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Payday Loan Industry Mounts PR Offensive

As states get tough, industry tries to show a caring side

Payday Loan Industry Mounts PR Offensive...

PhotoAs states continue to crack down on payday loans, the payday lending industry is attempting to make a case for itself in the media, spewing out press releases when states take action to curb the usurious loans.

After the Colorado legislature passed a measure capping interest rates at a mere 45 percent, a Web site called aboutpaydayloan.com issued a press release taking issue with some of the measure's provisions. Specifically, the site took expection to the requirement that lenders give borrowers six months to repay the loan instead of the typical two weeks.

After all, it is hard to fathom why a six-month loan would be any more helpful when you only need a little cash for a car repair, or until payday, the press release observed.

The reason you need at least six months is, if you're living paycheck to paycheck, it's going to take a long time to repay the loan, said Uriah King, VP for State Policy at the Center for Responsible Lending. If you're borrowed $500 you don't have, how are you going to be able to pay it back out of your next paycheck? The answer is, you can't, so you have to take out another two-week loan. That's the debt trap.

Triangulation?

The press release claims that "reputable" payday lenders are pulling out of Colorado and other states that are cracking down on the industry, leaving consumers to the tender mercies of unscrupulous competitors, though it's far from clear what separates a reputable payday lender from an unscrupulous one.

It's not clear who or what operates aboutpaydayloan.com. It appears as some sort of blog, where anyone can post content. Most of the postings are anonymous, identified only as admin.

The ongoing scam in which a bogus debt collector harasses consumers over a phony payday loan debt also gives payday lenders the opportunity to associate themselves with law enforcement.

Pay1Day.com, an online lender, issued a press release associating itself with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's recent Scam Alert. There was no official connection between the two, but Pay1Day.com said it was passing along the attorney general's warning as a "community service."

Kinder, gentler

Despite attempts to show a softer side, Charlene Crowell, Communications Manger for State Policy at the Center for Responsible Lending, doesn't think it will work.

When voters have a say on payday lending, they usually reject it, Crowell told ConsumerAffairs.com. When the legislature gets involved, they usually have trouble getting pro-payday loan legislation out of committee.

Two organizations promoting payday lenders in the south BorrowSmart-Alabama and BorrowSmart-Mississippi, happen to be located in two of the most lucrative states for the payday lending industry, at least when it comes to number of borrowers. Both groups offer financial advice, but King says consumers shouldn't be fooled.

Unless they tell you 'don't ever take out a payday loan,' I don't think I would be taking financial literacy advice from payday lenders, King told ConsumerAffairs.com.

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Use Caution When Selling A Timeshare

FTC offers advice to avoid resale scams

Use Caution When Selling A Timeshare...


With the weak state of the economy, many people understandably would like to sell the condos they purchased when times were good. But the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) urges consumers to exercise caution when using any of the many timeshare resellers.

So far this year, two states have taken action against timeshare resellers. In Vermont, Attorney General William Sorrell reached a settlement with Timeshare Relief, Inc., in which the company agreed to pay $140,000 for violations of state consumer laws.

In March, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum unveiled continuing investigations into at least 17 timeshare companies and their affiliates throughout the state for deceptive trade practices.

"Florida's consumers are trying to make prudent financial decisions," the attorney general said at the time, "but many timeshare resale companies are blatantly scamming people by promising sales or refunds and failing to provide services even after taking hefty up-front fees."

Complaints

ConsumerAffairs.com has received a sizable number of complaints about the practices of timeshare sellers from consumers across the nation.

"I called TimeShare Only in March of 2007 to sell my timeshare in Florida and they promised they would be able to sell it or rent it. They charge me 600 dollars for my two bedroom loft and I have never heard anything else from that company unless I call about it," Sheila, of Richmond, Va., told ConsumerAffars.com.

In warning timeshare owners to be careful when trying to sell their property, the FTC offered this advice:

• Even if the salesperson claims the local market is "hot," or his office is overwhelmed with buyer requests, don't agree to anything on the phone or online before checking out the reseller. Contact the Better Business Bureau, state Attorney General and local consumer protection agencies in the state where the reseller is located. Ask if any complaints are on file.

• Ask for all information in writing.

• Ask if the reseller's agents are licensed to sell real estate where the timeshare is located. If so, verify it with the state real estate commission. Deal only with licensed real estate brokers and agents, and ask for references from satisfied clients.

• Ask how the reseller will advertise and promote the timeshare unit. Will progress reports be issued? How often?

• Ask about fees and timing. It's better if the reseller takes its fee after the timeshare is sold. If a fee must be paid in advance, ask about refunds. Get refund policies and promises in writing.

• Don't count on recouping the purchase price of a timeshare, especially if you've owned it for less than five years and the location is not well known.

• To get an idea of the value of a timeshare, consider using a timeshare appraisal service. Check with the state where the service is located to make sure the appraiser's license is current.

• Before signing the contract, make sure it specifies the services the reseller will perform, the costs the seller is responsible for and when they must be paid, whether the seller can rent or sell the timeshare at the same time the reseller is trying to sell it, the length or term of the contract to sell the timeshare, and who is responsible for documenting and closing the sale.

• Don't sign the contract if the deal isn't what you expected or wanted. Negotiate changes or find another reseller.

• Check with the resort to determine restriction, limits, or fees that could affect resale or ownership transfer.

• Have available the name, address, and phone number of the resort, the deed and the contract or membership agreement, the financing agreement if money is still owed, information to identify your interest or membership, the exchange company affiliation, the amount and due date of the maintenance fee, and the amount of any real estate taxes that are billed separately.

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Inspectors Report Unsanitary Conditions At Iowa Egg Farms

Consumer group calls Food and Drug Administration report 'stomach churning'

Inspectors Report Unsanitary Conditions At Iowa Egg Farms...


Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors who descended on Iowa egg farms in the wake of the egg recall say none of the farms were in compliance with their existing plans to prevent Salmonella enteritidis.

In a conference call with reporters, the FDA reported finding piles of manure, rodents, flies and uncaged chickens roaming the grounds. The inspections took place at farms owned by Wright County Egg, Quality Egg and Hillandale Farms.

The inspections were conducted in the wake of a recall of over a half-billion eggs due to Salmonella contamination. The recall occurred within weeks of new federal rules designed to enhance egg production safety.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 1,400 consumers were sickened from eating the contaminated eggs, with the outbreak stretching back to at least mid-May.

The FDA last week revealed the initial inspection of the farms found Salmonella in chicken manure and in chicken feed. In Monday's session with reporters, FDA officials also reported they found Salmonella in water samples. The water, they said, was used to wash eggs.

Piles of manure

At some of the operations run by Wright County Egg, the inspectors said they discovered piles of manure reaching eight feet in height. There was so much manure on the ground, they said, that in some buildings the doors would not close, providing easier access for rodents and other animals.

"While it is really helpful that FDA is disclosing the results of their recent inspections of two facilities linked to a major illness outbreak from contaminated eggs, FDA's findings are truly stomach churning," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, Food Safety Director at Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSOI). "FDA found rodents and wild birds in the facilities, and five of the Wright County Egg facilities had giant manure piles inside their buildings. These violations are reminiscent of similar findings in another major outbreak linked to peanut butter."

DeWaal says it is equally troubling that the inspections occurred the month following the date that the new egg-safety regulation went into effect.

"Both companies involved had been on notice that they needed to meet requirements of the new egg-safety rule for over a year," she said. "Instead of finding companies that were ready to meet those requirements, FDA's inspections document companies with long-standing violations and apparently little intention to comply."

Unconcerned about inspections?

DeWaal says the state of conditions at the egg farms suggests the owners knew that FDA inspections are so rare, even following the adoption of a new safety regulation, that there was no urgency to fix their buildings and their operations to assure compliance with FDA statutes and regulations.

Hillandale Farms issued a statement Monday saying it is committed to addressing all issues raised by the FDA and plans to be "in full compliance as soon as possible." Wright County Egg said most of the issues tagged by FDA inspectors have been addressed or will be soon.

"We anticipate the expeditious completion of nearly all remaining items by mid-September," the company said in a statement.



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American Apparel Faces Trouble On Multiple Fronts

Company fends off lawsuits as stock plunges and feds launch investigation

American Apparel Faces Trouble On Multiple Fronts...


photo Not long ago, it was the undisputed king of hipster cool, churning out simple, understated v-neck shirts and leggings while growing at a breakneck pace. Now, American Apparel is facing an increasingly unruly group of investors and three shareholder class action lawsuits, and analysts are beginning to wonder how much longer the retailer can survive.

It's a stark turnaround for the company that touts itself as the largest clothing manufacturer in the United States. For over a decade, AA was strictly a wholesaler, providing blank T-shirts to retailers across the country. The company went retail in 2003, and has since opened a jaw-dropping 260 locations worldwide -- an expansion that CEO Dov Charney says is the fastest in American history.

AA quickly gained a reputation as exacting and humane, producing simple, high-quality items while refusing to outsource their production. Employees at the company's Los Angeles factory are given full health care plans, paid more than twice the minimum wage, and are permitted to make international phone calls during work hours -- free of charge.

Those liberal policies, paired with tasteful design and eye-catching ads, made AA an attractive alternative to big-name retailers like the Gap and Banana Republic, especially for young shoppers. And the strategy paid off, with AA reporting $545 million in sales as recently as 2008.

But if the retailer's rise was precipitous, its fall is shaping up to be the same.

Last month, Deloitte & Touche, AA's auditor, resigned after reporting "material weaknesses" in the retailer's financial controls, a finding that has sparked a federal investigation.

Stock woes

AA's stock, which reached a high of $16.80 in December 2007, is also not what it used to be. Shares have plummeted 45 percent in the last two weeks alone, from $1.39 on August 16 to $0.76 on Monday. (For comparison's sake, as of Monday, competitors Urban Outfitters and the Gap were trading at $30 and $16 per share, respectively.)

And, as is often the case, that stock decline has sparked a series of shareholder class action lawsuits -- three in the past week alone. One of those suits claims the company "violated federal securities laws by issuing material misrepresentations to the market concerning American Apparel's operations and financial performance."

Worse, the American Stock Exchange has threatened to delist the company -- that is, remove its stock from the market altogether -- if it fails to file its quarterly statement soon. The company originally promised to file the statement by September 15, but now says it might need until November.

The company has even come under pressure over its once-renowned personnel practices: last year, a federal crackdown on illegal immigration forced AA to fire 1,500 workers -- a number that amounted to 15 percent of its workforce.

AA's melodrama is, at least, consistent with its founder's reputation. Charney, who started the company as a college student in 1989, has been a controversial figure for some time. He is known to walk around the company's factory in underpants, and has settled at least three sexual harassment lawsuits brought by female employees.

Future uncertain

While it's too soon to say whether American Apparel is destined to go the way of Circuit City and Tower Records, the company's recent actions aren't likely to soothe many stockholders' nerves. In its preliminary quarterly report, AA said it might not be able to continue as a "going concern," suggesting that it is at least considering the possibility of bankruptcy.

A more subtle -- but perhaps equally troubling -- development is the company's planned 180-degree change in style, as it moves away from its mainstay line and begins producing preppier clothes like pleated pants and blazers. Regardless of whether AA ultimately pulls itself out of the fire, it is certain to go down as one of the more unlikely stories in American clothing.

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Facebook Offer To 'Test' Apple Gadgets Is A Scam

Scammer promises use of iPad or iPhone to lure victims

You'd like to have an Apple iPad or iPhone so, if you were offered the chance to "test" the product and get a free device, you might jump at it, right?...


You'd like to have an Apple iPad or iPhone so, if you were offered the chance to "test" the product and get a free device, you might jump at it, right?

Well, keep in mind the advice that "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," because scammers are now using this pitch on Facebook in order to get their hands on your personal information.

Graham Cluley, a security expert for Sophos security software, is warning that in recent days he has begun seeing Facebook users who appear to be offering free iPads and iPhones for people who will try them out.

The come-on

Here's an example of a typical iPad tester scam that Cluley says has been seen many times on Facebook in the last few days:

photo

Heyyyyy everyone )), 3 days ago I signed up at [website link] as a tester and today I got my iPad. All you need to do is to tell them your opinion about iPad and you can keep it forever. You should hurry since i highly doubt this is gonna last forever.

And Cluley offers this example of a similarly-worded iPhone 4 tester scam:

Hey, 3 days ago I signed up at [website link] as a tester and today I got my iPhone4g. All you need to do is to tell them your opinion about iPhone 4g and you can keep it forever. You should hurry since i highly doubt this is gonna last forever.

Many of these messages are appearing on users' photo walls. People who respond do not get a free iPad or iPhone.

photo

Don't take the bait

"If you've found messages like these on your Facebook profile or in your photo galleries, remove them immediately and change your passwords," Cluley writes on his blog. "You would also be wise to have a thorough overhaul of your privacy and account settings -- to make sure that they-re secure enough. If you see applications or "likes" of pages that you are uncertain about, remove them from your account."

It's a reminder to exercise caution and vigilance on the Internet, especially on social networking sites. Other good advice is to periodically run a virus-scan with an up-to-date anti-malware product -- just in case there's some spyware lurking on your computer which is trying to grab your account details.

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P&G Recalls Limited Number of Iams Cat Food Bags

The affected bags were sold only in Colorado

P&G Recalls Limited Number of Iams Cat Food Bags...


Salmonella concerns have prompted Procter & Gamble to pull a limited number of bags of cat food off store shelves.

P&G Sunday recalled a small number of Iams Proactive Health Indoor Weight & Hairball Care dry cat food bags, which were recently sold in one or two Loveland, Colorado, stores.

The company said the cat food has the potential to be tainted with salmonella, a bacterium that can cause food poisoning. P&G, however, said it has not received any reports of illnesses linked to the pet food.

The recall is limited to Iams Proactive Health Indoor Weight & Hairball Care cat food sold in blue 6.8-pound bags, with a code date of 02304173 (B1-B6), and a UPC number of 1901403921.

P&G has worked with its retailers to remove the affected product from stores in the area, the company said. P&G believes that only three bags may have been purchased recently by consumers in the area. Yet, as a precautionary measure, the company is initiating this retrieval.

Pet owners who purchased the recalled cat food should discard it and contact P&G at 800-862-3332 for a replacement product.

Sundays action is the latest in a string of salmonella-related recalls the Cincinnati-based pet food maker has issued this summer.

In July, the company pulled two lots of its Iams Veterinary Formulas Feline Renal dry food off the market because of possible salmonella contamination. Less than two weeks later, the company expanded that recall to include some of its Iams and Eukanuba dry dog and cat food products.

P&G said it has not received any reports of illnesses linked to those recalled products, which were sold in veterinary clinics and specialty pet stores in the United States and Canada.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, warned pet owners they can become infected with salmonella if they handle any the recalled foods especially if they dont wash their hands after touching surfaces exposed to the products.

Symptoms of salmonella infections in healthy people include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping and fever, the FDA said. In rare cases, salmonella can cause arterial infections, arthritis, muscle pain, and other serious health problems.

Pets with salmonella infections may have decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain, the FDA said. If the infections are not treated, pets can become lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever and vomiting.

The FDA also warned that infected -- but otherwise healthy -- pets can spread salmonella to other animals or people.

Consumers with dogs or cats that ate the recalled food should contact their veterinarians if their pets experience any of these symptoms, the FDA said.



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Car Loan Delinquency Rate Falls In Second Quarter

Year-over-year decline in delinquency is the largest since 2001

Car Loan Delinquency Rate Falls In Second Quarter...


Consumers are having an easier time making their car payments.

Despite a still-weak economy, the credit agency TransUnion reports the national 60-day delinquency rate for auto loans fell 19.7 percent between the first and second quarters of 2010.

The year-over-year delinquency rate at the national level fell by 27.4 percent in the second quarter.

Auto loan delinquency was highest in Mississippi and Louisiana at 1.05 percent and 0.97 percent, respectively. The lowest auto loan delinquency rates were found in North Dakota (0.28 percent), Michigan (0.29 percent) and Pennsylvania (0.32 percent).

The largest improvements in delinquency from the previous quarter were found in Vermont, which recorded a 41.4 percent decrease from 0.58 percent), and Connecticut, where the rate fell 36.4 percent from 0.55 percent.

Auto loan delinquency rates rose for only three states since the first quarter of 2010 -- Rhode Island, Utah and Montana.

Debt rises

Average auto debt nationally rose quarter over quarter from $12,501 to $12,643. Year-over-year, auto debt increased by 1.13 percent in the second quarter.

The District of Columbia held the largest average auto debt burden at $15,625, followed by Wyoming at $14,534. The lowest average auto debt was in Nebraska at $11,118.

On a year-over-year basis, national bank auto originations increased by the largest margin since the recession began in late 2007 (18.7 percent). District of Columbia led all other areas showing an increase in auto originations by 55.4 percent since the second quarter 2009. On a regional basis, only one state (Hawaii) showed a drop in year-over-year originations.

Improving trend

"The national trend we are seeing continues to point to a clear improvement in payment behavior," said Peter Turek, automotive vice president in TransUnion's financial services group. "Although part of the reason for the turnaround in delinquency rates is the influx of new, lower risk loans as we have noted before, consumers do not see a quick fix to the short term economic and employment situation and are focusing their attention instead on savings and lower consumption of discretionary goods."

Turek says the movement toward fiscal responsibility is reflected in year-over-year results as auto delinquency rates now have dropped 27.4 percent since second quarter 2009 -- the largest decline since the summer of 2001.

"Based on our current economic assumptions, TransUnion believes that the 60-day auto delinquency rate will continue to show seasonal patterns, but gradually drift upward, reaching a rate of around 0.6 percent by the fourth quarter of this year," Turek said.

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Ohio Cracks Down On Charitable Fundraiser

Courtesy Call Inc. accused of using 'dishonest and distasteful' tactics

AG's office filed an agreement in Franklin County Common Pleas Court with Courtesy Call Inc. to resolve allegations of multiple violations of Ohio's charit...


A Las Vegas-based professional fundraiser must pay a $10,000 fine and comply with certain solicitation restrictions in Ohio for a year, according to the terms of legal action taken by Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray.

The AG's office has filed an agreement in Franklin County Common Pleas Court with Courtesy Call Inc. to resolve allegations of multiple violations of Ohio's charitable solicitation law.

Questionable practices

Between 2007 and 2009, the Charitable Law section of the Ohio Attorney General's Office received numerous complaints from consumers around Ohio regarding fundraising calls from employees of Courtesy Call. The investigation found evidence of misrepresentation by Courtesy Call employees, including but not limited to:

• Claiming that the person contacted made a prior pledge when that was not true.

• Mailing pledge forms when no pledge had been made.

• Failing to state that the caller works for a professional solicitor.

• Claiming the donation will benefit the Franklin County Sheriffs' Office when that was not true.

"Consumers need to be able to make informed decisions about the donations they make, and they have the right under Ohio law to be treated honestly by professional solicitors," said Cordray. "What happened here was dishonest and distasteful, especially in light of the fact that many of these campaigns involved police, firefighter and veterans' organizations."

This isn't the first time Courtesy Calls has been in hot water. In 2009, California came down on the firm because -- it said -- a "shockingly small portion of donations" it collected went to those in need.

Soliciting limitations

Under the terms of the Ohio agreement, Courtesy Call will not solicit donations in the state for one year for the following charitable organizations: United States Deputy Sheriffs' Association, Association for Police and Sheriffs, United States Municipal Police Association, National Veterans Services Fund, Firefighters Charitable Foundation and WeTip.

Courtesy Call also agrees to comply with Ohio law when soliciting contributions from Ohio citizens including clear and conspicuous disclosure that the solicitation is being conducted by a professional fundraiser. The company also agrees to cooperate with the Attorney General in investigating any future complaints and to take appropriate action to respond to such complaints.

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Meat Packer Recalls E.Coli-Tainted Ground Beef

Three illnesses linked to contaminated meat that was sold under several retail brand names

Meat Packer Recalls E.Coli-Tainted Ground Beef...


A Pennsylvania meat packer has recalled approximately 8,500 pounds of ground beef products after three people were sickened by E. coli bacteria. The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said the recalled beef may be contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

The beef was processed and distributed by Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., a Wyalusing, Pa., company.

The product subject to recall includes 42-pound cases of "GROUND BEEF FINE 90/10," containing three (3) - approximately 14 pound chubs each. These products have a "use/freeze by" date of "07/01/10," and an identifying product code of "W69032."

The products subject to recall bear the establishment number "EST. 9400" inside the USDA mark of inspection. These products were produced on June 11, 2010, and were shipped to distribution centers in Connecticut and Maryland for further distribution.

Repackaged

The FSIS says it is important to note that the recalled products were repackaged into consumer-size packages and sold under different retail brand names. When available, the retail distribution list(s) will be posted on FSIS' website.

Though it is a comparatively small recall, FSIS and Cargill say they are concerned that consumers may also freeze the product before use and that some product may still be in consumers' freezers. FSIS said it strongly encourages consumers to check their freezers and immediately discard any product subject to this recall.

FSIS says it became aware of the problem on August 5, 2010, when the agency was notified by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources of an E. coli O26 cluster of illnesses.

In conjunction with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources, the New York State Department of Health, and New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, two (2) case-patients have been identified in Maine, as well as one (1) case-patient in New York with a rare, indistinguishable PFGE pattern as determined by PFGE subtyping in PulseNet.

PulseNet is a national network of public health and food regulatory agency laboratories coordinated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Illness onset dates range from June 24, 2010, through July 16, 2010.

Linked to illnesses

FSIS said it determined that there is an association between the ground beef products subject to recall and the cluster of illnesses in the states of Maine and New York. FSIS regulations and statute allow the agency to take action on a product under its jurisdiction in cases where the product is convincingly associated to illness by evidence collected though an epidemiological, traceback investigation, and/or laboratory analysis. FSIS is continuing to work with affected state public health partners and the company on the investigation.

E. coli O26 is a bacterium that can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and in the most severe cases, kidney failure. The very young, seniors and people with weak immune systems are the most susceptible to foodborne illness. Individuals concerned about an illness should contact a health care provider.

FSIS advises all consumers to safely prepare their raw meat products, including fresh and frozen, and consume only ground beef that has been cooked to a temperature of 160 degrees F. The only way to confirm that ground beef is cooked to a temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria is to use a food thermometer that measures internal temperature.



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Financial Advisors Gearing Up to Handle Nervous Clients

A volatile economy makes nervous wrecks out of individual investors

Financial Advisors Gearing Up to Handle Nervous Clients...


Hardly a day goes by that we don't see or hear at least one story about the stock market plunging, soaring or faltering. As banks fail, real estate crumbles, bonds and CDs stagnate, those fortunate enough to have a few dollars invested in the stock market edge ever closer to the edge of their seats.

The world's nervous investors sit glassy-eyed, staring at the financial cable channels, poring through the nether pages of the Wall Street Journal and Investor's Business Daily, while fretting over apocalyptic warnings that they have missed forever the chance to invest affordably in gold.

Eventually, most lunge sweaty-palmed for the phone and call their stock broker or personal financial advisor. And guess what? Not only is their call not a surprise, the advisor has been expecting it and is ready with soothing words.

Of course, some financial advisors have always been more salesmen than objective advisors. (A few have been Ponzi artists, but that's a topic for another day). But in today's roller-coaster economy, nearly every financial advisor has been forced to learn the techniques practiced by psychologists, grief counselors, priests, ministers and rabbis.

When the news is bad about jobs, and a possible double-dip recession, the old fears rear their head, said Jane King, president of Fairfield Financial Advisors Ltd.," in a recent issue of Investment News, a trade publication for financial advisors.

King recounted a calls he received from a nervous client in his 60s who had been fretting about the risks to his $2.7 million portfolio. She reminded him that his investment included such premier stocks as Anheuser-Busch, up 24% since last September.

He wouldn't have made a return even approaching that in bonds, King said.

The situation can be at its most perilous with older consumers who have worked hard, attained a high standard of living and accumulated a sizeable nest egg despite -- or perhaps because of -- growing up with memories of the Great Depression, when cash was king.

Fearful of outliving their assets, it can be difficult for these older investors to resist the temptation to pull their money out of stocks and stash it under their bed or in insured bank accounts, which amount to about the same thing.

Most armchair investors don't consider themselves experts but still have trouble putting their full faith in their financial advisors despite what may be years of stellar portfolio performance through good years and bad.

While it's true that the financial markets are confusing, it's still true that over the long-term, a balanced and diversified portfolio outperforms just about any other legal investment activity. Ideally, you want to be buying on the way up, selling on the way down. A good financial advisor can help you get it right, at least most of the time.

"Ultimately, it's all about education," said Anne Field, writing in Registered Rep, another trade newsletter. "Perhaps the most important thing you can teach them in your early discussions is how inflation will affect their portfolios if they don't take any risks."

Taking it seriously

Don't think financial advisors aren't taking the nervous investor phenomenon seriously. The Financial Planning Association recently sponsored a continuing education event for its members entitled "Retirementology: Rethinking the American Dream."

Topics included "relationship skills, communications skills, critical thinking" and promised to explain "how the role of the advisor is evolving to become more comprehensive."

All of this may sound familiar to doctors, lawyers and other professionals who in recent years have had to deal with the "consumerization" of their practices and to go beyond cultivating a good bedside manner. They've had to learn to probe patients' and clients' fears and biases and to more fully explain their methodology, qualifications and previous successes.

It took patients and legal clients a long time to become assertive, to ask questions and challenge authority. Now it's time for investors to do the same -- to politely but assertively question their advisors' advice, qualifications and methods.

Chances are, your advisor is doing a good job but the job description now includes keeping you well-informed and comfortable.

Whatever your financial advisor may achieve with your portfolio, he or she also owes you the time and respect to answer all of your questions, to hold your hand and explain clearly and unemotionally the likely consequences of the various investment options open to you.

If you're not satisfied with the results of your advisor's efforts, both fiscal and psychological, it may be time to look elsewhere. Fred Yager outlines what to look for in his article, "Is It Time to Fire Your Financial Advisor?"

If you don't have a financial advisor or are thinking of making a change, one good source of information is the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, which has an online directory of fee-only financial advisors. (A fee-only advisors charges you for his service and takes no commission from products she represents).

Chances are, if you've accumulated a hefty nest egg, you've learned to find the best possible professional help and to delegate appropriately. This is no time to forget those lessons.

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Wal-Mart Appealing Discrimination Ruling to Supreme Court

Ninth circuit certified class of more than 1 million employees

Wal-Mart Appealing Discrimination Ruling to Supreme Court...

 

Wal-Mart has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on a lawsuit contending that the retailer discriminates against female employees, The New York Times reported this week.

The suit, pending in federal court in San Francisco, alleges that female Wal-Mart employees are paid less, given smaller raises, and promoted less often than their male counterparts. If found liable, Wal-Mart could be on the hook for at least $1 billion.

The suit has been winding its way through the courts since it was first filed in 2001. In April, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals narrowly certified the case as a class action, ruling that just because over 1 million employees are potentially involved doesn't necessarily render [the] case unmanageable.

Wal-Mart sought to paint the court's decision as relying on technicalities.

"It is important to remember that the Ninth Circuits opinion dealt only with class certification, not with the merits of the lawsuit," the company said in a statement, contending that "the Ninth Circuits opinion contradicts numerous decisions of other appellate courts and even the Supreme Court itself."

Wal-Mart's appeal is based on the contention that the case is unsuitable for class treatment, since each employee's claim will necessarily involve individual factual issues that can't be applied to the case as a whole.

That argument echoes Judge Sandra Ikuta's dissent in the Ninth Circuit decision.

Never before has such a low bar been set for certifying such a gargantuan class, Judge Ikuta wrote, adding that the plaintiffs' allegations were based on general and conclusory allegations, a handful of anecdotes and statistical disparities that bear little relation to the alleged discriminatory decisions.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs cite as evidence data showing that women account for two-thirds of Wal-Mart employees, but only a third of its management.

Brad Seligman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Times that class certification was entirely appropriate, even given the class's enormity.

The ruling upholding the class in this case is well within the mainstream that courts at all levels have recognized for decades, Seligman said. Only the size of the case is unusual, and that is a product of Wal-Marts size and the breadth of the discrimination we documented.

Company was warned

In a separate article, the Times reported that Wal-Mart was warned of potential liability a full six years before the lawsuit was filed. In 1995, lawyers for the firm Akin Gump reported that salaried male employees earned 19 percent more than females, and that men were five times more likely than women to be promoted into management jobs.

Paradoxically, Wal-Mart has been careful to avoid the appearance of discrimination in other areas. In 2003, the company announced that it was implementing policies designed to prohibit discrimination against gay and lesbian employees.

In any event, Wal-Mart is vigorously defending its workplace policies.

Wal-Mart is an excellent place for women to work and has been recognized as a leader in fostering the advancement and success of women in the workplace, the company said in a statement.

Assuming that the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case, its ruling is likely to either open the floodgates for future jumbo class actions, or effectively shut the door on them.

This is the big one that will set the standards for all other class actions, Robin S. Conrad, executive vice president of the National Chamber Litigation Center, told the Times. Conrad's organization is part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and has filed amicus briefs in support of Wal-Mart's position.

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Biospot Caused Seizures, Death, Suit Says

Complaint reinforces concerns about spot-on flea and tick products

Biospot Caused Seizures, Death, Suit Says...

A lawsuit filed this week alleges that Biospot brand flea and tick spray is responsible for neurological problems in hundreds of animals, resulting in death in some cases.

The suit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, blames the problem on pyrethrins, organic compounds that kill fleas and ticks but that also have a long history of poisoning cats.

Pyrethrins kill fleas and ticks by interfering with their nervous systems, thus paralyzing and killing the parasites, the suit says. However, [pyrethrins] have the same effect on very significant numbers of pets, causing neurological problems which have and often will result in injury and/or death to the animal.

While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with oversight of products like Biospot, the suit says that the agency rarely conducts independent tests and instead depends largely on information provided by manufacturers when determining whether such products are safe.

Biospot, which can be purchased over-the-counter, is significantly cheaper than its prescription counterparts, such as Frontline.

Pet owners represent proposed class

Five named plaintiffs represent a putative class composed of anyone who bought flea products containing pyrethrins, manufactured by the defendants, provided that their claims fall within the applicable statute of limitations.

Sunny Johannson, a plaintiff from California, usually treated her cat Jack O'Punkin with Frontline and Revolution, neither of which ever caused any adverse effects. Earlier this month, Johannson used Biospot for the first and only time. The following morning, Jack bit [Johannson's] hand and collapsed into a seizure that lasted approximately a minute and a half.

Johannson immediately shampooed Jack in an attempt to remove as much Biospot as she could. Her vet's assistant confirmed the likely cause [of the seizure] to be Biospot, having seen similar reactions in other animals. While Jack survived the incident, he continues to be lethargic and uninterested in food, according to the suit.

Plaintiff William Shelby, a Texas resident, wasn't so lucky. On July 1, 2010, he applied Biospot to Waggles, his seven-year-old pit bull. Within days, Waggles's hair began to fall out and she developed bumps on her back and sides. Shortly thereafter, her immune system shut down; her eyesight deteriorated; and she began suffering seizures.

By late July, Waggles had become totally blind, and was not eating because she could not swallow. [She] was running into walls, was disoriented and in great pain. Shelby had Waggles euthanized on July 29, less than a month after he had used Biospot.

The suit alleges that Biospot manufacturers Central Garden & Pet and Farnam Companies know, and have known for many years, that these chemicals will substantially injure and/or kill very significant numbers of dogs and cats.

As evidence, the suit notes that the manufacturers have reported to the EPA a sharp increase in adverse consequences from application of these products to companion animals. According to the complaint, [i]n 2008 alone, there were approximately 44,000 reports of adverse events resulting from squeeze-on products containing pyrethrins, a group that includes Biospot.

Problems not limited to Biospot

Consumers should always be careful when using spot-on treatments, a point hammered home by an EPA advisory issued in May 2009. According to the advisory, the majority of consumer complaints detailing adverse reactions from flea and tick treatments dealt with spot-on products.

Last August, ConsumerAffairs.com's Lisa Wade McCormick detailed the nightmare that befell Diane S., a pet owner from North Carolina, when she used Seargeant's, another spot-on treatment. Her dogs immediately began to whine and jerk, and soon developed burns on their skin.

Diane's vet, who examined the dogs the next day, said [the treatment] was pure poison and it's a wonder it didn't kill them.

The EPA advisory warns pet owners to carefully follow instructions when using flea and tick products, and advises them to consult a veterinarian before using the products on weak, aged, medicated, sick, pregnant or nursing pets, or on pets that have previously shown signs of sensitivity to pesticide products.

 

 



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Gas Prices Fall for Another Week

Prices continue their decline as Labor Day approaches

Gas Prices Fall for Another Week...

The price motorists pay at the gas pump continues to fall as the summer driving season draws to a close.

The average price of self-serve regular today is $2.682 a gallon, down just over four cents from last Friday, according to AAA. Prices fell five cents a gallon the week before that, after edging higher in mid-summer.

The price of diesel fuel is $2.959 a gallon, down two cents from last Friday.

Prices have fallen in the weeks leading up to the Labor Day weekend because of growing concerns about the prospects for economic growth. Because of those concerns, crude oil prices have lost ground, trading this week around $73 a barrel.

"The good news for consumers is an extremely stable and relatively modest price at the pump," said Andrew Delmege, AAA's manager of regulatory affairs. "The bad news seems to be that few are actually taking advantage."

Those who are taking advantage of low prices are finding supplies plentiful. The Energy Information Administration reported this week stockpiles of crude oil rose by more than four million barrels in the week ending August. 20. With supplies plentiful, prices should remain stable well into the fall months.

The states with the most expensive gasoline today are:

Alaska ($3.521)
Hawaii ($3.487)
California ($3.115)
Washington ($3.085)
Oregon ($3.001)
Idaho ($2.991)
Nevada ($2.923)
Utah ($2.923)
Montana ($2.898)
New York ($2.850)

The states with the least expensive gasoline today are:

Missouri ($2.446)
South Carolina ($2.452)
Mississippi ($2.508)
Tennessee ($2.513)
Alabama ($2.520)
Virginia ($2.525)
New Jersey ($2.528)
Texas ($2.537)
Georgia ($2.534)
Louisiana ($2.554)

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Ford Recalling Half-Million Minivans

Recall follows lawsuit over rusting axles

Ford Recalling Half-Million Minivans...



Ford says it is recalling 575,000 Windstar minivans sold in the U.S. and Canada because the axles could fracture.

The recall involves older models 1998 to 2003 and the carmaker says vehicles with high mileage may be especially vulnerable.

In a very small number of cases, Ford said, the axles have fractured in certain locations on the right and/or left side, and affected vehicle handling.

We will notify affected owners in the very near future and ask them to bring their vehicles to their local dealers for inspection and any necessary repairs, the company said in a statement.

Preceded by lawsuit

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

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

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

The recall for the Windstar which is no longer in production applies to vehicles in 21 states, the District of Columbia and Canada where road salt corrosion is more common.

At no charge to customers, Ford dealers will reinforce the axles of the affected vehicles as parts are available. If its determined the axle cant be reinforced, it will be replaced as soon as parts are available, the company said.

Ford also said it will provide for rental vehicles for customers until the rear axle of their vehicle has been replaced.

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Salmonella Found At Iowa Egg Farms

Inspectors find bacteria in manure and chicken feed

Salmonella Found At Iowa Egg Farms...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.Com

August 27, 2010
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors trying to trace the source of Salmonella contamination at two giant egg producers say they have found at least four samples so far.

The contamination has led to the recall of more than a half-billion eggs in the last week.

FDA Inspectors were dispatched to Iowa farms operated by Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms and, within days, found evidence of Salmonella. In a news teleconference, FDA Associate Commissioner Jeff Farrar said inspectors found traces of Salmonella enteritidis in samples of chicken manure and in chicken feed.

Hens eating contaminated feed can become sick, laying eggs that contain the bacteria. The FDA's Sherri McGarry says the evidence gathered so far suggests that Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms are the probable sources of the salmonella outbreak.

Toll rises

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week raised its total of people who have gotten sick from eating contaminated eggs. The CDC says it has estimates more than 1,400 cases of Salmonella traceable to eggs occurred from May 1 though August 25.

However, the actual toll could be much higher. The CDC estimates as many as 38 unreported case of Salmonella for every reported case, meaning the actual toll could be 55,000 or more. No deaths from the illness have been confirmed.

So far, 39 brand names of eggs have been recalled and the FDA has published an updated list online.

Since May, CDC has identified a nationwide, four-fold increase in the number of Salmonella enteritidis (SE) cases through PulseNet, the national subtyping network made up of state and local public health laboratories and federal food regulatory laboratories. CDC received reports of approximately 200 SE cases every week during late June and early July.

Higher than normal

Normally, CDC has received an average of some 50 reports of SE illness each week for the past five years. Many states have also reported increases of this pattern since May 2010, CDC said.

Epidemiologic investigations conducted by public health officials in California, Colorado, and Minnesota have revealed several restaurants or events where more than one person ill with this type of SE has eaten. Preliminary information from these investigations suggests that shell eggs are the likely source of infections in many of these restaurants or events.

FDA, CDC, and state partners conducted a traceback investigation and found many of these restaurants or events received shell eggs from a single firm: Wright County Egg, in Galt, Iowa. FDA said it is currently conducting an extensive investigation at the firm in Iowa, as well as Hillandale Farms.

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Fake Payday Loan Collection Calls On the Rise In Illinois

AG warns of scammers using threats and intimidation against consumers

Fake Payday Loan Collection Calls On the Rise In Illinois ...


Con artists posing as payday loan collectors are using threats of going to jail and other scare tactics to coerce Illinois consumers into opening up their back accounts.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan says her office has seen a rise in complaints about these fraudulent collection calls.

Many consumers targeted in the scheme complain they've taken out payday loans before -- usually from online lenders -- but have paid off the debt. They say the con artists often know their names, social security numbers, place of employment, and bank account numbers -- information that leads them to believe they're dealing with legitimate debt collectors.

The con artists also claim to be affiliated with official-sounding companies or law enforcement agencies, including: the Federal Bureau of Investigators, Department of Law and Enforcement, Morgan & Associates, DNR Recovery, DNI Recovery, Legal Accounts Association, CashNet USA, America Legal Services, Quick Cash, and ACS.

"Although many of these names are fake, some are names of legitimate businesses that the purported debt collectors may be using without permission," Madigan said in a press release.

Threats and intimidation

Victims of the scheme say the scam artists use threats and intimidation to force them into sending hundreds of dollars.

"In almost every case, the bogus collector threatens the victim with legal action, including a lawsuit or arrest, if they don't make a payment right away," Madigan said. "The scammers attempt to force victims into an immediate payment and ask them to authorize a direct withdrawal from their checking account."

In some cases, consumers are asked to sign promissory notes and fax them to the phony collectors.

Protective action

Madigan, however, said consumers can protect themselves from getting taken in this fake debt collection scheme by remembering:

• They can't go to jail for failing to pay a debt;

• Debt collectors cannot threaten them. If they do, hang up and file a complaint with the Attorney General's office;

• To never give out personal information over the telephone, including bank account numbers or credit card numbers;

• To ask debt collectors for written documentation that verifies the debt they're trying to collect;

• To contact the creditor and verify the debt has been paid. If it's not, ask the company if it's sold the debt to a third party collector.

Illinois consumers who've received calls from fraudulent debt collectors can file complaints online with Madigan's office. Consumers can also contact Madigan's Consumer Fraud Hotline at one of the following numbers: Chicago 1-800-386-5438, Springfield 1-800-243-0618, Carbondale 1-800-243-0607.

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Mortgage Delinquencies, Foreclosures Paint Mixed Picture

But delinquencies are up sharply over last year

Mortgage Delinquencies, ForeclosuresPaint Mixed Picture...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.Com

August 26, 2010

Homeowners are still having trouble paying their mortgage, but not quite as much trouble as earlier this year, according to a report from the Mortgage Bankers Association.

In its report on the second quarter of 2010, the MBA found that 9.85 of all loans outstanding were delinquent, meaning nearly one in ten mortgage holders had missed at least one payment. While troubling, its a decrease of 21 basis points from the first quarter of 2010, but an increase of 61 basis points from one year ago.

The percentage of loans on which foreclosure actions were started during the second quarter was 1.11 percent, down 12 basis points from last quarter and down 25 basis points from one year ago.

The delinquency rate includes loans that are at least one payment past due but does not include loans in the process of foreclosure. The percentage of loans in the foreclosure process at the end of the second quarter was 4.57 percent, a decrease of six basis points from the first quarter of 2010, but an increase of 27 basis points from one year ago.

The combined percentage of loans in foreclosure or at least one payment past due was 13.97 percent on a non-seasonally adjusted basis, a four basis point decline from 14.01 percent last quarter.

The seriously delinquency rate, the percentage of loans that are 90 days or more past due or in the process of foreclosure, was 9.11 percent, a decrease of 43 basis points from last quarter, but an increase of 114 basis points from the second quarter of last year.

The numbers suggest that 2010 is a worse year for foreclosures than 2009, but that the trend has improved slightly in recent months. The question is whether that trend will continue or worsen if the economy slips into a double-dip recession.

Reversal of recent trends

These latest delinquency numbers contain a mixture of somewhat good news and somewhat bad news, said Jay Brinkmann, MBAs chief economist. The good news is that foreclosure starts are down and the inventory of homes anywhere in the process of foreclosure fell for the first time since 2006 and had the largest drop since 2005. Loans 90 days or more past due, the largest share of delinquent loans, also fell. The fact that both the 90 plus delinquency rate fell and the foreclosure start rate fell means that a significant number of these seriously delinquent loans have been successfully modified and reclassified as performing, current loans.

Offsetting that good news is the fact that, after declining since the beginning of 2009, the rate of short-term delinquencies is going up and the increase in these short-term delinquencies may ultimately drive the foreclosure measures back up.

The percent of loans one payment behind had peaked in the first quarter of 2009 at 3.77 percent and fell to 3.31 percent by the end of 2009, Brinkmann said. Ultimately the housing story, whether it is delinquencies, homes sales or housing starts, is an employment story. Only when we see a consistent increase in employment will we see an increase in sales and starts, and a sustained improvement in the delinquency numbers. Until we see the increase in the number of households that comes with an increase in the number of paychecks, all measures of the health of the housing industry will continue to be weak.

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Egg Prices On The Rise After Recall

Producers unaffected by recall face strong demand

Egg Prices On The Rise After Recall...


It should come as no surprise that the price of eggs is climbing in the wake of the recent massive Salmonella-linked recall. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials say wholesale prices are up $1.35 per dozen since August 13, when the first recall was announced.

The United Egg Producers, a trade association for companies in the egg business, said the loss of more than a half-billion eggs from the food supply, due to the recall, was bound to place pressure on prices. Producers not affected by the Salmonella scare are facing significantly higher demand.

Among producers facing higher demand are those in West Virginia, who are not connected to the recall. A West Virginia Agriculture Department spokesman says the state currently has 200 licensed egg producers. Since the recall, he says many farms have been selling out their supplies at a faster than normal rate.

Vaccinating hens

While U.S. consumers have become all too aware of potential Salmonella contamination in eggs, it's not a problem for consumers in the UK. More than 10 years ago, British producers began vaccinating their hens. Since then there has been no egg contamination problem.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) drafted new egg safety rules that went into effect last month, The New York Times reports the agency considered -- but decided against -- requiring similar vaccinations for U.S. hens. The FDA said its new rules would have prevented the outbreak if they had been in force earlier in the year, when the problem occurred.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CD) noted a spike in Salmonella illnesses in mid May. The illnesses were eventually traced to two egg producers in Iowa. The Times report quotes industry experts who say they were disappointed the mandatory hen vaccination element was left out of the new egg rules. Salmonella can infect hens, who pass the bacteria onto the eggs as they are being formed.

Staying vigilant

The CDC reports that, by its count, more than 1,300 consumers have been sickened with Salmonella due to contaminated eggs. But keep in mind that symptoms don't appear immediately.

In fact, the CDC says illnesses that occurred after July 17, 2010, might not yet be reported due to the time it takes between when a person becomes ill and when the illness is reported. This takes an average of two to three weeks for Salmonella, according to the CDC.

"Epidemiologic investigations conducted by public health officials in 10 states since April have identified 26 restaurants or event clusters where more than one ill person with the outbreak strain has eaten," the CDC said on its website. "Data from these investigations suggest that shell eggs are a likely source of infections in many of these restaurants or event clusters."

The agency says preliminary information indicates that Wright County Egg, in Galt, Iowa, was an egg supplier in 15 of these 26 restaurants or event clusters. A formal traceback was conducted by state agencies in California, Colorado, and Minnesota, in collaboration with FDA and CDC, to find a common source of shell eggs.

Wright County Egg in Iowa was found as the common source of the shell eggs associated with three of the clusters. Through traceback and FDA investigational findings, Hillandale Farms of Iowa, Inc. was identified as another potential source of contaminated shell eggs contributing to this outbreak. FDA is currently conducting extensive investigations at both of these firms in Iowa. The investigations involve sampling, records review and looking for potential sources of contamination, such as feed.

On August 13, 2010, Wright County Egg conducted a nationwide voluntary recall of shell eggs. On August 18, 2010, the company expanded its recall. On August 20, 2010, Hillandale Farms of Iowa conducted a nationwide voluntary recall of shell eggs.



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Foreclosure Rescue Scam Lawyer To Pay $1 Million in Restitution

Promises of foreclosure relief left homeowners deeper in the hole

Foreclosure Rescue Scam Lawyer To Pay $1 Million in Restitution...


Some 2,000 desperate homeowners who paid a lawyer thousands of dollars to file "frivolous and phony" lawsuits that didn't reduce a penny of mortgage debt for a single client are getting some relief.

Longtime Los Angeles attorney Mitchell Roth promised foreclosure relief through aggressive litigation, "but the frivolous and phony lawsuits he filed instead left 2,000 desperate homeowners in even greater debt," said California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. A $1.1 million judgment against Roth "prohibits him from ever again preying on new victims," Brown added.

In 2008, Roth joined with Nevada-based United First, Inc. and the company's owner, Paul Noe, to provide foreclosure relief services to homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages. Noe, who was previously convicted of wire fraud and the subject of a 2004 Department of Insurance Cease and Desist Order, operated the company and handled client solicitations, while Roth provided legal services.

Homeowners were told that if they worked with United First and hired Roth to pursue their cases in court, they could lower or eliminate their mortgage debt and save their homes.

Big fees, little action

United First charged homeowners some $1,800 in up-front fees, plus at least $1,250 each month, and 50 percent of the cash value of any settlement. If a homeowner's debt was eliminated altogether, the homeowner was required to pay United First 80 percent of the value of the home.

After collecting up-front fees, Roth filed lawsuits on behalf of homeowners, pushing a novel legal argument that a borrower's loan could be deemed invalid because the mortgages had been sold so many times on Wall Street that the lender could not demonstrate who owned it.

Once the lawsuit was filed, Roth did next to nothing to advance the case and often failed to make required court filings, respond to legal motions, comply with court deadlines or appear at court hearings. Instead, he tried to extend the lawsuits as long as possible to collect additional monthly fees from clients.

This approach did not generate a single victory in court and did not lower or eliminate the mortgage debt for a single one of the 2,000 homeowners who hired Roth and United First.

Restitution

Brown filed suit last July, alleging that Roth, Noe and United First engaged in unfair competition, made untrue and misleading statements and violated California's credit counseling and foreclosure consultant laws.

The settlement requires Roth to pay $1 million in restitution to defrauded homeowners plus $125,000 in penalties, and prohibits him from ever engaging in similar conduct in the future.

Homeowners who were defrauded by Roth and United First, or victimized by any other foreclosure rescue scam, should contact Brown's office at 1-800-952-5225 or file a complaint online.

Homeowners can also file a complaint against a lawyer, a legal specialist or a company purporting to operate as a law firm with the State Bar by calling 1-800-843-9053.

United First customers who are eligible for a refund will be contacted by mail.

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

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Ponzi Scammer Headed for Prison

Investors swindled out of $158 million in 'tawdry and cheap' scheme

Ponzi Scammer Headed for Prison ...


Trevor Cook of Apple Valley, Minnesota, has been sentenced to a long prison term for orchestrating a Ponzi scheme that collectively cost more than 900 investors $158 million.

United States District Court Judge James M. Rosenbaum sentenced Cook to 25 years in prison on one count of mail fraud and one count of tax evasion in connection to the crime. In imposing the sentence, Judge Rosenbaum described Cook's offense as "wretched, tawdry, and cheap." Cook was charged on March 30, 2010, and pleaded guilty on April 13, 2010.

"Affinity fraud is a horrible crime. Victims are swindled not only of their money, but of their trust," said United States Attorney for the District of Minnesota, B. Todd Jones following sentencing. "Cook preyed upon those with whom he made connections through church or in the community. Today he atoned for his crimes."

In his plea agreement, Cook admitted that from January 2007 through July 2009, he schemed to defraud people by purportedly selling investments in a foreign currency trading program.

In reality, however, he diverted a substantial portion of the money provided him for other purposes, including making payments to previous investors; providing funds to Crown Forex, SA, in an effort to deceive Swiss banking regulators; purchasing ownership interest in two trading firms; buying a real estate development in Panama; paying personal expenses, including substantial gambling debts; and acquiring the Van Dusen Mansion in Minneapolis.

Investor advice

IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Julio La Rosa warned the public against falling victim to schemes that involve taking money from later investors and using it to pay earlier ones.

"Although the economics of Ponzi schemes are simple, contemporary swindlers conceal this fact with sophisticated marketing," he said. "Go beyond the sales pitch and personality to find the truth behind the numbers.

Cook has been in jail since January because he refused to hand over more than $35 million in frozen assets, including $27 million in offshore accounts, a BMW and two Lexus automobiles, a collection of expensive watches as well as a collection of Faberge eggs, and $670,000 in cash. He has now agreed to assist the government in recovering assets to repay victims for their losses. Failure to follow through would subject him to additional court action.

How it worked

To carry out his massive Ponzi scheme, Cook made false statements to potential investors, including promises that the investment program would generate annual returns of 10 to 12 percent, and that trading would present little or no risk to the investors' principal. He also withheld material information from investors, such as the precarious financial position of Crown Forex, SA, in Switzerland -- an entity through which he traded. In addition, he withheld the fact that trading at PFG in Chicago generated losses in excess of $35 million between July 1, 2006, and August 31, 2009.

To further his scheme, Cook opened an account in the name of Crown Forex, LLC, at Associated Bank, which he used to deposit investor funds subsequently diverted for his own use as well as the use of others. He also sent statements to investors that misrepresented the status of their investments. Moreover, due-diligence letters were prepared that falsely indicated that Oxford Global Advisors had more than $4 billion in assets under management, and that all accounts were liquid.

Cook now admits that on January 29, 2009, he sent a $50,000 check through the U.S. mail from Arizona to Minnesota for investment in his foreign currency trading program.

He also admitted that on April 15, 2009, he filed a false and fraudulent U.S. Individual Income Tax Return, Form 1040, for calendar year 2008. That return failed to report taxable income of at least $5,285,719, upon which tax was due in the amount of at least $1,844,571.

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FDA Warns of Dangers in Sexual Enhancement Products

MasXtreme, TimeOut may cause serious medical problems in some users

FDA Warns of Dangers in Sexual Enhancement Products; MasXtreme, TimeOut may cause serious medical problems in some users...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers about the dangers posed by sexual enhancement and "natural" erectile dysfunction drugs.

MasXtreme, a dietary supplement, is sold without a doctor's prescription, but the FDA says it shouldn't be.

Natural Wellness, maker of the tablets, is conducting a nationwide voluntary recall of MasXtreme, Lot # 907043, UPC 094922300805. Laboratory analysis conducted by FDA has determined the product contains undeclared amounts of Aminotadalafil, an analog of tadalafil.

Tadalafil is an FDA-approved drug used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED), making the MasXtreme, in the eyes of the FDA, an unapproved new drug.

If this all sounds familiar, it should. The FDA pressed Natural Well to conduct a similar recall of the product earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the FDA is warning consumers not to take TimeOut Capsules because they contains an active drug ingredient that can dangerously lower blood pressure. The product is marketed as a dietary supplement for sexual enhancement.

TimeOut is labeled as 100% natural and consumers may mistakenly assume the product is harmless and poses no health risk. TimeOut is distributed on Internet sites and online marketplaces as 2,500 mg capsules.

Consumers who have TimeOut Capsules should stop using them immediately. Sexual enhancement products that claim to work as well as prescription products are likely to expose consumers to unpredictable risks and the potential for injury or death.

The FDA analyzed TimeOut and determined that it contains hydroxythiohomosildenafil, a chemical similar to sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra. Like sildenafil, this chemical may interact with prescription drugs such as nitrates, including nitroglycerin, and cause dangerously low blood pressure. When blood pressure drops suddenly, the brain is deprived of an adequate blood supply which can lead to dizziness or lightheadedness.

Risk statement

The FDA advises that MasXtreme poses a similar threat to consumers because aminotadalafil may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs such as nitroglycerin and may lower blood pressure to dangerous levels. Consumers with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease often take nitrates, the FDA said.

MasXtreme is sold in blister packs containing one capsule. The product is distributed nationwide by Natural Wellness Inc. This product is being promoted for increasing desire and sexual performance. The product is sold without medical prescription. The company says it is not aware of any adverse events associated with the product.

Consumers who have purchased MasXtreme tablets are urged to immediately discontinue their use and return the product to their place of purchase or directly to Natural Wellness Inc. at 440 S Federal Hwy, Suite 107, Deerfield Beach, FL 33441.

Consumers with questions regarding this recall may contact the company at 954-570-6662 Monday through Friday 8 am to 4 pm. Consumers who have purchased this product and have medical concerns should consult with their health care providers.

 

 

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Movie Producer Indicted In Ponzi Scheme

Complaint says producer made millions from investors, not movies

Movie Producer Indicted In Ponzi Scheme...


Investors lured by the glitter of Hollywood got taken for a ride, according to California Attorney General Jerry Brown, who has charged a Laguna Niguel movie producer with 89 felony counts for orchestrating a "cold and calculated" $9 million Ponzi scheme.

Brown says the producer promised investors up to 35 percent returns for making loans to his B-movie production company.

"This con artist sold securities under the guise of a loan to fool investors and try to avoid following the rules," Brown said. "He ran a cold and calculated scam, making promises he never intended to keep and using the funds of new victims to pay off the earlier ones."

Mahmoud Karkehabadi (aka Mike Karkeh), 53, owner of Alliance Group Entertainment, was arraigned late Tuesday on the 89 felony counts, including securities fraud and grand theft. Bail has been set at $11 million. If convicted of all charges, Karkehabadi faces more than 25 years in prison.

More than 150 individuals from across the country made "movie production loans" to Alliance Group Entertainment, which has produced four B-movie flops since 2005, including "Confessions of a Pit Fighter" (2005) starring rapper Flavor Flav and "Hotel California" (2008).

Karkehabadi and his agents told investors they would get their money back within a year, regardless of a project's success, with returns of 18 to 35 percent. When the year was up, Karkehabadi convinced investors to roll their "loans" over into the latest movie project or agree to extensions on the date for repayment.

Movies didn't make money

A review of Alliance Group Entertainment bank records showed the majority of funds deposited into the company's accounts were from investors - and their money was the source of most of the principal and interest payments made to earlier investors. The accounts showed deposits of more than $11 million from investors - and just $535,000 in revenue from the movies produced by the company.

The Department of Corporations referred the case to Brown's office in 2007 after receiving complaints from victims. Brown's office launched an investigation in 2008, searching bank records and conducting interviews with investors across the country.

In 2003, the Attorney General's office secured a $5 million judgment against Karkehabadi for deceptively marketing credit cards that could not be used in stores and violating the state's false advertising and unfair business practices laws. Karkehabadi subsequently filed for bankruptcy. He did not disclose either of these facts to investors in Alliance Group Entertainment.

Two California-based agents who sold securities to victims of the Alliance Group Entertainment scheme are also being charged. Timothy Cho (aka Hin-Kong Cho), 54, of Newport Beach remains at-large, while Deanna Salazar, 53, of Yucca Valley, has agreed to surrender.

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Avoiding Fees Under New Credit Card Rules

Consumers must stay watchful as credit card issuers try to make up lost revenue

Avoiding Fees Under New Credit Card Rules...


The last of a series of new credit card rules took effect this week, offering new protections for consumers. But it still requires vigilance if you want to avoid high rates and fees.

The new rules are part of the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure (CARD) Act that became law law earlier this year. Like previous changes, these new rules are designed to protect consumers by adding clarity and transparency to interactions between card issuers and holders.

However, as these new rules take away revenue opportunities for card companies, issuers are raising other fees or creating new ones to compensate. Bills.com, an online money resource, cautions consumers to be aware of the new rules and also learn how to avoid new fees.

"Unfortunately, one of the unintended consequences of these new regulations is that consumers must be more vigilant than ever as we enter a period of uncertainty surrounding fees and services," said Ethan Ewing, president of Bills.com. "These actions by most card issuers are perfectly legal, but they are certainly outside the spirit of the new law."

The first rounds of changes brought on by the CARD Act required issuers to provide more notice about interest rate increases to consumers, end controversial practices such as inactivity fees, and required more transparent communication around payment windows and information.

Changes in the law

The final set of changes that took effect on August 22nd, 2010 include:

• Maximum limit on late fee penalties of $25 or no more than your minimum payment due. The one exception allows for high penalties if the cardholder has multiple late payments within the past six months.

• Limiting penalties to one charge per issue. For example, the issuer cannot charge an additional penalty for each day a payment is late.

• Any increase in interest rates must be accompanied by a clear explanation for the reason behind the increase.

• Issuers must re-evaluate any interest rate increase six months after it is instituted to determine if there is cause to revoke the increase.

• The official end to inactivity fees so that issuers can no longer charge for not using a credit card over a certain time period.

Consequences of changes

These changes have not occurred in a vacuum. Because they mean card issuers will realized diminished revenue, these companies have begun to identify workarounds or even new fees to supplement their losses. The most straightforward example of these changes is a rise in annual fees by many card issuers.

According to a report by Pew Charitable Trusts, the industry's median annual fee on bank credit cards has jumped 18 percent between July 2009 and March 2010. Similarly, issuers have begun to raise balance transfer fees and foreign transaction fees, shorten billing cycles, and issue rebate cards that are exempt from the CARD Act to combat rate increases. Additionally, some issuers are skirting the ban on inactivity fees by raising annual fees but waiving or reducing them if cardholders meet an annual spending threshold.

Solutions

Bills.com suggests six strategies In order to avoid these fees:

1. Monitor your communications from your credit card issuer.

One of the best ways to stay abreast of changes specific to your cards or situation is to closely monitor information sent from your issuer. New regulations require much greater disclosure on all changes, so any update will be sent to your attention. Be alert for all mailings and read them carefully before throwing away or destroying.

2. Maintain prompt payment status with your credit card company.

Despite all these changes, the simplest way to avoid fees is to pay your credit card bills on time. By missing or being late on a payment you will incur fees, potentially increase your interest rate, and lower your overall credit score.

3. Pay down high balances to improve credit card utilization.

This will show that you can responsibly manage your credit limit, minimizing the chance of higher tiers of interest rates or reductions in credit limit. Additionally, better credit utilization will help boost your credit score.

4. Maintain activity on your credit card accounts.

By using the revolving credit lines that you need or want to keep and promptly paying on them, you can help avoid cancellation of those credit card accounts. This will also help avoid faux inactivity fees and help boost your credit score, while having a long existing credit line closed could lower your score.

5. Avoid over-limit fees through responsible spending habits.

Credit card issuers have begun to charge fees for opt-in over-limit coverage. By remaining aware of credit limits and balances, consumers can avoid a need for this service and these fees altogether.

6. New regulations do not apply to corporate or small business cards.

This means some small business owners might consider using personal cards for business expenses because of fee and rate limitations. However, these owners should remain cautious because their personal credit scores could suffer in the event of missed payments or defaults. Conversely, be aware of companies that are increasing solicitations for corporate card members to avoid new regulations.

As a result of the reforms passed in May 2009, many credit card issuers have increased interest rates and lowered credit limits for millions of credit card customers. The accounts have been closed unilaterally. As a result, millions of consumers have less access to credit than they did a year ago.

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Lawmakers Seek Documents From Egg Producers

Request could signal Congressional probe of massive egg recall

Lawmakers Seek Documents From Egg Producers...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.Com

August 24, 2010
Two members of a key House committee have sent letters to two egg producers at the center of the nationwide egg recall, requesting documents concerning their operations.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), a subcommittee chairman, sent letters to Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms of Iowa regarding recent voluntary recalls of eggs produced by their farms due to potential Salmonella contamination.

The two firms have recalled more than a half-billion eggs that could be tainted with Salmonella. The eggs are linked to an outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis that federal health officials have been monitoring since May 10. An estimated 1,300 consumers have been sickened, by official estimates. The actual number may be much higher.

The two lawmakers requested the inspection records for the companies' facilities, the companies' internal protocols and standards for monitoring and analyzing their products, and documents related to allegations of health, safety, environmental, or animal cruelty violations for the companies or any related companies.

In the letters, Stupak and Waxman requested documents and information relating to the recent recall of more than half a billion eggs by the two companies, including when the companies first became aware of the Salmonella contamination and when they first notified government officials of the issue.

Inspection records

Stupak and Waxman also requested company inspection records, internal protocols for product monitoring, all documents relating to safety practices of egg production, and all communications among the companies' personnel regarding possible salmonella contamination.

"The recent recall of potentially hazardous eggs is yet another example of how our nation's food safety system is broken," Stupak said. "It is important that we discover exactly what happened to cause this recall so we can move swiftly to stop possible further contaminations in our food supply."

As chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Stupak has held 11 food safety hearings over the past four years examining what he calls the failure of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the food industry to protect the nation's food supply. The subcommittee examined breakdowns in the system highlighted by E. coli in meat and fresh greens as well as the 2008 high-profile outbreak of salmonella linked first to tomatoes and later traced to jalapeno peppers.

Food Safety Bill stalled

Findings of the investigation and related hearings led Stupak and fellow Energy and Commerce Committee members John Dingell (D-MI) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) to craft H.R. 2749, the Food Safety and Enhancement Act of 2009. Stupak says H.R. 2749 would establish a national food tracing system, making it easier for the FDA to respond to outbreaks of food borne illness.

The bill would provide the FDA with subpoena power, mandatory recall authority and require country of origin labeling on food. The bill overwhelmingly passed the House in July 2009 in a bipartisan vote. Despite strong support among many industry groups and the FDA, the Senate has yet to act on food safety legislation.

"Had strong reforms like those in H.R. 2749 already been in place, the FDA would have had the authority to issue a mandatory recall and take aggressive steps to stop the spread of these dangerous eggs," Stupak said. "The Senate already has countless examples and studies from the past few years as to why we need food safety reform but this egg recall gives them yet one more. As we investigate the egg recall I hope members of the Senate will realize how important the safety of our food supply is and pass our food safety legislation when they return in September."



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Centralized Food System Magnifies Problems

Fewer producers means more food comes from same place

Centralized Food System Magnifies Problems...


It was February 2007 and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control was monitoring a spike in salmonella illnesses that were ultimately traced to peanut butter.

There was a recall of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter, sold nationwide. Both brands were produced by food giant ConAgra, at a plant in Georgia.

Before the outbreak had run its course several months later, billions of dollars worth of food products had been recalled and thousands had been sickened. Though the CDC attributed no deaths to the outbreak, several families claimed to have lost family members to complications of food poisoning.

And it wasn't just peanut butter that was recalled. Desserts and other food containing peanut butter also had to be recalled. Aside from the health risk to consumers, the economic toll to food companies was staggering.

Lesson learned, or was it?

The peanut butter recall of 2007 brought into sharp focus the inherent problems of a centralized food system, when problems at a single plant or producer can ripple throughout the system. The current recall of a half-billion eggs, possibly tainted with Salmonella, is another example.

The United Egg Producers, the industry trade group for egg producers, notes that fewer than 200 companies now control 95 percent of laying hens in the U.S. That's less than one tenth the number two decades ago.

When there's a problem at one of these producers' farms, it can quickly spread throughout the system. In the current recall, two producers in Iowa, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms appear to be the only producers so far implicated in the outbreak. Between the two operations, eggs are sold under 24 brands.

With fewer companies producing more of the nation's food, you might think it would be easier to assure quality, but apparently that's not the case, at least not in this instance. The Food and Drug Administration had never sent inspectors to the two Iowa-based facilities. Neither had the Department of Agriculture, which shares responsibility for eggs with the FDA.

Scrambled jurisdiction

Jurisdiction over eggs has been scrambled between numerous government agencies for the last 20 years, resulting in enormous delays in addressing the hazard posed by Salmonella enteriditis, a pathogen that infects the ovaries of chickens, causing their eggs to be internally contaminated, said Carolyn Smith DeWaal, Food Safety Director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The outbreak demonstrates the need for a food safety cop on the beat.

Ironically, new egg safety rules went into effect last month and a new food safety bill, greatly expanding FDA's enforcement powers, is stalled in the U.S. Senate.

The Senate should move immediately to pass S. 510 and Congress should move a bill that incorporates the strongest enforcement provision of each bill promptly to the President's desk for signature, DeWaal said.



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Apply2Save Owner Barred From Idaho Loan Businesses

Company took in millions, did little in return, state charges

Apply2Save Owner Barred From Idaho Loan Businesses ...

By James Limbach
ConsumerAffairs.Com

August 24, 2010
The owner of Apply2Save, a bankrupt Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, mortgage modification company, that allegedly defrauded hundreds of consumers nationwide is prohibited from ever operating a similar business in Idaho, according to Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

Derek Oberholtzer entered a settlement agreement with Wasden's office that prevents Oberholtzer from acting as a debt or credit counselor and prohibits him from engaging in mortgage lending, brokering, or modification activities within Idaho or with Idaho consumers.

"Apply2Save operated for less than a year, signed up hundreds of clients, and took in millions of dollars," said Wasden. "Yet few consumers ever received the mortgage modification services they purchased."

"Apply2Save said they could help with my mortgage," Evelyn of Norwalk, CA, writes ConsumerAffairs.com. She says after the company debited her bank account for a $495.00 down payment and did nothing with her case, she was told they had everything they needed, paystubs, financial information etc, and it was good to go. "Two months later," she says, "I called, and nothing was done on my behalf. All that time I thought they were in contact with my mortgage company, instead was told they needed more information and my folder was sitting on someone's desk."

Tresha of Richland, MI, tells ConsumerAffairs.com she gave Apply2Save $500.00 to help save her home from going into forclosure. "Supposedly when they were done we were to give them another $500.00. But we gave up on them because they were stalling and doing nothing."

Wasden sued Oberholtzer and Apply 2 Save in April 2009, alleging the defendants accepted payments from consumers for services that they never performed.

Banned by Boise

In addition to banning Oberholtzer from doing business in Idaho, he is prohibited from obtaining a license to engage in any activity that the Idaho Department of Finance regulates. The settlement with Oberholtzer also incorporates the terms of the Federal Trade Commission's consent decree with Apply2Save, Sleeping Giant Media, and Oberholtzer.

The AG recovered $45,000 in restitution during his investigation of Apply 2 Save and will distribute the money to consumers who filed complaints with the office in 2008 and 2009. Consumers do not need to file new complaints or contact the office. Eligible consumers will receive restitution checks before the end of the year. Status updates regarding this settlement are available here.

Apply2Save and Oberholtzer filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy soon after the state sued. Oberholtzer received a discharge of his debts in April. Apply2Save's bankruptcy is continuing.

For information about Apply2Save's bankruptcy, consumers can call the court's Voice Case Information System at 208-334-9386. If consumers have legal questions about bankruptcy, they should contact a private attorney.

During the prior 16 months, the Attorney General has resolved five cases involving allegations of deceptive mortgage modification activities. The settlements resulted in more than 420 consumers receiving $84,110 in restitution.

"My office received more complaints about loan modification businesses last year than any other type of business," Wasden said. "With foreclosures still at record levels in Idaho, I encourage people facing foreclosure to use the free, professional assistance that is available. Most of the Idahoans we've heard from who paid for mortgage modification services have found that their situation only got worse."

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Deli Meat Recalled For Listeria Contamination

380,000 pounds of meat, some served at Wal-Mart, could be lethal

Deli Meat Recalled For ListeriaContamination...



The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service says Zemco Industries, a Buffalo, N.Y., company, is recalling approximately 380,000 pounds of deli meat products that may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

The agency says the meat was distributed to delicatessens where they were further processed into sandwiches. A mumber of the delis are operated by Wal-Mart stores.

Wal-Mart said the recall involves Marketside Grab and Go sandwiches, but not individual packages of deli meat.

"We encourage customers who recently purchased this item to return it for a full refund," the company said in a statement.

The products subject to recall include:

• 25.5-pound cases of "Marketside Grab and Go Sandwiches BLACK FOREST HAM With Natural Juices Coated with Caramel Color" with the number 17800 1300.

• 28.49-pound cases of "Marketside Grab and Go Sandwiches HOT HAM, HARD SALAMI, PEPPERONI, SANDWICH PEPPERS" with the number 17803 1300.

• 32.67-pound cases of "Marketside Grab and Go Sandwiches VIRGINIA BRAND HAM With Natural Juices, MADE IN NEW YORK, FULLY COOKED BACON, SANDWICH PICKLES, SANDWICH PEPPERS" with the number 17804 1300.

The packages also bear vendor number "398412808" and the USDA mark of inspection. The meat products were produced on various dates from June 18 to July 2, 2010, and have various "Use By" dates ranging from August 20 to September 10, 2010. The products were distributed nationwide to a single retail chain.

The problem was discovered as a result of a retail sample collected by the State of Georgia that confirmed positive for Listeria monocytogenes. FSIS has received no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of this product.

Eating food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes can cause listeriosis, an uncommon but potentially fatal disease.

Healthy people rarely contract listeriosis. However, listeriosis can cause high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness and nausea. Listeriosis can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths, as well as serious and sometimes fatal infections in those with weakened immune systems, such as infants, the elderly and persons with HIV infection or undergoing chemotherapy. Individuals concerned about an illness should contact a health care provider.

The recall comes at a time when public sensitivity to food safety is already in a heightened state. Two egg producers in Iowa have recalled more than a half-billion eggs because of potential Salmonella contamination.

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West Virginia Sues Eight Payday Lenders

Firms charged with using Internet to circumvent state law

West Virginia Sues Eight Payday Lenders...


West Virginia is one of a handful of states that have banned payday loans. So when lenders use the Internet to do business with residents of that state, the state's attorney general goes to court.

West Virginia Attorney Darrell McGraw has filed suit, asking the Court to order the eight companies, which have refused to cooperate with his investigation, to surrender the records of their West Virginia-based accounts and to halt lending activities in the state.

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.

"When a company sets foot in West Virginia, whether in person or over the Internet, my office has a duty to ensure the enterprise complies with state law," McGraw said. "Any company that makes payday loans must halt its usurious business and produce records identifying its victims."

The companies and principals sued by Attorney General McGraw's office are:

• Payday Loan Resource Center LLC and Moe Tassoudi of Scottsdale, AZ;

• DirectROI d/b/a Cash West Payday Loans and Mike Brewster of Chandler, AZ;

• First American Credit;

• LoanPointe LLC, Joe E. Strom, Benjamin J. Lonsdale, James C. Endicott and Mark S. Lofgren of Highland, UT;

• Eastbrook LLC d/b/a Ecash and GeteCash of Provo, UT;

• National Title Loans d/b/a National Cash 12 of Elsmere, DE;

• Payday Financial LLC d/b/a www.LakotaCash.com and Martin Webb of Timber Lake, SD;

• Payday Loans-ACH d/b/a www.ACHLoans.com of Emeryville, CA.

End run

McGraw says Payday Loan Resource Center attempts to circumvent state law by charging West Virginia customers a monthly fee to help them obtain Internet payday loans. A suit filed earlier this year by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged Ecash and GeteCash with attempting to garnish wages without a court order. Lakota Cash claims to be an Indian tribe and therefore not subject to the laws of any state.

Since McGraw began investigating the industry in 2005, his office has reached settlements with 107 Internet payday lenders and their collection agencies, resulting in $2,452,979.87 in refunds and canceled debts for 8044 West Virginians.

"Payday loans are predatory traps for the many West Virginians facing difficult times," McGraw said. "We will continue to ask the courts to intervene whenever companies refuse to cooperate with our efforts to protect West Virginia citizens."

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July Existing-Home Sales Fall To Lowest Level In 15 Years

Soft sales pace seen continuing for several months in the absence of the homebuyer credit

July Existing-Home Sales Fall To Lowest Level In 15 Years...

By James Limbach
ConsumerAffairs.Com

August 24, 2010
Sales of previously-owned home were down sharply lower in July following expiration of the home buyer tax credit but home prices continued to gain, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

Existing-home sales -- completed transactions that include single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops -- dropped 27.2 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.83 million units in July from a downwardly revised 5.26 million in June. Sales were 25.5 percent below the 5.14 million-unit level in July 2009.

Sales are at the lowest level since the total existing-home sales series launched in 1999, and single-family sales -- accounting for the bulk of transactions -- are at the lowest level since May of 1995.

Cautious optimism

NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun said a soft sales pace likely will continue for a few additional months. "Consumers rationally jumped into the market before the deadline for the home buyer tax credit expired. Since May, after the deadline, contract signings have been notably lower and a pause period for home sales is likely to last through September," he said. "However, given the rock-bottom mortgage interest rates and historically high housing affordability conditions, the pace of a sales recovery could pick up quickly, provided the economy consistently adds jobs.

"Even with sales pausing for a few months, annual sales are expected to reach 5 million in 2010 because of healthy activity in the first half of the year," he said. "To place in perspective, annual sales averaged 4.9 million in the past 20 years, and 4.4 million over the past 30 years."

Joel L. Naroff, President and Chief Economist of Naroff Economic Advisors, says It's not clear if the housing market hit a huge air pocket or crashed and burned. But, he says, "for now, this sector looks to be flaton its back."

Naroff sees the latest numbers as illustrative of consumer uncertaintly about the economy. "Unless households and businesses have confidence about the future, they are not going to buy homes or invest regardless of the interest rate," he said.

According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage fell to a record low 4.56 percent in July from 4.74 percent in June; the rate was 5.22 percent in July 2009. Last week, Freddie Mac reported the 30-year fixed was down to 4.42 percent.

Rising home prices

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $182,600 in July -- up 0.7 percent from a year ago. Distressed home sales are unchanged from June, accounting for 32 percent of transactions in July; they were 31 percent in July 2009.3

"Thanks to the home buyer tax credit, home values have been stable for the past 18 months despite heavy job losses," Yun said. "Over the short term, high supply in relation to demand clearly favors buyers. However, given that home values are back in line relative to income, and from very low new-home construction, there is not likely to be any measurable change in home prices going forward."

Total housing inventory at the end of July increased 2.5 percent -- to 3.98 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 12.5-month supply at the current sales pace compared with an 8.9-month supply in June. Raw unsold inventory is still 12.9 percent below the record of 4.58 million in July 2008.

A parallel NAR practitioner survey shows first-time buyers purchased 38 percent of homes in July, versus 43 percent in June. Investors accounted for 19 percent of sales in July, compared with 13 percent in June; the balance were to repeat buyers. All-cash sales rose to 30 percent in July from 24 percent in June.

What's selling

Single-family home sales dropped 27.1 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.37 million in July from a pace of 4.62 million in June, and are 25.6 percent below the 4.53 million level in July 2009; they were the lowest since May 1995 when the sales rate was 3.34 million. The median existing single-family home price was $183,400 in July -- 0.9 percent above a year ago.

Single-family median existing-home prices were higher in 11 out of 19 metropolitan statistical areas reported in July in comparison with July 2009 (the price in one of 20 tracked markets was not available). However, existing single-family home sales fell in all 20 areas from a year ago.

Existing condominium and co-op sales fell 28.1 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 460,000 in July from 640,000 in June, and are 24.0 percent below the 605,000-unit level in July 2009. The median existing condo price5 was $176,800 in July, down 1.7 percent from a year ago.

Where they're selling

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Northeast dropped 29.5 percent to an annual pace of 620,000 in July and are 30.3 percent lower than a year ago. The median price in the Northeast was $263,800, up 4.8 percent from July 2009.

Existing-home sales in the Midwest fell 35.0 percent in July to a level of 800,000 and are 33.3 percent below July 2009. The median price in the Midwest was $151,600, down 2.8 percent from a year ago.

In the South, existing-home sales dropped 22.6 percent to an annual pace of 1.54 million in July and are 19.8 percent below a year ago. The median price in the South was $156,300, down 3.3 percent from July 2009.

Existing-home sales in the West fell 25.0 percent to an annual level of 870,000 in July and are 23.0 percent below a year ago. The median price in the West was $224,800, up 3.3 percent from July 2009.



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Mortgage Modification Program Still Has High Dropout Rate

Nearly half of trial modifications don't make it, according to latest government figures

Mortgage Modification Program Still Has High Dropout Rate...


The Obama administration's mortgage modification program is designed to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure, but nearly half the 1.3 million homeowners who have started the program are already out, according to government statistics.

The Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP)began in April 2009.

In their Housing Scorecard for August, the Treasury Department and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report more than 37,000 homeowners received a HAMP permanent modification in July. Many others granted a trial modification have, for one reason or another, been denied or have been unable to keep up the new monthly payments.

Those denied a permanent modification often find themselves deeper in the hole, due to several months of reduced payments and fees.

"Chase Mortgage said we could do a trail loan modification so we did for six months," Robert, of Canyon Country, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "We were told after six months we did not qualify. Then we received a letter stating we need to come up with $17,000.00 or our house would go to foreclosure. We never talked with one person, we talked with many. They acted as if we never gave them a dime in those six months."

Program changes

The government attributes a drop off in the number of new trial modifications to changes in upfront documentation requirements, adopted June 1.

"This policy change streamlines the process to help more eligible homeowners convert to a permanent modification," the agencies said in their Report Card. "Homeowners in permanent modifications are experiencing a median payment reduction of 36 percent, or more than $500 per month."

Despite problems in the program, the government says there have been twice as many modification arrangements begun compared with foreclosure completions. More than 3.15 million modification arrangements were done from April 2009 through the end of June 2010. That number, however, includes trial modifications that may, or may not, have become permanent.

Bright spot

In a positive development in an otherwise still-dreary housing market, the government reports housing prices remained level in July after 30 straight months of decline, while some price predictions have improved.

In addition, historic low interest rates continued to promote home affordability and refinancing options for the nation's families. However, the market remains fragile with foreclosure starts showing a slight increase and serious delinquencies continuing to work through the pipeline.

"While there has been some stabilization in the housing market, it remains clear that we have more work ahead," said HUD Assistant Secretary Raphael Bostic. "Through the Obama administration's efforts over the past 16 months, we have seen increased price stabilization and improved home affordability for prospective, qualified homebuyers. At the same time, we know that we must continue to provide support to underwater borrowers, unemployed homeowners, and to the nation's hardest hit neighborhoods."

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California Sues 'Tax Lady Roni Deutch' for 'Heartless Scheme'

Infomercials enticed consumers to lose thousands, state charges

California Sues 'Tax Lady Roni Deutch' for 'Heartless Scheme'...


photo California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. today filed a $34 million lawsuit against television's "Tax Lady Roni Deutch" for orchestrating a "heartless scheme" that swindled thousands of people facing serious and expensive tax collection problems with the IRS.

"Tax Lady Roni Deutch is engaged in a heartless scheme that swindled people with tax problems," Brown said. "She promises to significantly reduce their IRS tax debts, but instead preys on their vulnerability, taking large up-front payments but providing little or no help in lowering their tax bills."

Deutch manufactures credibility by boasting that her tax resolution law firm, which has annual revenues of at least $25 million, is the largest of its kind in the nation. She spends $3 million a year on advertising, much of it on late-night cable TV, and frequently offers tax advice on NBC's Today Show, CNN, and CNBC.

Desperate debtors turn to Deutch based on her misleading ads that feature fictional testimonials claiming she secured large reductions in the featured clients' federal tax debts, Brown said.

For example, her ad entitled "It's Your Turn" features three clients whom Deutch claims to have "saved" from having to pay thousands of dollars to the IRS. In fact, those clients still owe the IRS the full amount of their taxes, plus interest and penalties.

When potential clients call Deutch's boiler room, sales agents employ high-pressure sales tactics plus a series of misrepresentations and false promises to persuade them to retain her firm. The sales agents claim Deutch's success rate in dealing with the IRS is as high as 99 percent. But the percentage of clients whose tax bills Deutch actually reduces is a mere 10 percent.

More debt, not less

Rather than cut clients' debts, Deutch often escalates them. She places clients in an endless loop of requests for duplicate documents that increases her fees and, due to further delays in payments to the IRS, increases clients' IRS fines and penalties.

One woman from Pico Rivera, who owed the IRS $13,000, turned to Deutch after seeing a TV ad. She paid Deutch a $1,900 retainer, but by the time the Deutch firm ended its representation, she owed the IRS hundreds of dollars more in interest and penalties, and the IRS had placed a levy against her Social Security benefits. Despite failing to take any effective action on her behalf, Deutch refused to refund the woman's retainer by falsely billing her for time the firm did not spend on her case. Deutch regularly uses false billing statements to deny her clients' refund requests.

Hundreds of clients have filed complaints with the Attorney General and other government agencies, describing Deutch's failure to reduce their IRS debts as she advertised and her refusal to refund retainers of as much as $4,700.

Brown's lawsuit says thousands of consumers in California and around the country have fallen victim to Deutch's unlawful scam, losing millions of dollars that could have been used to pay their IRS tax liabilities. The lawsuit charges that Deutch operates a deceptive tax resolution scheme that employs "a bevy of false promises and misrepresentations."

Brown's action seeks to permanently prevent Deutch from engaging in such unfair business practices and false advertising, and force her to pay victims restitution of at least $33.9 million plus civil penalties.

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How to Check Your Eggs for Safety

Massive recall has consumers worried about bad eggs

How to Check Your Eggs for Safety...


The latest food safety crisis gives new meaning to the term "bad egg." Millions of eggs have been recalled by two Iowa companies after being linked to a nationwide Salmonella outbreak.

Hillandale Farms issued a recall of eggs from two of its plants on Aug. 20, saying there have been laboratory-confirmed illnesses associated with the eggs. The announcement comes just two days after Wright County Egg in Galt expanded its Aug. 13 recall to a total of 380 million eggs.

How can you tell if the eggs in your refrigerator are included in the recall? Heres what you should look for on the egg carton:

Plant numbers the four-digit plant number can be found on the short side of the carton. The numbers are preceded by the letter P.

Julian date eggs are packaged with the Julian date on the short side of the carton after the plant number. The Julian date tells what day of the year the eggs were packaged without the month, so Jan. 1 is 001, and Dec. 31 is 365.

graphic

Hillandale Farms egg cartons affected by the recall will have these numbers:

• P1860 Julian dates ranging from 099 to 230
• P1663 Julian dates ranging from 137 to 230.

The Wright County Farms eggs that are being recalled are:

• P1720 and P1942 with Julian dates ranging from 136 to 229
• P1026, 1413,1946 with Julian dates ranging from 136 to 225

16 brands

The companies have identified more than 16 brand names under which the eggs were sold, but that information is incomplete. Some eggs were sold individually rather than in cartons, so they could be repackaged under other brands.

Eggs affected by the recall have been shipped since May 16 to grocery distribution sites, retail grocery stores, food wholesalers, distribution centers, and food service companies nationwide.

Safety tips

Even if your eggs aren't included in the current recall, Salmonella has become so common in eggs that it's a good idea for homeowners to treat them as hazardous substances.

The most important safety step is to be sure they're cooked thorough, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

• Scrambled eggs: Cook until firm, not runny.
• Fried, poached, boiled, or baked: Cook until both the white and the yolk are firm.
• Egg mixtures, such as casseroles: Cook until the center of the mixture reaches 160 F when measured with a food thermometer.

Better yet, you can use liquid eggs or frozen egg substitutes. These products are pasteurized and are therefore safer to handle and can be used in recipes that will not be cooked.

Here are some USDA points if you're using fresh shell eggs in recipies:

• Homemade ice cream and eggnog are safe if you do one of the following:

  • Use a cooked egg-milk mixture. Heat it gently and use a food thermometer to ensure that it reaches 160 F.
  • Use pasteurized eggs or egg products.

• Dry meringue shells, divinity candy, and 7-minute frosting are safe these are made by combining hot sugar syrup with beaten egg whites. However, avoid icing recipes using uncooked eggs or egg whites.
• Meringue-topped pies should be safe if baked at 350 F for about 15 minutes. But avoid chiffon pies and fruit whips made with raw, beaten egg whites instead, substitute pasteurized dried egg whites, whipped cream, or a whipped topping.
• Adapting Recipes: If your recipe calls for uncooked eggs, make it safe by doing one of the following:
  • Heating the eggs in one of the recipes other liquid ingredients over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches 160 F. Then, combine it with the other ingredients and complete the recipe. Or use pasteurized eggs or egg products.
  • Using pasteurized eggs or egg products.


More

Florida Gets Injunction Against Credit Solutions Of America

Move comes in advance of new federal rules cracking down on industry

Florida Gets Injunction AgainstCredit Solutions Of America...


Authorities continue to crack down on so-called debt settlement firms, but still their ads appear on radio and television, promising consumers they can solve their debt problems -- for an upfront fee.

In Florida, Attorney General Bill McCollum says he's stopping two such firms, at least temporarily. McCollum says his office has obtained a temporary injunction against Texas-based Credit Solutions of America, Inc., and Credit Solutions of America, LLC.

A Florida court ruled that these companies are prohibited from charging Florida residents an unfair up-front fee for purported debt settlement services. The ruling was issued from the bench earlier this week, and a written order will follow.

"Financially strapped Florida consumers are turning to these so-called debt-relief businesses as a last resort to try to regain control of their finances, only to lose more money in excessive up-front fees with little or no relief from their debt," McCollum said. "This ruling represents significant progress in reigning in these abusive practices."

Advance fees targeted

This is the second temporary injunction obtained by McCollum in recent months prohibiting debt settlement firms from charging Floridians unlawful fees. In April, Clearwater-based American Debt Arbitration (ADA), and Arizona-based Nationwide Asset Services, Inc. were similarly prohibited from charging unlawful fees.

The lawsuits against Credit Solutions and ADA were both filed in October 2009, and each petitions the court for full victim restitution, permanent injunctive relief, and civil penalties for violation of Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. The Attorney General's Economic Crimes Division is pursuing these enforcement actions, and litigation remains active.

Just last month, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced the adoption of a new rule to protect consumers in credit card debt who seek debt relief help. Consistent with changes recommended to the FTC, beginning this October, for-profit companies that sell debt relief service by phone will be prohibited from collecting any fees before successfully settling or reducing a consumers outstanding debt obligation.

Additionally, starting in September, the FTC will require companies to disclose how much the process could cost and how long it may take consumers to see results.

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Auto Warranty Robocaller To Pay $2.3 Million, Sell Mercedes

Consumer redress collected from all defendants in robocall case totals $3 million

Auto Warranty Robocaller To Pay $2.3 Million, Sell Mercedes ...

One of the telemarketers who blasted U.S. consumers with millions of illegal auto "warranty" robocalls last year will pay approximately $2.3 million, give up his Mercedes, and be barred from telemarketing, under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). All told, the FTC is collecting nearly $3 million to reimburse victims of the scam.

The settlements resolve charges that Damian Kohlfeld and his two firms made millions of illegal recorded calls to consumers nationwide in an attempt to con them into buying extended auto warranties or service contracts. The robocalls misled consumers into thinking the callers were affiliated with consumers' car dealerships or manufacturers, and that their auto warranty was expiring or about to expire.

Burned

"We were contacted about the 'extended bumper-to-bumper warranty' on our vehicle, " Jimmie of Brandemburg, KY, writes ConsumerAffairs.com. We turned down the offer initially, however they continued calling offering us a better deal or price each time. We eventually decided that it would be to our advantage to take thier offer as our vehicle was getting older."

But he says, when he needed to use the warranty to fix a major transmission leak, "We learned that the warranty did not cover any seals, regardless of how major it was. Then the AC compressor went out on the van, again, we learned that it did not cover any AC problems. It appears that this bumper-to-bumper warranty is confined to only the 'internal' workings of the engine or transmission themselves."

Larry of San Diego , CA, says he was told by a pitchman that, "if I bought the 'no deductable plan' there would be no hassles and the warranty would cover everything my dealer warranty covered. One year later they refused to fix my water pump. Now I can't even get someone on the phone to listen to me."

Earlier this year, the FTC announced a settlement with two other defendants who helped make the robocalls, under which they have paid more than $655,000. The agency also announced a settlement in September 2009 with Transcontinental Warranty, Inc, the company that employed the defendants in this case to make the illegal prerecorded calls.

"Fortunately for American consumers, the telemarketers who were responsible for millions of unsolicited and annoying robocalls will never be able to telemarket again," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. "We've also taken away all of their money to provide redress for consumers who were defrauded. This case serves as a clear message: telemarketers who violate the privacy of ordinary Americans will have to pay the price."

Do Not Call violations

According to the FTC's complaint, Kohlfeld and the Chicago-based firms Voice Foundations, LLC, and Network Foundations, LLC, violated the FTC's Do Not Call Registry and falsely represented that:

• the telemarketers were calling from, or affiliated with, the manufacturer or dealer of the consumer's automobile;

• the consumer's original automobile warranty was about to expire; and

• the telemarketer had specific information about whether the consumer's vehicle was the subject of a recall.

The settlement requires Kohlfeld to pay more than $2.2 million. In addition, he is required to liquidate two investment accounts totaling approximately $130,000 and to sell his 2006 Mercedes. All of the money collected will be used for consumer redress.

The settlement order also bans Kohlfeld from telemarketing or assisting others engaged in telemarketing, prevents him from making the misrepresentations alleged in the FTC's complaint, and bars him from making any misrepresentations related to the sale of any goods or services.

The order specifically prohibits him from misrepresenting the cost, use, or effectiveness of any product or service or any of the refund policies associated with any product or services.

In addition, Network Foundations will pay $50,000 to be used for consumer redress. Voice Foundations has no assets to pay toward a judgment. If either of the companies later is found to have misrepresented its financial condition, it will be subject to a larger monetary judgment.

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Egg Recall Raises Question 'Who's In Charge?'

Major food safety reform legislation remains stalled in Senate

Egg Recall Raises Question 'Who's InCharge?'...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.Com

August 22, 2010 As the recall of tainted eggs grew to more than a half-billion late last week, three federal agencies were involved in the response, yet it was not clear which one was in the best position to lead.

On August 13, the Food and Drug Administration posted on its website a press release from Wright County Egg, one of the nation's largest egg producer, that millions of eggs were being voluntarily recalled because of possible Salmonella contamination. In the days that followed, FDA inspectors were reportedly dispatched to Wright County Egg facilities.

Because USDA is responsible for egg safety at processing plants, it is troubling that FDA is the lead agency in this investigation even though it has never inspected the Wright County Egg facility, said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a leading Congressional food safety advocate. Instead of reinforcing each others work, the current food safety system of split jurisdiction appears to have resulted in a disjointed inspection process.

So far, for reporters covering the story, most of the information has been coming from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which has little or no inspection or regulatory authority. But it was the CDC that first alerted the nation to the Salmonella outbreak and the agency has continued to be a source of information.

DeLauro says the outbreak, which has sickened at least 1,300 officially, but likely thousands more unofficially, is a strong argument for Congress to pass the Food Safety and Modernization bill, currently stalled in the Senate. The measure would give the FDA more authority to protect the food supply, including the authority to order food recalls, a power it does not now have.

The food safety bill cleared the House of Representatives a year ago, but the measure has become bogged down in the Senate. The bill appeared poised for approval in May when Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) introduced an amendment banning the use of bisphenol A (BPA) in food and beverage containers, a move strongly opposed by the food industry. Though compromise language has reportedly been worked out, the measure has yet to get back on the Senate's front burner.

Preventable

This urgent nationwide recall is very disturbing, not only because it appears to have been preventable, but it also may have been the result of an inefficient and unresponsive food safety system, DeLauro said. Given the split jurisdiction between FDA and USDA over ensuring the safety of eggs, I fear the investigation and subsequent recall may have been delayed as FDA traced the source of the contamination.

DeLauro says the food safety bill, if approved, would increase inspections at high-risk facilities and establish performance standards for reducing food-borne pathogens, The granting of mandatory recall authority to the FDA, she says, would have removed tainted eggs from the food supply faster.

This bill, combined with the FDA egg safety rule that went into effect July 9, could have prevented or minimized this Salmonella outbreak, DeLauro said. In the long-term, we must create a single food safety agency that consolidates the work that is currently splintered across 15 federal agencies. One agency focused exclusively on protecting our food supply would prevent jurisdictional confusion, result in an efficient and responsive food safety system, and diminish the potential for future outbreaks such as this one.



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Salmonella Fears Scramble Egg Industry's Hopes, Homemakers' Grocery Lists

'Egg factories' produce high profits and cheap but dangerous eggs

Salmonella Fears Scramble Egg Industry's Hopes, Homemakers' Grocery Lists...


First it was knocked from its perch by consumers' rising to cholesterol and now, incredibly, the edible egg is the latest everyday consumable to be scrambled, poached and whipped by Salmonella contamination.

The recall of hundreds of millions eggs follows a four-fold increase in Salmonella Enteritidis infections since May 2010 and health officials fear the worst may be yet to come.

On August 13, 2010, Wright County Egg, an Iowa egg producer, launched a nationwide egg recall and expanded it on August 19, the recall was expanded (see chart below). Yesterday, Hillandale Farms of Iowa recalled eggs sold under various brand names including Hillandale Farms, Sunny Farms, and Sunny Meadow (complete list below).

This is a crisis that's not likely to be over easily. Salmonella is about as unpleasant an infection as you can think of, even for healthy people, but it can be deadly for infants, the elderly, the chronically ill and anyone with a compromised immune system.

Although it's hard to think of anything more common in the food supply than the lowly chicken egg, consumption of the shelled ovoids has been declining steadily in recent years.

Americans used to eat one egg per day per person 1960s but the number is now down to about 257 per person per year, according to the Lempert Report, a food industry newsletter. But that figure doesn't count all the prepared food products that contain eggs and that may or may not have been handled with all due caution.

The problem, like so many other food safety issues, can be traced back to the industrialization of food production. When chickens wandered around barnyards, pecking away at bugs and corn and whatever else they could find, Salmonella was rarely a problem. But now that chickens live their lives in tight quarters, Salmonella has become a frequent intruder in the henhouse.

To be fair, it should be noted that the pesticide-soaked earth is no longer the safest spot to raise barnyard fowl, as a recent study found.

What to do

What's a homemaker to do? Well, you could fence in the backyard and install some laying hens, but that can cause problems with neighbors and, in many places, homeowners associations and local bureaucrats. Also, there's the no-so-slight problem of dogs, coyotes and others who aren't shy about helping themselves to a quick snack. Some cats also enjoy tormenting and even killing smaller chickens. Nature is natural, if not always kind.

But assuming you're using store-bought eggs (as they used to be called), the most important safety step is to be sure they're cooked thorough, according to the U.S. Salmonella Fears Scramble Egg Industry's Hopes, Homemakers' Grocery ListsAgriculture Department.

• Scrambled eggs: Cook until firm, not runny.
• Fried, poached, boiled, or baked: Cook until both the white and the yolk are firm.
• Egg mixtures, such as casseroles: Cook until the center of the mixture reaches 160 F when measured with a food thermometer.

Better yet, you can use liquid eggs or frozen egg substitutes. These products are pasteurized and are therefore safer to handle and can be used in recipes that will not be cooked.

Here are some USDA points if you're using fresh shell eggs in recipies:

• Homemade ice cream and eggnog are safe if you do one of the following:

  • Use a cooked egg-milk mixture. Heat it gently and use a food thermometer to ensure that it reaches 160 F.
  • Use pasteurized eggs or egg products.

• Dry meringue shells, divinity candy, and 7-minute frosting are safe these are made by combining hot sugar syrup with beaten egg whites. However, avoid icing recipes using uncooked eggs or egg whites.
• Meringue-topped pies should be safe if baked at 350 F for about 15 minutes. But avoid chiffon pies and fruit whips made with raw, beaten egg whites instead, substitute pasteurized dried egg whites, whipped cream, or a whipped topping.
• Adapting Recipes: If your recipe calls for uncooked eggs, make it safe by doing one of the following:
  • Heating the eggs in one of the recipes other liquid ingredients over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches 160 F. Then, combine it with the other ingredients and complete the recipe. Or use pasteurized eggs or egg products.
  • Using pasteurized eggs or egg products.

Hillandale Farms Recall

Eggs affected by the Hillandale recall were distributed to grocery distribution centers, retail grocery stores and foodservice companies which service or are located in fourteen states, including the following: Arkansas, California, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Eggs are distributed under the following brand names: Hillandale Farms, Sunny Farms, and Sunny Meadow in 6-egg cartons, dozen-egg cartons, 18-egg cartons, 30-egg package, and 5-dozen cases. Loose eggs are packaged under the following brand names: Wholesome Farms and West Creek in 15 and 30-dozen tray packs. The loose eggs may also be repackaged by customers.

The only eggs effected by this recall have plant numbers P1860 or P1663 and Julian dates as follows:

P1860 Julian dates ranging from 099 to 230
P1663 Julian dates ranging from 137 to 230.

Only eggs with these plant numbers are affected - even though the brand name may be the same.

Julian dates and plant codes can be found stamped on the end of the egg carton or printed on the case label. The plant number begins with the letter P and then the number. The Julian date follows the plant number, for example: P1860 230.

Wright County Recall List

Brand

Plant ID

Julian Dates

Additional Information

Albertson

-dozen, 18-egg cartons size large

#1413

136 through 225

California and Colorado stores ONLY

Albertson

-dozen, 18-egg cartons size large

#1026

136 through 225

California and Colorado stores ONLY

Albertson

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1720

136 through 229

Albertson

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1942

136 through 229

Bayview

-5 dozen size large

#1686

142 through 149

UPC 7-17544-30172-1

Boomsmas

-dozen cartons size large

#1413

136 through 225

Boomsmas

-dozen cartons size large

#1946

136 through 225

Boomsmas

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1720

136 through 229

Boomsmas

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1942

136 through 229

Dutch Farms

-dozen cartons size large

#1946

136 through 225

Farm Fresh

-dozen cartons size large

#1026

136 through 225

Farm Fresh

-dozen, 18-egg cartons size M to Jumbo

#1946

136 through 225

Farm Fresh

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1720

136 through 229

Farm Fresh

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1942

136 through 229

Glenview

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1720

136 through 229

Glenview

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1942

136 through 229

Hillandale

-18-egg cartons size XL

#1413

136 through 225

James Farms

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1720

136 through 229

James Farms

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1942

136 through 229

Kemps

-dozen cartons size large

#1946

136 through 225

Kemps

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1720

136 through 229

Kemps

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1942

136 through 229

Lucerne

-dozen, 18-egg cartons size large

#1413

136 through 225

Lucerne

-dozen, 18-egg cartons size large

#1026

136 through 225

Lucerne

-dozen, 18-egg cartons size large

#1946

136 through 225

Lund

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons size M to Jumbo

#1946

136 through 225

Lund

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1720

136 through 229

Lund

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1942

136 through 229

Mountain Dairy

-5 dozen size medium

#1951

193 through 208

UPC 0-11110-89969-9

Mountain Dairy

-dozen, 18-egg cartons size large

#1413

136 through 225

Mountain Dairy

-dozen cartons size large

#1026

136 through 225

Mountain Dairy

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1720

136 through 229

Mountain Dairy

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1942

136 through 229

Nulaid

-5 dozen size medium

#1091

167 through 174

UPC 0-71230-02140-0

Nulaid

-5 dozen size medium

#1951

195 through 210

UPC 0-71230-02140-0

Pacific Coast

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1720

136 through 229

Pacific Coast

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1942

136 through 229

Ralphs

-dozen cartons size large

#1413

136 through 225

Ralphs

-dozen, 18-egg cartons size large

#1026

136 through 225

Ralphs

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1720

136 through 229

Ralphs

-6-egg, dozen, 18-egg cartons and loose eggs for institutional use and repackaging

#1942

136 through 229

Shoreland

-dozen cartons size XL and jumbo

#1026

136 through 225

Sunshine

-dozen cartons size XL

#1413

136 through 225

Sun Valley

-5 dozen size medium

#1951

195 through 209

UPC 6-48065-11432-6

Trafficanda

-dozen cartons size M to Jumbo

#1413

136 through 225


The Iowa egg producer behind the massive recall of 380 million eggs for possible Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) contamination has had its share of run-ins with state and federal regulators, mostly over labor, environmental and immigration policies.

The founder of Wright County Egg, a huge family agribusiness operation, pleaded guilty to federal immigration charges in 2003 and paid a record $2.1 million in penalties. The year before, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission levied a nearly $1.5 million fine for sexual harassment and other abuse of female employees.

In early 2010 the owners paid a fine to settle state animal cruelty charges against their egg operations in Maine. Wright County Egg also is being sued for allegedly causing the salmonella poisoning of a Wisconsin woman, and a dozen more lawsuits linked to the outbreak are in the works, according to Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in food poisonings.

On his website, Marler suggests actual cases of Salmonella linked to bad eggs at nearly 50,000. He cites a statement late Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control that traceable cases may number over 1,200. Using the CDC's multiple of 38.5 unreported cases for every reported case, he comes up with 48,240 possible cases of the illness.

Food and Drug Administration inspectors have reportedly been at company farms since last week inspecting henhouses and testing eggs to determine the source of the contamination. The inspection was triggered by Wright County Egg's August 13 voluntary recall of shell eggs that it had shipped since May 19, 2010 to food wholesalers, distribution centers and foodservice companies in California, Illinois, Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. These companies distribute nationwide.

Spike in illnesses

Since May 2010, CDC has identified a nationwide, four-fold increase in the number of SE isolates through PulseNet, the national subtyping network made up of state and local public health laboratories and federal food regulatory laboratories. CDC received reports of approximately 200 SE cases every week during late June and early July.

Normally, CDC has received an average of some 50 reports of SE illness each week for the past five years. Many states have also reported increases of this pattern since May 2010, CDC said.

Epidemiologic investigations conducted by public health officials in California, Colorado, and Minnesota have revealed several restaurants or events where more than one person ill with this type of SE has eaten. Preliminary information from these investigations suggests that shell eggs are the likely source of infections in many of these restaurants or events.

Traceback

FDA, CDC, and state partners conducted a traceback investigation and found many of these restaurants or events received shell eggs from a single firm, Wright County Egg, in Galt, Iowa. FDA said it is currently conducting an extensive investigation at the firm in Iowa. The investigation involves sampling, records review and looking for potential sources of contamination, such as feed.

The recalled shell eggs are packaged under the following brand names: Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralphs, Boomsmas, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms and Kemps.

State and local partners are also investigating human Salmonella infections in Arizona, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas.



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Chicago's ShoreBank, Seven Others Fail

Four of this week's failed banks were in California

Chicago's ShoreBank, Seven Others Fail...


In a busy week for bank regulators, eight U.S. banks shut their doors Friday, including Chicago's troubled ShoreBank, bringing the total number of bank failures for the year to 118.

Four of the eight failed banks were in California.

The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation appointed the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) as receiver for ShoreBank, established in 1973 to serve the city's South Side. To protect the depositors, the FDIC entered into a purchase and assumption agreement with Urban Partnership Bank, Chicago, Illinois, a newly-chartered institution, to assume all of the deposits of ShoreBank.

The 15 branches of ShoreBank will continue to operate as branches of Urban Partnership Bank, including those in Detroit, Michigan, and Cleveland, Ohio, according to FDIC. As of June 30, 2010, ShoreBank had approximately $2.16 billion in total assets and $1.54 billion in total deposits. Other banks shuttered Friday were:

Sonoma Valley Bank, Sonoma, California; the bank has been taken over by Westamerica Bank, San Rafael, Calif. As of June 30, 2010, Sonoma Valley Bank had approximately $337.1 million in total assets and $255.5 million in total deposits.

Los Padres Bank, Solvang, California. The bank has been acquired by Pacific Western Bank, San Diego, Calif. Los Padres Bank operated 14 branches. As of June 30, 2010, Los Padres Bank had approximately $870.4 million in total assets and $770.7 million in total deposits.

Butte Community Bank, Chico, California, and Pacific State Bank, Stockton, California, closed by the California Department of Financial Institutions, which then appointed the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) as receiver for the two banks. To protect depositors, the FDIC entered into purchase and assumption agreements with Rabobank, National Association, El Centro, California, to assume all the deposits and essentially all the assets of the two failed banks, which were not affiliated with one another. Collectively, the failed banks operated 23 branches. As of June 30, 2010, Butte Community Bank had total assets of $498.8 million and total deposits of $471.3 million; and Pacific State Bank had total assets of $312.1 million and total deposits of $278.8 million.

Imperial Savings and Loan Association, Martinsville, Virginia. The bank, with only one location, was taken over by River Community Bank, N.A. As of June 30, 2010, Imperial Savings and Loan Association had approximately $9.4 million in total assets and $10.1 million in total deposits.

Community National Bank, Bartow, Bartow, Florida, and Independent National Bank, Ocala, Florida. The two banks have been taken over by CenterState Bank of Florida, N.A. Collectively, the failed banks operated five branches. As of June 30, 2010, Community National Bank At Bartow had total assets of $67.9 million and total deposits of $63.7 million; and Independent National Bank had total assets of $156.2 million and total deposits of $141.9 million.

The cost to FDIC's Deposit Insurance Fund for this week's closings totaled $472.5 million. The largest portion of that was the $367.7 million required to close Chicago's ShoreBank.

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Buckling Up Fido A Good Idea

A new survey found that man's furry best friends -- who are frequent travel companions in their owners' vehicles -- are also causing drivers to take their ...

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Iowa Egg Producer No Stranger To Controversy

Firm at center of massive recall has history of regulatory run-ins

Iowa Egg Producer No Stranger To Controversy...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.Com

August 20, 2010

The Iowa egg producer behind the massive recall of 380 million eggs for possible Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) contamination has had its share of run-ins with state and federal regulators, mostly over labor, environmental and immigration policies.

The founder of Wright County Egg, a huge family agribusiness operation, pleaded guilty to federal immigration charges in 2003 and paid a record $2.1 million in penalties. The year before, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission levied a nearly $1.5 million fine for sexual harassment and other abuse of female employees.

In early 2010 the owners paid a fine to settle state animal cruelty charges against their egg operations in Maine. Wright County Egg also is being sued for allegedly causing the salmonella poisoning of a Wisconsin woman, and a dozen more lawsuits linked to the outbreak are in the works, according to Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in food poisonings.

On his website, Marler suggests actual cases of Salmonella linked to bad eggs at nearly 50,000. He cites a statement late Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control that traceable cases may number over 1,200. Using the CDC's multiple of 38.5 unreported cases for every reported case, he comes up with 48,240 possible cases of the illness.

Food and Drug Administration inspectors have reportedly been at company farms since last week inspecting henhouses and testing eggs to determine the source of the contamination. The inspection was triggered by Wright County Egg's August 13 voluntary recall of shell eggs that it had shipped since May 19, 2010 to food wholesalers, distribution centers and foodservice companies in California, Illinois, Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. These companies distribute nationwide.

Spike in illnesses

Since May 2010, CDC has identified a nationwide, four-fold increase in the number of SE isolates through PulseNet, the national subtyping network made up of state and local public health laboratories and federal food regulatory laboratories. CDC received reports of approximately 200 SE cases every week during late June and early July.

Normally, CDC has received an average of some 50 reports of SE illness each week for the past five years. Many states have also reported increases of this pattern since May 2010, CDC said.

Epidemiologic investigations conducted by public health officials in California, Colorado, and Minnesota have revealed several restaurants or events where more than one person ill with this type of SE has eaten. Preliminary information from these investigations suggests that shell eggs are the likely source of infections in many of these restaurants or events.

Traceback

FDA, CDC, and state partners conducted a traceback investigation and found many of these restaurants or events received shell eggs from a single firm, Wright County Egg, in Galt, Iowa. FDA said it is currently conducting an extensive investigation at the firm in Iowa. The investigation involves sampling, records review and looking for potential sources of contamination, such as feed.

The recalled shell eggs are packaged under the following brand names: Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralphs, Boomsmas, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms and Kemps.

State and local partners are also investigating human Salmonella infections in Arizona, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas.



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J.D. Power: Customer Satisfaction With Credit Cards Rebounds Slightly

American Express ranks highest in overall satisfaction for a fourth consecutive year

J.D. Power: Customer Satisfaction With Credit Cards Rebounds Slightly ...


Overall customer satisfaction with credit cards has bounced back from a three-year low in 2009.

But the J.D. Power and Associates 2010 U.S. Credit Card Satisfaction Study shows professed loyalty continues to slip due to continued skepticism that card issuers are focused on customers' best interests.

Overall credit card satisfaction in 2010 averaged 714 on a 1,000-point scale -- up nine points from 2009. However, customers who say they "definitely will not switch" primary cards in the next 12 months continues to decline, averaging 22 percent in 2010, compared with 25 percent in 2009 and 30 percent in 2008. While customers perceive card issuers as "financially stable" and even "reliable," they are significantly less likely to view them as "customer driven."

AMEX the leader

American Express ranked highest in customer satisfaction for a fourth consecutive year with a score of 769. Discover Card was second with a score of 757 and U.S. Bank ranked third with a score of 727. The common denominators of performance among the highest-ranked issuers are exceptional rewards and benefits offerings; superior service experiences across phone and online channels; and a focus on reducing problems and resolving those that do occur with minimum time and effort for customers.

Obviously, not everyone gives these companies high marks.

"I am just fed up with the poor service form American Express Rewards," Jirina of New York, tells ConsumerAffairs.com. "I pay my bill in full every month, but sometimes the payment doesn't get there on the day the Rewards service uses as a cut off. Each time I forfeit my points. I think it is super poor service."

Dawn of Chandler, AZ, thinks Discover Card "manipulates various means" to silently collect fees and interest payments. "I contacted Discover card as early as February, 2009 to request that they changed my due date to the 28th of the month which was something that it had no problem to do as it stated. Instead, Discover quietly changed my due date to the 26th and never bother to let me know that it could not accommodate my request or what it did."

Continued skepticism

"Despite massive efforts by the credit card industry during the past year to educate customers about credit card terms as a part of the CARD Act, customers' grasp of those terms continues to be elusive," said Michael Beird, director of banking services at J.D. Power and Associates. "Sixteen percent of card customers report that they did not receive CARD Act disclosures. Among those who did, only two-thirds state that the disclosures improved their understanding of how the act affects their individual circumstances. Furthermore, only one-third of cardholders say they 'completely' understand their credit card terms."

According to the J.D. Power Web Intelligence Division, online consumer conversations about credit cards indicate that many consumers perceive their relationships with credit card companies as an ongoing game of "cat and mouse," with each side trying to outsmart the other. Social media discussions regarding credit cards also indicate that many consumers view even CARD Act disclosures with cynicism.

Measuring satisfaction

The study, now in its fourth year, measures customer satisfaction with credit cards by examining six key factors: interaction; credit card terms; billing and payment process; benefits and services; rewards; and problem resolution.

The increase in overall satisfaction from 2009 is driven primarily by improvements in credit card terms and billing and payment process. The largest increase in satisfaction with credit card terms is among revolvers, or customers who typically carry account balances from month to month. In contrast, satisfaction among transactors, or customers who always or usually pay their entire credit card balance each month, has declined slightly, compared with 2009.

"It appears that revolvers are expressing a perception that 'it could have been worse,'" said Beird. "Although 29 percent of revolvers report experiencing a rate increase in 2010, compared with 24 percent in 2009, the increase was less obvious than among transactors -- 21 percent of transactors report a rate increase in 2010, compared with just 13 percent in 2009. In addition, revolvers, who tend to be more sensitive to fees and rates, are significantly more likely to say that CARD Act disclosures improved their understanding of their credit card terms."

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Maryland Settles Suit Over Nursing Home Payments

State begins paying restitution to nursing homes and their patients

Maryland Settles Suit Over Nursing Home Payments...

Maryland has begun paying restitution to nursing homes and their residents in satisfaction of a lawsuit alleging that the state wrongly determined that certain patients could foot their own bills.

The lawsuit, filed in August 2005, alleged that the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene erroneously concluded that nursing home residents could afford co-payments for their care. That determination failed to take into account the debt that patients accrued while waiting to be approved for Medicaid coverage, according to the suit. Federal and state law requires states to consider patients' debt when calculating their income.

The payments, which will total $16 million, make the settlement the second largest in Maryland history among those where the state is the defendant, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys. Maryland will provide $8 million of the settlement funds, with the federal government paying the other half. The lawyers originally contended that the state owed $64 million for incorrect calculations made since 2002.

A similar suit filed against Washington, D.C. was also settled, with the city agreeing to to abide by the law in the future. The plaintiffs in that suit were not awarded damages.

Settlement could serve as model for other states

This is a great day for Maryland and Washington, DC citizens who need nursing home care but can't afford to pay for it, as well as the nursing homes who have provided that care for years without payment, Cy Smith, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. We have succeeded in bringing Maryland and the District into compliance with federal law for the benefit of their neediest citizens, both now and for the future.

Smith told The Baltimore Sun that his firm is starting to send checks to nursing homes now. He said the suit wipes out a lot of debt for the class.

Ron Landsman, co-counsel on the case, said that the settlement ends three decades in which Maryland shirked its obligations under the Medicaid statute.

The state similarly expressed satisfaction with the outcome.

We think that things are pretty well resolved, John Folkemer, Maryland's deputy secretary for health-care financing, told The Washington Post. When someone is in a nursing home not only do you have to recognize what their obligations are, you have to recognize some of the debts they owe.

The class includes 12,000 nursing home residents and over 300 nursing facilities.

The settlement could serve as precedent for other states that fail to take patients' old debt into account when determining their Medicaid eligibility.

Consumers can obtain information at the official settlement website

.

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Nine Ways To Avoid Salmonella From Eggs

Centers for Disease Control offers advice to prevent illness during outbreak

Nine Ways To Avoid Salmonella From Eggs...


U.S. consumers are on alert to use care with eggs in the wake of a massive egg recall. So far, 380 million eggs, potentially tainted with Salmonella bacteria, have been recalled. Hundreds have been sickened and health officials are worried the eventual number will be in the thousands.

How can you avoid getting sick? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says cooking reduces the number of bacteria present in an egg; however, an egg with a runny yolk still poses a greater risk than a completely cooked egg.

Undercooked egg whites and yolks have been associated with outbreaks of Salmonella Enteritidis infections. Both should be consumed promptly and not be kept warm or at room temperature for more than two hours.

Other safety steps include:

1.Keep eggs refrigerated at 45 degrees F (7 degrees C) at all times.
2.Discard cracked or dirty eggs.
3.Wash hands, cooking utensils, and food preparation surfaces with soap and water after contact with raw eggs.
4.Eggs should be cooked until both the white and the yolk are firm and eaten promptly after cooking.
5.Do not keep eggs warm or at room temperature for more than two hours.
6.Refrigerate unused or leftover egg-containing foods promptly.
7.Avoid eating raw eggs.
8.Avoid restaurant dishes made with raw or undercooked, unpasteurized eggs. Restaurants should use pasteurized eggs in any recipe (such as Hollandaise sauce or Caesar salad dressing) that calls for raw eggs.
9.Consumption of raw or undercooked eggs should be avoided, especially by young children, elderly people and those with weakened immune systems or debilitating illness.

The recalled eggs were distributed in every state, so consumers everywhere should take precautions. The last major Salmonella outbreak involved contaminated peanut butter in 2007. Health officials are worried this latest outbreak could be as bad, or worse.



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Egg Recall Rises To 380 Million

Health officials fear Salmonella outbreak could sicken thousands

Egg Recall Rises To 380 Million...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.Com

August 19, 2010
Wright County Egg, one of the nation's largest egg producers, has increased the recall of eggs to 380 million, or 32 million cartons. That's a 66 percent increase since Wednesday.

Meanwhile, health officials are worried that the tainted eggs could spark the worst outbreak of Salmonella in two decades, eclipsing the 2007 outbreak linked to peanut butter.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it has seen more than 300 cases of a dangerous strain of Salmonella in California, Colorado and Minnesota, and officials fear the number will increase. The eventual number could be in the thousands, officials say.

The strain in question, Salmonella enteritidis, is particularly bad because it can affect the inside of an egg. The hen can be contaminated by the bacteria, passing the contaminant along to the whites and yoke of an egg as well as outside the shell.

The birds themselves aren't sick so the producer has no clue that anything is amiss.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says its investigation into the source of the outbreak is continuing, and while eggs are a prime suspect in many cases, other foods could also be involved. Officials have also not yet determined how salmonella got into the Iowa farm.

"This recall highlights the importance of FDA's egg safety rule that was put in place to prevent Salmonella outbreaks such as this one," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). "Because the recalled eggs were produced before the rule went into effect last month, it appears the rule was enforced too late to prevent this outbreak. The lesson from this recall should be applied to food safety legislation -- we must pass a food safety reform bill this year in order to adequately protect our food supply, and reduce or prevent food-borne illnesses."

Brands

The eggs were packaged under the names Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralph's, Boomsma's, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms and Kemp. They were distributed to food wholesalers, distribution centers and food service companies in California, Illinois, Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa for nationwide distribution.

The recalled eggs carry three different plant numbers: P-1026, P-1413 and P-1946. The plant number is on the end of the egg carton. If it's stamped with one of those numbers, check the numbers after it. If they are between 136 to 225, the CDC says you should take the eggs back to the store.



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American Airlines To Charge Extra for Good Seats

Cost of travel rising for those who want to take luggage and be comfortable

First it was pretzels. Then it was the second checked bag. Then the first checked bag. Airlines continue to find creative ways to tack on extra fees to the...


First it was pretzels. Then it was the second checked bag. Then the first checked bag. Airlines continue to find creative ways to tack on extra fees to their advertised fares.

Now American Airlines said it will begin charging a fee, ranging from $19 to $39, for passengers who reserve one of the seats in the front of the coach cabin.

Calling the new fee program "Express Seats," American said the new fees for what was once free is now part of the "Your Choice line of products and services that provide customers a way to purchase special services they value."

Under the program, passengers must pay extra if they want to sit in the first few rows of coach, including bulkhead seats in that cabin. Additionally, customers who purchase an express seat will be allowed to board with Group 1 of general boarding for their flight. The airline says that will allow them to be the first coach customers on and off the plane.

Express sats are available to all American Airlines customers and can be purchased exclusively via airport Self-Service Check-In machines anytime from 24 hours to 50 minutes prior to scheduled flight departure for travel wholly within the United States, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Sliding fee scale

Introductory pricing for epress sats begins at $19 per flight, with pricing based on distance. Here are some examples of introductory prices for sxpress sats on some typical American Airlines routes:

• $19 for St. Louis to Chicago O'Hare

• $29 for San Francisco to Dallas/Fort Worth

• $29 for Boston to Chicago O'Hare

• $39 for New York JFK to Los Angeles

• $39 for Chicago O'Hare to Honolulu

"Express seats highlights American's focus on offering customers what they value most," said Virasb Vahidi, chief commercial officer for American Airlines. "This is another great product under the Your Choice program that puts more travel choices in the customer's hands."

Multiplying fees

Airline fees have begun to multiply in recent years as carriers looked for ways to add revenue. It began when fuel prices rapidly escalated.

Air Tran currently charges extra to reserve a seat in coach. Continental allows customers who pay in advance to reserve a coach seat.

Why not simply raise fares to cover higher costs instead of tacking on fees? The airlines claim they are providing more options, so the budget-conscious traveler doesn't have to pay for things -- like bags -- if they don't plan on taking any luggage with them. However, it also allows airlines to keep their advertised fares lower than they would ordinarily be.

Meanwhile, American said it still provides travelers with the option to pre-reserve other seats in the coach cabin at no charge.



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Discount Club Scammers To Pay Millions In Settlement

Consumers were duped while shopping online or through mailed check solicitations

Discount Club Scammers To Pay Millions In Settlement...


The state of New York has secured $10 million in settlements with companies that tricked hundreds of thousands of consumers into signing up for discount clubs that charged hidden fees.

The marketing firm Affinion Group, Inc. and its subsidiary Trilegiant (together "Affinion/Trilegiant") will establish a $5 million fund to provide restitution to defrauded consumers and will pay an additional $3 million in penalties and fees, according to Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo. Affinion/Trilegiant also must end the deceptive practice of enrolling New York consumers in programs via solicitations in the form of mailed checks.

Separately, the Cuomo obtained settlements with five retailers to reform their marketing arrangements with discount clubs. The retailers will collectively pay over $2 million for consumer refunds, education, costs and fees.

In the fine print

These settlements are part of a wide-ranging investigation into the discount club industry. The probe found that when consumers completed online purchases from familiar retailers, they were often presented with a cash-back or discount offer from a marketer like Affinion/Trilegiant. Information about accepting the offer and its ramifications -- including the fact that the consumer was agreeing to transfer his or her credit or debit card account information -- was buried in fine print and cluttered text. Since consumers were not required to provide their financial information as part of the enrollment process, they often accepted the offer without knowing they were joining a fee-based program.

Affinion/Trilegiant and other marketing companies also carried out this scheme via mailed check solicitations. The companies would mail checks to consumers that looked like rebates or rewards from known retailers. If the checks were cashed, the consumer would be signed up for a fee-based program.

Once enrolled in a discount club, recurring charges begin to appear on consumers' credit or debit card bills from unfamiliar companies. Often due to their low dollar amount or the non-specific club names on consumers' account statements, the charges often went unnoticed.

Judging from the complaints ConsumerAffairs.com has received, New Yorkers aren't the only consumers who have been bit.

Karen of Walnut Creek, CA, a Wells Fargo customer says she discovered 28 consecutive unauthorized credit/debit card charges of 12.99 per month for "Identity Theft Protection". "When I called Wells Fargo," she writes, "I was told the charges would had to have been authorized but if I wanted to research it I needed to call." Karen says she called the number given and was told to FAX her complaint, which she did. "After doing Internet research on the name Trigeliant, the fax number and the phone numbers, I fear there may be no resolve."

"I was enrolled in Trilegiant's Great Fun after signing up with truecredit.com to receive my credit report," Aimee of Minneapolis, MN, tells ConsumerAffairs.com. "I called Trilegiant to complain and cancel; the representative said that she would send me a refund check, but that I cannot cancel until I cash it. She assured me that the check would arrive shortly. Two more monthly subscription fees were posted to my credit card before I finally received this 'refund.' The refund was no refund at all; it was a check that, if I cashed it, would enroll me in another of Trilegiant's clubs: Health Saver."

"This is a case of consumers who think they are getting a deal when in fact they are being tricked into signing up for a service that bills them every month without their knowledge," said Cuomo. "As our investigation continues, consumers should be on the lookout for cash-back and other discount offers that suddenly appear online or in the form of a check - they are often too good to be true. Affinion/Trilegiant did the right thing by cooperating with my office to end its deceptive practices and I urge other companies involved in this industry to follow their lead."

Settlement terms

According to the settlement, Affinion/Trilegiant must:

• Fully refund fees charged to consumers who unknowingly enrolled in or authorized billing for Affinion/Trilegiant discount clubs and programs

• Permanently end its practice of marketing discount clubs and programs by mailing checks to New Yorkers

• Permanently end its practice of obtaining consumers' billing information from online partner retailers

• Reform its online marketing practices to ensure consumers understand they are enrolling in a program offered by Affinion/Trilegiant for which they will be billed

• Make redemption forms for rebates immediately available to consumers online

Discount clubs generate at least a billion dollars each year, much of which is amassed through fraud, and retailers get millions of dollars in revenue for passing customers' credit card information to the programs. Affinion/Trilegiant is one of the largest companies active in marketing fee-based discount clubs and protection benefit programs. Affinion/Trilegiant's marketing has involved arrangements with well-known retailers such as Classmates Online, Inc., 1-800 Flowers.com, and Budget.

Retailers settle

In addition to the settlement with Affinion/Trilegiant, the Cuomo announced settlements with several retailers that have partnered with either Affinion/Trilegiant or a similar marketing company, such as Webloyalty and Vertrue, which are also under investigation by his office.

According to these settlements, the retailers will reform their marketing practices, permanently end any mailed check solicitations, permanently end the practice of providing consumers' billing information to companies that market discount clubs online, and collectively contribute more than $2 million to a fund that will pay for consumer education, refunds, and the costs of the investigation.

The retailer settlements and amounts are as follows:

• Classmates Online, Inc.: $960,000

• FTD, Inc.: $640,000.

• Budget: $207,000

• GameStop: $195,000

• Avon: $68,000

The attorney general's office has received hundreds of complaints from consumers who have incurred unauthorized charges from companies that market discount clubs. These programs may offer actual discounts and other protection benefits, but consumers are often unaware that they are even enrolled in the programs. This investigation is continuing.

Consumer actions

Any consumers who find unauthorized charges on their account statements should call the number listed on the statement and demand a full refund. Most consumers who are enrolled in Affinion/Trilegiant's programs will be receiving notice of the settlement and claim forms over the next 30 days.

Charges for Affinion/Trilegiant programs may appear on consumers' credit or debit card account statements as "TLG," followed by the name of one of the following programs: AutoVantage; Buyers Advantange; CompleteHome; Everyday Privileges; Everyday Values; Great Fun; Great Options; Healthsaver; Hotline; IDSecure; Just For Me; Privacy Guard; Shoppers Advantage; and Travelers Advantage.

Consumers who discover unauthorized charges from companies that market discount clubs other than Affinion/Trilegiant, such as Webloyalty, Inc. (whose charges may appear on their account statement as "WLI" followed by the name of the discount program) or Vertrue (whose charges may appear on account statement as "AP9," "MVQ," or the name of the discount program) should cancel their membership with the program and/or request a refund.

Consumers should:

• review their credit and debit account statements carefully each month to ensure that all charges have been authorized;

• carefully read the fine print provided with any discount or service offers, especially when shopping online.

• not cash unsolicited checks that come in the mail without carefully reading any fine print that appears on the front or back of the check, as well as any materials that accompany the check.

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Latinos, Blacks More Than Half All Calif. Foreclosures

Most foreclosed homes are modest in size and value, according to new report

Latinos, Blacks More Than Half All Calif. Foreclosures...

August 18, 2010
Latinos and blacks in California have experienced significantly higher foreclosure rates than non-Hispanic borrowers in the state, according to research released by the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL).

As a result, these communities represent more than half of all foreclosures, with 48 percent of foreclosures on Latinos and eight percent on African blacks. These borrowers were more likely to receive higher-cost subprime mortgages with loan terms that typically increased the risk of default, compared with safer loans made to similarly situated non-Hispanic white borrowers.

The report, Dreams Deferred: Impacts and Characteristics of the California Foreclosure Crisis, analyzed more than 600,000 foreclosures in the state and also found that over three-quarters of all California foreclosures were on relatively modest properties, not "McMansions" as often believed.

Additionally, while major cities like Los Angeles and Sacramento have suffered the greatest number of foreclosures, communities in the Central Valley and Inland Empire have been severely harmed by high concentrations of foreclosures.

"Whether we are from Los Angeles or Modesto, all Californians are severely impacted by the foreclosure crisis," said Paul Leonard, director of CRL's California office. "We need solutions now that ease the pain everywhere."

Groundbreaking research

The research is the first to rigorously examine the geographic and demographic dimensions of California foreclosures as well as characteristics of foreclosed properties. The key findings are:

• Latino and black borrowers in California have experienced foreclosure rates 2.3 and 1.9 times that of non-Hispanic white borrowers. Given the high foreclosure rates for loans made in recent years and the large number of loans to Latinos in those years, almost half of all California foreclosures have been of Latino borrowers.

• The concentration and volume of California foreclosures differ dramatically by region. The Central Valley and Inland Empire have the highest concentrations of foreclosures, while the volume of foreclosures is highest in major cities, such as Los Angeles.

• Contrary to some claims, most foreclosures have not been on sprawling "McMansions" but rather on modest properties that were typically valued significantly below area median values at origination.

"NCLR has sounded the alarm for the last two years about the devastating impact foreclosures have had on communities of color, but this report reveals a shocking level of concentration among Latino homeowners in California," said Janet Murguia, President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza. "Dishonest brokers peddled their high-cost loans, steered our families into risky products designed to fail and now Latinos and all of California are paying the price."

Fixing the problem

The report also outlines policy recommendations to reduce what are seen as unnecessary foreclosures:

• Require servicers to complete the review of loan modification applications before beginning the foreclosure process. This is the central feature of California bill SB 1275 which will be considered by the full California Assembly this week before being sent to the governor.

• Incorporate principal reduction into loan modification programs, especially where housing prices have contributed to a lack of affordability.

• Lift the ban on judicial modification of principal residence mortgages by bankruptcy judges.

• Expand funding and capacity of housing counseling agencies and legal aid providers.



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Major Egg Producer Recalls 228 Million Eggs

Huge recall sparked by Salmonella outbreak

Major Egg Producer Recalls 228 Million Eggs...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.Com

August 18, 2010
Wright County Egg, one of the U.S.'s largest egg producers, has warned distributors that 228 million eggs could be contaminated with Salmonella bacteria, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

To put it in everyday terms, that's about 19 million dozen.

The CDC reports eggs from the Wright County operation have been linked to illnesses in California, Colorado and Minnesota.

The eggs were packaged under the names Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralph's, Boomsma's, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms and Kemp. They were distributed to food wholesalers, distribution centers and foodservice companies in California, Illinois, Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa for nationwide distribution.

The CDC says there were about 200 cases of salmonella linked to eggs during June and July, higher than the normal level. It led to the nationwide recall involving eggs packaged from May 16 through Aug. 13.

The recalled eggs carry three different plant numbers: P-1026, P-1413, and P-1946. The plant number is on the end of the egg carton. If it's stamped with one of those numbers, check the numbers after it. If they are between 136 to 225, the CDC says you should take the eggs back to the store.

NuCal issued a statement saying its eggs Eggs affected by this recall were distributed to food wholesalers and retailers in California and Nevada.

NuCal Foods received these eggs from Wright County Egg which were then packaged into 5-dozen overwrapped retail units, the company said.

The Food and Drug Administration is reportedly investigating Wright County Egg. The FDA is advising the use of pasteurized shell and liquid eggs to help retailers and food service outlets, along with consumers, to avoid contracting dangerous egg-related salmonella enteritdis (SE).



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How Safe Are Online Financial Transactions?

Survey shows overwhelming majority of consumers worry about identity theft

You can buy just about anything online these days, and retailers increasingly are migrating to the Web to save money and increase sales. You can even do yo...

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Bankruptcies Surge To Five-Year High

Consumer bankruptcies up 21 percent year-over-year

Bankruptcies Surge To Five-Year High...


There was more evidence this week that economic recovery has yet to find much traction -- at least for consumers. The number of U.S. bankruptcy filings has risen to levels not seen since 2005, when new changes to the bankruptcy law took effect, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Bankruptcy filings rose 20 percent in the 12-month period ending June 30, 2010. A total of 1,572,597 bankruptcy cases were filed in federal courts in that period, compared with 1,306,315 in the 12-month period ending June 30, 2009.

This is the highest number of bankruptcy filings for any period since many of the provisions of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 took effect, the report said. The 2005 law made bankruptcy a much less favorable option for consumers, resulting in a drop in foreclosure filings.

Business and Non-Business Filings

Non-business, or consumer filings for the 12-month period ending June 30, 2010 totaled 1,512,989, up 21 percent from the 1,251,294 non-business filings for June 30, 2009. Business filings totaled 59,608, up eight percent from the 55,021filings reported in June 30, 2009.

The consumer bankruptcy filings, coupled with stubbornly high foreclosure numbers, paint a picture of a consumer still struggling to get footing in a de-levereging economy.

Filings by Chapter, 12-month Period Ending June 30

In the 12-month period ending June 30, 2010 increased filings were seen in all bankruptcy chapters.

• Chapter 7 filings totaled 1,133,320 up 25 percent from the 907,603 Chapter 7 filings in the 12-month period ending June 30, 2009.

• Chapter 13 filings totaled 424,242, up 10 percent from the 384,187 filings in the same time period in June 2009.

• Chapter 11 filings totaled 14,272, up 2 percent from the 13,951 filings during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2009.

• Chapter 12 filings rose 56 percent to 660 from the 422 Chapter 12 bankruptcies filed as of June 30, 2009.

Bankruptcy filings in the April through June period of this year totaled 422,061. Filings for the June quarter are the highest of any quarter in fiscal year 2010 (October 1, 2009-September 30, 2010) and the highest for any April-June quarter since the 2005 third quarter filings.

For fiscal year 2010, filings for the first quarter (October 1, 2009-December 31, 2009) totaled 372,203 and second quarter filings (January 1, 2010 March 31, 2010) totaled 388,148.

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Lowe's Drywall Settlement Called Unfair

Agreement provides coupons, minimal cash to aggrieved homeowners

Lowe's Drywall Settlement Called Unfair...

It's a common argument against class action lawsuits: aggrieved consumers get little more than token compensation, while the lawyers walk off with all the money.

That concern is being raised anew with a recently-proposed settlement involving drywall sold at Lowe's. The suit, filed in Georgia state court, concerns some of the defective Chinese drywall sold by the home improvement chain.

The settlement totals $6.5 million, $2.1 million of which would go to the plaintiffs' attorneys. Meanwhile, class members are set to receive gift cards in varying amounts -- $50, $250, or $2,000 -- depending on how much money they can prove that they lost, according to ProPublica. Those who can prove damages greater than $2,000 are also eligible to receive as much as $2,500 in cash.

Out in the cold

What about plaintiffs who lost much more than the $4,500 they are entitled to receive under the settlement? Those consumers are basically out of luck. Once a class member uses up his $2,000 in gift cards and his $2,500 maximum cash, he isn't entitled to any further relief. The settlement also prohibits class members from pursuing any further litigation against Lowe's.

Worse, if consumer payouts total less than $2.5 million, the remaining money will go right back into Lowe's pockets.

The settlement is wide-reaching: it includes every consumer throughout the country who bought defective drywall from Lowe's. Those who want to be excluded from the class -- and preserve their right to sue individually -- must notify the court by November 9. That date is over a week before the judge decides whether to issue a final order approving the settlement.

Similar past settlement rejected

In March, a California judge rejected a class action settlement after determining that it provided too little to class members. That case involved allegedly misleading statements made by Honda about its Civic Hybrid's gas mileage capabilities. Judge Virginia Phillips ruled that the settlement -- which handed $3 million to attorneys but gave consumers rebates toward future Honda purchases -- provided nothing of value to the class.

That case drew national attention, with 26 state attorneys general arguing that the agreement didn't meet the "heightened scrutiny" standard required of coupon settlements.

The Georgia case is only one in a sea of cases involving the Chinese drywall manufacturers Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co. and Taishan Gypsum Co. In June, a handful of federal cases were consolidated in New Orleans.

The drywall at issue was imported into the U.S. between 2004 and 2006, partially as a result of the still-thriving housing market. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated homes in the Gulf region in 2005, only increased the already high demand. In all, around 550 million pounds of the drywall was imported.

The drywall emits an egg-like sulfur smell, which eventually corrodes metal fixtures and causes health problems ranging form coughing and wheezing to asthma and pneumonia.



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Merrick Pet Care Recalls Texas Hold'Em Dog Treats

Firm warns of possible salmonella contamination

Merrick Pet Care Recalls Texas Hold'Em Dog Treats...

photo

A Texas pet food company is again expanding its recall of beef-flavored dog treats because of continued concerns about salmonella contamination.

Merrick Pet Care, Inc. on Monday announced it's widening the companys July recall to include all lots of 10 ounce Beet Filet Squares and Texas HoldEms treats, saying the products have the potential to be tainted with the bacterium that causes food poisoning.

This is the third time in recent weeks the Amarillo-based company has issued a recall involving various lot numbers of the treats, which were shipped to distributors and retailers nationwide.

In July, Merrick pulled 86 cases of its beef filet squares off the market after a sample analyzed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tested positive for salmonella. Earlier this month, the company pulled another 83 cases of those treats -- and the Texas HoldEms treats -- off store shelves. On Monday, Merrick recalled all lots of the treats sold in 10 ounce plastic bags because of ongoing concerns about salmonella contamination.

The company, however, said it has not received any reports of illnesses linked to the recalled treats.

Salmonella poses a health risk to animals and people who handle products tainted with the bacterium, the FDA said.

Salmonella poses a health risk to animals and people who handle the products tainted with the bacterium, the FDA said.

People can become infected with salmonella if they do not thoroughly wash their hands after touching contaminated products or any surfaces exposed to them.

Symptoms of salmonella infections in people include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping and fever, the FDA said. In rare cases, salmonella can cause arterial infections, arthritis, muscle pain, and other serious health problems. People who experience these symptoms after handling salmonella-tainted products should contact their physicians.

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

Pet owners with dogs that experience any of these symptoms after eating the recalled treats should contact their veterinarians, the FDA said.

The agency also warned that infected but otherwise healthy pets can spread salmonella to animals and humans.

Consumers who purchased the recalled treats can return them to the store for a full refund, the company said. For more information about this action, contact Merrick at 1-800-664-7387.



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Merrick Pet Care Recalls Texas Hold'Em Dog Treats

Firm warns of possible salmonella contamination

Merrick Pet Care Recalls Texas Hold'Em Dog Treats...

photo

A Texas pet food company is again expanding its recall of beef-flavored dog treats because of continued concerns about salmonella contamination.

Merrick Pet Care, Inc. on Monday announced it's widening the companys July recall to include all lots of 10 ounce Beet Filet Squares and Texas HoldEms treats, saying the products have the potential to be tainted with the bacterium that causes food poisoning.

This is the third time in recent weeks the Amarillo-based company has issued a recall involving various lot numbers of the treats, which were shipped to distributors and retailers nationwide.

In July, Merrick pulled 86 cases of its beef filet squares off the market after a sample analyzed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tested positive for salmonella. Earlier this month, the company pulled another 83 cases of those treats -- and the Texas HoldEms treats -- off store shelves. On Monday, Merrick recalled all lots of the treats sold in 10 ounce plastic bags because of ongoing concerns about salmonella contamination.

The company, however, said it has not received any reports of illnesses linked to the recalled treats.

Salmonella poses a health risk to animals and people who handle products tainted with the bacterium, the FDA said.

Salmonella poses a health risk to animals and people who handle the products tainted with the bacterium, the FDA said.

People can become infected with salmonella if they do not thoroughly wash their hands after touching contaminated products or any surfaces exposed to them.

Symptoms of salmonella infections in people include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping and fever, the FDA said. In rare cases, salmonella can cause arterial infections, arthritis, muscle pain, and other serious health problems. People who experience these symptoms after handling salmonella-tainted products should contact their physicians.

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

Pet owners with dogs that experience any of these symptoms after eating the recalled treats should contact their veterinarians, the FDA said.

The agency also warned that infected but otherwise healthy pets can spread salmonella to animals and humans.

Consumers who purchased the recalled treats can return them to the store for a full refund, the company said. For more information about this action, contact Merrick at 1-800-664-7387.

 

 

 

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Court Halts Acai Berry, Colon Cleanser Scams

Ads Feature Phony Endorsements Attributed to Oprah Winfrey, Rachael Ray

Court Halts Acai Berry, Colon Cleanser Scams...

At the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a U.S. district court has ordered the marketers of acai berry supplements, "colon cleansers," and other products to temporarily halt an Internet sales scheme that allegedly scammed consumers out of $30 million or more in 2009 alone through deceptive advertising and unfair billing practices.

The FTC will seek a permanent prohibition. Since 2007, victimized consumers have flooded law enforcement agencies and consumer organizations with thousands of complaints about the company.

Acai berry supplements, derived from acai palm trees that are native to Central and South America, have become popular in recent years.

"Too many 'free' offers come with strings attached," said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "In this case, the defendants promised buyers a 'risk free' trial and then illegally billed their credit cards again and again and again. We estimate that about a million people have fallen victim to this scam. As if that weren't enough, there were fake endorsements from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Rachael Ray for a product that didn't work in the first place."

The court order halts the allegedly illegal conduct of Central Coast Nutraceuticals, Inc., imposes an asset freeze, and appoints a temporary receiver over CCN and several related companies, while the FTC moves forward with its case to stop the company's bogus health claims and other deceptive and unfair conduct.

The FTC charged CCN, two individuals, and four related companies with multiple violations, including deceptively advertising AcaiPure, an acai berry supplement, as a weight-loss product, and Colopure, a colon cleansing supplement, as an aid for preventing cancer.

The FTC complaint alleges that to sell AcaiPure, the marketers made dramatic claims on their website, including:

"WARNING! AcaiPure Is Fast Weight Loss That Works. It Was Not Created For Those People Who Only Want To Lose A Few Measly Pounds. AcaiPure was created to help you achieve the incredible body you have always wanted USE WITH CAUTION! Major weight loss in short periods of time may occur."

In pitching Colopure, the defendants cited frightening statistics about colon cancer, while promising that their product would get rid of consumers' "excess weight and toxic buildup."

The marketers also deceived consumers about their purported "free" or "risk free" trial offers, and about the charges and refund terms consumers could expect, according to the FTC's complaint. The FTC also alleges that the marketers made numerous additional unauthorized charges to consumers' credit and debit card accounts.

Deceptive practices

The alleged deceptive practices include:

• Falsely claiming that using AcaiPure could lead to rapid and substantial weight loss. Consumers were told that "[m]ost consumers taking AcaiPure report weight loss anywhere from 10-25 pounds in the first month.

• Making unproven claims that AcaiPure's weight-loss claims are backed by "double-blind, placebo-controlled weight loss studies."

• Deceptively claiming that Colopure could help prevent colon cancer because it would "cleanse your entire system," "detoxify your organs," and break down and remove "toxic waste matter which may have been stuck in the folds and wrinkles of your digestive system for years and years."

• Falsely claiming that celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Rachael Ray have endorsed products marketed by Central Coast Nutraceuticals, Inc. In marketing AcaiPure, the defendants declared on their homepage, "Acai Berry rated #1 SUPERFOOD by Rachael Ray." A photo of Oprah appeared on the homepage, next to a quote that read in part, "Studies have shown that this little berry is one of the most nutritious and powerful foods in the world!" In fact, in declarations to the FTC, both celebrities denied endorsing AcaiPure.

• Deceptively claiming that the marketers will provide full refunds to all consumers who request them, and that consumers who paid a nominal fee for a "free" trial supply of supplements would incur no risks or obligations. In fact, many consumers found it all but impossible to avoid paying full price for the products, typically $39.95 to $59.95.

• Failing to adequately disclose that consumers would be automatically enrolled in a membership program and charged for additional monthly supplies of a product.

• Failing to adequately disclose that consumers would be automatically charged for items other than the trial product unless they opted out.

• Failing to adequately disclose the terms and conditions of trial programs, membership programs, and additional charges.

• Making numerous unauthorized charges to consumers' credit and debit card accounts.

• Debiting consumers' bank accounts on an automatic, recurring basis, without obtaining proper preauthorization. The unauthorized debits violated the FTC Act as well as the Electronic Fund Transfer Act and Regulation E, according to the complaint.

The FTC filed its complaint and requested a temporary restraining order against the defendants from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. On August 6, 2010, the court granted the request for the temporary restraining order.

The complaint also names as defendants Graham D. Gibson and Michael A. McKenzy, and four companies affiliated with Central Coast Nutraceuticals, Inc. iLife Health and Wellness LLC; Simply Naturals LLC; Health and Beauty Solutions LLC; and Fit for Life LLC.

 

 



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Documents: Kevin Trudeau Stiffs Feds On Fine

Trudeau memos reveal interesting look inside company

Documents: Kevin Trudeau Stiffs Feds On Fine...


Informercial marketer Kevin Trudeau owes the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) $37.6 million in fines but has yet to pay a dime, according to documents filed in federal court.

Trudeau has constantly run afoul of the FTC over the years for his pitches for miracle weight loss cures, get rich quick schemes and natural cures. In every case, Trudeau's products, contained in book form, are presented in conspiratorial fashion, as information "they don't want you to know about."

Trudeau has been a constant source of complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com over the years.

"I ordered Kevin Trudeau's Narual Cures books and paid with a credit card on May 4," Gale, of Philadelphia, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "To this day I have not gotten the books, yet have been calling for a month. They give me a different story every time."

"I bought the book for $19.95 but was charged $23.90 for shipping and handling," complained William, of Chesterfield, Mich. "That 19.95 book ended up costing me 43.85."

Long-running battle

In 2004, the FTC obtained a court order banning Trudeau, a prolific marketer who has either appeared in or produced hundreds of infomercials, from appearing in, producing, or disseminating future infomercials that advertise any type of product, service, or program to the public, except for truthful infomercials for informational publications.

That's when Trudeau shifted gears and started selling books. But he still found himself in hot water with the FTC, which accused him of making all sorts of unfounded and outright bogus claims. The FTC has now filed documents claiming Trudeau, who continues to sell books and air infomercials, hasn't made good on any of the $37.6 million fine.

Meanwhile, it appears that working for Trudeau is a -- well -- interesting experience.

TheSmokingGun.com has published a series of what it says are memos written by Trudeau to his staff. The directives cover everything from using a dictionary, to maintaining a clean desk, to drinking fruit juice. They are interspersed with strong plugs for Scientology.

Neat freak

"Offices should be arranged as follows," one memo reads. "The desk should have virtually nothing on it. Your desk should have a phone and, maybe a picture of your significant other. The ideal scene is to have a computer screen behind the desk. There should be nothing else on the desk. The inside of the desk must also be clean and organized."

The memo warns that there will be regular inspections of desks to make sure employees are following the directive.

Another memo explains that he wants fresh juice machines in every office and that employees are strongly urged "to drink juice, or consider drinking juice," every day.

The FTC is currently engaged in "post-judgment discovery" in an attempt to identify and attach Trudeau's assets to satisfy his hefty debt to the government.

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Insurance Scam Unravels in Yazoo County, Mississippi

Would-be con artists bungle a staged multi-car crash

Insurance Scam Unravels in Yazoo County, Mississippi...

Insurance fraud is not normally very entertaining but Mississippi prosecutors are still hee-hawing over a recent incident involving a staged multi-car crash in Yazoo County, the "Gateway to the Delta."

Attorney General Jim Hood called it "one of those humorous, Apple Dumpling Gang type cases, an apparent reference to a 1975 Disney film that celebrates chicanery, skulduggery and general bungling. Others suggested "My Cousin Vinnie" might be more applicable.

It all began, we're told, on a lonesome Yazoo County road, where passing motorists saw what appeared to be a multi-car accident, with the bodies of apparent victims sprawled nearby.

Police and ambulance crews converged on the scene but immediately became suspicious. For one thing, the "victims" didn't appear to be very seriously -- if at all -- injured. For another, the engine on a battered black Cadillac was cold to the touch, not something you'd normally expect just a few minutes after an accident.

But perhaps most telling was the little matter of the tow chain.

"The caper unraveled when alert law enforcement officers noticed that one of the vehicles had been towed to the crime scene. They found the tow chain still attached to the vehicle," Hood said.

The alert Yazoo County constabulary made its way to the local hospital, where they arrested Terrence Wade and obtained confessions from several other paticipants before turning the case over to the Insurance Fraud Unit of the Attorney General's Office.

One defendant in the case, Kevin Jones, upon deducing that his arrest was imminent, went out and committed a robbery to raise money for his bail, Hood said.

While it has been a source of amusement mixed with consternation in the Greater Yazoo area, the case is about to fade into the history books, or at least the local courtroom blotter. The last defendant, Lorenzo Deering, 24, of 1511 Ebenezer Pickens Road in Pickens, appeared before Judge Jannie M. Lewis in Yazoo County Circuit Court last week.

Dearing entered an open plea, which means the defendant refused to accept the state's recommended sentence and threw himself on the mercy of the court.

Judge Lewis sentenced Deering to three years in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, suspended, and sent Deering to the restitution center to pay all fines and court costs.

 

 

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An Identity Theft Protection Primer

College students are among the prime targets for ID thieves

An Identity Theft Protection Primer...


Identity theft is considered to be one the fastest growing crimes in the United States, affecting approximately 9-10 million consumers each year. What you do or don't do now to protect your identity may affect the outcome of your life for years to come. It's important to take proactive steps, right now, to protect your future.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, 29 percent of all identity theft complaints nationwide in 2006 were from young adults, aged 18 to 29 years old. College students typically fall into this category, which represents the largest group among all identity theft victims.

And, with a whole new crop of freshmen heading for campus, it is important that they start taking steps to protect themselves now to avoid becoming part of the statistics. The Wisconsin Division of Trade and Consumer Protection offers the following recommendations:

Manage your mail

• Safeguard your mail. Check it daily. If you receive junk mail, don't be so quick to throw it out. It might contain personally identifiable information. Dispose of it securely.

• Evaluate what needs to be kept. Avoid keeping old bills and other documents too long. The more you have, the easier it is for someone to take it undetected.

• Shred, shred, shred. Shred bills, receipts, credit card offers, and any other items that contain personal or financial information -- such as bank statements. Use a cross-cut shredder if possible to better destroy the documents.

• Stop pre-approved credit card offers. Stop pre-approved credit card offers by calling toll-free to 888-5OPTOUT (888-567-8688) or by visiting the Opt Out website.

• Update forwarding information. College students typically change addresses frequently. Notify the United States Postal Service of your forwarding address to ensure you continue to receive all important mail.

Secure your stuff

• Guard your social security number. Don't carry your Social Security card with you and don't use your social security number as a PIN or password if you can avoid it.

• Check your wallet and limit the number of identification cards you carry. Never carry your Social Security card, Social Security number, birth certificate or passport, unless necessary. Many medical cards contain your Social Security number, if you don't need it, don't carry it with you. Carry only the credit cards you plan to use.

• Be careful giving out your personal information. Legitimate companies or agencies don't call or email asking for personal information like account, credit card or social security numbers. Never give out personal information unless you initiated the contact.

• Pay attention to internet security. Make certain you have firewall, virus, spam, and spyware protection on your computer. Check your browser security settings to make certain that they aren't too low.

• Log off or lock your computer when you leave it. A computer left unattended and unlocked leaves you open to someone compromising your data, including sending emails out that appear to be coming from you.

• Lock your dorm room or apartment at all times. This is not only a smart move for your personal safety, but also for your identity. Talk with your roommate about security practices. Make sure each of you understands the need for and expectations of security in your residence.

• Keep sensitive documents in a safe place. College residences are prone to random visitors. Anyone could have access to anything you leave lying around.

• Avoid leaving credit card for bar tab. Credit card numbers and the cards themselves are vulnerable to theft when left to secure a bar tab. Do not give your card to the bartender to be left at the register. Pay in cash or periodically when needed.

Double-check your data

• Check your bills and bank statements. Look at your statements as soon as you get them to see if there are any unauthorized charges or withdrawals. If there are, report them right away. Many banks offer online account access as well.

• Check your credit report regularly. Obtain your credit report FREE from each of the three (3) major credit reporting agencies each year. Checking your report regularly is one of the best ways to protect against identity theft. You can get your free credit report from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion by calling 877-322-8228 or online.

• Limit your number of credit cards. Too many credit cards could mean too much to keep track of. Credit cards with infrequent use are prime targets for identity thieves.

What is your identity?

Any combination of the following information can provide enough for identity theft to occur:

• Name

• Address

• Phone Number

• Email Address

• Social Security Number

• Mother's Maiden Name

• ATM Pin

• Date of Birth

• Account Number or Username

What is identity theft?

• Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personally identifying information, like your name, Social Security number, or credit card number, without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes.

• The FTC estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. In fact, you or someone you know may have experienced some form of identity theft. The crime takes many forms. Identity thieves may rent an apartment, obtain a credit card, or establish a telephone account in your name. You may not find out about the theft until you review your credit report or a credit card statement and notice charges you didn't make -- or until you're contacted by a debt collector.

• Identity theft is serious. While some identity theft victims can resolve their problems quickly, others spend hundreds of dollars and many days repairing damage to their good name and credit record. Some consumers victimized by identity theft may lose out on job opportunities, or be denied loans for education, housing or cars because of negative information on their credit reports. In rare cases, they may even be arrested for crimes they did not commit.

What to do if it happens to you

No matter how many precautions you take, identity theft can still happen to you. If it does, you can take steps to reduce your loss, stop it from happening again and to resolve the problems it has caused.

• Close the accounts that you know have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.

• Notify the credit reporting agencies and place a fraud alert on your credit report.

• Report the theft to the police.

• Contact your creditors and bank to alert them of the theft.

• Contact your local Division of Motor Vehicle office if your driver's license or ID card is stolen.

• Contact the Postal Inspector at (800) 275-8777 or file a complaint online if your mail was stolen or a change of address form was submitted for you.

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Pre-Paid Phone Card Seller Settles With Maryland

Company accused of failing to provide advertised minutes

Pre-Paid Phone Card Seller SettlesWith Maryland...


Consumers should always exercise care in purchasing a pre-paid telephone calling card because some are of little or no value. Others don't provide the calling minutes the ads promise.

In Maryland, Attorney General Douglas Gansler says that was the case with cards promoted by Telmex USA, LLC (Telmex), a subsidiary of Telefonos de Mexico, S.A.B. de C.V., the primary telecommunications carrier for Mexico.

Telmex sells telephone calling cards for users to make international calls to more than 100 different cities outside the United States, including major cities in Latin and South America, Africa, Europe and Asia.

Telmex sells its prepaid calling cards to a network of distributors that sell the calling cards to convenience stores, grocery markets and check cashing stores. In Maryland, Telmex sold its cards -- through its distributors and their retailers -- largely to Latino consumers residing in Prince George's and Montgomery counties who have relatives living outside the US.

Telmex's posters and point-of-sale advertisements promised that the cards would deliver a large number of calling minutes to specified countries. For example, one poster promised that its $5.00 "Sonrisa" brand prepaid calling card would deliver 1250 calling minutes to Mexico City, Guadalajara or Monterrey.

Fewer minutes than advertised

Gansler alleged that the Sonrisa card and many other cards sold by Telmex actually delivered substantially fewer minutes than promised in Telmex's advertisements. Telmex sold its prepaid calling cards under a number of different brand names including "TXT2 Communications," "Tier One," "Oro Honduras," "Lunatico," "La Nativa," "La Deportiva," "La Pantera," "Sonrisa," "La Botantita DMV," "Che Cala" and "El Aventurero." Telmex denied that it had violated the Consumer Protection Act.

"Consumers have a right to receive what they are promised," said Gansler. "Through today's settlement, Telmex USA and all of its distributors must reform their practices and deliver the calling minutes that they promise to consumers."

Under the terms of the settlement reached with Gansler's office, Telmex has agreed not to sell any prepaid calling cards to Maryland consumers unless the purchaser can obtain all of the number of minutes that are advertised when he or she uses the card for phone services.

The settlement also contains injunctive relief concerning how Telmex must offer its cards to consumers, including a requirement that it more clearly disclose any fees that will be applied to its cards when they are used. Telmex also agreed that it will require its distributors to comply with the terms of the settlement.

Telmex agreed to pay $60,000 in restitution, which the attorney general will use to fund a state agency or charitable program to benefit people who may have been affected by the actions which led to the settlement with Telmex. Telmex has also agreed to pay a $90,000 civil penalty and $45,000 for costs.

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Beware of Door-To-Door Security Alarm Sales

Cold-call con artists don't like taking 'no' for an answer

Once inside, though, the sales agent may use high-pressure or deceptive sales tactics to lock citizens into costly, long-term alarm monitoring agreements....

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Facebook 'Dislike' Button A Scam

Rogue app allows hackers to post spam on Facebook pages

Facebook 'Dislike' Button A Scam...


If you're offered a chance to install a "dislike" button on your Facebook page, ignore it. It's part of a phishing scam.

The idea behind the "dislike" button is to allow users to flag comments they don't like. Facebook has a "like" button but not a "dislike" button, and says it has no plans to add one.

"It's the latest survey scam spreading virally across Facebook, using the tried-and-tested formula used in the past by other viral scams including 'Justin Bieber trying to flirt,' 'Student attacked his teacher and nearly killed him,' 'the biggest and scariest snake,' and the 'world's worst McDonald's customer," Sophos security expert Graham Cluely wrote in his blog.

The hook comes in a post that is supposed to look like it came from one of your friends. It says "I just got the Dislike button, so now I can Dislike all of your dumb posts.lol!!!" Other versions say something like "get the official Dislike button now!"

Becoming vulnerable

The scam targets victims to download an application that allegedly will install the Dislike button on their page. Instead, the link downloads a rogue application that gives the scammer access to the victim's Facebook account.

The program also installs a message on the victim's page, urging friends to also install the button and providing the link. Cluley says, in that way, the scam is growing virally.

The main purpose of the scam is to allow scammers to post spam messages on millions of Facebook pages.

A spokesman for Facebook said the site tries to make sure links and rogue applications are taken down as quickly as possible.

"We always encourage people to not click on links that appear suspicious -- even if posted from a friend," a spokesman told the BBC.

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Pet Owner Finds Dead Frog in Canned Dog Food

'Brown clump' in Pedigree can turns out to be a dead amphibian

Pet Owner Finds Dead Frog in Canned Dog Food...


An Illinois pet owner made what she calls a disgusting discovery when she recently opened a can of Pedigree dog food. Inside the can of chicken with gravy food Dianne T. says she found a dead frog.

It was the most disgusting thing, she told ConsumerAffairs.com. I almost hurled and I have a strong stomach.

Dianne says she often splits a can of wet food between her four dogs two Blue Merle Collies, an Old English Sheepdog, and her ailing moms Shih Tzu.

When I opened up this can on Thursday night I saw a brown clump in the food, the Frankfort, Illinois, pet owner says. I was like what is that? I flipped it over and it was a dead frog.

photo

I walked over to the kitchen sink because I thought I was going to throw up, she adds. It was gross. I had to call my son and he said, Oh my God its a frog, its a frog.

Dianne called the company that makes the food, Mars Petcare US, to report the dead frog food.

And what got me mad is they offered me coupons for more dog food. I told them I dont want your coupons. Why would I want to give my dogs more of this food? I will never buy or feed Pedigree canned food again, Dianne adds. I wont even donate what I have left to a shelter.

The frog-tainted can was part of a case of Pedigree Choice Cuts in gravy food that Dianne purchased in early August from Sams Club. It has a best by date of 4/25/12 and the manufacturers number is 017c1kkcf.

Half the cans were chicken and half were beef, Dianne says. And my dogs have been eating other cans from this same case.

Dianne is now worried that her dogs -- or someone elses -- could become sick from any Pedigree food made at the same time as the can with the dead amphibian.

My big concern is whats going into this food, she says. Whats going into this food that people are feeding their pets? Obviously, its not chicken. Theres a frog in that food a whole dead frog. And if theres a frog in there, what else is in the food?

Dianne says she doesnt know what type of frog is in the food or if its poisonous.

Are there toxins in that frog? she asks. Everything I read about poisonous frogs said they keep their toxins in them after they after die. Does that mean the toxins were spread through Lord knows how many cans when the food was processed? What else could the frog have contaminated?

Mild symptoms

Dianne immediately contacted her veterinarian after she discovered the dead frog in her dogs food.

I asked him what could happen if the dogs ate from a can that contained a dead frog, she says. And he said they could have diarrhea, vomiting, and neurological problems.

In the past few days, Dianne says her healthy, active dogs have experienced some mild signs of those problems.

My dogs have had some loose bowels, says Dianne, who is now feeding them cooked rice and chicken. And my older collie suddenly turned up lame on Tuesday. She didnt want to get up and was holding up her back paw. My vet couldnt find anything wrong, but said to bring her back on Saturday. It may be a pinched nerve and she is getting better.

Mars customer service representative, however, told Dianne the dead frog did not pose any health risks to her dogs.

She said they cant get any diseases from this because the food is cooked in the can so its sterile. But what kind of quality control is going on when a dead frog is in the food? That frog had to be in the food when they prepared it.

ConsumerAffairs.com contacted Mars about the frog-tainted dog food and the company told us its investigating Diannes unlikely claim.

At Mars Petcare US, quality and food safety is our top priority, the company said in a statement ConsumerAffairs.com received Friday evening. While its highly improbable that this could occur, were taking it very seriously and launching a full-scale investigation into this consumers claim.

Mars added: We are sending a third-party to the consumers home today to collect the frog and deliver it directly to an independent lab for testing. Its important to note that canned pet food is cooked at high temperatures and processed on high speed equipment, making it very unlikely that a frog could become enclosed in a can.

Dianne told us on Saturday that no one with Mars or an independent lab came to her home on Friday to pick up the dead frog.

Asked about the companys doubts concerning her claim, Dianne said: We figured theyd say that, but theres a cooked frog in this can of food. Its legs are curled. I think theyre side-stepping this situation.

Dianne also has a message to anyone else who doesnt believe she found a dead frog in her dogs can of Pedigree food.

Why would I put a dead frog in my dogs food? asks Dianne, a self-proclaimed dog lover who volunteers for Collie Rescue of Greater Illinois, Inc. I treat my dogs like people. I dont eat that stuff and dont expect my animals or anyone elses animals to do that, either.

I also have no desire to sue Mars. Thats the last thing on my mind.

Dianne, however, does expect Mars to take two specific actions.

What I want Mars to do is clean up their facility, she says. Frogs belong outside. They belong in a pond not in my dogs food. I also expect Mars to take care of my vet bills if my dogs get sick, but only it pertains to the dead frog.

To protect other dogs from eating food that might contain dead frogs, Dianne also reported her incident with Pedigrees food to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

And theyve now opened a complaint about this, she says. I dont want anyone feeding their dogs something that is unhealthy.



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Do You Really Have To Pay For TV?

Digital TV, Internet offer alternative to cable and satellite

Do You Really Have To Pay For TV?...

Once upon a time there were just three or four television stations most consumers could receive and reception was sometimes poor. Then in the 1980s, cable TV exploded, offering hundreds of channels.

Today, most people get their TV from either a cable TV company or from one of two satellite providers, DishNetwork or DirecTV. They also pay increasingly higher bills for the privilege.

In this new age of austerity, when consumers are looking for ways to cut corners everywhere, even diehard TV junkies are considering the once unthinkable getting rid of their cable or satellite TV services.

But for most, getting rid of cable doesn't mean going without TV. If you live in, or close to, a metropolitan area and have a high-speed Internet connection, there's a way you can still watch most of your favorite shows and not pay for it.

Better reception

Last year's change to digital television makes watching over the air television much like watching it over cable or satellite. The picture is sharp and clear, since snow and ghosting, characteristics of marginal analog TV signals, are a thing of the past.

By mounting a new HD antenna and pointing it in the proper direction, you can watch the broadcast TV stations in your market for free. While cable and satellite charge extra each month in order to receive HD channels, when your local channels broadcast in HD, and you have an HD set with HD antenna, you can watch and pay nothing extra.

Not all HD TV sets have a built-in HD tuner, but most do. If yours doesn't, you'll need to purchase a separate HD tuner.

What about programming on cable channels? Since they aren't broadcast on over-the-air stations, does that mean missing them? Not in every case, and this is where your high-speed Internet connection comes in.

On demand

Full episodes on many popular shows are streamed online. You can find them either on the cable networks' websites or on special TV websites like Hulu.com, which streams many popular shows for free. You can attach your HDTV to your computer so that you get the full screen, TV viewing experience. Best of all, you watch them when you want.

There are hundreds of online instructional videos, like the one below, that can guide you through the setup process.

If you need to add just a bit more programming to the mix, consider signing up for a $9 a month NetFlix account. Not only can you download and view hundreds of popular moves, past episodes of your favorite programs are also available.

Again, having your computer connected to your TV makes it seem like you are subscribing to a premium movie channel on cable or satellite. But instead of paying $100 or more per month, you're paying $9.

photoDon't want to tie up your computer? Many new Blu-ray DVD players can capture streaming video from Netflix and other online providers. We've been testing the LG-BD550, which sells for less than $150 at Amazon.com. We got the slim little unit set up and working in less than 10 minutes. It delivers a crisp, clean image from both Netflix streaming video and DVDs, blu-ray and otherwise. We tested it with both DSL and 40-mbps cable Internet connections and found no discernable difference in picture quality.

Upfront costs

There are some upfront costs, of course. You'll need an HDTV with HDTV turner to take full advantage of your local stations' HD content and an antenna capable of receiving HD signals. You'll also need a computer with ports for connecting a TV.

By ditching cable and switching to free TV, you might, in fact, become a trend-setter. Many industry observers predict television will eventually migrate to the Web, and may be in the process of doing so.

Hulu.com recently announced a new premium service allowing viewers to see current seasons of many popular shows, meaning you won't have to wait until next year to catch up on what's happening on The Office. There is a price for the service, but the $9.99 monthly charge is a fraction what what you're now paying for cable or satellite.

 

 

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Ohio Reports Rash of Sweepstakes Scams

More than 900 complaints this year, many from seniors

Ohio Reports Rash of Sweepstakes Scams...


Ohio has been hit by a rash of sweepstakes scams, Attorney General Richard Cordray said today.

The fake contests are a common ploy used by con artists to swindle money or gain personal information. Since January, the Attorney General's Consumer Protection section has received approximately 900 complaints about sweepstakes or prizes, almost all of them scams.

"The number of sweepstakes scams reported in Ohio is on course to double this year," Cordray said. "Unfortunately, senior citizens are most vulnerable to these sophisticated deceptions. We are seeing tragic instances of trusting consumers, particularly seniors, falling into a trap where they wind up turning over not only their personal information but thousands of dollars. Our best defense against these scam artists is to increase awareness and community vigilance."

In Madison County, an elderly couple received a call informing them that they had won $495,000 and that to receive the award they first had to wire $750 to Las Vegas for insurance. After the couple wired more than $1,800 for the prize, their son became aware of the scam and contacted the Attorney General's office.

A Trumbull County woman received a check as an award for winning the "lottery." In order to collect the winnings, she was required to deposit the $4,800 check and wire $4,000 to Spain. The woman's daughter contacted the Attorney General's office after realizing the check was a fake.

"Many of the fake checks used in sweepstakes scams look very real," Cordray said. "If someone is enduring early stages of dementia or Alzheimer's, they likely could not detect this ploy. In fact the most outrageous aspect of most scams is that they prey on the trust that ordinary, decent people have in one another. I strongly urge family members, friends and neighbors to watch out for those who are most vulnerable to these malicious scammers."

The Attorney General's office has received 919 sweepstakes scam reports to-date in 2010; well past the 622 complaints received last year and double the 447 in 2008.

Cordray is providing the following tips to avoid sweepstakes scams:

• Do not send money to collect a sweepstakes or prize. If you have to pay to collect your winnings, then you did not actually win.

• Be extremely skeptical of anyone who asks you to send money to Canada, Jamaica or other foreign countries.

• Don't trust individuals who contact you unexpectedly and who ask you to wire transfer money, even for a contest or prize.

• Entries to foreign lotteries cannot be sold legally in Ohio. Anyone who informs you that you have won a foreign lottery is trying to defraud you.

• Beware of "recovery scams." Fraudulent telemarketers may contact victims posing as the police or other governmental representatives. They lie, often by saying they have recovered the victims' lost sweepstakes money and asking the victims to send more money to receive it.

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CDC: Nearly 1,100 Foodborne Outbreaks Reported Nationally In 2007

Safe food handling and proper sanitation are the keys to preventing illness

CDC: Nearly 1,100 Foodborne Outbreaks Reported Nationally In 2007...


A total of 1,097 foodborne disease outbreaks were reported in 2007 to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State investigators reported 21,244 illnesses and 18 deaths as a result of these outbreaks. The report also provides the most recent data on how many illnesses were linked to specific types of foods.

"Knowing more about what types of foods and foodborne agents have caused outbreaks can help guide public health and the food industry in developing measures to effectively control and prevent infections and help people stay healthy," said Chris Braden, acting director of the CDC's Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases.

Despite health officials' efforts, the cause of an outbreak -- either the food or the foodborne agent responsible -- often cannot be determined or confirmed. This most commonly is the case when the outbreak is small.

The culprit

Of 1,097 reported outbreaks in 2007, 497 (or 45 percent) confirmed that one foodborne agent was responsible and in an additional 12 outbreaks more than one foodborne agent was responsible. Thus, in more than half of the outbreaks, a foodborne agent was not identified. Norovirus was the most frequently confirmed foodborne agent (39 percent), followed by Salmonella (27 percent).

Foodborne disease outbreaks due to norovirus occur most often when infected food handlers do not wash their hands well after using the toilet; outbreaks due to salmonella occur most often when foods are contaminated with animal feces. Contaminated foods are often of animal origin, such as beef, poultry, milk, or eggs. But any food, including vegetables, may become contaminated. Thorough cooking kills Salmonella.

The report states that in the 235 outbreaks where one food commodity was identified, the largest number of illnesses listed poultry (691 illnesses), beef (667 illnesses), and leafy vegetables (590 illnesses) as the cause. The CDC tracks 17 food commodity categories.

To prevent foodborne illnesses, CDC recommends that consumers and food handlers appropriately clean, separate, cook and chill foods.

The full report, "Surveillance for Foodborne Disease Outbreaks -- United States, 2007" appears in this week's edition of CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Direct access to the Foodborne Outbreak Online Database (FOOD), a searchable database of outbreaks reported to CDC between 1998 and 2007 is available online.



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Consumers Still Opting In For Overdraft Protection

Research shows 52 percent have 'opted in,' or plan to

Consumers Still Opting In For Overdraft Protection...


Chances are you have gotten a friendly letter or two from your bank in recent weeks, urging you to "opt in" to its overdraft coverage program, so that "you can continue to enjoy this important protection."

The last of a series of new overdraft rules goes into effect August 15, after which banks cannot automatically enroll new or existing customers in an overdraft protection program that smacks consumers with a hefty fee when the bank makes good on an overdraft. The banks have come to rely on the revenue from those fees and are worried about losing them.

It turns out they might not have as much to worry about as they thought. Research shows a surprising number of consumers have already "opted in" for the continued coverage and another large group indicates it plans to do so.

When the Federal Reserve drafted new rules preventing banks from making its overdraft coverage mandatory, consumer advocates were certain that most bank customers would say "no thanks." After all, complaints about overdraft fees, famously making a $5 latte a $40 purchase, have filled pages on ConsumerAffairs.com.

But a new report from Mintel Comperemedia, a service that provides direct marketing competitive intelligence, found that 26 percent of consumers said they had opted in for their bank's standard overdraft services and another 26 percent said they planned to do so in the future.

Marketing blitz

Mintel notes that the banking industry has engaged in a marketing full court press to achieve these results, incorporating direct mail, email, web and phone campaigns to encourage consumers to remain in a program that will charge them fees whenever they overdraw their account with their debit card. Those who decide to live without the overdraft protection will have their cards declined when a purchase would overdraw their account, but will not pay a fee.

In recent years, consumers have paid $23.7 billion per year in costly overdraft fees, which average $34 per incident. However, the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) says there are a number of less costly alternatives to standard overdraft coverage.

"To avoid costly fees under standard overdraft coverage, customers can sign up for lower cost overdraft alternatives at their bank, such as linking a savings account or credit card for back-up funds, or applying for an overdraft line of credit," the group says on its website.

CLR maintains that banks' recent marketing blitz has been targeted at the most vulnerable consumers because they are the ones most likely to have incurred overdraft fees in the past. To induce these customers to accept overdraft coverage, CLR asserts, many marketing campaigns use scare tactics or incomplete information. For example, they fail to emphasize customers can have debit card transactions declined at no cost rather than incur a $34 overdraft fee.

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Pinnacle Security Settles With New York

Firm charged with deceptive marketing practices

Pinnacle Security Group LLC, charged with using deceptive door-to-door sales tactics to trick NY homeowners into signing contracts for unnecessary services...


Pinnacle Security Group, LLC, a Utah-based home security company charged with using deceptive door-to-door sales tactics to trick New York homeowners into signing contracts for unnecessary services, has agreed to a settlement with the State of New York.

Illinois sued the firm last October, charging similar violations.

The settlement requires Pinnacle to pay restitution to New Yorkers, pay a $150,000 penalty, and reform its sales practices. Pinnacle has signed contracts with approximately 4,000 customers throughout New York since 2008.

The company's home security contracts were for a term of 39 months and included monthly service fees, installation fees, activation fees, and equipment charges. An investigation by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo revealed that Pinnacles door-to-door sales staff often targeted homeowners who had existing contracts with other security companies.

In a deceptive practice known as slamming, Cuomo says Pinnacle sales staff then made false representations to convince people to sign up for Pinnacle products even though the consumer had a contract with another home security company. Pinnacle misled homeowners into believing that their existing home security provider had gone out of business, had merged with Pinnacle, or was in some way already affiliated with Pinnacle.

As a result of this deception, unsuspecting homeowners signed up for a contract with Pinnacle when they were still bound by their prior home security contract. Homeowners were then stuck paying for redundant monthly services from two security companies, including upwards of $50 per month for Pinnacle.

Consumers who tried to void the contract were often faced with substantial cancellation fees. For example, Pinnacle would demand full and immediate payment of the entire cost of their contract if consumers wanted to cancel early; these costs could amount to $1,900.

Pinnacle used dirty tricks and deception to pressure New Yorkers who were simply trying to ensure the security of their homes, Cuomo said. This settlement holds Pinnacle accountable for their actions and makes fundamental reforms to the company to prevent such fraud from happening again.

Cuomo says his investigation revealed that Pinnacles sales team made phony telephone calls to homeowners to tell them that their existing home security contract had been canceled; misrepresented the terms of their contracts, and changed the terms of contracts after consumers signed them.

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Arizona Reaches Settlement With Nation's Largest Homebuilder

Pulte to pay $1.18 million to resolve questions about sales practices

Arizona Reaches Settlement With Nation's Largest Homebuilder...

The office of Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard has reached a $1,181,400 settlement with Pulte Home Corporation and Pulte Mortgage, LLC (collectively "Pulte").

The agreement resolves the state's investigation into allegations that Pulte's pre-qualification practices, earnest money deposit policies and Spanish-language marketing efforts violated Arizona's consumer protection law.

The settlement, in which no admission of fault or finding of liability is made, must be approved by the Maricopa County Superior Court.

"Certainly homeowners need to educate themselves about all of their options when buying a home," Goddard said. "But homebuilders and lenders have a legal obligation to provide their customers with complete and accurate information. I commend Pulte's commitment to amend its practices and bring more transparency into buying and financing a Pulte home."

"Pulte respects the concerns of the Arizona attorney general and commends the office for its ongoing efforts to protect consumers throughout the home-buying process," said John Chadwick, Southwest Area President of Pulte Group, Inc. "We hold ourselves to the highest standards in customer services and have always operated in good faith with our customers and the state."

Under the Consent Judgment, Pulte will:

• ensure that Pulte Home's Arizona sales representatives do not represent or imply that they are able to "pre-qualify" Arizona consumers for home loans.

• disclose orally and in writing that communications between a prospective buyer and Pulte sales staff regarding how expensive a home the consumer can afford to buy do not constitute an offer of financing.

• in one document, clearly disclose: (1) Pulte offers buyers incentives, such as free upgrades or money toward closing costs, in exchange for the buyers' use of Pulte Mortgage or other affiliated businesses, and consumers who do decide to use a lender other than Pulte Mortgage will not receive such incentives or discounts. (2) There are other providers of such services, and fees, charges, loan terms and interest rates may vary among providers.

• ensure that the representations made in its English-language and Spanish-language marketing materials are equivalent.

• refund $81,400 to 10 Arizona consumers who the Attorney General alleged wrongly forfeited their earnest money deposits after canceling their purchase agreements.

• pay $200,000 into an escrow account which will fund any new, legitimate claims for earnest money deposit refunds that are filed with the Arizona Attorney General's Office within 12 months of the settlement.

• pay $500,000 to the Consumer Fraud Revolving Fund to fund the attorney general's consumer protection, education and outreach programs.

• pay $100,000 to fund the publication and dissemination of Spanish-language educational materials.

• pay $300,000 as reimbursement of the Attorney General's costs and investigative expenses.

Consumers who believe they have wrongly forfeited earnest money deposits to Pulte should file a refund request with the Arizona Attorney General's Office. Anyone with questions can call 602-542-5763.



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FDIC Urges Stronger Debit Card Protections

Wants banks to offer better terms to consumers still in overdraft protection programs

FDIC Urges Stronger Debit Card Protections...


Now that banks aren't allowed to automatically enroll all customers in overdraft protection programs, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has proposed new rules on how banks run those automated overdraft payment programs for consumers who chose to remain in them.

The proposal primarily focuses on finding effective ways for banks to monitor their overdraft programs for excessive or chronic use by customers as a form of short-term, high-cost credit instead of its intended use: protection against inadvertent overdrafts. It also provides an overview of how banks can avoid compliance and safety-and-soundness risks.

"This guidance proposes common-sense ways to mitigate risks to both consumers and banks. Ensuring that their customers are educated on the appropriate use of overdraft payment programs is just one more example of how community banks understand their customers and play a role in helping individuals find suitable financial products," FDIC Chairman Sheila C. Bair said.

Consumers who chose to remain in an overdraft program will continue to pay a fee whenever the bank covers a debit purchase for which there are insufficient funds.

Under new rules that recently took effect, banking institutions already must give customers an opportunity to opt-in to programs that charge a fee to cover ATM and point-of-sale overdrafts.

It's anticipated that most customers will not opt in for this service. Consumer advocates are concerned about those who do.

Less costly options

American families, especially those most vulnerable financially, could save millions of dollars a year in costly overdraft fees if guidelines the FDIC proposed are adopted, said Michael Calhoun, President of the Center for Responsible Lending.

The guidelines would encourage the banks the FDIC oversees to offer customers lower-cost overdraft alternatives rather than charge unlimited high-cost overdraft feesas many banks do, even on small debit card transactions.

Under the proposal, a bank would contact a customer who incurs six overdraft fees within 12 months and offer and explain less costly options. The bank would be encouraged to provide the customer with a reasonable opportunity to choose one of them. Banks the FDIC oversees also would be discouraged from re-ordering transactions to maximize overdraft fees.

The proposal comes just days before new Federal Reserve's August 15th rules take effect requiring banks and credit unions to obtain a customer's signature before enrolling them in a costly overdraft program for debit cards.

Many banks don't give consumers real choices among alternatives, Calhoun said. Instead, they steer customers into the highest cost overdraft coverage they offer.

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AGs Bring Antitrust Charges Against LCD Panel Makers

Officials claim special meetings and 'hotlines' were used to fix prices

AGs Bring Antitrust Charges Against LCD Panel Makers...


Major technology companies have been hit with an antitrust action charging that they illegally fixed the prices for liquid crystal display (LCD) screens used in computers, televisions, and cell phones.

In her lawsuit, Illinois AG Lisa Madigan asks the Circuit Court of Cook County to prohibit the companies from engaging in the illegal activity and to award as damages the overcharges paid on the purchase of these items by the State of Illinois and its residents. The suit also seeks civil penalties, fees and costs.

"These companies conspired to illegally fix the prices for LCD screens," said Madigan. "This lawsuit seeks to recover the money that Illinois residents and the State paid because of the price-fixing conspiracy."

In his $100 million lawsuit, Oregon Attorney General John Kroger charges that top executives of the firms held special meetings and used a telephone "hotline" in order to share pricing information and production volumes and agreed to inflated prices resulting in artificially high prices to Oregon purchasers of LCD panels and products.

"This important lawsuit will help ensure a fair marketplace and protect Oregon consumers," Kroger said.

Collusion charged

The Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese companies, in combination with their American and certain foreign subsidiaries, allegedly agreed with each other to raise the prices each would charge for their LCD screens. These companies controlled approximately 90 percent of the sales of LCD screens sold in the United States. As a result, the suits claim, the prices for the products containing these screens were raised to levels significantly above the prices that consumers would otherwise have paid had the prices been set through normal competition.

The Illinois complaint cites evidence that:

• Top-level executives of these companies, including some of their CEOs, attended secret meetings on a regular monthly or quarterly basis to agree on minimum prices, price targets and increases, and prices to be charged for specific screens and screen sizes.

• These companies exchanged price and production information to insure that their consumers would have to pay the agreed prices.

• These companies also met face-to-face and by phone in smaller groups or one-on-one to coordinate their prices and avoid letting competition lead to lower prices.

The defendants named in the actions are AU Optronics Corporation; AU Optronics Corporation America, Inc.; Chi Mei Innolux Corporation; Chi Mei Optoelectronics Corp. USA, Inc.; CMO Japan Co., Ltd.; Epson Imaging Devices Corp.; Epson Electronics America, Inc.; Hitachi, Ltd.; Hitachi Displays, Ltd.; Hitachi America, Ltd.; Hitachi Electronic Devices (USA), Inc.; LG Display Co., Ltd.; LG Display America, Inc.; Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.; Samsung Semiconductor, Inc.; Samsung Electronics America, Inc.; Sharp Corporation; Sharp Electronics Corporation; Toshiba Corporation; Toshiba America Electronic Components, Inc.; Toshiba Mobile Display Co., Ltd.; and Toshiba America Information Systems, Inc.

Spokesmen for Samsung and Toshiba told Bloomberg.com that their companies don't comment on legal issues.

Prior to filing the lawsuit Kroger and other state attorneys general obtained a settlement with Chunghwa Picture Tubes LTD, the terms of which require the company to cooperate with the states' lawsuits and pay $486,000.

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Dangerous Computer Virus Emptying Bank Accounts

Thousands of British bank customers find their accounts have been cleaned out

A new "Trojan" computer virus is stealing user names and passwords of an undisclosed number of British online banking customers, resulting in the loss of m...

A new "Trojan" computer virus is making the rounds, stealing user names and passwords of an undisclosed number of British online banking customers, resulting in the loss of more than $1 million.

A report in the London Telegraph says computer users unknowingly downloaded the malicious program when they opened an email attachment. The newspaper quotes sources at M86, the British agency that uncovered the scam, as saying all the victims so far were customers of the same bank. The agency says the attacks are continuing.

Trojan viruses can affect computers running the Windows operating system. They lurk in emails and even on websites.

Also called "key loggers," these programs, once installed on a computer, record every keystroke the user makes. That information can be retrieved remotely, giving the hacker access to the victim's user names and passwords.

In the British case, the attacker then used the information to log into the victims' online bank accounts and take all their money.

On the trail

So far British authorities have not identified the particular Trojan being used in this attack, but computer security firm Sophos, in its latest security alert, is warning consumers about the Mal/EncPk-QY, a malicious downloader that is capable of carrying out the current attack on bank accounts. Sophos said it saw Mal/EncPk-QY in almost 44 percent of email attachments in a recent variety of spam campaigns.

Sample subjects of spam campaigns seen distributing the attachment:

• Your Facebook password is changed

• Review your annual Social Security statement DHL Tracking number 397176595115 From

Some attachment names include:

•Facebook_Passw_31.07.2010.zip

• statement.zip

• viewer.zip

• document.zip

The file extracted from the zip file is an executable. When run, the executable contacts a server to deliver information about the target machine, including the hostname, as well as download yet another executable.

Security experts say consumers running Windows can protect themselves by keeping their operating systems, browser, and security software up to date. Most Trojans exploit known vulnerabilities in Windows programs for which patches currently exist.

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Foreclosure Action Still Centered In Five States

Bank repossessions are also at near record levels

Foreclosure Action Still Centered InFive States...

Foreclosure filings increased four percent in July from the previous month, but unless your home is in one of five states, your chance of being affected is less.

In its July report, the real estate data firm RealtyTrac notes that foreclosure activity continues to be centered in California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Arizona, with those five states accounting for more than half of all U.S. foreclosure activity last month.

California alone accounted for 21 percent of the national total in July, with 66,910 properties receiving a foreclosure filing during the month -- down three percent from the previous month and down 38 percent from July 2009.

With 51,557 properties receiving a foreclosure filing during the month, Florida accounted for 16 percent of the national total in July despite a nearly nine percent decrease in foreclosure activity from July 2009.

Illinois foreclosure activity increased 33 percent from the previous month -- the biggest monthly increase among states with top 10 foreclosure rates. A total of 19,602 Illinois properties received a foreclosure filing in July, the third highest state total and accounting for six percent of the national total.

Michigan accounted for just under six percent of the national total, with 18,833 properties receiving a foreclosure filing in July, and Arizona accounted for five percent of the national total, with 16,298 properties receiving a foreclosure filing in July.

Repossessions up six percent

Despite the month over month increase in foreclosure activity, RealtyTrac notes that foreclosure filings are down ten percent from July 2009. But that doesn't mean people have stopped losing their homes. In fact, that grim statistic continues to rise.

"July marked the 17th consecutive month with a foreclosure activity total exceeding 300,000," said James J. Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac. "Declines in new default notices, which were down on a year-over-year basis for the sixth straight month in July, have been offset by near-record levels of bank repossessions, which increased on a year-over-year basis for the eighth straight month."

When it comes to the rate of foreclosure, two smaller states -- Nevada and Idaho -- make the top five. In Nevada, nearly one in every 82 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing in July. Nevada continued to document the nation's highest foreclosure rate for the 43rd straight month.

Foreclosure activity in Idaho increased nearly 19 percent from the previous month, boosting the state's foreclosure rate to fifth highest among all the states. One in every 240 Idaho housing units received a foreclosure filing in July.

Metro foreclosure hot spots

All 10 metro areas with the nation's highest foreclosure rates in July posted year-over-year decreases in foreclosure activity, but five of the top 10 posted increases from the previous month. The two biggest monthly increases were in No. 2 Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Fla., where foreclosure activity was up 21 percent from the previous month, and in No. 9 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, Ariz., where foreclosure activity was up 19 percent from the month before.

Foreclosure activity increased nearly nine percent from the previous month in the Las Vegas-Paradise, Nev., metro area, which registered the highest foreclosure rate among metropolitan areas with a population of 200,000 or more. One in every 71 Las Vegas housing units received a foreclosure filing in July, more than five times the national average.

Other states with foreclosure activity totals among the nation's 10 highest in July were Nevada (13,727), Ohio (13,511), Georgia (12,577), Texas (11,727) and Maryland (6,961).

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Sham California Nursing School To Repay Students

Students defrauded out of thousands of dollars for unaccredited school

Sham California Nursing School ToRepay Students...



The operator of a Los Angeles nursing school that turned out to be fake will pay back the defrauded students.

As many as 300 students paid $20,000 each to enroll and attend classes at RN Learning Center, which advertised its fast-track program for earning a bachelor of science degree in nursing in less than two years.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown said the school deceived students by pretending to offer an accredited nursing program and tricking graduates into believing they had qualified to become registered nurses.

"By creating the illusion it was training future registered nurses," Brown said, "the school destroyed the aspirations of hundreds of students who also lost thousands of dollars in wasted tuition. The school will shut its doors today and pay back its former students as fully as it can."

In the settlement negotiated by Brown's office on behalf of the Board of Registered Nursing, Junelou Chalico Enterina, owner and operator of RN Learning Center, which operated on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, agreed to close his business and pay victims restitution of $500,000. He also agreed never again to open a nursing school in California.

Worthless degrees

The board, which is the state agency that oversees the practice and education of nurses, believes no student of RN Learning Center was able to use her degree to qualify for the state's nursing exam or become a registered nurse. However, the board is contacting every medical facility in the state to warn about unaccredited schools such as RN Learning Center.

The settlement concludes a board investigation that began in early 2007. Despite purporting to be a nursing school, Brown said RN Learning Center never applied to the nursing board to obtain accreditation as a school of nursing.

Three years ago, the board ordered the school to close. It also disciplined two licensed registered nurses associated with the school and posted a notice on its website warning prospective students that unaccredited schools were operating in California.

Despite the scrutiny, RN Learning Center continued to operate, targeting mostly Filipino-Americans who already worked in the health field. The school's marketing materials promised the program would, "Advance Your Education. Increase Your Earnings. Secure Your Financial Future."

Just as they would in a real nursing school, students took classes in anatomy, microbiology and learned to do sutures. They traveled to the Philippines for a month of clinical study in hospitals and prisons, and attended classes at a foreign nursing school that also had not been approved by California's board.

Elaborate deception

Brown said RN Learning Center kept the deception going by holding formal graduation ceremonies. About 50 of its students applied to the nursing board to take the National Council Licensing Examination, which qualifies nursing school graduates to become licensed registered nurses.

The students submitted transcripts that were declared fraudulent, so they were unable to meet the eligibility requirements and were not allowed to take the licensing exam. Because RN Learning Center was unlicensed, none of the course work taken there can be counted toward completing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

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Consumer Confusion Drove Intelius, Says Washington AG

Online provider of background searches to pay $1.3 million to settle claims

Consumer Confusion Drove Intelius, Says Washington AG ...


Hundreds of thousands of consumers may have unknowingly enrolled in membership programs while using websites owned by Bellevue, Wash.-based Intelius.

A two-year investigation by the Washington Attorney General's Office contends Intelius received thousands of consumer complaints regarding unauthorized enrollment in the programs and that company management -- including CEO Naveen Jain -- knew about the complaints but chose to continue the deceptive and tremendously profitable marketing tactics.

"Intelius chose cash over candor," said Attorney General Rob McKenna. "Despite a continuous stream of complaints from consumers about mysterious charges, despite a consultant's belief that Intelius' advertising practices were causing confusion and despite a recommendation from its own staff to make it easier for consumers to opt out of additional purchases, the company wouldn't change course."

McKenna said a $1.3 million settlement with Intelius will protect consumers. The settlement, filed in King County Superior Court, doesn't require the company to admit any wrongdoing, but significantly restricts its future advertising practices. Intelius will also provide refunds to Washington state residents who were enrolled in the company's "Identity Protect" program but never used the service.

Post-transaction marketing

The investigation by McKenna's Consumer Protection High-Tech Unit focused on an Internet sales method commonly referred to as post-transaction marketing In that arrangement, additional services are offered to consumers after they've submitted their credit card data but before they've received the product they intended to purchase.

"Post-transaction marketing plunges you into an online labyrinth where the only way out is to click and click and click," McKenna said. "One wrong turn and you're enrolled in a membership program that costs you $20 or more each month. And you'll never know until you scrutinize your credit-card bill."

A Scottsdale, AZ, consumer, who did not want his name revealed, says he used the People Search website once approximately 12 months ago and paid a $1.00 charge for the service. "Since then," he tells ConsumerAffairs.com, "I was charged a monthly fee for 19.95 for Intelius (which apparently is People Search and was the name of the charge on my account), as well as $19.95 per month for Privacy Matters. I never even signed up on Privacy Matters. I only used that one service on that one incident and now I've been charged a total of $39.90/month."

The sales tactic gained notoriety in November 2009 when the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee released an investigative report accusing Web companies of duping consumers. McKenna was the only attorney general to submit testimony in connection with the committee's hearing. He pointed out that investigations suggest more than $50 million has been deceptively obtained from Washington consumers by a handful of businesses.

Washington's case directly addresses the sort of problems spotlighted by the Senate report. Most notably, the settlement prohibits the company from accepting advertising from Vertrue, Inc., WebLoyalty, Inc., and Affinion. It also prohibits Intelius from transmitting a consumer's financial information to any third party to enable that party to bill consumers.

An example of this ploy comes from Joel of Roque Bluffs, ME, who writes, "On April 12, 2008 I charged 2.95 on my American Express Card, payable to Intelius for a phone number look-up On April 23, 2008 a charge of 19.95 showed up on my AMEX card from AP9*PMIDENTITY.COM. It has been charged every month since." Joel tells ConsumerAffairs.com that he reported it to AMEX, which credited the most recent charge and is investigating.

The settlement

The agreement also addresses Intelius' ability to sell its own products through post-transaction marketing and free-to-pay conversion offers, whereby consumers initially receive a free trial and are charged unless they cancel. Consumers must give their expressed agreement before being enrolled in a membership program and all terms must clearly be communicated.

Approximately $300,000 of the $1.3 million will be used to recover the state's litigation costs and monitor the restitution program.

Washington consumers are eligible for refunds under the settlement if they 1) enrolled in Identity Protect before Aug. 12, 2009, (the period when the state felt the ads were deceptive), 2) have not received full refunds and 3) have not used any member-enabled benefit.

Intelius will contact eligible consumers by mail and e-mail with instructions on how to submit a claim. The settlement does not apply to consumers in other states or those who purchased memberships from any third-party marketer.

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Minnesota Man Charged With Running $80 Million Ponzi Scheme

Scam utilized 'loan participation' in which bank money is put at risk

Minnesota Man Charged With Running $80 Million Ponzi Scheme ...


A 40-year-old Lakeville, MN, man is charged with operating a Ponzi scheme that resulted in a total estimated loss of $79.5 million for 17 lenders. Corey N. Johnston was charged via an Information with one count of bank fraud and one count of filing a false income tax return in connection to this crime.

Johnston is accused of conducting the scheme from 2005 through March of 2009. It purportedly involved overselling participation in large commercial and personal loans arranged by him through his company, First United Funding ("FUF").

Loan participation is a common practice in which a bank pays an original lender all or a portion of a particular loan and then assumes that loan, along with its associated risk. From that point on, the bank receives the loan payments from the borrower, as if the bank had made the loan in the first place.

Johnston's alleged scam involved selling more than 100 percent participation in at least ten different loans arranged through FUF. In other words, he purportedly sold loan participation to banks after already selling that same participation to other banks. In each instance, Johnston failed to disclose that the total participation exceeded 100 percent of the original loan, making it impossible for the participating bank to receive the full amount of money expected.

The setup

For example, Johnston allegedly oversold loan participation for a project known as White Out Way Investments. The original White Out Way loan, arranged through FUF, was for $7 million. Johnston reportedly sold 100 percent participation in that loan to Western National Bank. At the same time, however, he allegedly conned several other banks into participating in the loan, including 100 percent participation by The National Bank in Bettendord, Iowa, as well as partial participation by four other lending institutions.

In all, Johnston purportedly solicited and received $23.65 million from six banks for the $7 million loan.

In addition, Johnston allegedly oversold loan participation for a project known as JM Land Development II. The original JM Land Development loan was for $8 million, and once again, Johnston sold 100 percent participation in the loan to Western National Bank. Simultaneously, however, he reportedly obtained full loan participation from Choice Financial, The National Bank, and Hillcrest Bank, along with partial participation from four other banks.

Johnston allegedly solicited a total of $38.65 million for an $8 million loan. According to the charging document, six additional lenders were defrauded during the course of this scheme, through overselling participation in other loans.

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Distressed Homeowners To Get $3 Billion In Aid

Funding in addition to money provided earlier this year

Distressed Homeowners To Get $3 Billion In Aid...


Through two government agencies, the Obama Administration is pumping an additional $3 billion into federal programs to help homeowners avoid foreclosure.

Using the existing Housing Finance Agency (HFA) Innovation Fund for the Hardest Hit Housing Markets (the Hardest Hit Fund), the Treasury Department will make $2 billion of additional assistance available for HFA programs for homeowners struggling to make their mortgage payments due to unemployment.

At the same time, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will soon launch a complementary $1 billion Emergency Homeowners Loan Program to provide assistance -- for up to 24 months -- to homeowners who are at risk of foreclosure and have experienced a substantial reduction in income due to involuntary unemployment, underemployment, or a medical condition.

"We remain committed to helping struggling homeowners, and this program will provide additional assistance to states hit hardest by unemployment," said Assistant Secretary for Financial Stability Herb Allison. "This is part of the Administration's comprehensive housing policy that has helped to stabilize a fragile housing market and allows responsible homeowners the chance to reduce their monthly mortgage payments to affordable levels."

Bill Apgar, HUD Senior Advisor for Mortgage Finance, said HUD's new Emergency Homeowner Loan Program will build on Treasury's Hardest Hit initiative by targeting assistance to struggling unemployed homeowners in other hard hit areas to help them avoid preventable foreclosures.

"Together, these initiatives represent a combined $3 billion investment that will ultimately impact a broad group of struggling borrowers across the country and in doing so further contribute to the Administration's efforts to stabilize housing markets and communities across the country," he said.

Hardest Hit Fund

President Obama first announced the Hardest Hit Fund in February to allow states hit hard by the recession more flexibility in determining how to design and implement programs to meet the local challenges homeowners in their state are facing.

Under the additional assistance, states eligible to receive support have all experienced an unemployment rate at or above the national average over the past 12 months. Each state will use the funds for targeted unemployment programs that provide temporary assistance to eligible homeowners to help them pay their mortgage while they seek re-employment, additional employment or undertake job training.

The states eligible to receive funds through this additional assistance are: Alabama; California; Florida; Illinois; Indiana; Kentucky; Michigan; Mississippi; Nevada; New Jersey; North Carolina; Ohio; Oregon; Rhode Island; South Carolina; Tennessee; and Washington, DC.

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Airport Tarmac Delays Drop

Cancellations remain the same, despite dire forecasts

Airport Tarmac Delays Drop ...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.Com

August 11, 2010
A new federal rule penalizing airlines for lengthy tarmac delays resulted in a huge drop in such delays in June. Or it could be a coincidence. You be the judge.

In June 2009 there were 268 reports of passengers stranded aboard airliners on the tarmac for three hours or more. In June 2010, there were only three, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

A month earlier a new rule went into effect imposing a hefty fine, per passenger, on airlines that keep their passengers on the tarmac more than three hours without the opportunity to return to the terminal. At the time, most airlines bitterly opposed the rule, predicting it would lead to a wave of flight cancellations.

According to information filed with the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), a part of DOTs Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA), the only tarmac delays longer than three hours reported in June by the 18 airlines who file on-time performance with DOT involved three United Airlines flights departing Chicagos OHare airport on June 18, a day in which the Chicago area experienced a severe thunderstorm.

None of the tarmac delays exceeded the three-hour limit by more than five minutes. June was the second full month of data since the new aviation consumer rule went into effect on April 29.

In May, the first full month, there were five reported tarmac times of more than three hours, down from 34 in May 2009. A subsequent DOT investigation determined that four of the five May flights were misreported by the airline. Corrected data will be available from BTS when the airline submits revised data.

The carriers canceled 1.5 percent of their scheduled domestic flights in June, equal to the 1.5 percent cancellation rate of June 2009. They posted a 1.2 percent cancellation rate in May 2010.

The new rule prohibits U.S. airlines operating domestic flights from permitting an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without deplaning passengers, with exceptions allowed only for safety or security or if air traffic control advises the pilot in command that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations. The Department said it will investigate tarmac delays that exceed this limit.



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Which Is Better, Credit Or Debit Card?

The lowly debit card deserves a new look

You're at the checkout line and open your wallet to pay. Do you reach for your credit or debit card? Does it matter? Is one better to use than the other?...


You're at the checkout line and open your wallet to pay. Do you reach for your credit or debit card? Does it matter? Is one better to use than the other?

For many consumers who don't like to carry cash, a debit card is their only alternative. If they can't qualify for a credit card, using a debit card -- with a direct withdrawal from their bank account -- is the only option for paying with plastic.

According to a recent study by MasterCard, debit card users tend to have significantly lower credit scores than credit card users. If you can qualify for a credit card, chances are you have fairly good credit, and tend to pay with a credit card rather than a debit card.

While credit cards and debit cards can look the same, there's one major difference. When you pay using a debit card, the money comes straight out of your bank account. If you pay with a credit card, the purchase is applied to your credit balance.

You get a bill at the end of the billing cycle with the option to pay it in full, or pay a portion. This is where some consumers tend to get into trouble.

It adds up

For example, if a consumer makes a couple of significant purchases during the month, along with the usual meals and gasoline, he could easily add $1,200 or so to the balance. When the bill arrives, she decides paying the full balance would use too much of her bank account, so she pays only $200, planning to pay the remaining $1000 the following month.

But an unexpected car repair the following month, along with the usual smaller purchases, puts another $1,200 on the credit card. Suddenly the balance is $2200, with an interest rate of nearly 30 percent.

Not properly managed, a credit card can easily saddle consumers with high interest debt, preventing them from using their money in other ways. Consumers with a balance of $20,000 or more on credit cards are not uncommon. The $20,000 was not charged all at once, but in smaller amounts over time.

Debit cards are also not without their pitfalls, but fortunately, one of those drawbacks recently went away. Until very recently, debit card users were plagued with overdraft fees.

If they made a purchase with their debit card that overdrew their account, the purchase went through but the bank charged the consumer a "courtesy overdraft protection" fee of $35 or so. If the shopper made two or three other purchases before checking his balance, each of those purchases carried an extra $35 fee.

Rule change

Because of a change in Federal Reserve rules, banks may no longer extend that overdraft "protection" as a matter of course. Now customers must specifically tell their bank they would like that service. If they don't ask for it, purchases will be declined if they overdraw the account -- but the consumer doesn't pay an overdraft fee.

The availability of online banking makes it easier to keep track of debit card purchases and could be another reason this piece of plastic might work better for some people. If you pay as you go, you don't get any surprises at the end of the month when the credit card bill arrives and you're confronted with purchases on credit that you had forgotten you had made.

Credit cards sometimes offer "points" and rewards programs, providing a gift of some kind for heavy use of a credit card. While everyone likes getting something for "free" every once in a while, credit card companies have recently tightened restrictions on some rewards programs, in the face of a tougher regulatory environment.

At the same time, some credit card issuers have begun charging an annual fee, meaning the card can cost you money, whether you use it or not.

All of which makes the lowly debit card look better and better. With the threat of overdraft fees greatly diminished, reaching for your debit card might make the most sense, even if you're giving up the chance to add more airline miles.

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Florida Probes Foreclosure Filing Practices

Law firms handling foreclosures suspected of unfair and deceptive practices

Florida Probes Foreclosure Filing Practices...


A number of homeowners struggling through the mortgage modification process have said they were blindsided with unexpected foreclosure actions before they process could be completed.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum wants to know if there's a pattern. He's launched three new investigations into allegations of unfair and deceptive actions by Florida law firms handling foreclosure cases.

The Attorney General's Economic Crimes Division is investigating whether improper documentation may have been created and filed with Florida courts to speed up foreclosure processes, potentially without the knowledge or consent of the homeowners involved.

The new investigations name The Law Offices of Marshall C. Watson, P.A.; Shapiro & Fishman, LLP; and the Law Offices of David J. Stern, P.A. The law firms were hired by loan servicers to begin foreclosure proceedings when consumers were in arrears on their mortgages.

Paper chase

Because many mortgages have been bought and sold by different institutions multiple times, key paperwork involved in the process to obtain foreclosure judgments is often missing. On numerous occasions, allegedly fabricated documents have been presented to the courts in foreclosure actions to obtain final judgments against homeowners.

Thousands of final judgments of foreclosure against Florida homeowners may have been the result of the allegedly improper actions of the law firms under investigation,McCollum said.

The attorney general's office is also investigating whether the law firms have created affiliated companies outside the United States where the allegedly false documents are being prepared and then submitted to the law firms for use.

Subpoenas have been served on each of the law firms listed above, and the investigations are continuing, McCollum said.

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Preliminary Report Backs Toyota On Sudden Acceleration

Report based on review of 58 of 3,000 cases

Preliminary Report Backs Toyota On Sudden Acceleration...

For the better part of a year government safety investigators have probed the thousands of reports of sudden acceleration in some Toyota vehicles. In a preliminary report to Congress, they say they have uncovered no evidence of problems in the vehicles' electronics.

Drivers, for years, have reported instances in which their car accelerated on its own and failed to stop, even when they applied brakes. In some cases, these reports of sudden acceleration resulted in crashes.

Toyota has insisted from the start that, whatever the reason for these anomalies, they weren't caused by hiccups in the vehicles' sophisticated electronics. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in its preliminary report, said it had reviewed 58 of the more than 3,000 submitted cases, and found no evidence of an electronics flaw.

Since last September Toyota has recalled about nine million vehicles to either replace floor mats or alter the design of accelerator pedals. The NHTSA report said investigators found only one case in which a floor mat trapped a gas pedal, pressing it to the floor, and no case in which the gas pedal became stuck.

Toyota was quick to embrace the preliminary report, saying it confirms the company's own findings. The carmaker said it had conducted more than 4,000 vehicle inspections in the aftermath of sudden acceleration reports and found no case in which the problem could be attributed to the electronics.

No conclusions

Federal investigators say it is too early to draw any conclusions, but note some of the cases reviewed so far may have been caused by driver error, in which the drivers unknowingly applied pressure to the accelerator, thinking they were pressing on the brakes.

This isn't the first time NHTSA has investigated this problem in Toyotas. 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.

At the time, 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.

Not just Toyota

While Toyotas have figured prominently in reports of sudden acceleration over the years, other models have also been affected.

"My wife pulled our 2004 V8 Jeep Grand Cherokee, into the day care to pick up our toddler and put the gear in park after coming to a stop," Vasanthi, of San Jose, Calif., wrote in March 2009. "The Jeep suddenly accelerated and shot forward, with her foot tightly on the brake, and went over a concrete block, through a fence and into the yard on the other side."

ConsumerAffairs.com has received sudden acceleration complaints over the years from a wide range of makes, including Kia, Jaguar, BMW and Ford. In fact, a December 2009 analysis of NHTSA complaints by Consumer Reports found Ford produced the second largest number of sudden acceleration reports after Toyota.

 

 

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Goldstar, Comfort-Aire Dehumidifier Recall Repeated

Goldstar, Comfort-Aire Dehumidifier Recall Repeated...


LG Electronics is repeating an earlier recall of Goldstar and Comfort-Aire dehumidifiers. The power connector for the dehumidifier's compressor can short circuit, posing fire and burn hazards to consumers.

The company said it has received reports of four additional fires, including one that caused significant damage to a home, since its previous recall in December 2009.

This recall involves 30-pint portable dehumidifiers sold under the brand names in the chart below. The dehumidifiers are white with a red shut-off button, controls for fan speed and humidity control and a front-loading water bucket. "Goldstar" or "Comfort-Aire" is printed on the front. The model and serial numbers are printed on the interior of the dehumidifiers and can be viewed after the water bucket is removed.

photo

BrandModel No.Serial Number RangeSold at
GoldstarGHD30Y7611TAxx00001~08400
611TAxx08401~40600
612TAxx00001~20400
612TAxx21001~30600
Home Depot
GoldstarDH305Y7612TAxx00001~00600
701TAxx00001~16800
702TAxx00001~03000
Walmart
Comfort-AireBHD-301-C611TA000001~001697
612TA000001~004200
701TA000001~000578
710TA000001~000599
Heat Controller Inc.

The appliances, made in China, were sold by The Home Depot, Walmart and Heat Controller Inc. nationwide from January 2007 through June 2008 for between $140 and $150.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled dehumidifier, contact LG to determine if it is included in the recall and return it to an authorized LG service center for a free repair.

For additional information, contact LG toll-free at (877) 220-0479 between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. CT Monday through Friday and between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. CT on Saturday for the location of an authorized LG service center for the repair, or visit the firm's website at www.30pintdehumidifierrecall.com

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

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FTC Halts Cross-Border Domain Name Registration Scam

Thousands of small businesses and non-profits billed for bogus renewal fees

FTC Halts Cross-Border Domain Name Registration Scam...

August 10, 2010
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has permanently halted the operations of Canadian con artists who allegedly posed as domain name registrars and persuaded thousands of U.S. consumers, small businesses and non-profit organizations to pay bogus bills by leading them to believe they would lose their Web site addresses unless they paid. Settlement and default judgment orders signed by the court will bar the deceptive practices in the future.

In June 2008, the FTC charged Toronto-based Internet Listing Service with sending fake invoices to small businesses and others, listing the existing domain name of the consumer's Web site or a slight variation on the domain name, such as substituting ".org" for ".com." The invoices appeared to come from the businesses' existing domain name registrar and instructed them to pay for an annual "WEBSITE ADDRESS LISTING." The invoices also claimed to include a search engine optimization service.

Most consumers who received the "invoices" were led to believe that they had to pay them to maintain their registrations of domain names. Other consumers were induced to pay based on Internet Listing Service's claims that its "Search Optimization" service would "direct mass traffic" to their sites and that their "proven search engine listing service" would result in "a substantial increase in traffic."

The FTC's complaint charged that most consumers who paid the defendants' invoices did not receive any domain name registration services and that the "search optimization" service did not result in increased traffic to the consumers' Web sites.

Settlement terms

A federal district court judge in Chicago, Robert M. Dow, Jr., ordered a temporary halt to the deceptive claims and froze the defendants' assets, pending trial. The just-announced settlement and default judgment orders end that litigation.

The orders bar the defendants from misrepresenting: that they have a preexisting business relationship with consumers; that consumers owe them money; that they will provide domain name registration; and that they will provide "search optimization services" that will substantially increase traffic to consumers' websites. The defendants are also required to disclose any material restrictions or aspects of any goods or services they provide.

The settlement order, entered against defendants Isaac Benlolo, Kirk Mulveney, Pearl Keslassy, and 1646153 Ontario Inc., includes a suspended judgment of $4,261,876, the total amount of consumer injury caused by the illegal activities. Based on the inability of the settling defendants to pay, they will turn over $10,000 to satisfy the judgment. The default judgment order was entered against defendant Steven E. Dale and includes a judgment in the amount of $4,261,876.

Charges against Ari Balabanian and Data Business Solutions were dismissed by the court at the FTC's request.

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Mercedes-Benz Recalls G Class Vehicles to Remove Headlamp Grill

front turn signals may be covered with a grill that may deteriorate over time

Mercedes-Benz Recalls G Class Vehicles to Remove Headlamp Grill...


Mercedes-Benz is recalling certain G Class vehicles from the 2002 through 2010 model years. In some cases, the headlamps are equipped with a protective grill that is not permitted under U.S. safety regulations. In other cases, front turn signals may be covered with a grill that may deteriorate over time.

 

Dealers will remove the headlamp grills free of charge and replace the turn signal grill covers.

Owners may contact Mercedes-Benz at 1-800-367-6372.

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

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Honda Recalls Accord, Civic, Element Models to Fix Ignition Interlock

Honda Recalls Accord, Civic, Element Models to Fix Ignition Interlock...


Honda is recalling more than 384,000 Accord, Civic and Element models to fix a problem with the interlock lever of the ignition switch. The interlock can unexpectedly become inoperable, which could allow the key to be removed even though the car is not in park, possibly allowing it to roll away.

The recalled models are:

HONDA / ACCORD 2003
HONDA / CIVIC 2003
HONDA / ELEMENT 2003-2004

Dealers will remove the original interlock pin and lever and replace them with redesigned components when the recall begins in late September 2010.

Owners may contact Honda at 1-800-999-1009.

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

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IRS Removes 'Debt Indicator' for 2011 Tax Filing Season

Consumer groups cheer decision to drop tool used in RAL business

IRS Removes 'Debt Indicator' for 2011 Tax Filing Season...

Starting with next year's tax filing season, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will no longer provide tax preparers and associated financial institutions with the "debt indicator," which is used to facilitate refund anticipation loans (RALs).

The "debt indicator" acts as a form of credit check, telling tax preparers whether a taxpayer's refund will be paid or will be intercepted for government debts.

"As we prepare for tax season every year, we look at past practices and consider whether they still make sense. We no longer see a need for the debt indicator in a world where we can process a tax return and deliver a refund in 10 days," IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman said. "We encourage taxpayers to use e-file with direct deposit so they can get their refunds in just a few days."

So far this year, more than 95 million tax returns have been e-filed, representing more than 70 percent of tax returns.

"Refund Anticipation Loans are often targeted at lower-income taxpayers," Shulman said. "With e-file and direct deposit, these taxpayers now have other ways to quickly access their cash."

"We are pleased that IRS has decided to stop aiding and abetting high cost RALs that siphon off hundreds of millions in taxpayers' hard-earned money and federal benefits meant to lift the working poor out of poverty," said Chi Wu, National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) staff attorney.

The IRS has been reviewing refund settlement products, such as RALs and Refund Anticipation Checks (RACs), as part of the Return Preparer Review released in January. Specifically, the IRS announced that it would study refund settlement products.

Secured loans

RALs are loans secured by a taxpayer's anticipated tax refund. Currently, tax preparers who electronically submit a client's tax return receive in the acknowledgment file an indication of whether an individual taxpayer will have any portion of the refund offset for delinquent tax or other debts, such as unpaid child support or delinquent federally funded student loans. This acknowledgment is known as the debt indicator, and is used as an underwriting tool for RALs.

"The federal government should not be sharing taxpayers' personal information for the profit of banks and tax preparers by operating what is essentially a free credit reporting service for them," said Jean Ann Fox, director of financial services for Consumer Federation of America (CFA). "We are glad the IRS finally stopped letting tax preparers and banks pry into taxpayers' records about what they owe the government."

The IRS announcement would remove the debt indicator starting with the upcoming 2011 tax-filing season. The agency that taxpayers will continue to have access to information about their tax refunds and any offsets through the "Where's My Refund?" service.

RACs are temporary bank accounts established on behalf of a taxpayer into which a direct deposit refund can be received and out of which a bank typically issues a payment to the taxpayer.

With both RALs and RACs, tax preparation and product fees are subtracted directly from the refund, and the taxpayer does not make any "out-of-pocket" payments. They are frequently marketed to taxpayers who do not have cash to pay for professional tax preparation services.

The NCLC and CFA have been urging the IRS to end the debt indicator since 2005, when they published a report entitled "Corporate Welfare for the RAL Industry: The Debt Indicator, IRS Subsidy, And Tax Fraud."

Their most recent criticism of the debt indicator was during the IRS Commissioner's Return Preparer Review Forum in August 2009, in which they again urged the IRS to discontinue the program.

In a related effort, the IRS plans to explore the possibility of providing a new tool for the 2012 tax filing season to give taxpayers a mechanism to use an appropriate portion of their tax refund to pay for the services of a professional tax return preparer.

The IRS plans to engage with taxpayers, consumer advocates and the tax return preparer community to consider whether providing this option would be a cost-effective way for consumers to pay for tax return preparation services.

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Salmonella Outbreak in Humans Traced to Mars Pet Food Plant

It's the first documented instance of salmonella being spread to humans through pet food

Salmonella Outbreak in Humans Traced to Mars Pet Food Plant...

By Lisa Wade McCormick
ConsumerAffairs.com


A study released today linked for the first time an outbreak of salmonella in people -- especially young children -- with dry dog and cat foods.

The analysis published in Pediatrics magazine warned that salmonella-tainted pet food could be an under-recognized source of human infections -- especially in children two and younger -- and highlighted the importance of proper handling and storage of dog and cat foods and treats to prevent illnesses in people.

In the study, researchers investigated a multi-state outbreak of Salmonella Schwarzengrund in people from January 1, 2006 through October 31, 2008. Salmonella is a bacterium that can cause food poisoning and other serious illnesses.

The outbreak infected 79 people in 21 states during that 3-year-period, the reports stated, citing information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Nearly half the people infected with salmonella -- some 48% -- were children ages two and younger, according to the report.

Plant X=Mars

The study didnt identify the pet food manufacturer linked to the outbreak only identifying it as Plant X.

The report, however, said the manufacturer suspended operations at one of its plants during 2007 and permanently closed that facility in October 2008 because of repeated concerns about Salmonella Schwarzengrund contamination.

Using those clues, it didnt take ConsumerAffairs.com long to find information on the CDCs Web site that linked the source of those outbreaks with dry pet food produced at a Mars Petcare US manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania.

Additional information on the CDCs Web site further detailed the multi state salmonella outbreak, linked the infections to dry pet food made at Mars Everson, Pennsylvania, facility, and confirmed the pet food maker announced in October 2008 that it was permanently closing that plant.

Mars told the Associated Press that is has improved its training and testing practices at its other U.S. plants since this outbreak occurred.

First documented outbreak

Researchers said todays study is significant because its the first documented outbreak of human illness linked to dry dog and cat food.

This investigation demonstrated that dry pet food may be contaminated with Salmonella and raises concerns that such contamination could be an under recognized source of human infections, especially in young children, the report stated. This outbreak highlights the importance of proper handling and storage of pet foods in the home to prevent human illness, especially among young children.

The report added: Consumers and health care professionals, including pediatricians, veterinarians, and health-department personnel, should be aware that any dry pet food, pet treats, and pet supplements might be contaminated with pathogens such as Salmonella.

Meanwhile, problems with salmonella contamination in pet food, treats, and other products continue. Consider some of the salmonella-related recalls issued just this summer:
• In June, https://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2010/06/natural_balance.html#ixzz0w7FqeHck Natural Balance pulled some of its Sweet Potato & Chicken dry dog food off the market because of possible salmonella contamination;

United Pet Group pulled some its vitamins for dogs off the market in June because of salmonella concerns;

• In August, Merrick Pet Care expanded its recall of beef flavored treats because of ongoing concerns about salmonella contamination;

• Also in August, the Procter & Gamble Company expanded its recall of some specialized dry pet foods -- including Iams and Eukanuba -- because of possible salmonella contamination.

Todays study emphasized the importance of proper handling and storage of pet food and other items to prevent the spread of salmonella to humans, including:

• Washing hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water after touching, handling, or feeding pets;
• Washing hands before preparing food and eating;
• Keeping infants and young children away from areas where pets are fed;
• Not allowing children 5 or younger to touch or eat pet food, treats, or supplements;
• Keeping pets water and feeding bowls clean;
• Not cleaning animal housing, food or water dishes, or other materials associated with animals in kitchen sinks or bathtubs.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) often warns pet owners they can become infected with salmonella if they handle any tainted food, especially if they dont wash their hands after touching surfaced exposed to the products.

Symptoms of salmonella infections in healthy people include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping and fever, the FDA said. In rare cases, salmonella can cause arterial infections, arthritis, muscle pain, and other serious health problems.

Pets with salmonella infections may have decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain, the FDA said. If the infections are not treated, pets can become lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever and vomiting.

The FDA also warned that infected -- but otherwise healthy -- pets can spread salmonella to other animals or people.

Consumers with dogs or cats that have eaten salmonella-tainted products should contact their veterinarians if their pets experience any of these symptoms, the FDA said.



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Foreclosure Reduces Home's Value Average 27 Percent

Values of homes next to foreclosed property fall, too

Foreclosure Reduces Home's Value Average 27 Percent...


Maybe you aren't in danger of foreclosure, but what about your neighbor? If the house next door goes into foreclosure, it could bring down property values throughout the neighborhood.

How much? Perhaps as much as one percent, if the house happens to be within 250 feet of the foreclosed property. As for the foreclosed home, it's value could plummet an average of 27 percent.

Those are the findings of economists at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who scoured records pertaining to 1.83 million Massachusetts home sales from 1987 to 2009. Their research, forthcoming in the journal American Economic Review, is one of the most rigorous and comprehensive analyses to date of the losses sustained on foreclosed properties.

"The losses on foreclosed homes proved to be much larger than we had expected," said lead author John Y. Campbell, the Morton L. and Carole S. Olshan Professor of Economics at Harvard. "If anything, these results may underestimate losses on foreclosed properties nationwide, since Massachusetts has not experienced a housing boom and bust as pronounced as that seen in many other parts of the country in recent years."

Campbell and his co-authors, Harvard's Stefano Giglio and MIT's Parag Pathak, found that other types of forced sales also reduce home prices, but by smaller amounts. When a house is sold after the death of an owner, they found, the price sinks five to seven percent on average. When an owner declares bankruptcy, the value falls by an average three percent.

Death discount

The researchers write that death-related discounts may result from poor home maintenance by older sellers, while foreclosure discounts appear rooted in the greater likelihood of deterioration among foreclosed homes, and specifically the threat of vandalism. They note that the percentage loss on foreclosed properties is greater, on average, in less safe neighborhoods, where risks of damage to vacant homes may be higher.

"Banks know it's bad to hold an asset that's susceptible to damage, and want to unload such assets quickly," Campbell said. "Also, the costs to maintain a house are fixed, but those fixed costs eat up more of the price of a cheap house -- making lenders even more eager to dispose of foreclosed cheaper homes."

Campbell and his colleagues found that prices of other homes fall by about one percent if within roughly 250 feet of a foreclosed property -- an effect that fades away for homes 500 or more feet from a foreclosure. What's more, these "contagion" effects appear to be cumulative, meaning that multiple foreclosed homes in close proximity can depress the value of other nearby properties by several percentage points.

The researchers say their results indicate that public policy should aim to minimize foreclosures, which appear broadly harmful.

"Our work provides evidence of genuine social harm arising from foreclosures," Campbell says. "Public policy should discourage reliance on foreclosure as a means of protecting lenders. While foreclosure may rescue lenders, it damages the rest of society."

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CDC: Men and Young Adults Most Likely Multi-Product Tobacco Users

Polytobacco use most common among singles, those with low household incomes

CDC: Men and Young Adults Most Likely Multi-Product Tobacco Users...


The use of cigarettes in combination with other forms of tobacco is linked with higher nicotine addiction, the inability to quit using tobacco, and increases chances of tobacco-related health problems, according to an analysis of data from the 2008 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS).These problems include stroke, heart disease, and tobacco-related cancers.

Data from 13 states surveyed indicate that polytobacco use -- the use of cigarettes in combination with other forms of tobacco (including cigars; pipes; bidis, a South Asian cigarette wrapped in a leaf; kreteks, a cigarette made with tobacco, cloves and other flavors; and others) -- is most common among men (4.4 percent), people who were single (4.8 percent), young adults ages 18-24 years (5.7 percent), and those with household incomes less than $35,000 (9.8 percent).

The report, "Any Tobacco Use in 13 States -- Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2008," provides statistics about polytobacco use among adults over the age of 18. The report also finds that one in four adults in these states use at least one form of tobacco, such as cigarettes, cigars, or smokeless tobacco.

"Every day smoking kills more than 1,000 people and is the leading preventable cause of death," said CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. "The more types of tobacco products people use, the greater their risk for many diseases caused by tobacco, such as cancer and heart disease."

Other findings

The report also found:

• Use of any tobacco ranged from 18.4 percent in New Jersey to 35 percent in West Virginia.

• Use of any tobacco was higher among non-Hispanic whites (26.2 percent) and non-Hispanic blacks (24.4 percent) than among Hispanics (19.7 percent).

• Use of any tobacco was higher among members of an unmarried couple (36.3 percent), single (30.3 percent), or widowed/divorced (29.1 percent) than among married people (21.2 percent).

• Use of any tobacco was higher among those who had less than a high school education (33.1 percent) when compared with those with some college or more (20.5 percent).

• Polytobacco use ranged from 1.0 percent in New Jersey to 3.7 percent in West Virginia.



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Suit: T-Mobile Places Limits on 'Unlimited' Data Plan

Class action mirrors Verizon suit settled in 2007

Suit: T-Mobile Places Limits on 'Unlimited' Data Plan...

A class action lawsuit filed in California says that T-Mobile markets certain phone plans as offering unlimited data, but then caps data use once consumers are locked into a contract.

The suit, brought in Superior Court in Yolo County, says that advertisements for T-Mobile's Unlimited Web & E-mail plans, offered for both Blackberry and other brands of smartphones, promise the consumer access to an unlimited amount of data. The plans offer a discount on new phones if consumers agree to sign a contract.

Trent Alvarez, the suit's lead plaintiff, bought two smartphones last year, and signed a two-year contract for each. The sales representative who sold the plans to him expressly represented that the data plan [Alvarez] was to receive would be 'unlimited,' according to the suit.

But in May 2010, Alvarez received a text message informing him that, Your data usage in this billing cycle has exceeded 10GB; Data throughput [speed] for the remainder of the cycle may be reduced to 50kbps or less. Alvarez called T-Mobile to have the volume and speed limits removed, but a representative refused his request.

According to the suit, the limits render Alvarez's phones essentially useless for anything other than making or receiving phone calls and text messages.

Little warning to consumers

Alvarez's experience is typical, the suit says, of consumers who are likely to be mislead by T-Mobile's promise of 'unlimited' data.

The only warning given to consumers, according to the suit, is a statement on the very last page of [a T-Mobile] brochure, buried in minuscule type barely readable, [that] 'Your data session may be slowed, suspended, terminated, or restricted if you use your service in a way that interferes with or impacts our network or ability to provide quality service to other users '

T-Mobile isn't the first carrier to be accused of falsely advertising data plans as unlimited. In 2007, Verizon settled a suit brought by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo alleging that that carrier placed invisible limits on its plans that purported to offer unlimited data capabilities.

This settlement sends a message to companies large and small answering the growing consumer demand for wireless services. When consumers are promised an unlimited service, they do not expect the promise to be broken by hidden limitations, Cuomo said of the settlement, which required Verizon to pay $1 million to consumers whose accounts were terminated after they exceeded the undisclosed limits.

If Alvarez's suit is to be believed, T-Mobile's line was busy when that message came through.

The suit requests restitution for money consumers spent on smartphones and the accompanying plans and an injunction prohibiting further misleading advertising.

 

 

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'Extra Virgin' Olive Oil Has Been Around the Block, Suit Says

Scores of manufacturers accused of fraudulently passing off lesser oils as pure

'Extra Virgin' Olive Oil Has Been Around the Block, Suit Says...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.Com

August 8, 2010 8
photo of olive oil Has your olive oil been lying to you all these years?

That's the allegation made in a lawsuit filed by prominent chefs and restaurants, who claim that a number of companies are mixing their olive oil with cheaper alternatives while still branding it as extra virgin.

Specifically, Daniel Callahan, who is representing the plaintiffs, alleges that the the product does not meet [the extra virgin] standard and is of inferior quality often adulterated with cheaper refined oils such as hazelnut oil or lesser olive oils. Callahan says that the defendant companies have been knowingly misleading and defrauding California consumers for years, and that their blatant misrepresentations allow them to charge a hefty premium for the product.

The suit draws its findings from a study conducted by University of California at Davis's Olive Center, part of the school's Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science. The report, released last month, concluded that 10 percent of olive oil made in California -- and an eye-popping 69 percent of imported olive oil -- fails to measure up to standards set by the Department of Agriculture.

Callahan says that the study confirmed the suspicions of top chefs, who [f]or years have shared anecdotal tales of extra virgin olive oil that just did not taste right.

The suit also says that the defendants have long been aware of the problem, and points out that The New Yorker, USA Today, and National Public Radio have all done segments on the issue within the past four years.

Despite this information, these retailers continued to sell the product and progressively increase the prices, according to Callahan.

The defendants include household names like Bertolli, Filippo Berio, Mazola, Pompeian, and Rachael Ray.

The suit also names top retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, and Kmart -- and a laundry list of smaller stores -- who allegedly sold the fouled oil. Notably, Callahan says that Costco and Trader Joe's are among the stores that have been upfront with their oil.

The plaintiffs are no slouches either. They include David Martin, a fixture on Bravo's hit show Top Chef; Michael Owings, Culinary Director for Dink's Restaurant in Palm Springs, Calif.; and Antonello's Ristorante, a Costa Mesa, Calif., restaurant described as one of the finest Italian Restaurants in the country. All of them are offended by the fraudulent actions taken by these Defendants, according to Callahan.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction ordering the manufacturers to stop distributing the fraudulent oil, and hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulently obtained profits. Callahan says that consumers spend an amazing $700 million a year on olive oil.



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Two Indicted In 'Mortgage Scheme'

Prosecutors say defendants used fake credit histories

A federal grand jury has indicted two people for their roles in a fraudulent credit history scheme that allegedly duped mortgage companies out of nearly $3...


A federal grand jury has -- in action prosecutors say is a first in the country -- indicted two people for their roles in a fraudulent credit history scheme that allegedly duped mortgage companies out of nearly $3 million.

Prosecutors say Karen Washam-Hawkins, 48, of Carson, California, and Gerald William Bartlett, 38, of Tampa, Florida, supplied phony Social Security numbers and other false information that allowed their "customers" to create fake credit histories used to buy expensive houses in Lee's Summit, Missouri.

"This federal indictment marks the first time nationwide that the suppliers have been charged in a credit history fraud case, and signals our determination to prevent such schemes from proliferating," said Beth Phillips, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri.

Credit history fraud is a new and worrisome trend prosecutors are seeing nationwide, Phillips said. "By supplying false credit information, they (criminals) artificially boost credit scores and create a fraudulent credit history that enables their customers to commit financial fraud," she said.

According to the six-count indictment, Washam-Hawkins and Bartlett operated their fraudulent credit history scheme from late 2004 through August 2006. Several of their customers "benefited" from the sham and fraudulently purchased six residential properties totaling $2,717,420, the indictment states.

The scam

The indictment details how the scheme worked:

• Washam-Hawkins, a real estate agent, allegedly obtained and sold fake Social Security numbers to several individuals. Those phony Social Security numbers allowed her customers to create false credit histories, which were used to deceive lenders and obtain loans;

• Bartlett, who operated three businesses in Tampa, allegedly provided false account and payment information to a credit bureau -- action that falsely boosted his customers' creditworthiness and allowed them to dupe lenders and obtain loans.

The indictment also details how three other individuals used the fraudulent information to enhance their credit and purchase homes.

According the indictment, Washam-Hawkins allegedly supplied an Anaheim, California, man named Shade Jerome Howard with false Social Security numbers.

"Washam-Hawkins agreed to supply Howard with false Social Security numbers, referred to as 'news,' for clients of Howard," the indictment states.

Howard then gave Bartlett those false Social Security numbers and additional information and requested "positive credit information" for himself and others so they could obtain loans to buy homes in the Kansas City, Missouri, area, the indictment charges.

Bartlett, using the names South Florida Management Group and Consumer Financial Group, allegedly reported false account and payment information to a credit bureau.

The indictment states this scheme allowed Howard and two other men --- Ronald E. Brown, Jr., of Gladstone, Missouri, and Daryle A. Edwards of Overland Park, Kansas -- to improve their credit "in order to deceive lenders and obtain mortgage loans for residential properties in Lee's Summit."

According to the indictment, Howard purchased two houses totaling $1,201,000, Brown bought three house totaling $1,339,700, and Edwards purchased one house for $418,500.

The indictment also charges Washam-Hawkins and Bartlett with three counts of transferring funds obtained by fraud across state lines. Washam-Hawkins is also charged with two counts of wire fraud.

Phillips said the charges outlined in the indictment are "simply accusations" and not evidence of guilt.

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Electronic Cigarette Maker To Stop Deceptive Marketing and Sales To Minors

Company claimed product that includes nicotine contained no carcinogens

Electronic Cigarette Maker To Stop Deceptive Marketing and Sales To Minors...


Sottera, one of the country's largest electronic cigarette producers has agreed to stop targeting minors and claiming that electronic cigarettes are a safe alternative to smoking.

"Electronic cigarette companies have targeted minors with fruit-flavored products and misleading claims that their products are safe," said California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. "This settlement will stop Sottera from marketing these dangerous and addictive products to kids."

Brown and Sottera reached the settlement without litigation based on Sottera's willingness to adopt measures that address Brown's concerns about the dangers of its electronic cigarettes. In January this year, Brown filed suit against the nation's other leading e-cigarette retailer, Smoking Everywhere. That lawsuit is proceeding in Alameda County Superior Court.

E-smokes

Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are battery-operated devices with nicotine cartridges designed to look and feel like conventional cigarettes. Instead of actual smoke, e-cigarettes produce a vapor from the nicotine cartridge that is inhaled by the user. Sottera and other electronic cigarette makers have claimed in advertisements and other marketing materials that the e-cigarettes have no carcinogens, no tar, no second-hand smoke, and are therefore safe.

However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that electronic cigarettes contain a variety of dangerous chemicals, including nicotine, carcinogens such as nitrosamines and, in at least one case, diethylene glycol, commonly known as antifreeze.

The products are often marketed with advertisements, and flavors like strawberry, chocolate, mint, banana and cookies-and-cream, that are designed to appeal to a youthful target audience.

Ending phony claims

The settlement prohibits Sottera from marketing to minors and from making false or misleading claims about electronic cigarettes. Specifically, the company has agreed that it will not:

• Sell electronic cigarettes to minors. Its website will be age-restricted, and a customer will need to provide a government ID before making a purchase. Retail products will be behind a counter. Any advertising will note the age restriction.

• Sell flavored electronic cigarette cartridges, such as strawberry, mint or bubblegum, that could appeal to minors.

• Advertise its product as a smoking cessation device unless the FDA approves it as such.

• Sell cartridges that contain vitamins unless the company obtains competent and reliable scientific evidence to support an implied health claim.

• Claim that the product is safer than cigarettes, contains no tobacco, no tar, no carcinogens or no second-hand smoke unless there is competent reliable scientific evidence to support the claims.

Sottera also agreed to adopt and implement quality control standards for its products to preclude the presence of harmful substances. The company will regularly be subject to independent audits.

In addition, the company will provide a Proposition 65 warning that its products contain nicotine, a chemical known by the State of California to cause birth defects or reproductive harm. The warning will include additional information about risks associated with nicotine, including that it is addictive and toxic if swallowed. The warning will appear on product packaging, Sottera's website and at retail sites.

Finally, Sottera will pay $85,000 in penalties and fees.



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New York Probes GE Money's CareCredit Marketing

Attorney General alleges kickbacks to providers to saddle patients with debt

Health care services are expensive enough without patients getting buried in high-interest debt. NY Attorney General Cuomo says that appears to be happenin...


Health care services are expensive enough without patients getting buried in high-interest debt. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo says that appears to be happening with greater frequency.

Cuomo says his office is investigating what he calls "predatory" health care lending where consumers, especially seniors and vulnerable patients, are misled about financing, causing them to be pushed into debt.

Cuomo says some health care providers pressure consumers into using GE Money's CareCredit, a health care credit card, through fast-talking sales pitches and deceit. He says the investigation also found CareCredit often pays kickbacks in the form of rebates to the providers based on how much business they charge consumers on CareCredit cards.

The investigation was based in part on hundreds of consumer complaints received by the attorney general's office. Consumers reported that health care providers promised that the credit card had "no interest," when it often carried retroactive interest of over 25 percent if not paid in full during a promotional period. Consumers were also unknowingly charged up front for services they never received, and their attempts to obtain refunds were often thwarted or ignored. Meanwhile, CareCredit pays the health care providers in-full within 48 hours of the charge.

The investigation also found that CareCredit charges the providers a fee for the right to offer the cards, and then rebates part of the fee based on the amount of money the providers generated through CareCredit sales. Cuomo said this kickback arrangement, plus CareCredit's payment in full to providers within two days of the charge, creates an incentive for providers to push consumers to use CareCredit rather than other methods of payment. In fact, he says providers pushed CareCredit over cash.

Bankruptcy

"Health care debt is the number one cause of individual bankruptcy, and this scheme is contributing to the economic burden being felt by consumers," Cuomo said. "People are being tricked by misleading offers that have them paying for services they never received as well as interest charges they never knew about -- and they are ignored and given the runaround when they try to get their money back."

Cuomo issued subpoenas to 10 providers that promote CareCredit, as well as to the companies that manage CareCredit, Chase Health Advance, Visa Health Benefits, and Citibank Health Card. The subpoenas seek marketing materials, applications, terms of credit, contracts and rebate agreements, policies and procedures, consumer complaints, and regulatory inquiries. The investigation is continuing.

In addition, Cuomo is asking several nationwide and state-based medical associations, including the American Dental Association and the New York State Dental Association, to explain why they endorsed CareCredit and whether they received compensation for doing so.

CareCredit is accepted by more than 125,000 health care practices nationwide. The New York State Dental Association asserts that more than eight million dental patients and 80,000 dental practices use CareCredit nationwide. The credit card is advertised as a way to pay for services often not covered by insurance.

In recent years, Cuomo says, his office has received hundreds of complaints from consumers indicating that they were lured and misled by providers into applying for, accepting, and using CareCredit. Among the complaints received by the AG's office regarding what he terms a scam.

"Attorney General Cuomo's investigation shines a badly-needed spotlight on deceptive practices used to market health care credit cards to elderly and low-income consumers,"said Chuck Bell, Programs Director for Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. "We are concerned that some health care providers are aggressively marketing these high-interest credit cards to patients, without providing appropriate disclosures, protections, or refunds. Consumers Union strongly supports the attorney general's investigation, and applauds his ongoing efforts to protect consumers across the nation."

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Ohio Launches Nationwide Manhunt for Missing 'Charity' Director

Head of U.S. Navy Veterans Association disappears amid probe into organization's finances

Ohio Launches Nationwide Manhunt for Missing 'Charity' Director...


Ohio officials today announced that a nationwide arrest warrant for identity fraud has been issued for the man claiming to be "Bobby Thompson," director of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association (USNVA), a supposed charity based in Florida.

"Thompson" disappeared in June amid a growing number of state investigations into the organization's fundraising and spending, including revelations that the man who appears to have orchestrated this sham charity made hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions to candidates throughout the United States and in Ohio.

photo of suspect
"Bobby Thompson"       Photos: Ohio Attorney General

"Our investigators have determined that this individual stole the identity of someone else and used that as the centerpiece of an apparent scam that has continued for seven years and involved tens of millions of dollars," Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray said. "The real Bobby Thompson, whose identity was stolen, including his Social Security number and date of birth, has absolutely no connection to the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. We don't know who this individual is yet, but we do know that he is not Bobby Thompson."

The Hamilton County arrest warrant is based on evidence that the individual claiming to be Thompson used a false identity in the process of renting a UPS mailbox in Cincinnati in 2003. The mailbox was used as a collection point for donations to the charity. Since 2003, Ohioans have contributed close to $1.9 million to the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. Nationwide contributions could be many times that amount.

On May 28, Cordray ordered the USNVA to stop contacting Ohio residents for contributions after determining that the group's registration documents were plagued with irregularities. Those documents contain false and misleading information, including the names of association officers who also appear to be fictional.

In recent weeks, the Charitable Law section of the Ohio Attorney General's Office has obtained court orders freezing the Ohio bank accounts of the USNVA as well as the organization's UPS mailboxes in Hamilton and Fairfield counties.

There appears to be very little evidence that the organization spent money actually helping veterans or their families, Cordray said. Yet public records do show hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions to various candidates made by "Bobby Thompson" personally or through the political action committee he created and to which he was the sole contributor, NAVPAC.

Anyone with information about this individual or his whereabouts is asked to contact the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation at (740) 845-2224 or (800) 282-3784.

Cordray said that if "Thompson" is located and arrested outside of Ohio, his office will pursue extradition proceedings to have this individual returned to Ohio. Copies of the arrest warrant, photos of "Bobby Thompson" and additional background materials are available at www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov/USNavyVetsMaterials.

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Mortgage Rates Keep Falling

All categories of rates hit new lows

Mortgage Rates Keep Falling...


If you can qualify for a mortgage, it might be a pretty good time to buy a house or refinance an existing mortgage. Mortgage rates continue to fall and have hit another record low, according to Freddie Mac.

The nation's second largest mortgage finance company reports that in the last week, the average rate on all four mortgage types fell to the lowest level since it started keeping records in 1971.

Prospective homebuyers and refinancers can thank the stock market's lackluster performance this spring, which has contributed to a stronger Treasury bond performance. The more money flowing into bonds, the less the government has to pay in interest. Since mortgage rates are keyed to Treasury rates, mortgages have continued to become more affordable.

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 4.49 percent for the week ended August 5, compared with the previous week's 4.54 percent average and 5.22 percent a year ago.

Rates on 15-year fixed-rate mortgages were even lower, 3.95 percent, versus 4.00 percent in the previous week and 4.63 percent a year earlier. It's also at a record low.

Five-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgages dropped to an average 3.63 percent from the previous week's 3.76 percent and 4.73 percent a year earlier. One-year Treasury-indexed ARMs were 3.55 percent, down from 3.64 percent and 4.78 percent, respectively.

The record low rates were obtained with payment of anywhere from .06 to .07 of a point of pre-paid interest.

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Banks Are Bullish, So Consumers Should Be Cautious

Lenders back to heavy credit card marketing

Banks Are Bullish, So Consumers Should Be Cautious...


In the wake of banking and financial reforms, banks -- including credit card lenders -- have regained their swagger. Profits are rising and financial institutions are aggressively seeking new customers.

It may be a good reason for consumers to display a certain amount of wariness in their dealing with credit card companies.

Last year some predicted that the CARD Act, a new law curbing some of the industry's worst abuses, would lead to shrinking credit for consumers and smaller profits for banks. So far, neither of those predictions have actually occurred.

A new study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that there has been minimal change in the number of cards that include an annual fee, actually declining 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.

"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."

Looking for loopholes

Other consumer groups are worried that banks are finding clever ways around new regulations designed to protect consumers. Last month three groups -- the National Consumer Law Center, Consumer Federation of America and Consumer Action -- warned federal regulators of what they called "potential violations of the CARD Act."

Meanwhile, credit card lenders are once again actively marketing to consumers. During 2009, the worst recession seen in years, the economy and legislative pressure caused issuers to dramatically pull back on offers, and annual mail volume from credit card issuers dropped to its lowest levels since 1993.

However, during the first quarter of 2010 U.S. households received 481.3 million credit card offers -- a 29 percent increase versus the 372.4 million offers mailed during the same time a year ago, according to Synovate Mail Monitor, the direct mail tracking service from global market research firm Synovate.

"In Q4 2009 we began to see issuers release the pause button and mail more, and in Q1 2010 that trend continues. Throughout the remainder of the year we expect to see mail volume continue its slow climb upward," said Anuj Shahani, Director of Competitive Tracking Services for Synovate's Financial Services group.

Diving into subprime

Capital One was one of the largest mailers for the quarter, second only to Chase. In its first quarter earnings statement, Capital One announced its intention to re-enter the subprime market after an almost 100 percent pullback in the third quarter of 2009. True to that commitment, Capital One more than doubled their mailed card offers versus the prior quarter.

However, this wasn't the only surprise. HSBC, which had briefly considered leaving the US credit card industry behind, doubled its mail volume in the first quarter of 2010 versus the fourth quarter of 2009 and more than tripled its mailings versus one year ago.

"This is a massive commitment in terms of expenditure for the issuers as direct mail is one of the most expensive channels to acquire new cardholders. This tells us that the issuers are not just dipping their toes in the water, they are diving in head first," Shahani said.

This is reason for consumers to show caution when these offers arrive in the mail, consumer advocates warn. Banks do not offer deals that hurt their profits and what's good for banks is not always good for consumers.

The Wall Street Journal notes that some banks are now pushing "professional" cards. Much like a business credit card, professional cards' terms and services are very similar to consumer cards. Yet the Journal notes that professional cards, for some reason, are not covered by the rules of the CARD Act.

Even so, Claire Braverman, Senior Vice President of Synovate's Financial Services, believes the industry's creativity in producing new services and offers will ultimately be good for consumers. However, consumers should go into any new credit card relationship with their eyes wide open.

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Is Your Child's Identity At Risk?

Obtaining Social Security at birth carries risk

Is Your Child's Identity At Risk? ...


Most adults past a certain age probably remember applying for their Social Security number. There really wasn't any reason to get one until you got your first job.

But things are different now. Since the 1980's, children in the U.S. have been issued Social Security numbers (SSN) at birth. Since they don't use them until for credit purposes until they are at least 18, the number lies dormant for 18 years. That's plenty of time for an identity thief to steal it.

Unfortunately, credit issuers do not currently have the ability to verify if a SSN belongs to an adult or a minor. If they knew that the SSN presented belonged to a minor they would automatically deny opening a credit account.

Years ago, the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) envisioned a simple solution to this problem. Its called the Minors 17-10 Database and ITRC has been talking with various government entities and legislators about this concept since July 2005.

With the growing popularity of so-called "credit protection numbers" -- credit privacy numbers (CPN) -- and now "secondary credit numbers" being sold online, this issue has become more urgent, the group says. These dormant Social Security numbers, being sold as CPNs, frequently were issued to children. The crime, identity theft, most likely will not be discovered until the teen reaches adulthood.

The creation of a Minors 17-10 Database would provide credit issuers the tool to verify if the SSN provided belongs to a child, ITRC says. This proposed SSA record file would selectively extract the name, month of birth, year of birth, and SSN of every minor from birth to the age of 17 years and 10 months.

This record file, maintained by SSA, would be provided monthly to approved credit reporting agencies. When credit issuers call about the creditworthiness of a SSN, if the number is on the Minors 17-10 Database, they would be told that the SSN belongs to a minor.

This, ITRC argues, would effectively deny obtaining credit using a minor's SSN. It would reduce business fraud loss as well as protecting children from abuse of their SSNs for illegal financial purposes.

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For-Profit Schools Get New Scrutiny

Students complain about misleading recruiters

For-Profit Schools Get New Scrutiny...

 

The Senate Committee on Health, Labor, Education and Pensions is holding hearings today on recruitment practices at for-profit colleges and universities. It follows an Obama Administration proposal to regulate federal aid to for-profit schools.

For-profit schools, such as University of Phoenix and Devry University, have grown quickly in the last decade, relying on distance learning and serving, in many cases, students who are currently in the work force.

The federal government is turning its attention to these institutions as complaints mount. A recent General Accountability Office (GAO) report was sharply critical of recruiting practices at some for-profit colleges, saying some recruiters lie and urge aid applicants to commit fraud. In recent months ConsumerAffairs.com has received a number of complaints about the issues the committee is addressing.

Jodi of Brigham City, Utah, said she applied to the University of Phoenix in May of 2009 and was told to apply for financial aid. Jodi wanted to avoid getting buried in debt and was hoping to receive a generous Pell Grant to help with the school's $8,000 tuition.

As classes were about to begin, Jodi said the recruiter called and told her that, based on her score, she would probably qualify for aid, and to go ahead and begin classes, even though nothing had been determined.

"I asked her what would happen if I didn't get aid, and she replied again that things looked really good for me and to go ahead and start because the first block was taken care of," Jodi told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Surprise!

Once she started classes, Jodi said she learned that her Pell Grant only amounted to $1200 and the rest would have to be covered in student loans. When she attempted to drop out, Jodi says she was told there would be a big financial penalty. She said she also learned that the loan money had already been disbursed, without her permission.

"First of all, when a person applies for credit, they should not be forced to accept the highest amount offered," Jodi said. "I told Janet (the recruiter) during the week of June 8 that if I didn't get a lot in Pell that I couldn't accept the loan. She said my aid would be fine. They should not be allowing anyone to begin classes at their school without the student seeing what aid they can get."

At today's hearing, ranking member Sen. Michael Enzi (R-WY) urged continued scrutiny of student recruitment tactics at for-profit universities, but warned that an objective examination of misleading recruiting practices must take into account the full spectrum of higher education institutions.

"We are going to hear details of aggressive and inappropriate recruiting practices at for-profit universities," Enzi said. "Use of pressure tactics, deceitful marketing and outright lies to mislead students has absolutely no place in education. It is crystal clear that some programs at for-profit schools are misleading students and possibly defrauding taxpayers out of millions of dollars in student aid funds. However, in focusing only on for-profits, we are not being objective, and we are ignoring the bigger picture of what is happening across all of higher education."

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Suit Claims Toyota Knew Of Problems In 2003

Cites technician field report on sudden acceleration case

Suit Claims Toyota Knew Of Problems In 2003...

Reports of Toyota's problems with sudden acceleration in some of its cars burst into the headlines late last year, but a class action suit claims the carmaker was aware of the problem at least six years earlier.

Lawyers handling a class action lawsuit against the Japanese carmaker say they have found documents showing Toyota was investigating at least one report of unintended acceleration as early as 2003. In a filing in federal court in California, the attorneys cite a 2003 field report a Toyota technician wrote in response to a driver's complaint of unintended acceleration.

In the filing, the lawyers say the technician urged immediate action on the part of the carmaker, calling the problem "extremely dangerous" and expressing the fear that it could start happening more frequently in the future.

By 2004, more than 20,000 drivers had complained to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of sudden acceleration incidents. These cases involved a number of different brands, not just Toyota, and began in the late 1980s.

Terrifying experience

In 2007 ConsumerAffairs.com reported a Washington state consumers' detailed description of an uncontrolled acceleration incident involving her new Toyota Prius.

"As I attempted to merge into heavy traffic," Tina told us, "I accelerated up the on ramp and was attempting to place the car between two vehicles going at a rate of approximately 50 miles per hour. The car lunged forward and would not slow down without repeated pumping of the brakes."

Tina said she left the freeway as soon as she could weave her way through heavy traffic, still unable to disengage the Prius throttle. After turning off the power, she made her way to a Toyota dealer, noting on the way a "foul odor" and a malfunctioning computer display. But the Toyota service department diagnosed the problem with the runaway Prius as nothing more than a carpet jamming the accelerator pedal or driver error.

Floor mats

A month later Toyota and NHTSA agreed that faulty floor mats are the cause of runaway acceleration in the Toyota Prius hybrid as well as several other Toyota vehicles. Toyota then recalled 55,000 floor mats which are used in the 2007/2008 Lexus ES 350 as well as the 2007/2008 Camry.

However, the reports continued for another two years. Last November Toyota said it would replace or reshape accelerator pedals on 3.8 million vehicles in an attempt to deal with an unintended acceleration problem that has resulted in at least one fatal accident. The recall was expanded in January.

 

 

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Acadiana On Edge as Latest Attempt to Kill BP's Runaway Well Begins

Massive spill has imperiled not just the Gulf Coast but also the inland oil and gas industry

Acadiana On Edge as Latest Attempt to Kill BP's Runaway Well Begins...

By Leonard Earl Johnson
ConsumerAffairs.com

August 3, 2010
We sat along banks of small but comfortable modern chairs in front of floor-to-ceiling windows gazing out at the passing Louisiana countryside.

We are on the second level of the observation car of Amtraks Sunset Limited, bound for Los Angeles. This is the train Dick Powell and Myrna Loy rode in the movie version of Dashiell Hammetts The Thin Man. It connects Americas West Coast to her lesser known Third Coast.

We are bound for Lafayette, the heart of French Louisianas colorful Acadiana. Lafayettes motto is "The Hub City," a title derived from being at the convergence of waterways, railroads and highways. Since the 1950's it has also been the hub of Louisianas offshore oil and gas service industries.

Acadians build even sometimes design the devices that keep deep-water oil drilling the safe and profitable industry that it is normally. Safe? Well, truthfully it has always been a risky business, but an acceptable one.

Lafayettes relatively new train depot belongs to the city, not Amtrak. It is in the process of being joined to an under-construction Rosa Parks Transportation Center and United States Post Office. "Under construction with Obama stimulus money," locals sometimes say with a sneer.

The depot is located downtown one block from the musically historic Grant Street Dance Hall. Two blocks further away is the Evangeline Expressway, the demarcation line dividing old and new Lafayette.

East, past the city airport, the Evangeline Expressway is lined with businesses with internationally known names like Haliburton, KBR, Transocean, and Franks Casing Crew & Rental Tools.

Also found there are the food services, and the transport services for the offshore rigs. And, yes, the pipes, gears, and even the safety valves on most of the rigs out in the Gulf of Mexico came from, or passed through the designing rooms of thousands of shops and offices situated along this corridor.

Lafayette is a clean oil town, a town more populated with engineers than roughnecks. And politically more like Texas than any other city in coastal Louisiana.

Anyone here will readily point out how the Horizon Deepwater explosion, sinking and resulting oil spill was a Gulf Coast anomaly. Many here have told me that there has never been a serious Gulf oil spill before Horizon. This, of course, is not true.

The IXTOC I rig exploded and sank off the coast of Mexico in 1979. At 140 million gallons, it was not as large a spill as Horizon, now estimated to exceed 205 million gallons, but it was big. And it spewed oil for ten months in much shallower waters.

photo of Ixtoc blowout
140 million gallons spilled in the IXTOC I well blowout in 1979. NOAA photo

Poor memories

We live in an era when few of us even remember the names of the wars we have fought since 1945, let alone a thirty-one-year-old oil spill far away in Mexican waters. So, IXTOC is nearly forgotten. Besides, its damage seems to have been incorporated into the ecosystem of the region without anyone finding oil in their oysters today. True, but their shrimp and oyster industries were devastated for years after the spill.

Everyone here hopes most expect quicker recovery from the Horizon Deepwater spill. Because? Well, because it is now, and we are us, and Moon Graffon tells us so, for two hours every weekday on KPEL radio, the voice of Abbeville/Lafayette. Graffons show is followed daily by three hours of Rush Lumbaughs comparatively calming commentary.

New Orleans radio commentators might never be thought to be pro-Obama, but the charming and popular print-and-radio food critic, Tom Fitzmorris, e-mailed this when asked about the Mexican shrimp and oyster industries' recovery time and how it might be a guide to ours: "I expect that by Thanksgiving we will have oysters nearly as normal. You can quote me on that."

Out of sight, out of our minds

Computerized graphics move us forward from April 20, when the Horizon Oil Rig exploded killing 11, 50 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River. We see the resulting gusher become a volcano. It spews out plumes of oil dispersed by chemicals far beneath the sea. The plums grow, contract, curl and break off little loops that are left to dance their separate way east towards the Gulf Stream. Or at least somebodys beach.

Oil will likely plop up on Gulf maybe Atlantic beaches for some time to come. Future beachcombers may harvest little hardened tar balls as souvenirs. Shopkeepers might even sell them.

After Hurricane Alex swelled the sea, and the threat of Tropical Storm Bonnie passed, the underwater oil plum drew itself into a smaller glob and headed back west towards Louisiana.

We do not see any tar balls from our trains windows as we roll along the coastal side of the great Atchafalia Basin. The Atchafalia is the last remnant of a once huge continental drainage system that spread swampy wetlands all the way from New Orleans to above St. Louis, Missouri. The Mississippi River is the central force of this system. It is also the continents major migratory bird flyway. Now the Mississippi River is canalized and the swamps have been drained to make way for roads, and towns, and farms, and strip malls.

If you recall, earlier in the disaster, there were plans to pay farmers along this stretch of former wetlands to flood some of their reclaimed land in hopes of luring migrating birds away from the oily fate befalling waterfowl such as Louisianas state bird, the Brown Pelican. The plan has been shelved following the wells temporary capping, and in light of the oils questionable disappearing act.

We have taken this train countless times since the spill began, and we have yet to spot a tar ball not on a computer screen. The computer graphics we have been looking at are on a laptop belonging to a bright blue-eyed English film student. He told us he had worked for two years to launch himself on this, his first world tour.

Vatican Rag

"New York, Memphis, New Orleans," he says, as we rock over the Atchafalia River bridge at Morgan City. The Atchafalia River is near its mouth here, and the bridges crossing it are large things with powerful superstructures. Our bright-eyed Brit eyes them in a way that makes me wish I were younger, so I could see the films he might some day make. He is headed to Houston. "Then San Francesco, China, Australia and South Africa, where I have family."

We are joined by another youth who recently graduated high school in New Orleans. He joined his schools ROTC program, he tells us, and expects to ship out soon.

"My grandmother lives in Lafayette," he says. "Im going to see her before I go to Iraq or Afghanistan."

He has been drawn to our conversation not by the beer, but by the film students British accent and its promise of news from the great outer world.

They talk of Internet sites. humorous ones mostly unknown to me. I recite for them the lyrics to Tom Lears Vatican Rag, which they liked. Neither of them had ever heard it before. Surprisingly I remembered it all. They write down notable web sites for me to look up later. I thanked them, and launched into a shameless three-beer interpretation of Tom Lears Balled of Wernher von Braun. They both liked it, but only the Brit knew who von Braun was. Even though the American might likely soon be loosing descendants of Brauns rockets on the world.

photo of Cajundome The Cajundome
In Lafayette we parted ways. The youths for their respective world tours. Me for the Cajundome, a particularly handsome version of the ubiquitous sports domes that grace every American city of any importance.

The Cajundome is smaller than New Orleans Superdome. What isnt? But the building is graced with elegant architectural detail. It has lines connecting related buildings and rooms that flow like flying buttresses on European cathedrals. And it sits majestically under a broad sky on a sweeping expanse of what is known in Acadiana as "Cajun prairie." Its beauty causes a Cajun friend of mine to never pass without a sigh and exclamation tinged with both hyperbole and pride: "Behold, the Dome of The Cajuns!"

Not just music

Today, inside the Dome there is more to behold than mere football, or big-name music acts. Today, there is politics, the true sport and music of Louisiana. It is a horn kissed by new lips, to be sure, but the notes were blown over an old dance floor worn smooth by generations of masters.

In fact, New Orleans Saints football champion Drew Brees, musicians Lenny Kravitz, Rockin Doopsy, Jr., and actor John Goodman all made their appearance to an audience of 11,000 workers and assorted politicians led by Louisiana Governor and presidential hopeful Bobby Jendal.

Franks Casing Crew & Rental Tools paid 1,000 of its employees to attend, but there is every reason to believe that though they were happy to take the money they were enthusiastically present of their own accord.

photo of Nungesser Nungesser
Also speaking was Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. Seriously hoarse from three months of yelling at BP, Baton Rouge and Washington politicians, Nungesser continued cutting an agile and hefty figure in the states political dance. His parishs fishing industry is the one most severely impacted by the oil spill and it was speculated that he might not appear in the Cajundome as an indication of some fisure opening between fishing and oil interests. It is, after all, BP's spill, not Obamas Moratorium, that is splashing oil onto Plaquemines Parish wetlands. But both put Louisiana workers out of jobs.

The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, the industry lobbying arm, paid to rent the dome for the Rally for Economic Survival. The rallying point is: Barack HUSSEIN Obama, lift the offshore drilling moratorium. With Obamas name not spoken without strong emphases on the Middle Eastern middle name, HUSSEIN. Though the rally was billed as nonpartisan, it clearly was anything but.

It seems unlikely this president, or any other, would negotiate policy under such public partisan pressure. This rally was made from the stuff of campaigns and elections, and not designed to garner influence. It was designed to do two things: tar Obama and get the publics mind off BP.

Obamas administration claims the offshore drilling leases given out during the most recent Bush Presidency and the past year of their own did not take safety sufficiently into account. The moratorium is intended to give time for needed new oversight of those leases, they say. Given the magnitude of the Horizon Deepwater disaster one might reasonably see some validity to that point of view. But no one was seeing it that way in the Cajundome.

Following the wells temporary capping, BP began speaking of removing oil collecting devices and workers. Billy Nungesser said, "Are they that stupid? It took weeks for the oil to reach our coast and now they say a week after the cap it is over!"

Today, an attempt at permanently capping the well is to begin. We all wish it great success, no matter who the next president may be.

---

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

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Gulf Spill Could Present Long Term Health Effects

Officials studying physical and psychological impact

Gulf Spill Could Present Long Term Health Effects...


The underwater camera no longer shows oil gushing from the ocean floor. Even clean up crews report finding less oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

But this oil spill is not a case of "out of sight, out of mind," health officials say.

Experts continue working to anticipate, outline and minimize the disaster's potential health risks, according to a University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health researcher actively involved in helping the federal government deal with repercussions from the April 20 accident.

Nalini Sathiakumar, M.D., Dr.P.H., an associate professor in UAB's Department of Epidemiology and a pediatric nephrologist, is part of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ad-hoc team formed in July that is in discussions to plan and execute research strategies surrounding health outcomes due to the oil spill.

The Gulf leak was the equivalent of a supertanker spill every week, says Sathiakumar, who was part of an Institute of Medicine panel of health experts who met in New Orleans in June to discuss repercussions from the oil-rig accident.

"This already is an unprecedented tragedy," she said. "We need to move quickly to monitor and study the physical and psychological impacts in the short term and long term among clean-up workers, volunteers and in adults and children, and we need to follow these with long-term studies."

While some of the short-term health effects are known -- watery and irritated eyes, skin itching and redness, coughing and shortness or breath or wheezing -- there also are many unknown health effects, says Sathiakumar, who has researched a prior oil spill. Even tourists, beach-goers and seafood lovers will face some risks in the future, she says.

CDC reviewing data

The CDC is reviewing the sampling of data to determine whether exposure to oil, oil constituents and/or dispersants might cause short-term or long-term health effects. These data include sampling results for air, water, soil, sediment and oil material reaching beaches and marshes.

About 400 tanker spills have occurred since the 1960s, and 38 of them involved supertankers, including the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska. But only seven of those supertanker spills have been studied, and those examined the short-term toxic and psychological effects with limited analysis of the long-term effects.

Sathiakumar investigated a large spill, the one that resulted when a Greek supertanker ran aground in 2003 off the coast of Karachi, Pakistan. An investigation of the Karachi incident found commonly reported symptoms were temporary eye, throat or skin irritation, headaches or general malaise.

Sathiakumar says these health effects showed a clear sign of decreasing in number as people moved further away from the oil-spill site.



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Mortgage Lender To Pay $4.5 Million To Settle Housing Allegations

W.R. Starkey Mortgage arranged loans that put consumers 'under water' state says

Mortgage Lender To Pay $4.5 Million To Settle Housing Allegations...


A Texas mortgage lender will pay $4.5 million for its role in a scheme to sign North Carolina consumers to loans they couldn't afford on overpriced modular and manufactured homes.

Mortgage lender W.R. Starkey Mortgage, L.L.P. of Plano, Texas, provided home loans for North Carolina consumers who bought homes from Phoenix Housing Group, Inc. between January 2007 and September 2008.

"A family should have the opportunity to buy a home without inflated prices and questionable financing," Attorney General Roy Cooper said. "I'm pleased that consumers who fell victim to this scheme now have a chance to get money back."

Homeowners 'under water'

Cooper claimed Starkey worked with Phoenix to qualify borrowers for loans improperly and finance the sales of manufactured homes and land at inflated prices. As a result, consumers wound up with loans that exceeded the actual value of the homes they purchased.

Specifically, the allegations contend that Starkey employees and agents failed to verify financial information provided about borrowers by Phoenix, disguised the source of the information, placed inaccurate information on consumers' credit reports to boost their ability to qualify for loans, made loans without regard to borrowers' ability to repay, and added discount points to mortgages without reducing the interest rate as required by law.

After Starkey officials were notified of the fraud, they quickly agreed to corrective actions and consumer refunds. Under a consent judgment between Starkey and the Attorney General's Office, Starkey will:

• Pay $4,446,000 to 171 families who purchased mobile or manufactured homes from Phoenix, a refund of $26,000 per family;

• Pay $125,000 for consumer education and to cover the costs of the enforcement action; and

• Pay $25,000 to the Western Piedmont Council of Government to help provide financial counseling to consumers who receive refunds under the settlements.

Additional sanctions

In addition, Starkey is permanently barred from making loans when a manufactured housing dealer is a party to the deal, collecting financial information about prospective borrowers from anyone other than the borrowers, and charging discount points unless requested and paid by a borrower to reduce the interest rate. Starkey must also make sure that its underwriters comply with all rules.

Letters will go out this week to all consumers who are eligible for refunds from Starkey. Cooper's office will send the letters to consumers at their last known addresses. Any consumer who believes he or she is eligible for a refund who does not receive a letter is encouraged to call the Consumer Protection Division at 1-877-5-NO-SCAM toll-free within North Carolina or (919) 716-6000 out of state.

Cooper filed suit in November 2009 against Starkey, Phoenix, and a third company, K&B; Homebuilders, as well as several individuals connected with the companies. The case against Phoenix and K&B; remains active, and the AG is asking the court to ban them permanently from engaging in deceptive activities and to order refunds and civil penalties. A preliminary injunction remains in place against K&B;, its owners and other employees.

Other judgments

The court has also approved a consent judgment against one former Phoenix and K&B; employee, George William Varsamis, for his role in the scheme to put consumers in overvalued homes. Varsamis is banned permanently from engaging in any unfair or deceptive practices related to housing or land sales in North Carolina and must pay $500 for investigative costs. If he is found to violate the judgment, he will also owe the state $100,000 in civil penalties.

Phoenix is headquartered in Greensboro but also does business as HomesAmerica and Southern Showcase Housing. Phoenix has multiple offices across the state and at one time operated in Asheboro, Asheville, Burlington, Granite Falls, Greensboro, Hendersonville and Winston-Salem. K&B; was founded by a former Phoenix employee and sold stick-built homes, modular home/land packages, and foreclosed homes in Catawba, Burke and Caldwell counties.

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Gulf Oil Spill Dispersants Raise Concerns

BP accused of 'carpet-bombing' the ocean with chemicals

Gulf Oil Spill Dispersants Raise Concerns...

While BP has stopped the Gulf oil leak, at least for now, the company is coming under harsh criticism in Congress for the way it's gone about cleaning up the oil spill.

As clean up crews last week reported much of the spilled oil has disappeared from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) released a letter blasting the oil company for using too much dispersant. Markey said BP used thousands of gallons of the chemical each day to try to break up the oil.

"BP often carpet-bombed the ocean with these chemicals and the Coast Guard allowed them to do it," Markey said in the letter.

Attorneys Stuart Smith and Mike Stag, and toxicologist Dr. William Sawyer joined in the criticism of BP, saying the toxic chemical components from crude may pose serious problems for fisheries.

The three say the dispersants don't make the oil go away, but simply hide it, concealing it underwater. The dispersants themselves, they say, cause other problems.

"Dispersants also leave behind a witch's brew of other potentially-dangerous chemicals after interacting with crude oil in water," Smith said. "Not only do these toxic components damage the environment, but they introduce potentially-serious human health and marine environmental problems."

Sawyer says Louisianans can expect to experience long-term effects for some time, not only to their health, but also their ecosystem and way of life. And the real problems can't necessarily be seen, he says.

Toxic soup

"When you fly over the Macondo site where the Deepwater Horizon rig was located, the water looks like a gelatinous toxic soup thanks to this mix of dispersants and oil," he said.

The attorneys and the scientist say dispersants were meant to be used at the surface of oil spills. Instead, they say, millions of gallons of Corexit were used at the Macondo wellhead site to prevent the oil spill from surfacing. As a result, they say the dispersant has caused as much as 70 percent of the spill to remain hidden from view.

To date, Smith, Stag and Sawyer claim BP has applied nearly two million gallons of Corexit dispersant. They say documented measurements of some of these chemicals are in great excess of established and risk-based lethal levels.

 

 



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Connecticut Probe Apple, Amazon E-book Deals

Attorney General says deals could end up hurting consumers

Connecticut Probe Apple, Amazon E-book Deals...

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal says he has launched an investigation into the agreements between the countrys largest e-book publishers and two of the largest sellers -- Amazon.com, Inc. and Apple, Inc. Blumenthal says he's concerned the alliances may block competitors from offering cheaper e-book prices.

Both Amazon and Apple have reached agreements with the largest e-book publishers that ensure both will receive the best prices for e-books over any competitors -- contract provisions known as most favored nation (MFN) clauses.

In letters to Amazon and Apple, Blumenthal is calling on the companies to meet with his office to address these concerns. Publishers that have reached such agreements with Amazon and Apple include Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, HarperCollins and Penguin.

Blumenthal says these agreements appear to deter certain publishers from offering discounts to Amazon and Apples competitors -- because they must offer the same to Amazon and Apple. This restriction blocks cheaper and competitive prices for consumers.

After a preliminary review, Blumenthals office has reported that e-book prices offered by Amazon, Apple, Borders and Barnes & Noble for several New York Times Bestseller books were identical among all four sellers.

These agreements among publishers, Amazon and Apple appear to have already resulted in uniform prices for many of the most popular e-books -- potentially depriving consumers of competitive prices, Blumenthal said. The e-book market is set to explode -- with analysts predicting that e-book readers will be among the holiday seasons biggest electronic gifts -- warranting prompt review of the potential anti-consumer impacts.

Blumenthal says Amazon and Apple combined will likely command the greatest share of the retail e-book market, allowing their most-favored-nation clauses to effectively set the floor prices for the most popular e-books.

Such agreements -- especially when offered to two of the largest e-book retail competitors in the United States -- threaten to encourage coordinated pricing and discourage discounting.

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Don't Overlook Health Benefits of Sleep

Getting enough sleep can improve and lengthen your life

Don't Overlook Health Benefits of Sleep...


Youve heard that expression, Ill sleep when Im dead. Well, it turns out that getting enough sleep, and other kinds of rest, just might postpone when your death occurs as well as increase the effectiveness and joyfulness of your life.

Consider this: the Nurses Health Study conducted by Harvard University found that getting too little sleep is linked to a greater risk of getting breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

Furthermore, sleep deprivation causes drowsy driving which can lead to accident fatalities. As reported by the the National Sleep Foundation at their website devoted to drowsy driving, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 1,500 deaths and 71,000 injuries are caused annually because of falling asleep at the wheel.

In another study, a review of information about 28,000 children and 15,000 adults found that too little sleep doubled the chances of being obese. Obesity has, in turn, been linked to a variety of life-threatening illnesses including sleep apnea, a condition in which we stop breathing during sleep. As pointed out in Sleep Apnea Tied to Increased Risk of Stroke, especially for men over the age of 40, having sleep apnea more than doubles their potential for a stoke.

Preventing an early death or decreasing the likelihood you will become obese arent the only reasons we need to get enough sleep and rest. We also need it so we can be alert at work, making it less likely that well make mistakes, have accidents, or fall asleep during meetings, which could embarrass you or, worse, get you fired. Also, too little sleep can increase someones tendency to fly off the handle or to be overly emotional, reduce memory retention and increase depression. Simply put, too little sleep reduces the overall quality of our lives.

How much sleep do Boomers really need?

You may have grown up being told that eight is the magic number for the hours of sleep you need each night. It turns out there is no absolute number of hours. Everyone requires more or less sleep depending on a variety of factors including your individual makeup as well as your lifestyle. What counts is that you are getting enough sleep for your body and mind to be replenished, whether that is six, seven, or eight hours or more.

How do you determine how much sleep is enough for you? Start with a weekend or a day when you sleep in and dont set an alarm. That will give you a more natural time for sleeping so you wake up refreshed. Then try to duplicate that number of hours every day.

We Boomers also need to know that as we age, our biological clock resets. Sleep expert and physician Matthew Edlund, M.D. says that from the ages of 20 to 70, there is a 90-minute move forward in the typical biological clock. Dr. Edlund, author of The Power of Rest (HarperCollins) and The Body Clock Advantage (Circadian Press), points out that as we age, we go to bed earlier and wake up earlier. He calls it s a genetic biological clock phenomenon.

Sleep apnea on the rise

If youre a Boomer still looking for a reason to lose weight, heres a two word reason: sleep apnea. Overweight Boomers have a significantly higher likelihood of developing this condition that causes you to stop breathing while asleep. In fact, one of the first recommendations for treating someone with sleep apnea, especially if someone is obese, is to lose weight. Kathleen Myer, a registered respiratory therapist and sleep technician at HealthBridge in Manhasset, Long Island, New York, sees a lot of obstructive sleep apnea with Boomers, and that it is definitely life threatening.

A recent study conducted by Dr. Daniel Gottlieb, an associate professor at Boston Universitys School of Medicine, as reported by the National Sleep Foundation, found that men between the ages of 40 and 70 were 68% more likely to develop coronary heart disease than those who did not have obstructive sleep apnea as a predicting risk factor.

Unfortunately, only 10% of sleep apnea cases are even diagnosed. If it is diagnosed, the primary treatment is a nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device.

Denver-based 50-year-old Barbara says shes had sleep apnea most of her life. I can remember my sister waking me up in the middle of the night when I was in my early teens because I was snoring loudly enough to wake her, she said. My first husband claimed I would shake the walls down. Finally, someone who shared a room with me suggested a sleep study. From that sleep study, Barbara learned that she was waking up 152 times an hour. I was so tired during the day that I would fall asleep at work or in the car when I stopped at a light.

A CPAP device has made all the difference in Barbaras life.

I wake up far more rested. I can stay awake during the day and work on the computer or watch TV two activities that I would fall asleep after a few minutes when I tried to do them before the CPAP. Now I sleep much more solidly, and actually have dreams and uninterrupted sleep. Using the CPAP for the past 11 years has extended my life. I have often suggested a sleep study to people who are tired all the time or talk about snoring. My life got much better when I could sleep! said Barbara.

If you or your bedroom partner have sleep apnea, it is important to comply with the doctors request to use a CPAP device. Myer points out, however, that this can be especially challenging for single men and women who are dating and prefer not to allow their romantic partner to see them using a CPAP device. To go without the CPAP machine for even one day, however, can have grave or even fatal consequences. Myer says there are CPAP devices called nasal pillows that have a strap and small cushions that just go into the nostril so that much less of the face is covered by that device.

Insomnia

There may also be an increase in insomnia with Boomers. One cause can be the frequent awakenings that are due to a male having to go to the bathroom during the night due to prostate enlargement or a female who suffers from incontinence. Fortunately, both conditions are treatable.

Anxiety is another cause of insomnia. These days more boomers are worrying about money, job loss, and foreclosure and thats causing us to toss and turn rather than get a good nights sleep. If this describes you or your bedmate, you need to work on solving those problems that are keeping you up at night. There are other reasons for insomnia and some of those factors are, fortunately, easier to correct than the financial, career, or real estate challenges. Here are 10 tips to help you to get a better night of sleep:

What to do

Here are 10 tips for a good nights sleep

1. Be as consistent as possible about how much sleep you get as well as about when you go to bed and when you wake up, including weekends.

2. Attend to the physical aspects of your sleep environment that you can change such as a comfortable bed, pillow, temperature that is not too hot or too cold, and minimal noise or interruptions.

3. If you take long or too many naps, that can interfere with your nighttime sleep so adjust accordingly.

4. If you have temporary insomnia due to stress or other transitional situations, including medications, pains, or illnesses that may be causing sleep problems, deal with the underlying causes of your insomnia.

5. If you find you have a chronic sleep-related issue, consider going to a sleep center staffed by trained sleep experts to have it properly diagnosed so you can be treated. (For a list of sleep centers, go to the American of sleep which maintains a free updated database.)

6. Watch your coffee or alcohol consumption immediately prior to sleep.

7. Exercising early enough in the day may help you to fall asleep at night but too close to your bedtime may act as a stimulus that keeps you up.

8. Some of the old-fashioned natural solutions for falling asleep include warm milk, taking a hot bath, or counting sheep. You might want to try one or all of those techniques before seeking out pharmaceutical help, such as sleeping pills, which need to be used with caution because of any possible side effects or the potential for becoming dependent whether over the counter or prescription. (See What about sleeping pills? below.)

9. Be careful about what TV programs, movies, or books you read at bedtime. Upsetting or riveting plots can keep you reading or watching long after you really wanted to go to sleep.

10. You might find writing a to do list of what you need to accomplish the next day will help you get to sleep since you wont be constantly mulling over in your mind all those things you need to do.

What about sleeping pills?

As pointed out in The Encyclopedia of Sleep and Sleep Disorders," sleeping pills are medications that induce drowsiness and facilitate the onset and maintenance of sleep. Some of the more well-known hypnotics include Lunesta (eszopiclone), Sonata (zaleplon), and Ambien (zolpidem).

Consult with your physician about whether or not a hypnotic medication is the right treatment for your insomnia. Make sure you are fully aware of any potential side effects to any prescribed or even over-the-counter sleep aids including the possibility of developing a tolerance, dependence, or addiction to a specific sleeping pill. (See, for example, FDA Wants Stronger Warnings on Sleep Disorder Drugs.)

Rest is More than Sleep

Recently sleep experts have found that in terms of rejuvenating our mind and bodies, rest may be more important the sleep. In his book, The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone is Not Enough, Dr. Edlund says that sleep is only one form of rest and non-sleep rest is so much more than relaxing and watching TV. Other ways to feel replenished include: mental rest, which enables you to obtain calm and relaxed concentration quickly and effectively as you concentrate attention on something beyond your body social rest, which means you are using the power of social connectedness to relax and rejuvenate; spiritual rest, the practice of connecting with things larger and greater than ourselves; and last, but not least, physical rest, by focusing your body and its simplest physiological processes, provokes calm, relaxation, mental alertness, and surprisingly better health.

Here are some of the techniques that Dr. Edlund discusses in greater detail in his book:

Mental rest
• Self-hypnosis
• Focusing the eye
• Walking to music
• Ear popping (According to Dr. Edlund, you simply put both your index fingers in your ears deep enough to stop outside noise. Leave your fingers there for ten seconds if you have the time, five if you dont. If youre in a place where its socially acceptable, also close your eyes.
• Garden walks

Social rest
• Sex
• Social touch
• Social networking and social support
• Making a special connection
• Visiting a neighbor of coworker you dont know well
• Walking to lunch with a colleague, friend, or neighbor

Spiritual rest
• Meditating
• The power of prayer
• Following the ways of the Zen Buddhist teachings, Contemplating suchness, all the world where we live
• Simple observational meditation

Physical rest
• Deep breathing
• Yoga techniques including the mountain pose or the gravity pose
• Napping (a short nap, as quick as six minutes, can improve your concentration).

Dr. Edlund recommends a daily approach to life that is typified by the acronym: FAR using food, activity, and rest in a sequence that is repeated throughout the day. The above rest techniques will help you to be more rested during the day and able to sleep better at night.

The Importance of Dreams

Sleep and dream specialist Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., author of Healing Night and Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says, Good sleep can help us age very well. Naiman advocates not just looking at sleep as a necessary evil. Its not like flossing your teeth. Instead, says Naiman, We need to restore the sacred or spiritual side to sleep and to help increase dreaming.

Dreams are important because your dreams can help you deal with issues you cant face consciously. Sometimes, if youve been wrestling with a problem, the solution will come to you in a dream.

So start getting enough sleep and rest so youll feel rejuvenated, start dreaming more often, and making the next third of your life a long and healthy one.

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Five More Banks Fail In Last Week

Toll for year rises to 108 with latest failures

Five More Banks Fail In Last Week...



The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation had another busy week, stepping in to close five more banks that failed, bringing the toll for the year to 108.

Two banks in Florida, and one each in Washington, Oregon and Georgia closed their doors and were taken over by other financial institutions.

Bayside Savings Bank, Port Saint Joe, Florida and Coastal Community Bank, Panama City Beach, Florida, were closed by federal and state banking agencies, which then appointed FDIC as receiver for both institutions. To protect depositors, the FDIC entered into purchase and assumption agreements with Centennial Bank, Conway, Arkansas, to assume all the deposits and essentially all the assets of the two failed institutions.

Bayside Savings Bank was closed by the Office of Thrift Supervision, and Coastal Community Bank was closed by the Florida Office of Financial Regulation.

Collectively, the two failed institutions operated 13 branches. As of March 31, 2010, Bayside Savings Bank had total assets of $66.1 million and total deposits of $52.4 million. Coastal Community Bank had total assets of $372.9 million and total deposits of $363.2 million.

NorthWest Bank and Trust, Acworth, Georgia, was closed was closed by banking regulators, with its assets and deposits assumed by State Bank and Trust Company, Macon, Georgia. As of March 31, 2010, NorthWest Bank and Trust had approximately $167.7 million in total assets and $159.4 million in total deposits.

LibertyBank, Eugene, Oregon, has been taken over by Home Federal Bank, Nampa, Iowa, after it was closed by federal and state regulators Friday. As of March 31, 2010, LibertyBank had approximately $768.2 million in total assets and $718.5 million in total deposits.

The Cowlitz Bank, Longview, Washington, was closed by the Washington Department of Financial Institutions, which appointed FDIC as receiver. To protect the depositors, the FDIC entered into a purchase and assumption agreement with Heritage Bank, Olympia, Washington, to assume all of the deposits of The Cowlitz Bank.

As of March 31, 2010, The Cowlitz Bank had approximately $529.3 million in total assets and $513.9 million in total deposits.

FDIC covered customer deposits, up to $250,000, in all five banks. The cost to the insurance fund was more than $335 million, FDIC said.

Scam alert

Customers of the failed banks should be on the alert for scam artists who use the situation to their advantage. Bank depositors will not receive any email notifications or telephone calls from the banks or any government agency asking them to verify, confirm or "unlock" any of their personal information.

Banking customers should never give any personal information, especially account numbers, passwords and Social Security numbers, to anyone they do not know. Nor should consumers follow an email link to a Web site supposedly set up to verify accounts. If in doubt, consumers should personally visit their bank branch or call the FDIC numbers provided in this report.

Consumers can also find information about specific bank closings on the FDIC Web site.

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