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Promoters of Sham Tax Elimination Scheme Sentenced

Scammers used elaborate ploys to ply their programs

Promoters of Sham Tax Elimination Scheme Sentenced ...


Four of eight promoters of a fraudulent tax- and debt-elimination scheme have been sentenced to length prison terms for their roles in tax fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. The remaining four will be sentenced over the next two months.

A federal jury returned guilty verdicts against eight people on March 31, 2010,, following a month-long trial in Pensacola, Fla., involving the promotion of fraudulent schemes through Pinnacle Quest International, also known as PQI and Quest International.

Those sentenced were:

• Arnold Ray Manansala of Renton, Wash., to 12 years in prison for conspiracy to defraud the United States and to commit wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering;

• Dover Eugene Perry, also of Renton, to 10 years in prison for conspiracy to defraud the United States and to commit wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering;

• Michael Guy Leonard of Troy, N.Y., to nine years and one month in prison for conspiracy to defraud the United States and to commit wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering; and

• Mark Daniel Leitner of Fairport, N.Y., to five years in prison for conspiracy to defraud the United States and to commit wire fraud.

Tax evasion strategies

According to the evidence presented during trial, PQI was an umbrella organization for numerous vendors of tax and credit card debt elimination scams. Some of the PQI vendors, such as Southern Oregon Resource Center for Education (SORCE), sold bogus theories and strategies for tax evasion.

For fees starting at $10,000, SORCE assisted its customers in the creation of a series of sham business entities in the United States and Panama. Other tax-related PQI vendors denied the legitimacy of the income tax system on various theories and provided customers with a "reliance defense" that consisted of a paper trail of frivolous correspondence which a client could allegedly use as evidence of good faith if the client were prosecuted.

The government established that other PQI vendors sold fraudulent schemes for eliminating credit card debt, the most successful of which was called Financial Solutions. That enterprise charged its customers thousands of dollars for a series of letters to send to credit card companies disputing the lawfulness of the underlying debt.

The product was wholly ineffective, and customers typically were sued by their creditors and often forced into bankruptcy.

Warehouse bank

According to the evidence, another PQI vendor, MYICIS, operated as a sophisticated, computerized "warehouse bank." MYICIS was a single bank account in which customers pooled their money. It was promoted to PQI's clients as a method to hide their assets from the IRS as a result of the pooled nature of the account. MYICIS had 3,000 clients and approximately $100 million in deposits over a three year period.

Evidence introduced at trial showed that PQI purported to sell only CDs and tickets to offshore conferences. However, PQI acted as a gateway to its fraudulent vendors. Clients seeking the tax evasion and debt elimination vendors could access the product only if they joined PQI first. The cost of membership ranged from $1,350 to $18,750, depending on the level of access. In May 2008, a federal district court issued a preliminary injunction against the promoters of Pinnacle Quest International.

"Today's sentences send a powerful and unequivocal message to those who seek to evade and help others evade their taxes," said Acting Assistant Attorney General John A. DiCicco of the Justice Department's Tax Division. "Those who promote tax fraud schemes will be investigated, prosecuted, and convicted, and they also face substantial prison sentences."

"Victor S. O. Song, Chief, IRS Criminal Investigation, noted, "There is no secret formula that can eliminate an individual's tax obligations, and those who create elaborate schemes that have no purpose other than to mislead others and defraud the Internal Revenue Service will be prosecuted."

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FTC Cracking Down On Debt Settlement Industry Abuses

Newly adopted regulations bar collection of fees unless consumers get relief

FTC Cracking Down On Debt Settlement Industry Abuses ...


New regulations adopted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) mean for-profit debt settlement companies will no longer be allowed to collect fees for their services until they have settled some or all of a consumer's debt.

The new rules will help curb deceptive and abusive practices in debt relief services sold through telemarketing, according to Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports.

"Most debt settlement companies charge big fees up front even though most consumers don't get the help they expect," said Lauren Bowne, staff attorney for Consumers Union's Defend Your Dollars campaign. "These new rules will help protect consumers who are already drowning in debt from being ripped off by debt settlement companies that fail to provide any relief. But more needs to be done to ensure that the amount of fees charged for debt settlement services are fair."

Most debt settlement companies market their services through Internet, television, or radio advertising. The advertisements typically promise to reduce debt substantially and urge consumers to call a toll-free number to find out more. Once the consumer signs up, the debt settlement company takes its fees over the first half of the contract period.

The FTC reports that nearly two-thirds of consumers who enroll in debt relief services, most of whom pay an advance fee, end up dropping out of the programs within the first three years without getting the help they paid to receive.

Bad advice

Debt settlement companies usually advise consumers to stop paying their creditors and to instead set up a special account to build savings that will be used in the future to negotiate a settlement. As the consumer deposits savings into the account, the debt settlement company withdraws money to cover its fees even though it hasn't reached a settlement with creditors. By stopping payments to creditors, the consumer ends up with a worse credit score, additional penalty fees and more interest charges.

While debt settlement companies claim they settle millions of dollars in debt for consumers, they have not revealed how much debt remains unsettled. The Better Business Bureau announced that it would stop calling debt settlement services "inherently problematic" if a company could show that it met several conditions, key among them that at least one half of its customers saved as much money as was paid in fees. The GAO reported in April 2010 that two debt settlement trade associations called that standard "unrealistic."

What they do

The FTC's new regulation banning advance fees will go into effect on October 27, 2010, and takes a key step forward by addressing the timing of the fees. Under the new rules, a debt settlement company will earn fees when it reaches a settlement on at least one of the consumer's debts that the consumer agrees to in writing. Fees cannot be collected until the consumer has made at least one payment to the creditor as a result of the negotiated agreement.

Fees can be held in a dedicated account before that time but all unearned fees must be returned to the consumer if he or she decides that the debt settlement program is not working out or cancels the program. Debt settlement firms can require a dedicated account only under certain conditions, including that the account must be set up and maintained by the consumer at an insured financial institution. The consumer will be entitled to earn interest on the account and can withdraw the funds at any time without penalty.

Beginning on September 27, 2010, the FTC rule requires that debt settlement companies make certain pre-contract disclosures, including how long it will take to get results and how much it will cost. The new rules cover calls consumers make to debt settlement firms in response to advertising as well as telemarketing calls made by firms. However, the FTC's new regulation does not apply to in-person sales or to Internet-only sales, so Congress or the states will have to act to apply the new rules to those debt settlement contracts.

Michael Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible lending, praises the new regs, but believes more needs to be done. "While the FTC's new rule helps end one of the most egregious practices of the debt settlement industry, states can do more to curb others, such as charging unreasonably high fees that are not tied to performance and doing so without assessing if a potential client is likely to benefit from a debt relief program."

Two federal bills (S. 3264 and HR 5387) have been introduced in Congress to limit debt settlement fees to a one-time $50 fee and five percent of the savings from each final settlement.

"The effective ban on up-front fees promotes fair, transparent markets," he concluded. "Consumers should pay for performance, not promises. The FTC has made clear it agrees."

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Motorcyclist Learns Dangers of Tire Shine the Hard Way

The tires on Sherman Jones' bike were shiny but the bike was soon on its side

Motorcyclist Learns Dangers of Tire Shine the Hard Way...

 

photo of motorbike

Sherman Jones' motorbike, once again upright. The offending tire spray is on the seat and the now-retired tires are leaning against the carport wall. Photo by Chase Zaca

Sherman Jones of Santa Paula, Calif., was excited. A longtime motorcycling enthusiast, Jones had just bought a used 2005 Honda CB250 motorbike. On Friday, as the weekend approached, Jones took a few minutes to give the bike a last once-over before hitting the road to Oxnard the next morning.

Not wanting to overlook any part of his new bike, Jones applied a coat of Turtle Wax F210 Tire Foam and Shine to the tires. The next morning, as he approached his first turn at about 20 miles per hour, the bike slid out from underneath him, breaking his shoulder on impact and sending him on an expensive trip to the Ventura County Medical Centers Emergency Room.

Jones attributes the accident to the tire shine, which he believes compromised the traction of his bikes tires.

"It was like hitting ice," Jones said. "I lost total control." The official cause of the accident as stated in the police report was "slippery spray on tires", terse testimony that calls into doubt the safety of using tire shine products on two-wheeled vehicles.

And no, it's not what you're thinking. He didn't put the foam on the tire's treads. He applied it only to the sidewalls, he said.

Looking back on it, Jones hypothesizes that as the tires spin, they "generate centrifugal force which causes a build-up of the shine material near edge of the tread," creating a potential hazard when the bike is leaning through a turn. This theory has been supported by a number of forum users on various motor vehicle enthusiast websites, including www.sportbikeworld.com.

The Turtle Wax F210 Tire Foam spray can that Jones used does feature a vaguely worded warning in the fine black print caution statement on its back, simply stating, "Do not use on cycle tires." Seemingly contradictory, however, Jones' edition of the product features a "Safe for all Tires" pitch in much larger font towards the cans top, a boast that has been removed in more recent editions.

Clearer warnings

Turtle Wax competitor Armor All, which has the "Extreme Tire Shine" line, warns against the use of its product on motorcycle and bicycle tires. The companys website explains how tire shine, while ideal for protecting car tires, should not be used on two wheeled vehicles "due to slipperiness."

Meguiars Hot Shine and Black Magics Tire Wet lines, each of which compete with Turtle Waxs F210 formula, feature distinct warnings in bold capital letters that caution against the use of tire shine on two-wheeled vehicles. These warnings, while the most clearly visible of the brands available at Jones local AutoZone store, were still limited to the backsides of each can and were set in the same color as the rest of the surrounding font. Jones insists that these labels "though better, should be on the front."

photo of tire shine cans

Turtle Wax can, left, has no prominent warning against use on two-wheeled vehicle tires. Tire Wet can, right, clearly states product should not be used on "tires of seats of motorcycles, bircycles or other two-wheeled vehicles." Photos by Chase Zaca

All of these manufacturers are evidently aware of the dangers that may result from using tire spray on two-wheeled vehicles, but Jones questions why they don't do a better job of warning consumers.

All the companies cans state in large bold letters spanning the bottom under the front logo "Danger: Contents under pressure," yet make no mention on the front side about the dangers of using the products on cycle tires. Most everyone who has not been in a time capsule knows that pressurized cans are dangerous, but it's not immediately evident that tire shine shouldn't be used on certain types of tires.

Jones says his painful injuries serve as a daily reminder of this hidden hazard and says he has a new attitude about shiny tires: "Tire shine has a place in car shows, but not on the road."

"The only thing I use to clean my tires now is water and a brush," Jones said.

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American Airlines Settles Cargo Price-Fixing Case

Company agrees to provide money, information against other defendants

American has agreed to pay $5 million to settle its part of the lawsuit, brought by freight shippers who say they were harmed by the alleged plot....

American Airlines has agreed to settle a class action alleging that a number of airlines arranged a price-fixing scheme, and has promised to provide information about the other implicated airlines.

The suit is one of several accusing a number of airlines -- including American Airlines, United Airlines, British Airways, Air France-KLM, and Lufthansa -- of conspiring to slap cargo shippers with fuel and security surcharges. The carriers are accused of using the September 11 attacks as an excuse to increase those surcharges, and one suit claims that Lufthansa took the reins in announcing new fees.

The settlement was filed in New York's Eastern District, but other suits are pending in a number of foreign jurisdictions, including Canada, Australia, and South Korea.

Denial of wrongdoing

American has agreed to pay $5 million to settle its part of the lawsuit, brought by freight shippers who say they were harmed by the alleged plot. The airline says it is not culpable, and that the settlement is purely in the interest of saving time and money.

"American Airlines has done nothing wrong," American spokesman Tim Wagner said in an email to Bloomberg. "Litigation is an expensive and uncertain proposition and avoiding the cost and inconvenience of trial made paying the settlement the best financial decision for American."

The airline has also agreed to cooperate in suits that are still ongoing, suggesting that it will turn over data inculpating the other accused carriers. Indeed, American has already promised to produce witnesses and documents to the plaintiffs.

Carriers settle up

According to the AP, American -- the first airline to offer its cooperation -- agreed to settle back in April 2009 and has been cooperating ever since. Air France-KLM, by contrast, paid $87 million to settle the case, but declined to cooperate. Lufthansa and Japan Airlines have also settled, paying out $85 million and $12 million, respectively.

The shippers are happy with the agreement, according to their lawyer, Michael Hausfeld.

"It is an important step forward for shippers in Europe and around the world and demonstrates that companies can act responsibly to resolve competition disputes without resorting to excessive or protracted litigation," Hausfeld said in a statement.

In court papers, Hausfeld suggested that his client would face a relatively steep hill at trial, writing that "while AA did face some risk of liability, it would be difficult for plaintiffs to obtain a judgment against it, given the evidence."

The alleged scheme also sparked an investigation by the Justice Department, which has so far led to a dozen guilty pleas and $1.6 billion in fines. British Airways and Korean Air were each fined $300 million; Air France coughed up $350 million. The European Union also probing the matter as well.

 

 

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Toyota Recalls Avalons To Correct Steering Defect

370,000 older Toyotas affected in latest problem for automaker

Toyota Recalls Avalons To Correct Steering Defect...

Toyota says it is recalling approximately 373,000 2000-2004 Model Year Toyota Avalons sold in the United States because the vehicle's steering lock bar could break under certain conditions.

No other Toyota or Lexus vehicles are involved in this recall, the carmaker said.

Toyota says there was improper casting of the steering lock bar, which is a component of the steering interlock system. That defect, it says, creates the possibility that a minute crack may develop on the surface.

Such a crack may expand over a long period of repeated lock and unlock operations, and eventually the lock bar could break. If this occurs, the interlock system may become difficult to unlock when stationary.

Possible lock-up

If the vehicle -- while being driven -- is steered to the right with sufficient lateral acceleration, a broken and loose lock bar may move toward the steering shaft. If the engagement hole in the shaft happens to line up at the specific time the broken lock bar has moved, this could cause the steering wheel lock bar to engage, locking the steering wheel, and increasing the risk of a crash.

The carmaker said it is aware of three accidents because of the steering problem. None of the accidents, it said, caused any injuries.

"Toyota is continuing to work diligently to address safety issues wherever they arise and to strengthen our global quality assurance operations so that Toyota owners can be confident in the safety of their vehicles," said Steve St. Angelo, Toyota chief quality officer for North America.

As part of the recall, Toyota will replace the steering column bracket on involved vehicles, a procedure that takes about two hours to complete depending on the dealer's schedule. Toyota will notify owners by first class mail beginning in late August 2010 to bring their vehicles to their local Toyota dealer for replacement of the steering column bracket at no charge to the customer.

It's the latest in what has been a year of recalls for Toyota. Most recently the carmaker recalled nearly 40,000 Lexus LX 470s for an unrelated steering problem. Since October, Toyota has recalled more than 8 million cars worldwide to address a variety of issues, most notably sudden acceleration.

 

 

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Fake Fur Labeling Bill Moving Through Congress

House closes loophole on labeling reqirements, sending measure to Senate

A bill designed to ensure consumers know if they're buying real or fake fur has cleared the U.S. House of Representatives and now moves to the Senate for d...


A bill designed to ensure consumers know if they're buying real or fake fur has cleared the U.S. House of Representatives and now moves to the Senate for debate.

The House on Wednesday unanimously approved The Truth in Fur Labeling Act (H.R. 2480) -- action that garnered support and praise from animal protection groups, consumer organizations, and designers and retailers.

Representatives Jim Moran (D-VA) and Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) introduced the bi-partisan bill in 2009 to close a federal loophole that does not require fur garments valued at $150 or less to have labels.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) said that gap in the law prevents consumers from knowing if they're buying genuine or faux animal fur.

"Many consumers prefer to avoid buying and wearing animal fur, and they deserve to have the information to make informed purchasing choices," said Michael Markarian, chief operating officer for the HSUS. "The Truth in Fur Labeling Act would protect consumers by requiring all garments containing animal fur to be accurately labeled."

Shocking discovery

HSUS investigations have revealed that retailers and designers across the country sold jackets trimmed with animal fur that did not have any labels and were falsely advertised as "faux fur."

A recent HSUS probe made the chilling discovery that domestic dog fur had slipped into the country on unlabeled jackets.

Another HSUS investigation discovered raccoon dog fur on more than two-thirds of a nationwide sample of fur-trimmed jackets purchased from "well-known" retailers and designers.

Raccoon dogs are part of the canine family and look like raccoons. They are nocturnal animals that live in Asian and northern European forests. "Of the raccoon dog fur jackets tested, not a single one properly identified the animal in advertising or labeling, instead calling it such things as faux fur, raccoon or simply not labeling it at all," the HSUS said.

Closing the loophole

The bill now pending on Capitol Hill would require all fur garments sold in the United States -- regardless of their value -- to meet the standards set under the 1951 Fur Products Labeling Act. That law requires seven out of every eight fur garments sold in the country to have labels that disclose the species of animal and the country of origin, the HSUS said.

The proposed legislation would extend those labeling requirements to the approximately 13 percent of fur garments sold in the country that are exempt from the law because they have a value of $150 or less.

"With the changes in the marketplace over the last half-century -- such as increased use of fur trim and increased quality of synthetic fur -- the fur labeling law needs to be updated to reflect present market realities," the HSUS said.

Consumers' rights

The bill's sponsors said consumers have a right to know if the garments they're buying are made with faux fur - or real fur that might have come from a dog or cat.

"Consumers expect to have access to all necessary information in order to make informed purchases," said Moran. "Unfortunately, a current loophole in federal regulations exempts a sizable portion of U.S. garments containing fur from labeling requirements. This means consumers could be purchasing products with the expectation that they bought 'faux' fur, but which actually contain real fur, perhaps from a dog or cat."

Bono Mack applauded her fellow lawmakers for supporting the measure. "I am pleased that the passage of this legislation will close the loophole that has for too long allowed companies to sell fur products made from cats and dogs as 'faux fur,'" she said. "It is important that consumers are provided with product labels that allow them to make informed decisions on their purchases, and this bill will help provide clarity for customers."

Consumer groups, designers, and upscale national retailers -- including the Gucci Group, Burberry, Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Andrew Marc -- support the legislation.

The Senate will now debate the companion bi-partisan bill -- Truth in Fur Labeling Act of 2009 (S 1076) -- introduced by Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Susan Collins (R-ME).

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Important Things You Should Know About Tire Shopping

There's more than price to consider when the rubber meets the road

Important Things You Should Know About Tire Shopping...


We've all seen those beer commercials that talk about a "born on" date, telling you when the product was brewed. The same principle applies to tires.

When buying new tires for your vehicle, it's important to check the side of the tire for its manufacture date, said Connecticut Consumer Protection Commissioner Jerry Farrell.

"My tires had 50,000 miles on them so I knew it was time for a change, but I asked the technician to take a look at them anyway," Farrell said, while shopping for tires at a Wallingford dealer. "During his inspection, he explained how the materials used in tires naturally age and are affected by temperature, storage conditions, maintenance, and weather, and how tires can gradually harden and lose elasticity, leading to tread separation, cracking, and tire failure." Many times these changes are not noticeable from the outside of the tire.

Sean Kane, founder and president of Safety Research & Strategies, Inc., a Massachusetts-based national research organization specializing in safety matters, notes the majority of vehicle manufacturer owners' manuals now recommend tire replacement at or around six years -- regardless of tread wear.

Deciphering the code

To help consumers identify the age of their tires, the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) requires that Tire Identification Numbers be printed on the sidewall of each tire. These numbers must identify the manufacturing location, tire size and manufacturer's code, along with the week and year the tire was manufactured.

The sidewall also includes the maximum pressure for your tires. But that's not necessarily the best tire pressure for your car, and you shouldn't inflate your tires to the maximum level.

Instead, look for a sticker inside the driver's-side doorjamb or glove box, or check your owner's manual for the correct air pressure for the tires on your vehicle. You will improve gas mileage by keeping your tires inflated to the proper pressure. Under-inflated tires can reduce mileage at a rate of up to eight cents-per-gallon of gas.

"When looking for the manufacture date on the sidewall, look for the long series of letters and numbers starting with the letters DOT," Farrell said. The week and year the tire was produced is printed as the last four digits of this Tire Identification Number; the last two digits identify the year, and the two immediately before them identify the week of the year. For example, if the last four digits read 2209, the tire was made in the twenty-second week of 2009.

Tire tips

"When you shop, consider choosing the tire that offers the longest possible life," Farrell said. "And remember, the unused tires sitting in your garage or in your spare tire compartment need to be checked for age also."

He also recommends having your tires inspected by your mechanic during regular automobile maintenance and keeping them inflated according to the manufacturer's recommendations for longest life and safest use. Regular tire rotation and checking for uneven wear will save on tires and gas costs.

"Buy a tire gauge and check your car's tire pressure every month," Farrell concludes. "If your tires are low on air, you're wasting gas and money. The best time to check your tire pressure is when the tires are cool -- not right after a long drive. In hot weather, check the pressure during the coolest part of the day."

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Electronic Payments Association Warns Of New Phishing Scam

Email warns of 'unauthorized ACH transaction'

Electronic Payments Association Warns Of New Phishing Scam...


The Electronic Payments Association says it has received reports that individuals and/or companies have received a fraudulent email that has the appearance of having been sent from NACHA.

The subject line of the email states: "Unauthorized ACH Transaction."

The email includes a link that redirects the individual to a fake Web page and contains a link that is almost certainly an executable virus with malware.

"Do not click on the link. The text, email, and the related website are fraudulent," NACHA warned in a statement.

NACHA said the fake emails look like this:


From: Information
Sent: Thursday, July 22, 2010 8:27 AM
To: Doe, John
Subject: Unauthorized ACH Transaction
Dear bank account holder,

The ACH transaction, recently initiated from your bank account, was rejected by the Electronic Payments Association. Please review the transaction report by clicking the link below:

Damaging emails

Security experts say consumers should be aware that phishing emails frequently have links to Web pages that host malicious code and software. Do not follow Web links in unsolicited emails from unknown parties or from parties with whom you do not normally communicate, or that appear to be known but are suspicious or otherwise unusual.

NACHA said it does not process nor touch the ACH transactions that flow to and from organizations and financial institutions. It also does not send communications to individuals or organizations about individual ACH transactions that they originate or receive.

If malicious code is detected or suspected on a computer, consult with a computer security or anti-virus specialist to remove malicious code or re-install a clean image of the computer system.

It's a good idea to always use anti-virus software and ensure that the virus signatures are automatically updated. Ensure that the computer operating systems and common software applications security patches are installed and current. Be alert for different variations of fraudulent emails.

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Mariposa Botnet Creator, Operators Arrested

International police officials estimate millions of computers were compromised

Mariposa Botnet Creator, Operators Arrested...


A two-year investigation of the creator and operators of the Mariposa Botnet by the FBI, in partnership with the Slovenian Criminal Police and the Spanish Guardia Civil is bearing fruit.

The Mariposa Botnet -- a network of remote-controlled compromised computers -- was built with a computer virus known as "Butterfly Bot" and was used to steal passwords for websites and financial institutions. It stole computer users' credit card and bank account information, launched denial of service attacks, and spread viruses. Industry experts estimated the Mariposa Botnet may have infected as many as 8 million to 12 million computers.

"In the last two years, the software used to create the Mariposa Botnet was sold to hundreds of other criminals, making it one of the most notorious in the world," said FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, III. "These cyber intrusions, thefts, and frauds undermine the integrity of the Internet and the businesses that rely on it; they also threaten the privacy and pocketbooks of all who use the Internet."

International effort

In February, the Spanish Guardia Civil arrested three suspected Mariposa Botnet operators: "Netkairo," "Jonyloleante," and "Ostiator," aka Florencio Carro Ruiz, Jonathan Pazos Rivera, and Juan Jose Bellido Rios. They are being prosecuted in Spain for computer crimes.

"The Mariposa case showed how the coordinated and joint actions of different international police forces, along with the efforts of the Internet security industry, have been able to face the global threat of cyber crime," said Maj. Juan Salom, commander of the Guardia Civil's Cyber Crime Division. "The cyber kingpins know that they are not invincible anymore because the global efforts of the FBI, Slovenian Criminal Police, and Spanish Guardia Civil have shown that it doesn't matter where or how they try to hide, they will be located and prosecuted."

Last week, the Slovenian Criminal Police identified and arrested the Mariposa Botnet's suspected creator, a 23-year-old Slovenian citizen known as "Iserdo." The work of the Slovenian and Spanish authorities was integral to this investigation, officials said.

"We are glad to cooperate with the United States; the FBI's assistance is invaluable and represents professional affirmation of our force," Slovenian Minister of the Interior Katarina Kresal and Director General Janko Gorsek, Slovenian Criminal Police, said in a statement. "This case shows that cyber crime issues call for international police cooperation that shouldn't be hindered by geographical borders. This partnership serves as a solid basis for future cooperation."

From 2008 to 2010, the Slovenian citizen created "Butterfly Bot" and sold it to other criminals worldwide. In turn, these criminals developed networks of infected computers -- botnets -- and the Mariposa variety from Spain was the most notorious and largest. In addition to selling the Butterfly Bot program, the Slovenian citizen developed customized versions for certain customers and created and sold plug-ins (add-ons) to augment the botnet's features and functionality.

"This case shows the value of strong partnerships among law enforcement agencies worldwide in the fight against cyber criminals", said FBI Cyber Division Assistant Director Gordon M. Snow. "Cyber crime knows no boundaries, and without international collaboration, our efforts to dismantle these operations would be impossible."

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The Potential Pitfalls of Pre-Paid Calling Cards

Government agencies warn hidden fees can greatly reduce value of cards

The Potential Pitfalls of Pre-Paid Calling Cards...

July 29, 2010
For those who don't have cell phones, or those who need a cheap way to make international calls, pre-paid calling cards can be a convenient way to stay in touch. But these cards are not always a good deal.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) warn that hidden costs and other problems can leave consumers with less call time than they were promised.

When you're selecting a calling card, the FTC says you should always look first at the fees. Add them up and see what kind of dent they put in the card's value.

For other ways to avoid calling card pitfalls:

• Check whether the advertised minutes only apply if you make one call and not more.

• Find out whether the advertised minutes still apply if you use the "toll-free access" number rather than the "local access" number, and whether the advertised minutes can be used to call cell phones.

• Ask whether there is an expiration date for minutes.

• Make sure that the explanation of fees makes sense to you.

• If possible, select a card that comes with a toll-free customer service number.

• Consider buying a card of a small denomination first, because if something goes wrong, your loss is limited.



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Washington State Settles 'Trust Mill' Case

Seminar speakers weren't qualified to sell estate planning documents

Washington State Settles 'Trust Mill' Case...

July 28, 2010
The office of Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna reached a settlement with an Arizona company accused of violating a three-year-old state law intended to crack down on 'trust mill' schemes.

Under the agreement, The Preservation Group and its founders will offer refunds to more than 60 Washington seniors who purchased living trusts.

"We believe the defendants pushed expensive living trusts on Washington seniors while misrepresenting probate as a time-consuming process that can eat up a nest egg," McKenna said. "This case enforces the law our office requested to ensure that only legal professionals can prepare estate documents."

The AG's Consumer Protection Division accused The Preservation Group, LLC, of Chandler, Ariz., and its owners Kevin D. Boterman and Robert J. Feinholz of violating the state's Estate Distribution Documents Act. The law, requested by the attorney general, prohibits anyone who is not a licensed attorney from marketing living trusts or wills.

Exaggerated benefits

The Preservation Group conducted estate planning seminars throughout Washington from approximately August 2007 to at least September 2008. According to the state's complaint, salespeople promoted the advantages of a living trust while exaggerating the complexity of probate, the court-supervised process by which property is transferred to heirs. They then set up appointments to meet with seniors in their homes.

Seniors who paid $2,195 to $2,995 for living trusts were encouraged to provide details about their finances that the salespeople used to pitch additional insurance and investment products, the state alleged.

At the time of the sales, Boterman and Feinholz were registered to sell insurance in Washington but were not licensed to practice law.

Sales ban

The settlement filed in King County Superior Court doesn't require the defendants to admit any wrongdoing but prohibits them selling estate planning products here in the future. They agree to pay up to $40,000 in restitution to eligible consumers who request refunds, as well as $10,200 to reimburse the state for attorneys' fees and legal costs. A $25,000 civil penalty is suspended provided the defendants comply with the settlement terms.

Properly drafted and executed, a living trust can help someone avoid probate and offer other advantages, but isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. For example, individuals with small estates may avoid probate without a living trust. Joint ownership of assets is another way to avoid probate.



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iPad Overheats in Sunlight, Suit Says

Plaintiffs say iPad not 'just like a book' after all

iPad Overheats in Sunlight, Suit Says...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 28, 2010
photo of ipad Don't take that iPad outside. A class action lawsuit filed last Friday claims that Apple's latest supposed wonder quickly overheats in normal environmental conditions.

The suit, filed in federal court in Oakland, California, says that the iPad turns off, sometimes after just a few minutes of use, when exposed to direct sunlight.

The iPad does not live up to the reasonable consumer's expectations created by Apple insofar as the iPad overheats so quickly under common weather conditions that it does not function for prolonged use outdoors, or in many other warm conditions, according to the complaint.

Consumers who sunbathe with their iPads are quickly greeted by a yellow warning sign and the caption iPad needs to cool down before you can use it.

The news probably didn't surprise tech junkies, who reported on the iPad's apparent fragility soon after it was released. Zach Honig, an editor for PC Magazine, was outside in New York for only ten minutes when his iPad shut down. Honig tweeted that a minute in the fridge was all it took to revive the tablet. (Whether putting your iPad in the refrigerator is a good idea is a topic open to debate, to say the least).

The suit is a potential ding in the armor of Apple's newest gadget, which sold 3.27 million units and generated $2.17 billion in the quarter ending June 10. The iPad was introduced to great fanfare in late January, with Apple CEO Steve Jobs touting it as creating a third category of device -- fitting between traditional notebook computers and smartphones like the iPhone and Blackberry.

And while it perhaps seems intuitive that an electronic device works less well in high temperatures, the suit potentially weakens the iPad's standing as a bona fide e-reader. Indeed, the complaint takes issue with Apple's contention that [r]eading on iPad is just like reading a book, pointing out that using an iPad is not 'just like reading a book' at all since books do not close when the reader is enjoying them in the sunlight or in other normal environmental conditions.

The lawsuit also threatens to extend a weeks-long rough patch for Apple. The tech king is still trying to recover from an embarrassing rollout of the long-awaited iPhone 4, which has been so plagued with reception problems that consumers have been forced to cover the exposed antenna with duct tape.

Apple is offering a bumper to iPhone owners free of charge, which it says will fix the problem. The saga prompted Motorola to poke fun in an ad for its new Droid X phone -- a photo of that device sits below the heading, No Jacket Required.

The complaint accuses Apple of throwing consumers to the wind in the name of corporate profits, contending that the company has clearly established a policy of accepting a certain amount of collateral damage as incidental to its business operations, rather than accept the alternative costs of full compliance with fair, lawful and honest business practices.

The suit, brought on behalf of everyone in the United States who bought an iPad, charges Apple with fraud, negligent and intentional misrepresentation, unjust enrichment, and breach of express and implied warranties.

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New York Settles Charges Against Debt Collector

Crackdown continues against debt collectors who engage in abusive, illegal practices

New York Settles Charges Against Debt Collector...


Debt collectors who fail to follow the rules when dealing with consumers will run afoul of the law. In New York, Lewis Hastie Receivables (LHR), Inc., in the Buffalo area, has just settled charges brought by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

According to Cuomo's investigation, LHGR violated state and federal debt collection laws and, under the agreement, must immediately reform its business practices and pay $125,000 in penalties and costs. The action is the latest in the state's continuing probe of illegal practices in the debt collection industry.

"This company's business model was to harass consumers by calling them multiple times a day, continuously calling them at work after being told not to, and repeatedly calling even after the alleged debt was disputed," Cuomo said. "It is unacceptable for debt collection companies to use illegal tactics for their own profit and we will continue to put a stop to the practice."

Massive violations

Here are some of the actions that Cuomo says violated the law:

• An LHR collector called an Oswego resident up to 16 times in one day in an attempt to collect a 10-year old debt that belonged to her husband. When she questioned the debt to LHR, the collector said, "You must not know your husband that well then." The collector illegally told her she would be arrested, have a lien put on her house, her vehicle confiscated and wages garnished.

• LHR wrongly targeted a Lackawanna man for a debt he did not owe.

• LHR collectors called a Georgia resident 10 times per day in an attempt to collect a debt that was allegedly inflated to more than triple the original amount owed.

• LHR tried to recover a debt from a Mississippi man that was actually owed by his ex-wife. After explaining this and telling LHR to stop calling him, the collector told the man he would call every day at 8 a.m. until the bill was paid.

• LHR repeatedly called a California-based Iraq war veteran over a $2,500 cell phone contract from a company he never signed up with. Despite being provided proof that the debt was not his and that he was serving overseas at the time the company claimed he signed the contract, LHR collectors continued to call him.

According to the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the New York State debt collection and consumer protection laws, a debt collector cannot pose as an attorney, threaten lawsuits or other legal action which cannot be taken, tell a consumer they have committed a crime or will be arrested, or talk with third parties except to get location information.

The law further requires collection agencies to send a written notice within five days of initial communication with the consumer explaining how he or she can dispute the debt. If properly disputed, the collection agency must stop all collection attempts and send verification.

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Scammers Putting A New Face On An Old Scheme

Scammers hijacking Facebook accounts reach out to 'friends' for cash

Scammers Putting A New Face On An Old Scheme...



Facebook and other social media websites continue to be the targets of scammers trying to steal users identities. In one of the latest schemes, hackers who hijack Facebook accounts are using it to steal money.

The scam is an evolution of an older email scam. In the past, a scammer would compromise an individual's email account and send messages to everyone in the address book. The message, which looked like it was from the victim, said the individual is traveling in a foreign country and lost all their money. It asked that the recipient wire some cash.

By hacking into a Facebook account, the scammer's job is actually easier. Instead of reaching out to everyone in an address book, the hacker appeals to the victim's Facebook "friends."

"People lower their guard when someone they know from a social networking site needs their help," said New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow. "Rather than sending an email to random people, these thieves have learned they can improve their chances by hacking into social networking accounts and then directing pleas for money to the account holder's list of friends."

First, the scammer has to hack into the Facebook account. Some common warning signs that a criminal is trying to hijack a user's account while on the social networking site include:

• Anything that asks you to paste a code or URL into your browser;

• Quizzes, polls or contests that require you to provide personal information such as your social security number, credit card number or bank account information;

• Requests that you update Flash Player or other programs, or that you download a new program; and

• Anything that requires you to link to another page and invites your friends to that page.

In order to protect yourself, you should be wary of these warning signs and guard against any actions that would provide criminals with the tools necessary to break into your account.

If you can't log into your account, this is a warning sign that it's been hacked, Dow said. Contact the social website to report this and to have your account disabled.

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Identity Theft Scam Targets Diabetics

Scammers calling people with the disease in Mississippi, seeking personal data

The disease-specific scheme first showed up in Mississippi, where diabetics have reported telephone calls from people claiming to be from the DFM and the A...


If you have diabetes, you may have another potential risk: becoming the target of an identity theft scam.

The disease-specific scheme first showed up in Mississippi, where diabetics have reported telephone calls from people claiming to be from the Diabetes Foundation of Mississippi and the American Diabetes Association. The callers request personal information such as social security numbers, dates of birth and credit card information.

The scam is all the more effective because the caller knows the intended victim has diabetes.

The Diabetes Foundation of Mississippi and the American Diabetes Foundation reported these complaints to the Consumer Protection Division of the Mississippi Attorney Generals Office. While Mississippi is the only state to report the scam, it's very possible that it will spread to other states.

Stay alert

Legitimate organizations like the Diabetes Foundation of Mississippi and the American Diabetes Foundation will not initiate a phone call or send an email asking you to provide, update or confirm sensitive information. Before responding to any request for personal information, consumers should contact the institutions directly to ensure the request is valid.

"Unfortunately, scam artists will often use the name of reputable organization to lure consumers into thinking they are dealing with a familiar organization," said Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. "Because of this, we continue to urge consumers to use caution before acting on unsolicited emails, voice mails, text messages or phone calls requesting personal information. Educating our consumers is one of the most important actions we can take to combat scams like this one."

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Government Says Consumers Free To 'Unlock' Their Cell Phones

Exclusive agreements between manufacturers and wireless carriers have nothing to do with copyright

Government Says Consumers Free To 'Unlock' Their Cell Phones...

If you're a Verizon wireless customer and want an iPhone, can figure out how to "unlock" its network safeguards, and are willing to void your warranty, the government says it's you legal right to do so.

In an official ruling, the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress ruled there's nothing in the law to prevent any mobile phone from being altered to work on a different network than it was intended.

Apple has an exclusive contract with AT&T; for the popular iPhone and has strongly discouraged consumers from "jailbreaking," the term applied to unlocking the phone's network feature. It has threatened legal action against those who do, though it has never followed through on the threat.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) requested the ruling, as well as legal protections for artists who remix videos -- people who, until now, could have been sued for their non-infringing or fair use activities.

"By granting all of EFF's applications, the Copyright Office and Librarian of Congress have taken three important steps today to mitigate some of the harms caused by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)," said Jennifer Granick, EFF's Civil Liberties Director. "We are thrilled to have helped free jailbreakers, unlockers and vidders from this law's overbroad reach."

In its reasoning in favor of the jailbreaking exemption, the Copyright Office rejected Apple's claim that copyright law prevents people from installing unapproved programs on iPhones.

Jailbreak

"When one jailbreaks a smartphone in order to make the operating system on that phone interoperable with an independently created application that has not been approved by the maker of the smartphone or the maker of its operating system, the modifications that are made purely for the purpose of such interoperability are fair uses," the ruling stated.

"While some consumers may welcome the elimination of these copyright protections when considering new applications and features for their wireless devices, they still need to review the terms of service from their carrier and device manufacturer since altering the underlying source code may void the manufacturer's warranties and adversely affect how the device operates on a wireless network," said Michael Altschul, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of CTIA-The Wireless Association.

The new rules, of course, don't apply just to the iPhone. They also clear the way for jailbreaking of Motorola, Samsung or other manufacturers' phones, which may have exclusive apps. The operating system on Motorola's Droid X cannot be changed and Samsung's Captivate can install apps only from the Google and AT&T; Marketplace.

The bottom line of the government ruling, says EFF, is that the previous rules were not designed to protect consumers.

"The Copyright Office recognizes that the primary purpose of the locks on cell phones is to bind customers to their existing networks, rather than to protect copyrights," said Granick. "The Copyright Office agrees with EFF that the DMCA shouldn't be used as a barrier to prevent people who purchase phones from keeping those phones when they change carriers. The DMCA also shouldn't be used to interfere with recyclers who want to extend the useful life of a handset."

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BPA Found in Grocery Receipts

Suspect chemical used to coat thermal paper for register receipts

BPA Found in Grocery Receipts...



Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a chemical used in plastic containers that some studies suggest is a health hazard. Now, it turns out BPA can even be found in the receipt you get after a trip to the store, a fast-food outlet or even the Post Office.

Laboratory tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a consumer group, have reportedly found high levels of BPA on 40 percent of receipts sampled from major U.S. businesses and services, including outlets of McDonald's, CVS, KFC, Whole Foods, WalMart, Safeway and the U.S. Postal Service.

Receipts from Target, Starbucks, Bank of America ATMs and other important enterprises were BPA-free or contained only trace amounts.

The total amounts of BPA on receipts tested were 250 to 1,000 times greater than other, more widely discussed sources of BPA exposure, including canned foods, baby bottles and infant formula, the group said.

"These data should not be interpreted to suggest that policymakers shift their focus from BPA contamination of food, which is widespread, to receipts," EWG said in a statement. "BPA exposure from food sources is ubiquitous and should remain the first priority of U.S. policymakers. However, a significant portion of the public may also be exposed to BPA by handling receipts. Since many retailers do not use BPA-laden thermal paper, this particular route of exposure is easy to correct."

BPA is a plastic hardener and synthetic estrogen that has been linked by some researchers to a long list of serious health problems. It's used to coat thermal paper used by major retailers, grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations, fast-food restaurants, post offices and automatic teller machines (ATMs). The chemical reacts with dye to form black print on receipts handled by millions of Americans every day.

Environmental Working Group (EWG) collected receipts from various locations in seven states and the District of Columbia and had them tested by the University of Missouri Division of Biological Sciences laboratory, which has the capability to detect environmentally relevant amounts of BPA.

Rubs off

Wipe tests conducted by the lab easily removed BPA, indicating that the chemical could rub off on the hands of a person handling the receipt, the group says.

Scientists have not determined how much of a receipt's BPA coating can transfer to the skin and from there into the body.

A study published July 11 by scientists with the Official Food Control Authority of the Canton of Zrich in Switzerland found that BPA transfers readily from receipts to skin and can penetrate the skin to such a depth that it cannot be washed off. This raises the possibility that the chemical infiltrates the skin's lower layers to enter the bloodstream directly, EWG said.

Last fall the National Institutes of Health said it would launch a new study to examine the safety of BPA , and the findings could result in recommendations for further curbs on its use.

In March, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it may add BPA to the agency's list of chemicals of concerns and require testing of its impact on the environment.

Concerns

Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it had "some concerns" about the health impacts BPA had on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.

Animal studies have shown the chemical can cause reproductive and developmental problems and may also affect the endocrine system, the EPA said. Other studies have linked BPA exposure in humans with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and reproductive issues.

Some scientists have also told ConsumerAffairs.com that children and developing fetuses are especially vulnerable to potential adverse health effects from BPA exposure.

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Payday Lender to Refund $305,446 in West Virginia

Company sued for violating state's ban on payday lending

Payday Lender to Refund $305,446 in West Virginia...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.Com

July 26, 2010
FFD Companies uses the Internet to market its payday loans to consumers across the country, including to at least 576 consumers in West Virginia.

But West Virginia sued the payday lender, accusing it of violating state law that keeps payday lenders out. In a settlement with West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw, FFD will pay refunds totaling $305,446.53 to 576 affected West Virginia consumers and has promised not to do business in the state.

"Payday loans are not solutions but treacherous traps that can lead to financial ruin for the many West Virginians facing difficult financial circumstances," said McGraw. "We will not rest until all payday lenders agree, as the FFD Companies have now done, to stop marketing these predatory payday loans over the Internet to West Virginia consumers."

West Virginia is one of a handful of states that have outlawed payday loans by imposing an interest rate cap on loans. Payday loans are high-interest loans or cash advances with interest rates that reach as high as 600 to 800 percent APR. The loans, typically made for 14 days, are secured by a post-dated check or an agreement authorizing electronic debits from the consumer's checking account.

Earlier charges

McGraw sued FFD Companies in November 2009, charging the defendants had engaged in the making and collection of Internet payday loans in violation of West Virginia law. Since McGraw began investigating the industry in 2005, he said his office has reached settlements with 107 Internet payday lenders and their collection agencies, resulting in $2,452,978.87 in refunds and canceled debts for 8044 West Virginians.

As negotiated by the Attorney General's Consumer Division, the settlement involves eight corporations under the FFD umbrella and their principals, with offices in Delaware, Georgia, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, and Utah. The FFD Companies and websites that entered into the agreement include: FFD Ventures, LP of Carson City, NV, and Atlanta, GA; DFD Ventures, LP of Carson City; First Fidelity, Inc. of Carson City, Wilmington, DE, and Atlanta; FFD Resources I d/b/a Cash Supply of Espanola, NM, and Atlanta; FFD Resources II, LLC d/b/a Web Payday of Atlanta; FFD Resources III, LLC d/b/a Payday Services of Salt Lake City, UT, and Atlanta; FFD Resources IV, LLC d/b/a Payday Yes of Wilmington; FFD Resources IV, LLC d/b/a Paper Check Payday of Wilmington; and Great American Credit Management of Atlanta and Houston, TX.

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P&G; Recalls Prescription Cat Food

Iams Veterinary Formulas lot may have Salmonella contamination

P&G Recalls Prescription Cat Food...


Procter & Gamble (P&G;) is recalling two specific lots of its prescription renal dry cat food as a precautionary measure. The company says it has the potential to be contaminated with salmonella.

The recalled product is identified as Iams Veterinary Formulas Feline Renal 5.5 lbs; lot code 01384174B4; UPC code 0 19014 21405 1.

This product is available by prescription through veterinary clinics throughout the U.S.

No illnesses have been reported. A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) analysis identified a positive result on the lot codes listed above. Lot codes can be found in the lower right corner on the back of the bag.

Consumers who have purchased dry cat food with this code should discard it.

People handling dry pet food can become infected with Salmonella, especially if they have not thoroughly washed their hands after having contact with surfaces exposed to this product.

Pets with Salmonella infections may have decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain. If left untreated, pets may be lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever and vomiting.

Infected but otherwise healthy pets can be carriers and infect other animals or humans. If your pet has consumed the recalled product and has these symptoms, you should contact your veterinarian.



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Hyundai Readies the Equus -- Price Tag: $50,000+

Korean automaker hopes to make a statement with its Euro-killer

Hyundai & Kia have had a couple of great years, selling economical little cars with a generous warranty, but is anyone really ready to pay more than $50,00...


photo of EquusSure, Hyundai and its little brother Kia have had a couple of great years, selling economical little cars with a generous warranty, but is anyone really ready to pay more than $50,000 for a high-end Hyundai?

Hyundai thinks so, and is busily readying its September launch of the Equus -- Latin for "horse" -- a limited-edition luxury sports sedan that the company says is aimed at male drivers in their mid-50s who have household incomes between $100,000 and $125,000.

"They are people that can afford to spend more but don't see the need to," said Chris Perry, marketing chief for Hyundai North America in an Automotive News story about the new model -- guys who could buy a Porsche but don't want to be ostentatious, in other words. Oh, and also guys who don't feel the necessity of having a car that will go 150 miles per hour.

It might sound unrealistic but Hyundai had very good luck with its Genesis luxury sedan two years ago and it's not hard to find Hyundai customers who've had a good experience with the mid-range Sonata and might be good prospects to move up a notch or two.

"I'd buy another Hyundai in a heartbeat," said a Washington, D.C. motorist we spotted. He was driving a six-year-old Hyundai Sonata that had more than 90,000 miles on the clock and, other than a bashed-in rear bumper courtesy of an inattentive truck driver, he reported no problems of any kind despite years of daily stop-and-go commuting through the massively congested Northern Virginia-D.C. corridor.

Hyundai is certainly not without its detractors, though. Frank of Wesley Chapel, Fla., sold his BMW 7-series sedan in late 2009 and bought a Genesis, then Hyundai's top-of-the-line model.

His judgment? "Nothing short of a nightmare," he said in his complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com, which chronicled a lengthy series of problems beginning with the radio and ending with major engine problems.

Free iPad

Hyundai is working to make the car appeal to what marketers call "early adopters." Among other little touches, its owners manual will be an interactive, courtesy of a full-featured iPad that comes with the car. Besides reading up on all the car's features, owners will be able to use the iPad to schedule service visits and do all the other stuff you can do with an iPad.

Sounding like an Infiniti executive a decade or two ago, Hyundai Motor America CEO John Krafcik says the launch of the Equus "has driven us to create an innovative customer experience designed to save our customers time ... We'll use what we learn from Equus to upgrade the customer experience for all Hyundai owners."

Sales expectations for the Equus are modest. The company says it expects to sell about 2,000 per year, compared with the 12,900 Genesis models it sold in the first six months of this year. The Genesis is more moderately priced at $33,800 and was launched in part to raise the perception of Hyundai in the United States.

Krafcik has told automotive writers that the company is aiming the Equus at consumers who might otherwise buy a Merecedes S-class, BMW 7-series or a Lexus LS. It's not hard to go north of $70,000 for any of those cars, so in that sense Hyundai is continuing to offer a big price break.

But while it may be priced right, the Equus bears little resemblance to the more modest Hyundai econoboxes that have become a familiar sight on U.S. streets and highways. The big, four-door, rear-drive sedan is powered by a 4.6-liter Lambda V-8 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. It might seem odd to be introducing a gas-hog V-8 in a year when most manufacturers are going the other way but Hyundai has a long contrarian history, so it may just pull it off.

 

 

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Government Grant Scam Hits Ohio

Tried and true scheme is making the rounds again

"Since early June, my office has received more than a dozen reports of Ohioans who were targeted by scammers posing as grant officers," Ohio Attorney Gener...


The "government grant scam" is one of the oldest tricks in the schemer's book. But that doesn't mean it isn't still very effective.

The scam, in which victims are promised "free" money from the government, has shown up recently in Ohio.

"Since early June, my office has received more than a dozen reports of Ohioans who were targeted by scammers posing as grant officers," Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray said. "Many of the calls appear to originate in the 202 area code. This creates an illusion of legitimacy because 202 is a Washington D.C. area code."

The reported scams are reaching consumers through phone calls, e-mails and letters sent through the U.S. Postal Service. All use the term "grant" and most require the recipient to pay a percentage upfront before acquiring the "free" money.

"Scammers are targeting Ohioans who are in a weakened position. It's an approach that preys upon the desperation and hope of struggling individuals, and it is reprehensible," Cordray said.

Cordray offers the following tips to avoid the "grant" scams:

• Be wary of mailings that appear to be from federal, state or other governmental agencies. Don't assume that a letter or postcard is actually from the government just because it uses words such as "federal," "stimulus package" or "grant." Even if the sender's name sounds official or legitimate, the originator might be phony.

• To determine if a letter, e-mail message or service is really from the government, contact the government agency in question from a number you know to be correct. For example, log onto the agency's actual Web site, such as www.irs.gov, and use a phone number or e-mail address suggested on the site.

• NEVER send money to a stranger through a wire transfer service. Don't trust requests for advance fees or upfront payment.

Because of the recent bank bailout activity by the Federal Reserve, many scammers claim that new laws also provide little-publicized funds for individuals. No such laws exist.

Some scam ads feature a picture of President Obama, or say that Obama is providing federal money to individuals for certain uses. That's not true. Much paperwork is required to receive any government grant.

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California DAs Open Investigation into Goldline

New York Congressman also calls for investigation into gold coin company

California DAs Open Investigation into Goldline...

Fox News personality Glenn Beck is nothing if not controversial.

He raised eyebrows last July when he said that President Obama "has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture." In 2005, he said he was "so sick of" families who lost loved ones on September 11 "because they're always complaining."

Now, the conservative firebrand's penchant for stirring the pot seems to be rubbing off on one of his sponsors.

Two California district attorneys have announced that they are investigating Goldline International, which makes hundreds of million dollars a year by selling gold coins during conservative broadcasts, including Beck's.

"There are two main types of complaints we're seeing," Adam Radinsky, an attorney with the Santa Monica City Attorney's Office, told ABC News on Monday.

"One is that customers say that they were lied to and misled in entering into their purchases of gold coins. And the other group is saying that they received something different from what they had ordered."

Radinsky's office, along with the Los Angeles County District Attorney, is looking into over 100 consumer complaints about Goldline and Superior Gold Group, both based in Santa Monica.

Congressional investigation?

At least one congressman is raising concerns as well.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, of New York, told ABC that Goldline is tricking consumers into buying so-called "collectible coins," which aren't worth as much as pure gold. "Once they get people on the phone, they basically steer them into these so-called collectible coins and that's where the rip off becomes really profound," Weiner said.

And indeed, ABC found several consumers who say they were basically coerced into buying coins that turned out to be worth much less than what they paid for them. Joe Kismartin, a 63-year-old Detroit resident, told the network that he thought the gold would be a good investment.

"I told the gentleman I don't want coins," Kismartin told ABC. "He said I got the deal here, the special deal, I got Swiss coins. He more or less talked me into buying the coins."

Unfortunately, those coins -- for which Kismartin paid $5,000 -- turned out to be worth a mere $2,900.

Playing to the audience

Goldline's main selling point -- that gold is a beacon of security in an otherwise unpredictable economy -- dovetails nicely with Beck's broadcasts, which hew to an anti-government, even conspiratorial tone. Last August, addressing claims that the health care bill contained provisions for medication-rationing "death panels," Beck said, "I believe it to be true."

The company is not shy about its affiliation with leading conservative figures. Its website quotes Beck as calling it "a top-notch organization," and boasts that "Mark Levin, Fred Thompson, and Laura Ingraham" -- three other conservative talk show hosts - "trust and use Goldline for their gold."

Beck, for his part, said the allegations were part of a plan by the government to "nudge the gold industry out of business. They can't have people buying gold," Beck said on his radio program on Wednesday. "They need to own all the gold. They're going to nudge us. Mark my words."

Consumers with complaints about Goldline can contact the Santa Monica City Attorney's office.

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Storm Chasers Can Do Big Damage to Your Pocketbook

Bad weather brings out hordes of scam artists offering fast, cheap repairs

Storm Chasers Can Do Big Damage to Your Pocketbook...


With bad weather plaguing much of the country, homeowners need to be alert for home repair scams. Along the Gulf Coast, price-gouging laws are going into effect as Tropical Storm Bonnie churns towards shore.

In an emergency situation, consumers needing home repairs are more vulnerable to scams, said Janet Jenkins, Administrator of the Wisconsin Division of Trade and Consumer Protection. We call such scam-artists Storm Chasers.

Sometimes these contractors arrive on scene shortly after the storm, collect money up front for promised repairs, and then disappear without doing any work; or the contractor starts the work and then asks for more money than the agreed-upon price to finish the project.

Storm Chasers are typically from out-of-state, have little or no background in home repair, and charge ridiculous prices for shoddy work.

The Wisconsin officials offered these timely tips:

• Be wary of any contractor who knocks at your door. Call the police or sheriffs department to check them out.

• Try to get a local contractor. Ask contractors if they are subcontracting your job. Be careful if local contractors are using outside subcontractors.

• Get lien waivers from anyone you pay for home repairs. It is necessary to do this because if the person collecting the money doesnt pay the supplier or worker, a lien could be put on your property.

• Get a written contract, with a start and completion date, and warranty information. Also make certain the contract states exactly what work is to be done and what materials are to be used. Never rely on verbal commitment.

• Contractors that register with the state are issued a card. Make sure any contractor you are considering hiring shows you their state registration card.

• Have someone watch the work being done. Ask your local building inspectors to visit your job site often.

• Request a copy of the contractors certificate of liability insurance.

Price-gouging

In Louisiana, price-gouging laws went into effect following the state of emergency declaration from Governor Bobby Jindal in response to Tropical Storm Bonnie.

Price gouging is when a seller prices merchandise much higher than is reasonable or fair. The price gouging statutes prohibit the raising of prices above the pre-emergency levels unless there is a national or regional market commodity shortage.

This means that gasoline, petroleum products, hotels, motels, and retailers are prohibited from raising prices during this state of emergency unless they incur a spike in the price of doing business. The price gouging laws carry both civil and criminal penalties.

Louisiana residents and visitors who suspect price gouging should contact the Louisiana Attorney Generals Office at 800-351-4889.



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Bi-Partisan Lawmakers Introduce Universal Reform Bill

Broadband would be classified as universal service

Bi-Partisan Lawmakers Introduce Universal Reform Bill...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 23, 2010
If you have long distance service, you pay into the Universal Service Fund, established by Congress in the early 20th century to expand telephone service to rural areas.

Since rural America currently enjoys telephone service, wouldn't it make more sense to use that money to expand broadband services to rural areas? Lawmakers in both parties think it might.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, and Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) have introduced the Universal Service Reform Act of 2010. They say the measure would improve and modernize the Universal Service Fund (USF) by reining in the size of the fund and promoting broadband deployment.

"The Universal Service Fund is broken," Boucher said. "Consumers currently pay more than thirteen percent of long distance revenues into the fund and have at times this year contributed over fifteen percent. Our legislation is a comprehensive and forward-looking measure, which will control the spiraling growth of the Universal Service Fund while ensuring that sufficient universal service support is available on a technology-neutral basis to the carriers which rely on it to provide service."

"The measure will expand who pays into the fund, control the growth of the fund and modernize the fund by allowing its use for the deployment of high-speed broadband service," said Terry.

Expanding broadband

The legislation declares broadband to be a universal service and requires universal service fund recipients to offer high-speed broadband services throughout the areas where they receive support. The measure recognizes that it may not be economical to serve the most remote areas with wireline technologies and permits the resale of satellite broadband to ensure broadband availability in those places.

"The current Universal Service fund has failed to keep up with the changing telecommunications landscape," said Terry. "This bill is a comprehensive approach that will ensure high speed broadband service is available to many more customers in Nebraska and across the nation, especially in rural areas."

Providers generally welcomed the bill. Verizon issued a statement congratulating Boucher and Terry for updating the Universal Fund for the broadband era.

"They recognize the universal service program was designed for a different time and that with consumers shouldering its ever-increasing costs, reform is overdue," the company said in a statement.

"We agree that universal service reform is necessary and look forward to working with Congressmen Boucher and Terry to make certain that the universal service program serves the needs of 21st century consumers, who are increasingly relying on their wireless services and products for everything from health to learning," said CITI, an association representing wireless providers.

Competitive bidding

Boucher and Terry say their bill will limit universal service support in areas where there is competition among providers of voice and broadband services and direct the Federal Communications Commission to adopt a competitive bidding process to determine which wireless carriers will receive universal service support.

The measure also directs the FCC to establish and implement performance goals for each universal service fund program and to determine the appropriate methodology for audits of universal service fund recipients.

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U.S. Homes Are Getting Smaller

Energy conservation said to be behind the downsizing

U.S. Homes Are Getting Smaller...


Not only is the average American home getting cheaper, it's also getting smaller.

While home prices have declined from their 2006 highs during the real estate bubble, builders have started delivering less square footage on new homes. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) says the size of new U.S. single-family homes completed in 2009 dropped to a nationwide average of 2,438 square feet, reversing a trend of the past three decades.

New single-family homes were almost 100 square feet smaller in 2009 than they were in 2007, according to recently released U.S. Census Bureau data. What's behind the trend? The need to deliver more affordable homes is one reason, perhaps, but according to NAHB, not the main one.

The builders say one reason homes are getting smaller is homeowners want to keep energy costs in check. This growing energy-efficiency consciousness is one of many trends that the association said was likely to continue.

Despite the tendency towards a smaller footprint, overall energy usage has been growing. One reason could be the spread of air conditioning.

Census Bureau data show that fewer than half of all new single-family homes completed in 1973 had air conditioning while nearly nine-out-of-ten new homes were air conditioned.

Regional differences

Not surprisingly, there are regional differences in those nationwide findings. The proportion of homes with air conditioning ranged from a low of 69 percent in the West to a high of 99 percent in the South. The Northeast and Midwest were at 75 percent and 90 percent, respectively.

Still, even as energy use climbs, so does energy efficiency.

"Residential Energy Consumption Survey," a U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) report released in 2005, confirms that while both floor size and overall energy consumption have been trending upwards for decades, energy consumption per square foot has been dropping.

The survey shows that new households were smallest from 1970 to 1979, averaging 1,863 square feet. They steadily increased through 2005, according to the EIA report.

Likewise, overall household energy consumption was lowest from 1980 to 1989, but has been rising ever since. However, even as residences have grown, the amount of energy used per square foot has declined from 51.8 Btu per square foot before 1940 to only 33.4 Btu per square foot in structures built from 2000 to 2005.



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Credit Card Reform Act Working, Report Finds

But warns on new trend that could cost consumers

Credit Card Reform Act Working, Report Finds...

July 22, 2010
While it was predicted that the new Credit CARD Act passed last year would create some unforeseen problems for consumers, the new law appears to be working, according to the Pew Health Group's Safe Credit Cards Project.

At least, so far.

The group's report says most of the practices deemed "unfair" or "deceptive" by the Federal Reserve have disappeared from new credit card offers since federal passage of the CARD Act. However, the group warns, new trends have emerged that could cost cardholders significantly.

The report finds issuers have eliminated practices such as "hair trigger" penalty rate increases (disproportionate charges for minor account violations), unfair payment allocation, and raising interest rates on existing balances. However, Pew's research also highlights a sharp rise in cash advance fees, continued widespread use of other penalty interest rates and an emerging trend of credit card companies failing to disclose penalty interest rates in their online terms and conditions.

"While it's been less than a year since passage of the Credit CARD Act, the new law appears to be working for millions of Americans who have credit cards," said Shelley A. Hearne, managing director of the Pew Health Group. "The elimination of most of the 'unfair' or 'deceptive' practices of the credit industry since we last surveyed the marketplace marks a major milestone in the move to make credit cards safer, transparent and more fair for consumers. Most of the news is good, but we are seeing the rise of new harmful behavior."

The Pew Safe Credit Cards Project said it has examined all consumer credit cards offered online by the nation's 12 largest banks and 12 largest credit unions. Together these institutions control more than 90 percent of the nation's outstanding credit card debt. For this latest report, which measures how the industry has changed since the passage of the Credit CARD Act, Pew gathered data in March 2010 on nearly 450 cards.

Findings

• Many of the most troublesome practices of the credit card industry have been eliminated. A credit card issuer can no longer unilaterally decide to raise interest rates on existing balances. Likewise, practices including "hair trigger" penalty rate increases, unfair payment allocation, and over-limit fees without prior consent are a thing of the past. Earlier Pew research found that before the implementation of the law, 100 percent of the credit cards surveyed included at least one of these practices.

• Beyond the requirements of the new law, there are new practices that benefit consumers. Fewer than 25 percent of all cards examined had an over-limit fee, compared with more than 80 percent of cards in July 2009. Additionally, mandatory arbitration clauses, which can limit a consumer's right to settle disputes in court, are now found in 10 percent of cards versus 68 percent in July 2009.

• Predictions that legislation would spawn the growth of new fees have yet to materialize. There was minimal change in the number of cards that include an annual fee (down one percentage point from July 2009 to March 2010). During that period, the median size of these fees increased from $50 to $59 for banks and from $15 to $25 for credit unions.

• Some disclosures stopped including the size of penalty interest rates even as issuers reserved the right to impose them. At least 94 percent of bankcards and 46 percent of credit union cards came with interest rates that could go up as a penalty for late payments or other violations. But nearly half these warnings failed to inform the consumer of the actual penalty interest rate or how high it could climb.

"Although we applaud changes by the card industry to create a fairer and more transparent marketplace, our research shows that some challenges remain," said Nick Bourke, director of Pew's Safe Credit Cards Project and report co-author. "For the first time, we have seen credit card disclosures warning consumers that interest rates could go up as a penalty for certain actions, but not stating how high those rates could go. Federal regulators should pay attention to this problematic new trend. When issuers withhold vital pricing information, it leaves cardholders in the dark and puts their financial security at risk, which is why federal regulations have long required issuers to disclose their rates and fees up front."

Disclosure

The report concludes that federal bank regulators should enforce existing regulations that require companies to disclose full and reliable credit card penalty rate information. It also says the Federal Reserve should prohibit issuers from charging penalty interest rates that are higher than initially disclosed when the consumer opened the card account.

The report also shows that surcharge fees for cash advances rose sharply between July 2009 and March 2010. Bank cash advance and balance transfer fees increased on average by one-third during this period, from three percent of each transaction to four percent. Credit union cash advance fees went up by one quarter, from two percent to 2.5 percent.

Other pricing data are also included in the report, showing recent increases in a variety of credit card interest rates and fees.

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Oversight of Modification Program Faulted

Program suffered from lack of simple objectives, lawmakers told

Oversight of Modification Program Faulted...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 22, 2010
It's no secret that the Obama administration's home mortgage modification program, which was designed to help troubled homeowners avoid foreclosure, was a big disappointment. And maybe it isn't a surprise, either.

Neil Barofsky, inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) told Congress Wednesday the Treasury Department failed to set clear goals for the administration's modification program.

"It's a simple recommendation that we made, that Treasury put forth how many people it truly expects to help stay in their houses through permanent modifications," Barofsky told the Senate Finance Committee.

The numbers speak for themselves. Of the millions who have applied for a loan modification over the last 15 months, fewer than 400,000 have been granted permanently modified loans. Early projections were that three to four million homeowners who were struggling to make payments would receive lower interest rates or reduced principal, helping them avoid foreclosure.

Consumer frustration with the modification process, managed by participating loan servicers, has been well documented on the pages of ConsumerAffairs.com.

From the beginning of the process, homeowners reported remarkably similar problems; lost paperwork, requests to fax the same documents multiple times, speaking with a different mortgage officer each time, and a perceived sense of both indifference and incompetence on the part of the servicer.

Falling through the cracks

Guy of Jackson, South Carolina, reported a typical experience last year in trying to work with Nationstar, the mortgage servicer that bought his Ditech loan.

"We were told what documents were needed and how to send them to Nationstar," Guy told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Those documents were readied and I faxed all eight pages to Nationstar. My fax machine printed the confirmation.

But several months passed and Guy said he was close to losing his home, without having heard from his loan servicer. "We contacted Nationstar and we were advised our loan modification process was never started because our necessary documents never arrived," he said. "I explained that I had a fax confirmation and I sent the documents months before. Nationstar advised us at that time to re-send the documents."

Elizabeth Warren, chairwoman of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the bailout and a leading candidate to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency, told the committee the program was too small and too slow.

"Fifteen months into this program, for every one family that appears to have made it to a permanent modification that's likely to stabilize that family in that home, 10 more have been moved out through foreclosure," she said. "This is a program that's behind the curve."

Warren said in many cases, loan servicers have little incentive to help a homeowner achieve a modification, since they stand to earn fees if the home eventually goes to foreclosure.

"It's just not a program that's working for homeowners," Warren said. "It's not a program in some cases that's working for investors. And most importantly, it's not a program that's working for the economy over all."

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Without A Tax Credit, Housing Slows In June

Numbers for existing home sales dip from May, but remain above 2009 levels

Without A Tax Credit, Housing Slows In June...

July 22, 2010
Selling a house got a lot harder last month, as a federal tax credit for buyers finally expired. The pace of new construction also hit the skids.

Sales of existing homes fell 5.1 percent in June from the month before, according to the National Association of Realtors. Compared with June 2009, however, sales were up nearly 10 percent.

Earlier this week, the Commerce Department reported construction of new homes fell to an eight-month low in June. Housing starts dropped five percent from May -- the lowest rate since last October.

"June home sales still reflect a tax credit impact with some sales not closed due to delays, which will show up in the next two months," said Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist. "Broadly speaking, sales closed after the home buyer tax credit will be significantly lower compared to the credit-induced spring surge. Only when jobs are created at a sufficient pace will home sales return to sustainable healthy levels."

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $183,700 in June, which is 1.0 percent higher than a year ago. Distressed homes were at 32 percent of sales last month, compared with 31 percent in May; it was also 31 percent in June 2009.

A parallel NAR practitioner survey shows first-time buyers purchased 43 percent of homes in June, versus 46 percent in May. Investors accounted for 13 percent of sales in June, little changed from 14 percent in May; the remaining purchases were by repeat buyers. All-cash sales were at 24 percent in June compared with 25 percent in May.

Total housing inventory at the end of June rose 2.5 percent to 3.99 million existing homes available for sale, which represents an 8.9-month supply at the current sales pace; there was an 8.3-month supply in May.

Too many homes for sale

"The supply of homes on the market is higher than we'd like to see. But home prices are still holding their ground because prices had already overcorrected in many local markets," Yun said. "Raw unsold inventory remains 12.7 percent below the record of 4.58 million in July 2008."

Single-family median existing-home prices were higher in 10 out of 19 metropolitan statistical areas reported in June in comparison with June 2009. In addition, existing single-family home sales rose in 12 of the 19 areas from a year ago while two were unchanged.

Existing condominium and co-op sales slipped 1.5 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 670,000 in June from 680,000 in May, but are 20.5 percent higher than the 556,000-unit pace in June 2009. The median existing condo price5 was $180,100 in June, which is 1.4 percent below a year ago.

Northeast sales remain strong

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Northeast rose 7.9 percent to an annual level of 960,000 in June and are 17.1 percent above June 2009. The median price in the Northeast was $244,300, down 1.2 percent from a year ago.

Existing-home sales in the Midwest dropped 7.5 percent in June to a pace of 1.23 million but are 11.8 percent higher than a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was $155,900, down 0.1 percent from June 2009.

In the South, existing-home sales fell 6.5 percent to an annual level of 2.01 million in June but are 11.0 percent above June 2009. The median price in the South was $163,600, unchanged from a year ago.

Existing-home sales in the West dropped 9.3 percent to an annual pace of 1.17 million in June but are 0.9 percent higher than a year ago. The median price in the West was $221,800, up 1.5 percent from June 2009.

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7 Ways You Can Spot A Scam

Scams increase during bad economic times

7 Ways You Can Spot A Scam...


In today's difficult economy almost everyone seems to be looking for ways to make more money. That includes those who aren't troubled by things like ethics or honesty.

Scammers use a variety of tactics to make their offers seem legitimate. Their initial contact usually occurs by telephone, letters, e-mails and phony websites. "They often try to convince consumers to send them money or give personal information, such as bank account numbers and Social Security numbers," says Michael S. Kappas, President and CEO, Apprisen Financial Advocates, a national nonprofit consumer credit counseling agency.

Identity theft was the number one complaint last year, according to the FTC. Over 300,000 cases were reported representing 25 percent of all complaints. And consumers reported paying almost $2 billion on those complaints.

Stay alert

Apprisen describes some common signs to look out for:

• 1. You're pressured to "act now!"

• 2. You've won a contest you've never heard of.

• 3. You have to pay a fee to receive your "prize."

• 4. Your personal information is requested.

• 5. The company refuses to provide written information.

• 6. The company has no physical address, only a P.O. Box.

• 7. The company insists you pay in cash.

Apprisen offers the following information to all consumers -- in particular senior citizens, who are favorite targets of scammers -- tips that Kappas says "will help consumers stay safe and protect their pocketbook."

Research businesses and charities

Before doing business with a company, check its reputation with the State Attorney General's Office and the Better Business Bureau.

Read the fine print

Read all the terms and conditions of any agreement before you sign. Look for exclusions. Always get warranties in writing. Review any contracts with a trusted attorney, friend or family member.

Remember your rights

Laws protect you from unfair, deceptive and unconscionable practices in consumer transactions. If you've actually won something, you don't need to send money to get it.

Reconsider the purchase

Take your time before you make a decision. Ask questions and demand answers.

Review your credit report

Many scams lead to identity theft. One of the best ways to catch ID theft early is by monitoring your credit report on a regular basis. Look for unauthorized open accounts. You can request a free copy of all three credit reports at annualcreditreport.com.

Report fraud

If you have a problem with a purchase you made, notify the company in writing. Explain your complaint, the facts of the situation, the resolution you desire, and give a deadline for the resolution. If you suspect fraud or if you cannot resolve the problem on your own, file a complaint with the State Attorney General.

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'Tabnabbing' Or 'Tabnapping' -- A New Twist On Phishing

How to keep yourself safe from a more sophisticated hacking attack

'Tabnabbing' Or 'Tabnapping' -- A New Twist On Phishing...

July 12, 2010

Just when it seemed as though the various types of phishing attacks had been identified - up pops another that is even more sophisticated. Most commonly known as "tabnabbing," it is also called "tabnapping" or kidnapping of Internet tabs.

Phishing scams typically involve sending hoax emails to your computer in an attempt to steal your usernames, passwords and bank details. Often the sender will claim to be from your bank and will ask you to verify your bank details by clicking on a link contained in the email. The link directs you to a fake website which looks like your bank's website. Once you have typed in your login details, the criminals who set up the fake site have access to your information.

How it works

Tabnabbing does not rely on persuading you to click on a fake link. It targets Internet users who open lots of tabs on their browser at the same time and changes the way a legitimate site looks behind your back.

An inactive browser tab is replaced with a fake page set up specifically to obtain your personal data -- without you even realizing it has happened. Scammers can actually detect when a tab has been left inactive for a while and spy on your browser history to find out which websites you regularly visit so they know which pages to fake.

Here is an example: You open the login page for your online bank account, but then you open a new tab to visit another website for a few minutes. This has left the original tab unattended during this time. When you return to your bank's website, the login page looks exactly how you left it, but it is again requesting that you login. This is reasonable because you just assume that you have timed out on your original login.

What you don't realize is that a fake page was substituted and when you re-enter your username and password it is not for the official bank login but for the con artist. Once you re-enter your login information, you will be redirected to your bank's website since you never actually logged out in the first place, giving you the impression that all is well. Meanwhile, the con artist has just obtained your login information and can now login to your account without your knowledge.

Beating the scammer

Tabnabbing should be fairly easy to avoid as long as you are careful. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem offers five tips for protecting yourself:

• 1. Make sure you always check to be sure the URL in the browser address page is correct before you enter any login details. A fake tabbed page will have a different URL than the website you think you are using.

• 2. Always check to make certain the URL has a secure https:// address even if you don't have tabs open on the browser.

• 3. If the URL looks suspicious in any way, close the tab and reopen it by entering the correct URL again.

• 4. Avoid leaving open tabs that require you to type in secure login details. Don't open any tabs while doing online banking. Open new windows instead.

• 5. Don't log in on a tab that you have not opened yourself.

While this type of attack on your computer could potentially be devastating, it is relatively simple to keep yourself safe online. Follow the steps outlined above and if you question a URL, close out of the site and start over again. Or simply do not leave tabs open on the Internet.

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NCAA Class Action Reinstated

Suit alleges that ticket sales system constitutes an illegal lottery

NCAA Class Action Reinstated...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 21, 2010
A federal appeals court has reinstated a class action brought by angry basketball fans, which claims that the NCAA's system of distributing Final Four tickets constitutes an illegal lottery.

Under the NCAA's system, which has been in place since at least 1994, consumers enter for a chance to win tickets through one of several NCAA-owned websites. To enter, fans have to pay the full face value of the ticket, plus a $6 service fee. Each contestant is allowed up to 10 entries; obviously, more entries means a higher chance of winning a ticket.

While losing consumers are refunded the amount they paid to cover the ticket, they are forced to give up the service fee. Thus, a consumer who entered ten times over to win a $150 ticket would get back $3,060 (the total value of all ten tickets), but she would lose $60 (the $6 service fee, multiplied by ten). If the consumer won, of course, she would also forfeit the cost of the ticket.

The suit claims that the number of applicants greatly exceeds the number of tickets on virtually every occasion, and that the games are held at venues that are much too small to meet ticket demand. The complaint also alleges that the $60 service fee, which grossly exceeds any costs associated with the lottery, generates massive profits for the NCAA -- $100 million in 2008 alone.

The suit, brought in the NCAA's home state of Indiana, was dismissed by a U.S. District Court last September. In ruling for the Association, Judge William Lawrence wrote that a plaintiff could not prevail when, knowing the facts of a transaction, he nonetheless became a participant in the very action of which he complains.

In praising the dismissal, the NCAA reasserted that the system was lawful and provides full disclosure to our applicants.

But the appeals court overturned the dismissal, ruling that the plaintiffs had met all three elements of an illegal lottery in Indiana: a prize, an element of chance, and payment or other consideration by the contestants.

The court disagreed with the NCAA's assertion that the system grants only an opportunity to purchase tickets at full price, noting that the plaintiffs were required to pay the service fee just to enter the lottery, and that, [w]in or lose, the fee was forfeited by all entrants and retained by the NCAA. The court also noted that the plaintiffs allege that the fair-market value of the tickets exceeded their face value such that those tickets constitute something of more value than the amount invested, turning them into a prize of a sort that is illegal under Indiana law.

Judge Richard Cudahy penned a dissent essentially agreeing with the District Court that the plaintiffs' willing participation barred them from making a claim. He also said that the existence of a service fee is without significance to the issue at hand.

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Pennsylvania Revises Reverse Mortgage Rules

Officials feel 'particular responsibility' to older homeowners

Pennsylvania Revises Reverse Mortgage Rules...

July 21, 2010
The airwaves are becoming crowded with commercials for reverse mortgages, and officials in Pennsylvania have outlined a new set of policies on that financial instrument they say will better protect homeowners.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Banking Steve Kaplan and Secretary of Aging John Michael Hall announced new rules for the reverse mortgage industry, defining proper conduct of mortgage lenders.

Under the policy, homeowners age 62 and older who choose to acquire a reverse mortgage will deal with lenders who understand the complexity of reverse mortgages, adhere to a code of conduct and have the ability to support the loan.

"Because reverse mortgage products are specifically designed for -- and marketed to - older residents, we feel a particular responsibility to safeguard their interests by making sure that they are not unfairly taken advantage of," said Kaplan. "Our policy is designed to make these products, which can be useful to some, available under the right circumstances."

A reverse mortgage is a way to borrow money by using a home as collateral. It differs from a traditional mortgage in that homeowners need not fear the possibility that their home will be lost in foreclosure during their lifetime.

Steep price

However, the price one must pay to achieve this security is often very steep compared with other, more traditional kinds of financing.

Unlike a traditional home equity loan in which the homeowner makes monthly payments to a lender, a reverse mortgage provides the homeowner with monthly payments, a lump sum, a line of credit or a combination of these payments. A reverse mortgage allows older homeowners to withdraw equity from their homes; the money does not have to be paid back until the borrower dies, sells the home or moves out.

The most popular reverse mortgage type is the Federal Housing Administration Home Equity Conversion Mortgage, or HECM. The HECM loan limits some of the fees that can be charged and requires borrowers to receive counseling from an independent, certified agency. Homeowners may also choose a private, proprietary reverse mortgage that does not carry the same eligibility guidelines, fee limits and counseling requirements.

"While not appropriate in every situation, reverse mortgages can be an option for some older homeowners who want to keep their homes, age in place and protect their hard-earned resources," said Hall. "However, some types of loans carry increased risk to the borrower. I applaud the Department of Banking for developing safeguards to protect borrowers against bad advice and outright fraud by some lenders."

Reverse mortgage counseling is available in-person or by telephone. Homeowners can seek counseling from an agency approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Renewal, or the National Council on Aging.

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Facebook Flops In ACSI E-Business Report

Google loses luster; Bing debuts big; FOXNews.com wins best-in-show

Facebook Flops In ACSI E-Business Report...

By James Limbach
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 21, 2010
Even though it's the most popular website in America, consumers don't like Facebook, according to the 2010 American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) E-Business Report, produced in partnership with ForeSee Results.

The social networking site scored 64 on the ACSI's 100-point scale -- a satisfaction even lower than IRS e-filers. This puts Facebook in the bottom five percent of all measured private sector companies and in the same range as airlines and cable companies -- two perennially low-scoring industries with terrible customer satisfaction.

"Facebook is a phenomenal success, so we were not expecting to see it score so poorly with consumers," said Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee Results. "At the same time, our research shows that privacy concerns, frequent changes to the website, and commercialization and advertising adversely affect the consumer experience. Compare that to Wikipedia, which is a non-profit that has had the same user interface for years, and it's clear that while innovation is critical, sometimes consumers prefer evolution to revolution."

Given the complaints about Facebook received by ConsumerAffairs.com, the low score should not come as a surprise.

"Why can't I communicate with a human who works for Facebook?" wonders Peter of Maridcao, Puerto Rico. "I have complained about a false profile which someone keeps putting up. For some reason FB can't shut down this person. Why do I have to suffer through this?"

Mohamed of Redmond, WA, tells ConsumerAffairs.com, "Facebook disabled my account without giving me any notification, and when I asked them why they did that, they refused to tell me the exact reasons. I asked them to delete all my data on their servers (since they disabled my access to it), but they also refused to do so."

First-time ratings

Social media websites were measured for the first time by ACSI, and the category includes Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia and YouTube. Twitter was not included in the social media category because a disproportionate number of users access Twitter through third party applications other than the website Twitter.com. Wikipedia leads the category at 77, followed by YouTube at 73, Facebook at 64 and MySpace at 63.

"Social media has become too big to ignore, so we added it to our list of e-business measures," said Claes Fornell, ACSI founder and professor of business at the University of Michigan. "We are quite surprised to find that satisfaction with the category defies its popularity."

Google plunged seven percent, but continues to lead the portals and search engines industry with a score of 80. It is just the second time that Google ceded its top spot, as the "all others" category of search engine competitors jumped five percent to 82. Microsoft's Bing search engine made a strong first showing with a score of 77, trailed by Yahoo! (76), AOL (74), and Ask.com (73).

Rikva from Monticello, NY, has a gripe with Google. "My telephone number is listed in Google as Wal-Mart. I hope you understand that I receive constant phone calls," she writes ConsumerAffairs.com. "I am a busy mother of 12 children and I came to rest for the summer here in upstate New York. It is absolutely ruining my vacation."

Pablo from Salt Lake City, UT, tells ConsumerAffairs.com that his Dell XPS400 computer has all major components linked and set to operate with a Google toolbar that is built into his program and systems. "In other words," he writes, "I bought a 'Google computer set up with a Dell Logo.' If I delete the Google tool bar I loose Internet Explorer and many other features needed on my computer for it to work. I tried to delete the bar but there is a warning message saying your computer may not start properly if you remove these files... WHAT TO DO??"

"Google may be suffering from trying to be too many things to too many people, but it still has the most loyal following with 80 percent of its users citing Google as their primary search engine," said Freed. "That said, Bing's first measure is impressive and could put some pressure on Google. The new search engine is already making gains in market share and using clever marketing and advertising to distinguish itself from the market leader."

Fox shows strong

In the news and information category, FOX News now dominates its competition online as well as on TV. FOXnews.com debuted at the top of the industry with a score of 82, the highest score any news site has received in nine years of measurement. FOX News' cable news competitors MSNBC.com (74) and CNN.com (73) trail in satisfaction as well as ratings. All major news websites improved, including newspaper websites for USATODAY.com (+4 percent to 77) and NYTimes.com (+4 percent to 76).

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U.S. Grand Jury Investigating Toyota

Probe focuses on faulty power steering problem from 2005

U.S. Grand Jury Investigating Toyota...



Japanese carmaker Toyota may have bigger problems than just a string of expensive recalls and a wave of bad PR.

The company disclosed that a U.S. grand jury in New York has subpoenaed company documents related to flaws in vehicle steering systems. It's possible that criminal charges could result.

A Toyota spokesman said the company is cooperating with the grand jury but would not discuss any specifics concerning the investigation.

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

The recall included the 1989-1996 model years and included power-steering equipped 4Runner sport utility vehicles and compact pickups and T-100 pickups. In May, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced it was investigating that recall, suggesting Toyota might have violated rules for informing safety regulators about vehicle problems.

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

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

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

Pre-2004 complaints

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

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

It's unclear whether the NHTSA investigation, and that of the New York grand jury, are connected. Though the company has never been hauled before a grand jury in the U.S., Toyota has faced a criminal investigation in Japan.

In 2006 three Toyota Motor Corp. executives who were quality-control managers were the focus of a criminal investigation in Japan into whether they downplayed reports of steering problems at the automaker in the mid-1990s. The steering flaw was cited as the possible cause of a serious accident in Japan that eventually led to a recall by Toyota of more than one million vehicles last year.

Five people were injured, one of them seriously, in Kumamoto in August 2004 when the steering of a Toyota Hilux Surf SUV failed and it hit another vehicle. The SUV was built in 1993.

Most recent recall

At the end of May, Toyota was still dealing with the problem, recalling Prius models from the same era to fix a similar power steering defect. The recall applied to the second-generation model of the hybrid car and covered vehicles made between July 2003 and December 2005.

Toyota said the fault was in a steering shaft, which Toyota said could crack if the steering wheel is turned forcefully or if the car is driven onto the curbing while parking.

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U-Haul Settles Price-Fixing Charges

Company invited competitor Budget to collude on truck rental prices

U-Haul Settles Price-Fixing Charges...

 

U-Haul International, Inc. and its parent company have settled Federal Trade Commission charges that they invited U-Hauls closest competitor, Avis Budget Group, Inc., to collude on prices for truck rentals.

U-Haul and Budget control more than 70 percent of the do-it-yourself one-way truck rental business in the United States. If U-Haul had succeeded in its price-fixing plan, the two companies could have imposed higher prices on truck-rental consumers, according to the FTC.

Its a bedrock principle that you cant conspire with your competitors to fix prices and shouldnt even try. Consumers deserve better. The order announced today will ensure that U-Haul will not try it again, said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz when the tentative settlement was reached in June. It was made final today by a 5-0 vote of the commission.

The FTCs complaint alleges that on several occasions between 2006 and 2008, U-Haul tried to increase rates for one-way truck rentals by privately and publicly communicating with Budget, the second-largest truck rental company in the United States. However, the complaint does not allege that U-Haul and Budget actually reached an agreement.

As alleged in the complaint, the problems started after U-Hauls CEO and Chairman Edward J. Shoen discovered in 2006 that competition from Budget was forcing U-Haul to lower prices on its one-way truck rentals. In two companywide memos in 2006, Shoen acknowledged the problem and provided a solution.

For example, Shoen wrote: Budget continues in some markets to undercut us on One-Way rates. Either get below them or go up to a fair rate. Whatever you do, LET BUDGET KNOW. Contact a large Budget Dealer and tell them. Contact their company store and let the manager know.

At the same time, the FTC charges, Shoen told local U-Haul dealers to talk to their counterparts at both Budget and Penske another truck rental competitor and tell them that U-Haul had raised its one-way rates, and that they should now match U-Hauls higher rates.

Budget declined

The complaint alleges that Shoen invited Budget to collude again in 2008 after Budget declined to match U-Hauls price increases this time, during a conference call with industry analysts. During the call, Shoen made statements suggesting that U-Haul would raise its rates, and would maintain the new rates so long as Budget did not respond by price cutting in a way that took market share from U-Haul. He added that Budget need not match the U-Haul prices exactly, but could lag behind by three to five percent.

The settlement order against U-Haul and its parent company AMERCO bars them from colluding or inviting collusion. Specifically, the companies are prohibited from inviting a competitor to divide markets, allocate customers, or fix prices, as well as participating in, maintaining, organizing, implementing, enforcing, offering, or soliciting any other company to engage in such conduct. The order also includes monitoring and compliance provisions to ensure U-Haul and AMERCO comply with its terms. It will expire in 20 years.

 

 



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Amazon.com Says E-Books Outselling Hardcovers

Trend is reflected in industry data as well, online retailer says

Amazon.com Says E-Books Outselling Hardcovers...

July 20, 2010
People who purchase books from Amazon.com apparently prefer to receive their reading material electronically. The online retailer reports e-books outsold hardcovers by 43 percent over the last three months.

The company also announced that sales of its Kindle device accelerated each month in the second quarter -- both on a sequential month-over-month basis and on a year-over-year basis.

"We've reached a tipping point with the new price of Kindle -- the growth rate of Kindle device unit sales has tripled since we lowered the price from $259 to $189," said Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon.com. "In addition, even while our hardcover sales continue to grow, the Kindle format has now overtaken the hardcover format. Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books -- astonishing when you consider that we've been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months."

Bezos said the U.S. Kindle Store now has more than 630,000 books, including new releases and 106 of 110 The New York Times Best Sellers. Over 510,000 of these books are $9.99 or less.

E-book sales explosion

Over the past three months, for every 100 hardcover books Amazon.com has sold, it has sold 143 Kindle books. Over the past month, for every 100 hardcover books Amazon.com has sold, it has sold 180 Kindle books, the company said.

The e-book trend has been building over time. Amazon says it sold more than three times as many Kindle books in the first half of 2010 as in the first half of 2009. Industry data also reflect the e-book trend. The Association of American Publishers' latest data report that e-book sales grew 163 percent in the month of May and 207 percent year-to-date through May.

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Massachusetts Sues Credit Repair Companies

Part of continued crackdown on operations exploiting economic distress

The State of Massachusetts has taken legal action against two individuals who charged illegal upfront fees and allegedly made false promises to fix the con...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 20, 2010
The State of Massachusetts has taken legal action against two individuals who charged illegal upfront fees and allegedly made false promises to fix Massachusetts consumers' credit reports through their credit repair businesses.

The individuals operate under the business names of Credit Score Rebuilders and Integrity Credit Restoration.

The lawsuit, filed against Reilly Silvia of West Barnstable and Bonnie Souza of Norton, alleges that since January 2008, the pair advertised services purporting to improve consumers' credit reports and credit scores by removing or correcting negative information on the consumers' credit report.

Souza and Silvia conducted their operations under the business names of Credit Score Rebuilders and Integrity Credit Restoration. The pair also allegedly unlawfully charged fees prior to performing the credit repair services they promised, failed to include legally required information in the written materials and contracts provided to consumers in violation of state and federal law governing credit repair services, and made false statements to the credit bureaus in relation to consumers' credit histories.

"It is becoming an all too common practice for individuals and businesses to try and profit off of consumers in economically vulnerable situations," said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. "In many instances, consumers turn to these businesses to try to save their homes and their credit, and instead they end up in even worse financial straits by paying for services that are not delivered."

Wild claims

Credit repair scams have proliferated with a worsening economy. Some of these operations make promises and guarantees that simply aren't true. For example, a Florida credit repair operator recently ran afoul of the Federal Trade Commission for telling consumers that bankruptcies, judgments, slow pay history, repossessions, and collection accounts "can legally be erased!"

These firms typically charge from $300 to $1,000, including an advance fee ranging from $75 to $150, and a monthly fee that they often debit from consumers' bank accounts.

After paying the fees, consumers find that these credit repair services rarely, if ever, deliver the promised results. In many instances, they take consumers' money without providing any services. Consumers often find their cancellation requests ignored, and their refund requests are almost always denied.

The Massachusetts Attorney General's Office is seeking a preliminary injunction prohibiting Silvia and Souza from continuing these practices and from destroying any records or transferring assets.

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Suit: LG Refrigerator Lights Won't Turn Off

Leads to hot food, melted plastic, fire hazard

A class action lawsuit says that the interior light of certain LG refrigerator models stays on after the doors are closed, leading to spoiled food and melt...

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Household Cleaning Products May Play Role in Breast Cancer

Study of Massachusetts women finds high use of cleaning products doubles breast cancer risk

Household Cleaning Products May Play Role in Breast Cancer...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 20, 2010

Being a fastidious housekeeper may not be without its risks. A study published in the international journal Environmental Health found that women who used the most household cleaning products had double the rate of breast cancer as those who used the fewer cleaners.

Researchers conducted telephone interviews with 787 Masachusetts breast cancer patients aged 60 to 80 years old in Massachusetts, and compared them to 721 women who did not have breast cancer.

"Women who reported the highest combined cleaning product use had a doubled risk of breast cancer compared to those with the lowest reported use," said study leader Dr Julia Brody, of the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass. "Use of air fresheners and products for mold and mildew control were associated with increased risk. To our knowledge, this is the first published report on cleaning product use and risk of breast cancer."

Many pesticides, household cleaners and air fresheners contain ingredients known to trigger breast cancer in animals, said the researchers. Some also contain endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that could theoretically affect the growth of estrogen-sensitive breast cells.

Hormone-disruptors such as synthetic musks and phthalates were commonly used in air fresheners, said the scientists. Air fresheners may also contain chemicals called terpenes which can react with ozone in the air to form cancer triggers such as formaldehyde, benzene and styrene, they added.

"Although exposure levels may be low and EDCs are typically less potent than endogenous hormones, limited knowledge of product formulations, exposure levels and the biological activity and toxicity of chemical constituents alone and in combination make it difficult to assess risks associated with product use," the researchers wrote.

The scientists acknowledged that their results might be swayed by "recall bias" because they depended on answers to questions about activities in the women's past; they called for more extensive research into the question.

"Because exposure to chemicals from household cleaning products is a biologically plausible cause of breast cancer and avoidable, associations reported here should be further examined prospectively," the researchers concluded.

Industry objects

Not surprisingly, the makers of household cleaning products were unhappy with the study. The American Cleaning Institute (ACI) calls the study questionable and said it "overreaches in its conclusions."

"Simply put, this research is rife with innuendo and speculation about the safety of cleaning products and their ingredients," said Richard Sedlak, ACI's Senior Vice President of Technical and International Affairs. "This is all based on the most cursory look at the scientific literature and the recollection of breast cancer survivors as to the products they used 15 to 20 years ago."

"Unfortunately, this work sheds little light on the real causes of breast cancer," he said.



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Protecting Yourself From ID Theft

You needn't buy expensive products to keep your identity safe

Protecting Yourself From ID Theft...

July 19, 2010
With identity theft on the rise, there is no shortage of outfits offering products or services claiming to help you keep your information safe. The editors of Consumer Reports Money Adviser (CRMA) say you don't need really need these things. In fact, CRMA's experts say most of these products are unnecessary or ineffective, or they duplicate things you can do yourself -- for free.

The experts at CRMA offer the following steps on how to protect yourself from identity theft:

Get serious, not scared. Don't let the horror stories freak you out. The worst-case scenario -- when someone opens new credit card accounts or commits other crimes using your name, Social Security number or other information -- is relatively uncommon. That nightmare happened to less than one percent of all U.S. households in 2005, the most recent year for which data are available.

The most common form of ID theft is old-fashioned credit card fraud and check-kiting, with someone fraudulently accessing your credit-or-debit card account. It affects about four percent of households. In most cases, your liability is legally limited, and credit-card issuers or banks pay the direct losses, not you. Most victims suffered no out-of-pocket costs last year. But you can protect yourself by taking these low-tech, common sense precautions:

• Never give your Social Security number or other information to strangers who call, text, or send e-mail messages to you even if they sound legitimate. And don't write your Social Security number on checks (except those that you send to the IRS), noncredit applications, or other forms.

• Don't post your date of birth, mother's maiden name, first pet's name, or other personal information on websites like Facebook, Flickr, Friendster, LinkedIn, MySpace, or Twitter. They're often used to verify your identity and could allow an imposter electronic access to your accounts.

Place security freezes and fraud alerts. You can shut out ID thieves before they cause damage by placing a security freeze on your credit reports at all three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. It will prevent anyone from looking at your credit report except for the companies that already have a financial relationship with you. To sign up for one, go to each bureau's home page and look for the security-freeze link.

A security freeze is an excellent deterrent against fraud, but like all deterrents, it isn't fail-safe. Some creditors -- like payday lenders -- will give credit without getting a credit report. If you haven't placed a security freeze and you spot a sign of identity theft, put an initial fraud alert on your credit report immediately. That's fast, free and stays in place for 90 days. It also gives you additional legal protection. After that, request a security freeze.

Secure your devices. If you access the Internet on your computer, you probably already know about the need for a firewall; regularly updated anti-virus, anti-spyware, and anti-phishing software; and strong passwords with upper-and lower-case letters, numerals, and symbols like #, &, and $. But you might not think about other wide-open doors to your identity. Make sure your smart phone, iPad, other mobile devices, and portable flash drives containing personal data have security applications and encryption in case they're lost or stolen.

Stop unsolicited creditcard offers. One way crooks steal your name is by swiping pre-approved credit offers from your mailbox to open an account. They can then watch your mailbox to lift the new card you didn't know was coming. You can stop credit bureaus from selling your name to lenders by going to www.optoutprescreen.com or calling 888-567-8688.

Monitor accounts often. You don't have to wait for your monthly credit-card or checking account statement to look for suspicious activity, if you're especially concerned. For added protection, sign up for online access to your accounts and check them regularly, even daily. And don't assume that the paper checks listed are legit. Crooks can tap into your funds using fabricated checks with a fictitious name, address, and bank -- as long as they use your real account number.

Monitor your telephone bills (landline and cellular) to find any unauthorized "cramming" charges for phony services and purchases. As cell phones increasingly become mobile payment devices, fraudulent charges are showing up there, too.

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National Owner of Gas Stations Resolves ADA Claims

Justice Department and QuikTrip reach comprehensive settlement

National Owner of Gas Stations Resolves ADA Claims...

The Justice Department (DOJ) has reached a comprehensive settlement under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with QuikTrip Corporation, a private company that owns and operates more than 550 gas stations, convenience stores, travel centers, and truck stops in the Midwest, South and Southwestern United States.

Under the consent decree, which was filed along with a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, QuikTrip will create a $1.5 million compensatory damages fund for individuals who were victims of discrimination based on disability, as well as take various steps to make its stores accessible.

The Justice Department opened the investigation in response to complaints about inaccessible parking by two individuals with disabilities in the Omaha, Neb., area. The DOJ lawsuit says the investigation revealed a nationwide pattern and practice of discrimination on the basis of disability. QuikTrip worked with the department to amicably resolve the matter without active litigation.

"On July 26, 2010, we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the ADA, a landmark civil rights law that ensures equal access and equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities," said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. "Ensuring full and equal access to all businesses open to the public is a top priority, and the Justice Department is committed to vigorous enforcement of the ADA to ensure equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities."

Settlement terms

Under the settlement, which remains subject to court approval, QuikTrip Corporation will:

• Make necessary modifications at its current stores over a three year period to achieve compliance with ADA accessibility requirements. QuikTrip has retained an independent licensed architect approved by DOJ to certify compliance with the ADA architectural standards for each of its current stores;

• Design and construct future stores so they comply with the ADA architectural standards and obtain a certification of ADA compliance for each future store from the independent licensed architect or a construction manager who has been trained by the architect on ADA compliance issues;

• Ensure that at least two fueling positions at each of its current stores and all fueling positions at each store opened after the entry of the consent decree are accessible to individuals with disabilities -- including the fuel dispenser controls, self-service payment mechanism, call button and amenities. At QuikTrip stores opened after approval of the consent decree, two fuel dispensers will be on the shortest accessible route to the store entrance;

• Adopt, implement and train store employees on policies to ensure fueling and other types of indoor and outdoor assistance for people with disabilities, equal access for individuals who use service animals, and maintain accessible features, such as accessible parking and routes;

• Ensure and maintain operation of remote notification systems for outdoor assistance after an initial testing and upgrade of notification systems that may take up to six months;

• Implement and maintain an ADA comment line and complaint resolution process and take appropriate corrective actions to resolve ADA-related complaints received from customers;

• Ensure the accessibility of its website;

• Pay a maximum civil penalty in the amount of $55,000;

• Create a $1.5 million compensatory damages fund to compensate the complainants and other aggrieved individuals who make timely claims to the Justice Department. Claims must be received within 180 days of entry of the consent decree by the court.

The consent decree was reached under Title III of the ADA, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities by businesses that are open to the public, including gas stations, convenience stores, and other retailers, both large and small.

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T-Mobile Settles Cramming Charges With Florida

Will take additional steps to protect consumers

Bill McCollum said T-Mobile will continue its practice of issuing credits and refunds to consumers for unauthorized charges for third-party mobile content ...

When T-mobile customers in Florida started complaining about unauthorized charges showing up on their bills, the company said it wasn't to blame - it was simply passing on "sales" by third parties.

But after the Florida Attorney General's office intervened, T-Mobile has agreed to do more. The company has agreed to a settlement in which it will protect consumers from third-party "cramming," including charges for "free" ringtones and other cell phone content customers either did not order or did not realize would result in a monthly charge.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum said T-Mobile will continue its practice of issuing credits and refunds to consumers for unauthorized charges for third-party mobile content subscription purchases. As part of the agreement, the company will provide a clear and conspicuous notice to all consumers of their continuing ability to obtain refunds.

Cell phone content includes ringtones, music, wallpaper, horoscopes and other material that is often promoted by online marketers as "free," but ultimately ends up costing up to $19.99 a month. The charges appear on a subscriber's monthly wireless bill and are usually recurring. The bill charges often appear under indiscernible names such as "OpenMarket," "M-Qube" or "M-Blox."

Complaints

McCollum said a large number of complaints about cramming led to an investigation which revealed that thousands of Florida consumers had received these charges on their cell phone bills for mobile content downloads that they neither knowingly authorized nor wanted.

Prior to the investigation, T-Mobile offered its customers the ability to block third-party mobile content and to implement parental controls free of charge. The investigation and subsequent settlement have been negotiated by the Attorney General's CyberFraud Section of the Economic Crimes Division.

T-Mobile has agreed to continue using the standards previously established by the Attorney General's Office for advertising on websites, prohibiting the use of the word "free" without clear disclosure of the actual price and requiring all content providers and advertisers to clearly and conspicuously disclose the true cost of cell phone content.

These compliance standards, which include website design restrictions for online advertisers, will ensure consumers see and understand the terms and conditions of the purchase. T-Mobile will continue to enforce these standards through its contracts with all content providers and advertisers nationwide.

As part of the settlement, the company will pay a total of $600,000 to reimburse the state for the costs of its investigation and to help the Attorney General's Office fund the efforts of the CyberFraud Section as it continues working toward similar reform across the industry. The agreement was negotiated with full cooperation from T-Mobile.

 

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Consumers Warned About Amazon.com Scam

Email appears to be from online retailer, but isn't

Amazon.com said it never asks for Social Security numbers, tax identification numbers or other personal information as part of its transactions....

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KFC 'Free Lunch Coupon' Suit Moves Forward

Suit charges KFC chickened out on offer aired on Oprah

Soon after the offer was announced, KFC became overwhelmed with customers trying to cash in the coupons and, in short order, stopped honoring them....

KFC is not entitled to dismissal of a lawsuit concerning a ham-handed coupon offer last year, a federal judge in Chicago has ruled.

The suit, filed in February, stems from an incident on May 5, 2009, when talk show host Oprah announced that viewers had 24 hours to download a coupon good for a free grilled chicken meal, consisting of two pieces of grilled chicken, a biscuit, and two side dishes.

Soon after the offer was announced, KFC became overwhelmed with customers trying to cash in the coupons and, in short order, stopped honoring them. According to the suit, consumers printed over 10 million coupons, but only 4.5 million were ever redeemed. The complaint alleges that many restaurants refused to honor more than 100 coupons per day, although they continued to sell the same meals after the limit had been reached.

The suit notes that KFC stopped the promotion altogether on May 7, 2009 -- two days after it was announced, and told consumers that they could apply for a rain check online.

U.S. District Judge James Holderman denied KFC's motion to dismiss, ruling that the plaintiffs state a plausible claim for common law fraud.

KFC and Yum! Brands Inc., its parent company, insist that the rain check offer nullifies the plaintiffs' claim for breach of contract. Judge Holderman rejected that argument out of hand, saying it is plausible [that KFC] intended all along to offer a 'rain check' in place of the coupon, or otherwise limit redemption of the coupon beyond the terms stated on its face.

Fast food might be cheap, but the plaintiffs' claims add up to a substantial amount. Given that the meals in question are worth around $4 each, and 5.7 million consumers were allegedly turned away, KFC is facing $23 million in potential liability.

No free lunch

The lesson for fast-food restaurants might be to never offer a free lunch during a recession.

The incident set off a firestorm last September, when a group of unhappy diners arranged a protest at the annual African Festival of the Arts in Chicago.

In addition to its coupon-related complaints, the group also took issue with KFC ads featuring African Americans dancing around and clucking like chickens for their 'finger-lickin' chicken,' and with the chain's use of the song 'Sweet Home Alabama' -- a song defending the Confederacy and Alabamas racist history -- to promote KFC.

The protesters' website, BoycottTheColonel.com, is still up, although it hasn't been updated since before the planned The suit also alleges that the grilled chicken contains rendered beef fat and beef powder, which KFC apparently didn't include in ads for the product.

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Senate Gives Final Approval to Financial Reform Bill

What will the new law mean for consumers?

Senate Gives Final Approval to Financial Reform Bill...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.Com

July 16, 2010
After months of debate and compromise, the U.S. Senate has passed the "Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act" that supporters say will protect consumers from hidden fees and investment scams and require the financial industry to provide clear information so consumers can make the best financial decisions.

The House has already passed the measure, which will now be signed into law by President Obama.

How will the measure affect consumers? Almost as much as it affects businesses, supporters say.

Consumer protection

It establishes a first-of-its-kind regulator, whose sole job will be consumer financial protection -- cracking down on abusive lending and financial practices including mortgages, credit cards, payday loans and bank accounts. Mortgage reforms include requirements that borrowers provide evidence of their ability to repay mortgages, and prohibitions on compensating lenders for steering consumers into higher-cost loans.

For consumers who are also investors, it seeks to ensure accountable, transparent derivatives trading: Nearly all derivatives will have to be exchange traded and cleared, so trades have enough money backing them and regulators can spot problems before they threaten the entire economy. Commercial banks will be prohibited from trading in some of the riskiest swaps. Supporters say it will strengthen reform by closing the loophole to ban all swaps trading by taxpayer-backed commercial banks.

It adopts the so-called "Volcker Rule," named for the former Federal Reserve chairman who proposed it, It limits banks' ability to speculate with taxpayer-insured deposits, and prohibits financial companies from betting against their clients. Supporters say it closes the loophole to ban all speculation with taxpayer-backed funds.

It begins to tackle "too-big-to-fail," creating a new system to break up, rather than bail out, failing financial firms and make banks pay the bill. It will set strict size and leverage limits, and rebuild the walls between investment and commercial banks.

Wall Street oversight

"This bill sets the wheels in motion to replace the failed deregulatory policies of the 1990s with real oversight of Wall Street," said Carmen Balber, Washington Director for Consumer Watchdog.

AARP said it supports the legislation because it will establish a watchdog that will protect consumers from getting a mortgage or credit card that has hidden fees that cause their bills to skyrocket; ensure Americans get the clear, accurate information they need to shop for mortgages, credit cards and other financial products; and crack down on investment scams targeted at older Americans.

"Over the last three years, older Americans have lost billions of hard earned dollars due to the failure of an outdated and compromised financial regulatory system," said AARP Maryland senior state director Rawle Andrews. "The failures that led to this crisis require bold action to restore responsibility, accountability and consumer confidence in our financial system, and this bill will protect Americans' money and help stabilize our entire economy."

Heather McGhee, Director of Demos' Washington DC office who supported efforts to pass the bill, said the reform will help middle class consumers.

Greater security

"After the new consumer regulator opens its doors, Americans will open a checking account or apply for a loan with greater security because their lender will be accountable to basic standards of fairness and transparency," McGhee said. "Investors will know that their broker-dealers are acting in their interest. Businesses hedging risk will know the real price of the derivatives contracts they buy. And if we have truly independent regulators with the will to stop reckless speculation, those regulators will have the power and tools to do so."

Michael D. Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending, also hailed Senate passage of the law, saying will help end a nightmare for many American families.

"People will get loans they can afford to repay, and principles of fairness and value in financial products will trump easy money and self-enrichment," Calhoun said. "The new regulatory framework will go far to reduce risky practices and restore common-sense in financial services."

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Feline's Pride Expands Nationwide Recall of Cat Food Products

Natural Chicken Formula cat food recalled due to Salmonella contamination

Feline's Pride Expands Nationwide Recall of Cat Food Products...

July 16, 2010
Feline's Pride is expanding its July 1, 2010, voluntary recall of Feline's Pride Raw food with ground bone for cats and kittens, Natural Chicken Formula, Net Wt. 2.5 lbs. (1.13 kg., 40 oz.) produced on 6/10/10. It now includes the product produced on 6/21/10, because it may be contaminated with Salmonella.

People handling raw pet food can become infected with Salmonella, especially if they have not washed their hands thoroughly after having contact with the raw pet food or any surfaces exposed to the product.

Variety of symptoms

When consumed by humans, Salmonella can cause an infection, salmonellosis. The symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, minimal diarrhea, fever, and headache. Certain vulnerable populations -- children, the elderly, and individuals with compromised immune systems -- are particularly susceptible to acquiring salmonellosis from such pet food products and may experience more severe symptoms.

Pets with Salmonella infections may be lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Some pets will have only decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain. Infected but otherwise healthy pets can be carriers and infect other animals or humans. If your pet has consumed the recalled product and has these symptoms, please contact your veterinarian.

The product is packaged in uncoded plastic containers and sold frozen to private consumers nationwide. Once thawed, the pet food has a shelf life of about 1 week. The firm manufactures the pet food by an as-ordered basis. This expansion of the recall affects those orders placed and shipped from June 21 through June 26, 2010 (produced on 6/21/10).

The firm and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are investigating this matter to determine the source of this problem, and will take any additional steps necessary to protect the public health. To date, there have been no reports of Salmonella infection relating to this product.

People who are experiencing the symptoms of Salmonella infection after having handled the pet food product should seek medical attention, and report their use of the product and illness to the nearest FDA office.

Preventing infection

Consumers should thoroughly wash their hands after handling the pet food -- especially those made from raw animal protein such as meat or fish -- to help prevent infection. People may risk bacterial infection not only by handling pet foods, but by contact with pets or surfaces exposed to these foods, so it is important that they thoroughly wash their hands with hot water and soap.

The above-mentioned vulnerable populations should avoid handling this product.

Anyone with questions should contact the company at (716) 580-3096, Monday -Friday from 10 am - 4 pm EDT.



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Pace Of Foreclosures Slows in First Half of 2010

'Massive' number of distressed properties sit below the surface

Pace Of Foreclosures Slows in First Half of 2010...

July 15, 2010
For those judging the health of the housing market by the number of foreclosures, there may be a bit of good news, tempered with a nagging concern.

In a report covering the first half of 2010, the foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac says the number of foreclosure filings was up eight percent over the first half of 2009, but were down five percent from the previous six months.

The company's Midyear 2010 U.S. Foreclosure Market Report shows a total of 1,961,894 foreclosure filings -- default notices, auction sale notices and bank repossessions -- were reported on 1,654,634 U.S. properties in the first six months of 2010.

The report also shows that 1.28 percent of all U.S. housing units (one in 78) received at least one foreclosure filing in the first half of the year. It signals a definite slowdown in foreclosures.

Foreclosure filings were reported on 313,841 U.S. properties in June, a decrease of nearly three percent from the previous month and a drop of nearly seven percent from June 2009. June was the sixteenth straight month where the total number of properties with foreclosure filings exceeded 300,000.

Foreclosure filings were reported on 895,521 U.S. properties during the second quarter, a decrease of nearly four percent from the previous quarter and an increase of less than one percent from the second quarter of 2009. Default and auction notices were down on a quarter-over-quarter and year-over-year basis in the second quarter, but bank repossessions (REOs) increased five percent from the previous quarter and 38 percent from Q2 2009 to 269,962 -- a new quarterly high for the report.

Two trends

"The second quarter was a tale of two trends," said James J. Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac. "The pace of properties entering foreclosure slowed as lenders pre-empted or delayed foreclosure proceedings on delinquent properties with more aggressive short sale and loan modification initiatives. Meanwhile the pace of properties completing the foreclosure process through bank repossession quickened as lenders cleared out a backlog of distressed inventory delayed by foreclosure prevention efforts in 2009."

According to Saccacio, the midyear numbers put the U.S. housing market on pace to exceed three million properties with foreclosure filings by the end of the year, and more than 1 million bank repossessions. But for the housing market to improve, there needs to down a downward trend in foreclosures, indicating a return of stability. To date, that hasn't happened.

"The roller coaster pattern of foreclosure activity over the past 12 months demonstrates that while the foreclosure problem is being managed on the surface, a massive number of distressed properties and underwater loans continues to sit just below the surface, threatening the fragile stability of the housing market," Saccacio said.

Nevada, Arizona, Florida post top state foreclosure rates

Nearly six percent of all Nevada housing units (one in 17) received at least one foreclosure filing in the first half of 2010, giving Nevada the nation's highest foreclosure rate during the six-month period despite decreasing foreclosure activity. A total of 64,429 Nevada properties received a foreclosure filing from January to June, a decrease of 13 percent from the previous six months and a decrease of 6 percent from the first six months of 2009.

Arizona registered the nation's second highest state foreclosure rate in the first half of 2010, with 3.36 percent of its housing units (one in 30) receiving a foreclosure filing, and Florida registered the nation's third highest state foreclosure rate, with 3.15 percent of its housing units (one in 32) receiving a foreclosure filing during the six months.

Other states with foreclosure rates ranking among the nation's 10 highest were California (2.54 percent), Utah (1.91 percent), Georgia (1.79 percent), Michigan (1.73 percent), Idaho (1.68 percent), Illinois (1.61 percent), and Colorado (1.40 percent).

California, Florida, Arizona post highest foreclosure totals

A total of 340,740 California properties received a foreclosure filing in the first half of 2010, the nation's highest total but down 15 percent from the previous six months and down nearly 13 percent from the first six months of 2009.

With 277,073 properties receiving a foreclosure filing in the first six months of 2010, Florida documented the second highest state total. First-half foreclosure activity in Florida decreased nearly 9 percent from the previous six months but increased three percent from the first half of 2009.

Arizona's 91,484 properties receiving a foreclosure filing in the first six months of 2010 was the third highest state total even though the state's foreclosure activity decreased nearly two percent from the previous six months. Arizona foreclosure activity in the first half of 2010 was still up nearly two percent from the first half of 2009.

Other states with first-half totals among the 10 highest in the country were Illinois (85,223), Michigan (78,509), Georgia (71,949), Texas (64,883), Nevada (64,429), Ohio (59,927), and New Jersey (36,542).

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Pottery Barn Kids Recalls Drop-Side Cribs

Pottery Barn Kids Recalls Drop-Side Cribs...


Photo of recalled cribs

Pottery Barn Kids is recalling about 82,000 drop-side cribs. The cribs drop-sides can detach when hardware breaks, creating a space into which a young child can become entrapped, which can lead to suffocation. A child can also fall out of the crib. Drop side incidents also occur due to incorrect assembly and with age-related wear and tear.

CPSC and Pottery Barn Kids have received 36 reports of drop sides that have malfunctioned or detached, resulting in seven minor injuries when children fell out of the cribs or got their legs caught between the mattress and the drop side. One child became entrapped at the head between the drop side and crib mattress but was freed without injury.

This recall involves all Pottery Barn Kids drop-side cribs regardless of the model number. Pottery Barn Kids is printed on a label attached to the crib headboard or footboard.

The cribs were sold through the Pottery Barn Kids catalog, www.potterybarnkids.com, and at Pottery Barn Kids retail stores nationwide from January 1999 through March 2010 for between $300 and $600. They were made in Canada, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia and Italy.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled cribs, inspect the hardware to make sure it is not broken, and contact Pottery Barn Kids to receive a free fixed-gate conversion kit that will immobilize the drop side.

For additional information, contact Pottery Barn Kids at (877) 804-3847 between 7 a.m. and midnight 7 days a week or visit the firms website at www.potterybarnkids.com.

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

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Lottery Scammer Draws Prison Time

Canadian man's racket targeted elderly Americans

Lottery Scammer Draws Prison Time...


A Vancouver, British Columbia, man has been sentenced to nine years in federal prison for running a fraudulent lottery scheme that targeted dozens of elderly Americans who lost at least $600,000.

Henry Anekwu, 43, received the sentence from United States District Judge John F. Walter, who also ordered him to pay $510,840 in restitution to his victims.

During the sentencing hearing, Judge Walter noted that Anekwu showed no remorse for his victims, who suffered "devastating consequences" as a result of his fraudulent conduct.

Anekwu was convicted in April of 10 counts of mail fraud committed through telemarketing and six counts of wire fraud committed through telemarketing. He ran the lottery scheme out of two Canadian companies he owned -- Platinum Award, Inc. and Capital Award, Inc.

Victim shakedown

The evidence presented at his trial showed that Anekwu -- from 1998 through 2003 -- employed telemarketers who contacted potential victims in the United States to falsely inform them they had won a lottery. Victims were advised that they were required to pay taxes or fees prior to collecting the lottery winnings. Victims wrote checks to the fraudulent lottery companies in amounts ranging from $475 to $60,000.

"If a victim sent money, [Anekwu] or the telemarketers he employed would call the victim back over and over again, demanding more and more money, even encouraging the victims to borrow money and/or mortgage their homes," prosecutors wrote in their sentencing brief filed with the court. None of the 79 identified victims ever received any lottery winnings, and several victims lost their homes as a result of this scheme.

At the sentencing hearing, Judge Walter said it was "painful" to listen to the trial testimony of victims, who were both financially and emotionally devastated by Anekwu's crimes.

Two years after Anekwu was indicted by a federal grand jury, he was arrested in Canada in 2005 by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Anekwu was extradited to the United States in December 2009 after the Supreme Court of Canada rejected his appeal of his extradition.

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Palm Treo Phones Defective, Suit Says

Suit contains similar allegations to 2005 complaint

Palm Treo Phones Defective, Suit Says...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 14, 2010
A class action suit filed last week says that two Palm Treo smartphone models are junk, and that the manufacturer isn't doing enough to address consumers' complaints.

The suit, filed in the circuit court of Cook County, Illinois, says that the premium-priced Palm Treo 700 series and ... 755p hand-held devices are saddled with malfunctions and problems. Specifically, the suit alleges that the phones freeze or lock up, requiring the owner to turn the phone off, remove and reinstall the battery, and turn the phone back on again, an annoying routine to perform on a regular basis. Worse, the defect can wipe out user data like phone numbers and photos.

The complaint also says that the phones have poor sound quality, rendering them difficult or impossible to use, and that it can be difficult to view or download documents or attachments from email or the internet.

According to the suit, Palm markets the Treos as speedy, state-of-the art smartphones, and boasts on its website that, [w]ith this easy-to-use productivity device in hand, you can stay connected on your terms.

When Palm started hearing about the problem from customers, according to the suit, it simply replaced the broken phones with more of the same model. As a result, the plaintiffs cycled through numerous Treo Phones, none of which provided the functionality and quality that such phones are supposed to provide.

Instead of fixing the problem, Palm chose to continue peddling its inventories and intentionally replace[] defective Treo Phones with equally defective Treo Phones, according to the complaint. This creates a system in which consumers continue to receive defective products until they either tire of the process or their warranties run out.

Suit resembles previous action

The suit also says that Palm has taken no action to effect a lasting fix of the defects, despite having received scores of complaints from consumers. The complaint also points out that Palm has provided class-wide compensation to owners of older Treo models, a claim that appears to reference a 2008 settlement involving the Treo 600 and 650 models. That settlement provided a cash rebate to Treo users who had to replace or repair their phones at least twice.

That suit, filed in 2005, contained allegations strikingly similar to those in the Illinois complaint, including frequent restarts, the loss of stored information, and poor sound quality. That suit also said that Palm replaced defective phones with equally defective refurbished phones of the same model.

ConsumerAffairs.com has received several complaints that seem to echo the claims in the suit. As Nicole of Marina Del Ray, CA, wrote in 2008:

"I have had problem after problem with the palm treo. I have been given one defective replacement after another. I have lost work and clients due to these problems."

Elaine of Warsaw, IN, had a similar experience:

"I purchased a new palm centro online through the palm store. This phone was unlocked and the cost was 299.99. After I recieved this phone it froze within the first 3 days. The phone was sent back and a new one was sent to us. I have had this phone for 4 months and am now having problems with it again. The palm store requires the phone to be sent in (at my expense) to be analyzed and repaired. This will take approx. 7 days. (7 days without my only form of commucation). This is unacceptable.

The suit covers anyone who bought or received, under warranty, a Treo 700 series or 755p phone. Consumers in California are excluded from the class. The complaint charges Palm with breach of express and implied warranty, violations of the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act, unjust enrichment, and violations of several California state statutes.

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Toyota Blames Drivers In Some Acceleration Cases

Safety investigators still continue their probe, however

Toyota Blames Drivers In Some Acceleration Cases...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 14, 2010
After reviewing nearly 2,000 cases of sudden, uncontrolled acceleration events reported by drivers of its cars, Toyota says it has found no problem in the vehicle electronics that control the throttle.

In some of the cases, the carmaker said, it has evidence that the driver mistook the accelerator for the brake.

Toyota elaborated on a subject raised Wednesday when The Wall Street Journal reported U.S. safety investigators had reached a similar conclusion.

The newspaper quoted sources within the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as saying that, in a few of the reported cases of sudden acceleration, a review of the electronic event recorder showed the car's throttle was wide open while there was no pressure applied to the brakes.

Since the incidents of uncontrolled acceleration began to occur, Toyota attributed many to driver error. When Audi vehicles were investigated two decades ago for similar reasons, safety investigators concluded that drivers, in most case, slammed on the accelerator when they believed they were applying the brakes.

NHTSA

After launching an investigation of reports of sudden acceleration in Toyotas during the early 2000s, NHTSA reported in 2004 that it was unable to find a cause for the problem. The agency said it analyzed many of the cars involved in the mishaps and found nothing abnormal with the throttle controls.

Once again NHTSA pointed to the driver. The agency said sudden surges are sometimes caused by drivers who are unfamiliar with their new vehicles.

The Transportation Department declined to comment on the subject, noting that a NHTSA probe of Toyota's electronics system is still underway and will not be completed for several months. The agency is conducting an investigation to determine if electronics played any role in hundreds of reported incidents.

The reports of uncontrolled acceleration resulted in a massive recall of Toyota and Lexus vehicles in late 2009 and early 2010. Toyota has steadfastly maintained the problem does not lie in the electronics, but rather in the design of the accelerator pedal. The recall removed floor mats and modified the pedals in affected cars and trucks.

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Oregon Sues Countrywide Over Pension Fund Losses

Lawsuit alleges misleading tactics led to $29 million in investment losses

Oregon Sues Countrywide Over Pension Fund Losses ...


The state of Oregon is suing Countrywide Financial Corp. of Delaware and its underwriters on charges of misleading investors into buying risky mortgage-backed securities.

"Oregon is taking a stand against predatory lenders and the financial wreckage they caused for families and for investors including Oregonians," said state Treasurer Ted Wheeler. "With this lawsuit, we are attempting to recover losses from lenders that took advantage of innocent families, whose only fault was wanting to participate in the American dream and own a home."

The Oregon Public Employee Retirement Fund was induced to invest $200 million into home loans originated by Countywide, and lost $29 million as a result of misrepresentations by Countrywide and its financial underwriters, the lawsuit says.

"Oregon is currently No. 3 nationwide in foreclosures," said Attorney General John Kroger. "This lawsuit will hold the responsible companies accountable."

Oregon not alone

With this action, Oregon is partnering with the Iowa Public Employees' Retirement System, which is the lead plaintiff in the case. Along with the Oregon Public Employee Retirement System, other plaintiffs include the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits of the United Methodist Church and the Orange County Employees' Retirement System.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in California, accuses Countrywide of violating securities law by making statements to investors that were materially false and misleading because they misrepresented and/or failed to disclose information crucial to investors' ability to accurately assess the risks of their investments.

According to the lawsuit, from 2005 through 2007, Countrywide was the nation's largest residential mortgage lender originating in excess of $850 billion in home loans throughout the United States in 2005 and 2006 alone.

False claims

The lawsuit alleges that Countrywide's ability to originate residential mortgages on such a massive scale was facilitated, in large part, by its ability to rapidly package -- or "securitize" -- those loans and then, through the activities of the underwriter defendants, sell them to investors as purportedly investment grade mortgage-backed securities.

The suit says that Countrywide provided documents that falsely claimed that all the mortgage loans held in the investment fund met accepted underwriting standards for evaluating prospective buyers' credit history and ability to repay the loan when in fact they did not.

Countrywide also falsely claimed that its appraisals met acceptable standards designed to insure that the value of the property was adequate collateral for the mortgage, the lawsuit says.

Countrywide Financial Corp. is incorporated in Delaware but is based in California. The lawsuit also names underwriters Banc of American Securities LLC, Bear & Stearns Co., Inc., BNP Paribas Securities Corp., Citigroup Global Markets, Inc., Deutsche Bank Securities, Inc., Goldman Sachs & Co., Greenwich Capital Markets, Inc., J.P. Morgan Securities, Inc., Merrill Lunch Pierce Fenner & Smith, Inc., Morgan Stanley & Co., Inc. Barclays Capital, Inc., Credit Suisse Securities (USA) LLC, UBS Securities LLC, Countrywide Securities Corp., HSBC Securities (USA), Inc., Edward D. Jones & Co., L.P., and Countrywide Capital Markets.

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FTC Issues Report On Reforming Debt Collection Litigation And Arbitration

Agency says system is 'broken' -- recommends steps to repair it and protect consumers

FTC Issues Report On Reforming Debt Collection Litigation And Arbitration...

By James Limbach
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 13, 2010

A new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report concludes that the system for resolving consumer debt collection disputes is broken, and recommends significant litigation and arbitration reforms to give consumers a fair shake.

The report, "Repairing A Broken System: Protecting Consumers in Debt Collection Litigation and Arbitration," is drawn from information gathered at roundtable discussions the FTC held throughout the country in 2009, as well as public comments and the FTC's experience in debt collection matters.

The roundtables followed a February 2009 report that identified some concerns with debt collection litigation and arbitration, but concluded that more information was needed about certain debt collection litigation and arbitration practices before further recommendations could be made.

Lack of info

The report found that debt collection litigation raised concerns about collectors failing to give consumers proper notification of suits that have been filed, collectors filing suits based on insufficient evidence of indebtedness, courts frequently granting default judgments against consumers who do not appear or defend themselves, collectors seeking to recover on debts beyond the statute of limitations, and banks freezing funds in bank accounts that are exempt from garnishment by law.

Horacio of Santa Cruz, CA, has had experience with agents trying to collect on non-existent debts. He tells ConsumerAffairs.com that he got a letter from the Academy Collection Service, "saying I owe $321.71 to First USA but I don't have an account with them so what's the deal?"

Shortly after having open-heart surgery, Joseph from Asbury Park, NJ, got a call from Cynthia from ACS regarding credit card debt. "I told her that I was under a doctor's care and could not discuss this, due to the added stress, until I was released by my doctor," he says. "She proceeded to press the matter and I hung up. She called again the following day and again ignored my request to be left alone."

Joseph told ConsumerAffairs.com that when he asked Cynthia for the name of the company she worked for, its address and telephone number, "she gave me her name, the company's name, an 800 number which was not the number she was calling from. She flatly refused to give me the address or location of the company she worked for."

Fixing the problems

The Commission makes the following recommendations to address these concerns:

• States should consider adopting measures to make it more likely that consumers will defend themselves in litigation, decreasing the prevalence of default judgments.

• States should require collectors to include more information about the alleged debt in their complaints.

• States should take steps to make it less likely that collectors will sue on debt on which the statute of limitations has run.

• Federal and state laws should be changed to prevent the freezing of a specified amount in a bank account including funds exempt from garnishment.

The FTC's new report also addresses concerns about requiring consumers to resolve debt collection disputes through binding arbitration without meaningful choice, bias or the appearance of bias in arbitration proceedings, and procedural unfairness in arbitration proceedings. In its new report, the commission's principal recommendations regarding debt collection arbitration are:

• Consumers should have a meaningful choice about arbitrating debt collection disputes.

• Arbitration forums and arbitrators should eliminate bias and the appearance of bias.

• Arbitration forums should conduct proceedings in a manner that makes it more likely that consumers will participate.

• Arbitration forums should require that awards contain more information about how the case was decided and how the award amount was calculated.

• Arbitration forums should make their process and results more transparent.

The FTC said it would closely monitor debt collection arbitration and evaluate whether creditors and arbitration forums provide consumers with meaningful choice and a fair process. It also said that -- as appropriate -- it will report its views on new debt collection arbitration models to policymakers, industry, consumer groups, and the general public.

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Don't Be Scared By 'Scareware'

Fear should not be a motivating factor in protecting your computer

Don't Be Scared By 'Scareware'...


We've all seen them -- pop-up messages telling you your computer is infected with a virus. To get rid of it, all you have to do is order the antivirus software being advertised.

Before you click, though, know this: few Internet security companies use ads to tell you about a virus on your computer. Most of these pop-ups are scams, and it's one of the fastest-growing types of Internet fraud today.

These scams have a name. They're called "scareware" because they try to frighten you into purchasing fake antivirus software with a seemingly genuine security warning. But if you do try to buy this program, it will either do nothing -- or it could compromise your computer by installing malicious software onto your system. And in some instances, you don't even have to click on the pop-up box; the software downloads automatically.

Dirty tricks

Cyber criminals often use notorious botnets -- networks of compromised computers under their control -- to push out their software. They'll also masquerade as legitimate Internet security companies and buy ads on other websites -- called "malvertising" -- but when consumers click on the ads to purchase the products, they are redirected to websites controlled by the bad guys.

Indications of a potential scareware infection include:

• Windows Update fails to run.

• Other legitimate security applications won't update.

• Certain website, especially Internet security sites, won't load.

Tracking them down

Many of these criminals operate outside the U.S., making investigations difficult and complex for the FBI and its partners. But there have been successes. Just this past May, for example, three people were charged in Illinois in connection with a scheme that caused Internet users in more than 60 countries -- including the U.S. -- to buy more than $100 million worth of bogus scareware software.

Two of the defendants, including an American, are accused of running an overseas company that claimed to sell antivirus and computer performance/repair software over the Internet. A third man operated the company's Cincinnati call center, which was responsible for technical and billing support to its customers (but in reality deflected complaints from consumers who realized the software didn't work).

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Southern California Home Sales Rise In June

Market shows small signs of recovery

Southern California Home Sales Rise In June...

July 13, 2010

Despite the expiration of a federal tax credit for buyers, sales of Southern California homes increased in June, according to MDA Dataquick, a San Diego-based real estate analyst.

Home prices were slightly lower than they were in May, but were up 13 percent over June 2009.

A total of 23,871 new and resale homes were sold in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Ventura, San Bernardino and Orange counties last month. That was up 7.2 percent from 22,270 in May, and up 2.6 percent from 23,262 for June 2009.

The sales count was the highest since July last year when 24,104 homes were sold. It was the strongest month of June since 2006 when 31,602 homes sold. The average June since 1988 has had 28,086 sales.

"The market was wildly out of kilter a year ago, now it's just somewhat out of kilter," said John Walsh, MDA DataQuick's president. "We're still seeing lots of bargain hunting, and we're not seeing much discretionary buying. The single-biggest issue is still mortgage financing. Rates may be at record lows, but that doesn't mean much if the lender won't qualify you."

Still, the report shows more money was spent last month buying homes in Southern California than in the past two years, and more money was loaned.

"The tax credits had something to do with that, though it's not clear exactly how much," Walsh said. "With the impact of the credits fading fast, the next few months will tell us a lot."

Prices dip

The median price paid for a Southland home was $300,000 last month. That was down 1.6 percent from $305,000 in May, and up 13.2 percent from $265,000 for June 2009.

The low point of the current cycle was $247,000 in April 2009, the high point was $505,000 in mid 2007. The median's peak-to-trough drop was due to a decline in home values as well as a shift in sales toward low-cost homes, especially foreclosures.

Foreclosure resales accounted for 33.0 percent of the resale market last month, down from 33.9 percent in May, and down from 45.3 percent a year ago. The all-time high was February 2009 at 56.7 percent, DataQuick reported.

Government-insured FHA loans, a popular choice among first-time buyers, accounted for 39.0 percent of all mortgages used to purchase homes in June.

Last month 20.8 percent of all sales were for $500,000 or more, compared with 22.2 percent in May and 19.3 percent a year ago. Zip codes in the top one-third of the Southland housing market, based on historical prices, accounted for 29.6 percent of existing single-family house sales last month, down from 31.0 percent in May but up from 27.8 percent a year ago. Over the last decade those high-end areas have contributed a monthly average of 33.3 percent of regional sales.

Their contribution to overall sales hit a low of 21.0 percent in January 2009.

Fewer jumbos

High-end sales would be stronger, and the overall market recovery more robust, if adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) and "jumbo" loans were more available, the company noted. Both have become much more difficult to obtain since the August 2007 credit crisis.

While 43.9 percent of all Southland purchase mortgages since 2000 have been ARMs, it was 6.6 percent last month, up from 6.5 percent in May and up from 2.7 percent in June last year.

Jumbo loans, mortgages above the old conforming limit of $417,000, accounted for 17.3 percent of last month's purchase lending, up from 17.2 percent in May and from 14.9 percent in June 2009. Before the credit crisis, jumbos accounted for 40 percent of the market.

Absentee buyers - mostly investors and some second-home purchasers - bought 19.7 percent of the homes sold in June, paying a median of $220,000. Buyers who appeared to have paid all cash - meaning there was no indication that a corresponding purchase loan was recorded - accounted for 23.5 percent of June sales, paying a median $213,000. In February this year cash sales peaked at 30.1 percent. The 22-year monthly average for Southland homes purchased with cash is 14.1 percent.

The "flipping" of homes has also trended higher over the past year. Last month the percentage of Southland homes flipped - bought and re-sold - within a six-month period was 3.4 percent, while a year ago it was 1.9 percent. Last month it varied from as little as 3.0 percent in Orange and San Diego counties to as much as 3.8 percent in Los Angeles County.

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Home Buyers Continue To Turn To Foreclosures

Discounted prices draw buyers into the home sales market

Home Buyers Continue To Turn To Foreclosures...

July 13, 2010
Nearly one-third of all residential properties sold in the first quarter of 2010 were foreclosure properties, according to Foreclosure Deals, an online lister of foreclosed homes for sale. Experts at the company believe that shows that people are continuing to turn to the foreclosure market as a plentiful source of low cost homes.

With 232,950 foreclosure homes sold during the first quarter, the total is down slightly from the final quarter of 2009, and down 33 percent from the total foreclosure homes sold in the first quarter of 2009.

The drop in total sales could be an indication of a shrinking market, but falling prices over the same period show that foreclosure homes can still be purchased at prices far below the national average. The price of a foreclosure during the first quarter was 27 percent below the average sale price of a traditional home sale.

"Buyers are attracted to foreclosures because they offer tremendous discounts," said James Foxx, a business analyst with Foreclosure Deals. "The numbers show that each year, the total number of foreclosures sold has increased, and that's not just a reflection of supply. They're very popular, and for good reason, there's no better investment value in real estate currently out there."

Rising foreclosure sales

According to statistics, foreclosure home sales did increase by 25 percent from 2008 to 2009, and over 320 percent since 2007. During the first quarter, foreclosures accounted for more than 50 percent of home sales in California, Nevada and Arizona. Foreclosure homes accounted for at least 33 percent of home sales in Michigan, Massachusetts, Florida, Georgia, and Illinois.

Bank-owned and real estate owned (REO) properties accounted for 19 percent of all residential sales during the first quarter, with an average market value discount of 34 percent. Pre-foreclosure homes -- homes in default -- accounted for 12 percent.

Ohio had the highest average discount on a foreclosed home in the first quarter, at 39.5 percent below market value. Close behind were Kentucky and Illinois at 39 percent, and California and Tennessee at 37 percent.

"The statistics show that buyers and investors are getting some great deals," said Foxx. "And you don't have to buy in the really tough markets, like Las Vegas, NV or Phoenix, AZ to find them."

The average discount on a foreclosure home nationwide has risen from 21 percent to 27 percent since 2006.

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Salsa And Guacamole Common Source of Contamination

Trend has developed in last 20 years

Salsa And Guacamole Common Source of Contamination...


Researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have concluded that salsa and guacamole are responsible for a disproportionate amount of foodborne illnesses associated with restaurant food.

The health agency says nearly one of every 25 restaurant-associated foodborne outbreaks with identified food sources between 1998 and 2008 can be traced back to contaminated salsa or guacamole, more than double the rate during the previous decade.

"Fresh salsa and guacamole, especially those served in retail food establishments, may be important vehicles of foodborne infection," said Magdalena Kendall, an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) researcher who collaborated on the CDC study. "Salsa and guacamole often contain diced raw produce including hot peppers, tomatoes and cilantro, each of which has been implicated in past outbreaks."

To better assess the role of these popular foods in outbreaks, Kendall and her colleagues searched all foodborne outbreaks reported to the CDC for those with salsa, guacamole or pico de gallo as a confirmed or suspected food vehicle and analyzed trends in the proportion of all outbreaks with identified food sources.

No outbreaks before 1984

CDC began conducting surveillance for foodborne disease outbreaks in 1973, yet no salsa- or guacamole-associated (SGA) outbreaks were reported before 1984. Restaurants and delis were the settings for 84 percent of the 136 SGA outbreaks. SGA outbreaks accounted for 1.5 percent of all food establishment outbreaks from 1984 to 1997. This figure more than doubled to 3.9 percent during the ten-year period from 1998 to 2008.

Inappropriate storage times or temperatures were reported in 30 percent of the SGA outbreaks in restaurants or delis and may have contributed to the outbreaks. Food workers were reported as the source of contamination in 20 percent of the restaurant outbreaks.

Causes and prevention

"Possible reasons salsa and guacamole can pose a risk for foodborne illness is that they may not be refrigerated appropriately and are often made in large batches so even a small amount of contamination can affect many customers," Kendall said. "Awareness that salsa and guacamole can transmit foodborne illness, particularly in restaurants, is key to preventing future outbreaks."

The agency says risk can be lowered by following guidelines for safe preparation and storage of fresh salsa and guacamole to reduce contamination or pathogen growth.

"We want restaurants and anyone preparing fresh salsa and guacamole at home to be aware that these foods containing raw ingredients should be carefully prepared and refrigerated to help prevent illness," Kendall said.



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Researchers Tout Super-Efficient Heat Pump

Developments may make heat pumps more practical for colder climates

Researchers at Purdue University are developing a new type of heat pump that they say could allow residents in cold climates to cut their heating bills in ...


Researchers at Purdue University are developing a new type of heat pump that they say could allow residents in cold climates to cut their heating bills in half.

The research, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, builds on previous work that began about five years ago at Purdue's Ray W. Herrick Laboratories, according to James Braun, a professor of mechanical engineering.

Heat pumps provide heating in winter and cooling in summer but are not efficient in extreme cold climates, such as Minneapolis winters.

"With this technology we can maintain the efficiency of the heat pump even when it gets pretty cold outside," said Eckhard Groll, a professor of mechanical engineering who is working on the project with Braun and W. Travis Horton, an assistant professor of civil engineering.

The innovation aims to improve efficiency in general but is especially practical for boosting performance in cold climates. The new heat pumps might be half as expensive to operate as heating technologies now used in cold regions where natural gas is unavailable and residents rely on electric heaters and liquid propane.

"We'll be able to extend the geographical range where heat pumps can apply," Horton said. "So this could open up a whole new market."

Researchers expect to complete a prototype by the end of the three-year, $1.3 million project. The research, which also involves three doctoral students, is a partnership with Emerson Climate Technologies Inc. and Carrier Corp. Emerson will work with researchers to create the prototype heat pump, and Carrier will integrate the new heat pump into a complete system.

The new technology works by modifying the conventional vapor-compression cycle behind standard air conditioning and refrigeration.

Modifying existing heat pumps

"This could be a relatively simple modification to existing heat pumps, refrigeration and air conditioning systems," Braun said.

The standard vapor-compression cycle has four stages: refrigerant is compressed as a vapor, condenses into a liquid, expands to a mixture of liquid and vapor, and then evaporates.

The project will investigate two cooling approaches during the compression process. In one approach, relatively large amounts of oil are injected into the compressor to absorb heat generated throughout the compression stage. In the second approach, a mixture of liquid and vapor refrigerant from the expansion stage is injected at various points during compression to provide cooling. The added steps improve the compression process while also reducing energy losses due to friction in the expansion stage.

"Cooling the compressor keeps the refrigerant dense, and that's important because it takes less energy to compress something that's more dense," Braun said.

Precise control

The researchers are developing a system for precisely controlling the flow of refrigerant from the evaporation stage into the compression stage using a series of small valves. A critical component of the new heat pump is a "scroll compressor," which uses a rotating, scroll-shaped mechanism to compress refrigerant. Domestic heat pumps normally use reciprocating compressors, in which a piston compresses refrigerant.

"You can't inject a liquid into a reciprocating compressor, whereas you can with a scroll compressor, which is uniquely suited for this modification," Groll said. "Also, an important part of our project will be to determine the efficiency of a machine that pumps liquid while also compressing gas, so there will be a lot of computational modeling involved."

The work grew out of research into the Ericsson cycle, an exotic refrigeration technology in which liquid is added to coolant as it is being compressed. The Ericson cycle, however, does not use the vapor-compression cycle because the gas never turns to liquid.



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Protecting Wireless Customers From Bill Shock

Federal Communications Commission urged to re-time notification of additional charges

Protecting Wireless Customers From Bill Shock...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 12, 2010
When consumers sign up for a wireless plan, they expect to pay the same amount each month. But sometimes other fees kick in when they access additional services or exceed preset limits, and those fees can come as a shock.

"Rapidly changing technology, easy access to expensive wireless data services and complex billing practices regularly leave wireless phone customers with unexpected and extremely high bills," said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. "Simple protections such as usage alerts and preset cut-off mechanisms that have long been standards in other industries should be adopted to better protect wireless customers from unexpected charges."

Coakley is asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to require greater transparency and real-time notification to alert wireless phone users of their voice and data usage before charging them excessive fees outside of pre-set use plans.

Coakley's comments were filed with the FCC in connection with an FCC inquiry aimed at looking into whether it should adopt measures that would give wireless customers advance notice they were exceeding limits and could be facing much higher bills for calling, text or data usage.

Surprise!

According to a recent FCC survey on "the consumer mobile experience," one in six mobile telecommunications subscribers, or 30 million Americans, encountered unexpected charges and fees in their bills, commonly known as cell phone bill shock.

The biggest shock often comes with international roaming charges that can be hundreds of dollars. Kristina, of Alexandria, Va., recently took a cruise to the Bahamas and as a precaution, called her carrier, T-Mobile, to find out about charges. She said she was told that voice calls would carry a $2.99 per minute roaming charge and data would be billed at $15 per kilobyte.

"So I decided I would not use my phone for Internet at all," Kristina told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I made one call that was about 11 minutes and two other calls that were about four minutes. No Internet, no texting, no checking voicemails. My bill was $200 higher than normal."

Still receiving

The reason? Kristina did not turn off her cell phone. Though she wasn't "using" it, it was still receiving data. She said a T-Mobile rep explained that she paid a roaming charge anytime someone sent her an email or left a voicemail message. Had her carrier given Kristina a heads up that she was racking up changes, she might have been able to limit them.

Of the group of wireless consumers that experienced bill shock, 88 percent said their wireless provider did not contact them after their bill increased and 84 percent stated that the wireless provider did not contact them when they were about to exceed their allowed minutes, text allotment, or data usage limits.

More than one-third of consumers experiencing bill shock faced a bill increase of at least $50 and 23 percent of cell phone users experiencing bill shock faced a bill increase that was over $100.

To address the pervasive problem of unexpected or unknown wireless phone charges, Coakley requested that the FCC adopt what she called "simple common sense protections" that are already in place for wireless phone customers in the European Union. She said wireless carriers should be required to provide real-time usage alerts and pre-designated usage/rate caps, with the ability for a customer to override, at no charge to consumers.

"These types of regulations will provide consumers with more control over the services to which they subscribe and the bills for those services," Coakley said.

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Five Reasons Knee Replacements Can Fail

Most surgeries are successful, but not all are

Five Reasons Knee Replacements Can Fail...


With Baby Boomers entering their 60s the number of knee replacement surgeries is on the rise. While most of these operations are successful, not all are.

Orthopedic surgeons say most knee replacements will function well for years, but patients should be aware of the signs of failure -- including increased pain or decreased function -- that may require a corrective procedure known as revision total knee replacement, if necessary.

"A failed knee implant is usually caused by wear and tear with subsequent loosening of the implant. Other causes are infection, instability, fracture, or stiffness," said Dr. Amar Ranawat, a hip and knee specialist in the Adult Reconstruction and Joint Replacement Division of Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

The most common symptoms of a failed knee implant are pain, instability, swelling and stiffness across the entire knee (generalized) or in a small section (localized).

Reasons for failure

Although knee replacements normally perform well for at least 15-20 years in more than 95 percent of patients, Ranawat says there are five primary reasons why a knee implant fails:

• Wear and loosening: Friction caused by joint surfaces rubbing against each other wears away the surface of the implant causing bone loss and loosening of the implants.

• Infection: Large metal and plastic implants can serve as a surface onto which bacteria can latch.

• Fracture: Fractures around the knee implant that disrupt its stability may require revision surgery.

• Instability: A sensation of the knee "giving away" may mean that the soft-tissue surrounding the knee is too weak to support standing and walking. Improperly placed implants may also cause instability.

• Stiffness: Loss of range of motion, which causes pain and a functional deficit.

The fix

Revision total knee replacement is a complex procedure that requires extensive pre-operative planning, specialized implants and tools, prolonged operating times and mastery of difficult surgical techniques. It usually takes longer to perform than the original knee replacement.

Ranawat says more than 80 percent of patients who undergo revision knee surgery can expect to have good to excellent results. However, he cautions that complete function is not restored for all patients and "up to 20 percent of patients may still experience pain following surgery for months or even years."



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How to Avoid Ponzi Schemes

Boomers don't have time to recover from financial disasters

Understand some of the red flags to watch out for so you are less likely to be a Ponzi scheme victim although it can truly happen to anyone....

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Suit Contesting iPhone, AT&T Exclusivity Agreement Moves Forward

Class certification granted to action covering nationwide group of consumers

Suit Contesting iPhone, AT&T Exclusivity Agreement Moves Forward...

 

A lawsuit taking issue with AT&T's exclusive rights to the iPhone has been certified as a class action, meaning that iPhone users who want out of their AT&T contracts will at least have their day in court.

The suit, originally filed in 2007, says that Apple and AT&T are perpetuating an illegal monopoly by refusing to unlock consumers' iPhones for use with another wireless carrier. As a result, the complaint says, consumers have little choice but to stay with AT&T, even after their two-year contract expires.

Although AT&T provides that iPhone users can terminate their contract at any time and switch to another carrier, the suit says that the provision is essentially meaningless, since consumers are unable to get their phone onto another network.

The plaintiffs argue that, by offering a two-year contract, AT&T gave consumers the false impression that the exclusivity agreement would likewise last two years. In fact, according to the suit, the agreement is essentially indefinite -- no one knows exactly when it will end and, until it does, customers are stuck with AT&T.

For its part, Apple is arguing that the exclusivity agreement was always expected to last five years -- through 2012 -- and that claims of a monopoly are nonsense.

[T]here was widespread disclosure of [AT&T's] five-year exclusivity and no suggestion by Apple or anyone else that iPhones would become unlocked after two years, Apple asserts in court papers. Moreover, it is sheer speculation -- and illogical -- that failing to disclose the five-year exclusivity term would produce monopoly power.

No end in sight?

iPhone users who want out of their AT&T contracts have seen their share of false starts. Last April, USA Today reported that Apple and Verizon were discussing a potential partnership, although Apple quickly threw cold water on that idea when it swooned about its great relationship with AT&T. Then in August, the research firm Piper Jaffray reported that Apple seemed set to end the exclusivity agreement this summer, most likely when it introduced the iPhone 4. Of course, that milestone has come and gone, and the agreement remains in place.

One analyst has speculated that Apple agreed to further extend the agreement back in January, when AT&T provided bargain data plan prices for the newly-released iPad. Brian Marshall, an analyst with BroadPoint AmTech, figures that the cheap data prices were worth an extra six months.

AT&T had to do something dramatic to get the iPad, Marshall told Computerworld in May. For that pricing [on the iPad], AT&T was able to negotiate a six-month extension on the iPhone exclusive.

The suit, which is being heard in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, is brought on behalf of [a]ll persons who purchased or acquired an iPhone in the United States and entered into a two-year agreement with [AT&T] for iPhone voice and data service any time from June 29, 2007, to the present.

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Study Says Legal Marijuana Would Cut Price, Increase Use

Researchers caution California on unintended consequences

Study Says Legal Marijuana Would Cut Price, Increase Use...

PhotoCalifornia voters will decide in November whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use. If the ballot initiative should pass, what exactly would be the impact?

Researchers studying that question say it would have at least two results: it would lower the cost of the now-illegal drug as much as 80 percent and increase its use.

Researchers at the RAND Corporation, who undertook the study, say that first point is important for state officials who are eying potential new tax revenue from marijuana sales.

While the state Board of Equalization has estimated taxing legal marijuana could raise more than $1 billion in revenue, the RAND study cautions that any potential revenue could be dramatically higher or lower based on a number of factors, including the level of taxation, the amount of tax evasion and the response by the federal government.

Past research provides solid evidence that marijuana consumption goes up when prices go down, but the magnitude of the consumption increase cannot be predicted because prices will fall to levels below those ever studied, researchers say. Consumption also might rise because of non-price effects such as advertising or a reduction in stigma.

In addition to uncertainty about the taxes levied and evaded, researchers do not know how users will respond to such a large drop in price. Even under a scenario with high taxes ($50 per ounce) and a moderate rate of tax evasion (25 percent), researchers say they cannot rule out consumption increases of 50 percent to 100 percent, and possibly even larger. If prevalence increased by 100 percent, marijuana use in California would be close to the prevalence levels recorded in the late 1970s.

The analysis, prepared by the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, was conducted in an effort to objectively outline the key issues that voters and legislators should consider as California weighs marijuana legalization.

Uncertainty

"There is considerable uncertainty about the impact that legalizing marijuana in California will have on consumption and public budgets," said Beau Kilmer, the study's lead author and a policy researcher at RAND. "No government has legalized the production and distribution of marijuana for general use, so there is little evidence on which to base any predictions about how this might work in California."

The analysis also suggests that the annual cost of enforcing current marijuana laws is smaller than suggested by others. The RAND study estimates that the cost of enforcing the current laws probably totals less than $300 million.

"It is critical that legislators and the public understand what is known and unknown as the state weighs this unprecedented step," said Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, a study co-author and co-director with Kilmer of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center.

Two proposals are pending that would legalize the production and sale of marijuana in California. Assembly Bill 2254 authored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) would legalize marijuana for those aged 21 and older and task the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control with regulating its possession, sale and cultivation. The bill would create a $50 per ounce excise tax and these funds would be used to fund drug education, awareness, and rehabilitation programs under the jurisdiction of the State Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs.

In November, California voters will consider a ballot measure titled the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 that would make it legal for those aged 21 and older to cultivate marijuana on a 5-foot-by-5-foot plot, and possess, process, share or transport up to one ounce of marijuana. In addition, the initiative would authorize cities or counties to allow, regulate and tax the commercial cultivation and sales of marijuana. Such activities would remain illegal in jurisdictions that do not opt in.

Federal response

What remains to be seen, however, is how the U.S. Government would respond to the potential legalization of marijuana in California. Marijuana remains a controlled substance under federal law.

In the last week the U.S. Government sued the State of Arizona, saying its new illegal immigration law intrudes on federal authority to control the borders. The Justice Department could challenge a California pot law on similar grounds.

In only two countries have there been changes in the criminal status of supplying marijuana. The Netherlands allows for sale of small amounts of marijuana (5 grams) in licensed coffee shops and in Australia four jurisdictions have reduced the penalties for cultivation of a small number of marijuana plants to confiscation and a fine. Neither has legalized larger-scale commercial cultivation of the sort California is considering.

In 1975, California was one of the first states to reduce the maximum penalty for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana from incarceration to a misdemeanor with a $100 fine. In 1996, California became the first state to allow marijuana to be grown and consumed for medical purposes.

$38 an ounce

RAND researchers say one effect of legalizing marijuana would be to dramatically drop the price as growers move from clandestine operations to legal production. Based on an analysis of known production costs and surveys of the current price of marijuana, researchers suggest the untaxed retail price of high-quality marijuana could drop to as low as $38 per ounce compared to about $375 per ounce today.

RAND researchers caution there are many factors that make it difficult to accurately estimate revenue that might be generated by any tax on legal marijuana. The higher the tax, the greater the incentives would be for a gray market in marijuana to develop, researchers say.

"A fixed excise tax per ounce may give producers and users an incentive to shift to smaller quantities of higher-potency forms of marijuana," said study co-author Jonathan P. Caulkins, the H. Guyford Stever Professor of Operations Research at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College and Qatar campus. Such a shift is another factor that could lower revenues collected from marijuana taxes.

In addition, since the November ballot initiative leaves it to local governments to set tax rates, the size of any levy could vary broadly. A jurisdiction with a low tax rate might attract marijuana buyers from elsewhere in the state or even other states, further complicating efforts to predict government revenues from the sale of legal marijuana, according to researchers.

Societal costs

The RAND report also investigates some of the costs to the state and society in general, such as drug treatment and other health expenses, that may change if marijuana is legalized in California.

It's unclear whether legalizing marijuana may increase or decrease drug treatment costs, according to the study. More than half of the 32,000 admissions for treatment of marijuana abuse in California during in 2009 resulted from criminal justice referrals, which could drop if legalization is approved. However, an increase in marijuana use could cause a spike in those who voluntarily seek treatment for marijuana abuse, researchers say.

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Lawn Mower Injuries On the Rise

Children are often the victims; safety experts offer tips for parents

Lawn Mower Injuries On the Rise...

July 11, 2010
A Wisconsin family will mark a life-changing anniversary today. On July 11, 2009, two-year-old Brandon Rudie was severely injured after his father accidentally backed over him with a riding lawn mower. Today, after five facial surgeries, Brandon is an energetic three-year-old, but his recovery is ongoing.

In an interview with WFRV TV-5 in Green Bay, Scott Rudie said he hopes his sons story will prevent other lawn mower accidents.

No matter how safe you think you are or how careful you think you are accidents can happen, Rudie told WFRV. It can change your life in a heartbeat.

Last year, 247,000 Americans were treated for lawn mower-related injuries more than 18,000 of them under age 19. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, these injuries have increased seven percent since 2008.

Young children should not be allowed to operate lawn mowers, nor play around them, said Janet Jenkins, administrator of the Wisconsin Division of Trade and Consumer Protection. Lawn mower injuries are typically very serious, and can include deep cuts, loss of fingers and toes, eye injuries and even limb amputations.

Safety experts recommend children be at least 12 years old before they operate a walk-behind lawnmower, and at least 16 years old for a riding mower. In addition, Wisconsin's Consumer Protection Division offers these tips to keep your family safe during the lawn mowing season:

• Children should never be passengers on riding mowers.
• Always wear sturdy shoes while mowing not sandals.
• Young children should be at a safe distance from the area being mowed.
• Pick up debris, yard tools and hoses from the lawn to prevent injuries from flying objects.
• Dont use a lawnmower on hills unless you know how to do so properly.
• Dont mow when the grass is wet and slippery.
• Wear eye and hearing protection.
• Use a mower with a control that stops it from moving forward if the handle is released.
• Maintain your lawnmower so that it operates properly.
• Never pull backward or mow in reverse unless absolutely necessary carefully look for others behind you when you do. To watch WFRVs full interview with the Rudie family click here http://www.wfrv.com/news/local/Outagamie-County-boy-makes-a-remarkable
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Consumers Frazzled by Samsung LCD TV Problems

Samsung Issues

Samsung HD TVs overheat, refuse to turn on, power themselves off or simply fizzle off into oblivion. To make matters worse, in most cases, this happens aft...

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Facebook Facing Another Privacy Suit

Heavyweight firm files class action involving half of Canadian population

Facebook Facing Another Privacy Suit...

Facebook is face to face with yet another privacy issue, this one in the form of a class action lawsuit brought in Canada.

The suit concerns changes made to Facebook's privacy settings in late 2009, when the company changed the default setting for scores of user information to public. As a result, users' names, photos, and friend lists all became available for everyone to see, even if the user had previously specified that only her friends could view it. In order to make the information private again, the user had to affirmatively go in and change the settings back.

The suit, which is being handled by the high-profile Merchant Law Group, alleges that the website duped consumers with regard to how Facebook would share, use and disseminate the personal information of the plaintiff and class action members.

What Facebook is doing is a bait-and-switch process, attorney Tony Merchant told The Toronto Sun. The bait is that they wanted to be able to do demographic sales targeting, and the switch is that to do that, they needed to get into people's personal information.

Merchant said that the lawsuit covers every Facebook user in Canada, which, according to an Inside Network poll, constitutes 48 percent of the country's population.

The suit comes as Facebook rolls out new privacy measures intended to quell charges that the website shares too much information with third parties. Previously, Facebook users who opened applications -- such as games, bumper stickers, and pokes -- were given a blanket warning that the app could pull your profile information, photos, your friends info, and other content that it requires to work.

That applied with equal force to data that had been explicitly marked private by the user. Under the new system, instituted Wednesday, apps can only pull information marked as public; for anything else, it must obtain permission from the user first.

And Facebook has already dealt with several high-profile privacy-related blunders that have scarred its reputation among cautious consumers. In September, the website turned off its Beacon advertising program, which recorded members' activity on external sites and reported it back to their friends. Beacon, whose demise was itself spurred by a class action, was also an opt-out feature; that is, users had to actively turn the program off in order to stop external data from reaching their news feeds.

Another class action, filed last November, said that consumers who play games on Facebook were unwittingly enrolled in a useless SMS service after participating in special offers to earn online cash.

The seemingly constant barrage of negative attention threatens to take a toll on the world's most populated social networking website. A recent survey found that 65 percent of consumers are less likely to interact or share information because of concerns over privacy, and that 30 percent had fallen victim to a phishing attack.

Additionally, Facebook has seen its registration numbers in North America sputter; an Inside Network study found that, while the website picked up 7.8 million new users in May, it gained only 320,000 in June. More ominously, the site lost traffic among users in the 18-25 and 35-44 age demographics, though it has been gaining ground rapidly overseas.

Consumers can officially join the suit at Merchant's website, although doing so isn't required to be included in the class. Over 100 consumers have already registered to join. Merchant told the Sun that his firm is looking for consumers whose especially private information -- like trade secrets or sexually explicit photographs -- were made public without their knowledge.

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Senior Citizens Warned About $250 Medicare Rebate Scam

'Doughnut hole' check doesn't require you to provide financial information

Senior Citizens Warned About $250 Medicare Rebate Scam...

Senior citizens are urged to be on the lookout for fraud as they begin to receive their $250 rebates for Medicare Part D prescription drug costs under the new federal health care reforms.

The one-time, tax-free rebate is being sent to eligible senior citizens to help them pay for the "doughnut hole" -- the gap above the initial prescription drug coverage limit but below the point where catastrophic coverage begins.

"Don't give out personal information to anyone who calls you about the $250 rebate check, "said New York State Insurance Superintendent James Wrynn. There have been reports in some states that senior citizens are being contacted and told that they must disclose personal information to receive their rebates or that rebate checks must be transferred to a third party. This is simply not true."

So far, there have been no reports of this specific type of Medicare fraud in New York State. However, other states have reported that seniors are being contacted and asked for personal information such as their Social Security and bank account numbers. Some seniors have been told, falsely, that they can get their rebates faster by paying an upfront fee.

Filling the 'doughnut hole'

The federal government is now mailing the rebate checks to eligible individuals after they reach the "doughnut hole" coverage gap. Individuals enrolled in some private benefits plans or those enrolled in the Medicare Extra Help plan are not eligible.

Under the federal health care reforms, the $250 rebate is the first in a series of steps that will be undertaken through 2020 to eliminate the so-called "doughnut hole" gap. Currently, Medicare beneficiaries whose drug costs reach $2,830 must pay all additional drug costs until their total out-of-pocket expenses reach $4,550 when coverage kicks in again.

Senior citizens who suspect they have been contacted improperly should contact the Insurance Department, the New York State Office for the Aging, or their local Health Insurance Information Counseling and Assistance Program (HIICAP).

Detailed information about the $250 rebate may be obtained directly from Medicare by contacting 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227), or online, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for assistance.

Senior citizens may also contact the Insurance Department's Consumer Services Bureau between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday toll-free at 800-342-3736. Information is also available on the Department's website.

Seniors wishing to file complaints are encouraged to use the electronic complaint form on the Department's website, or to call or write to the Consumer Services Bureau, NYS Insurance Department, One Commerce Plaza, Albany, NY 12257.

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Company Suspected of Using Infomercial 'Talk Shows' To Defraud Consumers

Colorado AG says Real Talk Network charged consumers for products they never received

Company Suspected of Using Infomercial 'Talk Shows' To Defraud Consumers...


The office of Colorado Attorney General John Suthers has filed a lawsuit against Real Talk Network, and its corporate officers, David Allen Burke and Erik Sale, on suspicion that they engaged in false and deceptive trade practices and violated Colorado's consumer credit laws.

"The down economy has left many consumers looking for a way to get out of debt," Suthers said. "The defendants in this case are suspected of using deceptive sales pitches to bilk consumers out of thousands of dollars for services they ultimately never received. At its core, this scam preyed on consumers' desires for a silver bullet to get out of debt."

Questionable claims

According to the complaint, Real Talk Network ran infomercials on talk radio stations in Colorado and California. During the infomercials, Real Talk Network and its officers are suspected of telling consumers that they can get out of debt in short period of time, pay off their mortgages in less than 10 years and "explode" their credit scores by following the company's program.

The company also is suspected of advertising a 100 percent success rate for participants. According to the complaint, consumers are advised to attend a "free" three-hour seminar to learn more about the company's program.

Real Talk Network and its officers allegedly told consumers at the seminars that they will be able to work with the company to:

• develop an individualize debt-reduction plan through one-on-one coaching with a trained financial adviser;

• remove negative information from their credit reports and "explode" their credit scores; and,

• obtain no-interest credit and low-interest loans though the special relationships Real Talk Network has with banks.

Freebie wasn't

At the end of the "free" seminar, according to the lawsuit, Real Talk Network representatives pressured consumers to sign up for their services and to pay from $1,497 to $3,497. According to the complaint, consumers who pay the fee or sign up for a monthly payment plan report receiving little to no assistance from financial advisers who have no financial training or experience. Real Talk Network's purported "special relationships" with various banks did not exist.

Burke also is suspected of misrepresenting his credentials and not disclosing information about his financial history that might have changed consumers' minds about the seminars. For example, he misled consumers to believe he was a graduate of the University of Southern California and did not disclose that he had filed for bankruptcy in 2000 and 2007.

Consumers who quit the program or declined to pay once they became aware of the lack of services Real Talk Network provided had their accounts handed off to a collection agency.

"Although we and our partners warn that Colorado consumers should always beware deals that sound too good to be true, companies should not prey on consumers' desperation or fears after going into debt or falling behind on their bills," Suthers said. "This case underlines my office's commitment to ensuring that businesses operate on a level playing field and do not victimize consumers."

Consumers who believe they have been defrauded by a business can file a complaint online with the Office of the Attorney General, or call 1-800-222-4444.

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Medical Reviewer Disputes Findings That Avandia is Safe

Suggests GlaxoSmithKlein misinterpreted data on popular diabetes drug

Medical Reviewer Disputes Findings That Avandia is Safe...



A medical reviewer for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration contends drug giant GlaxoSmithKline got it wrong when it proclaimed a study found its popular diabetes drug Avandia is safe.

In fact, Dr. Thomas Marciniak, in a posting on the FDA web site, said the study actually shows the opposite - Avandia may cause heart attacks.

Marciniak's review is part of an FDA effort to brief an expert panel scheduled to convene later this month to determine whether questions about Avandia are serious enough to require its removal from the marketplace. GSK's analysis was part of its case that the drug should not be removed.

But in looking at the data, Marciniak wrote that the information in the study was so misinterpreted that it's hard not to conclude it was done on purpose.

"One does not have to be a mathematician or to perform calculations to come to the conclusion that a combined look at all the trials of Avandia would demonstrate that it causes heart attacks," Marciniak writes.

Some health advocates have long demanded Avandia's removal from the market. In 2008 the consumer group Public Citizen petitioned the FDA to institute an immediate ban of the drug. The group said at the time the drug is dangerous and can cause death from liver failure and many other life-threatening risks.

At the time, Public Citizen released new research about the drug, used to treat Type 2 diabetes, that is said raised concerns about the drug's risks.

"The scientific consensus against Avandia is overwhelming," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, when the research was released two years ago. "The timing of these findings should give the FDA the momentum it needs to act swiftly to prevent further needless deaths and health damage by banning this drug."

Complaints

Some patients taking Avandia have complained to ConsumerAffairs.com over the years about health complications while taking the drug.

"I was prescribed Avandia and took it for about a year," Wayne, of Seffner, Fla., told ConsumerAffairs.com in 2009. "After having chest pains I had to do the stress test and was put into the hospital . After the heart specialist determined my heart was OK he told me to stop taking the medication. Several thousand dollars later!" (More complaints)

GSK, meanwhile, stands behind its assessment that Avandia is safe.

"Since 2007, we have seen results from six controlled clinical trials looking at the cardiovascular safety of Avandia, and together they show that this medicine does not increase the overall risk of heart attack, stroke, or death," said Dr. Murray Stewart, GSK's vice president for clinical development.



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Wells Fargo Shutters Subprime Unit

Part of consolidation effort that will close more than 600 offices

Wells Fargo Shutters Subprime Unit...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 9, 2010
Wells Fargo is getting out of the subprime mortgage business, announcing plants to consolidate its Consumer Finance division.

The company said it expects 638 independent consumer finance offices will be closed as a result. In closing the offices, Wells Fargo said it is "exiting the origination of non-prime portfolio mortgage loans."

Subprime loans, often offered with low "teaser" rates, were the first to go bad, triggering a wave of foreclosures and precipitating the credit crises in late 2008.

The remaining consumer and commercial loan products offered through Wells Fargo Financial will be realigned with those offered by other Wells Fargo business units and will be available through Wells Fargo's expanded network of community banking and home mortgage stores, the company said.

The consolidation is also the result of Wells Fargo's 2008 merger with Wachovia. The bank says its customers now have access to its 6,600 Wells Fargo and Wachovia community bank stores and its 2,200 Wells Fargo Home Mortgage locations, eliminating the need for a separate network of Wells Fargo Financial local offices.

Fewer than two percent of all Wells Fargo's real estate loans were originated in Wells Fargo Financial stores in the first quarter of 2010, the company said.

"Our network of U.S.-based consumer finance stores, which have historically operated as an independent sales channel from our bank operations, have served customers well for more than 100 years," said David Kvamme, president of Wells Fargo Financial, "but the economics of a separate Wells Fargo Financial channel are no longer viable, especially now that our customers have access to the largest banking and mortgage store network in the United States."

The company said the restructuring of Wells Fargo Financial will not affect the number of community banking or home mortgage stores currently in operation. Customers with existing Wells Fargo Financial consumer loans and clients of Wells Fargo Financial's commercial businesses will continue to be served without disruption.

Consolidation

FHA home loans, auto loans and credit cards previously offered by Wells Fargo Financial will be consolidated with similar products across the company and will be offered through the company's network of community banking stores, mortgage stores, phone banks and wellsfargo.com. Wells Fargo Financial's commercial businesses will be realigned with business units within Wells Fargo over the next 12 months. However, Wells Fargo will no longer originate non-prime portfolio real estate loans.

Wells Fargo said it will also eliminate approximately 2,800 positions during the next 60 days, and 1,000 positions will likely be eliminated during the next 12 months.

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Survey of Gold Buyers Finds Wide Range of Prices

Consumers need to be sure they are getting the best price

Survey of Gold Buyers Finds Wide Range of Prices...

With gold prices at historic highs, many consumers are considering turning that broken necklace or single earring into cash, but a survey of downtown Boston jewelers shows consumers should shop around for the best price.

The survey, conducted by Massachusetts consumer protection officials during the week of June 7 when gold prices were at about $1,200 an ounce, included 10 jewelry stores in Boston's Downtown Crossing and Chinatown neighborhoods. Jewelers were presented a bag of gold jewelry and were asked for an estimated purchase price. The offers ranged from $485 to $1,000.

Our survey shows significant differences in the prices various jewelers will pay average consumers for their gold. It takes a little legwork and a little time for consumers to make sure they are getting best price for their gold. A few hours of work can mean hundreds of extra dollars, said Barbara Anthony, Undersecretary of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.

Going to a number of jewelers to get a price quote is the best way to maximize the value of gold being sold.

The survey included a rope chain, rope bracelet, two rings, and a pair of earrings. Jewelers weighed the gold, checked the karat value of the jewelry, and offered a price. The amounts offered were $485, $550-$600, $600, $650, $680, $700-$750, $706, $803, $810, and $950-$1,000.

In the last year, the price of gold has significantly increased, up about 30 percent from a year ago, and jewelers and other entities have increased their advertising to buy gold. In most cases, gold bought by a jeweler or other entity is melted down as scrap, although some outlets turn around and resell the jewelry.

The high price of gold has led many consumers to consider selling jewelry. But before someone sells jewelry, he or she should consider these tips from the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation:

• Know what you have. Know the karat value of each piece and have the gold weighed in advance. Your community's weights and measures department will weigh your gold for you.

• Get an appraisal. A local jeweler can tell you how much a piece is worth. But don't take that appraisal to the bank. You are unlikely to get that amount when you sell because the buyer has to make a profit margin in the transaction.

• Research who you are doing business with. Deal with legitimate gold buyers that have been in business for some time. Check their status with the Better Business Bureau.

• Shop around. The first price quote might sound good, but a place nearby may offer you more. Depending on your time available, try to get four or five estimates so you have a good handle on what you should be getting.

• Avoid mail-in or "expo" programs. An entity that sets up shop at a local hotel for a weekend may not offer you the best deal. The mail-in offers you see on television have a history of low-balling payments, and in some cases having jewelry lost in the mail.

Gold jewelry is a valuable commodity, and consumers shouldn't be overly casual in their efforts if they are selling it, Undersecretary Anthony said. A little sweat equity can pay off in both the pocketbook and as peace of mind.

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Suzuki Recalls QuadSport ATVs

Suzuki Recalls QuadSport ATVs...


Suzuki is recalling about 1,355 QuadSport all terrain vehicles. The flame arrester screen can become detached from its mounting ring, preventing the throttle valve from returning to the idle position when the throttle lever is released and causing the rider to lose control of the ATV. This poses a serious hazard of injury or death.

American Suzuki has received two reports of flame arrester screens detaching from the mounting ring. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves all Suzuki 2009 model year LT-Z400K9 (QuadSport Z400) and LT-Z400ZK9 (QuadSport Z400 Special Edition) ATVs. "QuadSport Z400" or "QuadSport Z400Z" is written on the sides and left front fender of the ATV. "Suzuki" is written on the sides of the ATV.

The ATVs, made in Japan, were sold at Suzuki ATV dealers nationwide from September 2008 through June 2010 for between $6,500 and $6,700.

Consumers should stop using these vehicles immediately and contact a local Suzuki ATV dealer to schedule an appointment for a free repair. Consumers with recalled ATVs are being sent a notice directly from Suzuki.

For more information, consumers can contact Suzuki at (800) 444-5077 between 8:30 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's website at www.suzukicycles.com.

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

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10 Ways To Cut Summer Cooling Costs

Some steps require significant investment, but some don't

10 Ways To Cut Summer Cooling Costs...


The summer heat wave that's baking the eastern U.S. is keeping air conditioners running non-stop, running up huge electric bills that will come due next month.

The Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington, DC-based conservation group, has projected that the average U.S. household will spend more than $2,000 on home energy this year, so cutting monthly bills by 10 or 20 percent with energy efficiency means significant savings.

The group also notes that certain energy efficiency home improvements qualify for generous federal income tax credits of up to $1,500. The credits expire on December 31, 2010, so it may be a good time to consider taking advantage of them.

The Alliance suggests the following tips to help reduce the cost of beating the heat:

1. Cooling puts the greatest stress on summer energy bills, so make sure your AC equipment is in top running order. A professional "tune-up" could save you the cost and misery of a breakdown on the hottest days.

2. Replacing your 12+ year old central air conditioning system (CAC) with an ENERGY STAR qualified model could cut your cooling costs by 30 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And while these products can have a higher purchase price, the cost difference will be paid back over time through lower energy bills, EPA says.

Size matters

3. For optimum performance, make sure CAC systems or window units are properly sized. EPA says a system that's too large will not keep your home comfortable due to frequent "on/off" cycling. Incorrect sizing can also put stress on system components and shorten the equipment's life. A qualified contractor can help you ensure proper sizing.

4. Purchase the AC unit with the highest Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) that you can afford -- the higher the SEER level, the more energy efficient the equipment. Current federal appliance standards require a SEER rating of at least 13 on CAC systems.

5. Clean or replace CAC system filters monthly -- and window unit filters even more frequently.

Be a fan of fans

6. Using ceiling fans to circulate air will make you feel cooler and possibly allow you to raise the temperature setting on your AC thermostat by a few degrees. But be sure to turn the fan off when you leave the room, because fans cool people, not rooms.

7. A programmable thermostat automatically coordinates indoor temperatures with your daily and weekend patterns, reducing cooling bills by up to 10 percent by raising the indoor temperature while the house is empty -- yet ensuring that when you return home, it's cool and comfortable.

8. Plug energy leaks with weather stripping and caulking and be sure your house is properly insulated to save up to 20 percent on cooling (and winter heating) bills. These and other energy efficiency home improvements can generate a federal tax credit of up to $1,500; Check online for details on qualifying products.

9. Your air conditioner works overtime to cool hot air from sunny windows, so consider investing in energy-efficient windows to save money and increase indoor comfort. Efficient windows, glass doors and skylights are eligible for federal tax credits. If you live in the Sun Belt, look into "low-e" windows, which can cut the cooling load by 10 to 15 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Savers booklet.

10. Curtains and shades on the sunny sides of your home will provide additional relief.



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Health Net Settles Connecticut Data Breach Case

Data lapse compromised private medical and financial info

A settlement -- the first of its kind in the nation -- has been reached between Health Net and its affiliates and the state of Connecticut in a security br...

July 7, 2010
A settlement -- the first of its kind in the nation -- has been reached between Health Net and its affiliates and the state of Connecticut in a security breach case.

Health Net was accused of failing to secure private patient medical records and financial information on nearly a half million Connecticut enrollees and promptly notify consumers endangered by the breach.

The settlement provides powerful protections for consumers and a $250,000 payment to the state. It's the first action by a state attorney general for violations of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) since the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) authorized state attorneys general to enforce HIPAA.

The agreement resolves allegations that Health Net violated HIPAA, as well as state privacy protections regarding personal data such as social security numbers and financial information.

Missing data

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal sued after Health Net allegedly lost a computer disk drive in May 2009 containing protected health and other private information on more than 500,000 Connecticut citizens` and 1.5 million consumers nationwide. The missing disk drive contained names, addresses, social security numbers, protected health information and financial information.

Underscoring the seriousness of the matter, Blumenthal learned that the company delayed notifying consumers and law enforcement authorities, and that an investigation by a Health Net consultant concluded the disk drive was likely stolen.

Blumenthal negotiated stronger protections for individuals than what Health Net initially offered, including two years of credit monitoring, $1 million of identity theft insurance and reimbursement for the costs of security freezes.

Setting precedent

"This settlement is sadly historic -- involving an unparalleled health care privacy breach and an unprecedented state enforcement of HIPAA," Blumenthal said. "Protected private medical records and financial information on almost half million Health Net enrollees in Connecticut were exposed for at least six months before Health Net notified appropriate authorities and consumers."

This settlement, he said, "sends a strong message to Health Net and all guardians of private health and financial information about their profound responsibilities to protect medical and financial records."

Terms

Under the settlement, which involves Health Net of the Northeast, Inc., Health Net of Connecticut Inc., and parent companies UnitedHealth Group Inc. and Oxford Health Plans, the company and its affiliates have agreed to:

• A "Corrective Action Plan" in which Health Net is implementing several detailed measures to protect health information and other private data in compliance with HIPAA. This plan includes continued identity theft protection, improved systems controls, improved management and oversight structures, improved training and awareness for its employees, and improved incentives, monitoring, and reports.

• A $250,000 payment to the state representing statutory damages. This payment is intended as a future deterrent to such conduct not only by Health Net, but by other insurers and health care entities that are entrusted with individuals' private information.

• An additional contingent payment to the state of $500,000, should it be established that the lost disk drive was accessed and personal information used illegally, impacting plan members.

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Toyota Announces Lexus Recall

Engine valve defect could lead to stalling

After giving a warning last week that it was considering a recall, Toyota today announced it would indeed recall 270,000 luxury Lexus models, including 139...

 

After giving a warning last week that it was considering a recall, Toyota today announced it would indeed recall 270,000 luxury Lexus models, including 139,000 sold in the U.S.

The Japanese carmaker said the vehicles' engines are prone to stall while running.

Toyota said it has informed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of its intention to file a Defect Information Report (DIR) regarding the Lexus vehicles, powered by 4.6 and 5.0 liter V8 and 3.5 liter V6 engines in certain 2006, 2007 and 2008 GS, IS and LS models in the U.S. The formal report will be filed later this week.

"In the covered vehicles, due to slight variations during the manufacturing process, some foreign material may have contaminated a small number of the valve springs," Toyota said in a statement.

If a vehicle is affected, the company says there is a "remote" possibility that abnormal engine noise or idling may occur. In extremely rare instances, the engine may stop while the vehicle is in operation.

According to Reuters, Toyota received reports of the defect more than three years ago.

Lexus estimates that the likelihood of a customer vehicle experiencing this condition is two-tenths of one percent. Lexus said it has received no reports of accidents or injuries related to this condition. No vehicles from the current 2010 model year nor 2009 are affected.

Lexus said it will send owners of the involved vehicles a recall notification via first class mail. Owners are requested to contact their local Lexus dealer for diagnosis and repair after receiving their notification. The repair will involve replacement of the engine's valve springs at no charge.

The company say owners can continue to drive their vehicles. If symptoms are noticed, such as vibration, rough idling, unusual engine sounds or poor performance, the vehicle should be brought to a Lexus dealer for service.

Certain Lexus vehicles produced among the following models and years are covered:

 
 
Model
Model Year
 
GS 350
2007
 
 
2008
 
 
GS 450h
2007
 
2008
 
GS 460
2008
 
IS 350
2006
 
 
2007
 
 
2008
 
 
LS 460
2007
 
2008
 
LS 460 L
2007
 
2008
 
LS 600h L
2008
 

 

Not a new problem

While Toyota conceded that it had received complaints of the problem dating back to 2007, it said that it was not until October 2009 that the complaints of "total engine failures" began to spike.

The company said that on July 1, it decided to issue the recall after tracing the problem to the strength of valve springs with a wire diameter of 3.3 mm.

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FTC Warns of Oil Spill Job Scams

How to tell the real opportunities from the phonies

FTC Warns of Oil Spill Job Scams: The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has presented a whole new array of possible scams for those looking to cash in on the...

July 6, 2010
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has presented a whole new array of possible scams for those looking to cash in on the situation. Among them - schemes designed to steal money from people looking for a job -- especially work involving helping to clean up the BP mess.

Bogus ads for oil spill clean-up jobs in the Gulf are appearing in newspapers, online, and in email inboxes. Some promoters claim they can get you a job once you pay them for training or certifications. Others require you to pay a fee before they let you start.

Some send bogus emails that may appear to be from BP, and ask for your personal information and fees as part of the application process. Still others may falsely claim they've been authorized by BP to hire clean-up crews.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says the telltale signs of oil spill job scams are similar to the telltale signs of every job scam -- and that people who are looking for Gulf clean-up jobs have several sources of legitimate employment and volunteer opportunities.

Spotting a scam

If you're looking for a job or want to volunteer your services in the Gulf clean up, here are some red flags:

• Guaranteed jobs or guaranteed placements. Regardless of how severe the situation -- and how much you want to believe the promises -- no legitimate company makes guarantees about placing anyone in a job.

• An employer or employment-service firm that wants you to pay for training, certification, or its expenses placing you with a company. Legitimate employers and firms don't ask you to pay them for the promise of a job. In fact, it's against the U.S. Department of Labor's (DOL) Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines for employers to charge employees for training.

• Vague offers. The more general the email "job" description, the less likely there is a valid job. If you see phrases like "We have thousands of jobs" or "We represent BP," consider it a problem. Report it to the FTC. Send a copy of unwanted or deceptive messages to spam@uce.gov and then delete it. The FTC uses the unsolicited emails stored in this database to pursue law enforcement actions against people who send deceptive spam email.

• You're asked for your financial information. No credible employer needs your bank account information or credit or debit account numbers to interview you or hire you. Scam artists can use this information to commit identity theft.

• Companies that charge you for lists of available jobs. Some listing services and "consultants" write ads that sound like they have jobs waiting for you. But they're selling information about how to find a job, and that's generally available for free.

Legitimate opportunities

If you're interested in getting involved with the clean up, here are several sources for legitimate opportunities. Remember some jobs do require special training, but stipends are available to cover those costs.

Deepwater Horizon Response -- 1-866-448-5816

BP

• Alabama -- Environmental Cleanup

• Florida -- Florida Attorney General

• Louisiana - the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator's Office, and the Louisiana Workforce Commission

• Mississippi Department of Employment Security or 1-800-224-1388

State volunteer opportunities

If you're interested in volunteering, call the Deepwater Horizon Response Volunteer Request Line at 1-866-448-5816 or visit these state websites:

Alabama

Florida

Louisiana

Mississippi

Employer responsibilities

OSHA Worker Safety Requirements are designed to ensure that oil spill response and clean-up operations are done safely, effectively and efficiently. Go here for more information about common operations, hazards, training and worker protection.

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Pro-Pet Expands Recall of Pet Vitamins

Tests found salmonella in dog, cat vitamins

Continued fears of salmonella contamination have prompted an Ohio company to expand its recall of vitamins for dogs and include more tablets and powered pr...

By Lisa Wade McCormick
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 6, 2010
Continued fears of salmonella contamination have prompted an Ohio company to expand its recall of vitamins for dogs and include more tablets and powered products.

United Pet Group of Cincinnati has broadened its recent recall of its Pro-Pet Adult Daily Vitamin Supplement tablets for dogs to include additional pet nutritional supplements for dogs and cats.

The company said its taking this action out of an abundance of caution after tests revealed some of lots of the products may be tainted with salmonella, a bacterium that can cause food poisoning.

The recalled supplements -- that include various Pro-Pet, Excel, and private label products in tablet and powered forms -- were sold in retail stores nationwide. The affected products have expiration dates between "01/2013" and "06/2013." Products with expiration dates earlier than 01/2013 or later than 06/2013 are not included in this action.

These products are being removed from retail stores and consumers should immediately stop feeding these supplements to their pets, the company said in a written statement.

TABLE OF RECALLED PRODUCTS

Label SkuUPCLabel DescriptionExpiry
353825141273447Doctors Foster and Smith Brewers Yeast Mega-Tabs with Garlic and Essential Fatty Acids 180 TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
5619180650561915619 Nature's Miracle Pet Mess Easy Clean-up Net WT 12ozEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
1152092800443076576Petco Breath Tabs for Dogs Liver Flavor 50 TabletsPetco Breath Tabs for Dogs Liver Flavor 50 TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
33805825141059485Doctors foster and Smith Dis-Taste Small Dog Tablets 250 TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
33806825141008629Doctors Foster and Smith Ext Strength Dis-Taste Tablets 180 TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
33807825141063680Doctors Foster and Smith Ext Strength Dis-Taste Tablets 500 TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
35908825141095629Doctors Foster and Smith Fresh Breath Tablets for Dogs 100 TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
36763825141291250Doctors Foster and Smith Cran Health Support Normal Urinary Tract Health 60 TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
673110 bottle
1094181 box
800443037065Petco Ear Powder For Dogs 1oz (28g) Box LabelEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
72157825141055043Doctors Foster and Smith Brewers Yeast Tablets for Dogs and Cats 750 TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
9305825141003921Doctors Foster and Smith Ear Powder Net WT 1oz (28g)EXP 01/13 thru 06/13
9306825141005154Doctors Foster and Smith Ear Powder Net WT 4oz (113g)EXP 01/13 thru 06/13
J70726851007074Excel 3 in 1 Ear Powder Ear Care Net WT 1oz(28g)EXP 01/13 thru 06/13
J711026851071105Excel Glucosamine Joint Care 120 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
J711326851071136Excel Glucosamine with MSM Joint Care 120 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
J72026851007203Excel Deter Coprophagia Treatment Behavioral Aid 60 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
J72426851007241Excel Deter Coprophagia Treatment Behavioral Aid 500 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
J731126851073116Excel Gas Preventative Digestive Aid Digestive Care 60 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
J731526851073154Excel Calm-Quil Calming Tablets Behavior Aid 60 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
J7401626851074014DDS Dental Breath Mints Breath Control 40 TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
K172326851017233DDS Dental Breath Tabs Breath Control 200 TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
K177526851017752Pro-Pet Brewers Yeast Daily Supplement 250 Chew TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
K70126851007012Excel Calcium Daily Supplement 125 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
K74626851007463Excel Calcium Daily Supplement 500 Tasty Chew tabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
K776/PR26851007760PR Excel Brewers Yeast with Garlic Skin and Coat 150 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
K777/126851007777Excel Brewers Yeast with Garlic Skin and Coat Care 600 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
K77826851007784Excel Brewers Yeast with Garlic Skin and Coat Care 1000 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
K78526851007852Excel Brewers Yeast with Garlic Skin and Coat Care Mega Tabs 216 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
N170126851017011Pro-Pet Senior Daily Vitamin Supplement 100 Tasty TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
N700TR26851007005Excel Pupply Multi Vitamin 100 Tasty Chew Tabs Time ReleaseEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
N730126851073017Excel Small Breed Multi Vitamin 45 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
N730926851073093Excel Lutein Vision Maintenance Eye Care 60 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
N845TR26851008453Excel Adult Multi Vitamin 60 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-7803026851780304Excel Advantage Adult Multi Vitamin 60 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-7803126851780311Excel Advantage Puppy Multi Vitamin 60 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-7803226851780328Excel Advantage Senior Multi Vitamin 60 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-7803326851780335Excel Advantage Skin and Coat Essentials 60 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-7803426851780342Excel Advantage Glucosamine Plus 60 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-7803526851780359Excel Advantage Glucosamine Advanced Strength 60 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-7806526851780656Excel Adult Multivitamin 120 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-7806626851780663Excel Senior Multi Vitamin 120 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-8253026851825302Pro-Pet Glucosamine Joint Care 60 Chew TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-8253126851825319Pro-Pet Stool-Eating Preventative(Corprophagia Treatment) 60 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-8253426851825340Pro-Pet Anti-Stress Calming Tabs 60 Chew TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-8256226851825623Pro-Pet Glucosamine Plus Joint Care 100 Chew TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-8261826851826187Pro-Pet Breath Tabs 40 TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-8261926851826194Pro-Pet Breath Mints 200 TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-8265426851826545Pro-Pet Gas Relief Digestive Aid 40 Chew TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-8265626851826569Pro-Pet Glucosamine Advanced Joint Powder Net WT 10oz(283g)EXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-8265826851826583Pro-Pet Daily Vitamin Supplement Powder Net WT 10oz (283g)EXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-8306226851830627Pro-Pet Puppy and Small Breed Daily Vitamin Supplement 100 Chew TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-8306526851830658Pro-Pet Glucosamine Advanced Joint Care 60 Chew TabletsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-N7801226851780120Excel Joint Ensure Moderate Care 60 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-N7801326851780137Excel Joint Ensure Advanced Care 60 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13
P-N7801426851780144Excel Flare-Away Joint Tabs 60 Tasty Chew TabsEXP 01/13 thru 06/13

Pet owners who purchased the recalled products can contact United Pet Group at 1-877-399-5226 for more information about this action.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said pets with salmonella infections may be lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Some pets will have only decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain. Pet owners with dogs that consumed the recalled product and have these symptoms should contact their veterinarians.

The FDA warned that infected but otherwise healthy pets can spread salmonella to other animals or humans. People who handle the recalled supplements and powders can also become infected if they do not thoroughly wash their hands after touching the products or surfaces exposed to them.

Symptoms of salmonella infections in humans include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping and fever. In rare cases, salmonella can cause more serious health problems, including arterial infections, arthritis, muscle pain, eye irritation, and urinary tract symptoms. Consumers who have any of these symptoms after handling the recalled products should contact their physicians, the FDA said.



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Blood Test For Alzheimer's On Horizon

Researchers near the 'Holy Grail' of Alzheimer's study

Blood Test For Alzheimer's On Horizon...


The dreaded condition of Alzheimer's disease (AD) usually strikes people entering their golden years and has no cure. But what if doctors could determine years in advance who would get the disease?

Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London say a simple blood test could soon give Alzheimer's patients ten years advance warning that they will get the disease.

The breakthrough came after researchers found high levels of a protein can be an early sign of the condition.

The study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, has found that clusterin levels in blood could be an early biomarker of AD many years before symptoms appear. The international team of scientists also found that higher levels of clusterin were related to more severe and rapid memory loss and greater brain shrinkage.

It is these findings, they say, that could lead to development of a blood test to help identify who would benefit from early treatment of AD and also whether treatments were working to delay or prevent brain damage.

Researchers have been focusing on developing an inexpensive blood test that will accurately reflect the damage detected by brain scans in patients in the early stages of AD, such as shrinkage ("atrophy") in certain regions and abnormal accumulations of a protein called beta amyloid.

In this study, researchers used a novel strategy combining brain scans with proteomics, a method that can detect hundreds of proteins in a single blood sample. They compared blood samples and brain scans of 300 research participants with AD, mild cognitive impairment or normal cognition.

They found that a single protein -- clusterin -- was related to brain shrinkage, severity of memory problems and a risk of faster memory loss. Using the same method in blood samples from volunteers in a continuing study in the United States, they showed that increased amounts of clusterin -- measured a decade earlier to the brain scans -- were linked to higher levels of beta amyloid in the brain.

Finally, in mouse models of AD, researchers discovered increased levels of clusterin in the blood as the mice aged. Under the microscope, they also observed clusterin to be surrounding the amyloid plaques.

They concluded this provides further evidence that clusterin is critically important in Alzheimer's where it probably works to help protect the brain from amyloid protein. This finding from proteomics complements the discovery reported last year by an international team including the KCL group that showed the clusterin gene increased risk of AD -- a finding noted by Time magazine as one of the top ten medical discoveries of 2009.

Easy test

"A primary goal in Alzheimer's research is to develop an inexpensive, easily administered test to accurately detect and track the progression of this devastating disease. Identifying clusterin as a blood biomarker that may be relevant to both the pathology and symptoms of the disease may bring us closer to this goal," said Dr. Madhav Thambisetty, formerly of the IoP KCL UK and now with the National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health, US.

The authors say the results of their research add further evidence to the role of clusterin in AD, and though not a test in itself, they hope their work will lead to development of a blood test that can identify future AD victims.

"A simple blood test for detecting Alzheimer's has long been the Holy Grail for dementia researchers and these new findings edge us closer in the search. Early detection of dementia will be crucial to ensuring the treatments of the future can be given swiftly and when most effective," said Rebecca Wood, Chief Executive of the Alzheimer's Research Trust (ART). "Research is the only answer to dementia, yet our scientists remain in desperate need of funds. Investing in research now will bring the treatment breakthroughs we so urgently need in a world where 35 million live with this devastating condition."



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New Jersey Says Gold-Buying Firms Cheated Consumers

Forty-nine businesses cited after undercover probe

New Jersey Says Gold-Buying Firms Cheated Consumers...

With the price of gold reaching new highs, jewelry stores advertising that they will "buy your gold jewelry" are becoming more common. But increasingly, this is a case of "seller beware."

For example, the New Jersey Office of Weights and Measures has cited 49 gold and jewelry buying businesses with more than 1,600 summonses for alleged violations of state statutes. Following a just-concluded statewide inspection sweep, officials say they found inaccurate scales that misweighed items and resulted in consumers receiving less money.

The Precious Metals Task Force began its inspections in June following receipt of a consumer complaint. The task force conducted unannounced inspections of jewelry stores and also transient buyers of gold and jewelry who typically operate within hotels and frequently move.

"Some of the buyers defrauded consumers, short-weighing their items and likely paying them less than the true value of the items," New Jersey Attorney General Paula T. Dow said. "We found violations statewide and we're putting the industry on notice that we won't tolerate the cheating of consumers."

'Springy' scales

A scale that had a spring mounted under the weighing platform was among the confiscated scales displayed at a press conference at the state Office of Weights and Measures in Avenel. The spring pushed back as an item was weighed, producing an inaccurate reading.

"Consumers who need to sell their heirlooms and keepsakes to raise cash deserve to get every dollar that their gold, jewelry and precious metals are worth. But buyers who use unapproved, uninspected or purposely tampered with scales are cheating consumers out of money," said Thomas R. Calcagni, the state's acting director of the Division of Consumer Affairs.

The businesses were cited for violations of laws that require detailed receipts to be provided to sellers, as well as for the use of scales that were found to be unregistered, not inspected, not approved for use in New Jersey, and that had been unsealed and tampered with.

Complete receipts given to consumers selling their items must include information about the type of precious metal or item purchased, the fineness (quality) of the metal, the weights of the items purchased, the prices paid, and the name and address of the buyer. That information is important to consumers who may later wish to dispute the transaction or attempt to reclaim their jewelry during the 48 hours when the buyer is required to keep the purchased item.

Transient gold and jewelry buying businesses are required to post a $5,000 bond with the state in order to conduct business.

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Beware of Oil Spill Scams

New York consumer agency offers tips to avoid being ripped off

Beware of Oil Spill Scams...

July 5, 2010
As the Deepwater Horizon oil spill continues to unfold in the Gulf of Mexico, consumers are urged to beware of fraudulent charitable solicitations relating to the clean-up effort and to assisting businesses and communities affected by the disaster.

In the aftermath of other disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, scammers have used e-mails, websites, telephone calls, flyers, mailings and other methods to solicit contributions from the public -- supposedly to assist victims. This time around, scammers may claim to be raising money for the oil spill relief effort, including environmental causes, remediation services and victim assistance.

"Scammers follow the headlines," said New York State Consumer Protection Board (CPB) Chairman and Executive Director Mindy A. Bockstein. "That's why it's important to be cautious about responding to charitable solicitations in the aftermath of a disaster such as the oil spill. Consumers should ask questions and do their homework before opening up their wallets and giving to charities that claim to be helping with the oil spill relief efforts."

While consumers are urged to be careful about bogus charities that spring up while efforts to plug the leak continue, they will also need to remain vigilant about avoiding scams throughout the massive, long-term clean-up and recovery efforts.

Do your homework

Before making a donation, CPB recommends you consider the following:

• Contribute to known and verifiable charities. Research the organization's status, registration filings and complaints by contacting the CPB, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and/or the Better Business Bureau.

• Beware of callers who want your money fast or use high-pressured tactics. When solicited by phone, always ask the caller to send you written materials about the charity. No legitimate organization will insist that you donate immediately. Watch out for solicitors who employ dramatic, emotional or heart-tugging stories. Ask for written information about the charity and how your money will be spent or distributed.

• Avoid giving cash. Make checks out to the charity not to an individual. Give your contribution by check or credit card so that you have a record of the donation. If you choose to make a donation via a charity's website, check to ensure that the website is secure and that your computer is equipped with the latest anti-virus protection. Don't send contributions with a "runner," by wire or overnight parcel pick-up service.

• Guard against fake solicitations. Be wary of unsolicited mailings, phone calls and e-mails requesting donations. Unless you have signed up to receive e-mails from a charity of your choice, do not respond to e-mail solicitations. Don't click on any links contained in these emails, as you may be directed to a fake website made to look like a legitimate organization's official site. Other e-mails ask for money to be sent to offshore bank accounts.

• Don't disclose personal or financial information. Never give your Social Security number, credit card or debit card number or other personal identifying information in response to an unsolicited charitable request, especially over the phone.

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A Boomer Manifesto: Don't Trust Anyone Under 50

It's time for Boomers to reinvent, rejuvenate, and revolutionize

Here then is my Boomer Manifesto: ten key areas where I believe we have the power to transform things for the better. The first step is to Stay Healthy....


Something has happened to the Boomer generation and its not a pretty picture. Too many of us are overweight, out of work, or simply feeling powerless in the face of mounting ageism, overly expensive health care, and a number of other financial, career, health, and, for some, even relationship issues we no longer feel we have any control over.

In the 1960s, we were the generation that led a revolution, and now now that many of us are in our 60s, its time for us to lead another one. In the U.S. alone, were 78 million strong which means we have the power to change the way things are. We just havent used that power in a very long time. Well, now its time, time to take back our dignity and use our power to once again be the generation of change.

Here then is my Boomer Manifesto: ten key areas where I believe we have the power to transform things for the better:

  • Stay Healthy
  • Keep Working
  • Maintain Your Relationships
  • Tend to Financial Security
  • Improve Housing Choices
  • Face Up to Legal Issues
  • Travel Smart
  • Be An Activist
  • Build a Legacy
  • Deal With Death

Stay Healthy

The reason I put health first is that without health, those extra years we Boomers are being given will be a curse rather than a blessing.

One of the main problems in this country is that good health costs money and requires time and attention. It can take more time to plan, prepare, and eat healthy foods and meals than grabbing carbohydrate and calorie-rich fast foods on the run.

Health insurance, a necessity, can be very expensive if you don't have a full-time job. Your plan will hopefully cover medical checkups and tests to detect those diseases that if caught early enough, have almost a 100% cure rate. But dont let the lack of money or a good health insurance policy stop you from getting the check-ups and medical treatment that you need. Pay out-of-pocket, if necessary.

Include eye checkups in that list of necessary healthcare concerns. Today, if you catch it in time, there are treatments for certain types of macular degeneration that did not exist even a few years ago, enabling your eye doctor to stop in its early stages what could be the cause of debilitating vision loss.

If you do not have healthcare insurance, or if your policy does not include checkups, or a specific procedure, find a way to pay for these health care expenses yourself. Make those health care costs a priority over other expenses that can be reduced or eliminated.

Next, lose the extra weight. You don't see many obese people in nursing homes; they just dont live long enough. We need to get our weight to a manageable and healthy number that we can sustain. In addition to having a healthy weight, get those cholesterol and blood pressure numbers under control too. If all you do is take a 30 minute walk everyday, it will make a difference.

Whatever it takes, as detailed in How to Live Better and Longer, make your health your number one concern as a Boomer, now and in the years going forward. You owe it to yourself, your family, and everyone else who cares about you and depends on you.

As we Boomers reach the age for Medicare coverage to kick in 65 we will all need to take the time to understand what Medicare covers, and does not cover, as well as what you may need to pay to supplement any gaps in Medicare coverage, a topic to be addressed in another column.

With the number of seniors over the age of 65 likely to develop Alzheimers and other dementias in their senior years, Boomers need to lobby to get more resources put into finding cures for these diseases as well as better tools for early detection and treatment. (See Boomers Come Face to Face With Alzheimers).

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Cadillac Escalade Leader In Insurance Claims for Theft

Ford F-250 pickup, and Infiniti G37 place high on IIHS list

Cadillac Escalade Leader In Insurance Claims for Theft...

July 3, 2010
Versions of the 2007-09 Cadillac Escalade lead the pack when it comes to the rate at which people file insurance claims for theft, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

The luxury SUV is followed by the Ford F-250 crew pickup, Infiniti G37 luxury car, and Dodge Charger with a HEMI engine. Theft rates for these vehicles, which are one-to-threw years old, are three to five times as high as the average for all vehicles.

"Sedate family cars and fuel sippers aren't on the hot list," says Kim Hazelbaker, HLDI senior vice president. "Thieves are after chrome, horsepower, and HEMIs."

Escalade consistency

Overall theft losses take into account not only the rate at which insurance claims are filed but also the size of the payments for claims, and most of the vehicles with the highest overall theft losses are SUVs and large pickups. The Escalade has ranked worst in overall theft losses in six of the past seven HLDI reports. In fact, all four versions of the Escalade head the list of the worst overall losses for theft, with average yearly losses more than seven times the average for all passenger vehicles.

The Escalade EXT 4-door 4-wheel-drive has the highest theft losses of all, with $146 in theft payments per insured vehicle year. This is more than 10 times the $14 average theft payments per year for all passenger vehicles.

SUV payouts

The vehicle group with the highest overall theft losses ($82 in theft payments per year) is very large luxury SUVs. Losses for these vehicles are nearly six times as high as the $14 average for all passenger vehicles. Very large pickups have the second highest overall theft losses, at $57 per insured vehicle year, and 2-door minicars have the lowest at $4 per insured vehicle year.

Almost one of every four Escalade theft claims is for $40,000 or more. These vehicles are equipped with standard antitheft ignition immobilizers that are supposed to prevent them from being started without a proper key. The problem, Hazelbaker says, is that "even though Escalades have the latest immobilizer technology, thieves still can put them on flatbeds and haul them away."

HLDI's are the only reported theft results based on the number of insured vehicles on the road. Information on theft losses published by the National Insurance Crime Bureau doesn't take into account the number of each vehicle insured, so the most popular vehicles on the road tend to top this organization's list of most-stolen vehicles.

This doesn't tell an individual owner how likely a particular car is to have a theft claim. To answer that question, HLDI identifies vehicles with the worst theft losses by counting the number of insurance claims by make and model relative to the number of each make and model insured. This indicates the vehicles that are most likely to be theft targets, taking into account their exposure on the road.

New to the worst list

The Chevrolet Corvette Z06, a high-performance midsize sports car, isn't stolen nearly as often as the other vehicles on the worst list, but claims are expensive when the Z06 does go missing. The average size of an insurance claim payment is $41,229. This compares with $10,118 for a Dodge Charger with a HEMI engine, a large family car that makes the worst list mainly because of how often it's stolen.

Eye on pickups

"In many cases it's tough to pinpoint exactly why a vehicle becomes a theft target," Hazelbaker says. "Investigators tell us big work trucks like the Ford F-250/350, Chevrolet Silverado 1500, and Dodge Ram 2500 are attractive not only because of the vehicles themselves but also because of the tools and cargo they carry."

HLDI results take into account theft of a vehicle and also vehicle content. Overall theft losses for pickup trucks climbed steadily between 1999 and 2006 as the US economy boomed but now are decreasing. Still, as a group these vehicles have losses that are at least twice those of cars and SUVs.

Best theft losses

The Volvo S80, a large luxury car, leads the best list with overall losses equal to 4 percent of the average for all passenger vehicles. Next best are the Saturn VUE 4-wheel-drive midsize SUV and Nissan Murano midsize SUV. The Toyota Prius, a hybrid car, also ranks among the top 10. The 10 best vehicles have overall theft losses less than 15 percent of the average. Average payments for a theft claim are less than one-third the average.

Long-term trends

Since 1998 the frequency of theft claims for cars and SUVs has declined while average insurance payments per claim have increased. Frequencies have dropped the most for SUVs, declining from 4.9 claims per 1,000 insured vehicle years in 1998 to 2.4 in 2008. (An insured vehicle year is one vehicle insured for one year, two for six months each, etc.)

For pickups, the downward trend in claim frequencies that began in 1998 reversed in 2001 and increased through 2006. Meanwhile, average insurance payments per theft claim have risen the most for pickups. SUVs had the highest average payments per claim until 2005, when results for pickups overtook those for SUVs.

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Consumers Seeking Refunds of $400 or More for Video Professor 'Free Trials'

Many customers seeking refunds of $400 or more for 'free trials'

Consumers Seeking Refunds of $400 or More for Video Professor 'Free Trials'...



If you've ever sat around a classroom waiting for the professor to show up, you know how some of the Video Professor's customers are feeling about now. But chances are you hadn't coughed up $400 or more for a single session with your learned instructor.

That's the fix many Video Professor customers are in right now. Take Pete of Reading, Pa. He ordered one of the Professor's CD-based lessons on a "free trial" offer, paid a delivery fee of $6.95, looked it over and decided it wasn't for him. So Pete sent the CD back but learned a valuable lesson when the Professor slapped a $399.95 charge on his credit card.

Now Pete and other consumers are finding the Professor's vanishing act may be more profound that it at first appeared.

"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 Professor's Web site has been changing frequently over the last few weeks, offering various explanations. The latest version says that the Professor is "transitioning to a new business model," replacing CDs with online lessons -- and, not surprisingly, offering "free" online lessons for a limited time.

But as for those who already paid their money and took their chances on the CD, the Web site's Contact Information page has this bleak message:

Video Professor is currently transitioning to an automated online customer response system. If you are contacting Video Professor with a refund request, please be aware that we are not processing any credit card transactions at this time and therefore are unable to process refunds. Please contact your banking institution directly for more information on how to receive a refund. Please be assured that you will receive your refund.

At this time our Customer Service Department is no longer available. Again, if you are requesting a refund you must contact your banking institution.

In the meantime, if you have a product for which you are seeking a refund, please keep the product as our gift. Also, check out all of our online lessons (all 65 titles) available at www.videoprofessor.com. For the time being, they are completely free - no credit card is required to access the lessons and there is no obligation.

Hmmmm

So what does this sound like to you? Businesses whose customers complain of unauthorized charges at an unusually high rate can soon find themselves without a credit card payment processor, which one consumer advocate said may be what precipitated the Video's Professor's truancy.

For its part, the Better Business Bureau has suspended Video Professor. A statement on the organization's Web site said the company "was suspended on 6/7/10 due to not meeting our BBB Standards for Trust."

"The company is going through a reorganization that involves temporary furloughs," the BBB added.

Other than its cryptic Web statements, the company has been tight-lipped. Bettye Harrison, who has been the company's president for years, lists her occupation as "Former President & COO at Video Professor" on her Linked-In page.

John W. Scherer, the founder, CEO and ebullient star of late-night infomercials, is also strangely silent, a change from the days back in 2007 when he vigorously pursued consumers who dared post critical reviews of his products on Internet sites.

Calls to the company's main number, 800 525-7763, get a "fast busy" response, which sometimes indicates a number is out of service.

'Reduced operations'

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 CEO 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."

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."

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.

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iPhone 4 Antenna Defective, Several Suits Allege

Holding the phone a certain way can lead to no bars, dropped calls

iPhone 4 Antenna Defective, Several Suits Allege...

 

That didn't take long.

The iPhone 4, which made its long-awaited debut last week, is now the subject of several lawsuits taking issue with the device's apparent propensity to drop calls.

Two class actions were filed in San Francisco, and one in Maryland. The suits allege that, when the iPhone is held a certain way, it receives almost no signal -- leading to dropped calls and much frustration. Specifically, using one's hand to cover the phone's metal frame in the lower left-hand corner -- where the antenna is exposed -- causes a dramatic drop in bars indicating signal strength.

One of the California suits says that the only way to prevent the signal failure is to buy a certain phone cover -- and fork over more money to Apple in the process.

Consumers are left with three options: hold their phones in an awkward and unnatural manner; return their phones and pay 10 per cent 'restocking fee', or purchase Apple's own 'bumper' cases for their phones, costing $29.95 in addition to the premium they have already paid for the phones themselves, which may somewhat ameliorate the iPhone 4's defects, the complaint says.

Christopher Dydyk, the Massachusetts plaintiff, contends that Apples sale of the iPhone with this unannounced defect, assuming Apples prior knowledge of the defect, constitutes misrepresentation and fraud. In omitting to disclose the defect in the iPhone 4, Apple perpetrated a massive fraud upon hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting customers.

Apple blames reception bars

Apple, for its part, says that the problem is due in large part to the way that the phone displays reception bars. The display is determined by a formula that's totally wrong, according to the company, meaning that the phone might show lots of bars in an area with almost no reception, or vice-versa.

But that explanation fails to account for the fact that the Maryland plaintiffs say they began to experience significantly reduced reception and performance when handling the phones as demonstrated in Apple's advertisements or as a reasonable person would handle a mobile telephone. The trouble persisted regardless of whether the plaintiffs were making phone calls, browsing the Internet, [or] sending text messages.

The company had previously offered the suggestion that consumers buy a bumper case for their phones, but that suggestion was absent from the company's latest statement -- perhaps due to the blowback from consumers who just finished paying for a brand new smartphone.

Jobs dismissed concerns

One of the suits also cites a supposed email exchange between a newly-minted iPhone 4 owner and Apple CEO Steve Jobs, in which Jobs appeared to dismiss the problem as a non-issue.

MacRumors forum user samcraig emailed Steve Jobs about the low signal issue while holding the new iPhone 4 in a specific way, the suit reads. Samcraig emailed Steve Jobs: 'Question -- what's going to be done about the signal dropping issue. Is it software or hardware?' To which, Jobs replied with a typically short response: 'Non issue. Just avoid holding it that way.'

Some reports have questioned whether the exchange actually occurred, suggesting that the supposed Jobs response may have come from an impostor.

Apple has promised to provide a software fix for the problem within the next few weeks, although it's unclear whether the remedy will deal only with the supposed bars formula glitch or will address the larger issue of phones' actual antenna strength.

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Founder of New York Sham Car Donation Charity Pleads Guilty

Group spent over $2 million on personal expenses and real estate instead of helping families

Founder of New York Sham Car Donation Charity Pleads Guilty...

Juky 2, 2010
The state of New York has busted the founder of a sham car donation charity for looting over $2 million in charitable funds.

Shoba Bakhsh, of Queens-based "Hope for the Disabled Kids, Inc.," pled guilty to lying to donors and misusing funds for herself and her family. As a condition of the plea, the charity will immediately shut down.

Hope for the Disabled Kids took in thousands of cars and had more than $2 million in revenue between the charity's founding in 2001 and 2009. When soliciting donors, Bakhsh promised that over 90 percent of donations would go to help disabled children.

However, no funds were used for any legitimate charitable purposes from 2007 to 2009. No records were produced to prove that funds were used for legitimate purposes prior to 2007 because Bakhsh destroyed documents and filed false paperwork.

"This individual manipulated donors and exploited children with serious medical needs in order to enrich herself and her family," said Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. "As a result of her actions, millions of dollars that should have gone to help disabled children were instead spent on department store bills and real estate. As our investigation continues, my office encourages New Yorkers to be generous and informed donors."

Pocketed donations

On its website, Hope for the Disabled Kids claimed that:

• Funds will "be utilized to benefit disabled children by purchasing medical equipment;"

• Funds will "help pay for medical expenses for families who are unable to afford [them];"

• Funds will "purchase books, toys, games and food during the holidays to distribute to children in hospitals."

Instead, Bakhsh spent the donated on herself and her family, including:

• Close to $500,000 in connection with the purchase of real estate in Florida and payments of real estate taxes on properties owned by Bakhsh and her husband;

• Payments on two different Macy's credit card accounts;

• School tuition for Bakhsh's children;

• Additionally, Bakhsh's personal checking account received cash deposits of nearly $250,000 between 2007 and 2009. During this period, she supposedly had no employment other than her job at Hope for the Disabled Kids, which reported paying her less than $50,000 per year.

Advertising blitz

Hope for the Disabled Kids solicited the donation of vehicles through print advertising outlets and its website, which has been shut down. Bakhsh and her group intentionally made false representations about the charity in order to trick people into donating their vehicles, including saying that more than 90 percent of the proceeds from the sales of donated vehicles would be spent on children in need. Bakhsh also posted forged testimonials on the charity's website that made it seem that it had made legitimate contributions to hospitals and health care facilities.

Bakhsh, of South Ozone Park, Queens, pled guilty in New York County Supreme Court to one count of Scheme to Defraud in the First Degree (class E felony) and two counts of Offering a False Instrument for Filing in the First Degree (class E felony).

As a condition of the plea, Hope for the Disabled Kids, Inc. will immediately shut down. Bakhsh is also forbidden from serving on the board or as an officer of a not-for-profit and from being employed at any entity engaged in the car donation industry. Bakhsh is expected to be sentenced on September 23, 2010.

How they operate

Charities involved in the car donation industry solicit contributions in the form of used vehicles, which they then sell to raise funds for humanitarian causes. Cuomo's industry-wide investigation into car donation charities has shown that some charities mislead donors about how much money is used for charitable purposes as well as where the money goes. In some cases, the car donation charity is a complete sham, with little or no money going to the causes the charity purports to support.

As part of the investigation, the AG recently sent subpoenas to 16 charities, fundraisers, and individuals seeking materials relating to the funds that charities and for-profit fundraisers have collected through car donation programs. Cuomo also sued to shut down a sham car donation charity, Feed the Hungry, Inc., for misusing funds meant for the homeless.

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Ohio Sues Escrow Company

Company allegedly failed to pay taxes after collecting them from homeowners

Ohio is accusing an Illinois-based company of defrauding its citizens out of thousands of dollars. Attorney General Cordray has filed suit, seeking restitu...

July 2, 2010
The State of Ohio is accusing an Illinois-based company of defrauding its citizens out of thousands of dollars. Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray has filed suit, seeking restitution and civil penalties.

Cordray said the company -- American Escrow -- and its owners, Derek C. Lurie and Steven Lurie, claimed that they would provide "escrow" services for their customers to pay property taxes or homeowner insurance but collected the money from consumers and never made the payments on their behalf.

"Ohioans who contracted with this company lost thousands of dollars that they had set aside to pay taxes and insurance premiums," said Cordray. "In the end, not only were their taxes and premiums not paid, but they had to come up with additional money out-of-pocket."

According to the lawsuit, American Escrow entered into contracts with consumers to provide escrow services and to pay for property taxes and/or homeowner's insurance each year. Normally that service is provided by your mortgage lender. However, if you don't have a mortgage on your home, you must pay the taxes in one lump sum.

Homeowners in this circumstance would have been much better off making payments into a savings account each month, then paying their annual taxes. That's essentially what American Escrow was supposed to do.

They divided the approximate annual amount by 12 payments, which they then collected each month from consumers. Consumers were charged a one-time set up fee of up to $250 and a monthly service charge up to $6.50. The lawsuit alleges that the company stopped making payments for some customers in the fall of 2008 but continued to collect money through March 2009.

The attorney general's office has received 89 complaints to date against American Escrow from Ohioans who said they lost money.

Cordray charged American Escrow and its principals with multiple violations of Ohio's Consumer Sales Practices Act, including failure to deliver and unfair and deceptive consumer sales practices. He is also seeking permanent injunctive relief, restitution and civil penalties.

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Be Informed When Donating to Veterans Charities

Use of the words 'military' or 'veterans' doesn't mean the group is legit

Be Informed When Donating to Veterans Charities...


As Independence Day approaches, you may be contacted for a donation by charities claiming to support veterans and active-duty service men and women. Kansas Attorney General Steve Six urges consumers to take a close look at those who are asking for money.

"We recognize our veterans and service men and women who have sacrificed greatly to protect the freedom we enjoy," said Six. "Making a donation to a veterans or military charity is an important way we can support our military personnel and their families. It is also important that, when making such a donation to support these brave men and women, consumers avoid falling victim to fake charities and scams."

There are a number of legitimate charitable organizations working to help veterans, active-duty personnel, and their families. Unfortunately, unscrupulous individuals capitalize on consumer patriotism to perpetuate fraud and make a quick profit. The AG's office has says it has received reports of potentially fraudulent activities.

Six urges consumers to verify the authenticity of a charitable organization prior to giving. "It is unfortunate that some use the name and symbols of our military to profit themselves and rob troops and veterans of aid and support," said Six. "By taking a moment to research and validate a charity, Kansans can ensure that their money is supporting worthy causes and not lining a scam artist's pockets."

Points to remember

When giving to charitable causes, consumers should remember the following:

• Recognize that the words "veterans" or "military families" in an organization's name don't necessarily mean that veterans or the families of active-duty personnel will benefit from your donation.

• Ask to be provided information about the charity in writing. A legitimate charity will be willing to provide you with more information about its charitable purpose, programs, and use of funds.

• Do additional research before you donate. Search the charity online through a search engine. Check for complaints filed by other consumers.

• Call the office that regulates charitable organizations to see whether the charity or fundraising organization has to be registered in your state.

• Do not send or give cash donations. For security and tax record purposes, it's best to pay by check made payable to the charity.

• Contact your local Better Business Bureau to see if there are any complaints about the charity or search for the charity online.

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Feline's Pride Recalls Raw Cat Food

Salmonella contamination feared in some of the frozen raw food

Feline's Pride Recalls Raw Cat Food...

A New York company today recalled some of its raw food for cats and kittens because of possible salmonella contamination.

Felines Pride of Elma, New York, said its pulling its Natural Chicken Formula in 2.5 pound plastic containers off the market. The frozen raw food with ground bone for cats and kittens included in this action were made on June 10, 2010.

The company sold the products in uncoded plastic containers to private consumers nationwide. Felines Pride makes its food when consumers place their orders and its products have a shelf life of about one week. Only those orders placed and shipped from June 10 through June 17, 2010, are included in this recall.

Felines Pride and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are investigating to find the source of this problem.

The company and the FDA said they have not received any reports of illnesses linked to the recalled food. But the FDA warned that people handling raw pet food can become infected with salmonella. The risks increase if pet owners have not thoroughly washed their hands after handling the food or touching any surfaces exposed to the products.

Symptoms of salmonella infections in people include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, minimal diarrhea, fever, and headache. Children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are more susceptible to these types of infections and may experience more severe symptoms, according to the FDA.

Anyone who experiences these symptoms after handling the recalled pet food should immediately contact their health care provider, the FDA said.

Pets with salmonella infections may be lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting, the FDA said. Some pets will only have decreased appetites, fever and abdominal pains.

The FDA warned that infected but otherwise healthy pets can still be carriers of salmonella and infect other animals or humans.

Pet owners with cats that have eaten this recalled food -- and display these symptoms -- should contact their veterinarians.

The FDA said pet owners should not feed the recalled products to their cats and advised consumers to immediately discard the food.

For more information about this action, pet owners can contact the company at (716) 580-3096.



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Feds Tax Your Tan, Starting Today

New kind of sunburn: federal tanning tax helps finance healthcare overhaul

Feds Tax Your Tan, Starting Today...

By Truman Lewis
ConsumerAffairs.com

July 1, 2010
We've been told over and over that too much time on the tanning bed is bad for our skin. As of today, it's bad for our wallet as well, as the federal government's new 10 percent excise tax on indoor tanning services becomes effective.

It's the first of 21 excise taxes created by Congress to help pay for the healthcare overhaul that was passed a few months ago. Congress in its wisdom calculated that it would be able to sweat about $2.7 billion out of tanning taxpayers over the next decade.

Now since it's Congress we're talking about, nothing is quite as simple as it sounds. First of all, the tax -- like all taxes -- doesn't apply to everybody. It only applies to tanning salons and other establishments that charge a fee for tanning.

So who doesn't it apply to? Why, health clubs, of course. The health club industry lobbyists lost no time lathering up their friends in Congress and exempting health clubs -- "qualified physical fitness facilities," in the language of the bill -- that include tanning services as part of their monthly membership fee. Nor does it apply to "phototherapy services" performed by a licensed medical professional.

The tanning tax is making many small business owners turn pale. There's been next to no information distributed to local businesses and many complain that the software they use to run their cash registers and credit-card operations has not yet been modified to collect and account for the new tax.

Grover Norquist isn't pale, though. The president of Americans for Tax Reform gets red in the face when he charges that the new tax violates President Obama's pledge not to raise taxes on families making less than $250,000.

"Small business owners across the country have already been feeling the financial and paperwork burdens caused by the tax, with some shutting their doors and others laying off employees," Norquist huffed. Industry estimates from the Indoor Tanning Association show that well over half of tanning salon owners are women, he said.

In California alone, there are 1,912 tanning facilities estimated to employ 6,840 people, serving the 1.1 million Californians who don't get enough sunshine buzzing around the Southland, Inland Empire and Bay Area.

Like all excise taxes, there's no requirement that the tax be passed on to the customer but businesses are hardly likely to voluntarily eat the added cost themselves.

So what's the solution for long-suffering palefaces determined to look tanned and fit? We can't think of any, other than exercising outside or investing in some spray-on or rub-on tanning lotion.

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South Texans Urged To Stay Safe, Report Price Gouging During Storm

Governor's disaster declaration gives OAG increased enforcement authority

South Texans Urged To Stay Safe, Report Price Gouging During Storm...

July 1, 2010
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is advising residents of South Texas affected by Hurricane Alex that the state disaster declaration activates state laws that prohibit price gouging.

The declaration triggers the provision of the Deceptive Trade Practices Act, which makes it unlawful to sell or offer to sell fuel, food, medicine, or another necessity at an exorbitant or excessive price.

"During declared disasters, state law prohibits vendors from dramatically increasing the price of necessities," Abbott said. "South Texans should take steps to protect themselves and report any alleged price-gouging to the Office of the Attorney General. After the storm subsides, residents should carefully screen offers for repairs or construction services and be sure to obtain accurate information before contracting for repair services."

The disaster declaration affects the following counties: Aransas, Bee, Brooks, Cameron, Duval, Hidalgo, Jim Hogg, Jim Wells, Kenedy, Kleberg, Live Oak, McMullen, Nueces, Refugio, San Patricio, Starr, Webb, Willacy, and Zapata.

Avoiding ripoffs

When Texans turn to repairmen to help in the clean-up and rebuilding process, they should consider these tips:

• Deal only with licensed or bonded contractors or builders;

• Contact an insurance adjuster to get an estimate of the damage and repair cost;

• Be wary of contractors who solicit services door-to-door, especially those that are unfamiliar or from out of town;

• Get the salesperson's license plate number;

• Don't rush into signing a contract, and never pay up-front for promised work;

• Secure the terms of any warranty work in writing; and

• Ask for references, or rely on recommendations from friends or relatives who have had experience with honest contractors.

Although Texas' price gouging law prohibits vendors from illegally raising prices to reap exorbitant profits during a disaster, it does allow retailers to pass along wholesale price increases to customers. Thus, in some cases, increased prices may not necessarily signal illegal price gouging.

Texans who believe they have been deceived by fraudulent business practices should call the Office of the Attorney General's toll-free complaint line at (800) 252-8011 or file a complaintonline.

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Toyota Considers Yet Another Recall

Toyota has identified a problem but hasn't decided how to deal with it

Toyota Considers Yet Another Recall...

If you drive any of eight Toyota and Lexus models, you could experience engine stalling while driving. And while Toyota has indicated to U.S. auto safety authorities it is considering a recall, it's by no means certain that it will initiate one.

In a statement to Japanese media, a Toyota official is quoted as saying the car company is considering "some kind of measure" to deal with the issue. The "issue" is possible engine stalling while the vehicle is underway. Some of these vehicles could experience problems with the valve spring in their engines that may cause idling trouble that could lead to engine failure, according to Toyota.

The word of a possible engine defect does not come as news to S., of Golden, Colo., who reported to ConsumerAffairs.com last month about his engine problems.

"My new 2010 Toyota Tundra with 2,500 miles had a catastrophic engine failure while driving on the freeway. I took the truck to Stevinson West Toyota - they took the engine apart and found multiple holes in the engine block," he said. "They are still not telling me the source of this engine failure. Toyota is telling me this is a one time occurrence, but I have been finding multiple problems with other Tundra's (2007-2010).

In fact, S. cites a USA Today article from 2007 that reported Toyota was fixing engine failures in new Tundra trucks.

From Toyota's description, the current problem is not as serious as the one S. describes. Reportedly, no accidents have been reported because of the problem. The issue involves 270,000 4.6-liter and 3.6-liter engines, a Toyota spokeswoman in Tokyo said. The exact models were not named.

If it seems odd that a carmaker announces it "might" recall some cars before actually doing it, keep in mind Toyota paid a record fine to the U.S. Government for being slow to acknowledge its sudden acceleration problems last September, which opened the floodgates of trouble for the company.

Toyota recalled nearly three million vehicles in early 2010 to deal with either sudden acceleration or braking problems. In April the carmaker temporarily suspended sales of the Lexus GX 460 after Consumer Reports called it unsafe.

 

 

 

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CSPI: Food Dyes Pose Rainbow of Risks

Cancer, hyperactivity, allergic reactions among the problems, group claims

CSPI: Food Dyes Pose Rainbow of Risks...


Food dyes -- used in everything from M&Ms; to Manischewitz Matzo Balls to Kraft salad dressings -- pose risks of cancer, hyperactivity in children, and allergies, and should be banned, according to a new report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

A top government scientist agrees, and says food dyes present unnecessary risks to the public.

The three most widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, are contaminated with known carcinogens, says CSPI. Another dye, Red 3, has been acknowledged for years by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be a carcinogen, yet is still in the food supply.

Loaded with dyes

Despite those concerns, each year manufacturers pour about 15 million pounds of eight synthetic dyes into foods. Per capita consumption of dyes has increased five-fold since 1955, thanks in part to the proliferation of brightly colored breakfast cereals, fruit drinks, and candies pitched to children.

"These synthetic chemicals do absolutely nothing to improve the nutritional quality or safety of foods, but trigger behavior problems in children and, possibly, cancer in anybody," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson, co-author of the 58-page report, "Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks." "The Food and Drug Administration should ban dyes, which would force industry to color foods with real food ingredients, not toxic petrochemicals."

Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 have long been known to cause allergic reactions in some people. CSPI says that while those reactions are not common, they can be serious and provide reason enough to ban those dyes. Furthermore, numerous studies have demonstrated that dyes cause hyperactivity in children.

Cancer concern

Back in 1985, the acting commissioner of the FDA said that Red 3, one of the lesser-used dyes, "has clearly been shown to induce cancer" and was "of greatest public health concern." However, Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block pressed the Department of Health and Human Services not to ban the dye, and he apparently prevailed -- notwithstanding the Delaney Amendment that forbids the use of in foods of cancer-causing color additives. Each year about 200,000 pounds of Red 3 are poured into such foods as Betty Crocker's Fruit Roll-Ups and ConAgra's Kid Cuisine frozen meals. Since 1985 more than five million pounds of the dye have been used.

Tests on lab animals of Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 showed signs of causing cancer or suffered from serious flaws, said the consumer group. Yellow 5 also caused mutations, an indication of possible carcinogenicity, in six of 11 tests.

In addition, according to the report, FDA tests show that the three most-widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, are tainted with low levels of cancer-causing compounds, including benzidine and 4-aminobiphenyl in Yellow 5. However, the levels actually could be far higher, because in the 1990s the FDA and Health Canada found a hundred times as much benzidine in a bound form that is released in the colon, but not detected in the routine tests of purity conducted by the FDA.

Expert opinion

"Dyes add no benefits whatsoever to foods, other than making them more 'eye-catching' to increase sales," said James Huff, the associate director for chemical carcinogenesis at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences' National Toxicology Program. "CSPI's scientifically detailed report on possible health effects of food dyes raises many questions about their safety. Some dyes have caused cancers in animals, contain cancer-causing contaminants, or have been inadequately tested for cancer or other problems. Their continued use presents unnecessary risks to humans, especially young children. It's disappointing that the FDA has not addressed the toxic threat posed by food dyes."

CSPI's report notes that FDA's regulations mandate a stricter standard of safety for color additives than other food additives, saying that there must be "convincing evidence that establishes with reasonable certainty that no harm will result from the intended use of the color additive." The standard of "convincing evidence" does not apply to preservatives, emulsifiers, and other additives.

Enforcement lacking

CSPI charges that the FDA is not enforcing the law in several regards:

• Red 3 and Citrus Red 2 should be banned under the Delaney amendment, because they caused cancer in rats (some uses were banned in 1990), as should Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, which are tainted with cancer-causing contaminants.

• Evidence suggests, though does not prove, that Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 40, and Yellow 6 cause cancer in animals. There certainly is not "convincing evidence" of safety.

• Dyed foods should be considered adulterated under the law, because the dyes make a food "appear better or of greater value than it is" -- typically by masking the absence of fruit, vegetable, or other more costly ingredient.

In a letter to FDA, CSPI urges the agency to ban all dyes because the scientific studies do not provide convincing evidence of safety, but do provide significant evidence of harm.

A ninth dye, Orange B, is approved for coloring sausage casings, but in 1978 the FDA proposed banning it because it was found to be toxic to rats. The industry has not used Orange B in more than a decade. Also, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has labeled Citrus Red 2 a carcinogen, and the FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives said "this color should not be used as a food additive." However, it poses little risk because it is approved only for coloring the skins of oranges.

Overseas actions

Because of concerns about dyes' impairment of children's behavior, the British government asked companies to phase out most dyes by last December 31, and the European Union is requiring, beginning on July 20, a warning notice on most dyed foods. CSPI predicted that the label notice -- "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children" -- likely will be the death knell for dyes in all of Europe.

The greater government oversight and public concern across the Atlantic results in McDonald's Strawberry Sundae in Britain being colored with strawberries, but in the United States with Red dye 40. Likewise, the British version of Fanta orange soda gets its bright color from pumpkin and carrot extract, but in the United States the color comes from Red 40 and Yellow 6. Starburst Chews and Skittles, both Mars products, contain synthetic dyes in the United States, but not in Britain.

Fortunately, says CSPI, many natural colorings are available to replace dyes. Beet juice, beta-carotene, blueberry juice concentrate, carrot juice, grape skin extract, paprika, purple sweet potato or corn, red cabbage, and turmeric are some of the substances that provide a vivid spectrum of colors.

However, CSPI warns that "natural" does not always mean safe. Carmine and cochineal -- colorings obtained from a bright red insect -- can cause rare, but severe, anaphylactic reactions. Annatto, too, can cause allergic reactions.



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