childhood obesity rates across neighborhoods.

"Children are raised not only at home but also in their community," said lead author H. Mollie Greves Grow, MD MPH, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the UW, Seattle Children's, and Harborview Medical Center.

Everybody's problem

Disadvantaged neighborhoods may present many obstacles for children's weight, such as less access to healthy foods and more unhealthy fast-food outlets, the authors said. They also often lack safe places for children to play outdoors.

"Childhood obesity is not just a family problem, but a larger community and societal problem," Grow said. "A disadvantaged environment can set families up for ill health, and it's unfair to blame them for not taking enough 'personal responsibility' to manage their weight. We don't yet know all of the factors that may create disadvantage, but we know it is present and associated with higher obesity."

The research team collected anonymous, "de-identified" electronic medical record information on 8,616 children age 6-18 receiving care at Group Health Cooperative-and then correlated these data to the social and economic characteristics of Seattle-area census tracts.

Cumulative effect

"We were a little surprised that each of the census tract factors we included appeared to contribute, in a slightly different way, to the likelihood of childhood obesity," Grow said.

The likelihood of childhood obesity rose by 17 percent to 24 percent for each of three measures of neighborhood social disadvantage: each 10 percent decrease in female education and two-parent households, and each $10,000 decline in household income. Effects related to race and homeownership were smaller but still statistically significant. Overall, King County's demographics resemble those of other urban U.S. areas.

"But King County has one of the strongest public health efforts, a relatively walkable environment, and efforts to expand affordable access to healthy, fresh foods," said Grow.

So she and her colleagues expect the links between childhood obesity and neighborhood disadvantage may be even more pronounced elsewhere.



More

Rent-Buy Back Scams On the Rise

Variation of foreclosure rescue gains momentum

Rent-Buy Back Scams On the Rise...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 14, 2010
The number of foreclosures remains near record levels causing an increasing number of desperate homeowners to grasp at straws. All too often, these straws are nothing more than cruel scams.

A growing trend in hard hit areas like Florida, California and Nevada is the "rent-buy back" scheme. To someone about to lose his home to foreclosure, it sounds heaven-sent.

A private investor appears and offers to take title to the property, then rent it back to the "owner" for about half of what the mortgage payment is. Under the premise of the deal, the investor will take over the payments to the lender to prevent the foreclosure and, at some point in the future, will sell the property back to the original owner.

In fact, the above scenario is just one of the so-called foreclosure rescue tactics. Since the foreclosure rescue business has deservedly gotten such a bad reputation lately, the scammer presents it under the guise of a legitimate business investment.

But how could it possibly be that? The "investor" is going to make the full mortgage payment but collect only half that amount in rent? What kind of business deal is that?

You can be assured that the "investor" has no intention of paying your lender a dime, but most assuredly will deposit your rent check each and every month.

You lose

You may also be told that surrendering the title will permit a borrower with a better credit rating to secure new financing -- and prevent the loss of the home. But the terms of these deals usually are so burdensome that buying back your home becomes impossible.

You lose the home, and the scammer walks off with all or most of your home's equity. Worse yet, when the new borrower defaults on the loan, you're evicted. In a variation, the scam artist raises the rent over time to the point that the former homeowner can't afford it. After missing several rent payments, the renter -- the former homeowner -- is evicted, leaving the "investor" free to sell the house.

Variations

In a similar equity-skimming situation, the scammer offers to find a buyer for your home, but only if you sign over the deed and move out. The scam artist promises to pay you a portion of the profit when the home sells.

Once you transfer the deed, the scam artist simply rents out the home and pockets the proceeds while your lender proceeds with the foreclosure. In the end, you lose your home -- and you're still responsible for the unpaid mortgage. That's because transferring the deed does nothing to transfer your mortgage obligation.

Whether they call it foreclosure rescue or a business investment, scammers use half-truths and outright lies to sell services that promise relief and then fail to deliver.

More

City Governments Buying Less Bottled Water

Move both saves money and promotes quality of tap water

City Governments Buying Less Bottled Water...

With many municipal governments strapped for cash and forced to make deep budget cuts, many are targeting purchases of bottled water.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors has released the preliminary findings from a national survey demonstrating that more and more cities are phasing out bottled water from city budgets. But there appears to be more to this trend that just saving money.

"These actions are not just about fiscal responsibility, they are about civic pride and protecting common resources," said Leslie Samuelrich, Corporate Accountability International Chief of Staff. "Spending taxpayer dollars on bottled water sends the wrong message about our nation's high quality tap water. It is also entirely wasteful to spend scarce public dollars on such a non-essential use of our most essential public resource."

These initial findings come on the heels of an executive order by Colorado Governor Bill Ritter cutting state spending on the bottle. Four states, including New York, Illinois, and Virginia, have now taken such action.

The survey was prompted by an earlier resolution encouraging cities to phase out bottled water spending. Up to 40 percent of bottled water, in fact, comes from the same source as the tap. Bottled water is also far less regulated. Yet bottled water marketing has been so effective that many U.S. cities responsible for delivering tap water to the public have been spending millions each year on the bottle -- even as public water systems face a $22 billion annual shortfall.

The survey found that out of 101 cities responding:

&#149 72 percent have considered eliminating or reducing bottled water purchases within city facilities;

&#149 45 percent sited "promoting public water" as the reason for taking action; and

&#149 44 percent have taken action to phase out city purchases and use of bottled water.

BPA

There's also a public health issue. Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in plastic water bottles, leaches from the bottle and ends up in the urine of people who drink from them, say researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In a report last year, the researchers found that study participants who drank for a week from polycarbonate bottles, the popular, hard-plastic drinking bottles and baby bottles, showed a two-thirds increase of BPA in their urine of the chemical.

Exposure to BPA, used in the manufacture of polycarbonate and other plastics, has been shown to interfere with reproductive development in animals and has been linked with cardiovascular disease and diabetes in humans, the researchers said.

U.S. Conference of Mayors staff has said it will continue to gather responses from its membership in the coming weeks to capture a fuller picture of city action on this issue.

For the last four years Corporate Accountability International's national education and action campaign, Think Outside the Bottle, has worked with public officials, communities of faith, campus administrators, small businesses, and individuals to support public water systems and call on the bottled water industry to honor local control of water and be more transparent about its labeling and water quality.

More

Professor Promoted People to People Junket Without University Approval

Latest gaffe by for-profit promoters hawking 'educational' travel

Professor Promoted People to People Junket Without University Approval...

A University of Colorado professor is under fire for lending her name and the universitys letterhead -- without authorization -- to recruit participants for an upcoming People to People trip to South Africa.

The solicitation has also irked a Texas couple, who say they received one of the letters addressed to a name that closely resembled a deceased family member.

This is the latest marketing gaffe involving the company that handles People to People trips and that has a history of sending similar solicitations for overseas journeys to the parents of deceased children.

At the heart of this newest controversy is a solicitation written by University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) professor Margaret Eisenhart, Ph.D., with the School of Education.

ConsumerAffairs.com learned that Eisenhart wrote the letter on CU stationery, but did not have permission to use the universitys letterhead or logo for the solicitation designed to lure more people for the South African trip.

Weve also learned that CU does not have any commercial ties to People to People and did not give the travel company authorization to use the universitys stationery in its marketing campaign.

In the solicitation, Eisenhart encourages recipients to participate in an upcoming Women in Higher Education trip to South Africa through People to People Citizen Ambassador Programs.

I invite you to join me to participate in this important international exchange, Eisenhart writes. Our goals will be to learn about South African womens representation in higher education, current research on women in higher education in South Africaand the issues facing South African women in higher education today.

Eisenhart readily discloses her academic ties to CU and even touts that relationship in the letters first sentence.

As University Distinguished Professor of educational anthropology and research methodology at the University of Colorado, I am honored to have been selected as leader of the Women in Higher Education Delegation to South Africa, states Eisenhart, who has served as a delegation leader on at least three other People to People trips.

The professor applauds the trips affiliation with People to People Ambassador Programs, which is part of the publicly-traded Ambassadors Group, Inc. (EPAX). The Spokane, Washington, company arranges and markets worldwide educational trips -- under the People to People name -- for students, athletes, and professionals.

In conjunction with People to People Citizen Ambassador Programs, this delegation has been developed to foster dialogue with our overseas counterparts and to continue the tradition of professional diplomacy first set forth by President Eisenhower in 1956, Eisenhart writes.

 

Prof. Margaret Eisenhart (University photo)

Those who receive Eisenhart's letter are urged to act quickly or risk losing their spots on this $6,000 trip, which she describes as a unique experience.

In the event that you are unable to accept this invitation, an alternate delegate candidate may be invited, she warned, adding recipients can also recommend someone else for the trip.

Eisenharts letter appears to be targeted to higher education professionals that she personally handpicked. I believe you would contribute valued expertise to the team while gaining both personally and professionally from the experience, she states.

No relationship

But a Texas couple who received the solicitation says they dont have a personal or professional relationship with Eisenhart. And they want to find out how she -- or People to People -- obtained their private home address.

They also want to know why the solicitation was addressed to a name that is almost identical to the wifes deceased mother. The only difference is the middle initial its a G in the letter instead of the correct C.

My mom never lived at this address, said the womans daughter, Mary. Id like to know how they got the name or what they thought was a name.

Mary also wonders why her moms name is still on any companys mailing list. She died five years ago, Mary said. She was 85.

My mom was involved in the field of higher education all her life, Mary said. She had a Ph.D in education and this is the kind of letter that my mom would receive. But its clear somebody has a database that is really messed up.

Not the first time

As ConsumerAffairs.com has reported, this isnt the first time People to People has sent a solicitation for one of its oversea trips to the family of a deceased person.

A Florida couple has received two different letters in two different years -- from People to People inviting their deceased daughter to take an educational trip abroad. The letters came in 2006 and 2008. But the couples daughter died in 1992. She was 18 days old.

People to People has also invited a deceased cat on one of its trips. The "Parents of Earl Gray" received a letter in 2006 stating their "son" was eligible for a trip to Europe and "named for this honor by a teacher, former Student Ambassador or national academic listing."

But the Arkansas parents told us Earl was their all white, one-eyed, cat. He died in 1996 and is buried in the couple's back yard. He was 14 years old.

People to People also came under fire in 2005 after an Iowa woman received one of the companys letters stating her son was named for a Student Ambassador trip overseas. The woman's son, however, died in 1993. He was seven weeks old. People to People has blamed the company that handled its mailing list for these errors.

Tyler Hill, Minnesota teen who died on a 2007 People to People trip to Japan (Family photo)

Weve also learned that People to People used the name of a teenage boy who died one of its trips in a letter designed to recruit more students to participate in the Student Ambassador Programs. The teens parents said the company did not have permission to use their sons name and told us they were outraged People to Peoples marketing tactics.

Back in Texas, Mary and her husband -- a former teacher -- raised other concerns about the solicitation they received from Eisenhart. They questioned the professors decision to lend her name, academic title, and the schools stationery for a solicitation not authorized by the university.

My mom never lent her name out, Mary said. This sounds somewhat strange to meI think there are definitely some issues here that need to be addressed.

Im not as angry about this as I am baffled, she added. But if this is a scam, Im not happy that my mom is associated in any way.

The couple also said the universitys name and logo on the solicitation gave it credibility at least at first blush. And they wondered why -- or if -- the state-funded university would allow its name and stationery to be used in a solicitation for an outside company.

I immediately zeroed in on the letter because it was from a university, Mary said, adding CUs name was listed on the envelope. From a marketing standpoint, its a smart move, but if its inappropriate it needs to stop.

Solicitations about the trip, however, didnt stop.

A second letter

A few days after Mary and her husband received the first letter about the South Africa trip, another one arrived at their home. The second letter was also addressed to the same name that closely resembled Marys deceased mother.

It came from People to Peoples director of Professional Programs and solidified the relationship between Eisenhart and the travel company.

We are honored to have Dr. Eisenhart as the delegation leader, the companys Yvonne Trudeau wrote. Her guidance in the development of this project has been invaluable.

Trudeaus letter, however, isnt written on CU stationery. Its penned on People to People International (PPI) letterhead. PPI is a non-profit organization based in Kansas City, Missouri, that boasts about its ties to a former United States President.

Founded in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as a vehicle to expand international relations beyond the structure of government agencies, People to People International is a nonpolitical, private-sector organization dedicated to promoting international peace and understanding, Trudeaus wrote in her letter.

But Eisenhowers name is not listed on the incorporation records for PPI filed with the Missouri Secretary of State. Those records reveal Alfred Frankfurter, Franklin Murphy, and Joyce C. Hall incorporated the non-profit organization in October 1961.

ConsumerAffairs.com learned that PPI has a contractual agreement with the Ambassadors Group that allows the company to use People to Peoples name and logo when marketing the educational trips. Tax records show revenue from those trips is funneled back into the coffers of the PPI, which is run by President Eisenhowers granddaughter, Mary Eisenhower.

In her letter, Trudeau makes a strong sales pitch for academics to take the South Africa trip and warns they could lose their places if they dont respond quickly in writing and with their checkbooks.

To accept this invitation, please complete and return the enclosed application with a $500 per-person deposit as soon as possible, Trudeau states.

No comment

ConsumerAffairs.com contacted People to People Ambassador Programs about the solicitations and the use of CUs stationery in the marketing campaign. The company did not respond to our repeated inquiries. We also contacted Professor Eisenhart, but she didnt respond to our inquiries, either.

A CU spokesman told us the university wasnt aware of the solicitations -- and the use of its stationery in this recruiting effort -- until contacted by ConsumerAffairs.com.

Now that were aware of this, were certainly going to desist, spokesman Bronson R. Hilliard said. Our faculty are advised not to lend official stationery with department logo to anyone without clearing it first with the university. She (Professor Eisenhart) had not done that.

Weve spoken to her and her dean about this and they understand what went wrong and are fixing it, he added.

Hilliard confirmed that Eisenhart wrote the solicitation, but said she had no knowledge about how the mailing list was compiled or used.

She was asked to write a letter to recruit other people like herself to go on this trip with her, he said. She doesnt know any of the particulars about the mailing list. She was open about this and said she didnt know any of the details. She agreed to write the letter and assumed that it would go to other faculty.

Hilliard also told us that CU had no role in marketing the solicitation or generating the mailing list used. The university, he added, has no commercial ties to People to People or the Ambassadors Group and did not authorize them to use of its stationery or logo in the solicitation that is not sanctioned by CU.

Asked if CU is covering the cost for Eisenharts trip, Hilliard said: Her trip is paid for by People to People, but she is not paid by People to People. She receives no stipend or fee. He also confirmed that Eisenhart has taken previous trips with People to People and found them to be productive and enriching.

"Regrettable situation"

Hilliard called it a regrettable situation when he learned that Mary received a solicitation -- on CU stationery -- addressed to a name that closely resembled her deceased mother.

There was no harm intended (by CU or Eisenhart) to the good family of this deceased individual, he said.

ConsumerAffairs.com also contacted the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) about the solicitation.

Spokesman Greg Scholtz said professors are advised not to blur the lines between their private lives and their academic roles at a college or university. And he cited two AAUP policies that he said address this issue:

*The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which states, in part, that when speaking or writing as citizens, college professors should make every effort to indicate they are not speaking for the institution;

*The organizations Statement on Professional Ethics, which states that professors have the rights and obligations of other citizens. But when they speak or act as private persons, professors should avoid creating the impression of speaking or acting for their college or university.

Back in Boulder, Hilliard acknowledged that CU has not done a good job of communicating to its faculty where the boundaries are when lending their names -- or the universitys stationery for promotional activities.

Professor Eisenhart did not check with anyone about this and she didnt realize that she needed to check with anyone, he said. This is a wake-up call to our institution. We will be conducting training with our department chairs and the deans of our colleges and schools and make sure that information about those boundaries is passed on to our faculty.

We will go the extra mile to make sure the faculty knows that using our letterhead and symbols is not something you do without checking with us first.

Hilliard also said he will remind faculty members to thoroughly check the background of any organization or association before lending them their names and support.

I will urge them to do a little more research, ask those tough questions, and find out how theyre (the groups) are marketing themselves, he said, adding he shared the stories ConsumerAffairs.com has written about People to People with Eisenhart and her dean.

Im going to use this (experience) as a media training for our faculty, Hilliard told us. This is a teaching moment. And rest assured weve learned a lesson at CU Boulder.

More

D.C. Knew of Breathalyzer Problem, Suit Says

Faulty machines formed basis of at least 400 DUI convictions

All ten of the city's breath test machines, the results of which formed the basis of nearly 400 DUI convictions since fall 2008, were improperly calibrated...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 13, 2010
A lawsuit filed against Washington, D.C., says that the city has long known that its breath test machines, designed to measure the level of alcohol in a driver's blood, were improperly calibrated, but failed to do anything about it.

The revelation that the machines were improperly programmed was first reported in The Washington Post this past week week. The article said all ten of the city's breath test machines, the results of which formed the basis of nearly 400 DUI convictions since fall 2008, were improperly calibrated by city police.

The officer charged with maintaining the machines set the wrong "baseline" alcohol concentration levels, leading to results that showed a driver's blood alcohol 20 percent higher than it actually was, according to the article.

Thomas Key, the attorney who filed the suit, called the Post's account of the incident "pretty vanilla.

"We alleged that the attorney general's office knew back in early 2008 that the machine had problems," Key told the Daily Caller.

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles didn't begin investigating the problem until this past February, when a city consultant raised concerns that the machine results were incorrect. The city has already replaced the ten flawed machines with equipment made by a different manufacturer.

Breath test machines, known colloquially as Breathalyzers, are used to test the blood alcohol content of a person suspected of drunken driving. While many states still have so-called "common-law DUI" statutes -- which allow prosecution for drunken driving based on a driver's appearance or behavior, such as glassy eyes or weaving in and out of lanes -- the machines provide a much tighter case for prosecutors.

"I'd take a case without a score any day and beat that," Key told the Post. "But once they have that test number in there, it's a whole new ballgame for a client."

Nickles said the error would not affect prosecutions in which there was an accident or injury, since drivers in those situations are required to submit to additional blood or urine testing.

Most of the defendants in the 400 subjects cases spent at least five days in jail, in addition to the other serious consequences that accompany a DUI conviction. Under D.C. law, a person convicted of his first DUI must pay a $300 fine and can be sentenced to up to 90 days in jail. If his blood alcohol content is between 0.2 and 0.25, he is mandated to spend at least five days behind bars. If the reading exceeds 0.25, the mandatory sentence increases to ten days.

The consequences are even more serious for repeat offenders. Those convicted of a second or third DUI can pay anywhere between $1,000 and $10,000 in fines, and can end up serving up to a year in jail. Additionally, the mandatory sentences for repeat offenders are doubled.

More

U.S Foreclosure Activity Decreases 3 Percent In May

Defaults and auctions down, but bank repossessions set monthly record

U.S Foreclosure Activity Decreases 3 Percent In May...

June 11, 2010
Mixed news on the housing market.

Foreclosure filings -- default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions -- were reported on 322,920 properties in May.

According to RealtyTrac, an online marketplace for foreclosure properties, that's a three percent decrease from the previous month and an increase of less than one percent from May 2009. One in every 400 U.S. housing units received a foreclosure filing during the month.

"The numbers in May continued and confirmed the trends we noticed in April: overall foreclosure activity leveling off while lenders work through the backlog of distressed properties that have built up over the past 20 months," said James J. Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac. "Defaults and scheduled auctions combined increased by 28 percent from 2007 to 2008 and another 32 percent from 2008 to 2009 -- creating a build-up of delayed bank repossessions. Lenders appear to be ramping up the pace of completing those forestalled foreclosures even while the inflow of delinquencies into the foreclosure process has slowed."

Foreclosure activity by type

A total of 96,462 U.S. properties received default notices (NOD, LIS) in May, a drop of seven percent from the previous month and a 22 percent decrease from May 2009. It was the fewest default notices since November 2008 and down 32 percent from the peak of 142,064 in April 2009.

Foreclosure auctions (NTS, NFS) were scheduled for the first time on a total of 132,681 U.S. properties, a decrease of four percent from the previous month and down less than one percent from May 2009. The May 2010 total was down 16 percent from the peak of 158,105 scheduled auctions in March 2010.

Bank repossessions (REOs) hit a record monthly high for the second month in a row in May, with a total of 93,777 U.S. properties repossessed by lenders during the month -- an increase of one percent from the previous month and an increase of 44 percent from May 2009. All 50 states posted year-over-year increases in REO activity.

Nevada, Arizona, Florida lead all

With one in every 79 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing in May, Nevada again had the nation's highest foreclosure rate despite a nearly 12 percent decrease in foreclosure activity from the previous month and a 16 percent decline from May 2009. The state's foreclosure rate was more than five times the national average.

Arizona foreclosure activity increased less than one percent from the previous month and was down nearly five percent from May 2009, but the state posted the nation's second highest foreclosure rate for the second month in a row. One in every 169 Arizona properties received a foreclosure notice during the month -- more than twice the national average.

One in every 174 Florida properties received a foreclosure notice in May, the nation's third highest foreclosure rate, and one in every 186 California properties received a foreclosure notice in May, the fourth highest state foreclosure rate.

Foreclosure activity in Michigan increased nearly six percent from the previous month and was up 46 percent from May 2009, helping the state post the nation's fifth highest foreclosure rate. One in every 223 Michigan properties received a foreclosure filing in May.

Other states with foreclosure rates ranking among the top 10 in May were Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Utah and Maryland.

10 states account for more than 70 percent of national total

California alone accounted for more than 22 percent of the national total in May, with 72,030 properties receiving a foreclosure notice during the month -- up three percent from the previous month but down nearly 22 percent from May 2009.

With 50,685 properties receiving a foreclosure filing during the month, Florida accounted for nearly 16 percent of the national total in May despite a nearly 14 percent decrease in foreclosure activity from May 2009. Florida foreclosure activity increased nearly five percent from the previous month.

Michigan accounted for six percent of the national total, with 20,322 properties receiving a foreclosure notice during the month, and Arizona accounted for nearly five percent of the national total, with 16,097 properties receiving a foreclosure notice.

Illinois foreclosure activity decreased 20 percent from the previous month, but the state still accounted for nearly five percent of the national total, with 15,061 properties receiving foreclosure notices in May. Illinois foreclosure activity was up nearly 38 percent from May 2009.

Other states with foreclosure activity totals among the nation's 10 highest were Nevada (14,346), Georgia (13,778), Texas (11,137), Ohio (10,379) and New Jersey (7,993).

Metro foreclosure hot spots

With a one percent increase in foreclosure activity from May 2009, Vallejo-Fairfield, Calif., was the only metro area with a top-10 foreclosure rate to post an annual increase in foreclosure activity. One in every 101 Vallejo-Fairfield properties received a foreclosure notice in May, the fourth highest foreclosure rate among metropolitan areas with a population of 200,000 or more.

All other metro foreclosure rates in the top 10 were in cities with declining foreclosure activity on a year-over-year basis:

• No. 1 Las Vegas was down nearly 18 percent;

• No. 2 Merced, Calif. Was down seven percent;

• No. 3 Modesto, Calif., was down nearly 28 percent;

• No. 5 Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Fla., was down nearly 19 percent;

• No. 6 Stockton, Calif., was down 33 percent;

• No. 7 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, Calif., was down nearly 29 percent;

• No. 8 Bakersfield, Calif., was down 19 percent;

• No. 9 Reno-Sparks, Nev., was down nearly 18 percent; and

• No. 10 Phoenix was down nearly nine percent.



More

Shareholder Suit Filed Against Transocean Directors

Alleges executives' statements served to artificially inflate stock price

Shareholder Suit Filed Against Transocean Directors...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 11, 2010
The directors of Transocean, the offshore drilling company implicated in the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, are facing a class action lawsuit from the company's shareholders, who claim the directors artificially inflated the company's stock price by making rosy statements about its safety record.

The suit, brought this week in Harris County, Texas, says that between August 2009 and now, the directors claimed "they had remedied the company's past safety problems and were closely monitoring the company's operating equipment," an unfortunate choice of words given what occurred on April 20.

The suit also says the directors inaccurately claimed that Transocean's blowout preventers (BOPs) -- which have since been implicated in the spill -- were operating normally, and that past BOP-related problems were "anomalies."

BOPs are designed to forestall a catastrophic explosion by closing off pipes when they develop an uncontrollable pressure buildup. The BOPs on the Deepwater Horizon failed to work properly, worsening the massive oil spill that continues to this day.

"Over the last ten years, defendants have -- on several occasions -- been apprised of the serious hazards associated with Transocean's use of certain BOPs on ultra-deepwater drilling engagements," the suit says. "Despite these warnings and defendants' knowledge that a BOP failure would likely result in scores of fatalities and millions of gallons of oil being released into the surrounding waters, defendants concealed their knowledge of these known hazards."

The suit contains a litany of warning signs that it says Transocean failed to heed. According to the complaint, in 2000 BP issued a "notice of default" relating to problems with the BOPs installed on Transocean's Discovery Enterprise rig. Then, in 2003, a Transocean director co-wrote a study "warning...that the industry was not taking the time necessary to find and fix the problems that commonly plagued BOPs," according to the suit.

Additionally, in 2005 and 2006, Great Britain's Health and Safety Executive issued two citations to the company for BOP-related deficiencies. Finally, the suit cites a 2008 paper, co-written by a Transocean manager, warning that "BOP shear rams may also have difficulty shearing today's high-strength, high-toughness drillpipe."

The suit notes the serious toll that the disaster has taken on Transocean's stock. "As the truth about the full extent of this disaster was absorbed by the market over the two weeks following the explosion and oil spill, Transocean shares fell by $25.69 per share, closing at $66.34 on May 10, 2010," the complaint reads, adding that "[t]he Company's reputation continues to be materially harmed" and that Transocean stock "currently trades for around $50 per share."

The defendants include Transocean President and COO Steven Newman, Chairman of the Board Robert Rose, and ten of the company's directors. The suit charges them with breach of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment, abuse of control, gross mismanagement, and waste of corporate assets.

The suit is just the latest bad news for Transocean. The company already faces dozens of other suits related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and Moody's Investor Service on Thursday downgraded its credit outlook from "stable" to "negative." Although the company isn't currently paying any of the cleanup-related costs, it may be forced to do so in the future.

More

Adobe Acrobat, Flash Vulnerable To Cybercriminals

Universal nature of programs makes them attractive targets

Avoiding computer viruses & malware isn't nearly as easy as it used to be. Cybercriminals are staying 2 or 3 steps ahead, often exploiting vulnerabilities ...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 11, 2010
Avoiding computer viruses and malware isn't nearly as easy as it used to be. Cybercriminals are staying two or three steps ahead, often exploiting vulnerabilities in popular software programs.

Two of the most popular programs -- Abobe Acrobat Reader and Adobe Flash -- are so common they are used across multiple platforms, by computers running Windows, Linux and Apple systems. So it's not surprising that hackers have worked hard to find ways to exploit vulnerabilities in those softwares to load malware onto consumers' computers.

"It is becoming more and more common for cybercriminals to exploit vulnerabilities in Adobe's software -- so it would be a very good idea for everyone to update vulnerable computers as soon as possible," said Graham Cluley, a security specialist at Sophos Security, a software company.

Flash vulnerabilities

Adobe this week acknowledged that some versions of Flash, the plug-in that allows video and other animated graphics to be embedded in Web pages, has problems.

"Critical vulnerabilities have been identified in Adobe Flash Player version 10.0.45.2 and earlier," the company posted in a security alert. "These vulnerabilities could cause the application to crash and could potentially allow an attacker to take control of the affected system."

Adobe recommends users of Adobe Flash Player 10.0.45.2 and earlier versions update to Adobe Flash Player 10.1.53.64. Adobe said users of Adobe AIR 1.5.3.9130 and earlier versions update to Adobe AIR 2.0.2.12610.

Interestingly, the Apple iPad does not support Flash, with CEO Steve Jobs taking a critical public posture against the software. Though Jobs did not specifically site security concerns with Flash, he criticized its stability and complained that it was prone to crashing.

Problems with Acrobat

Meanwhile, there are also problems in Adobe's Acrobat Reader, the software that allows documents to be viewed on any computer. Security experts say two exploits in particular, Pdfka and Pidief, now make up nearly half of all detected malware exploits on the Web. These vulnerabilities most recently threatened computer users in the form of a bogus coupon for Doritos that runs a malware program, infecting the computers that download it.

Making it even more dangerous, most browsers will open an Acrobat, or PDF file, without seeking permission. When the file is opened, the malware program runs in the background, without the computer user being aware of it.

Danger lurks

What's the motive behind these attacks? First and foremost it's an attempt by spammers to increase the ranks of so-called "zombie" computers.

The malware allows the hacker to take control of the unsuspecting consumer's computer. They can use it to send out millions of spam messages. You may have gotten a spam email from what appeared to be a legitimate email address, with a real person's name on it. Chances are it came from a zombie computer, with the computer's owner unaware his name was being used to promote a sexual enhancement product.

But there is also a more sinister threat if your computer becomes a zombie. Because the hacker is in control, he or she may monitor your keystrokes and steal user ids and passwords, cleaning out a bank account or stealing an identity.

To protect yourself, make sure you have the latest updates of Acrobat Reader and Flash. With Reader, the updates don't install automatically. You have to change the settings to make the program automatically install updates.

Security experts also suggest disabling the feature that allows PDF files to open automatically in a browser. Simply open the Acrobat Reader software, select "edit," then "preferences." From the menu, click on "Internet" and unselect the option "display PDF in browser."

Finally, make sure your anti-virus software is up to date. Cybercriminals continue to innovate and it's very hard to stay ahead of them.

More

Three More Suspects Nabbed in Home Refinance Scam

Million-dollar bait-and-switch operation took advantage of desperate homeowners

ALG Capital, Inc used "deceptive promises and forged documents" to steal almost $1 million from homeowners falsely guaranteed attractive home loan refinanc...

More

IIHS Picks 2010's Safest Cars

Ford, Audi, Hyundai, Volkswagon score highest on roof strength

IIHS Picks 2010's Safest Cars...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 10, 2010
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)is out with its new ratings for the 2010 models. Based on new rollover test results the 2010 Audi A4 and Q5, Ford Flex and Fusion (twins Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ), Hyundai Tucson, Lincoln MKT, and Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen earn the Institute's Top Safety Pick award.

Each vehicle earns the highest rating of good for roof strength in rollover crashes. To measure roof strength, a metal plate is pushed against one corner of a vehicle's roof at a constant speed.

The maximum force sustained by the roof before five inches of crush is compared with the vehicle's weight to find the strength-to-weight ratio. This is a good assessment of vehicle structural protection in rollover crashes. Good rated vehicles have roofs that can withstand a force equal to at least four times the vehicle's weight. For comparison, the current federal standard is 1.5 times weight.

The Top Safety Pick recognizes the vehicles that earn the highest rating for front, side, rollover, and rear crash protection, and that have electronic stability control, which is standard on all of these models.

Ford leads the pack

Earlier this year Ford made changes to the roof structures of the Flex, Fusion, and MKT. The award applies to Flex models built after January 2010, Fusions built after April 2010, MKTs built after March 2010.

Ford now has 11 Top Safety Pick ratings for 2010 model vehicles -- more than any other automaker. Flex, Fusion, MKZ, MKT and Milan previously earned top possible scores for occupant protection in IIHS's front, side and rear tests, but had to pass IIHS's new roof strength test to maintain the rating.

Vehicles also must offer electronic stability control to be eligible for a Top Safety Pick.

"Leading the industry in both Top Safety Pick ratings and government five-star crash test ratings is very significant because customers increasingly consider IIHS and NHTSA ratings when choosing a new vehicle," said Sue Cischke, Ford's group vice president of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering. "These latest test results further demonstrate Ford's commitment to continuous improvement on the safety front."

More

GE Recalls Front-Loading Washing Machines

GE Recalls Front-Loading Washing Machines...


GE is recalling about 180,000 front-load washing machines. A wire can break in the machine and make contact with a metal part on the washtub while the machine is operating, posing fire and shock hazards to consumers.

GE is aware of seven incidents in which flames escaped the units and caused minor smoke damage. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves GE front-load washing machines without auxiliary water heating. Model and serial numbers are listed in the chart below. Recalled washing machines were manufactured between December 2006 and February 2010. The model and serial numbers are located on the bottom right side and on the bottom door frame of the washers.

BrandModel Number Begins With:Serial Number Begins With:
GEWBVH5 AM, AR, AS, AT, DM, DR, DS, FM,
FR, FS, GM, GS, HM, HR, HS, LM,
LR, LS, MM, MR, MS, RM, RR, RS,
SM, SR, SS, TM, TR, TS, VM, VR,
VS, ZL, ZM, ZR, ZS

The washing machines, made in China, were sold at department and various retail stores nationwide from December 2006 through May 2010 for about $700.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled washers, unplug it from the electrical outlet and contact GE for a free repair. Consumers should not operate the washer until it has been repaired.

For additional information, contact GE toll-free at (888) 345-4124 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's website at www.geappliances.com

The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

More

Counterfeit Coupon Caper Slams Shoppers

Counterfeit Coupon Caper Slams Shoppers...

Pepsi, Doritos among major brands hit by phony coupon scam

A Missouri mom who bit on an offer for free Doritos and Pepsi-Cola products is one the latest victims in a nationwide counterfeit coupon scheme.

Claire N. of Kansas City recently received an e-mail that contained an attachment with printable coupons for the free chips and 12-packs of Pepsi-Cola soft drinks. The full color coupons had the word FREE in bold letters written across the top and indicated they didnt expire until December 2010.

But when Claire tried to get her free Doritos, she learned the coupon was worthless.

The cashier said the coupon was not valid because the store doesnt get the money back from Frito-Lay, she told us. It didnt stop me from buying the product, but it disappointed me because I thought I would get it free.

Claire discovered the coupon for the free Pepsi-Cola products was a sham, too. The clerk said theyd had other coupons like that and they didnt accept them, either.

The coupon caper shocked this savvy Midwest shopper. Here I was thinking I was going to get a free product and I didnt, Claire said. I feel a little bit ripped-off.

ConsumerAffairs.com learned that Claire is among a growing number of shoppers duped in this scheme that is spreading coupons not created or authorized by Frito-Lay or Pepsi-Cola through cyberspace.

Gone viral

Were hearing from people nationwide, said Frito-Lay spokeswoman, Aurora Gonzalez. Frito-Lay and Pepsi-Cola are sister companies under the PepsiCo corporation umbrella. This has gone viral. Its being passed around in e-mails and were seeing it spread in a way weve not seen before.

The company, however, has seen similar types of coupon scams before, Gonzalez said.

This type of coupon showed up in the middle of last year and we were able to pull them off a Web site and control it, she said. But what makes this coupon so disconcerting for us is that its moved from an online source to a viral environment. And because of this new viral nature, we have no idea who is behind it and were seeing it all across the country.

To combat this widespread problem, the company is trying to educate consumers, clearinghouses, and retailers about the fraud.

Were fortunate that the guy putting our products on store shelves is a Frito-Lay person, Gonzalez said. We have resources on the front lines to let stores know about this. We have a direct channel to retailers.

Our hope is to communicate as much as possible and get consumers educated so this will stop, she added.

The companys next wave of communication will be with flyers that retailers can post in their stores, Gonzalez said.

But there are thousands and thousands of stores. And there have been a significant number of stores that were not aware this coupon was a fraud and have taken it. Those coupons come back to us. Theres a financial implication for us.

How to tell

Is there any way retailers and consumers can spot the difference between the counterfeit coupons and real ones?

Gonzalez said the phony coupons have several tell-tale signs, including:

• They dont require consumers to purchase any products. Real coupons almost always require shoppers to buy a product in order to get a free one;

• They state the maximum value is around $5.00. But the maximum value of a single bag of Doritos, for example, is never $5;

• They usually have a one-part UPC code. Real coupons have a two-part UPC codes that can be tracked;

• They dont refer to a specific ounce/weight for the product. Real Doritos coupons, for example, always refer to the specific bag size;

• The mailing address to redeem the coupons is not correct. The mailing address for the phony Doritos coupon is Dallas, Texas. The address on the real Doritos coupons is Del Rio, Texas.

Frito-Lay and Pepsi-Cola arent the only companies targeted in these counterfeit coupon schemes, though.

The Coupon Information Corporation (CIC) said there are a number of fake coupons now in circulation, including ones for products made by Hanes, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Folgers, and Ben and Jerrys Ice Cream.

The non-profit CIC said making counterfeit coupons is a crime that can be prosecuted by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. And the penalties can be severe. The longest prison sentence in one of these cases was 17 years, the organization said. The highest financial penalty was $5 million and prison sentences of three to five years are not uncommon.

The CIC is now offering a $2,500 reward for information that leads to the successful prosecution of those responsible for producing many of the phony coupons, including the ones for the free Doritos. The CIC considers that coupon scheme widespread.

The CIC and Frito-Lay said consumers should be leery of any coupons that sound too good to be true, especially ones that promise free products. In most cases, manufacturers require consumers to buy a product in order to receive a free one.

Consumers should also be wary of any e-mails that contain PDF files with pages of printable coupons.

Were not sending out coupons through e-mails, Frito-Lays Gonzalez said. Thats not a practice we use. We market our coupons through reputable Web sites and in weekend circulars in newspapers.

So if you get our coupons through an e-mail, thats a red flag. Again, thats not a practice we use.

Sorry but ...

Frito-Lay has a message for customers like Claire, who got duped in this scheme.

We sincerely apologize for the disappointment and confusion this has caused, the company states on its Web site.

Gonzalez echoed that message. We dont want to disappoint our customers, she said.

Back in Missouri, Claire told us shes going to do more research the next time someone e-mails her some coupons.

If you get one and are concerned whether its legitimate or not, Id recommend going to the stores customer service area first before picking up the product, she said. But my message to consumers is beware of these types of coupons.

More

P&G Pulls Some Lots of Iams Cat Food

Company cites low levels of vitamin B1 for decision

P&G Pulls Some Lots of Iams Cat Food...

By Lisa Wade McCormick
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 10, 2010
Low levels of thiamine (vitamin B1) have prompted Procter & Gamble to recall certain lots of its Iams ProActive Health canned cat food.

The Cincinnati-based company said it took the "precautionary measure" after tests revealed the food may contain insufficient levels of thiamine. Proctor and Gamble says thiamine is "essential for cats."

The recall is limited to Iams ProActive Health canned cat and kitten food -- all varieties of 3 ounce and 5.5 ounce cans. The products have a date on the bottom of the cans of 09/2011 to 06/2012 and were distributed in North America.

"Cats that were fed these canned products as their only food are at greater risk for developing signs of thiamine deficiency," the company said in a written statement.

Early signs of thiamine deficiency may include loss of appetite, salivation, vomiting and weight loss, the company said. In advanced stages, symptoms can include downward curving of the neck, wobbly gait, falling, circling, and seizures.

Pet owners should contact their veterinarians if their cats display any of these symptoms. "If treated promptly, thiamine deficiency is typically reversible," the company said, adding cat owners should discard any of the recalled products.

For more information about the recall -- or a refund on the products -- pet owners can contact Procter & Gamble at 877-340-8826. More details are available on the company's Web site.



More

Understanding Reverse Mortgage Risks

Not always the easy source of money that commercials portray

Understanding Reverse Mortgage Risks...

June 10, 2010
With the worst recession in recent memory, many senior citizens are looking for ways to increase income. A reverse mortgage may, or may not be the answer, according to financial advisors at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

A reverse mortgage is essentially a loan against your home that you do not have to pay back for as long as you live there. It allows homeowners age 62 or older to borrow cash from the equity in their homes without having to make monthly payments.

You've probably seen ads for reverse mortgages, portraying them as a great source of easy money for older homeowners to supplement their income, pay healthcare expenses or use the money as they please. While there are potential benefits to a reverse mortgage, it may not be the best option for everyone.

With the number of potential borrowers growing with the aging population, it's important that homeowners fully understand the risks involved. Remember -- a reverse mortgage is a loan that must be repaid.

"Not all advertisements clearly indicate that a reverse mortgage is a loan," said Mira Marshall, an FDIC Section Chief specializing in consumer issues. "In fact, a reverse mortgage is a very complicated loan that uses home equity as collateral, just like the mortgage you probably used to purchase your home."

Reverse mortgages allow homeowners to receive cash in a lump sum, through monthly payments, as a line of credit whenever they need money, or any combination of these options. Unlike traditional mortgage products, homeowners do not make any monthly payments to the lender.

Loan amount grows over time

However, they eventually do have to repay the principal and interest when they move, sell the house or die. And, because no monthly payments are being made, the amount owed will grow over time as interest costs build up and, in some cases, as additional funds are advanced.

The borrower also remains responsible for paying the property taxes and insurance and maintaining the house. Failure to do so can cause the reverse mortgage to become immediately due and payable in full.

The rules to determine how much you can borrow through a reverse mortgage are complex. For example, the total amount of cash available is a percentage of the home's value that will vary by the age of the borrower and the location of the property. And if there's a co-borrower, the value is determined by the age of the youngest borrower.

Let's say your house has a market value of $250,000, you owe nothing on a mortgage and the youngest co-owner is 70 years old. Even though your home equity is about $250,000, with a reverse mortgage and depending on the location of the property, you can borrow only up to approximately $130,000. In contrast, with a traditional home equity loan, it may be possible to borrow up to 100 percent of the value of the home.

Interest can eat up all equity

Borrowers also should keep in mind that the more cash they take out and the longer they go without making loan payments, the interest charges and other costs can use up much or all of the equity, leaving fewer and fewer assets for the borrower or heirs. And if you or your heirs want to keep the house instead of selling it, the full loan amount would be due and payable from your own funds, even if its more than the value of the property.

"Because the costs and fees can be extremely high," said Mike Evans, an FDIC Fair Lending Specialist, "most experts generally advise homeowners not to take out a reverse mortgage if they plan to stay in their home less than five years or if they simply need extra money for small expenses."

Do your homework

FDIC recommends that you do your research and shop around before committing to a reverse mortgage. To understand the potential pros and cons of a reverse mortgage, talk to financial advisors and qualified housing counselors. Depending on your circumstances, there may be other, less expensive options available to you.

Explore different kinds of loans and programs from local government agencies or nonprofit organizations. In some cases, it may even make financial sense to sell your home and downsize to a less expensive home or even a rental.

If you decide that borrowing money is the way to go, contact several lenders and compare the costs and benefits of the options they offer.

"Most financial experts also agree that it is never a good idea to use the funds from a reverse mortgage to purchase other financial products or services," said David Lafleur, an FDIC Senior Examination Specialist. "Not only will you immediately incur expensive interest charges and other fees in connection with the reverse mortgage, but having large deposits or annuities may make it tougher for you to qualify for certain entitlement programs that take assets into consideration, such as Medicaid. Also, if you tie up money in CDs or annuities, you will be giving up easy access to funds you may need to meet your expenses."

More

Some Payday Loan 'Alternatives' Not Always A Good Idea

Triple-digit rates offer no choice to the payday loan trap, says NCLC.

Some Payday Loan 'Alternatives' Not Always A Good Idea...

By James Limbach
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 10, 2010
Some loans offered by banks and credit unions as "alternatives" to high-cost, short-term payday loans may instead plunge consumers into a costly and nearly inescapable debt cycle -- just like payday loans!

That's the warning contained in "Stopping the Payday Loan Trap: Alternatives That Work, Ones That Don't," a report issued by the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC).

"Too many providers of so-called payday loan alternatives hit consumers with some of the same onerous provisions that predatory lenders use to saddle unwary and vulnerable borrowers with loans they can't afford to repay," said Lauren Saunders, managing attorney of NCLC's Washington office and principal author of the report.

Tactics employed by payday loan operations are well documented. Bonita of East Orange, NJ, tells ConsumerAffairs.com that Payday-Loan-Yes.com extracted money from her financial institution without her authorization. "When I contacted them regarding the matter an accounting manager (wouldn't give name) nor come to the phone told the representative she was not reversing the transaction." Bonita says the company refused to even tell her where they are located so she could take follow-up action.

Then there's this horror story from Thuha of Federal Heights, CO. "I asked for a $300 payday loan in which it was $381 after all fees. They (Cash Transfer Centers) debited the loan on the wrong way (off week) of my actual payday. And not just one debit, but they broke it up into two debits of 190; therefore, making me accrue not one overdraft fee, but four (two for them of $29 and two from my bank of $39)." Thuha says she was then threatened with wage garnishment before she was even notified by her bank that she overdrafted. "Warning," she concludes, "your $300 loan will turn into a $1,000 nightmare!"

For those who seek them, affordable small loans are available -- especially at credit unions, the report found. NCLC researchers reviewed hundreds of small loans.

"Many genuine payday alternatives are in the market, but some products are nearly as bad as or even worse than payday loans," said Leah Plunkett, the report's coauthor. "Cash advances offered to checking account holders by Wells Fargo Bank, U.S. Bank and Fifth Third Bank are payday loans, plain and simple -- triple digit loans repaid on the next payday."

Even some federal credit unions are exploiting loopholes to offer payday loans at triple-digit interest rates, including California-based Kinecta Federal Credit Union's 14-day loan with an annual percentage rate, or APR, that the report estimates at 362 percent. Other federal credit unions offer expensive loans from E-AccessLoan.com.

Genuine alternatives include the Credit Builder loan from Alternatives Federal Credit Union in New York; affordable, interest-based overdraft lines of credit from some major banks; and affordable small loans offered by Progreso Financiero, a community development financial institution in California.

Genuine and safe payday loan alternatives must have annual percentage rates, including fees, no higher than 36 percent; terms of at least 90 days, repayments in installments and no check-holding or electronic access to the consumer's bank account, according to NCL.

Such loans can help consumers escape the "debt traps" operated by payday lenders, who rely on high costs (annual percentage rates up to 390 percent or more), short terms, balloon payments and coercive security provisions to force victims to roll over loans and pay astronomical fees.

"Payday loan alternatives that help consumers must be repayable affordably and over time, so that hard-pressed borrowers who need short-term help can climb out of debt rather than get trapped in it," Saunders said.

Separately, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard has announced the formation of "Operation Sunset", an enforcement initiative designed to go after payday lenders who attempt to evade the ban on payday loans. The law allowing payday loans expires on June 30.

"I will use every tool at my disposal to enforce the end of exorbitant payday loans in Arizona and seek fines and penalties against those who try to continue this abusive practice," Goddard said. "I encourage citizens to report violations to our Office. Our enforcement will be swift and aggressive."

Goddard noted that other states, such as North Carolina and Arkansas, have seen deceptive practices following changes in their laws that ended payday loans. Auto loans, pre-paid debit cards and Internet payday lending are alternatives used by the payday loan industry elsewhere to evade the law. For example, pre-paid debit cards have been offered with an interest rate and fees that would exceed Arizona's annual percentage rate limit of 36 percent.

The AG's Office is sending payday loan companies a letter informing them of the "Operation Sunset" initiative.

More

Consumer Reports: High Price Doesn't Guarantee High Laundry Detergent Performance

Formulas from Tide deliver cleanest clothes, Martha Stewart detergent finishes last in tests

<em>Consumer Reports</em>: High Price Doesn't Guarantee High Laundry Detergent Performance...

June 9, 2010
The latest Consumer Reports tests of more than 50 laundry detergents continue to show that buying a high-priced product doesn't guarantee cleaner clothes.

Formulas from Tide topped ratings of conventional and high-efficiency formulas, but there are other, less-expensive formulas from manufacturers such as Gain that offer comparable cleaning.

To determine which perform best, CR tests all laundry detergents on seven common stains and soils, using a color-sensitive instrument called a colorimeter to analyze how much stain remains after washing. Both conventional and high-efficiency washing machines are used and the laundry detergents are used as directed on the container. All are measured against washing with nothing but water, which provides minimal cleaning.

Consumer Reports tested liquid and powder formulas of conventional and high-efficiency laundry detergents. When choosing a detergent, consumers must consider the type of washing machine they have or use; conventional detergents should be used with standard, top-loading washing machines and high-efficiency formulas, which produce less suds, must be used with front-loading or high-efficiency top-loading machines.

Conventional laundry detergents

In CR's recent lab tests, Tide 2X Ultra for Cold Water and Tide 2X Ultra with Dawn Stainscrubbers, both 23 cents per load, topped the charts. Tide 2X Ultra for Cold Water cleaned best and because it is formulated for cold water, consumers can save roughly $60 per year in water-heating energy costs. Tide 2X Ultra with Dawn Stainscrubbers is also a solid pick, but despite its stain-scrubbing name, it did not excel at removing blood and grass stains.

High-efficiency laundry detergents

Front-loaders and high-efficiency top-loading washing machines require high-efficiency laundry detergents. Consumer Reports tested 23 formulas and eight performed well-enough to recommend including formulas from Tide, All, Gain, Up & Up (Target), Kirkland Signature (Costco), and Seventh Generation.

Tide 2X Ultra with Color Clean Bleach Alternative HE, 24 cents per load, topped the ratings for cleaning best overall and noted for being very good on grass stains. Gain Original Fresh HE which costs six cents per load is a CR "Best Buy." It was impressive at cleaning, costs far less and was the top pick among powders for its fine performance on grass and bloodstains.

Kirkland Signature Environmentally Friendly Ultra 2X HE (Costco), 12 cents per load, and Seventh Generation Natural Powdered HE, 36 cents per load, are mostly plant-based and cleaned best among detergents with green claims.

Martha Stewart Clean Laundry Detergent finished last-place among laundry detergents in both categories. Like water, it provides minimal cleaning, leaving behind more of the wine, chocolate, grass, ring around the collar, and other common stains and soils in conventional top-loading washer tests. It cleaned only slight better in front-loaders.

The full report, which includes six tips for achieving cleaner clothes and buying advice and ratings of laundry detergents, is featured in the July issue of the magazine.

More

Mississippi Warns BP Against Seeking Refuge in Federal Court

State 'won't take a dime less' than it is owed, its AG asserts

Mississippi Warns BP Against Seeking Refuge in Federal Court...

Tempers are growing short along the Gulf Coast, with Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood firing the latest round, saying his state "will not take a dime less" than it is entitled to from the claims process established by BP to compensate victims of the massive oil gusher that is fouling the waters of the Gulf Coast.

He warned the company not to try an end-run around the states.

On Monday, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell filed a Petition for Discovery and Investigation against British Petroleum in state court in Plaquemines Parish.

Hood said his experience with Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that an open claims process is essential to keeping Gulf Coast businesses and individuals from succumbing to bankruptcy and foreclosure. "Victims need money now to stay afloat," Hood said.

In initial meetings between Gulf Coast attorneys general and BP, Hood said he demanded -- and BP agreed -- that no claimants would be required to sign a waiver of their right to sue later and that BP waiver the statutory liability cap of $75 million. The company agreed to both and, so far, has paid $5.5 million in claims to Mississippi residents and businesses.

But Hood said that he is concerned the company's strategy is to go to federal court in an attempt to make an end run around the states.

"BP and Transocean have revealed their legal strategy by filing actions before federal judges in Houston, Texas, in an attempt to drag all claims by individuals, businesses, and the state and federal governments into a foreign jurisdiction," Hood said. "We want the claims made by the state of Mississippi to be decided by a Mississippi state court."

A hard lesson

Hood said Mississippi learned a hard but valuable lesson after Katrina.

"The insurance industry abused the federal court system to delay the state court suit which my office filed within two weeks of Katrina. It took Mississippi four years to bring the issue before our Mississippi Supreme Court, where it rightfully belonged. Just this past October, the Court ruled in our favor nine to zero," he said.

But Hood said it was a "hollow victory" because by the time of the state court decision most cases had already settled.

"I will fight to make sure the oil companies do not abuse the federal system to delay justice due the people of Mississippi," he said. "If the 11th Amendment to our United States Constitution has any meaning left, it is that state claims should be litigated in our state courts."

The 11th Amendment basically recognizes that states have a certain degree of sovereign immunity and are not totally subordinate to the federal government.

Louisiana petition

The Louisiana petition alleges that BP has failed to cooperate and share important information with the State, specifically information requested repeatedly by the Louisiana Workforce Commission and the Louisiana Department of Social Services regarding all claims data collected by ESIS, the third party administrator for claims, and for information about workers hired by BP. The purpose of the petition is to gather information as part of the State's investigation as to the causes of the spill and impacts to the state.

"Today's filing was a last resort in trying to get information from BP that the Department of Social Services and the Louisiana Workforce Commission have requested repeatedly from BP since May 3 regarding the BP claims process," Caldwell said.

Louisiana, Caldwell says, has made several requests for information and/or further explanation but has not received an adequate response. Despite promises that BP would cooperate and coordinate its response with the State, Caldwell says he has seen little evidence.

"Today's petition is a request for a court to order BP to produce information that the State needs to monitor BP's claims process to ensure that our citizens are being treated fairly and receiving proper assistance," Caldwell said. "As Attorney General, be assured that I will take any and all necessary legal actions to safeguard the interests of those citizens and other entities of Louisiana who elect to file or are considering filing claims through the process BP has established."

Over the weekend BP announced that it was capturing most of the oil leaking from the ocean floor, though Obama administration officials conceded the oil might continue to link well into the Autumn months. BP said the cap it attached to the top of the leaking well siphoned off 10,500 barrels of oil out of an estimated 12,000-19,000 barrels a day leaking from the wellhead.

The spill's costs continue to escalate and now have exceeded $1.25 billion, according to BP's estimates. BP has set aside $350 million to pay for construction of sand barriers along the Louisiana coastline, to protect environmentally sensitive marshlands.

More

Mead Johnson Pulls Chocolate Drink For Kids

Sweet beverage had been controversial among some parents

Saying it's been the subject of "misunderstanding and mischaracterization," Mead Johnson Nutrition has withdrawn its Enfagrow Premium chocolate drink from ...

June 9, 2010

Saying it's been the subject of "misunderstanding and mischaracterization," Mead Johnson Nutrition has withdrawn its Enfagrow Premium chocolate drink from the market.

The product, intended for toddlers weaned from breast milk or formula, contains 19 grams of sugar per seven-ounce serving and has been controversial since its introduction.

"Our Enfagrow Premium products were introduced in the U.S. for toddlers who have been weaned off breast milk or infant formula, but still need nutritional support to their main diet," the company said in a statement. "Parents have told us that they consider these products an important option for meeting the overall nutritional needs of toddlers, especially those who are picky or erratic eaters."

The company also said the recently introduced chocolate-flavored version has what it called "a superior nutritional profile" to many other beverages typically consumed by toddlers -- including apple juice, grape juice, and similarly flavored dairy drinks.

"Unfortunately, there has been some misunderstanding and mischaracterization regarding the intended consumer for this product and the proper role it can play in a child's balanced diet," the statement reads. "The resulting debate has distracted attention from the overall benefits of the brand, so we have decided to discontinue production of Enfagrow Premium chocolate toddler drink and phase it out over the coming weeks."

The American Academy of Pediatrics was among the critics, suggesting that feeding sweets to toddlers increases their interest in consuming more sugary foods and decreases their interest in more nutritious food. In recent years many doctors have recommended limiting toddlers' consumption of sweet food and beverages.

Enfagrow Premium will remain available in three unflavored versions -- Next Step, Gentlease Next Step and Soy Next Step -- as well as vanilla. Mead Johnson said it stands behind the nutritional quality and scientific integrity of all its products, "while also striving to be responsive to the needs and concerns of our consumers in the marketplace."



More

Some Consumers Would Like To End Political Robo Calls

Political calls not covered by Do Not Call list

Some Consumers Would Like To End Political Robo Calls...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 8, 2010
With anti-incumbent fever sweeping the nation, this primary election season has been more active than most. That means millions of Americans have received automated telephone calls in recent days promoting a candidate or ballot initiative.

Some consumers, like Pamela of Pasadena, Calif., have had enough.

"For weeks, I've been receiving between four to ten calls per day regarding the primary elections," Pamela told ConsumerAffairs.com. "These are recordings so there's no opportunity to ask a question. They're commercials basically. My 92-year old mother can't take a nap! I'm very interested in the elections, and do my homework, but I don't want all these calls coming to my home day and night."

Even if Pamela were on the national Do Not Call list, it wouldn't stop the political robo calls. That's because when Congress wrote the law setting up the Do Not Call list, it exempted political calls, as well as charitable solicitations and surveys. But many people find political robo calls just as annoying as ones from telemarketers.

"I would like the Do Not Call list to extend to pre-recorded messages which serve no purpose," Pamela said. "There's no assurance of accuracy in these statements. In California many have been outright lies, and anyone who would vote for someone after listening to a recording, shouldn't be voting. Can anything be done?"

Some people are trying.

Shaun Dakin, the CEO and founder of Citizens for Civil Discourse, has set up a website to campaign for political calls to be included in those forbidden if one is on the Do Not Call list.

As a start, he is gathering names and numbers of consumers who want to opt out. He says they will be forwarded to the political parties, requesting they be voluntarily excluded. So far, he says, about 50,000 consumers have signed up.

"We work with candidates and advocacy groups to educate them on the lack of effectiveness of political robo calls and encourage them to use alternate channels to communicate with voters," Dakin said on his website.

Unless the law is changed, annoyed consumers will have to find a work-around. One anonymous poster on a SeattlePI.com forum offered this advice:

"I just put the phone down," they wrote. "I don't hang up, just put it down so I don't have to listen to them babble. That way at least they can't call someone else for the minute or so they think they are talking to me."

More

Big Tobacco Takes On New York Smoking Regulation

Lawsuit says city upstages feds, violates First Amendment

Big Tobacco Takes On New York Smoking Regulation...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 8, 2010
New York City used to be the "murder capital" of the country. These days, it looks more like the nation's health club and spa.

In 2003, the Big Apple outlawed smoking in all bars and restaurants, and in 2006 banished trans fats from local eateries. In 2008, the city began requiring chain restaurants to post the nutritional content of their offerings, meaning New Yorkers would never look at a Big Mac the same way again. And earlier this year, a state assemblyman from Brooklyn introduced legislation that would prohibit restaurants from using salt "in any form" when preparing food.

New York has gotten its share of good-humored ribbing about its "nanny state" tendencies over the past few years. But the city's latest regulation is getting more serious pushback from a determined source: the tobacco industry.

For the past six months, New York has required retailers to display posters with nauseating photos that show the effects of prolonged tobacco use. The placards include the typical warnings that smoking "causes lung cancer" or "causes tooth decay" but also feature photos of, for example, a blackened lung or a rotted tooth, to drive the point home in an extremely visceral fashion.

On Wednesday, three leading tobacco companies -- Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds, and Lorillard -- filed a lawsuit contending the signs improperly usurp the federal government's role of regulating tobacco packaging. The companies also argue that the law violates the First Amendment, since it forces storeowners to display the signs even if they disagree with their message. The New York State Association of Convenience Stores, a non-profit trade association made up of 250 companies, also joined the suit.

"The mandated signs crowd out other advertisements and otherwise dominate the point of sale in many smaller establishments, to the exclusion of merchandise or other messages chosen by the store owners," the suit says.

Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment lawyer who is representing the retailers, told The New York Times on Friday that the city "doesn't have the right...to force other people to adopt its expression."

Sarah Perl, assistant commissioner for tobacco control at New York's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, told the Times in December that the posters are intended to target consumers "at the point-of-sale moment." Perl added that customers have learned to tune out the generic Surgeon General's warnings that appear on all cigarette packs and advertisements, in large part because those warnings haven't changed much since their introduction in 1966.

Regardless of the outcome, the suit will have far-reaching consequences even outside New York. Massachusetts, which was in the process of implementing a law requiring similar signs, has a special interest in the case.

"Any education and cessation material we can get out there, we would like to get out on a state level," Jennifer Manley, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, told Boston.com on Sunday. "We're going to keep watching New York City closely to see what the outcome is."

And even if the tobacco companies win this round, they'll take a hit in 2012, when federal standards will begin mandating more conspicuous warnings on cigarette packages. Unlike the subtle black-and-white boxes currently featured on the sides of cigarette boxes, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act requires that warnings cover at least 50 percent of the package and that the word "warning" appear in capital letters.

The Act was signed into law by President Obama, himself an occasional smoker, last June.



More

Arizona AG Files Lawsuit Against Loan Modification Company

Obtains temporary restraining order to protect homeowners

Arizona AG Files Lawsuit Against Loan Modification Company...

June 7, 2010
The state of Arizona has filed a lawsuit against Discount Mortgage Relief and Mortgage Relief, LLC, (DMR/MR), based in Scottsdale, and its owners for engaging in allegedly deceptive loan modification services.

The office of Attorney General Terry Goddard also secured a Temporary Restraining Order that prevents DMR/MR from charging or receiving money for loan modification services and from advertising its services. The company was one of two sued by the state of Minnesota earlier this year.

Court documents in the Arizona action claim the number of victims may number in the thousands.

"Instead of providing assistance, many loan modification companies have been pocketing large upfront fees and failing to obtain any kind of mortgage relief for homeowners," said Goddard. "In this past legislative session, my Office championed the passage of SB 1130, which prohibits foreclosure consultants from receiving fees before they provide loan modification or other services."

The new law prohibiting consultants from collecting upfront fees takes effect July 29.

The lawsuit alleges that at least since July 2009, DMR/MR deceived consumers into paying thousands of dollars for mortgage loan modification services by misrepresenting the company's ability to help them obtain mortgage relief and save their homes, thereby violating the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act.

Consumers allegedly paid DMR/MR between approximately $1,350 and $5,000 for loan modification services and were guaranteed results by the company.

The lawsuit contends that Discount Mortgage Relief and Mortgage Relief, LLC. violated the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act by:

• Misleading consumers into believing they were pre-qualified and guaranteed to receive a loan modification through the company's services.

• Falsely promising favorable results and telling consumers that any foreclosure proceedings against their homes would stop once they hired the company.

• Misrepresenting that the company used attorneys to negotiate consumers' loan modifications.

• Falsely stating that they were associated with or acting on behalf of the government and associated with or acting on behalf of the consumer's lender.

• Falsely stating that the company was "FBI certified".

• Misrepresenting the nature of the company's loan modification services by referring to them as forensic loan documentation audits or analyses.

• Falsely promising consumers that they would receive a refund of fees if the company failed to get them a loan modification and failing to return fees to some consumers who decided not to hire the company and never signed a contract.

In the lawsuit, Goddard asks the court to order Discount Mortgage Relief/Mortgage Relief to:

• Refrain from violating the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act.

• Pay full restitution to all homeowners who paid Discount Mortgage Relief/Mortgage Relief for loan modification services.

• Pay a civil penalty of up to $10,000 for each violation of the Consumer Fraud Act.

• Reimburse the Attorney General's Office for its costs in this matter.

The AG recommends that homeowners who are in or facing foreclosure seek assistance promptly from their mortgage lender or servicer or a government-approved housing counselor. Federal, state and local governments offer numerous free resources for distressed homeowners.

More

Countrywide To Pay $108 Million for Overcharging Struggling Homeowners

Loan servicer inflated fees, mishandled loans of borrowers in bankruptcy, agency says

Countrywide To Pay $108 Million for Overcharging Struggling Homeowners...

Two Countrywide mortgage servicing companies will pay $108 million to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that they collected excessive fees from cash-strapped borrowers who were struggling to keep their homes.

That represents one of the largest judgments imposed in an FTC case, and the largest mortgage servicing case. The money will be used to reimburse overcharged homeowners whose loans were serviced by Countrywide before it was acquired by Bank of America in July 2008.

"Life is hard enough for homeowners who are having trouble paying their mortgage. To have a major loan servicer like Countrywide piling on illegal and excessive fees is indefensible," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. "We're very pleased that homeowners will be reimbursed as a result of our settlement."

Charges outlined

According to the complaint filed by the FTC, Countrywide's loan-servicing operation deceived homeowners who were behind on their mortgage payments into paying inflated fees -- fees that could add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Many of the homeowners had taken out loans originated or funded by Countrywide's lending arm, including subprime or "nontraditional" mortgages such as payment option adjustable rate mortgages, interest-only mortgages, and loans made with little or no income or asset documentation, the complaint states.

Mortgage servicers are responsible for the day-to-day management of homeowners' mortgage loans, including collecting and crediting monthly loan payments. Homeowners cannot choose their mortgage servicer. In March 2008, before being acquired by Bank of America, Countrywide was ranked as the nation's top mortgage servicer, with a balance of more than $1.4 trillion in its servicing portfolio.

Profiting from hard times

When homeowners fell behind on their payments and were in default on their loans, Countrywide ordered property inspections, lawn mowing, and other services meant to protect the lender's interest in the property, according to the FTC complaint.

But rather than simply hire third-party vendors to perform the services, Countrywide created subsidiaries to hire the vendors. The subsidiaries marked up the price of the services charged by the vendors -- often by 100 percent or more -- and Countrywide then charged the homeowners the marked-up fees.

The complaint contends the company's strategy was to increase profits from default-related service fees in bad economic times. As a result, even as the mortgage market collapsed and more homeowners fell into delinquency, Countrywide earned substantial profits by funneling default-related services through subsidiaries that it created solely to generate revenue.

According to the FTC, under most mortgage contracts, homeowners must pay for necessary default-related services, but mortgage servicers may not mark up the cost to make a profit or charge homeowners for services that are not reasonable or appropriate to protect the mortgage holder's interest in the property. Homeowners do not have any choice in who performs default-related services or the cost of those services, and they have no option to shop for those services.

Fast and loose

In addition, in servicing loans for borrowers trying to save their homes in Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings, the complaint charges that Countrywide made false or unsupported claims to borrowers about amounts owed or the status of their loans. Countrywide also failed to tell borrowers in bankruptcy when new fees and escrow charges were being added to their loan accounts.

The FTC alleges that after the bankruptcy case closed and borrowers no longer had bankruptcy court protection, Countrywide unfairly tried to collect those amounts, including in some cases via foreclosure.

Settlement terms

The FTC's complaint and settlement order name two mortgage servicers as defendants: Countrywide Home Loans, Inc. and BAC Home Loans Servicing LP, formerly doing business as Countrywide Home Loans Servicing LP. The settlement requires Countrywide to pay $108 million, which will be refunded to homeowners who Countrywide overcharged before July 2008.

In addition, the settlement order prohibits Countrywide from taking advantage of borrowers who have fallen behind on their payments. The defendants continue to service millions of mortgage loans, including tens of thousands of loans involving borrowers in bankruptcy and foreclosure. In the servicing of loans, the defendants are permanently barred from:

• Making false or unsubstantiated representations about loan accounts, such as amounts owed.

• Charging any fee for a service unless it is authorized by the loan instruments, by law, or by the consumer for a specific service requested by the consumer.

• Charging any fee for a default-related service unless it is a reasonable fee charged by a third party for work actually performed. If the service is provided by an affiliate of a defendant, the fee must be within limits set by state law, investor guidelines, and market rates. Defendants must obtain annual, independent market reviews of their affiliates' fees to ensure that they are not excessive.

In addition, Countrywide must advise consumers if it intends to use affiliates for default-related services and, if so, provide a fee schedule of the amounts charged by the affiliates.

The settlement also requires Countrywide to make significant changes to its bankruptcy servicing practices. For example, Countrywide must send borrowers in Chapter 13 bankruptcy a monthly notice with information about what amounts the borrower owes - including any fees assessed during the prior month.

The defendants also must implement a data integrity program to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the data they use to service loans in Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

More

How to Keep Your Brain in Shape

12 ways Boomers can strengthen our minds to avoid those 'senior moments'

How to Keep Your Brain in Shape...


Has this ever happened to you? Youre looking for something but suddenly you forget what youre looking for. Or you put down your car keys, but you cant remember where.

Or how about this? You begin a conversation and halfway through you cant remember what you were talking about. Or you meet someone at a party that you know youve met many times before, but suddenly you draw blank on his or her name.

Often, we jokingly refer to these experiences as senior moments. But as we get older and these moments become more frequent, its no longer very funny. It can be downright embarrassing or, worse, a foretelling of dementia or serious memory loss that may lie ahead.

Anyone who has seen a parent or loved one battle with Alzheimers or any of the other forms of dementia that eat away at our ability to remember knows firsthand just how very sad and debilitating these diseases can be.

Such diseases are becoming more prevalent as our population ages. According to the Alzheimers Association, 13% of those over the age of 65, or one in eight people, have Alzheimers -- and an estimated 16% of women and 11% of men have dementia over the age of 71. (Although rare, there is also something known as early-onset Alzheimers which, according to researcher Glenn E. Smith, affects an estimated 200,000 in the United States under the age of 65 with the majority of cases occurring during someones 50s).

Temporary forgetfulness

Heres some good news for Boomers who have those senior moments. Paul David Nussbaum, Ph.D. is a Pittsburgh-based clinical neuropsychologist who has been researching brain health and caring for those with dementia and related disorders for more than twenty years and who is author of Save Your Brain: 5 Things You Must Do to Keep Your Mind Young and Sharp (McGraw-Hill, 2010). He calls those senior moments temporary forgetfulness.

He says that when those instantaneous memory losses occur, its usually due to stress caused by trying to do too much all at once, hormonal changes that occur naturally around the fifties, and perhaps mood fluctuations related to changes in life circumstances.

If the problem is severe, Nussbaum recommends you could get a neuropsychological assessment at a well-regarded academic medical center. But for most, those embarrassing occasional memory losses are not the precursor of the kind of dementia that robs someone of his or her life story as Nussbaum calls it.

Brain health movement

Still, those moments are a wake-up call that you need to put more time and energy into your brain. Nussbaum is part of what is known as the brain health movement. This is a movement that advocates taking a proactive approach to making lifestyle choices that will at least lower our risk of future brain disease.

The Alzheimers Association and the medical community are quick to point out that genetics and aging itself are two factors we simply cannot control that put us at risk for Alzheimers and other dementias. However, in this column Im going to focus on those factors we can control.

Plasticity of the brain

In bygone days, it was believed that we were born with a certain number of brain cells and that was it. But starting in the 1990s, scientific discoveries confirmed that we can actually generate new brain cells. How do we do it? We have to actively work on having a brain with plasticity.

What is plasticity? Nussbaum says its a brain that is dynamic, constantly recognizing, and malleable. In that way, we can also build up brain reserve, which, as Nussbaum says, could lead to better memory processing, better moods, more energy, and more efficient thinking. He says that brain reserve will, later on, make us better equipped to at least delay when or if dementia strikes.

Researchers have discovered there are ways to improve brain function as pointed out in The Healthy Brain Initiative. This study contends that what contributes to a healthy heart also contributes to a healthy brain. (See also "Heart Health for Boomers."

In his book, Nussbaum identifies five concerns that he calls critical areas for improving brain health:

• Socialization;
• Physical activity;
• Mental stimulation;
• Spirituality;
• Nutrition.

In researching how to have a healthier brain, I found twelve top ways (many of which overlap with Nussbaums five critical areas) to enhance the plasticity of your brain, to build brain reserve, and to at least slow down the onset of dementia in later years:

1. Exercise. By boosting blood flow to the brain, exercise seems to be the number one factor in keeping your brain healthy. The American Geriatrics Society (AGS) recommends exercising on a regular basis or at least for thirty minutes, three times a week. Suggested exercise options include walking, gardening, swimming, cycling, or dancing.

2. Engage in activities that stimulate the brain like reading books, newspapers, or magazines, taking part in crafts, or exploring new information on the Internet.

3. Keep your mind challenged through word games and crossword puzzles. (Michel Noir, Ph.D. and Bernard Croisile, M.D., Ph.D. provide 301 easy, medium, and hard puzzles for building your brain plasticity in their series of brain-building exercise books including Beef Up Your Brain (McGraw-Hill, 2009).

4. Limit TV viewing to fewer than 7 hours a day. (See also Do Soaps & Talk Shows Dull The Brain?)

5. Eat a well-balanced diet that is filled with vegetables, fruits, sufficient protein, B vitamins, and high in omega-3 fatty acids and not saturated fats.

6. Stop smoking.

7. Consider if the prescription drugs you are taking combine to have a memory loss consequence and ask your physician to adjust accordingly.

8. Stay hydrated. Drink a lot of water.

9. Reduce stress in your life. As Paul E. Bendheim, M.D., author of The Brain Training Revolution (Sourcebooks, 2009), notes, stress in moderation can actually improve your short-term memory. He writes, Think of how the pressure and sense of urgency of an impending deadline improves your focus, concentration, and efficiency. However, there is also a different kind of stress that damages memory. High chronic stress levels are unhealthy and have been shown to damage the hippocampus [part of the brain] and thus impair memory and learning, Bendheim continues.

10. Get enough sleep. If you get less sleep because youre stressed, it will usually have a negative impact on your concentrateionand memory. Anyone who has ever pulled an all-nighter in school knows that too little sleep tends to mess up your memory and brain functioning. It also makes you more vulnerable to drowsy driving which can lead to an increased possibility of an accident or fatalities if you fall asleep at the wheel (or even to accidents at work).

11. Do something fresh and challenging. Dr. Nussbaum says the best way to build up those brain reserves is to do something that is new and hard. Stimulate that cortex with the novel and the complex One way to accomplish that? Travel says Nussbaum. It promotes brain health by exposing your brain to a new environment. Using the hand that is not your dominant hand is another way of doing something novelif you are a rightie brush your teeth with your left hand or trying teaching yourself to write with your other hand; learning a second or third language is another challenge to build up brain reserve.

12. Stay connected socially. Connect with family or friends on a regular basis. If you are still working, make sure you reach out to your connections through work. If you are retired and no longer working and feeling too isolated, consider a part-time job, getting active in any of the associations or community groups you belong to, or doing volunteer work to get more socially connected.

10 Warning Signs of Alzheimers

Still worried that your occasional forgetfulness is the sign of something far worse? Here are the ten warning signs of Alzheimers Disease, according to the University of South Florida Byrd Alzheimers Institute:

• Recent memory loss that affects your job skills;
• Difficult performing familiar tasks;
• Problems with language;
• Disorientation of time and place;
• Poor or decreased judgment;
• Problems with abstract thinking;
• Misplacing things;
• Changes in mood or behavior;
• Changes in personality;
• Loss of initiative.

These symptoms for Alzheimers are a far cry from occasionally misplacing your car keys. Fortunately research is showing that you can impact on how healthy your brain is or at least those factors that are not caused by genetics or advancing age. With science and technology partnering to help us all live a lot longer, keeping our brains as healthy as possible should be one of our top priorities.

Resources

Associations

Articles, Papers and Reports



More

Gulf Coast Soldiers On As BP Spill Fills the Gulf of Mexico

New Orleans hosts its first, and maybe last, Oyster Festival as the oil slick spreads

Gulf Coast Soldiers On As BP Spill Fills the Gulf of Mexico...

By Leonard Earl Johnson
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 7, 2010
New Orleans tourism is not showing much effect from British Petroleum's gift that keeps on giving. After all, tourists never did come here for the water.

There is no coastline inside Orleans Parish. At least not yet. No marshes. No wetlands. No water. No oil.

The oil-assaulted wetlands are all below New Orleans. And west of the River. And now east. The heart aches with the sight of each noble pelican slathered with deadly black goo.

It is those marshlands of Plaquemines and Saint Bernard and Jefferson Parishes that feed and protect us. We fear greatly for them. And now the beaches of Mississippi. And Alabama. And Florida.

British Petroleum's gusher is filling the Gulf of Mexico with oil.

But in the French Quarter and Uptown cafes and shops the crowds are normal. Summer-thin, to be sure, but normally so. Inside restaurants -- numbering two-hundred more than before the hurricanes of 2005 -- the atmosphere is comfortable and the kitchens are busy.

Summer comes early to New Orleans. It is a city as deeply inside the magnolia curtain as it can be. One step further back and we would be out in the off-shore oil patch.

This time of year the heat and humidity are present enough that you might comfortably spend an afternoon sharing a bottle of wine with them on the gallery.

This is a time when crowds melt down to small trickles of hearty family travelers, worldly Europeans (who don't buy souvenirs), and assorted National Geographic readers.

They come with smaller footprints than the high-rolling oil barons, conventioneers, and limitlessly-funded bankers who account for the bulk of our high annual hotel occupancy. They tilt the numbers heavily during the cooler months. Then they leave the summer for us to do with as we please with our better-mannered visitors.

In June we become less like a Disneyland for adults and more like a city. This time of year we can get a seat on the street car, and ride our bicycle without navigating around tourists walking five abreast down any street in the French Quarter.

Now we see who is in town

Recently seen grazing in trendy cafes among the Summer herd has been British Petroleum's head honcho (I guess he is the head? Can anyone tell what all those BP titles mean?), Chief Executive Officer and apologist, Tony Hayward. His table mate was Admiral Thad Allen. Hopefully they dined on Louisiana seafood. God knows those two had things to talk about.

The megacatastrophe they can not handle has now reached as far as Florida's white sands, with promise of going even farther.

Their meetings are not the dreaded collusion of power that talk radio can neither stop talking about nor locate. Those meetings go on in secreted situations. Like Dick Cheney's Vice Presidential office. Where undisclosed energy barons met and planned America's future without regulations that required off-shore drillers to plan, baby plan for a worst-case, May-Day situation. Like the one today filling the Gulf of Mexico with oil. Louisiana Senator David Vitter led the battle for repeal.

BP's end of the world not withstanding, this is still one of the better times to be in New Orleans. And thus it has been for the thirty-some years I have called this 300-year-old City home.

A story of fun and bad timing

On Sunday June 5, amid the worst assault on America's fisheries ever, the first annual New Orleans Oyster Festival launched itself in the broiling midday sun, atop a melting asphalt parking lot, between Decatur Street and cool green Woldenberg Park overlooking the Mississippi River. Rent must have been cheaper in the parking lot. Proceeds went to save our coastline.

In the park atop the levee, TV luminaries like James Carville and Anderson Cooper told audiences nothing of the Oyster Festival but lots about the oil pollution.


Zazzle.com created a custom stamp for the New Orleans Oyster Festival

Down in the hot parking lot, Andrea Apuzzo, owner of Metairie, Louisiana's noted Northern Italian restaurant, Andrea's, stood beside his tent offering savory examples of his great skill with Louisiana oysters and shrimp. A wafting tar-pitch smell washed over us. A tourist asked if the odor was from the Gulf oil spill.

Apuzzo waved his hand towards the row of tents and said, "That's from the oysters down there."

It was not, of course. What was down there was more great food. Like the signature dish, Shrimp Rmoulade, from Galatoire's, one of the grand old ladies of New Orleans restaurants. In the French Quarter, Galatoire's invented American Rmoulade.

The example they passed out of their tent was as succulent as the day of the dish's birth.

Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House, also in the French Quarter, served one of the best dishes of the day, andouille creme sauce over oysters with a tasty slice of tangy chapati bread.

Another best dish was the three oysters fried and topped with a smoked tomato relish, from Luke's, in the Central Business District.

This divine offering came from one of the older of the 200 new post-Katrina/Rita restaurants. I had not been to it (there are so many) but let me say, welcome, welcome, welcome! They are on Saint Charles Avenue near Poydras Street.

Dishes ran five-to-seven dollars, and servings were a bit less than half normal in-house sizes. If we are all still here come next broiling hot June we will be back.

Not that anyone at the Oyster Fest said much about it, but President Obama was here again, Saturday, for his third visit since the oil volcano erupted. He didn't stop for oysters. How could he, with Governor Bobby Jindal hollering in front of any mike that will open up for him that he, Obama, should do something about it now?

The sad truth is if anyone could really do something, they would really do it.

The Oyster Fest, we hope, is staying. And the president is welcome any time, any year.

Meanwhile in the End Times

BP CEO Hayward has dropped out of sight after his barrage of apologetic television ads bombed. He said things like he would "like his life back" to the families of the eleven killed when the Horizon drilling platform exploded.

Thad Allen has turned his Admiralty offensive East, following the oil plumes. He was last seen in Alabama.

In Florida, bigger tar balls and sticky oil patches are washing ashore, and Florida Governor Charlie Crist, looking like a suntanned movie star, walked gingerly on a black polka-dotted white beach. He told the TV audience he was flying over to New Orleans to meet with the President of the United States. He did not holler about doing something magical. But he did not come to the Oyster Fest, either.

Life goes on. The food is great. And the lines are shorter. Just like last summer.

---

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 www.lej.org.



More

'Hot Fuel' Suits Get Class Action Status

Actions allege that retailers shortchanged consumers by selling gas too hot

A Kansas federal judge granted class action status this week to two lawsuits alleging that multiple retailers are ripping off consumers by selling them hot...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 6, 2010
A Kansas federal judge granted class action status this week to two lawsuits alleging that multiple retailers are ripping off consumers by selling them hot fuel.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil allows the suits -- which involve 12 separate retailers -- to proceed.

What is hot fuel? Simply put, it's a matter of chemistry. Since fuel is a liquid, as its temperature increases, so does its volume. That means that hotter gas has less energy than it would at lower temperatures, and that consumers thus drive off with less usable fuel in their tank.

Industry standards dictate that retailers should not sell fuel that is hotter than 60 degrees Fahrenheit without making adjustments to the gas's volume.

The companies named as defendants are Chevron, Citgo, Shell, Valero, ConocoPhillips, 7-Eleven, Walmart, Circle K, Casey's General Stores, Kum & Go, QuikTrip, and -- in case it didn't already have enough on its plate -- BP.

One of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Bob Horn of Kansas City-based Horn, Aylward & Bandy called the ruling a great order, frankly, according to the Kansas City Star. Another attorney, George Zelcs of Korein Tillery in Chicago, called the case a bellwether for other hot fuel suits.

That may be true, but the suit is hardly hot fuel's first rodeo. In 2009, Costco settled a suit alleging that it sold consumers in 25 states hot gas. The settlement required Costco locations in 14 states to install new pumps that deliver slightly more fuel when the gas's temperature is above a certain degree.

Judge Vratil, who oversaw that settlement as well, dismissed retailers' argument that the mandate would interfere with the industry requirement that they sell gas at 231 cubic inches.

Vratil wrote that the retailers had not shown ... that state regulation actually prohibits them from adjusting the size of a gallon of motor fuel to account for thermal expansion.

All available data indicate that consumers are paying dearly for fuel that isn't being sold at the proper temperature. The attorneys in the Costco suit estimated that their clients lost between $40 and $100 a year, assuming that they regularly bought their gas at Costco. A 2006 investigation by the Star found that U.S. consumers are spending about $2.3 billion more for gasoline and diesel this year than they otherwise would if fuel pumps were adjusted to account for expansion of hot fuel.

And with the economy still struggling, and gas prices likely to rise again, every penny counts.

More

Amazon Kindle Tops Consumer Reports Ratings

Amazon Kindle Tops Consumer Reports Ratings...

iPad's images 'stunning' but device is a 'compromise'

New e-book readers keep hitting the market, yet a veteran model, the Amazon Kindle e-book reader tops Consumer Reports first full ratings of these devices.

Despite improvement to the rival Barnes & Noble Nook e-book reader and the arrival of Apples iPad tablet computer, which offers e-reader capability, Amazons Kindle is still the best choice for most consumers. The report and Ratings of e-book readers is featured in the July issue of Consumer Reports and on www.ConsumerReports.org.

Consumer Reports testers recently put nine e-book readers through comprehensive lab tests. Amazons Kindle, $260, and its super-sized sibling, the Kindle DX, $490, had crisper, more readable type than any other model in the Ratings and slightly better than the Apple iPad, whose e-reading capabilities were assessed but excluded from the ratings (see below).

The Kindles were among the fastest at refreshing and turning pages. For most users, the lower-priced Kindle is a better choice than the DX because of its lighter weight and smaller size, unless extra real estate is needed for reading content such as e-textbooks.

Two e-readers from Sony the Daily Edition PRS900BC, $400, and the Touch Edition PRS600SC, $280, were solid performers in Consumer Reports lab tests and noted for their versatility including their ability to be used as digital notepads for text or drawings. However, the Daily Edition is expensive and heavy and the Touch Edition is among the rated models that do not feature unlimited, free, 3G wireless data network access which means consumers cannot download books whenever and wherever they want.

Consumer Reports found that Barnes & Nobles Nook is among the faster models at turning pages, but its type was not quite as crisp as the Kindles and it weighs more even though both models have the same 6-inch screen size. Navigating content on the Nook was more complicated and touch controls were nonintuitive.

Consumer Reports also tested e-readers from three lesser-known brands the Aluratek Libre eBook Reader Pro, $170, the BeBook Neo, $300, and the iRex DR 800SG, $400 and found that all were undistinguished at best.

The Apple iPad as an E-Book Reader

Consumer Reports did not include the Apple iPad in its e-reader Ratings because it is a computer with e-book capabilities, not a dedicated e-book reader. The iPads iBook app, one of at least three available for the device, offers fast page turns, with a dazzling virtual image one page curling back to reveal another, and the full-color screen is more eye-catching than the monochrome displays on the e-book readers.

Type on its LCD touch screen is fine, though it is slightly less crisp than that of the best e-book readers. Compared to the most expensive e-book reader tested, Amazons Kindle DX, $490, Apples iPad is more expensive costing $500 and up and substantially heavier at 24 ounces versus the Kindle DXs weight of 19 ounces. Consumer Reports recommends buying the iPad for e-books only if consumers are willing to compromise to get a multifunction device.

More

NRF Survey Projects Spending Increase for Dear Old Dad

Clothes, gadgets and gift cards prevail as top gifts this Father's Day

NRF Survey Projects Spending Increase for Dear Old Dad...

As the economy continues its slow rebound, consumers plan to spend slightly more paying homage to the most important men in their lives this Father's Day.

According to the 2010 Father's Day Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey conducted by BIGresearch for the National Retail Federation (NRF), the average person will spend $94.32 this year, compared with $90.89 in 2009. Total Father's Day spending is expected to reach $9.8 billion.

Shiny new toys for dad will be one of the biggest hits this year, along with special outings, gift certificates and clothing. The survey found 39.9 percent of those celebrating dad this year will treat him to a special outing such as dinner or brunch, spending $1.9 billion.

Goodies for dad

With 36.7 percent planning on spending a total of $1.3 billion on clothes, pop can expect a few more work shirts and ties to add to his collection as well. Others will shell out $1.2 billion on electronics, $749 million on greeting cards, $578 million on tools or appliances, $550 million on home improvement or gardening tools and $400 million on automotive accessories. Three out of 10 (31.2) will give dad a gift card, spending an estimated $1.2 billion on those purchases.

"A slight uptick in Father's Day spending is another sign people are starting to open up their wallets again," said Matt Shay, president and CEO, NRF. "Whether it's a large family get together or surprising dad with the new gadget he's had his eye on, there are many ways people will choose to celebrate this year."

Shopping around

When it comes to where people will purchase their gifts, discount stores (34.4 percent) and department stores (34.1 percent) will see the most traffic. Specialty stores such as greeting card or gift stores (26.4 percent), online (20.5 percent) and specialty clothing stores (7.6 percent) will also be popular shopper destinations.

Most people will buy for their father or stepfather this holiday (49.3 percent) but others will treat their husband (27.1 percent), son (7.4 percent), grandfather (4.4 percent), brother (5.1 percent) and friend (4.9 percent) to something nice.

"Oftentimes dad is seen as the glue that holds the family together, whether for financial reasons or his love and devotion to his family," said Phil Rist, Executive Vice President, Strategic Initiatives, BIGresearch. "There's no other time it makes more sense to celebrate the man who makes it all 'better' than Father's Day.

The NRF 2010 Father's Day Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey was conducted for NRF by BIGresearch. The poll of 8,431 consumers was conducted from May 4-12, 2010. The consumer poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.0.

More

Parkinson's Drugs Caused Gambling, Sex Addictions, Suit Says

Australian lawsuit targets Cabaser, Permax

Parkinson's Drugs Caused Gambling, Sex Addictions, Suit Says...

A group of Australian consumers afflicted with Parkinson's disease is suing two drug companies, claiming that medication the companies manufacture has caused them to become addicted to sex and gambling.

The suit, filed in Melbourne, concerns the drugs Cabaser and Permax, both used to treat Parkinson's-related tremors. The action claims that the drugs' respective manufacturers, Pfizer and Aspen Pharmacare, breached their duty of care to the plaintiffs.

Specifically, the suit says that the companies failed to adequately research the drugs' possible side effects, failed to warn patients of possible addictive behavior, and failed to take the drugs off the market once the extent of the problem became clear.

Some of the 100 plaintiffs became so addicted to gambling that they lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and, in some cases, their families. While gambling addiction was the most common problem among the class, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that a few exhibited compulsive sexual behavior such as looking at pornography on the internet.

Both Cabaser and Permax are dopamine agonists, meaning that they imitate the effect of dopamine and open dopamine receptors in the brain. Parkinson's disease causes the brain to produce an insufficient amount of dopamine, which it needs in order to control the body's movements, so the drugs essentially pick up the slack.

Unfortunately, dopamine, a chemical precursor to adrenaline, is also the neurotransmitter behind that rush of motivation, energy or attraction that everyone feels on occasion. And scientists believe that that same rush can cause people to engage in risk-taking behavior, including life-threatening addictions.

Indeed, a press release concerning the suit quoted a study published in the medical journal Archives of Neurology as concluding that [d]opamine agonist treatment in PD (Parkinson's Disease) is associated with 2- to 3.5-fold increased odds of having an ICD (impulse control disorder).

The study found that 13.6 of the subject patients were affected by use of dopamine agonists, with five percent becoming addicted to gambling, 3.5 percent to compulsive sexual behavior, 5.7 percent to compulsive buying, and 4.3 percent to binge eating.

The issues raised in the suit have already seen the inside of at least one other courtroom. In July 2008, Minnesota resident Gary Charbonneau won a case in which he claimed that the Parkinson's' drug Mirapex -- also a dopamine agonist -- caused him to develop a gambling addiction. A federal jury gave Charbonneau an $8.2 million award.

And Permax, the drug manufactured by Aspen Pharmacare, has already seen its share of controversy. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) announced a voluntary recall of the drug in March 2007 after it was discovered that it caused heart valve disease in 25 percent of patients who took it over an extended period of time. As a result, Permax is no longer available in the United States.

Arnold Thomas and Becker, a Melbourne-based law firm, is representing the plaintiffs.



More

Settlement Reached With Florida-Based Timeshare Company

BlueGreen Corp. will pay refunds, cancel improper contracts and change business practices

Settlement Reached With Florida-Based Timeshare Company...

By James Limbach
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 4, 2010
The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection has reached a settlement with BlueGreen Corporation, a Florida-based timeshare company.

The settlement addresses complaints about the company's alleged use of deceptive "contests," misleading sales presentations and improper contracts in the marketing and sale of timeshare vacation packages in Pennsylvania.

Attorney General Tom Corbett says the agreement, known as a Consent Decree, resolves a consumer protection lawsuit filed in October 2008 against BlueGreen Corporation, BlueGreen Resorts, BlueGreen Vacations Unlimited, Inc. and Great Vacations Destinations, Inc., all of Boca Raton, Florida. BlueGreen contacted consumers by phone and through kiosks at shopping malls, fairs, and festivals throughout Pennsylvania, along with the use of sales facilities in Hershey and King of Prussia.

"As a major part of this settlement, BlueGreen has agreed to cancel contracts and pay refunds to consumers who have filed valid complaints about their timeshare purchases," Corbett said. "Those complaints include consumers who were unable to use their timeshare, false promises about when or where consumers could travel and situations where timeshare purchasers did not receive extra services or discounts that were promised during the sales presentation."

Unhappy consumers

Jim of Valles Mines, MO, tells ConsumerAffairs.com, "As a BlueGreen owner, I have experienced high pressure sales tactics used by the sales staff. The sales staff attempts to push the packages on you every time you visit. The sales staff lie and misrepresent the products to customers, anything to sale a package." Jim says this has caused him "numerous financial problems."

"I am getting ripped off by BlueGreen," writes Elisabeth of Prior Lake MN. "I cannot book a vacation to save my life, am paying monthly and now am being charged ridiculous fees for a property I cannot use. I want my money back but the people are too rude to even say no." Elisabeth tells ConsumerAffairs.com that this is causing her both emotional and financial damage. "I feel trapped with no way out!"

Settlement terms

Corbett noted that the settlement he reached applies to complaints by Pennsylvania timeshare purchasers that have already been filed with the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, along with any new complaints filed within the next 30 days. Also, BlueGreen has agreed to turn over all complaints involving Pennsylvania residents that were filed directly with the company.

Additionally, Corbett said his office is reviewing complaints filed with other state agencies, such as the Pennsylvania Real Estate Commission, along with other consumer protection agencies, including the Florida Attorney General's Office, where BlueGreen is headquartered, as well as the Federal Trade Commission and Better Business Bureau offices in Pennsylvania and Florida.

"Many of the complaints filed with the attorney general's office involve consumers who spent between $20,000 and $40,000 on vacation packages they were unable to use," Corbett said. "This part of the settlement could result in more than $1 million in refunds to consumers, depending on the total number of additional complaints we receive over the next 30 days."

Corbett said the settlement also includes payments for consumers who were promised various "free gifts," including airline tickets, hotel accommodations, gas cards and other valuable prizes.

"For most consumers, the promise of a 'free gift' or 'valuable prize' turned out to be nothing more than vouchers or coupons which required other expensive purchases before they could be used, or were limited by massive "fine print" restrictions," Corbett said. "As part of this agreement, BlueGreen is paying $125,000, which will be used to compensate people who were deceived about "free" prizes -- so consumers who filed valid complaints will get a check for the value of the item they were promised."

Finally, Corbett said the settlement includes a special reward for each consumer who filed a complaint about BlueGreen's use of telemarketing sales calls that violated Pennsylvania's "Do Not Call" law.

Under the provisions of the state's Do Not Call law, consumers can receive up to $100 when they file a complaint that results in a lawsuit or fines against a company charged with telemarketing violations. A total of 29 people filed Do Not Call complaints about improper BlueGreen calls and each of those consumers will be receiving a check for $100.

Timeshare tips

Consumers who are shopping for a timeshare vacation package should consider the following tips:

• Take your time. Treat a timeshare purchase like the purchase of a home or any other significant commitment. Don't let high-pressure sales tactics and long presentations force you into a hasty decision.

• Do your research. Check the market and the value of the vacation property before you buy and investigate the seller, the developer and the management company. Ask for references and contact current owners to verify their satisfaction with the property.

• Know the cancellation period. Pennsylvania provides a five-day cooling off period for buyers to change their mind and cancel a timeshare contract. Consumers must notify the seller in writing via certified mail or return receipt mail.

• Recognize that timeshares can be difficult to resell. Buy a timeshare only if you plan to use it. It is an option for future vacations, not an investment.

• Consider extra costs. Most timeshares require consumers to pay annual assessment fees, maintenance fees and taxes, closing and broker commissions, and finance charges. Some fees can rise dramatically in the future so it's important to ask if there is a cap on future fees.

• Beware of scams. If you are offered a prize as an incentive to attend a timeshare presentation, ask for details and watch out for hidden conditions and fine print. Keep in mind that the value of promotional gifts may be low in comparison to the fees and charges associated with a timeshare purchase. Any 'free' travel or vacations you are offered may have blackout dates and other restrictions.

• Read everything before you sign. Carefully review contracts and all other paperwork before you sign anything, and get all special promises about discounts, waived fees or other promotions in writing.

More

Maytag Recalls Fire-Prone Dishwashers

Recall includes Amana, Jenn-Air, Admiral, Magic Chef, Performa and Crosley brands

Maytag Recalls Fire-Prone Dishwashers...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 3, 2010
Whirlpool Corp. is recalling 1.7 million of its Maytag dishwashers because of a fire hazard, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (COSC).

The recall also includes dishwashers sold under the Amana, Jenn-Air, Admiral, Magic Chef, Performa and Crosley brands.

It's the largest dishwasher recall in three years. The CPSC says consumers should stop using the appliances immediately because a faulty heating element can short-circuit and ignite.

Consumers have been complaining about the problem for years.

"It began to have smoke pour from it with the stench of melting plastic," Chris, of Naples, Fla., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Thank goodness it wasn't running at night while my family was asleep. I had to run out to the garage to the circuit breaker and trip it myself. Who knows what would have happened if I had not been there to prevent this electrical malfunction from spreading?"

"I discovered our kitchen floor was wet and that water was coming in from under the counters next to my kitchen sink. Further investigation found that our dishwasher was the culprit," Dave, of Tracy, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Inside the dishwasher were two holes in the plastic tub at the bottom of the washer. These holes appeared to be from burns which most likely came from the heating element."

Maytag said it has received 12 reports of dishwasher heating element failures that resulted in fires and dishwasher damage, including one report of extensive kitchen damage from a fire. No injuries have been reported.

The recalled dishwashers have serial numbers starting with, or ending with, the following:

SERIAL number STARTING withORSERIAL number ENDING with
NW39, NW40, NW41, NW42, NW43, NW44, NW45, NW46, NW47, NW48, NW49, NW50, NW51, NW52, NY01, NY02, NY03, NY04, NY05, NY06, NY07, NY08, NY09, NY10, NY11, NY12, NY13, NY14, NY15, NY16, NY17, NY18, NY19 JC, JE, JG, JJ, JL, JN, JP, JR, JT, JV, JX, LA, LC, LE, LG, LJ, LL, LN, LP, LR, LT, LV, LX, NA, NC, NE, NG, NJ, NL, NN, NP, NR

Consumers should contact Maytag to verify if their dishwasher is included in the recall. If the dishwasher is included in the recall, the company said consumers can either schedule a free in-home repair or receive a rebate following the purchase of certain new Maytag brand stainless-steel tub dishwashers. The company is not offering to replace the dishwashers themselves.

The rebate is $150 if the consumer purchases new dishwasher models MDB7759, MDB7609 or MDBH979; or $250 if the consumer purchases new dishwasher models MDB8959, MDB8859, MDB7809 or MDB7709. Consumers should not return the recalled dishwashers to the retailer where purchased as retailers are not prepared to take the units back, the company said.

For additional information, contact Maytag at (800) 544-5513 anytime, or visit the firm's website.

Not a new problem

In 2005, at about the time Whirlpool purchased Maytag, Whirlpool recalled about 162,000 Whirlpool and Kenmore dishwashers. At the time, it said an electrical defect in the motor wiring posed a risk of the motor overheating and possibly catching fire.

Whirlpool said it had received three reports of overheated wash motors but no reports of personal injury or property damage.

The products recalled in 2005 included Whirlpool brand and Kenmore brand (made by Whirlpool Corporation) under-the-counter, plastic tall tub dishwashers.



More

Costco Tops Consumer Reports List of Best Places To Shop

Walmart, Kmart score lower than most chains amid complaints about lack of merchandise and long lines

Costco Tops <em>Consumer Reports</em> List of Best Places To Shop...

More than 30,000 shoppers found Costco to be top notch among 11 of America's most popular chain stores, according a recently published survey by Consumer Reports.

Fifty percent of readers who shopped at Costco rated the value as "Excellent"; for all the stores in CR's survey as a whole, that figure was 30 percent. Walmart and Kmart scored notably lower than the other chains, but Costco stood tall. In addition to citing the warehouse club's rock-bottom prices, survey respondents praised its bang for the buck: It was the only store judged much better than average for value.

"In our surveys over the years, Costco has earned high marks as a source of a surprisingly large selection of goods, including mattresses, electronics, small appliances, groceries, and books. In recent years, the chain's Kirkland Signature products have often performed well in our tests," said Tod Marks, senior project editor at the magazine.

Questionable quality

Overall Consumer Reports readers weren't always thrilled with the quality of the merchandise at many stores. Only Dillard's and Costco earned better-than-average all-around scores. In general, the highest marks went to electronic entertainment products and personal-care items and the lowest to men's and women's apparel and home-decor items.

Walmart was the only chain to receive below-average quality scores in more than half of the product categories. Just 10 percent of Walmart shoppers thought the store's children's clothing was excellent, for example. By contrast, 46 percent of Dillard's shoppers thought the kids' apparel was top-notch. No matter how good the merchandise, problems can sour a shopping experience.

For all the talk about Walmart's low prices, shoppers said the prices at 10 other retailers, including JCPenney, Sears, Dillard's, and Meijer, were at least as good. And bigger wasn't necessarily better when it came to the overall shopping experience. Almost three quarters of respondents who shopped at Walmart found at least one problem to complain about, and half had two or more complaints about the store or its staff.

Among the survey's other findings:

• Four chains earned outstanding scores for merchandise quality: Costco (watches and jewelry, personal-care items, hardware, home decor, kitchenware, electronic entertainment such as music and DVDs, and sporting goods and toys), Dillard's (men's, women's, and children's clothing; personal-care items; home decor; and kitchenware), Macy's (home decor and personal-care items), and Sears (hardware).

• Target's "cheap chic" goods didn't wow everyone. Despite its high-profile partnerships with fashionistas Cynthia Vincent, Eugenia Kim, and Zac Posen, survey respondents judged the quality of Target's women's clothing and watches and jewelry below average, and the store's kitchenware, home decor, and men's and children's apparel average.

It wasn't so much the merchandise at Target that upset Don from Bartlett, IL, as the process for selling it. Don says the store's only fitting rooms were in the women's department with no delineation/barrier between men's and women's rooms. He tells ConsumerAffairs.com the store manager said they were "unisex" rooms and she'd never dealt with this issue before.

"I felt uncomfortable about trying clothes on in a 'unisex' fitting room," Don says, adding that when he asked if he could get help if he were a woman and the only fitting room was in the men's department and he were a woman, she said yes. "I cannot believe that in today's society, a UNISEX fitting room cannot be partitioned off for the protection and comfort of their patrons, allowing for some sense of dignity and morality...for both sexes," he concludes.

• In addition to a lack of sales help, the most prevalent problems were that desired items were out of stock and that checkouts were jammed. In fact, 29 percent of shoppers CR surveyed complained about long lines. The problems were much worse than average at Kmart, Walmart, and Meijer, a midwestern chain of superstores.

Other service gripes

Consumer Reports also asked readers about checkout gridlock, missing merchandise, spotty sales help, and cluttered stores. Fifty-eight percent of shoppers reported at least one problem; one-third had two or more. Walmart, Meijer, and Kmart shoppers encountered the most problems. Dillard's and Sears shoppers reported the fewest. Some specifics:

• Slow checkouts. Twenty-nine percent of shoppers complained about a lack of open checkouts or about lines creating bottlenecks. Lines were worst at Walmart (cited by 46 percent of readers who had shopped there), but they were almost as bad at Costco, Sam's Club, and Meijer. Only four percent of customers complained of long lines at Dillard's.

Jessica of North East, MD, went shopping at her local Wal-Mart for picnic supplies. "When I got up to the register," she tells ConsumerAffairs.com, "I stood in line for about five minutes, then the cashier said 'my register is closed'. I told the guy on the register that my stuff was on the line already, he said he had to go on break."

• Shoddy service. Relatively few shoppers sought help, but 24 percent of those who did speak with a clerk said they had a tough time finding one, and 15 percent of those who spoke with a clerk said that the employee wasn't well informed. Walmart and Kmart had the least knowledgeable staffers, according to readers.

• Empty shelves. Consumers who shopped at Meijer complained the most about out-of-stock merchandise: 25 percent of respondents said the chain lacked an item they wanted. Walmart, Kmart, and Target also had trouble keeping regular merchandise in stock. Meijer and Kmart tended to disappoint shoppers looking for sale items.

• Difficult layout. Thirteen percent of shoppers complained about cluttered displays or narrow aisles, but a disproportionate percentage of Walmart and Kohl's shoppers said that those problems hampered movement. Walmart, which operates many sprawling supercenters, was also cited as having stores that were too big to navigate easily.

• Hidden price tags. At most chains, price tags were in plain sight, but at least 12 percent of respondents complained about missing or hard-to-find tags at Kmart, Walmart, and Meijer.

• Lengthy returns. Few people had trouble returning or exchanging merchandise. The biggest difference among stores was how long it took to complete the process. Walmart shoppers were particularly peeved; 20 percent of the returns took more time than expected.

For more information on which stores are the best to shop, the complete ratings chart of popular chains, and helpful advice on the best places to buy clothes, electronics, appliances and other goods, check out Consumer Reports "America's Top Stores" report starting June 1st at report or pick up a copy of the July issue wherever magazines are sold.

More

Rollover Tests of Midsize SUVs Produce Mixed Results

IIHS says stronger roofs mean saved lives, fewer injuries

Rollover Tests of Midsize SUVs Produce Mixed Results...

June 3, 2010

New test results show that some automakers are doing a good job of designing vehicle roofs that perform much better than current federal rollover standards require. The roofs on other vehicles, however, need improvement.

In the first Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) roof strength tests of midsize SUVs, six earn the top rating of "good" for rollover protection, one is "acceptable," and five others earn the second lowest rating of "marginal."

Midsize SUVs earning "good" ratings are the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox (twin GMC Terrain) built after March 2010, Jeep Liberty (twin Dodge Nitro), Toyota Highlander and Venza, plus the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Kia Sorento, both 2011 models.

The 2010 Ford Edge is rated "acceptable." The worst performers, which earn "marginal" ratings, are the Honda Accord Crosstour, Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-7, Mitsubishi Endeavor, and Nissan Murano, all 2010 models.

In addition to earning "good" ratings for rollover protection, the Equinox, Grand Cherokee, Highlander, Sorento, and Venza also earn the Institute's Top Safety Pick award. To achieve this, a vehicle has to earn good ratings for occupant protection in front, side, rear, and rollover crashes. It also has to have electronic stability control.

How they are rated

The rollover rating system is based on Institute research showing that occupants in vehicles that roll benefit from stronger roofs. Vehicles rated "good" must have roofs that are more than twice as strong as the minimum required under the current federal safety standard. The ratings, products of the Institute's roof strength testing program, add to consumer information tests that rate vehicles' front, side, and rear crashworthiness. The rollover test is designed to help consumers pick vehicles that will protect them the best in one of the most serious kinds of crashes.

"Midsize SUVs are a big group so we're testing them in stages," says Institute president Adrian Lund. "First results show that automakers are making progress in rollover protection, but it's disappointing that a new design like the Crosstour didn't perform better."

Lives at stake

Top performance in the roof test is important because nearly 10,000 people a year are killed in rollover crashes. When vehicles roll, their roofs hit the ground, deform, and crush. Stronger roofs crush less, reducing injury risk from contact with the roof itself. Stronger roofs also can prevent people, especially those who aren't using safety belts, from being ejected through windows, windshields, or doors that have broken or opened because the roof deformed. Roofs that don't collapse help keep people inside vehicles when they roll.

The best occupant protection is to keep vehicles from rolling in the first place. Electronic stability control is significantly reducing rollovers, especially fatal single-vehicle ones. When vehicles roll, side curtain airbags help protect people. Safety belt use is essential.

Conducting the tests

In the Institute's roof strength test, a metal plate is pushed against one corner of a roof at a constant speed. To earn a "good" rating, a roof must withstand a force of 4 times the vehicle's weight before reaching 5 inches of crush. For an "acceptable" rating, the minimum strength-to-weight ratio that's required is 3.25. A "marginal" rating value is 2.5, and anything lower than that is "poor."

The Grand Cherokee, Highlander, Liberty, and Venza, for example, withstood forces of nearly 5 times their weights. This compares with 2.8 times weight for the Crosstour and about 3 times weight for the Endeavor and Pilot. A strength-to-weight ratio of 4 reflects an estimated 50 percent reduction in serious or fatal injury risk in single-vehicle rollover crashes, compared with the current federal standard of 1.5.

More

Credit Card Companies Raise Rates On New Offers

Cost of credit rising across the board

Credit Card Companies Raise Rates On New Offers...

June 3, 2010

You probably don't go through the credit card offers that come in the mail each week and methodically compare the interest rates. But CreditCards.com does, and reports the rates on those new offers keep going up.

In its latest report, for the week of May 30, the website tracks about 95 of the most popular credit cards in the country, including cards from dozens of leading U.S. firms. Not counting "teaser" rates, the average rate was 14.23 percent, up from 14.17 percent the previous week. Six months ago the average rate was 12.71 percent.

One of the biggest rate hikes in the last six months was in the category of business credit cards. Six months ago the average was 9.74 percent while this week the average on new card offers was 12.96 percent.

Cards for people with bad credit carry an average introductory rate of 19.75 percent this week, up from 13.74 percent six months ago.

Capital One raised rates on three cards, each by roughly two percentage points. Other issuers were also active: Discover lowered the bottom end of its student card's APR range, and Cabela's slightly increased the top end of its Visa card's APR range.

Capital One didn't respond to a request for comment, and Discover said it doesn't comment on rate strategies, the website said. Cabela's said its APR changed due to movement in the card's index -- the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) -- the British equivalent of the U.S. prime rate. Most U.S. cards are pegged to prime.

The CreditCards.com credit card rate survey is conducted weekly, using offer data from the leading U.S. card issuers' Web sites. Introductory offer periods and regular interest rates will vary with applicants' credit quality and issuer risk-based pricing policies.

More

Lawsuit Blames Google Maps for Pedestrian Accident

Los Angelena struck by car in Utah relied on her Blackberry instead of her eyes

Lawsuit Blames Google Maps for Pedestrian Accident...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 2, 2010
As anyone with a faulty internal compass can attest, electronic maps and directions are a godsend. Mapquest, in-car navigation systems, and, more recently, portable GPS devices like Garmin and Magellan, are invaluable -- and generally accurate -- tools for the directionally-challenged.

But a lawsuit filed late last week shows that trust but verify applies to electronic directions as well.

The suit stems from a January incident in which Los Angeles native Lauren Rosenberg was hit by a car while walking down a busy street in Park City, Utah, a popular ski town 30 miles outside Salt Lake City.

Unfamiliar with her surroundings, Rosenberg used her BlackBerry to download directions from Google Maps, the Mapquest competitor that also provides terrain photos, traffic updates and street-level views of a chosen address. Unfortunately for Rosenberg, Google took her onto Utah State Route 224, a rural highway without sidewalks that gets its fair share of traffic. Rosenberg was hit by a car, and eventually incurred over $100,000 in medical bills.


Scene of the mishap

Rosenberg claims that the road was not reasonably safe for pedestrians, and blames Google for leading her there in the first place. She contends that her stroll down Route 224 was a direct and proximate cause of defendant Google's careless, reckless and negligent providing of unsafe directions and leading her onto a dangerous highway.

She's suing the search giant for her medical costs and an unspecified amount of punitive damages, claiming that the incident caused her severe permanent physical, emotional, and mental injuries, including pain and suffering.

As noted by the online edition of PC World, Google typically offers warnings in situations like the one Rosenberg encountered. Potential pedestrians who view directions on their computers are told that: Walking directions are in beta. Use caution -- This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths. Those warnings don't appear on Blackberrys or iPhones, however.

The incident is a reminder that, while electronic maps and directions are helpful in many situations, common sense and awareness of one's surroundings aren't dead just yet. If your GPS tells you to turn off of a bridge and into a lake, you don't have to do it.

The suit also adds another chapter to the annals of strange-but-true Google Maps stories. Last May, a British woman caught her husband cheating when she used Google Maps' street view feature -- which allows the user to see a building's exterior and the surrounding area -- to view the home of a female friend. Much to her chagrin (although probably not to her surprise), the woman saw her husband's Range Rover parked outside.

According to The Sun (http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/article2350771.ece), which broke the story, the wife [recognized] his motor immediately because of its blinged-up hubcaps. Lawyer Mark Stephens told The Sun that the incident, while strange, was hardly isolated.

I was talking about the Range Rover case when another divorce lawyer came up to say his firm was dealing with the same sort of thing, Stephens said. People are getting caught out on Google.

Oh by the way, Rosenberg is also suing Patrick Harwood, the unlucky Park City resident who hit her.

More

Should Cell Phone Bans Apply To Passengers?

Half a conversation can be extremely distracting, study finds

Should Cell Phone Bans Apply To Passengers?...

June 2, 2010
Overhearing people chatting on cell phones can be more than annoying. In fact, new research shows it's so distracting that it affects cognitive performance.

Overhearing only half of a conversation -- a halfalogue" -- is more distracting than other kinds of conversations because the listener misses the other side of the story and so can't predict the flow of the conversation.

Drivers may be significantly compromised by overhearing the cell phone conversations of their passengers, says Michael Goldstein, assistant professor of psychology at Cornell University, and doctoral candidate Lauren Emberson, who is also affiliated with Weill Cornell Medical College's Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology.

"Hearing half a conversation is distracting because we are unable to predict the succession of speech. It requires more attention," says Emberson, first author of a paper on the research that will appear in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science. "We believe this finding helps reveal how we understand language in conversation: We actively predict what the person is going to say next, and this reduces the difficulty of language comprehension."

Experiments show that people overhearing cell phone conversations did more poorly on cognitive tasks that demanded the kinds of attention we use to tend to daily activities, than when overhearing both sides of a cell phone conversation or a dialogue, which resulted in no decreased performance.

"Since halfalogues really are more distracting, and you can't tune them out, people become irritated [and], even more importantly, their cognitive performance is impaired," Goldstein adds.

While others studies have shown that talking on a cell phone can impair driving performance in contrast to listening to the radio or talking with a passenger, this study takes it a step further.

"Our findings demonstrate that simply overhearing a cell phone conversation is sufficient to reduce performance...(suggesting) that a driver's attention can be impaired by a passenger's cell phone conversation," the researchers write.

With more than 285 million wireless subscribers in the United States alone -- and about 4.6 billion cell phone subscribers worldwide, according to the International Telecommunications Union, a U.N. agency -- cell phone distraction is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in public places, from coast to coast, the researchers note.

The subject of distracted driving is high on the list of priorities at the Department of Transportation (DOT). Secretary Ray LaHood has launched a program to see if enhanced law enforcement will persuade people to put down their cell phones while behind the wheel.

More

Haagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerry's, And Target's Archer Farms Top Ice Cream Tests

Consumer Reportssays Target's chocolate offers superior flavor at a fraction of the cost

Haagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerry's, And Target's Archer Farms Top Ice Cream Tests...

Few subjects will garner more controversy than the debate over who makes the best ice cream. Okay, beer, maybe, but people go wild for ice cream.

And although fancy flavors fill the freezers at the local market, chocolate and vanilla are still the nation's favorite ice creams. Consumer Reports trained testers (talk about great jobs) tried 13 vanillas and 11 chocolates with varying amounts of fat, and found seven "Excellent" choices.

Six of the seven ice creams rated "Excellent" by CR are Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's; the seventh is from Archer Farms (Target), which offers a tasty alternative for about a third of the price of the other "Excellent" choices. All are dense and creamy, with strong, high-quality flavors. The full results are available in the July issue of Consumer Reports.

Deciphering the label

If you've ever checked the label of a container of ice cream, you probably came away with more questions than answers. Here's a simplified breakdown from the magazine:

• Low fat. A serving has 3 grams of fat or less.

• Fat Free. A serving has less than 0.5 grams of fat.

• Slow churned. A process intended to give lower-fat products a creamier feel.

• Fiber. Some ice creams have 2 or 3 grams per serving.

Dollars, cents and nutrition

Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Bean ($1.13 per 1/2 cup serving) topped the list of vanillas, for having a big dairy and real vanilla taste. It comes at a price, though, in the amount of 270 calories and 17 grams of fat per serving.

Ben & Jerry's Vanilla ($0.97 per serving) and Haagen-Dazs Five Vanilla Bean ($1.13 per serving) took the other vanilla top spots. Ben & Jerry's has 230 calories and 14 grams of fat, while the Five Vanilla Bean has 220 calories and 11 grams of fat.

Among the "Excellent" chocolates, testers found that Archer Farms Belgian ($0.33 per serving) has an intense, complex chocolate flavor enhanced by bits of dark chocolate. It has 230 calories and 14 grams of fat per serving.

Both Haagen-Dazs chocolates have a big dairy flavor. Haagen-Dazs Five Milk Chocolate ($1.11 per serving) has 220 calories and 12 grams of fat, while Haagen-Dazs regular chocolate ($1.16 per serving) has 260 categories and 17 grams of fat. Ben & Jerry's ($1.02) has a strong chocolate flavor but is a touch icy, according to testers, and has 250 calories and 14 grams of fat.

Lower-rated ice creams are less creamy and less flavorful, with flaws such as an artificial taste or gumminess. According to Consumer Reports testers, it seems to be harder to make a high-quality vanilla ice cream than a high-quality chocolate. The chocolate may help mask mistakes. In fact, 10 of the 11 chocolate ice creams tested are "Recommended."

Alternatives

The tastiness of the top-rated ice creams comes at a cost -- they are full of calories and fat. For a special treat, CR advises trying one of the top-rated varieties. For a more healthful choice, try a light-or fat-free ice cream, which has fewer calories and less fat.

Most top rated ice creams are also a bit pricey, 97 cents to $1.16 per serving. For a less expensive alternative, the magazine suggests trying Archer Farms Belgian Chocolate or Walmart's Great Value chocolate ($0.23 per serving). Both are CR "Best Buys" and offer excellent or very good quality at a great price.



More

Tests Reveal Contaminants In Many Protein Drinks

Too much protein consumption can pose health problems

A new Consumer Reports investigation including tests of 15 protein drinks by an outside lab, reveals some of the drinks may pose health problems over time....

A new Consumer Reports investigation including tests of 15 protein drinks by an outside lab, reveals some of the drinks may pose health problems over time.

The problems can be serious especially at a consumption level of three or more servings a day -- due to the potential to consume harmful heavy metals and excessive protein.

All of the protein drinks tested by CR had at least one sample containing one or more of the following contaminants: arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, which can have toxic effects on the body, including several organs.

The products, sold as ready-to-drink liquids or powders that are mixed with milk, juice or water to make shakes, attract not just athletes, but also baby boomers, pregnant women, and teenagers looking for a shortcut to a buff body.

For most of the drinks tested, levels of contaminants detected were in the low to moderate range, but levels in three of the products were of particular concern because consumers who have three servings daily could be exposed to levels of arsenic, cadmium or lead that exceed the maximum limits for one or two of those contaminants in dietary supplements proposed by the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP). The USP is the federally recognized authority that sets voluntary standards for health products.

Exceptions to the regs

Federal regulations do not generally require that protein drinks and other dietary supplements be tested before they are sold to ensure that they're safe, effective, and free of contaminants, as the rules require for prescription drugs. "We need better government oversight and regulation of this product sector, as well as better quality control practices in manufacturing," said Urvashi Rangan, PhD., the magazine's director of technical policy. "Especially for consumers who are using these products regularly -- consuming two or three or more times a day -- there should be better safeguards to ensure the safety of these protein drinks."

Proposition 65, a California State law, mandates that manufacturers notify consumers when products contain toxic substances at levels the state says pose even a low cancer or reproductive risk. Eight of the 15 protein drinks tested by Consumer Reports fall into this category due to their elevated levels of lead. "Those products should be required to carry a warning label if they were sold in California," said Rangan.

Too much of a good thing

Consuming excess protein can also cause health problems. Teenagers who want to look like the sculpted images they see in fitness magazines are especially vulnerable to the marketing messages trumpeted by the makers of protein drinks. Enticed by the promise of "hope in a can," teenagers tend to overuse the products, assuming that if one scoop is good, then four to five would be even better. A 2005 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that protein powders and shakes were the supplements most commonly used by those aged 12 to 18.

Pregnant women are also vulnerable because heavy metals can pose risks to a developing fetus or a nursing baby. Some protein drinks market directly to these groups while others warn they are not suitable for people under 18 years of age or that pregnant women should consult a physician before use.

What the tests found

Consumer Reports purchased 15 protein powders and drinks mainly in the New York metro area or online and tested multiple samples of each for arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. The levels discussed here are based on three servings per day, an amount that experts say is common. The results showed a considerable range, but levels in three products were of particular concern:

• Three daily servings of the ready-to-drink liquid EAS Myoplex Original Rich Dark Chocolate Shake provide an average of 16.9 micrograms (ug) of arsenic, exceeding the proposed USP limit of 15 ug per day and an average of 5.1 ug of cadmium, which is just above the USP limit of 5 ug per day.

• The samples of Muscle Milk Chocolate powder contained all four heavy metals, and levels of three metals in the product were among the highest of all products tested by Consumer Reports. Average cadmium levels of 5.6 ug in three daily servings exceeded the USP limit of 5 ug per day, and the average lead level of 13.5 ug also topped the USP limit of 10 ug per day. The average arsenic level of 12.2 ug was approaching the USP limit of 15 ug per day.

• Muscle Milk Vanilla Crme contained 12.2 ug of lead in three daily servings, exceeding the lead limits, and 11.2 ug of arsenic.

The CR investigation notes that cadmium raises special concern because it accumulates in and can damage the kidneys, the same organs that can be damaged by excessive protein consumption. And it can take 20 years for the body to eliminate even half the cadmium absorbed today.

How much protein?

Only one of the products tested by Consumer Reports, Six Star Muscle Professional Strength Whey Protein, specifies a maximum daily intake. Others use vague language that could encourage a high level of consumption. Consuming excess protein can also pose health problems, including diarrhea. Although protein is needed for bone development, excessive protein over the long term might also cause calcium to be excreted from the bones, increasing the risk of osteoporosis. And for diabetics or others with kidney problems, it can lead to further complications.

The magazine's investigation notes that consumers can roughly calculate how many grams of protein they need by multiplying their body weight by .4. For athletes, the general rule of thumb is about one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.

The report provides several examples of better, cheaper ways to bulk up. Case in point: a sandwich with three ounces of chicken and an eight ounce glass of whole milk provides about 40 grams of protein, which is more than half the 72 grams needed by a 180-pound person and most of the 48 grams required by someone weighing 120 pounds.



More

How to Use Pet Flea, Tick Products Safely

Follow instructions, weigh animal carefully to determine correct dosage

How to Use Pet Flea, Tick Products Safely...

The pesky flea and tick season is here and pet owners nationwide continue to express concerns about the topical treatments on the market. ConsumerAffairs.com regularly hears from pet owners who say their dogs and cats have experienced neurological problems, burns, vomiting, and other adverse reactions to the spot-on products.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently unveiled several measures designed to increase the products safety -- including clearer labeling requirements -- many pet owners remain wary of the treatments.

And consumers across the country wonder what they can do to safely protect their dogs and cats from annoying fleas and ticks.

A leading veterinarian and a doctor of pharmacy and clinical toxicology told ConsumerAffairs.com they understand pet owners trepidations, but they say serious reactions to these flea and tick treatments are rare. They also said the best ways to prevent most adverse reactions is to follow the directions carefully and apply the products based on the animals exact weight.

One of the overwhelming issues we see with dogs is that pet owners dont have their (animals) accurate weight, said Dr. Lynn Hovda, director of veterinary services and toxicologist for the Pet Poison Helpline and SafetyCall International. They may think their Chihuahua weighs 15 pounds, but when they go to the vet they learn it weighs 4 to 5 pounds. So now weve got a weight issue.

Throughout our interview, Dr. Hovda repeatedly emphasized the importance of knowing a pets exact weight when using these products that are applied by squeezing the contents of a vial or tube to the skin between an animals shoulder blades or along its back.

You have to know your pets accurate weight so you know the accurate dose to use, she said. This is especially true with smaller dogs. Knowing the exact size and weight of your pet and not assuming a product can be used for all types of animals is essential for using the correct medication and appropriate dose on your pet, she said.

Clearer labels

The stronger labeling requirements recently mandated by the EPAshould also avert many problems linked to topical flea and tick treatments, Dr. Hovda and her colleague, Dr. Rick Kingston, president of regulatory and scientific affairs for Pet Poison Helpline and SafetyCall International, told us.

The EPA in March announced that manufacturers of these products must immediately make their packages easier for pet owners to read and understand.

The EPA, for example, wants more precise instructions on the products labels to ensure pet owners apply the correct doses based on the animals weight. The agency also wants clearer markings on the labels so pet owners can tell the difference between products for dogs and cats.

Drs. Hovda and Kingston laud these requirements.

Time and time again we see pet owners who are very well-intentioned but are not paying attention to what is on the label or are confused by what is on the label, Dr. Kingston told us. That leads to product misapplication or pet owners not using the products as effectively as they could.

Anything that can be done to help increase the clarity of use of these products is important.

Dr. Hovda agrees. Im all in favor of anything that can be done to make (the labeling) clearer, easier to understand, and user-friendly, she said. The key to ensuring pets safety when using flea and tick products is to be vigilant about following the instructions on the package.

The EPA, which is not banning or pulling any topical flea and tick products off the market at this time, also said it will:

  •  Prohibit similar brand names for dog and cat flea and tick products. This has lead to product misuse, the EPA said;
  •  Require labels to clearly state that pet owners should not allow dogs and cat to interact after the products are applied;
  •  Grant conditional, time-limited registrations when new products are registered with the EPA;
  •  Restrict the use of certain inert ingredients that may contribute to adverse reactions.
  •  Require more standardized post-market surveillance reporting on adverse effects linked to the products;
  •  Continue to monitor reports of bad reactions associated with the products.

The EPAs action plan came in response to its nearly year-long intensive evaluation of topical flea and tick products.

44,000 reports

The agency launched that probe after noticing an uptick in reports about adverse reactions -- including burns, neurological problems, and even deaths -- linked to these over-the-counter and prescription treatments. During an interview with ConsumerAffairs.com last summer, the agency confirmed it had received more than 44,000 reports of harmful reactions associated with the products.

Dr. Kingston and his colleagues at the Minnesota-based Pet Poison Helpline analyzed much of the data provided to the EPA about these products and the reactions associated with them. They concur with the EPA that the number of severe or fatal reactions to the products -- when used correctly -- are extremely low compared to the number of applications that pet owners use each year.

The likelihood of an animal having a more severe reaction is 1 in every 200,000 applications, Dr. Kingston told us. Owners may think that serious adverse effects are common and expected, but fortunately, the data does not show that animals are being seriously injured when flea and tick products are being applied properly.

The majority of reported incidents represent minor or non life-threatening events, he said.

When serious reactions do occur, they are commonly caused by misuse of the products, Dr. Kingston and his colleagues said. Pet owners, for example, may apply a dog product on a cat or miscalculate the dose for their animal.

In looking at the EPAs findings, one of the things they recognized was that smaller breeds are disproportionately more affected (by adverse reactions), Dr. Kingston said. That may be because the pet owners dont know the animals weight.

Some normal reactions to topical flea and tick treatments may also be misunderstood by pet owners, the doctors said.

Often times a product is doing what its supposed to do, which is rapidly kill fleas, Dr. Hovda said. But when you have fleas on a pet and then theyre covered with a product, the fleas start leaping on and off an animal. This is called the dead flea dance. Its irritating to pets and they start biting. Sometimes, thats what occurring.

Some pets may also foam at the mouth if they lick the products. The active ingredients can cause animals to have an intense stinging sensation on their tongue and they will start to foam at the mouth, Dr. Kingston said. But this problem is usually mild and limiting.

A small proportion of pets can also experience a side effect called paresthesia, which is a tingling sensation at the application site. This reaction, which accounts for a large number of the reported incidents, generally affects smaller breed dogs, doesnt last too long, and is usually mild, the doctors said.

Anything but mild

But pet owners whove contacted ConsumerAffairs.com say the reactions their dogs and cats experienced to these products are anything but mild.

"Horrific," "frightening" and "scary" are terms they often use.

And those whove seen their dogs and cats endure pain and suffering -- or even die -- after using the products are convinced the poisons should be pulled off the market.

Theyre pet owners like James R. of St. Peters, Florida, who blames a Hartz product for the recent death of his cat.

I purchased Hartz UltraGuard OneSpot Treatment for Cats and Kittens and upon applying this product to my 6-year-old male bobtail cat, Smokey, within 48 hours, my cat was dead, he told us. This cat was in perfect health prior to applying the product to him.

All I was looking to do was kill off the fleas on my cat, not kill off my cat.

A Missouri pet owner told us her two healthy dogs experienced frightening reactions to Sergeants Gold Flea and Tick Squeeze-On treatment.

I followed the instructions perfectly, and within a half hour, they started shaking, wobbling, crying, spinning uncontrollably, twitching, running into furniture, trees, and the like - all in an effort to stop whatever sensation they were feeling, said Lori W. of Raytown, Missouri.

Lori said she bathed her dogs seven times in cold water and dish detergent to alleviate their agony. But theyre still suffering 36 hours after I applied this product, she said, adding she used the treatment labeled for the weight of her large dogs. The only thing that soothes them for a moment is the icy water of the hose.

Loris veterinarian also prescribed a medication for the dogs.

Now that I've been a victim of this, I've learned how many tens of thousands of people have inadvertently harmed or even killed their pets, she said. According to what I read, they (the EPA) feel that 44,000 adverse reactions, including deaths in 2009, is an acceptable number because so many people have used the product. It isn't. These products should be taken off the market shelves immediately.

Confirmed deaths

The EPA confirmed that some pets have died or experienced severe reactions to topical flea and tick treatments.

Dr. Kingston acknowledged that finding and said the animal health industry is trying to find out why those cases happened.

We do have circumstances of pets having severe reactions, Dr. Kingston said. And were trying to get a better handle on some of those unexpected reactions and figure out why this animal had this type of reaction.

(But) there are circumstances in which we dont have any good answers, he added. Its like drugs in humans when someone reacts violently to a regular dose of medication.

Despite these concerns, Drs. Kingston and Hovda said topical flea and tick products should not be yanked off the market. They say the treatments -- when used correctly -- protect animals and humans from bloodsucking insects and prevent the spread of Lyme disease and other infectious illnesses.

There are benefits to these products, Dr. Kingston said. And we do not want to see animals not have access to them. These products also serve a public health benefit in addition to helping animals.

10 tips

Pet owners who are still leery of using these products can take several steps to reduce the adverse reactions often linked to them, the doctors said. Those steps include:

  •  Read and follow the products directions carefully. Misapplication of a product can cause skin irritation or redness, vomiting, diarrhea, trembling, and seizures;
  •  Know the exact size and weight of your pet and use the correct dose amount. Dont guess. And do not try to split the products, Dr. Hovda said. Weve seen people who have three dogs and have tried to put 1/3 of the product on each dogs. But its very difficult with spot-on treatments to get any accuracy when doing that. You have to get the specific product -- and the right dose -- for each specific animal;
  •  Never use a product for a dog on a cat. Always use a product on the animal in which it was intended;
  •  Check the products ingredients. Some animals cant tolerate certain chemicals. Permethrins and cats dont mix, Dr. Hovda said;
  •  Separate pets from each other after using the products. Every now and then we see problems with cats licking products off dogs, Dr. Kingston said. Sometime dogs lick products off each other, too;
  •  Keep children away from pets that have been treated with the products. Children who touch a pet after theyve been treated can get the chemicals on their hands and then put their hands in their mouths;
  •  Talk to your veterinarian before using the products on small breed dogs or weak, aged, young, sick, and pregnant or nursing pets. Dont rely on the advice of a 16-year-old who is working at a pet food store, Dr. Hovda said. The person directing what chemicals to put on your pet should be your vet;
  •  Dont over-treat your pets. When some people see fleas and ticks, they scrub their pets with flea and tick shampoo, bomb their homes (with flea products), and use topical flea and tick products, Dr. Hovda said. Thats overwhelming to pets;
  •  Monitor pets for signs of adverse reactions. If youre using a product for the first time, you should watch your pets closely for the first 24 hours, Dr. Kingston said. If you see any unusual symptoms, contact your vet;
  •  Consider other types of flea and tick products. There are a wide variety of different types of products out there, Dr. Kingston said. And they each have different characteristics. If a pet owner has doubts, its always important to touch base with their vet and discuss what they are trying to accomplish and what product will meet those needs;

'Natural' products?

What about natural flea and tick products?

I think you have to be careful with natural products, Dr. Hovda said. Some of the essential oils dont get along with cats. Cats, for example, cant metabolize lavender. Some other natural products use garlic and onions, but those are harmful to cats because of their red blood cells and circulatory systems.

And some natural products are not effective on dogs or cats.

Report problems

Pet owners should report any adverse reactions to the manufacturer, the EPA said. Pesticide manufacturers are required by law to notify federal regulators about any incidents regarding topical flea and tick products.

Pet owners should also notify the EPA about any adverse reactions.

Veterinarians are encouraged to report adverse reactions to the products to the National Pesticide Information Center, the EPA said.

 

 

More

11 Travel Tips For Boomers

It's important to take a vacation, even when you think you can't afford it

11 Travel Tips For Boomers...

Everyone needs a break now and then, including Boomers. We need vacations from our jobs or our routine everyday existence even if youre retired or just no longer working. We need to get away every now and then, to reconnect with family and friends, to see and do something different and basically rejuvenate ourselves, otherwise, we run the risk of burning out.

Now you may be feeling like youre tapped out financially, burdened by credit card debt, student loans to still repay, or a slim to non-existent vacation or travel fund. Well, this column is dedicated to you because there are ways to travel without costing you a fortune and in some cases for free.

Cynthia Clampitt is a 58-year-old Illinois-based Boomer who does programs on Travel Savvy, has been to 37 countries on six continents, and is author of Waltzing Australia. Cynthia says, Even with the economy in tatters, there are travel options, from hugely discounted tours from operators who are hurting as badly as anyone else to discovering the delights near home.

Based on the extensive research I have been doing over the last two years for a book on travel as well as the additional research for this article and my own domestic and international trips over the years, here are 11 ways to travel more inexpensively whether its to the next town, country, or around the world:

1. Stay with relatives or friends.

Yes, it is nice to be able to stay in a 4-star hotel but if money is a challenge right now and you can at least pay for gas, or the plane ticket, swallow your pride and take your relatives or friends up on that longstanding offer, You can always stay with us when you visit. Offer to reciprocate when they visit you and bring a nice house gift such as a fruit basket or a bottle of wine so you dont feel too guilty about imposing.

2. Add time before or after a business trip as vacation time.

If you already have to travel for business, extend your trip before or after your work is done, of course picking up the extra nights in the hotel or other costs yourself. If you are attending a conference, see if the conference organizers have some pre- or post-conference travel itineraries to suggest or if other attendees want to join you in exploring together to share the transportation or touring costs.

3. Redeem your frequent flyer or reward points.

Instead of continuing to hold on to your unused points or miles, look into your various accounts and see if you can redeem those points or miles for a plane ticket or two. You may be pleasantly surprised to realize that you have enough for one or more airline tickets or even a few nights in a hotel. If youre missing the minimum number of points or miles for a reward, do the math if it makes sense to buy additional reward points or miles to get the free trip or accommodation.

4. If your job does not include travel, and you enjoy traveling, switch to one that does.

Thats what 62-year-old Rich Carlson did. He traded a job in the newsroom at a San Francisco affiliate station of a major network for a career as a travel journalist whose work is published on Examiner.com.

Pat Chiappa and her husband created a lifestyle in which they can work from home in virtual offices. Pat says they have the freedom to travel whenever wanderlust strikes. Her husbands a financial guru -- SpiritusFinancial-- and Pat is now the author of her first self-published book, A Couples Guide to Dream Big, Plan Well and Live Well (Spiritus Press). Says Pat, We can pick up our laptops and as long as we have a DSL connection, off we go.

5. If your parents can afford it, ask them to come along and to help defray the cost of the trip.

Eileen Ogintz, whose syndicated travel column is called Taking the Kids, says that each family works out a way of covering the intergenerational trip that is comfortable for them. In some cases, the grandparents may totally pay for everything, says Ogintz. In other cases, theyll pick up the cost of the house rental and some other stuff and the kids pay for their own flights.

If your parents are slow walkers or even if they are wheelchair bound or on a walker, it is still possible for them to travel with you. Just consider their physical challenges when you plan your destination. Check out the books on this topic by Candy Harrington who has been specializing for the last fifteen years in what is known as barrier-free traveling including her book, 101 Accessible Vacations (Demos Medical Publishing).

6. Save on lodging costs with home swap or home exchange or staying in a room rental in a private home.

There are simultaneous swaps where you have to swap with another house or apartment and also a non-simultaneous swap which offers more flexibility because only one party needs to swap. The Vacation Exchange is a membership program that started in 1997 and which is based on home swapping of vacation and second homes. Another option is staying in a private home which is usually less money than a hotel room. That is the option that California-based Pat Chiappa prefers when she visits her extended family back East. She discovered a homeowner willing to rent out a room for just $60 not far from Pats parents home.

7. Take a medical vacation.

Do your research about the cost benefits of having certain elective medical or dental procedures done in other countries. With the money you save by traveling internationally for your medical or dental care, you could pay for your trip and possibly even have some extra money in your pocket. For more on this topic, see Medical Vacations - A Good Idea? by Fred Yager.

8. Travel together.

There is a group of Boomers who get together and take road trips within the U.S. Midlife Road Trip Show was started by Rick Griffin and now it has more than 1,300 followers on Twitter.com as well as hundreds of fans on its Facebook.com page. Vicky Akins, 48, who has been a nurse (LPN) since 1985 but is not working now, is a member and their volunteer marketing director. Vicky says that the goal of the group is to get Boomers off their butt and realize their best lives are ahead of them. You can see pictures from the trips they have taken so far at their website.

Often you can save by traveling with a roommate, if you are single, rather than shouldering all the expenses on your own, or sharing the cost of a house with another couple or family instead of staying in hotel rooms.

9. Schedule wisely.

Whether traveling internationally or within the U.S., schedule your travel so its less expensive and check for discounts.

I often recommend city hotels on the weekend and bed and breakfasts during the week for people who can do that, says Deborah Sakach of American Historic Inns in San Juan Capistrano, California. They can truly save fifty percent. If possible, travel during the low tourist season and when it is not school breaks or summer vacation. There are some amazing out-of-season deals available like rooms at half-price and kids under 16 stay free.

Also check for discounts whether that means booking earlier, or at the last minute, using comparative shopping online travel sites for airline tickets, hotel rooms, or car rentals, like Kayak.com.

10. Explore all inclusive not-for-profit or commercial tour programs that do all the planning for you with keeping costs down as a priority.

Consider such well-regarded programs as Elderhostel, with the new name, Exploritas, that offers lower cost trips by affiliating with educational institutions for lodging rather than more luxurious expensive hotels, or volunteer programs which still cost money to participate in but some or most of the cost of the trip is reduced.

Some volunteers may even find a local company or service organization to sponsor you by picking up any charges as well as your airfare. Or you might consider having your trip put together by a travel agent or company that has a reputation for having access to discounted airfares, cruises, or package deals not easily found on your own such as Quench Trip Design, based in Toronto, Canada. As Mercedeh Sanati, owner of Quench, points out, The trends that were finding in this economy are that Boomers are willing to spend money on experiences, such as cooking classes in a farmhouse in Tuscany or elephant safaris in India, but theyre a bit less interested in spending loads of money on accommodation.

11. Take a "staycation"

Forty-nine-year-old stand-up comedian and actor Dan Nainan is on the road for his job 100 days a year for work; he flew 195,000 miles on Delta just last year. If your job also includes a lot of travel, staying home might actually be a welcome change for your vacation.

Yes, it is possible to have a vacation without leaving home but the key is to make sure that it still stimulates all your senses as you explore or rediscover places and even people within or near your community that you have not had the time for recently. Try out new restaurants; get together with old or new friends.

Barbara Gibson, who works with The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC), a mammal hospital, research, and education center that she describes as a real treasure, which is just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, notes, As a Boomer myself, Im staying closer to home with my travels and looking for under-the-radar local bargains to help me match my love of travel with my feeling of pending financial doom.

Even if you stay at home or close by for your vacation, make sure you break up your routine with fresh experiences especially if you are addicted to the Internet. As 60-year-old Boomer and author T.B. Fisher notes, The Internet isn't experiencing life; it's viewing life. We need to breathe, touch, and smell. He continues, It's too convenient to blame the economy for not venturing out. Boomers don't need to travel far to leave their sphere. Regardless of where you live, different cultures exist within your zip code, across the river, down the highway.

Whether near or far, prioritize travel by reminding yourself that it is good for your mind, body, and soul.

Sixty-three-year-old R. Kevin Price, author of The Successful Retirement Guide (Rainbow Books), discovered that three factors contribute to an optimum retirement: Staying intellectually, socially, and physically engaged. Travel is one way to accomplish all three engagements at once especially if you take the time before your trip to steep yourself in the culture and history of the places you will be visiting. That is the process that Price, who retired from his executive job in 2002, highly recommends and that he and his wife have applied to their trips over the last few years to Morocco, Antarctica, and their next trip in September to Italy.

Peace of mind insurance

A Boomer couple I know had purchased tickets on a cruise but the husband had to go into the hospital because of an irregular heart beat and they couldnt go. Fortunately had they bought travel insurance. (They were offered insurance from the company they bought the cruise tickets from but a cancelation would have only led to a credit. The independent insurance policy they purchased provided a full refund, which was definitely preferable.)

If you are going on a cruise, taking a plane, buying a packaged vacation, or having to prepay for hotel accommodations that will not be refundable, you may want to get travel insurance. But make sure you are very clear about what is and what is not going to be reimbursed by the insurance company if there is a medical emergency or an airline cancellation.

Finally, look into your health insurance policy and see if it covers you while you are traveling. If not, look into obtaining travel health insurance as well. A related service to consider is membership in MedjetAssist, a company that offers a discount to AARP members, and that will transport someone who is hospitalized for an injury or an illness more than 150 miles from their home to their hometown hospital or any hospital of their choice.

Whatever you decide about where or when you will travel, keep in mind that the vacation you take that you didnt think you could afford will be money well spent and a sound investment in a healthier and happier present and future.

Resources

Articles

  • Tom Glaister, Taking Travel into your own Hands. Consumeraffairs.com, February 7, 2006.
  • Eileen Ogintz, Taking the Kids: Multigenerational Trips Becoming More Far-Flung. Tribune Media Services, Pulse, April 4, 2010

Resources for Volunteer or Educational Travel Experiences

  • Ecology Project International (EPI) Educational non-profit organization based in Missoula, Montana with travel programs in Costa Rica, Baja, Galapagos, and Montana for high school students with 10-14 adults joining in as well.
  • Global Volunteers Trips last for one to three weeks with fees ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 to cover housing, food, and related costs.
  • VolunTourism Provides information on this travel option.
  • Sierra Club Six or seven day trips, known as service trips, throughout the U.S. are offered at a cost of $300 to $1,000 for meals, lodging, and program assistance. Offers around 90 trips each year.

Related websites

  • Boomers Abroad An online community and social networking site for the estimated 7 million Americans and Canadian living abroad, according to this site.
  • My Itchy Travel Feet (myitchytravelfeet.com) Site about Boomer travel developed and maintained by Boomer Donna Hull.
  • Snabbo.com Free membership social networking site for Baby Boomers with discussion groups on a wide range of topics.
  • WatchBoom Site covering Boomer travel, finance, and health, affiliated with Expedia/hotels.com

 

More

Despite Fewer Accidents, Growing Concern About Air Safety

A number of 'near-misses' reported in recent weeks

Despite Fewer Accidents, Growing Concern About Air Safety...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.Com

June 1, 2010
The skies over the United States have been remarkably safe in the last decade. At least there has been a significant drop in the number of fatal accidents. But are we doing a better job when it comes to safety, or have we been incredibly lucky?

On the surface, the numbers suggest we're doing a better job of keeping planes aloft. Not counting the four airliners lost to terrorism on September 11, 2001, the U.S. suffered only five fatal accidents from 2000-2009.

In one of those accidents, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 slid off the runway at Chicago Midway Airport, hurting no one on board but killing a child when the plane struck a car.

The most recent fatal accidents have involved small, commuter airlines. On February 12, 2009 Colgan Air Flight 3407, a Bombardier Dash 8, crashed into a house in Buffalo, N.Y., killing all on board.

The next most-recent fatal accident involving a commercial airliner occurred in 2006, when Comair Flight 191, a Canadair CRJ-100 crashed after taking off from the wrong runway in Lexington, Ky., killing 49 of the 50 people on board.

To find a multiple fatality accident during the past decade that involved a major airline, and excluding the acts of 9/11, one would have to go all the way back to November 12, 2001 when American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus A300, crashed into a New York City neighborhood shortly after taking off from LaGuardia. The crashed claimed 265 lives.

The just completed decade stands out when it comes to fatal airline accidents. Previous decades, however, have been much more deadly. In 1985, for example, there were five fatal airline accidents that year, killing 272 people. Two of the crashes occurred within 20 days of one another.

Though the numbers suggest improved safety, other data support the belief that we've been very, very lucky. The French news agency, AFP, recently reported that the Federal Aviation Administration has begun to review its air traffic control procedures after a startling number of near-misses in the last few months.

Lost separation

"Over the last weeks there have been a number of instances where separation was lost between aircraft and in some cases there was a bit of a delay of notification that obviously caused some concern," FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford told AFP.

In other words, in several instances air traffic controllers have lost track of where planes are.

In one of the most recent incidents, US Airways Flight 140, with 138 passengers on board, came within 100 feet vertically and .33 mile laterally, of a Boeing 747 cargo plane over Alaska. No one was injured but the two planes were well inside aircraft separation limits.

Other close calls were reported in March at San Francisco International and two incidents involving Southwest Airlines jets at Houston.

The FAA is currently investigating these incidents. The Wall Street Journal reports the agency is also very concerned by delays in reporting these near-collisions. While incidents are supposed to be reported within 24 hours, the FAA says it received some reports several days after the fact.

It's been said that "it's better to be lucky than good," but for the flying public, "good" is preferable. After all, luck can run out.

More