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Victims of Bogus Debt Consolidation Program To Receive Refunds

Scammers failed to deliver on promises of 'drastic' reductions in debt

An administrator working for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is mailing checks to 360 consumers who were victims of Innovative Systems Technology doing...


An administrator working for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is mailing checks to 360 consumers who were victims of Innovative Systems Technology doing business as Briggs & Baker. The operation claimed it could "drastically" reduce consumers' debt by negotiating directly with creditors.

 

The FTC charged that Briggs & Baker's ads were false and misleading and that as a result of purchasing its debt negotiation services, consumers' credit ratings suffered, their total debt increased, and that some consumers even became the target of legal action.

Jami of Inglewood, CA, is among those who got clipped. "I contacted Briggs & Baker after I heard their radio ad on KNX 1070," she writes ConsumerAffairs.com. "I was approx $50,000 in debt and did not want to file for bankruptcy. This company stole around $4,000 from me to work with my creditors. They did absolutely nothing for me but ruin my credit even more. I almost lost my home. I did have to eventually file for bankruptcy."

Clobbered in California

The company has a history of legal problems in California.

In 2003, then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer filed a lawsuit charging, Briggs & Baker with violating state laws that prohibiting false and misleading advertising and unlawful, unfair or deceptive business practices.

"This firm and its ads preyed on consumers, who paid thousands of dollars to rid themselves of crushing debt," said Lockyer. "Instead, Briggs & Baker left its customers with more debt, ruined credit histories and sometimes no choice but to file for bankruptcy. And when those customers tried to get their money back, Briggs & Baker left them out in the cold."

The complaint asked the court to order Briggs & Baker to provide refunds to customers who paid for services they did not receive, and to permanently prohibit the firm from engaging in the deceptive practices.

As a result of the FTC settlement, Briggs & Baker customers will receive refund checks for $104.09. The checks can be cashed directly by their recipients. The FTC never requires the payment of money up-front, or the provision of additional information, before consumers cash refund checks issued to them.

Consumers who have questions or believe they were victims of Briggs & Baker, but who did not receive a refund check from the FTC may contact the fund administrator at 1-866-535-1622. Consumer may also visit our debt consolidation guide for additional information.

 

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Timeshare Resales Are Treacherous; Scams Abound

New breed of 'reseller' just takes the money and runs

Timeshare Resales Are Treacherous; Scams Abound...


While problems plaguing the housing market get all the headlines, owners of timeshares also have their problems. The market for timeshares has declined, along with the market for homes and condos.

In a number of states, officials have begun to crackdown on companies promising timeshare owners they can sell their property, but who charge a large fee upfront. In Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan is now warning timeshare owners in her state that scammers have moved into the space, collecting money but making no attempt to sell anything.

Madigan says the scam typically works like this: a timeshare owner gets a call out of the blue from someone claiming to be a timeshare reseller. They have a client who wants to buy their timeshare, are they interested?

In this market, getting an unsolicited call from someone wanting to buy your timeshare is cause for jumping up and down. It sounds too good to be true, and of course, it is.

If the owners rise to the bait, the scammer tells them they must pay a refundable security deposit or fee to ensure that the sale goes through, and instructs them to wire money to an out-of-state bank account.

Taking the money and running

As soon as the owners wire the money as directed, theyve fallen victim to the scam. In most cases, by the time the owners realizes theyve been defrauded, the con artists have closed out their bank account, disconnected their phones and disappeared.

Victims filing complaints with the Attorney Generals Office have reported wiring as much as $5,000 to the scammers, Madigan said.

In some versions of the scam, the con artists tell the owners theyve found potential renters for their timeshare. In others, a person posing as a prospective buyer makes the initial call and urges the timeshare owners to contact the fake reseller immediately to complete the sale. Also, in some instances, the owners are asked to charge the security deposit to their credit card rather than transferring the money by wire.

Many scammers briefly rent a P.O. Box or office suite as a business address, and in some cases create Web sites to trick consumers into believing they are legitimate.

Especially vulnerable

Seniors living on fixed incomes and persons suffering the effects of the economic downturn may be especially vulnerable to the scam, because they may view their seldom-used timeshares as a source of much-needed money. Madigan cautioned that consumers should never assume they will recoup their purchase price for their timeshare, especially if they have owned it for less than five years and the location is less than well-known.

If you are actively trying to sell a timeshare, here are some things to remember:

• Dont agree to anything on the phone or online until youve had a chance to check out the reseller. Contact the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org) and the state Attorney General (www.naag.org) in the state where the reseller is located. Ask if any complaints are on file.

• Ask the salesperson for all information in writing. Under Illinois law, a timeshare reseller must enter into a listing agreement with the owner signed by both the owner and the reseller that discloses certain specified information, including the resale agents contact information and the fees to be charged for the resale agents services.

• Check with the state Department of Professional and Financial Regulation to confirm that the reseller is registered as a real estate agent, as required by state law.

• Ask if the resellers agents are licensed to sell real estate where your 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 you get progress reports? How often?

• Ask about fees and timing. Its preferable to do business with a reseller that takes its fee after the timeshare is sold. If you must pay a fee in advance, that's a very bad sign.

Read more about Timeshares

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Advance Fee Scam Results In Lengthy Prison Terms

Victims lost life savings and homes in fraudulent scheme involving bogus Federal Reserve notes

Advance Fee Scam Results In Lengthy Prison Terms - Victims lost life savings and homes in fraudulent scheme involving bogus Federal Reserve notes...


Two New Yorkers have been sentenced to prison terms for their part in a fraudulent advance-fee scam involving a supposed $23 billion Federal Reserve note that spanned years and defrauded victims across the country of millions of dollars.

Robert Ingram was sentenced to 144 months in prison and Olivia Jeanne Bowen was senteced to 63 months. Ingram pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud on April 8, 2010, and Bowen pled guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud on April 13, 2010.

According to testimony in the case, beginning in at least 2005, Ingram held himself out as the director of an investment program that would enable investors to share in the proceeds of an alleged $23 billion "note" underwritten by the Federal Reserve.

Ingram and Bowen, who told victims that she was a "facilitator" for Ingram's investment program, induced victims to invest by promising them huge returns on their investments within a matter of weeks. Year after year, Ingram, Bowen and their co-conspirators persuaded victims to give them money from thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars by telling them that the money would be used to pay the final fees or expenses associated with gaining access to the proceeds of the alleged $23 billion note.

In reality, the note did not exist, and Ingram and Bowen used the victims money to spend lavishly on themselves and distributed the victims money to other co-conspirators.

For example, Ingram spent the victims money on cosmetic surgery, stays at luxury hotels, and extravagant purchases at retailers such as Christian Dior, among other things. As a result of the fraud committed by Ingram, Bowen, and their co-conspirators, some victims lost their life savings and their homes.

In addition to the prison terms, Judge Leonard B. Sand also sentenced the defendants each to a term of three years of supervised release. He also entered Preliminary Orders of Forfeiture against Bowen in the amount of $12 million, and against Ingram in the amount of $7 million.

During the sentencing proceeding, Judge Sand stated that Ingram and Bowen committed a "vicious crime" that "was carefully thought out" and caused "absolute devastation" to "so many victims."

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Court Shuts Down Huge Internet Fraud 'Cramming' Operation

Inc21 placed bogus charges on the telephone bills of thousands of consumers

Court Shuts Down Huge Internet Fraud 'Cramming' Operation...

A federal court has permanently shut down the illegal operations of Inc21, a firm that placed bogus charges on the telephone bills of thousands of small businesses and consumers for Internet-related services they never agreed to buy.

The court, at the request of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has barred the defendants from charging consumers' telephone bills and prohibits them from telemarketing unless they get prior approval from the FTC and the court.

It also ordered third parties through which charges were placed -- including local exchange telephone companies, or LECs -- to return money in escrow to consumers, and ordered the defendants to pay nearly $38 million in restitution for consumers.

Offshore operators

In January 2010 the FTC sued Inc21, charging that the company hired offshore telemarketers to call prospective clients to sell its Web-based services. The defendants then used LECs to place charges -- usually between $12.95 and $39.95 per month -- for those services on the phone bills of consumers and businesses that either:

• were told by telemarketers that the call was only to verify business information;

• declined Inc21's offer of Internet services; or

• were told they would receive a free trial offer, but were not informed that they would be charged if they did not cancel.

The FTC charged that the defendants violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR).

'Overwhelming evidence'

In his opinion, Judge William Alsup agreed and granted the FTC's motion for summary judgment.

"The FTC has produced overwhelming evidence that defendants' practice of billing tens of thousands of businesses and consumers via their telephone bills -- a fraud-friendly practice called 'LEC billing' -- was both deceptive and unfair," the judge's opinion states. "The most compelling proof of these violations is a comprehensive expert survey of 1,087 of defendant'' so-called 'customers.' This survey revealed that nearly 97 percent of defendants' 'customers' had not agreed to purchase defendants' products. Even more egregious, only five percent of them were even aware that they had been billed.

"Indeed, over a five-year span from 2004 through 2009, defendants successfully extracted over $37 million in unauthorized payments from the telephone bills of unsuspecting businesses and consumers,' the judge wrote.

"As for defendants' telemarketing activities, the FTC's evidence is equally compelling. Taken together, the FTC has easily met its burden of demonstrating that the TSR has been violated," Judge Alsup's order states.

"In short, the record contains mountains of undisputed evidence showing fraud at every step of defendants' telemarketing process," Judge Alsup wrote.

Inc21.Com Corporation; Jumpage Solutions, Inc.; GST U.S.A., Inc.; Roy Yu Lin and John Yu Lin were the defendants named in this matter. Sheng Lin, who did not participate in the scheme, but who profited from it, was named as a relief defendant and ordered to give up $434,000 in financial benefits he received from the defendants' unlawful practices.

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'Pillow Pets' Were Counterfeit, Delaware Charges

Undercover investigation leads to arrest, indictment of local merchant

'Pillow Pets' Were Counterfeit, Delaware Charges - Undercover investigation leads to arrest, indictment of local merchant...


Delaware officials say they have broken up a network selling counterfeit children's toys, including the popular "Pillow Pets."

Especially when it comes to our kids, consumers have the right to purchase legitimate and safe products, said Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden. Counterfeiting is against the law, and since the manufacture and distribution of these goods bypasses regulatory controls, they are potentially dangerous.

As the result of a month-long investigation, on August 12, 2010, investigators from the Attorney Generals Consumer Protection Unit, in conjunction with Dover Police, Delaware State Police, and Cherry Hill Township (NJ) Police, executed search warrants of kiosks selling counterfeit Pillow Pets at the Dover Mall, the Christiana Mall, as well as the Cherry Hill, NJ residence of the merchant, Mehmet Ozturk.

The warrants were obtained following a series of undercover buys of counterfeit product sold at kiosks in the Dover and Christiana Malls. The proactive investigation began after the Department of Justice learned that many of the alleged Pillow Pets purchased at Christiana Mall did not match the genuine advertised product.

Following the August 12 raids, investigators arrested Mehmet Ozturk, age 36, and charged him with trademark counterfeiting and theft. On September 27, 2010, the New Castle County Grand Jury indicted Ozturk on one count of Felony trademark counterfeiting, two counts of Misdemeanor trademark counterfeiting, and two counts of Misdemeanor theft.

Consumers who believe that they may have purchased counterfeit Pillow Pets at Dover Mall or Christiana Mall are urged to contact the Delaware Attorney Generals Consumer Hotline at (800) 220-5424. Consumers seeking refunds for these purchases should complete a Consumer Complaint form, available through the Consumer Hotline or online at www.attorneygeneral.delaware.gov.

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Mini Cooper Power Steering May Fail, Feds Say

Safety regulators open investigation into reported failures in popular BMW model

The NHTSA has opened an investigation after receiving 54 complaints from owners of 2004 and 2005 Minis about unexpected loss of power steering....

By Truman Lewis
ConsumerAffairs.com


Federal safety regulators say the power steering mail fail in some Mini Coopers, possibly causing a crash.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened an investigation after receiving 54 complaints from owners of 2004 and 2005 Minis about unexpected loss of power steering. About 80,000 vehicles are covered by the probe.

In July, NHTSA opened an investigation into the BMW Z4's power steering following 107 complaints and one crash involving vehicles from the 2003 to 2005 model years.

ConsumerAffairs.com has received more than 965 complaints from Mini Cooper owners, including more than 60 involving the power steering, although most of them list the power steering problems as only one of a lengthy litany of woes.

"Just a few days ago, the power steering began working only intermittently. Looking on different forums on the internet, Minis have these issues over and over and I am beyond the warranty. I have a 1960 Karmann Ghia that is more reliable than this car. I won't ever buy another Mini again," said MK of Visalia, Calif.

"Took in for new brakes ($2000 to replace calipers & rotors) and now told power steering will cost at least $1000 and they're not even sure what's causing the problem," said Kathy of Nanuet, N.Y.

Some Mini owners, like Michael of Klamath Falls, Ore., have reported fires in connection with power steering problems: "Parked to have dinner with mother-in-law at retirement home, next thing I hear is someone calling out, does anyone own a yellow Mini Cooper, it's on fire."

"Googled Mini Cooper engine fire, and sure enough many Mini Coopers with a power steering problem have experienced this," said Michael, whose Mini was a 2005 model.

BMW spokesman Tom Kowaleski said the company will cooperate with the investigation.

Read more about Mini Cooper problems.

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Jet Blue To Add Wi-Fi Service

Entire fleet to offer in-flight Internet access

Airline flights that will offer passengers Internet access is growing. JetBlue recently announced it would begin offering Wi-Fi services using ViaSat's sat...


The number of airline flights that will offer passengers Internet access is growing. JetBlue recently announced it would begin offering Wi-Fi services using ViaSat's satellite technology.

"This system will be designed for the 21st century, not just for today's personal connectivity needs, but with the bandwidth to expand to meet tomorrow's needs as well," said Dave Barger, JetBlue's Chief Executive Officer.

"In just the three years since we launched BetaBlue, the first commercial aircraft with simple messaging capability, technology has advanced by generations. Rather than invest in current technology, designed to transmit broadcast video and audio, we elected to partner with ViaSat to create broadband functionality worthy of today's interactive personal technology needs."

JetBlue pioneered the use of television in the cabin, Barger said. The airline, since its launch, has provided video screens at each seat, allowing passengers to choose from dozens of cable TV channels during flights.

ViaSat and JetBlue saiid they have entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for the provision of in-flight broadband access and other services for customers on JetBlue's fleet of more than 160 aircraft using ViaSat Ka-band satellites.

Under the arrangement, ViaSat will provide Ka-band antenna components and SurfBeam2 modems for installation on the airline's EMBRAER E190 and Airbus A320 aircraft types along with two-way transmission bandwidth services using the WildBlue-1 and high-capacity ViaSat-1 satellites. JetBlue subsidiary, LiveTV LLC, will manage the integration of the ViaSat broadband and related components onboard the aircraft as well as providing the Wi-Fi enabled services into the overall cabin experience.

LiveTV, a wholly owned subsidiary of JetBlue, will install and lead the certification process of the new system. Because the product will be the first of its kind for commercial aviation, the system must be tested, and certificated by the Federal Aviation Administration, prior to installation fleet-wide. JetBlue and ViaSat expect the first installations to occur by mid-2012.

"Combining LiveTV's expertise in entertainment and content management with ViaSat's satellite technology means we can create products and services for airline customers that are unparalleled in the industry today," said Glenn Latta, LiveTV's President.

Passengers will have to pay for the services, of course, though JetBlue has not yet announced a price structure. New York Times travel columnist Joe Sharkey says it remains to be seen if consumers will pay for something in the air they often can get for free on the ground. The cost of Wi-Fi access can be more than $12 on a long flight.

But ConsumerAffairs.com's Truman Lewis, who commutes frequently between Los Angeles and Washington on Virgin America, which has offered Wi-Fi access throughout its fleet for about two years, said he can't imagine traveling without Wi-Fi.

"Of course you have to pay for it, why wouldn't you?" Lewis said. "It's about $12 if you buy a day pass or around $30 per month on a regular subscription. Anyone who travels regularly for business will tell you that having email and Web access in flight is a lot more essential than movies, leather seats or fresh food."

"I'm not sure where Sharkey finds free Web access on the ground," Lewis said. "Unless he's poaching it from his neighbor."

Read more about JetBlue.



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Justice Scalia Stays Big Tobacco Class Action Ruling

His opinion hints at big changes to come for consumer class actions

Justice Scalia Stays Big Tobacco Class Action Ruling...


Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in his role as circuit justice for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, has stayed a $270 million tobacco verdict for Louisiana smokers, ruling that the lower court likely erred in failing to require that the plaintiffs show reliance on the tobacco companies advertisements.

A bit of context: each Supreme Court justice also serves as a circuit justice for at least one appellate court, a role that often presents the question of whether a stay should be granted so that the full court can hear an appeal.

The case involves a suit that was brought as a class action on behalf of all Louisiana smokers, accusing several tobacco manufacturers of misleading the public about the addictive effects of nicotine. A Louisiana state court eventually gave the plaintiffs a verdict for a whopping $241 million, plus around $30 million of accumulated interest. The money was to be paid into an account set up to fund smoking cessation programs.

The defendant companies eventually petitioned for a stay pending a writ of certiorari to federal court, which is apparently in the works. Scalia, conceding that the companies bore a heavy burden in showing that such a stay is necessary, nevertheless found that the companies had met that burden.

No reliance, Scalia says

In his opinion, Scalia wrote that, while the tobacco companies had potentially been subjected to many violations of due process, one especially stuck in his craw: in Louisiana, Scalia wrote, a fraud case requires the plaintiff to prove that the plaintiff detrimentally relied on the defendants misrepresentations.

But, according to Scalia, the Louisiana court held that this element need not be proved since the defendants are guilty of a distortion of the entire body of public knowledge regarding tobacco, which the class on a whole relied on.

Consequently, Scalia continued, the [Louisiana] court eliminated any need for plaintiffs to prove, and denied any opportunity for applicants to contest, thatany particular plaintiff who benefits from the judgment (much less all of them) believed applicants distortions and continued to smoke as a result.

Future of class actions

Scalias ruling is certainly a victory for the defendant companies, which previously tried unsuccessfully to get the ruling thrown out by a state court. But his opinion is more noteworthy for its sweeping language regarding class actions in general -- and what it could mean for their future.

The extent to which class treatment may constitutionally reduce the normative requirements of due process is an important question, Scalia wrote, adding that the issue is reflective of what he says is national concern of the abuse of the class action device.

The alleged due process violations to which Scalia refers include the inability to cross-examine every member of the class to ensure that they relied on the defendants advertisements, inaccurate estimations of the classs size, and constant revision of the plaintiffs claim during the course of litigation.

These concerns, along with Scalias prediction that it is significantly possible that the award will be reversed, suggests that the Supreme Court is looking to make sweeping changes in class action law. And a decision making class actions harder to bring would be in line with the courts recent corporate-friendly trend.

That trend came to a head earlier this year, when, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court ruled that corporations must be allowed to use general treasury funds to support political candidates, a major shift likely to change the nature of political advertising. That case, which essentially embraced the theory of corporate personhood -- that corporations are subject to the same rights as individual people -- offers a glimpse into class actions under the Roberts court. Its not likely to be pretty for consumers.



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Online Pet Medications Can Be Dangerous, FDA Advises

Using prescription drugs without a physical examination can endanger pets' lives

Online Pet Medications Can Be Dangerous, FDA Advises...

 

 

 

Consumers lured by online ads that promise deep discounts on pet medications -- without a prescription -- could be endangering the lives of their dogs and cats, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned today.

The federal agency said it has discovered some companies selling unapproved pet medications, outdated drugs, and counterfeit products for dogs and cats on the Internet. Other unscrupulous online businesses often make fraudulent claims about their pet medications or dispense prescription drugs without written orders from a veterinarian.

Some foreign Internet pharmacies are even advertising veterinary prescription drugs to U.S. pet owners without a prescription, the FDA warned.

Those medications, however, could be extremely dangerous to pets.

"There is a risk of the drugs not being FDA-approved, said Martine Hartogensis, D.V.M., deputy director of the Office of Surveillance and Compliance in FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM). That agency regulates the manufacturing and distribution of animal drugs.

Many foreign and domestic pharmacies also claim one of their vets will "evaluate" a pet by reviewing a form filled out by the owner. After the so-called review, the online vet will then prescribe the medication.

Dr. Hartogensis cautioned pet owners not to fall for that ruse.

A veterinarian should physically examine an animal prior to making a diagnosis to determine the appropriate therapy," Dr. Hartogensis said.

The CVM said its particularly worried about pet owners using the Internet to buy two types of veterinary drugs: nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and heartworm preventives.

"Both drugs can be dangerous if there is no professional involvement," Dr. Hartogensis said. "It's not generally a concern if the owner uses a legitimate online pharmacy and mails in a prescription from their veterinarian, who is monitoring the animal. But if there is no veterinarianclientpatient relationship, it's a dangerous practice."

The CVM cited four reasons why pet owners should not buy NSAIDs -- medications used to relieve pain in dogs -- without consulting a veterinarian:

• Dogs should undergo blood testing and a thorough physical examination before starting NSAIDs;

• Dogs should be monitored by a veterinarian while they are taking NSAIDs; * Veterinarians should discuss possible side effects of NSAIDs with the owner;

• The prescription should be accompanied by a Client Information Sheet that explains important safety information to the owner.

The CVM also warned pet owners to be wary of buying medications to prevent and treat heartworms online.

Heartworm disease is a potentially fatal condition transmitted by mosquitoes that carry the infected larvae of the heartworm parasite, the CVM said.

Dogs should be tested annually to make sure they're not infected with heartworms, the agency said.

"Testing is important even in dogs regularly treated with heartworm preventive products due to the occasional reports of product ineffectiveness," Dr. Hartogensis said.

But an Internet pharmacy veterinarian cannot draw blood from the animal to perform the test. And if the test isnt done, a pet owner could give heartworm preventives to a dog that has the parasitic worms action the CVM said could lead to severe reactions.

What to do

While there are many unscrupulous companies dispensing pet medications online, there are also some legitimate Internet pharmacies.

How can pet owners tell the difference? The CVM offers the following advice to consumers who want to purchase their pets medications online:

• Order from Vet-VIPPS accredited online pharmacies: The Veterinary-Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (Vet-VIPPS) is a voluntary accreditation program of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). That organization gives the Vet-VIPPS seal to online pharmacies that dispense prescription animal drugs and comply with NABP's policies, which include federal and state licensing and inspection requirements, protecting patient confidentiality, quality assurance, and validity of prescription orders. This is a new program -- launched in 2009 -- and only a small number of pharmacies are Vet-VIPPS accredited;

• Ask your vet to recommend an Internet pharmacy service: There are state-licensed Internet pharmacy services that work directly with veterinarians. They require that a prescription be written by the veterinarian and also support the veterinarian-client-patient relationship;

• What out for red flags: Beware of any Web sites that do not require veterinary prescriptions for drug orders. Other warning signs include Websites that do not have a licensed pharmacist available to answer questions; do not list a physical business address, phone number, or other contact information; are not based in the United States; are not licensed by the State Board of Pharmacy where the business is located; do not protect consumers personal information; advertise prices that are drastically lower than other Web sites or a vets office, or ship medications consumers didnt order or that look different than the ones pets normally take.

Pet owners can report any suspicious online pharmacies to the companies that make the drugs, the FDA said. Pet owners should also report any adverse reactions their animals have to medications purchased online to the CVM. They can also call the agency at 1-888-FDA-VETS.

 

 



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Online Auction PennyBiddr Agrees to Refunds to Settle Washington State Charges

Auctions online often use 'cheap tricks to cheat consumers,' state warns

Online Auction PennyBiddr Agrees to Refunds to Settle Washington State Charges...


Penny auction sites lure consumers with cheap prices on brand-name electronics, designer handbags and discounted store gift cards. But an investigation by the Washington Attorney Generals Office shows how some of these sites can fool consumers into paying big bucks on an auction with no winner. These sites use shill bids to drive up prices by one unlucky penny at a time.

The owner of PennyBiddr, based in Federal Way, Wash., agreed to shut down the site and refund consumers nationwide as part of a settlement announced today by Attorney General Rob McKenna and Assistant Attorney General Jake Bernstein. Documents filed by the state in King County Superior Court accuse the company of using phony bids to artificially increase prices and sometimes make it impossible for consumers who had already spent money to win an auction.

Heres my two cents on penny auctions, Bernstein said. Theyre essentially a form of entertainment in which you to pay to play. In a legal auction, a consumer may be able to buy an expensive item for an incredibly low price. But if you dont know how these auctions work or you find it difficult to stick to a spending limit, you can easily be suckered out of lots of money. Worse, some site owners collude with friends or even use an illegal software code to place bogus bids.

Bernstein said the Attorney Generals Consumer Protection High-Tech Unit began investigating PennyBiddr after receiving a referral from the Federal Trade Commission. The company was launched by LionHeart Mint, LLC, owner Kanwal Preet Singh, a.k.a. Laly Singh, in November 2009. Singh, who complied with the states investigation, recently shut down the site.

In a traditional Internet auction such as eBay, a bidder decides what item they want and how much theyre willing to pay for it. If no one bids higher, they win the item. Consumers who lose the auction pay nothing.

In a penny auction, a consumer pays to bid. The price varies; bids cost $1 each on PennyBiddr. All auctions are time-limited, usually starting with several days. But as the time ticks down to a few minutes or seconds, each bid extends the auction by a few more seconds and increases the product purchase price by a cent. In this fashion, continued bidding prevents an auction from concluding until no more bids are placed. When the auction closes, the individual who placed the last bid must pay the final price of the item, plus shipping and handling. Thats on top of whatever was spent on bids. For every winner, there are also losers who are out whatever they spent on bids.

Some sites including PennyBiddr use shill bids, which Bernstein said are illegal. These bids are placed automatically by a software program or people may be hired to manually place bids. Each fake bid inflates the price and extends the auction time and the number of bids required to win an item. Moreover, the program used by PennyBiddr would allow an auto-bid to win an auction, in which case nobody received the item and the company simply pocked the money spent by real bidders. Bernstein said the software program used by PennyBiddr was created in the United Kingdom.

The states settlement doesnt require any finding of wrongdoing or admission of guilt. As part of the agreement, Singh will refund every consumer who paid for a bid on PennyBiddr. The Attorney Generals Office estimates about 85 consumers are owed money. Refunds will be made through PayPal and are expected to total more than $7,700.

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Wine Vending Machine Near College Draws Alcohol Abuse Complaints

Critics' motives may not be 100 proof, though

Wine Vending Machine Near College Draws Alcohol Abuse Complaints...


The presence of soft drink vending machines in schools has become an issue in efforts to curb childhood obesity. But a different kind of beverage machine has sparked debate at the University of Pennsylvania.

It all began when a vending machine that dispenses wine was placed in a supermarket that serves the University of Pennsylvania campus. With underage and binge drinking still a major problem on many college campuses, the wine machine has drawn fire.

But the opposition is coming from an unexpected source. David Wanamaker, President, and Michael Dusak, Vice-President of the Pennsylvania Independent State Store Union, have fired off a letter to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, denouncing the decision.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board placement of a wine vending machine in a supermarket servicing the University of Pennsylvania campus only underscores the hypocrisy of the PLCB's underage drinking prevention program, the letter states.

The union chided the PLCB, asking whether it intends to extend the amenity to every college campus in Pennsylvania. The union, of course, represents the people who sell wine, beer and liquor in liquor stores, rather than machines.

Safety issue

The union claims the PLCB is too closely aligned with the liquor industry. Noting the dangers of underage drinking on campus, the letter asks are we to assume the alcohol beverage industry represented by the PLCB will make the campus safer with the addition of a wine vending machine?

The day before Fresh Grocer received a permit to obtain a wine vending machine, the PLCB issued a press release touting the nearly $1 million in grant money it awarded to local communities and college/university campuses to fight underage and dangerous drinking among Pennsylvania's youth, the letter concludes. The placement of a wine vending machine at the University of Penn's Fresh Grocer makes a cynical joke of the PLCB/industry hypocritical alcohol education/prevention programs.

With more grocery stores offering automated checkout, alcoholic beverage vending machines might not be an unexpected development. To use the machine customers must insert their driver's license. Their identity is then verified with cameras.

If their identity checks out, customers must also breath into a breathalyzer to make sure they aren't already impaired. Unless they pass these tests, the sale is cancelled.

The machines were tested in Pennsylvania earlier this year and the state says it plans to allow installation of as many as 100 units across the state.



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What's Better -- Online Bill or Paper Copy?

Tips on when to use online billing and when to stick with paper

What's Better -- Online Bills or Paper Copies? Tips on when to use online billing and when to stick with paper...


Going paperless can save trees and save you money -- but it's not for everyone or every situation.

More companies are giving customers the option of receiving bills, notices, and other paperwork electronically, as well as making payments over the Internet. There are several factors to consider before trading hard copies for electronic ones.

The September issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser offers tips on the potential advantages for consumers to go paperless and when to stick to paper.

"You might want hard copies of certain documents like your tax returns, as well as electronic ones," said Noreen Perrotta, Editor, Consumer Reports Money Adviser. "In other cases you might not have a choice. Electronic statements are a requirement if you want a high-interest checking account, and some companies now make annual reports and proxy materials available online automatically, requiring shareholders who want paper copies instead to request them."

Benefits of going paperless

• Cost savings. Paying bills online eliminates the cost of postage. You often can direct a company to take the payment from your bank account the day it's due, maximizing the time your money is earning interest. Also, some companies have started charging for paper bills. ECG Long Distance charges. Other businesses offer incentives for you to go paperless. Citizens Bank and Charter One pay account holders ten cents every time they conduct certain transactions electronically, including using their debit cards and paying bills online.

• Reduced clutter. All those paper bills, notices, and statements tend to pile up, and they need to be stored somewhere. Eventually you'll have to shred many of them before you discard them. Electronic versions don't take up any space-except on your computer hard drive.

• Convenience. You might be able to search and sort electronic bills and statements or import the data into financial programs, such as spreadsheet applications, for analysis. Bank statements often contain interactive features that let you find out more about a charge and reconcile your checkbook. And electronic documents are portable. If you need to, you can keep years of records in a laptop or on a thumb drive.

Stick to paper?

Consider sticking with paper if:

• Your computer isn't secure. Having all your documents in one place is convenient, but they're an easy target if a hacker or an unauthorized user in your home gets access to your machine. And electronic records aren't for you if you don't keep your security software up-to-date or use a log-in password

• You can't manage electronic copies. Some bills and other electronic communications arrive directly in your e-mail inbox. For others, you'll receive a notice that the document is ready to be viewed and downloaded. You'll have to log into your account on the company's Website to get it. If either seems like too much trouble, perhaps you need the arrival of an actual envelope to get you motivated to look at whatever's being sent.

• It has to be in hard copy. Even if your credit-card issuer lets you initiate a challenge to an unauthorized charge by phone or through its Website, you must mail a letter about your dispute to the address your issuer provides. Otherwise you'll lose your rights under federal law.

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Black Leaders Question Crackdown On For-Profit Colleges

Student aid limits called 'elitist, if not racist'

Black Leaders Question Crackdown OnFor-Profit Colleges...


A recent report showing many students at for-profit colleges aren't repaying their school loans has prompted the federal government to propose new oversight for these enterprises.

 

The U.S. Department of Education has proposed rules that would make these for-profit colleges and universities ineligible for government-backed student loans if fewer than 35 percent of students and former students are paying their loans. Schools would also be denied access to federal funds if graduates are spending more than 12 percent of their income to pay back student loans.

But the proposal is getting serious pushback from civil rights groups who say the rule would limit access to career colleges for many minorities.

Among those voicing concerns about the regulations are Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Founder/CEO of Rainbow PUSH Coalition; Willie Gary, one the nation's leading trial lawyers; Harry Alford, President and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce; Randal Pinkett, Chairman and CEO of BCT Partners; and 12 of the 39 voting members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Devastating impact

"There are widespread concerns that this regulation will have a devastating impact in African-American communities, where black unemployment is nearly twice as high as whites," said Milton Anderson, President of Virginia College's branch in Jackson, Mississippi. "Schools, such as Virginia College, do an outstanding job teaching skills that are needed for promotions and new jobs. The government should not close the door to opportunities for people willing to learn additional skills and training that will help them better provide for themselves and their families."

Anderson, who is a spokesman for the Coalition for Education Success, noted that 43 percent of the enrollment at career schools, or 1.2 million students, are minorities.

The so-called "Gainful Employment" rule would make entire programs ineligible for federal loans and grants if they fail to meet a broad new standard that black leaders say has little to do with academic quality. The proposal would require all programs offered at career colleges and trade schools to meet a specific definition in order to qualify for federal student financial aid.

It would base eligibility on the ratio of student debt to potential student income following graduation. It does not take into account that most students benefit from the long-term benefits of their careers and not just the immediate increase in income.

In a September 15 letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Jackson wrote that the Department's approach will hinder the access of minority students to higher education and make it even more difficult to realize President Obama's goal of leading the world in the percentage of college graduates by 2020.

"I am concerned that the proposed rule casts too broad and too general a brush on many institutions, some of whom are doing an excellent job at serving economically disadvantaged and minority students," Jackson wrote. "For many of these historically under served students, educational options must be more accessible than those that typically are offered by traditional higher education institutions if they are to be meaningful."

Elitist and racist

Gary says it is "extremely disappointing" that the Education Department seeks to implement this policy.

"The Education Department has proposed rules that will harm all the schools, and all the students who may want to attend these institutions," Gary said. "This is bad public policy. Clearly, the Education Department's approach is elitist, if not outright racist."

Gary asked why the restrictive regulations have not been proposed for the nation's leading liberal arts colleges and universities or even at state colleges where students with the similar socioeconomic backgrounds have similar default rates on their student loans.

"Instead, the proposed regulations are aimed at institutions whose graduates don't often become CEOs, doctors and lawyers," Gary said. "Career schools produce nurses, auto mechanics, computer technicians and other skilled workers, whose services are often overlooked and devalued in our society."

Read more about Education.

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Foreign Object in Cat Food Was a Paper Clip

Petcurean 'can't conceive' how the paper clip got into the can of cat food

Tests by a Canadian pet food maker revealed the piece of metal a New Jersey woman recently found in her cats' food was part of a paper clip....


Tests by a Canadian pet food maker revealed the piece of metal a New Jersey woman recently found in her cats' food was part of a paper clip.

But how that quarter-inch piece of metal ended up in a bag of Petcurean Go! Natural dry trout food remains somewhat of a mystery.

We dont have paperclips anywhere in our plant, Michele Dixon, spokeswoman for Petcurean told ConsumerAffairs.com. There is controlled access into our plant and if there had been any metal in the bags, it would have been picked up when we screened them.

photo

Pet owner Leslie K. of Tabernacle, New Jersey, discovered the metal piece in late August when she accidentally knocked over the bag of food.

When I saw the piece of metal it scared me, she told us. I grabbed the piece of metal as my two cats were eating the food on the floor.

Despite fears for her cats safety, Leslie says the way Petcurean handled her concerns renewed her confidence in the company and its products.

I received an immediate apology, she said. I didnt get the standard automatic response that many pet food makers give customers, like weve never had a complaint like before, or you did this, or that piece of metal must have been on the floor. They took my concerns seriously and said they wanted to do something right away.

Petcurean said it immediately launched an internal investigation and identified the metal piece as part of a paperclip.

But how it got in there (the bag of cat food) is something we cant conceive, Dixon said. If it had been through one of the grinders, it would have been ground up. But it wasnt.

We even took a paperclip and put it into a bag of food, she added. And then we ran the bag through our detectors and it set off every one of them. So were confident it didnt come from the plant.

What about possible post-production sources?

Dixon didnt want to speculate. This could have happened post production, she said. But at what level, who knows. For now, the company is confident this was an isolated incident.

This lot of cat food (Go! Natural Grain Free Trout Formula, Best by date Dec 16 10, 91016 2B42258, UPC 15260 00040) successfully passed our four critical control points, Dixon said. But were going to keep all this information on file. We take our customers concerns seriously and were always open with them about what we discover.

Leslie appreciates that transparency and remains a loyal Petcurean customer.

They are satisfied that this can't happen again and so am I, she said, adding the company is also covering the cost of one of her cats X-rays. I dont know what else they could look for.

Other pet food companies should take notes on how Petcurean handled this situation, she said.

I hope they will learn a lesson from Petcureans customer service and maybe we have had no other complaints and you must have done something to it wont be the standard answers anymore.



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China Airlines Pleads Guilty to Price Fixing

Airline will pay $40 million criminal fine for illegally boosting cargo rates

China Airlines Pleads Guilty to Price Fixing...


China Airlines Ltd. has agreed to plead guilty and to pay a $40 million criminal fine for its role in a conspiracy to fix prices in the air transportation industry, the Department of Justice announced.

According to a one-count felony charge filed today in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Taiwan-based China Airlines engaged in a conspiracy to fix the cargo rates charged to customers for international air cargo shipments to and from the United States from at least as early as January 2001, until at least Feb. 14, 2006.

The department said that China Airlines joined an ongoing conspiracy among cargo carriers that began at least as early as Jan.1, 2000. Under the plea agreement, which is subject to court approval, China Airlines has agreed to cooperate with the departments ongoing antitrust investigation.

Air cargo carriers transport a variety of cargo shipments, such as heavy equipment, perishable commodities, and consumer goods, on scheduled international flights.

According to the charge, China Airlines carried out the conspiracy by agreeing during meetings and other communications on certain components of the cargo rates to be charged for shipments on certain routes to and from the United States and by levying cargo rates in accordance with the agreements reached. As part of the conspiracy, China Airlines monitored and enforced adherence to the agreed-upon cargo rates.

China Airlines is charged with price fixing in violation of the Sherman Act, which carries a maximum fine of $100 million for corporations. The maximum fine may be increased to twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss suffered by the victims of the crime, if either of those amounts is greater than the statutory maximum fine.

Including the current charge, as a result of this investigation, a total of 18 airlines and eight executives have been charged in the Justice Departments ongoing investigation into price fixing in the air transportation industry. To date, more than $1.6 billion in criminal fines have been imposed and four executives have been sentenced to serve prison time. Charges are pending against the remaining four executives.

The airlines that have pleaded guilty, or have agreed to plead guilty, as a result of the departments ongoing investigation into the air transportation industry are: British Airways Plc, Korean Air Lines Co. Ltd., Qantas Airways Limited, Japan Airlines International Co. Ltd., Martinair Holland N.V., Cathay Pacific Airways Limited, SAS Cargo Group A/S, Socit Air France, Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij N.V. (KLM Royal Dutch Airlines), EL AL Israel Airlines Ltd., LAN Cargo S.A., Aerolinhas Brasileiras S.A., Cargolux Airlines International S.A., Nippon Cargo Airlines Co. Ltd., Northwest Airlines LLC, and Asiana Airlines Inc.

Additionally, on Sept. 2, 2010, Polar Air Cargo LLC was charged in this investigation and is scheduled to enter a guilty plea and be sentenced on Oct. 15, 2010.

Read more about China Airlines.



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Hearing Aid Dealer Settles Pennsylvania Consumer Complaints

Microtone accused of unfair, deceptive business practices

Hearing Aid Dealer Settles Pennsylvania Consumer Complaints...

A Pennsylvania hearing aid business has agreed to pay $48,000 to reseolve consumer complaints about unfair and deceptive business practices.

Attorney General Tom Corbett Corbett said that the settlement, known as an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance (AVC), was reached with Russell Hollinger, the owner and operator of Microtone Hearing Instruments, which operated throughout Pennsylvania, and was based in Williamsport.

According to the agreement, Microtone will pay $47,900, including more than $26,000 for restitution. Microtone will also notify customers that they can contact the Attorney Generals office if they feel that their rights have been violated.

The agreement also provides a 60-day open restitution period for consumers who have concerns about their business with Microtone. Online complaint forms are available in the Complaints section of the Attorney Generals website, www.attorneygeneral.gov.

The Attorney Generals Health Care Sections investigation revealed that Microtones sales and financing paperwork did not meet the standards required by Pennsylvania consumer protection law.

Corbett said that specific concerns included:

• Selling hearing aids without obtaining a required medical referral or properly executed waivers

• Failing to provide consumer refunds within 30 days of returns

• Selling hearing aids without fully completing the receipt

• Not registering all fictitious business names, which could potentially confuse consumers.

 

 

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California Realtor Charged With Scamming Elderly Homeowners, Lenders

Century 21 agent allegedly chiseled seniors, banks out of more than $10 million

California Realtor Charged With Scamming Elderly Homeowners, Lenders...


A Modesto, Calif., real estate agent and his roommate have been charged with 49 counts each of mail fraud and one case of bank fraud in an alleged scheme to defraud elderly homeowners and lenders.

United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner and Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager said that a federal grand jury returned indictments against James Lee Lankford, 71, and Jon Vance McDade, 46, also of Modesto.

The indictment alleges that Jim Lankford, who is the owner/broker of Century 21-Apollo Realty in Modesto, and Jon Vance McDade, who is Lankford's roommate, devised a scheme to defraud elderly property owners and lending institutions out of money and property.

Specifically, the indictment alleges that Lankford and McDade would find elderly property owners who wanted to sell their property with no listing agent. Lankford and McDade would then induce the elderly property owner to sell their home to one of them and enter into a "straight note" contract for a portion of the purchase price, under which the defendant would make interest-only payments to the seller for five to 10 years, with the principal amount owed to the seller at the end of that period.

The defendants then obtained conventional financing to purchase the same properties in the form of a mortgage from a lending institution, but did not disclose to the lending institution the seller-backed financing. The indictment alleges that the defendants would divert the proceeds of the mortgage loan to themselves, and would lull the elderly property owners by mailing them monthly interest-only payments.

The indictment also alleges that Lankford and McDade made material misrepresentations on the loan applications, and in some instances, submitted falsified documents regarding monthly income to the lending institutions. The defendants allegedly caused fraudulent loan applications to be submitted to Countrywide, World Savings Bank, GreenPoint, Wachovia, Seaforth Mortgage, Aegis, Sierra Pacific, and Alliance Bancorp.

The indictment alleges that in many instances Lankford and McDade subsequently sought to refinance the property with another lending institution to draw out any remaining equity in the property. In connection with refinancing transactions, Lankford allegedly deceived some of the elderly property owners into signing documents indicating that they had been paid in full.

Many of the properties were later allowed to go into foreclosure, or were sold in short sales through Lankford's real estate business. The indictment alleges that the defendants' conduct caused losses to the victim elderly property owners, lending institutions, and banks of at least $10 million.

The indictment also charges Jon Vance McDade with one count of bank fraud for submitting a loan application for the refinancing of property in Modesto that contained false salary information and false representations regarding his assets and debts. According to the indictment, this bank fraud caused a loss of approximately $580,000 to Wachovia/Wells Fargo Bank.

The maximum statutory penalty for each count of mail fraud is 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and up to three years supervised release following incarceration. The maximum statutory penalty for bank fraud is 30 years in prison, a $1 million fine, and up to five years supervised release following incarceration. The actual sentence, however, will be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables.

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Illinois Demands Answers About Home Foreclosures From GMAC Mortgage

Breach of foreclosure procedure may have violated state's Consumer Fraud Act

Illinois Demands Answers About Home Foreclosures From GMAC Mortgage...


When GMAC Mortgage suspended foreclosures in 23 states over questions of legality of the process, it gave hope to thousands of homeowners struggling to hang on. It's also attracted the attention of officials in states hard hit by the foreclosure crisis.

In sworn deposition, an executive of Ally Financial, which now owns GMAC Mortgage, admitted that he did not always sign or read foreclosure affidavits, as required by law. That's prompted a letter to the company from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, demanding a meeting.

In her letter, Madigan said she's concerned the company has violated the states Consumer Fraud Act in its pursuit of Illinois homeowners in foreclosure.

Families homes are at stake here, Madigan said. If I determine that Ally is rubber-stamping affidavits and filing them with our courts as evidence, I will take appropriate action. The law demands that lenders prove their case in foreclosure actions, and Illinois homeowners demand the same.

The Ally executive testified in a Florida court case that he routinely signed affidavits for foreclosure lawsuits and submitted them to Allys attorneys without reviewing the homeowners loan documents. These affidavits were then filed with the court as evidence of Allys right to foreclose on the homes. The employee testified that he signed at least 10,000 affidavits a month without reviewing the underlying paperwork, and thus had no way of knowing whether the information in the affidavits was actually true.

Impact on Illinois homeowners

Madigan also requested that Ally immediately provide her office with details on the impact of Allys conduct on Illinois homeowners, including the number of Illinois homeowners affected by the suspension of foreclosures; the names of the Illinois law firms that Ally retains to pursue foreclosure actions; information about how these firms will implement and monitor the suspension of foreclosure lawsuits in Illinois; and the length of the suspension.

GMAC ranked fourth among U.S. home mortgage lenders in the first six months of this year, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, an industry newsletter.

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Employment Discrimination Suit Against Walmart Heats Up

Labor unions, business lobbyists square off as mega-battle heads for Supreme Court

Employment Discrimination Suit Against Walmart Heats Up...

The Wal-Mart discrimination class action, involving allegations that the mega-corporation systematically discriminates against female employees, is drawing attention from advocates for laborers and corporations alike.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals certified the case as a class action in August, rejecting Wal-Mart's argument that the massive number of people involved -- the class could potentially encompass over one million employees -- renders the case unmanageable.

Late last month, Wal-Mart asked the Supreme Court to hear the case, contending that the appeals court's decision contradicts numerous decisions of other appellate courts and even the Supreme Court itself.

Because of its potential precedential value -- the case is the largest employment class action ever certified, and could open the proverbial floodgates for similar actions -- the suit is drawing attention from both sides of the aisle.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's primary lobbying group for businesses, is the latest to take sides. It has filed an amicus brief on Wal-Mart's behalf, urging the high court to hear the case.

This is the most important class action case facing the Court in over a decade, Robin Conrad, executive vice president of the Chamber's Litigation Center, said in a statement. The Ninth Circuit radically lowered the standards for certifying blockbuster class actions. Unless the Court steps in to undo the mess created by the Ninth Circuit, the West Coast will become a haven for bet-the-business class actions.

The brief, the sixth filed by the Chamber since the case was first certified in 2004, says the narrowly divided Ninth Circuit's contentious 6-5 ruling essentially sanctions a loose approach to class certification that effectively [bars] Wal-Mart from presenting individualized evidence to prove it [has] complied with the law.

Corporations at risk

Conrad warned that the suit threatens the very existence of every corporation.

The Ninth Circuit has opened the door to nothing less than court-sanctioned shakedowns, Conrad said. By denying businesses their fundamental right to defend themselves in court, the Ninth Circuit leaves them with a harsh choice: either settle meritless lawsuits, or potentially face financial ruin.

Meanwhile, labor advocates contend that the suit is a crucial tool in their fight to provide fair working conditions.

Richard Seymour, an attorney who focuses on employment class action lawsuits, told USA Today that the situation is a no-win proposition for employers. According to Seymour, no matter what the outcome of the appeal, plaintiffs will have a better idea of how to get similar actions certified in the future.

Wal-Mart also has a friend in Judge Sandra Ikuta, who dissented from the Ninth Circuit's decision.

Never before has such a low bar been set for certifying such a gargantuan class, Ikuta wrote in her opinion. She said the plaintiffs' case was built on general and conclusory allegations, a handful of anecdotes and statistical disparities that bear little relation to the alleged discriminatory decisions. Ikuta's approach and precedent could provide a path for the Supreme Court if it decides to take the case and overturn the Ninth Circuit's opinion.

 

 

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Urban Gardens Have Food Safety Issues Too, Namely Lead

Otherwise healthy trend may have a health risk downside

Urban Gardens Have Food Safety Issues Too, Namely Lead - Otherwise healthy trend may have a health risk downside...


The recession of 2008, with fears at one point of another Depression, caused many consumers to take a new interest in gardening. Not since victory gardens helped World War II era Americans on the home front survive food shortages have urban gardens been as necessary and popular as they are today.

While there are many positive aspects to city-grown produce, it turns out there could be some health concerns as well.

As city dwellers across the country are harvesting fruits and vegetables for family consumption and planning ahead for the next planting season, geochemist Gabriel Filippelli, Ph.D., professor of earth sciences at the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, warns that urban soil may be contaminated with lead. He advises investigating the legacy of contamination in soil before planting and eating.

Harmful metals

"Most surface contamination in urban settings like Baltimore, Brooklyn, Detroit or Indianapolis is from harmful metals, especially lead, and tends to be found near roadways, older homes or lead smelters. Sources of contamination can be automobile exhaust, degraded paint, tire and vehicle debris, industrial emissions or other products of human technology," said Filippelli, who is an international leader in the emerging field of medical geology.

How can you make sure your garden plot isn't laced with lead? Filippelli encourages urban gardeners to study a map of their metropolitan area and determine potential soil contamination risk by proximity to busy streets, major roadways, freeways, dilapidated painted structures or older industrial facilities.

Gardens with no or low levels of lead contamination as determined by location or with test results of less than 200 parts per million (ppm) can be abundantly planted, but may benefit from high phosphate fertilizer which immobilizes metals like lead.

For gardens at medium risk based on location or soil tested at 200-500 ppm, he recommends covering the soil, planting in raised bed settings, and mulching between beds to reduce the risks of tracking lead-rich soil onto the plots or into the home.

Caution

For gardens at high lead risk or found to have lead levels of over 500 ppm, he counsels proceeding with caution as contamination could be coming from the soil below and the air above. While taller fruit plants are probably safe to consume, root vegetables and leafy greens like lettuce and kale are not, mainly because of the difficulties of cleaning this produce thoroughly before consumption.

In this setting, raised-bed planting is critical, as is ensuring mulch or ground cover between beds and extending for 10 feet around the perimeter of the garden. The produce of all urban gardens, even those at low risk of contamination, should be washed carefully, he cautions.

"Urban gardens are powerful tools for personal health and for neighborhood revitalization. These plots should be encouraged but need to be tended with special care to ensure that lead does not adhere to the food children and adults are consuming," said Filippelli.



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AT&T Gouged Long Distance Customers for 'Universal Connectivity' Fees, Court Finds

AT&T charged consumers extra, pocketed the difference

AT&T Gouged Customers for 'Universal Connectivity' Fees, Court Finds - AT&T charged consumers extra, pocketed the difference...

A federal appeals court upheld a settlement against AT&T in a case involving universal connectivity fees that rural California consumers said were too high.

In a 44-page opinion, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals held that AT&T's language describing the fee was a legally binding promise, and that consumers were thus entitled to hold the company to its word.

The litigation, which involved several consolidated class actions, concerned a monthly line-item charge amounting to nearly 10 percent of consumers' phone bills. The charge was explained in consumers' service agreements, which also contained a clause forbidding customers from bringing class action lawsuits, instead providing that any dispute would be determined by a neutral arbitrator.

Despite the arbitration clause, a district court allowed the class action to proceed, and a jury awarded the class $16 million.

AT&T charged nearly double

AT&T contended that the charge was necessary to make up for its contribution to the Universal Service Fund, created by the Federal Communications Commission in 1997. The fund, which was set up in response to the comprehensive Telecommunications Act of 1996, was intended to ensure that low-income consumers, and those in rural or high-cost areas, had access to reliable and relatively high-quality phone service.

The Act specifically required all service providers to provide equitable and non-discriminatory contributions to the fund.

The suit, however, contended that AT&T was charging its customers an amount nearly double that which it was required to provide to the fund. According to the suit, the FCC required a contribution of 6.8 percent from service providers; by contrast, AT&T was charging consumers 11.5 percent percent of their long distance charges.

The suit alleged that AT&T kept the difference, an amount that added up to five percent of its consumers' long-distance fees. And the plaintiffs said that AT&T hid its practices not only from consumers, but also from states and regulatory agencies. According to the suit, this scheme allowed AT&T to advertise lower rates than what it was actually charging, since it could essentially make up the difference in the hidden fees.

AT&T didn't outright deny the allegations, but rather said that the fund's complexities made it difficult to determine how much it would have to pay. The court conceded that it was virtually impossible for AT&T to charge exactly the correct amount each billing cycle, but countered that the company could implement a mechanism to allow it to calibrate its charges over several billing cycles.

In its decision, the Court of Appeals held that AT&T's description of the fee -- as a monthly charge to Customers to recover amounts AT&T must pay into -- constitutes a valid promise under New York law, under which the case was decided. The suit had noted that AT&T described the fee this way in mailings, recordings on its 800 number, and on its website.

The suit contained counts for fraud and violation of the Federal Telecommunications Act.

 

 

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Real Estate Scam Draws Prison Term for New York Financier

Investors in private placement scheme lost more than $23 million

Real Estate Scam Draws Prison Term for New York Financier - Investors in private placement scheme lost more than $23 million...


The former owner, president, and CEO of Cobalt Financial, Inc. is going to prison for running a scam that raised more than $23 million from over 250 investors in private placement real estate offerings.

William B. Foster was sentenced to three years in prison in Manhattan federal court by U.S. District Judge Kimba B. Wood, who presided over the three-week jury trial. In addition to Foster, co-defendants Mark Alan Shapiro and Irving Stitsky were found guilty.

Beginning in late 2003, Foster, Stitsky and Shapiro founded a group of companies that operated under the name "Cobalt," which purportedly engaged in the acquisition and development of multi-family real estate properties throughout the United States.

Through the Cobalt entities, the trio fraudulently induced victims to invest by -- among other things -- (a) misrepresenting Cobalt's operating history; (b) failing to inform prospective investors that Cobalt was owned and controlled by Stitsky and Shapiro, both convicted felons; and (c) misrepresenting and causing others to misrepresent Cobalt's purported ownership interests in certain properties to prospective investors.

In fact, Cobalt was a new company with little or no record of real estate investment success, was managed and controlled by Stitsky and Shapiro, and did not own several of the properties that it claimed to own.

Multi-faceted scheme

In order to carry out their scheme, Foster, Stitsky and Shapiro established Cobalt's corporate headquarters in Springfield, Massachusetts, and a telemarketing center in Great Neck, New York. Foster, who worked out of Cobalt's Massachusetts office, was identified in the company's marketing materials as the individual responsible for overseeing all aspects of the operations of all of the Cobalt entities.

The defendants and their employees solicited funds from investors by making false and misleading oral and written representations about the investment for which the investors' funds were solicited, including false representations about:

• the identities and relevant background information about the individuals controlling the Cobalt entities;

• the identities of Cobalt's business partners;

• the properties that Cobalt owned; (iv) the properties in which investor funds were to be invested;

• the history of the Cobalt entities; (the amount of management fees to be taken by Cobalt entities from the investor funds;

• the uses of the management fees taken by Cobalt entities from the investor funds; and

• Shapiro's educational background.

Foster, Stitsky and Shapiro then caused millions of dollars of investors' funds to be transferred to accounts for the defendants' personal benefit.

Jail time

In addition to the prison term, Judge Wood sentenced Foster, 70, of East Hampton, Massachusetts, to three years of supervised release and ordered him to pay $22 million in restitution and to forfeit $23 million in proceeds from his offenses.

Stitsky, 55, of Milan, New York, was sentenced to 85 years in prison on July 6, 2010. Shapiro, 50, of Avon, Connecticut, is scheduled to be sentenced on October 14, 2010.

"It is a very serious, egregious scheme that defrauded hundreds of people of their hard-earned money," Judge Wood said during the sentencing proceeding. "Some people in fact face financial ruin." Of Foster's role, Wood said, "Mr. Foster was in a position of trust with respect to the investors and it is a position of trust that he abused."

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Credit Scores Take A Hit from Home Foreclosures, Reduced Credit Lines, Job Losses

Texas cities have lowest scores, upper Midwest does better

Credit Scores Take A Hit from Home Foreclosures, Reduced Credit Lines, Job Losses...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.Com

September 27, 2010

Credit reporting agency Experian reports American's credit scores have declined since the start of the recession. Minneapolis, Minn., Madison, Wis. and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, top the list of cities with the highest credit scores. At the bottom of the spectrum are Harlingen, Texas, Jackson, Miss., and Corpus Christi, Texas.

ConsumerAffairs.com's Mark Huffman reports foreclosures, job losses and reduced credit lines have all played a role.

Read more about Your Credit Score

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Connecticut Consumers Warned About Utility 'Slammers'

Telemarketers use deception to switch consumers' utility provider

Connecticut Consumers Warned AboutUtility 'Slammers'...


Slamming is the practice of a telephone company switching you to their service through deception. Though not as common as it once was, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal says the practice has been adopted in his state by utility companies.

Blumenthal has warned consumers to be suspicious of any unexpected solicitation callers or visitors claiming to represent Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P;) and offering to lower electric rates. He says the solicitors may actually be representatives of competing suppliers seeking to switch consumers, without proper consent, by accessing their utility account information.

A consumer recently reported an incident to Blumenthals office in which she received a call from someone claiming to be from CL&P; stating that they could reduce her electric bill. The caller requested her account number to make the switch. The marketer provided his CL&P; badge number as proof and a number to reach him, which turned out to bea New Jersey number.

The consumer hung up without providing the information and then looked up and called CL&Ps; legitimate number to confirm the caller was not associated with CL&P.;

Blumenthal said the call is similar to recent door-to-door solicitations by people claiming to represent CL&P.; The solicitors typically offer to switch the consumers electric supplier or otherwise lower the consumers bill.

Code of conduct

Blumenthal said the Department of Public Utility Control (DPUC) is currently conducting a code of conduct proceeding to set new rules for suppliers and aggregators -- including assurances that sales representatives dont mislead consumers.

These callers and visitors make flagrantly false claims about what company they represent -- and then use personal account information to surreptitiously switch a consumers supplier without their consent, Blumenthal said. The lesson from this scheme is the same as all others -- never provide private information to unsolicited or unknown callers or visitors. Protect your private information fiercely, even when offers claim to come from legitimate sources -- including companies in which you have ongoing business relationships.

Blumenthal reiterated recent warnings by utility companies that consumers should know or do the following if they receive such solicitations:

• Hang up the phone or decline a door-to-door offer, even if the caller claims some form of proof, such as a badge number from the utility company. Call the company directly -- using the number on your bill or from the phone book -- to confirm any offers.

• Never provide personal financial information to any unsolicited caller or visitor, even if the caller seems legitimate.

• Report the incident to local police.

• Remember that CL&P; does not conduct such solicitation calls or visits.

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Southwest Airlines To Buy AirTran

Reflects consolidation in discount airline space

Southwest Airlines To Buy AirTran...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.Com

September 27, 2010
Southwest Airlines, which grew from upstart regional carrier to the nation's largest domestic carrier, is getting even bigger. The company announced today it is purchasing rival discount airline AirTran for an estimated $1.4 billion.

Southwest said the agreement has been unanimously approved by the boards of directors of each company, and closing is subject to the approval of AirTran stockholders, receipt of certain regulatory clearances, and fulfillment of customary closing conditions.

"Today is an exciting day for our employees, our customers, the communities we serve, and our shareholders," said Gary C. Kelly, Chairman, President, and CEO of Southwest Airlines.

Kelly said the purchase of AirTran will give Southwest entry into key markets it does not serve and positions the carrier for further growth, at a time when its legacy competitors continue to consolidate.

"This acquisition creates more jobs and career opportunities for our combined Employee groups, as a whole. It allows us to better respond to the economic and competitive challenges of our industry, and fits perfectly within our strategy for our fifth decade of service, Kelly said.

Adds Atlanta, Washington National

Southwest sees the addition of AirTran as a way to establish service to and from Atlanta and Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport. The company also said it expects to expand at New York LaGuardia, Boston Logan, and Baltimore/Washington.

Southwest executives say there is minimal overlap in service between the two carriers, but the deal will have to receive approval from U.S. anti-trust officials. It's possible overlapping flights would be consolidated during the merger.

Based on current operations, the combined airlines would have nearly 43,000 employees and serve more than 100 million customers annually from more than 100 different airports in the U.S. and near-international destinations. In addition, the combined carriers' all-Boeing fleet consisting of 685 active aircraft would include 401 Boeing 737-700s, 173 Boeing 737-300s, 25 Boeing 737-500s, and 86 Boeing 717s.

Southwest says the average age of the aircraft is approximately 10 years, making it one of the youngest fleets in the industry. Southwest also announced, previously, that it is evaluating the opportunity to introduce the Boeing 737-800 into its domestic network.

Until closing, Southwest Airlines and AirTran will continue to operate as independent companies. After closing, Southwest plans to integrate AirTran into the Southwest Airlines Brand by transitioning the AirTran fleet to the Southwest Airlines livery.



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Student Loan Relief for Students At Bankrupt Kentucky Law School

Student Loan Xpress agrees to loan reductions and extended payment periods

Student Loan Relief for Students At Bankrupt Kentucky Law School...


Student Loan Xpress, Inc. (SLX) has reached an agreement with the Commonwealth of Kentucky that will result in an estimated $3.6 million reduction in the loan obligations for students who attended a now bankrupt West Kentucky law school.

"I am pleased we were able to conclude this investigation by getting significant loan forgiveness for students," Attorney General Jack Conway said. "As we investigated this case over many months, we found dozens of students who were obligated to pay thousands of dollars in student loans for academic credits that didn't transfer."

Conway says the lender charged fees when it said it would not and required loan repayment when students were entitled to deferments because they were still in school. "There was an overall pattern of abuse by the lender that ignored federal and state consumer protection requirements and put students in a financial bind before they even started their careers," he added.

Loan reductions

As a result of the Assurance of Voluntary Compliance (AVC) entered in Franklin Circuit Court, students of the law school who had SLX loans will have their overall loan amounts reduced and will be given an extended period of time before they are required to make payments.

Students' loan indebtedness will not include any amounts for tuition and school fees for credits that were not transferred to another school; interest on the loans will be based on the reduced loan amounts and any capitalized interest will be removed from their loan accounts; and late fees for delinquent payments and certain loan fees will also be removed from borrowers' accounts.

The average loan reduction per student is $25,000. The loan reduction per student ranges from just under $1,000 to as much as $75,000. The amount of reduction is based on how many academic credits the students were able to transfer and how much money students borrowed in living expenses.

"This agreement will allow students to finish their studies before they must pay back loans and significantly reduces the loan principal by only requiring students to pay for credits that they transferred and living expenses," said Conway.

Borrowers must apply to have their loan restructured pursuant to a claims process that will begin once the borrower receives a notification from SLX within the next 90 days. While the dollar amount of relief for each individual borrower will vary, the settlement is estimated to achieve an overall reduction of $3.6 million in the total principal that includes tuition, school fees, living expenses and loan fees. There will be additional interest savings to borrowers because of the reduction in principal and the restrictions on capitalized interest provided in the AVC.

The investigation

The Office of Attorney General obtained the settlement with SLX after alleging multiple misrepresentations in the company's marketing materials and loan application instructions -- which SLX denies -- including language that students would be able to defer repayment on their loans while in school and for nine months after leaving school.

However, the fine print of the promissory notes limited the period of deferment to 33 months after the loan was disbursed. The effect of this 33-month cap was that holders of the loans required students to begin repaying their school loans while still in school or enter into "forbearance" -- a loan status that effectively increased the amount of the borrowers' loans through repeated capitalization of interest.

Deceptive terms

"The terms of the loans were deceptive and made it very difficult and outrageously costly for students to continue their law school education after American Justice School of Law closed," Conway said.

The AG's investigation also revealed that the borrowers' promissory notes did not contain disclosures required by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In situations where a seller refers its customers to a specific lender, the "FTC Holder Rule" requires that consumers be made aware that the lender is subject to the same legal defenses as the seller.

"Without the holder clause," Conway explained, "you get a situation where the seller gets the loan proceeds, goes out of business, doesn't deliver the product the buyer paid for, yet the buyer is obligated to repay the loan for something he or she never received. That is simply unfair."

Student info

American Justice School of Law and Barkley School of Law students with SLX Loans must complete necessary forms in order to obtain the relief available under the AVC. SLX will send those forms in an official packet via Certified Mail within 90 days. Loan reductions will be calculated for each student individually based upon a number of factors, including the number of credits they transferred and the amount borrowed for living expenses.

This isn't the first run-in SLX has had with the legal system. In 2009, the company was forced to provide relief to flight instruction students in California.

And in New York, the attorney general's office is investigating the possible involvement of SLX with student aid advisors at three universities.

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Fuel Economy Standards Need to Improve, Consumer Groups Argue

An increase to 60 mpg by 2025 would mean big savings for consumers

Fuel Economy Standards Need to Improve, Consumer Groups Argue...


The push is on for a big increase in fuel economy standards.

The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and 21 of its member, state and local groups have written President Obama, urging adoption of a fleet-wide car and light truck fuel economy standard of 60 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2025, saying it will save consumers money.

"Consumers across the country want higher fuel efficiency," said Mark Cooper, CFA Director of Research. "They want us to get off oil, and they want to save money at the pump. Sixty mpg by 2025 will help deliver both."

Opportunity to act

The letter, signed by consumer groups in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Virginia and Wisconsin, states: "Your Administration has an extraordinary opportunity to benefit consumers, while also improving our global competitiveness, energy independence, and environmental quality. We are writing to ask you to establish a target of 60 miles per gallon (mpg) for cars and trucks as the goal for the fuel economy standards for model year 2025.

The letter says a recent CFA analysis of studies by the National Academy of Sciences and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows the technology for a 60-mpg fleet is technically feasible and will save consumers money.

The letter also cites a recent CFA analysis, which found:

• Savings from reduced gasoline consumption at 60 mpg would more than offset any increase in vehicle prices likely to result from adding technologies in order to lower gasoline consumption.

• For the individual consumer, buying a car that gets 60 mpg would result in gasoline savings in the first month that are larger than the likely increase in the monthly loan payment. Investing in fuel economy will yield net savings for the household from the first month, and savings will grow over time as gasoline prices increase. (This assumes the Energy Information Administration's projected cost of gasoline, National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates of average household miles driven, and a five-year auto loan at seven percent).

Mileage complaints

Even cars that are already touted to get good mileage are the targets of criticism.

Deborah H. in Louisville, Kentucky is angry. "I feel there was false advertising by Toyota stating there was 50 miles per gallon on the highway and 60 miles per hour in the city driving my Toyota Prius hybrid," she wrote.

Deborah was one of thousands of Prius buyers who paid the dealer a "market adjustment" or extra money for her new hybrid.

"They jacked up the price $8,000 from sticker stating it was a car that was hard to come by and that was their price. They said I would actually save money on gas."

But Deborah writes that gas mileage results her Prius achieves continue to be disappointing: "After six months of tracking, the best mileage I ever got was 43 miles per gallon. Most often my mileage is between 30 and 36 miles per gallon."

The mileage, she complains, is "no better than cars I have had in the past. I am very disappointed in Toyota's advertising and the money I have shelled out."

"I am getting 40 mpg in a Honda Civic Hybrid with EPA estimates of 49/51 mpg," Jill of Los Angeles CA, writes ConsumerAffairs.com. "I've had the car looked at by three different service technicians at three different Honda dealerships. I've filed a complaint with Honda corporate which was closed based on the fact the dealerships couldn't find what was wrong."

The Obama administration is scheduled to release a Notice of Intent for 2017-2025 fuel economy standards for cars, SUVs and pickup trucks on September 30th.

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Wireless Broadband Plan Would Create 'Super WiFi'

FCC wants to crack open 'white space' in TV signals

Wireless Broadband Plan Would Create 'Super WiFi' ...


The Federal Communications Commission says it has resolved a number of legal and technical issues and is ready to move forward in opening the vacant airwaves beteen TV channels to host super WiFi and other services.

The spectrum, known as white spaces, is the first to be made available for unlicensed use in more than 20 years.

TV white space spectrum is considered prime real estate because its signals travel well, making it ideally suited for mobile wireless devices.

Unlocking this valuable spectrum will open the doors for new industries to arise, create American jobs, and fuel new investment and innovation, the agency said in a statement.

The National Broadband Plan noted the importance of unlicensed spectrum in creating opportunities for new technologies to blossom and recommended that the Commission complete the TV white spaces proceeding as expeditiously as possible.

The FCC began this project more than two years ago, investigating arguments that the use of the spectrum might interfere with existing wireless devices and television broadcast industries.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) was a staunch opponent of the "white spaces" project.

Supporting the use of white spaces is an array of tech titans including Google and Microsoft, as well as consumer advocacy groups such as Consumers' Union, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), and Free Press.

Cheap wireless broadband

Among its uses, the spectrum could be used to deliver low-cost wireless broadband to rural and poor areas, transmit traffic videos, build electric-utility smart grids, create faster home networks, and create services not yet imagined.

MediaG3, Inc. a wireless technology venture, said the company is planning to exploit white spaces airwaves that exists in all U.S. cities.

MediaG3 last week introduced WiFiBridges technology, a multi-channel, multi-mode network which was designed in part to work in these white spaces. It's chairman, Val Westergard, hailed the FCC decision.

"This new spectrum allows signals to penetrate through buildings and walls much better, delivering superfast Internet connections in places other frequencies didn't," said Westergard. "We call this 'Next Generation,' WiFi3 or WiFiCubed. This will bring a whole new level of Internet mobile device usage.

"As more channels and frequencies are added and made available, more and more ways to use them will be developed. This is a very exciting day for all of us in wireless technology. The door to innovation has just been cracked open a little more."

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Motorcycle Accidents Involving Blacks More Likely To Be Fatal

Even when wearing motorcycle helmets, African-Americans show higher fatality rate

Motorcycle Accidents Involving Blacks More Likely To Be Fatal - Even when wearing motorcycle helmets, African-Americans show higher fatality rate...

Victims of motorcycle crashes who were black were 1.5 times more likely to die from their injuries than similarly injured whites, even though many more of the black victims were wearing helmets at the time of injury, according to new research.

Results of the study by Johns Hopkins researchers revealing these racial disparities is published in the August issue of the American Journal of Surgery. The study suggests that injury-prevention programs -- like state laws mandating the use of motorcycle helmets -- may not be sufficient to protect all riders equally.

Uncertainty

"For reasons that we are still trying to figure out, one size of injury prevention does not fit all groups of people and just wearing a helmet is not enough," says Adil Haider, M.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the study's senior author. "Helmet for helmet, African-Americans have more lethal injuries."

Haider, who is also co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Surgical Trials and Outcomes Research, suspects several factors may combine to account for the gap in survival between black and white victims.

Previous studies of other accidents and illnesses have shown that lack of health insurance, reduced access to care, poorer quality of care and a greater number of pre-existing illnesses or injuries contribute to racial differences in survival.

It is also possible, he says, that riders of different races may prefer different types of helmets or more dangerous types of motorcycles. More research is needed, he says, to determine what role, if any, these issues may play.

Rising casualties

Motorcycle crashes injure roughly 88,000 people a year in the United States and kill 4,810 annually. The rate of fatal motorcycle crashes has been steadily rising for the past decade and now account for nearly one in eight motor vehicle deaths.

In the new study, Haider and surgical resident Dr. Joseph Crompton reviewed National Trauma Data Bank information on 68,840 people involved in motorcycle crashes between 2002 and 2006. Along with the finding that even after controlling for factors such as insurance status, gender and injury severity, black crash victims were 1.5 times more likely to die from their injuries than similarly injured white victims.

This was so despite the fact that black motorcycle crash victims were 30 percent more likely to be wearing helmets when injured than were white crash victims. The research also found that whites who were not wearing helmets were less likely to die than blacks who were wearing helmets, and that the highest mortality rates were among black motorcyclists without helmets.

Helmets have been proven to reduce traumatic brain injury deaths following motorcycle crashes and reduce the cost of hospital stays.

But with this new study in mind, Haider says, more focus should be placed on injury-prevention programs that go beyond imploring motorcyclists to wear helmets, since they alone do not appear to be doing enough to protect some crash victims -- particularly black riders -- from death.

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Researchers Look at Possible Multiple Sclerosis Causes

Vitamin D, nicotine, Epstein-Barr virus seen as possible factors in MS

Researchers Look at Possible Multiple Sclerosis Causes...


Researchers are investigating a trio of environmental factors to determine their influence on the progression of multiple sclerosis.

The two-year project will test the theory that nicotine metabolism, the byproducts of vitamin D metabolism, and increased levels of anti-Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) each interact with variations in specific genes to cause increased neurodegeneration and increased lesions in MS patients.

"We will use a novel approach to measure the levels of vitamin D and its metabolites, EBV exposure, and nicotine metabolites from cigarette smoking," says Murali Ramanathan, professor of pharmaceutical sciences and neurology at University at Buffalo.

"We have developed sensitive and selective measurements for key metabolites in the vitamin D and nicotine metabolism pathways using mass spectrometry," Ramanathan pointed out, "a method that has not been used previously to study vitamin D metabolism."

Researchers will assess the risk of developing clinically definite MS and the time to progression, as well as the neurodegeneration in the brain of MS patients, as measured by brain atrophy, and the extent of brain injury caused by lesions.

Genetic factors

The study will include the genetic variations that were associated with the risk of developing MS, as well as genes that determine the levels and responses to environmental factors.

MS patients will be divided into two equal groups: a training group that will be used to identify gene-environmental interactions, and a group that will be used to replicate the training group result.

"Identifying gene-environmental interactions is critical for developing better strategies for slowing the progression of MS, because it could enable patients with preexisting genetic risk factors to reduce the rate of disease progression through lifestyle modification," Ramanathan says.

The study results will identify the gene-environment interactions that promote disease progression in MS and facilitate the development of preventive and therapeutic interventions for MS that disrupt these interactions.

Researchers from Charles University in Prague contributed to the study, which received a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense.



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Streaming Video, Almost-Free Movies, Blockbuster Collapse Making Broadcasters, Movie Moguls Nauseous

Internet offers do-it-yourself home entertainment for a lot less than cable

Streaming Video, Almost-Free Movies, Blockbuster Collapse Making Broadcasters, Movie Moguls Nauseous...

Anyone who doubts that video streaming is where the world is going need only consider the implosion of once-mighty Blockbusterand the edginess now infecting the executive suites at the big TV networks and cable companies.

Still not convinced? Consider this: Roku, which manufactures set-top boxes that let you stream Netflix and other online entertainment services to your TV, reports that one in five of its customers has canceled or reduced their pay TV subscriptions.

That's according to Roku CEO Anthony Wood, who says that about 11 percent of Roku customers have completely canceled their cable, while about the same percentage have cut back on pay TV.

Wood said he didn't find that figure too surprising but he was taken aback when the company's research found that while Netflix was, as expected, the most popular service among Roku customers, the Pandora music service was number two. (Amazon video was third).

What's that, you say? People listening to Internet radio on their TV? Wood said he was surprised too but upon looking into it a bit realized that the audio-only appliance is rapidly going the way of the hand-cranked coffee grinder.

"It turns out that people don't have stereos anymore," Wood said. Instead, they have home theater systems which are a perfect way to listen to music while lazing about or doing daily chores. Radio? Stereo? Who needs it.

Meanwhile in New York, noted media analyst Mike Vorhaus, of Frank N. Magid Associates, was telling the annual Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference that change is in the air.

While there hasnt been a measurable change in consumer behavior caused by new media, Frank Magid always used to say that attitude precedes behavior, and media companies need to pay attention to the attitudinal warning signs of rough weather ahead, Vorhaus said.

He told the assembled media executives that while only a small minority of American consumers have so far dropped their cable subscription or stopped buying DVDs or cut back on their TV watching, that doesn't mean it won't happen.

You clearly have to plan for it and not deny that it might happen, he said. Vorhaus was perhaps too polite to make the obvious comparison currently making the rounds in communications circles -- that cable TV is starting to be regarded the way the telephone company used to be, as an embedded monopoly that crafty consumers and early adopters can do without.

What goes around

And while itsy-bitsy start-up ivi may have hit rough water as it tries to stream all the major TV networks and stations without bothering to license the content, it's pretty hard to see how broadcasters will be able to hold back the tide forever.

Those with long memories may recall how vigorously over-the-air television broadcasters, as they were once quaintly called, tried to prohibit cable TV systems from carrying their signals. Or, for that matter, how newspapers became apoplectic when radio stations starting doing news.

How to do it

Here at ConsumerAffairs.com, we're big fans of the Roku box and other video streaming gadgets. Sure, we have a really fast Cox Cable Internet connection but that's about it.

Background (sometimes foreground) music comes from the most basic Roku box with a couple of powered speakers plugged into it. The Roku works off our Wi-Fi network and pulls in endless music selections from Pandora and other Internet sources.

A big-screen TV ($399 open-box model from Geeks.com) stares blankly out at the world most of the time, but on the rare occasions there's any downtime, $30-a-month Netflix offers thousands of movies and TV shows that can be instantly streamed to the TV, which is connected to nothing but a $79 Blu-Ray player that has built-in Wi-Fi video streaming, sort of an internal Roku. And yes, you can find a lot of high-def video on Netflix at no extra charge.

You can do this too. The only fixed cost that's really necessary these days is a high-speed Internet connection from the cable/telephone company. Cheaper Netflix plans are available; ours includes up to three DVDs-by-mail at any given time. Using a cell phone or, better yet, Skype will provide all the talk-time most people need.

There was a time not too many years ago when the common assumption was that consumers would never agree to pay more than $30 for telecommunications service. Now many routinely pay $200 and more for basic cable, premium cable, telephone service, high-speed Internet and a cell phone or two.

Spend it if you got it, but those wanting to save a few bucks should take a deep breath and dive into the video stream. Come on it, the viewing's fine.

 

 

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FDA Restricts Type 2 Diabetes Drug Avandia

Popular drug carries elevated risk of heart attack, stroke in diabetes patients

FDA Restricts Type 2 Diabetes Drug Avandia...


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today announced that it will significantly restrict the use of the diabetes drug Avandia to patients with Type 2 diabetes who cannot control their diabetes on other medications.

The new restrictions are in response to data that suggest an elevated risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attack and stroke, in patients treated with Avandia (rosiglitazone).

The FDA is taking this action today to protect patients, after a careful effort to weigh benefits and risks, said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. We are seeking to strike the right balance to support clinical care.

Rosiglitazone also is available in combination with other diabetes medications, metformin under the brand name Avandamet or glimepiride under the brand name Avandaryl.

Avandia, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), is in a class of drugs known as thiazolidinediones, or TZDs. It is intended to be used in conjunction with diet and exercise to improve glucose (blood sugar) control in patients with Type 2 diabetes mellitus.

The FDA will require that GSK develop a restricted access program for Avandia under a risk evaluation and mitigation strategy, or REMS. Avandia will be available to new patients only if they are unable to achieve glucose control on other medications and are unable to take Actos (pioglitazone), the only other drug in this class. Current users of Avandia who are benefiting from the drug will be able to continue using the medication if they choose to do so.

Doctors will have to attest to and document their patients' eligibility; patients will have to review statements describing the cardiovascular safety concerns associated with this drug and acknowledge they understand the risks. The agency anticipates that the new rules will limit use of Avandia significantly.

Allowing Avandia to remain on the market, but under restrictions, is an appropriate response, given the significant safety concerns and the scientific uncertainty still remaining about this drug, said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDAs Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

Also today, the FDA ordered GSK to convene an independent group of scientists to review key aspects of the companys clinical trial known as RECORD, which studied the cardiovascular safety of Avandia compared to standard diabetes drugs. During the course of the FDAs review of the RECORD study, important questions arose about potential bias in the identification of cardiovascular events. The FDA is requiring this independent review to provide additional clarity about the findings.

In addition, the agency halted the GSKs clinical trial known as TIDE and rescinded all of the regulatory deadlines for completion of the trial. The TIDE trial compares Avandia to Actos and to standard diabetes drugs.

Lengthy controversy

The FDA's action follows a long and contentious debate. In July, an FDA advisory panel said Avandia does, in fact, appear to increase the risk of heart attacks but a majority stopped short of asking that it be banned.

Twelve members of the 33-member panel considering the issue voted to remove the Type-2 diabetes drug from the market, ten voted to allow its continued sale but with changes to its label and restrictions, while seven members said the label should be changed. Only three panel members voted to allow continued Avandia sales with no changes or restrictions.

Health advocates have mounted a strong campaign against Avandia, saying its risks outweigh its benefits. However, some diabetes patients say they take the drug without any problems and asked the panel to keep it on the market.

After the committee vote, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, said: "Commissioner Hamburg should immediately order this drug off the market and stop the unethical international trial on it."

Meanwhile, some are questioning whether the drug company covered up Avandia's risks long before they became known. The New York Times published documents that it said showed SmithKlineBeecham - the firm's name in 1999 - buried a disastrous study that suggested Avandia posed greater heart risks than a competing drug.

As evidence of a smoking gun, the Times pointed to this 2001 email from Dr. Martin I. Freed, a GSK executive:

"This was done for the U.S. business, way under the radar. Per Sr. Mgmt request, these data should not see the light of day to anyone outside of GSK," the email states.

2007 study

It wasn't until 2007, eight years after the study cited by the Times, that health researchers began to pose questions about Avandia's risks. That year a study by a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist, using data obtained from GSK, raised the first red flag.

The Times report says the documents it has uncovered demonstrate the company was sitting on incriminating data that surfaced soon after Avandia's introduction. In one document cited by the newspaper, GSK tried to add up the lost sales that would result if Avandia's heart safety risk became established. The document put the cost at $600 million over a two-year period.

The Times quotes a GSK spokeswoman as saying the company did not publicize the results of the 1999 study because they "did not contribute any significant new information."

Patients taking Avandia have, over the years, reported adverse effects of the drug to ConsumerAffairs.com.

"I was put on Avandia for type 2 diabetes at least two years ago," Patsy, of East Peoria, Ill., reported in 2008. "I started having dizziness and blackout spells not long after. My doctor said he didn't know what caused them. Three or four times I went to the ER where they got it resolved in from one to three days. The last time, in July of 2007, it did not resolve and still hasn't. I was told at that time I had congestive heart failure also and am being treated for that now."

Last week a medical reviewer for FDA said GSK's analysis of a study it used to justify Avandia's safety was completely misinterpreted. Dr. Thomas Marciniak, in a posting on the FDA web site, said the study actually shows the opposite of the company's position - Avandia may cause heart attacks.

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

But in looking at the data, Marciniak wrote that the information in the study was so misinterpreted that it's hard not to conclude it was done on purpose. "One does not have to be a mathematician or to perform calculations to come to the conclusion that a combined look at all the trials of Avandia would demonstrate that it causes heart attacks," Marciniak writes.

Read more about Avandia



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Foreclosure 'Short-Cuts' by GMAC Mortage May Be Just the Latest in a Series of Missteps

Consumer advocate says GMAC's practices are an 'abuse' of the process

Foreclosure 'Short-Cuts' by GMAC Mortage May Be Just the Latest in a Series of Missteps...


GMAC Mortgage, a unit of Ally Financial, is under scrutiny for possibly not following the rules when it processed foreclosure papers. And it turns out it may not be the first time.

According to a report by Bloomberg News, GMAC was reprimanded four years ago its processor failed to read the documents and sign them in the presence of a notary, as required. The company is now accused of doing the same thing, with attorneys for evicted homeowners calling into question the legality of the procedure.

A large number of states have what is called a judicial process in a foreclosure, meaning the lender must file an affidavit that confirms the basic facts of the case. There have been so many affidavits that GMAC reportedly relied on robo signers to sign some of the documents.

Bloomberg cites a 2006 Duval County, Florida court order that said GMAC's sworn affidavits in a foreclosure case were false testimony because the mortgage officer did not follow the rules about reading and signing.

Last week GMAC Mortgage suspended evictions in 23 states because of a technical deficiency in the review process. It followed disclosure that mortgage processor Jeffrey Stephan testified in a deposition that he did not always read or sign the documents as required.

Abuse of the process

We're concerned about this because it appears to be a clear abuse of the process, Sturat Rossman, Director of Litigation for the National Consumer Law Center, told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Legal experts are still reviewing facts and say its unclear what this case might mean for homeowners who lost property to foreclosure. But if Stephan's signature appears on your foreclosure papers, Rossman says you should take action.

Homeowneres should immediately notify the attorney who is handling their foreclosure, Rossman said. Further, they should also contact their state attorney general.

It's not known how many foreclosed loans might be affected. The company ranked fourth among loan-originators in the U.S. early this year and fifth among loan servicers.

The practice may also extend beyond GMAC. NPR reports the State of Florida is investigating four law firms that help loan servicers like GMAC.

Plaintiff's lawyers, meanwhile, are conducting depositions with executives at other loan servicers, focusing on their internal procedures for reviewing and signing documents.

Read more about GMAC Mortgage.

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'Free' Yellow Pages Listings Weren't Free, Illinois Charges

YP.com agrees not to bill any Illinois companies for online Yellow Pages listings

'Free' Yellow Pages Listings Weren't Free, Illinois Charges...

The Illinois Attorney General's Office has settled the lawsuit against a Las Vegas corporation over charges it scammed money from small business owners in a practice known as "cramming." Cramming describes charges added onto phone bills for services consumers are unaware of, did not order or did not want.

The settlement with YP.com, which incorporated under the name Live Deal, Inc., requires the company not solicit or bill any new Illinois consumers for Internet Yellow Page listings.

"This company operated under a guise of free Yellow Page listings, but in reality was deceiving unsuspecting businesses," said Attorney General Lisa Madigan. "When business owners attempted to stop the additional charges and cancel the service, they found they couldn't get through to company representatives."

The lawsuit against Live Deal for violating the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act was filed in November 2008. Madigan's Consumer Fraud Bureau received more than 20 phone bill cramming complaints against YP.com before filing the complaint.

Flim-flam

The company's practice was to call small business owners to "confirm" their information for free Yellow Page listings. In fact, the listings were free for only 30 days. If the consumer did not take action to cancel the service after 30 days, the company crammed a $35.95 monthly fee onto the consumer's bill. Consumers who tried to cancel this service had difficulty because the customer service line was continually busy.

ConsumerAffairs.com also received complaints about the company's policies.

Kathy of Flushing, MI, says she was offered one month free. "I called and canceled the service after one month. They started sending me invoices. I called after two invoices telling them I had canceled the service. They said they had no record of the cancellation. I wrote to them canceling the service. I continued to get more invoices so I called them again. They stated that I never canceled. I am not sure how to stop this situation."

"Our company got an invoice of 79.90 for two month listing in their Internet advertising package," writes Dr. of Plano TX . "We do not recollect asking to be listed by them. I called their 1-800 number listed on their invoice and was told that we had requested to be listed and that they had a recording of the same. I asked them to play the recording but eventually got nowhere with hearing it."

Cleaning up its act

Under the agreement, Live Deal must also increase transparency to its solicitation practices to better inform consumers of its sales process for any product it intends to sell. The court also ordered the company to pay $10,000 and any remaining consumer refunds.

Consumers affected by the scheme have until Oct. 30, 2010, to apply for a refund or credit for unauthorized charges. Small businesses can download a consumer complaint form or by calling the Attorney General's Consumer Fraud Hotline at the following numbers:

Chicago 1-800-386-5438

Springfield 1-800-243-0618

Carbondale 1-800-243-060

 

 

 

 

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Bentley Cars Recalled to Fix Hood Ornament

Pedestrians could be impaled on iconic emblem

Bentley's problem isn't underinflated tires or an accelerator that sticks. No, the issue involves the hood ornament, an accessory that most car owners thes...

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Online Movies, Streaming Video Leave Blockbuster Busted

Its star faded, Blockbuster files for bankruptcy

Online Movies, Streaming Video Leave Blockbuster Busted...


Blockbuster, having fallen even farther behind than the Post Office, has filed for bankruptcy and is expected to close at least 1,000 of its video-rental stoes.

Blockbuster was slow to adapt to changing conditions and lost ground to both digital outlets such as Netflix and Amazon and to Redbox and other vending machines conveniently located in supermarkets, convenience stores and other high-traffic areas.

The company sought to put a good face on its situation, issuing a statement that said it was "making good progress in our recapitalization process."

All of Blockbuster's U.S. operations, including its stores, DVD vending kiosks, by-mail and digital businesses, are open and serving customers in the normal course, the company saidin a statement. Blockbuster is fulfilling all orders as usual, including continuing to provide access to new releases the first day they become available. Blockbuster intends to continue honoring its Rewards program, valid coupons, gift cards and other customer programs.

It would be diplomatic to say that consumers will mourn the company's demise or, at best, shrinkage, but it wouldn't be true, at least among the countless consumers who have felt ripped off by late fees, missing items and unauthorized charges.

Many customers, like Robert of New Bern, N.C., have complained that they were charged for movies or games that were, in fact, returned to a Blockbuster drop box.

"The very first time a female rep said one game had been returned, next time I called they changed it to none," Robert said.

Gretchen of Erie, Pa., was angered when Blockbuster charged a late fee to a debit card that she had never registered on her Blockbuster account. The store manager told her the store's system stored all cards used at the check-out counter, not just those the customer provided at sign-up.

"Watch out for Blockbuster and their unauthorized transactions on your bank account, as they store bank account information if you use a debit card when you rent a movie!! GOODBYE BLOCKBUSTER and HELLO NETFIX!" Gretchen concluded.

Deception charges

Nor has Blockbuster's history been entirely unspeckled by run-ins with the law. In 2005, 48 states and the District of Columbia sued the company, alleging that its "No Late Fees" program was misleading because it did not disclose that customers would be charged for the selling price of any video they did not return within seven days of its due date. The company settled the suit and agreed to provide refunds, credits and coupons to affected customers.

Blockbuster quietly reinstated late fees in 2010, claiming it was simply changing its policy to make it consistent with its competitors.

Also in 2005, Blockbuster closed a store in New York City and left behind a gift for enterprising identity thieves -- boxes and boxes of customer membership applications, containing valuable personal information, all sitting on the sidewalk in plain sight.

The store manager blamed New York City's Sanitation Department for not promptly picking up the boxes.

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New Debt Consolidation Rules Take Effect Soon

FTC rules aimed at clamping down on scam artists who dominate the debt consolidation industry

New Debt Consolidation Rules Take Effect Next Week...


The first phase of new federal regulations protecting consumers from unscrupulous debt settlement companies takes effect September 27, part of the government's effort to corral the scam artists who dominate the industry.

 

Debt settlement companies often promise desperate consumers they can reduce their credit card debt, but charge a large upfront fee. Little or no effort is made to settle the debt and the consumer is left in worse shape than before.

The initial changes in the Federal Trade Commission regulations govern how debt relief products are marketed to consumers.

Specifically, the new rules prohibit debt services providers from misrepresentations regarding their program, success rates or any material program features. Companies are also required to disclose potential negative consequences of a settlement and how long it might take for a consumer to realize results.

"This is really a best case scenario for consumers," said Brad Stroh, CEO of Bills.com, an online financial resource. "Consumers will now have substantial and important protections in place to ensure that they are not taken advantage of by predatory debt relief providers. At the same time, responsible providers will be rewarded for their efforts and can stand apart from less reputable companies - making it even easier for consumers to find help from the good actors in the debt relief industry."

Phase two

The second sets of changes take effect on October 28, 2010. This second step will restrict debt relief companies from charging any fees until the consumer has received either interest rate or principal reductions from their creditors.

This addresses one of the most-often criticized aspects of the industry, where a debt relief company could collect up-front fees without having to resolve any consumer debt. With these changes, consumers are protected from unscrupulous providers.

"The timing of these changes is important because the still struggling economy means that many Americans and families remain in financial peril," Stroh said.

States take lead

The new federal rules are designed to provide support to a number of states that have long waged a fierce battle against predatory debt settlement firms. Earlier this year Illinois passed a law to prohibit debt settlement firms from engaging in unfair and abusive practices.

"Debt settlement operators target hardworking people with crushing credit card balances. They claim they're able to pay off your debt for a fraction of what's owed, but most times, this turns out to be a scam," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. "They take your money and almost never reduce your debt.

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

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

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

Also in 2010, Minnesota sued American Debt Settlement Solutions, Inc. of Boca Raton, Florida; Debt Rx USA, LLC of Dallas, Texas; FH Financial Service, Inc. of Dallas, Texas; Morgan Drexen, Inc. of Anaheim, California; Pathway Financial Management, Inc. of Garden Grove, California; and State Capital Financial, Inc. of Hallandale Beach, Florida, claiming the six companies violated the state's new debt settlement law.

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Court Stops Claims of Lucrative Home Jobs Stuffing Envelopes

Consumers misled to believe they could earn substantial income, FTC alleges

Court Stops Claims of Lucrative Home Jobs Stuffing Envelopes...


A U.S. district court, at the request of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has temporarily shut down an envelope-stuffing operation that allegedly scammed cash-strapped consumers by falsely promising they could make substantial income working home jobs.

The FTC charged that Louis Salatto and his company, Global U.S. Resources, conned consumers into paying up-front fees by making phony promises about the earning potential of their envelope-stuffing operation.

Big ad campaign

According to the complaint, Salatto bought classified ads in local pennysavers and community newspapers that promised weekly earnings ranging from $1,200 to $4,400. Consumers who paid the up-front fee did not receive the materials they needed to do the envelope stuffing, the income promised, or the refund Salatto said they could get upon request.

The court order halts the allegedly illegal tactics of Salatto and Global U.S. Resources and freezes their assets while the FTC seeks a permanent prohibition against the defendants' false and deceptive claims.

Since at least 2005, Salatto has advertised nationwide through large classified advertising networks such as Gateway Media Inc. and National Advertising Network Inc., according to the FTC complaint. Ads in pennysavers and community papers stated "No Experience Necessary! Start Immediately!" They provided a toll-free number at which consumers were instructed to leave a message with their contact information.

Holding the bag

Consumers who responded to these ads received a "registration form" that typically stated they would receive $8 for every brochure they stuffed, plus 25 percent of every sale made as a result of their mailing, the complaint alleged. They were instructed to pay a "refundable" fee -- typically $40 -- by cash, check, or money order.

After paying the fee, consumers typically received either nothing or a pamphlet titled "Secret Home Employment Guide," which listed other bogus work-at-home opportunities and provided instructions on how to market them, the FTC complaint stated. Consumers who requested refunds were typically unable to reach anyone, and could obtain the refunds only by submitting a complaint to a Better Business Bureau (BBB) or law enforcement agency.

Catherine of Long Beach, CA, got burned by one such operation. "I answered an Ad in the paper, American Publication, for stuffing envelopes," she tells ConsumerAffairs.com. "I sent the requested $40.00 money order to get started. They, in turn, sent my info to Freedom Publications who requested another $39.95. BBB came up with a different company for the phone number. No refund given to date."

Then there's Jeremy of Kasson, MN, who tells ConsumerAffairs.com how he dodged a bullet. "I responded to an ad that claimed you could get paid $25000-$5000 per month, for stuffing envelopes, at a rate of $5 per envelope stuffed." He says because there was no up-front money requested, he asked for more information. "What I got back was a single piece of paper, giving me little more info than I already had, and asking for a $40 registration fee to get started. Now I am smart enough to know that you never send money to a PO Box -- particularly one out of state -- with little or no information on the legitimacy of the opportunity. As I researched thing further, I came to the conclusion that this is without a doubt a scam."

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Multiple Sclerosis Patients Get Their First Oral Drug

FDA approves Gilenya capsules, first MS drug taken by mouth

Multiple Sclerosis Patients Get Their First Oral Drug...


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Gilenya capsules to reduce relapses and delay disability progression in patients with relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis (MS), a disorder usually treated with injections and infusions.

Gilenya is the first oral drug that can slow the progression of disability and reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms in MS, offering patients an alternative to currently available injectable therapies, said Russell Katz, M.D., director of the Division of Neurology Products in the FDAs Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

Gilenya, made by Novartis AG, is the first in a new class of drugs that block some blood cells in lymph nodes, reducing their migration to the brain and spinal cord, which may help with reducing the severity of MS.

The drug has also been approved in Russia and is awaiting approval in other countries. Merck is now selling a similar MS drug, cladribine, in Australia and Russia and is expecting approval in the U.S. later this year.

MS is a chronic, often disabling, disease that affects the central nervous systemthe brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are about 400,000 people in the United States and 2.1 million people worldwide with MS.

The progress, severity, and specific symptoms of MS are unpredictable and vary from one person to another. Symptoms can be mild, such as numbness in the limbs, or severe, such as paralysis or loss of vision.

Patients using Gilenya should be monitored for a decrease in heart rate upon starting the drug. Gilenya may also increase the risk of infections. Cases of serious eye problems (macular edema) have occurred in patients taking the drug and an ophthalmologic evaluation is recommended.

The most frequent adverse reactions reported by patients taking Gilenya in clinical trials include headache, influenza, diarrhea, back pain, elevation of certain liver enzymes and cough.

The drug will be available in 0.5 milligram capsules.

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Calorie Counting Isn't Easy But Can Be a Big Help in Weight Loss

We tend to underestimate unless we first consider a low-calorie item, study finds

Calorie Counting Isn't Easy But Can Be a Big Help in Weight Loss...


One key to controlling your weight is consuming the right amount of calories each day. While nutritionists tend to frown on the practice of strict calorie counting, understanding how much food you're consuming and its caloric content can be helpful.

So, how do you known how many calories are in that donut? While there are calorie lists for many food items, and more restaurants are posting calorie information, most consumers simply estimate calories, if they even think of it at all. And when it comes to estimating calories, most of us aren't even close.

The sequence in which items are considered often influences our evaluations of these items," writes author Alexander Chernev of Northwestern University. "The focus on sequential estimation is important because many meals are ordered and consumed sequentially rather than at once. Moreover, to control their daily calorie intake, people often estimate not only the amount of calories contained in each meal but also the total calories consumed during the day."

In one of Chernev's studies, he found that a group of participants' impressions of how many calories a cheeseburger had depended on whether they were first shown a salad or the cheeseburger.

The people who saw the cheeseburger first thought it had 570 calories, whereas the participants who first estimated the calories of the salad thought the cheeseburger had 787 caloriesa 38 percent difference.

Reversing the order

"Simply switching the order in which our respondents evaluated the two meals resulted in significant changes in their perceived calorie content," Chernev writes. Reversing the order in which the respondents considered the items also increased the overall calorie estimation from 757 to 1,097 calories.

When the foods are very dissimilar (a "virtuous" salad versus an "indulgent" slice of cheesecake), people get even more confused about calories. Even though participants knew a fruit salad had fewer calories than a piece of cheesecake, they perceived a salad/cheeseburger sequence to have more calories than a cheesecake/cheeseburger combo.

"These findings shed light on how consumers estimate the calorie content of meals comprising multiple items," Chernev writes. "This research identifies strategies for managing individuals' perception of the calorie content of the consumed meals.

The bottom line, says Chernev, is individuals should first try to figure out the calories in something healthy before considering something indulgent. You still may be wrong in your estimation, but you're likely to err on the side of greater self-regulation in consumption."

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Bold Scam Artists Pose As Credit Union

Regulators say it was a scheme to steal money and identities

Bold Scam Artists Pose As Credit Union...


Just because a business claims to be a credit union doesn't mean it is. Michigan authorities have shut down a business claiming to be a credit union after banking officials charged it was actually a bold scam designed to steal money and identities.

The Michigan Office of Financial and Insurance Regulation (OFIR) has ordered "Whitestone Credit Union" to cease and desist from doing business. The agency said it appears that Whitestone, through its website and telephone answering service, was posing as a legitimate credit union when it was anything but.

While banks' reputations have suffered over the last few years, many consumers tend to look with more favor on credit unions. Authorities believe scammers are increasingly trying to exploit that trust.

"It looks like these scammers were posing as a legitimate credit union in order to obtain information used in identity theft," OFIR Commissioner Ken Ross said. "Consumers are encouraged to call OFIR if they believe they have discovered one of these classic phishing scams."

Ross says the fraudulent financial institution was encouraging customers to apply for loans by providing personal information including social security and financial account numbers. Whitestone's website is currently shutdown.

The agency urged consumers to develop a face-to-face or personal relationship with a financial institution before entering into a business contract. Prior to opening an account at an Internet bank or credit union, consumers are encouraged to call their state bank regulators to verify the institution is legitimate.

In 2007 the Credit Union National Association warned consumers that an email phishing scheme was falsely using the organization's name to collect personal information. The scam, the group said, was seeking to exploit credit unions' standing among consumers.

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Online Tracking Program 'Media Stamp' Stalks Web Users, Suit Says

Ringleader latest target of privacy litigation

Online Tracking Program 'Media Stamp' Stalks Web Users, Suit Says...


Another day, another digital privacy lawsuit.

Its been a big year in privacy litigation, with Facebook, Google, and Clearspring beating back suits alleging that they failed to adequately protect consumers identity or personal information.

The latest action targets Ringleader Digital, a Manhattan-based mobile advertising firm. The suits allegations are straight out of 1984, or perhaps The Bourne Identity. According to the complaint, Ringleader and several of its clients use the Media Stamp -- a tool that Ringleader describes as the mobile equivalent of an online cookie -- to track users movements around the internet without their knowledge or consent.

According to the suit, which is seeking class action status, the process starts when a website using Media Stamp technology accesses a device run with HTML5 databases -- a class that includes the iPhone and iPad. The user is given a unique identifying number, which allows Ringleader to track [her] web browsing movements across the entire internet and not just one particular website.

HTML5 databases exploited

HTML5 software, which consists of local storage databases that allow websites to store information on subject devices, is key to Ringleaders alleged scheme. The complaint says that Ringleader found a way to exploit these databases for their own advantage.

According to the plaintiffs, Ringleader stores the users identifying number in an HTML5 database, giving advertisers a detailed picture of [the users] interests and likes, thereby allowing them to target mobile advertising specific to [the users] interests.

Worse, the suit says, theres essentially nothing consumers can do to shut the stamp off.

If plaintiffs cleaned their cookies folder and deleted their browser history, this would have no effect on defendants ability to continue to track plaintiffs because the information necessary to track plaintiffs, the unique ID, is stored in the HTML5 databases, the complaint alleges.

You cant get rid of that database, Majed Nachawati, the plaintiffs attorney, told Wired.com. Youre left with this database tracking you and your phone and your viewing habits on the net, which is a violation of federal privacy laws.

High-profile clientele

While youve probably never heard of Ringleader, youve almost certainly heard of some of its clients: The Travel Channel, CNN Money, Surfline, WhitePages.com, and Merriam-Websters Dictionary all use Ringleader, and all are named as defendants in the suit.

The complaint says that the majority of companies that use Media Stamp fail to address or identify Ringleader and Media Stamp at all.

Ringleader, for its part, isnt denying the allegations, but says it did nothing illegal.

To the extent that the plaintiffs are alleging that Ringleader violated any laws relating to consumers privacy, Ringleader intends to defend its practices vigorously, CEO Bob Walczak told Wired.

The suit, filed in federal court in Los Angeles, alleges trespass, unjust enrichment, and violation of several California state statutes, including the Computer Crime Law and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

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Foreclosure Process Short-Circuited by Mortgage Company's Short Cut

Mortgage official may not have personally signed foreclosure documents as required

Foreclosure Process Short-Circuited by Mortgage Company's Short Cut...


There have been so many U.S. home foreclosures that loan servicers have had trouble keeping up with the paperwork. That may provide a glimmer of hope for some who are fighting to keep their homes.

It turns out that Ally Financial, which operates GMAC Mortgage, may have employed a robo signer" to plant the signature of company executive Jeffrey Stephan on thousands of foreclosure documents. But there's just one problem; the law required Stephan to read the document and sign it in the presence of a notary public.

In sworn deposition for a lawsuit by a homeowner challenging her eviction, Stephan admitted he didn't do either one.

In fact, Ally Financial was being snowed under in foreclosure paper. A reported 10,000 documents crossed Stephan's desk each month, all requiring him to read and sign them.

Shock wave

The revelation this week that he took a shortcut sent a shock wave through the financial industry, prompting reports that Ally Financial had stopped all foreclosures in 23 states. The company says that's not the case.

The speculation likely emanates from a direction previously given by GMAC Mortgage to certain of its outsource vendors to allow time to address a potential issue that was raised in a number of existing foreclosures challenging the internal procedure we used for executing one or more judicially required forms, the company said in a statement.

This direction was to suspend evictions and REO closings where the related foreclosure could have been impacted by the same internal procedure. We are also reviewing certain previously completed foreclosures where the same procedure may have been used.

While the lenders may have had legitimate cause to foreclose, the mishandling of the paperwork has given homeowners ammunition in their fight against foreclosure and has drawn the attention of state law enforcement officials.

No comment

We are unable to comment on the specific merits of the challenge because some of them are in litigation, Ally Financial said. Nevertheless, a new process has already been developed and implemented so that though some existing foreclosures may experience delays while corrective action is taken, there will be no interruption in new foreclosures. These delays are expected to be resolved within the next few weeks and certainly before year end, without serious consequence.

Ally Financial says GMAC Mortgage has been addressing the procedural challenge for more than three months and that its mortgage business is operating as usual.

Attorneys representing homeowners may see it differently. The Washington Post reports that some of the nation's largest mortgage companies also used the GMAC processor, perhaps opening the way for further challenges.

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Senate Bill Targets Free Movie, Music Download Sites

'Bipartisan' group of senators rush to protect record companies, movie producers

Senate Bill Targets Free Movie, Music Download Sites...

photo We've had the War on Terror and the War on Drugs and now, if a group of influential senators have their way, we'll soon have the War on Free Movies and Music.

At least it goes to show that in Washington, where the politicians like to stage mock battles to show the folks back home how serious they are about waging war on the other party, there's still room for compromise: a "bipartisan" group of senators led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and senior Republican member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) have introduced legislation that they say will "address the growing problem of online piracy and counterfeiting."

You didn't know this was a growing problem? Oh well, you must not be a record company or movie producer. You probably haven't had a chance to tell your senators what your growing problems are but ... well, you know, maybe someday.

Anyway, Leahy & Co. have introduced the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act which they say would "give the Department of Justice tools to track and shut down websites devoted to providing access to unauthorized downloads, streaming or sale of copyrighted content and counterfeit goods," according to Sen. Leahy's office, which noted darkly that such "illegal products" are offered through websites that are "often foreign-owned and operated."

Leahy's press release said intellectual property theft costs the U.S. economy more than $100 billion every year, according to estimates that weren't further identified. Many of these thefts amount to someone listening to a song or watching some or all of a movie online. Always unanswered is whether these entertainment-crazed pirates, their lusts unsated, later buy a CD, attend a concert or go to a movie so they can see or hear more of the "stolen" intellectual property.

Each year, online piracy and the sale of counterfeit goods cost American businesses billions of dollars, and result in hundreds of thousands of lost jobs, said Leahy. The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act will protect the investment American companies make in developing brands and creating content and will protect the jobs associated with those investments. Protecting intellectual property is not uniquely a Democratic or Republican priority it is a bipartisan priority.

'Jack-Booted Thugs'

But hold on there, pardner. Not everyone is saddling up for this posse. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) warns that caution should be the order of the day when it comes to shutting down Web sites and prosecuting alleged content thieves.

"Giving government agents a reason to censor, search, seize, and indict must be taken very seriously. Without safeguards and a thorough accounting of the consequences, laws and policies targeting so-called 'pirates' can be used to pry away human rights and undermine fundamental elements of democracy and freedom," said EFF's Richard Esguerra in a recent blog entitled Jack-Booted Thugs and Copyright Enforcement.

Esguerra noted that it was only last week that The New York Times broke the news that Russian authorities raided an environmental group's office and confiscated their computers, using as their excuse the allegation that the organization was using unauthorized copies of Microsoft software.

To its credit, Microsoft manned up and swiftly proclaimed that any software used by the group and its allies was licensed.

Esquerra notes that, shocking though the Russian incident was, the issue isn't limited to software. With perhaps Leahy & Co. in mind, he said that a "sprawling, powerful group-of-groups in the content industry, including movie and music industry lobbyists, software companies, and others, is constantly demanding that governments worldwide be given new powers to search for and seize allegedly pirated materials, and that those governments should act on those powers forcefully."

"In the name of copyright enforcement, the lobby shortsightedly demands provisions that put human rights at risk throughout the world: the power for governments to censor parts of the Internet with so-called copyright filtering, power for governments' border agents to search travelers' goods for "infringing" items, power for governments to detain alleged infringers pre-trial," Esquerra warned.

Other collaborators

The legislation is cosponsored by Committee members Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). Senators Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) are also cosponsors.

The senators said the measure would:

• Give the Department of Justice an expedited process for cracking down on websites that are dedicated to making infringing goods and services available;

• Authorize the Department of Justice to file an in rem civil action against a domain name, and seek a preliminary order from the court that the domain name is being used to traffic infringing material. The Department must publish notice of the action promptly after filing, and it would have to meet clear criteria that focus on the sites substantial and repeated role in online piracy or counterfeiting;

• Provide safeguards allowing the domain name owner or site operator to petition the court to lift the order;

• Provide safeguards against abuse by allowing only the Justice Department to initiate an action, and by giving a federal court the final say about whether a particular site would be cut off from supportive services.

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Weight Loss Program? Don't Forget the Milk

Study participants who consumed the most milk lost the most weight

Weight Loss Program? Don't Forget the Milk...


A new weight loss study conducted by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) reveals that dieters who consumed milk or milk products lost more weight on average than those who consumed little to no milk products -- regardless of diet.

Researchers also found participants with the highest dairy calcium intake, equal to 12 oz. of milk or other dairy products (580 mg of dairy calcium), lost about 12 pounds (6 kg.) at the end of the two years.

By way of comparison, those with the lowest dairy calcium intake averaging about 150 mg dairy calcium, or about half of a glass, lost only seven pounds on average. The study was published in the current issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Beyond calcium, the researchers also found that blood levels of vitamin D independently affected weight loss success. Vitamin D levels increased among those who lost more weight. The dietary intervention study also confirmed other research that overweight participants have lower blood levels of vitamin D.

More than 300 overweight men and women, aged 40 to 65, took part in the study that evaluated low fat, Mediterranean or low-carb diets for two years. Dr. Danit Shahar, of BGU's S. Daniel Abraham Center for Health and Nutrition and the Faculty of Health Sciences, led the study, which was part of the Dietary Intervention Randomized Control Trial (DIRECT) conducted at the Nuclear Research Center in Israel.

The vitamin D factor

"It was known that overweight people had lower levels of serum vitamin D, but this is the first study that actually shows that serum Vitamin D increased among people who lost weight," according to Dr. Shahar. "This result lasted throughout the two years that the study was conducted, regardless of whether they were on a low-carb, low fat or Mediterranean diet."

Vitamin D increases calcium absorption in the bloodstream and in addition to sun exposure can be obtained from fortified milk, fatty fish and eggs. Americans generally consume less than the recommended daily requirement of Vitamin D, which is found in four glasses of milk (400 international units).

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Enterprise Settles Side Airbag Lawsuit

Rental agency 'deleted' side impact airbags from 125,000 resales

The suit, alleged that Enterprise sold 125,000 Chevrolets and Buicks to unwitting consumers who thought and, in some cases, were told that the cars came wi...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

Enterprise Rent-a-Car has agreed to settle a lawsuit concerning its resale of scores of rental cars lacking side air bags.

The suit, filed in April, alleged that Enterprise sold 125,000 Chevrolets and Buicks to unwitting consumers who thought -- and, in some cases, were told -- that the cars came with side curtain air bags.

And who could blame them: side air bags were purportedly standard equipment in the Chevrolet Impala, one of the models covered by the litigation. Indeed, the suit notes that every major crash-test rating and consumer buying guide lists front and rear side impact air bags as standard safety equipment on the 2007 and 2008 Impala, and says that GM extensively advertised and marketed the cars as so equipped.

Enterprise requested deletion

But according to the suit, Enterprise specifically requested that the airbags be deleted, allowing it to save around $175 per car. Despite its knowledge that none of the cars had side air bags, the complaint says, Enterprise fraudulently concealed the nonconformity by failing to disclose the deletion of the standard safety features.

The suit covers the 2006, 2007, and 2008 Chevrolet Impala; the 2008 and 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt; the 2009 Chevrolet Heritage High Roof (HHR); and the 2006 and 2007 Buick Lacrosse. Side airbags were standard equipment on the Impala only; they remained optional on the other models.

According to the suit, [a]n examination of a salvaged 2007 Impala originally sold to Enterprise revealed that the space normally occupied by the side curtain head bag was filled with corrugated plastic.

Lead plaintiffs Timothy Withrow and David Tucker both bought 2008 Impalas from Enterprise believing that the cars came equipped with side airbags.

When Connie Wittkopp bought her 2008 Impala, Enterprises website explicitly listed the car as having side airbags in the front and rear, according to a report in the Dallas Morning News. Enterprise, for its part, chalked the misrepresentation up to an online software glitch.

Side-impact crashes common

The suit notes that side-impact crashes are the second most common type of accident, and that side airbags are frequently listed as must-have safety features with the potential to reduce fatalities and prevent injuries and deaths caused by ejections in rollovers.

Indeed, side-impact collisions present the greatest risk, in part because of the small amount of sheet metal separating passengers from the car that hits them. According to Edmunds.com, side-impact collisions accounted for 28 percent of auto fatalities in 2007.

Plaintiffs to receive $100

Enterprise confirmed the settlement through a spokeswoman.

We typically do not comment on litigation, Laura Bryant told UPI last week. However, the parties have negotiated a settlement and are proceeding in good faith.

Under the settlement, which totals $14 million, class members are eligible to receive a $100 coupon toward future car rentals and a nifty yellow sticker reading, No Side Curtain Airbags. The stickers serve less to remind class members that they got a raw deal -- a fact with which they are already intimately familiar -- than to shield them from liability when they decide to sell their cars to a new generation of unsuspecting buyers.

The settlement may appear lacking, but the suit has produced at least one concrete benefit: GM no longer allows fleet buyers to delete standard safety equipment, meaning that you can finally trust those window stickers and buyers guides.

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Europeans Propose Global Internet Treaty

Agreement would uphold principle of net neutrality

Europeans Propose Global Internet Treaty...

The Internet Governance Forum in Lithuania is set to consider 12 principles of Internet governance that would, among other things, uphold the existing support of net neutrality.

Under the proposal, countries would agree to work across borders to secure the Internet's infrastructure and to keep it safe from cyber attacks. It would also uphold freedom of expression and association and require that all Internet traffic receive equal treatment, a cornerstone of net neutrality.

Currently, some countries do not allow free expression online, or free access to opinions not favored by particular governments.

"The fundamental functions and the core principles of the Internet must be preserved in all layers of the Internet architecture with a view to guaranteeing the interoperability of networks in terms of infrastructures, services and contents," the proposal states. "The end-to-end principle should be protected globally.

A group called the Council of Europe, made up of 47 member countries, presented the proposal as a way to advance democracy and human rights, it said. It's also viewed as an attempt to blunt various government attempts to increase control over the Web.

In the U.S. the Obama Administration has supported the concept of net neutrality. Late last year the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted unanimously today to begin the process of crafting formal net neutrality rules.

"Any rules we adopt must preserve our freedom to connect, to communicate, and to create that is the wonder of the open Internet," FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said at the time. "Each and every user of the Internet must have access to an unlimited online universe of ideas and commerce."

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Computers, Appliances, Home Electronics Getting Improved Marks from Consumers

Apple, Whirlpool on top; strong gains for GE, Dell, Acer and HP

Computers, Appliances, Home Electronics Getting Improved Marks from Consumers...


Customer satisfaction improved for major household appliances and is at or near all-time highs for personal computers and big-ticket consumer electronics such as televisions, according to the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI).

Amid recent news of weak durable goods growth and the continued uncertainty of the housing market, the ACSI results may provide a glimmer of hope for future demand for these durable products.

"In order for demand to rebound, consumers must exhibit an increased desire to spend and have the means to do so," said Claes Fornell, founder of the ACSI and author of The Satisfied Customer: Winners and Losers in the Battle for Buyer Preference. "ACSI data suggest that for durables, the first condition has been met in the form of higher customer satisfaction. Whether this will translate into increased consumer demand will depend on positive movement in the factors that impact the means to spend: employment, wages and access to credit."

Personal computers

Satisfaction with personal computers surged 4.0 percent to match the all-time industry high of 78 on the ACSI's 0 to 100-point scale. Apple gained two percent to 86 -- its highest score ever. This marks the seventh straight year that Apple leads all other PC makers, and the 9-point gap between Apple and its nearest competitor is the largest in ACSI.

That's not to say Apple is without its critics. Karine of Mt-Tremblant, Canada says the IMAC she bought in 2008 for $2900 has been nothing but trouble. "Barely 15 months after purchase, I had a kernel attack," she writes ConsumerAffairs.com. "I paid $750 for a repair that didn't fix the issue. I had to bring the computer back to the store three more times, and it only made it worse. I am bitter and will not buy another Mac in the future."

Many Windows-based machines also improved and no brand declined. Dell improved three percent, while Acer (Gateway and eMachines) and the HP division of Hewlett-Packard both rose four percent, forming a three-way tie at 77-well behind Apple. These companies were joined by the aggregate of all smaller PC makers, such as Sony and Toshiba, which gained four percent to 77.

"Windows-based PC brands appear to have recovered from the problems associated with the Windows Vista software," said Fornell. "Barely a year into the release of Windows 7, satisfaction with these brands has returned to -- and in some cases even surpassed - the levels prior to the launch of Vista."

PC makers have benefited overall from better customer service, although this service continues to lag far behind other durable goods industries. PC owners who had reason to contact customer support are eight percent less satisfied than those with no post-purchase contact with the manufacturer or retailer.

Major Appliances

Customer satisfaction with major appliances such as refrigerators, stoves, dishwashers, and washers and dryers improved 1.2 percent to 82 -- matching a 10-year high. Whirlpool is atop the industry, unchanged at 83. 2010 marks the 15th year in a row that Whirlpool has had at least a share of the industry lead. GE closed the gap with Whirlpool, gaining five percent to 81 and rebounding from a big drop last year.

GE's climb tied the manufacturer with the aggregate of all smaller appliance makers, which improved three percent to 81. Electrolux rounds out the industry, unchanged at 79 and matching a five-year low.

GE does not rate highly with Mike from Villa Hills, KY, who says that after using all GE appliances for 26 years in his previous house with minimal problems, his wife insisted on GE when they moved to another house.

"We bought flat top stove, dishwasher and over-stove microwave," he writes ConsumerAffairs.com. "At 14 months the microwave broke. Entire insides had to be replaced. At 32 months, motor went out on dishwasher. At 39 months, the front burner on the stove went out frying the on-off switches also. My solution, never buy anything with GE associated by name or make."

Consumer electronics

Satisfaction with home electronics such as televisions and DVD or Blu-ray Disc (BD) players increased 2.4 percent to 85 -- the best-ever score for the category and the highest level of customer satisfaction for any ACSI industry thus far in 2010.

Greater affordability has made these products more attractive. For the first time, prices for some flat-screen TVs have fallen below $500. Prices for DVD and BD players have dropped as well, translating into better value for money, with a positive effect on customer satisfaction.

Read more about appliances, computers and electronics.

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Student Loan Default Rate On the Rise

Experts suggest 4 ways to cut costs, raise funds

Student Loan Default Rate On the Rise...


Student loan default rates are at a staggering seven percent compared with the 2007 default rate of 6.7 percent, according to a recent report released by the U.S. Secretary of Education.

The default rates for student borrowers are considerably higher for those who attended public schools than those who attended private ones. Due to a lackluster economic turnaround and high unemployment, it's no surprise that student borrowers are struggling to make loan payments.

Financing tips

Financial experts at Money Management International (MMI) are offering the following tips for managing the cost of a higher education:

Look for scholarships. Scholarships are the best way to pay for school; it's free money that doesn't require repayment. There are several online sources to help students find great scholarships, such as FastWeb, FinAid, and the Financial Aid Resource Center.

Apply for federal grants. Obtaining a grant is another way to pay for college with free money. To secure federal grants fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Also, check out the Academic Competitiveness Grant or the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent or SMART grant.

Easier said than done, according to some of the folks who have written ConsumerAffairs.com.

"They (U.S. Department of Education) hold my student loan and refuse to come to an agreement about a monthly payment," writes Catherine of Rhinelander, WI. "They stated they want a debit or credit card number or my checking account number, which I will not do. They just refuse to work with me with me not being willing to give my checking account number. It's impossible to get this debt taken care of."

Mary of Jamestown, KY, found herself in a Catch-22 situation. "Young people that can't afford to go to college have left home and are working can't apply for a Pell Grant based on their own income but must show their parents tax returns as their own income until they are 25 years old," she tells ConsumerAffairs.com. "Now isn't that clever it looks like cheap way to cheat this country out of giving a fair chance for an education. Who benefits from taxes anyway?"

Choose the right school. Sometimes affording tuition is as easy as choosing a school that fits your family's budget. It is cheaper to go to school in-state vs. out-of-state. Also consider a public funded school over a private school. Students can find a college cost comparison tool and apply for financial aid.

• Finally, consider an alternative program. "There are other programs that are just as rewarding, but cost significantly less than a university program," said Cate Williams, vice president of financial literacy for MMI. "For example, instead of a four year nursing degree that could cost up to $40,000, consider a certification program in respiratory therapy at a community college for only $27,300."

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Webloyalty Settles Internet Credit Card Fraud Charges

Crackdown continues against companies exploiting 'negative option' marketing

Webloyalty Settles Internet Credit Card Fraud Charges...

Discount club marketer Webloyalty.com, Inc.will refund defrauded consumers who were charged unauthorized fees and will also pay $5.2 million in penalties, costs, and fees to the state of New York, a total settlement worth $8.5 million.

The company is just the latest to make amends for charging consumers' credit cards without proper consent. Separately, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo obtained settlements with five retailers who have partnered with Webloyalty: Ticketmaster LLC; Pizza Hut, Inc.; Orbitz Worldwide, LLC; Shutterfly, Inc.; and MovieTickets, Inc.

The settlements require the retailers to collectively pay over $3.3 million for consumer refunds, education, and fees, and require that they reform their marketing arrangements with discount club sellers.

Cuomo's investigation into the discount club industry 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 Webloyalty. 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.

'Buying' without knowing it

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

In this all too common Internet scheme, consumers were tricked into paying for monthly services for a discount club while shopping online at trusted retailers, Cuomo said.

According to the settlement, Webloyalty must:

• Fully refund fees charged to certain consumers who unknowingly enrolled in or did not authorize billing for Webloyalty discount clubs and programs

• 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 Webloyalty for which they will be billed

• Make redemption forms for rebates immediately available to consumers online

Last month, Cuomo obtained more than $10 million in settlements with Affinion Group, Inc., its subsidiary Trilegiant, and other retailers engaged in discount club schemes.

Discount clubs generate billions of dollars each year, much of which has been amassed through fraud, and retailers have obtained millions of dollars in revenue for passing customers credit card information to the programs.

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Congress Could Vote Soon to Legalize Online Gambling

Licensing gambling sites could raise revenue, provide more consumer protection, Rep. Frank argues

Congress Could Vote Soon to Legalize Online Gambling...

Call it a long shot, but there's a chance Congress could vote to legalize online gambling. The House Financial Services Committee passed a measure that would lift the existing prohibition last month, making it at least possible the full House could vote on the bill despite opposition from Republicans.

With the government scrambling for funds, it's becoming increasingly difficult to look the other way as billions of dollars in potential tax revenue slips away. Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation estimates legalizing online gambling could bring in more than $40 billion in new tax revenue over the next decade.

Stacked up against a deficit in the trillions, that might not sound like much but a few extra billion here and there certainly couldn't hurt.

Officially known as the Internet Gambling Regulation, Consumer Protection, and Enforcement Act of 2009 (H.R. 2267), the bill sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) would set up a federal regulatory and enforcement authority that would license gambling operators to accept bids from consumers in the United States.

We now make it illegal for adults to gamble on the internet, Frank said in a recent appearance on the Jay Leno Show. If you have some guy who wants to play poker on the Internet, we say its illegal. Why [anybody] thinks thats the governments business is beyond me. We could make billions of dollars a year by making it legal and taxing it.

Under Frank's bill, gambling sites would be required to maintain "effective protections against underage gambling, compulsive gambling, money laundering and fraud, and enforce prohibitions or restrictions on types of gambling prohibited by states, and Indian Tribes."

Online gambling has been illegal ever since October 2006, when Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling and Enforcement Act. There are those who say the law hasn't done much other than starve the government of tax revenue, since gambling -- like drug usage, drinking, prostitution, rolling past stop signs and other human vices -- continues to occur, even when it's illegal.

Lately, however, the feds have been moving aggressively against financial institutions tied to online gambling, using the provisions of the Unlawful International Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), which went into effect in June. The law, passed in 2006, aims to stop online gambling by preventing credit card companies and banks from processing funds transfers for unlawful internet gambling.

Just last week, Goldwater Bank in Scottsdale, Ariz., agreed to forfeit $734,000 in assets tied to money laundering and illegal online gambling operations, the FBI said. The one-branch bank was accused of transferring funds for several online gambling sites, including PokerStars, the worlds largest online poker room. At least $13 million was transferred in the first half of 2009 according to federal reports.

Although Goldwater Bank denies guilty knowledge of its role in facilitating an illegal online gambling business, it was paid to execute transactions that were essential to the operation of this criminal enterprise, said Janice Fedarcyk, the FBIs Assistant Director in charge, in a statement. The forfeiture settlement means the bank wont profit by providing this service.

Underground, under-regulated

Prohibiting online gambling has simply forced it underground, critics say. Most Web sites have stopped accepted advertising for gambling sites and credit card issuers have stopped processing payments from gambling sites located in the U.S. But since gambling is legal in much of the rest of the world, online sites continue to operate and can be easily accessed by any American armed with a keyboard and a mouse. The problem, as Frank and others see it, is that without effective licensing and regulation, U.S. gamblers lack even the most basic protections.

Of course, all bets could be off if the Republicans gain control of the House in the upcoming midterm elections, since most of the opposition to legalized gambling comes, oddly enough, from conservatives who say government should stay out of citizens' private lives. There's also opposition from some but not all casinos.

The committee voted to approve Frank's bill 41-22, with one member voting present. The final tally appears below.

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Retirement Planning Fiasco: Americans Face $6.6 Trillion Retirement Income Deficit

Average household is $90,000 short of the amount needed to maintain its living standard in retirement

Retirement Planning Fiasco: Americans Face $6.6 Trillion Retirement Income Deficit...


There's a lot of talk about the federal budget deficit but a Washington advocacy group says there's an even more threatening deficit facing the United States: a "retirement income deficit" that the group pegs at $6.6 trillion. The figure represents the gap between the pensions and retirement savings that American households have today and what they should have today to maintain their living standards in retirement, according to Retirement USA.

The Retirement Income Deficit is based on projections of retirement income and wealth for American workers ages 32-64. The figure was calculated for Retirement USA by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, using methodology developed for the Centers National Retirement Risk Index.

The calculation is based on an analysis of about 70 million households comprising people in their prime earning years, between 32 and 64. There is an average deficit of about $90,000 in retirement savings for each household.

"The number should be a wake-up call," said Maria Freese, director of government relations and policy for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. " It is a measure of how far behind Americans are in their retirement savings today. Cuts to Social Security, pension freezes, and 401(k) losses on the stock market could easily make the Retirement Income Deficit much, much worse in the future.

The key sources of income that retirees have relied on are either under attack in the case of Social Security or disappearing in the case of traditional pensions, said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, 401(k) plans are not working, and millions of workers have neither a pension nor a 401(k) account. Clearly, the current private retirement system is failing most Americans.

Featured at a press conference announcing the campaign were two women who shared their own personal retirement income deficit stories and who will be part of a "story bank" the group is assembling: Shareen Miller of Falls Church, Va., and Constance Canby Morton of Westmoreland County, Va.

Miller is a personal care assistant who has no retirement plan through her employer. She is afraid that she will never be able to retire, but she is also worried that she will not be able to continue to work in her physically demanding job as she ages. Canby Morton is a 66-year-old retiree who has neither a pension nor a 401(k). She and her husband have health issues, which have eaten into their savings, and they rely solely on Social Security.

The story bank shows that the Retirement Income Deficit is not merely an abstraction, said Gail Dratch, legislative representative for the AFL-CIO. The crisis impacts Americans of all ages and from all walks of life. These are the faces behind that number.

Retirement USA is a campaign for a new retirement system that, along with Social Security, will provide universal, secure, and adequate income for future retirees. The AFL-CIO, the Economic Policy Institute, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the Pension Rights Center, and the Service Employees International Union are the campaign's primary supporters.

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Internet 'Modeling Job Scam Warning Issued

Applicants lured with enticements of easy money, little work

Consumers are being urged to be on the lookout for scams when searching for jobs on the Internet -- including questionable online ads for part-time "modeli...

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Federal Reserve - Consumers Continue To Pay Down Debt

Recession appears to have instilled new financial priorities

Consumers Continue To Pay Down Debt...


Last week's report by the Federal Reserve on the country's flow of funds focused on the fact that consumers were poorer in the second quarter of the year than they were in the first. But the report also contained data suggesting consumers are digging out from beneath their mountain of debt.

With an unemployment rate stubbornly hovering between nine and 10 percent, consumers have cut their debt and increased their savings. While that's good for consumers, it's putting stress on the economy.

One of the reasons the economy is slow to recover is consumers aren't using credit like they used to. Borrowing for mortgages fell at a 2.3 percent rate from April through June, while other forms of consumer credit declined at 2.5 percent rate, the Feds report showed.

Household spending is increasing gradually, but remains constrained by high unemployment, modest income growth, lower housing wealth, and tight credit, the Fed noted last month.

While economists tend to worry about consumers' thrifty new habits, at least one group sees it as a positive sign. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a 50-year old organization seeking to match consumers with qualified and honest money advisors, cites its online poll showing that, since the economic crisis hit with full force, 51 percent of respondents to the poll said they had taken steps to reduce their debt.

Recession's silver lining

If there is a silver lining to the recession, it is that it has served to refocus consumers attention on their personal finances, said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC. When times are good, we tend to put our finances on auto-pilot. The recent financial wake-up call has been harsh, but may have been the splash of cold reality many Americans needed to regain control of their finances.

Cunningham says consumers have apparently become uncomfortable carrying debt, realizing how detrimental it can be to their overall financial well-being, and have gotten serious about doing what it takes to pay it off.

Reducing debt was by far the most frequent response to the August poll, when queried on how consumers used the economic crisis to improve their financial situation, followed by 20 percent saying that the crisis has inspired them to begin tracking their spending and develop a budget.

March survey less encouraging

The NFCCs 2010 Financial Literacy Survey (FLS) conducted in March, showed that only 37 percent of Americans have somewhat of a good idea about how much they spend or keep close track of their spending, thus having 20 percent make this positive adjustment to their financial behavior is indeed a step in the right direction.

Ten percent of those responding indicated that the crisis caused them to review their credit report.

In spite of the report being free, the NFCCs FLS found that only 34 percent of Americans had ordered their report in the past 12 months. Cunningham said reviewing the credit report is a critical component of good financial habits.

Overall, the results of the poll are encouraging, Cunningham said. Theres still plenty of room for improvement, but Americans appear to be taking positive steps toward financial stability. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen if these changes will be embraced once the economy recovers, or if consumers will have short memories and revert back to financially destructive behavior.

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Tax Elimination Scheme Promoters Sentenced to Prison

Pinnacle Quest claimed to wipe out debt and eliminate taxes

Tax Elimination Scheme Promoters Sentenced to Prison...

September 20, 2010
A federal court in Pensacola, Fla., has sentenced three of nine promoters of a fraudulent tax-and-debt-elimination scheme to prison terms for their roles in tax fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. Four others were sentenced in July to prison terms ranging from 5 to 12 years. The remaining two will be sentenced in October.

The court sentenced Eugene Casternovia to 7 years in prison and sentenced Arthur Merino to 3 years and 4 months in prison. Mark Lyon, who cooperated with the government and testified at trial, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

On March 31, 2010, a federal jury returned guilty verdicts against eight people, following a month-long trial in Pensacola involving the promotion of fraudulent schemes through Pinnacle Quest International, also known as PQI and Quest International. The ninth, Lyon, entered a guilty plea and testified against the other eight at trial.

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

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

At trial, the government established that other PQI vendors sold fraudulent schemes for eliminating credit card debt, the most successful of which was called Financial Solutions. Financial Solutions charged its customers thousands of dollars for a series of letters to send to credit card companies disputing the lawfulness of the underlying debt. The product was wholly ineffective, and customers typically were sued by their creditors and often forced into bankruptcy.

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

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

There are consequences for disobeying the laws of our nation. These defendants are now being held accountable for their criminal behavior, said Victor S. O. Song, Chief, IRS Criminal Investigation. They helped form a series of sham business entities and then promoted fraudulent debt elimination tactics intended for the sole purpose of concealing income from the IRS. Their tactics were fraudulent. There is no secret formula that can eliminate an individuals tax obligation.

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Puppies Are the Lure as Scam Artists Target Dog-Loving Consumers

The puppies are 'free' but, oh those shipping costs from Africa

Puppies Are the Lure as Scam Artists Target Dog-Loving Consumers...

Scam artists are trying to hit the airwaves with offers for free purebred puppies in their latest efforts to dupe consumers out of hundreds of dollars, ConsumerAffairs.com learned.

In this latest twist to the old free puppy scheme, swindlers recently approached a Missouri radio station about buying air time to run ads for free Yorkshire Terrier, English Bulldog, and Maltese puppies.

They are vet checked, very healthy, and also friendly, a fraudster who used the name Tom Jones wrote in an e-mail to a St. Louis radio station. I will want the ad to run for 3 weeks so let me know the cost if you can't run the ad for free. In another ad, a con artist using the name R Miller said he wanted his ad for free Yorkie Terrier puppies to run for two weeks.

The radio station didnt air the ads, but an investigator with the St. Louis Better Business Bureau (BBB) responded to the person claiming to have the free English Bulldog puppies. A few days later, Investigator Bill Smith received a reply from a pastor who said he and his family recently moved to Africa to do missionary work.

We have the puppies right here with us, Pastor David Sanchez wrote in an e-mail. Both of them are my darling sweetheart and super spoiled!

Pastor Sanchez, however, said his family didnt want to keep their babies -- 10-week-old Bella and Max -- in Africa because of the weather.

I am giving them out because of (sic) bad condition and we're spending months for the Christian mission and I don't want Bella and Max to die in this bad weather, he wrote.

Although Pastor Sanchez repeatedly said the puppies were free, he asked Smith to split the cost of transporting them to the United States.

We both will be responsible for the shipping cost, he wrote in the e-mail, which also contained pictures of the puppies. Smith soon learned that Pastor Sanchez wanted him to wire $450 -- using Western Union -- to a person in Nigeria that he identified as Wale Peters with the Overseas Diplomatic Courier Service Company.

It will be better if you can do the transfer at any grocery store closest to you, Pastor Sanchez wrote. Once again, note that you have to make the transfer via western union only. When Smith told Sanchez he couldnt afford to wire that much money, the so-called man of the cloth quickly lowered the shipping fee.

I just spoke to my wife about your message and she said I should inform you to proceed and send $150 right away while we meet up with the rest balance, Pastor Sanchez said. We don't really have much on us but act fast to enable the shipping.

photo "Max" and "Bella" as seen in an email from "Pastor Sanchez"

Not new

Puppy scams like this arent new or limited to the Midwest, Smith said.

These are a nationwide problem, he told ConsumerAffairs.com. And theyve been going on for a few years. The BBB and the American Kennel Club issued a joint release about this issue back in 2007. This is, however, the first time weve noticed a radio station has been solicited to put ads on the air for free dogs, he added.

In most cases, the thieves behind these schemes run ads in newspapers or on Internet sites like Craigslist. The ruse, however, is usually the same: The con artists pose as ministers or members of the military whove been transferred Africa, taken their dogs with them, and discovered they cant keep the pets during their oversea stays.

They offer to pay half the cost of transporting the dogs to the consumers, Smith said. But people whove wired the money soon discover that the puppies never come.

A quick Internet search revealed other consumers have received strikingly similar e-mails about 10-week-old puppies named Bella and Max.

Consider this message a consumer posted in May regarding an e-mail she received from a Pastor Owen Green for free puppies named Bella and Max.

(Both) of them are my darling sweetheart and super spoiled, wrote Pastor Green, who said he and his wife were doing missionary work in Africa. (We) have the puppies right here with usI am giving them out because of bad condition and we're spending months for the christian (sic) mission and i don't want Bella and max to die in this bad weather.

The Missouri Attorney Generals office also posted information on its Web site back in 2007 about a similar e-mail for free puppies.

I have received an e-mail that is supposedly from a woman who is in Africa asking me to adopt her puppy, a Missouri consumer wrote the office. This seems to be a scam and I wanted to warn others about this email."

Missouri authorities told the consumer not to fall for the ruse. This is a scam and recipients of the e-mail are asked to send hundreds of dollars for shipping fees, authorities said. Scammers are successful by tugging at the heart strings of unsuspecting victims.

That advice, however, came too late for one Missourian.

Before I read up on puppy scam I got scammed, a consumer named Gloria said. I had just lost my Yorkshire Terrier. I was checking the Internet for puppies. Well, the next day I get this note on e-mail saying her name was Cathy, and she was a Yorkshire breeder. (She) just sold her last puppies to a Jim WalcoxI should connect him. Well, you might know he's in Africaa Rev.

What to do

Consumer protection experts say dog lovers can protect themselves from getting taken in puppy scams by:

• Ignoring e-mails and offers for free puppies from people living in Africa or other foreign countries;

• Never wiring money to strangers, especially those who live outside the United States;

• Never sharing personal information, including social security numbers or bank account information, with strangers or companies you didnt contact;

• Never falling for touching stories or pictures of animals. It is always best to deal with known, reputable businesses, or visit a shelter, the BBB said.

The organization also warned media outlets to be wary of accepting ads for free or low-cost puppies from anyone outside the United States. These are almost always scams, the BBB warned.

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Repair Credit Safely; Don't Fall for Phony Credit Fix Promises

Consumers bombarded by 'fix credit' ads on radio, cable TV

Repair Credit Safely; Don't Fall for Phony Credit Fix Promises...


Desperate consumers increasingly fall for unrealistic promises from companies that claim they can repair your credit. Instead, consumers are often left with no change in their credit status, despite paying a large, up-front fee.

In Indiana, Attorney General Greg Zoeller has sued two credit repair companies he says defrauded consumers in his state.

"To take money from economically-struggling people with the promise of fixing their bad credit and then provide them no real help and leave them in worse condition is beneath contempt, Zoeller said. Individuals who defraud Hoosiers in this way will face aggressive enforcement by my office.

Zoeller's suit targets two companies operating within Indiana's borders, but credit repair companies usually target consumers nationwide, using heavy advertising on cable TV, radio and the Internet.

Red flags

How can you tell if a credit repair company is really a scam. Zoeller offers five dead give-aways:

1. The company wants you to pay for credit repair services before they provide any services.

2. The company doesn't state your rights in its contract or explain that you can receive services for free.

3. The company recommends that you don't contact any of the three major national consumer reporting companies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) directly.

4. The company tells you they can get rid of most or all the negative credit information in your credit report, even if the information is accurate and current.

5. The company suggests you apply for an Employer Identification Number to use instead of your Social Security number so you can invent a "new" credit identity -- and then, a new credit report.

"We recommend that consumers who need credit counseling avoid for-profit companies, since there are legitimate non-profit credit counseling services available," Zoeller said.

The National Foundation for Credit Counseling certifies legitimate non-profit credit counseling services.

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BPA Exposure Much Higher Than Previously Thought, Study Finds

Researchers express 'grave concerns' about effect of long-term exposure

BPA Exposure Much Higher Than Previously Thought, Study Finds...


A study released today reveals human exposure to the worrisome chemical bisphenol a (BPA) is much higher than some previous estimates and likely comes from many -- and still unknown -- sources.

 

The study, published in the Environmental Health Perspectives online journal, also reveals that data on the effects of BPA in rodents and primates are relevant to what researchers call human heath predictions.

The study examined the effects of BPA -- given orally in the same controlled doses -- to adult female rhesus macaques and adult female mice.

Researchers at the University of Missouri and the Washington State University then compared those findings to previously published data regarding BPA exposure in women.

In the study titled: Similarity of Bisphenol A Pharmacokinetics in Rhesus Monkeys and Mice: Relevance for Human Exposure researchers found what they consider major similarities in the way BPA is metabolized in women, female monkeys, and female mice. Those findings are important because they indicate that studies regarding the effects of BPA in rodents and primates are useful to regulatory agencies interpreting animal data on the safety of BPA exposure in humans.

Researchers made another grave finding in their study of the BPA, a controversial and widely-used industrial chemical found in baby bottles, sport drink containers, medical equipment, some dental sealants, and the liners in metal food cans and water supply pipes.

They found humans daily exposure to the endocrine disrupting chemical linked to heart disease, developmental problems, diabetes, obesity, and reproductive issues is much higher -- and from more sources -- than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other governmental agencies previously suspected.

Our data raise grave concern that regulatory agencies have grossly underestimated current human exposure levels, the study states. On this basis of our findings, we propose that the higher than predicted serum levels of unconjugated BPA in men and women reflect significant non-oral BPA exposure in addition to oral exposure.

This is consistent with other evidence suggesting that the consumption of BPA contaminated food and beverages alone is insufficient to account for the BPA levels reported in human biomonitoring studies, the study added.

Some of the non-oral ways people are exposed to BPA is through their skin, researchers said. One example of a recently identified source of human exposure to BPA is thermal (carbonless) paper receipts that could potentially result in trans-dermal exposure, the study states.

Childrens books and cigarette filters are other newly recognized routes of BPA exposure in humans. There is significant leaching of BPA from childrens books and BPA is also present in cigarette filters, raising the concern that inhalation of cigarette smoke may be another previously unrecognized source of exposure for individuals who smoke, the study found.

Safety questioned

But why should people care about their exposures to BPA? One reason, scientists say, is because the safety of the chemical remains under fire.

Some organizations say the chemical poses little to no risk to humans. But a large body of evidence links BPA to various health issues in humans and animals, the study noted.

Earlier this year, the FDA stated the agency has some concerns about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.

The authors of this latest study urged regulators to identify all products that contain BPA.

Although much remains to be determined about the mechanisms of action of BPA, which varies depending upon the dose, tissue and the life stage of exposure, understanding the current levels of human exposure and the various routes of exposure to BPA, how BPA is metabolized, and whether animal models are relevant for modeling human exposure is critical to better understand the risk posed to humans, the study states. The urgent need for this information is underscored by the CDCs conclusion that over 90% of people in the USA are chronically exposed to BPA and the suggestion that this likely also applies to people living in other countries around the world.

The study added: Surprisingly, there are no data that directly bear on the question regarding sources and amounts of human exposure to BPA, and estimates of current daily BPA exposure levels vary widely.

ConsumerAffairs.com contacted a trade group for chemical makers about todays study. A spokesman for the American Chemistry Council (ACC) reiterated the organizations position that BPA does not pose harm to humans.

Consistent with previously published studies, including comprehensive studies by FDA researchers, this new study confirms that BPA is efficiently metabolized and rapidly eliminated from the body after oral exposure, the organizations Steven G. Hentges, Ph.D., said in a written statement.

The study also confirms that BPA does not bioaccumulate in the body. Although this new study did not measure human exposure to BPA, it does validate the findings from recent large-scale biomonitoring studies conducted by the US CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and Health Canada. Both of these studies indicate that typical human exposure to BPA, from all sources, is 1,000 times or more lower than the safe intake limits set by government bodies around the world.

He added: Overall, this new study continues to support the conclusions of government bodies around the world that BPA does not pose a risk at the very low levels to which people might be exposed.

What to do?

But what about consumers who remain worried about their exposure to this hotly-debated chemical? What steps can they take to reduce their exposure to BPA?

The National Institute of Environmental Health Studies recommends the following:

• Use BPA-free baby bottles;

• Dont microwave food containers made with polycarbonate plastic. Polycarbonate may break down from over-use at high temperatures;

• Reduce the use of canned foods;

• Use food containers made of glass, porcelain, or stainless steel whenever possible, especially for hot foods and liquids;

• Avoid buying plastic products made with BPA. Those products may have the recycling number 7 on the bottom.

 

 

 

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Chase Apologizes For Website Outage

Website went dark for more than 24-hours

Chase Apologizes For Website Outage...

Chase bank and credit card customers have received an apology from the bank for last week's website outage, when the Chase website was inaccessible for more than 24 hours.

The bank's website went dark the evening of September 13, with customers receiving a message stating Our website is temporarily unavailable. We're working quickly to restore access. Please log on later." Service was finally restored around 1:00 a.m. September 15.

We recently experienced a service interruption that affected the chase.com website and mobile services, and we apologize if this created any difficulties for you, the bank said in an email sent to its 16.5 million customers over the weekend. We have resolved the problem, and want to assure you that your account information was not compromised as a result of this outage.

The bank assured customers that all account and confidential information remain secure and were not affected by the outage. The bank did not say what, exactly, caused the problem only that it was an internal issue.

According to Bank Info Security, a website dealing with security issues in the banking industry, the outage may point to underlying issues with outdated, legacy technology.

A bank spokesperson says customers who were assessed late fees because of non-payment of online bills during the outage should contact the bank.

 

 

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Ohio Sues Three Foreclosure Rescue Businesses

Operations in Ohio, Florida and California bilked homeowners out of thousands

Ohio Sues Three Foreclosure Rescue Businesses...


The state of Ohio has filed three new lawsuits against foreclosure rescue operations, charging they cheated consumers out of tens of thousands of dollars.

The court actions seek to shut down these outfits in Ohio with full restitution to homeowners.

"In each case, the rescue operations charged ridiculously high fees to assist homeowners who were at risk of losing their homes," said Attorney General Richard Cordray. "In the end, homeowners got no help and ended up in deeper mortgage trouble. No Ohioan should ever pay for foreclosure assistance, and we have legitimate housing counselors who help you for free."

The suits were filed against National Homeownership Assistance Foundation Ltd (NHAF), located in Worthington, Ohio, and Stephens Investment & Financial Services dba Lifeline Financial Legal Home Solutions, located in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Offered false hope

Cordray accuses NHAF and its managing partner, Casimir S. Suwinski, its general manager, Casimir S. Suwinski Jr. and its president, Arden Banks of charging homeowners on average $2,500 for foreclosure prevention services, such as securing loan modifications from mortgage servicers, and then not providing the service.

In the case against Lifeline, Cordray accuses the operation of claiming that it could "reduce your payments up to 10-50 percent," or "lower your interest rate." After charging thousands of dollars, the company failed to deliver the service. Lifeline also misled consumers by misrepresenting its legal expertise and the availability of legal services, including "retained legal experts."

Complaints about Lifeline Financial are not limited to consumers in Ohio. Edward, of Billings, MT, says he paid the company $1200 in July, 2009, to negotiate a loan modification to save his home from foreclosure.

"Our mortgage company told me LifeLine sent in our Making Home Affordable package in August and then never got back with them as of October 30, 2009," he writes ConsumerAffairs.com. "When I complained they threw us under the bus. I want our money returned to us."

Additionally, Cordray filed a suit against 1st American Law Center Inc. based in Oceanside, Calif. In that filing, 1st American is accused of charging homeowners as much as $4,000 for foreclosure prevention assistance services such as negotiating loans and accepting payment for these services without delivering on its promises.

"I contacted them (1st American) to help lower my mortgage rates and credit cards," writes Randy of Hiawatha, KS. "They would stall and would not answer email or phone calls. When I had enough, I contacted them by phone and stated I wanted out. They finally agreed that I could be let out of the contract. I had paid them $1995.00. They stated that they would give me $1300.00 back." Randy tells ConsumerAffairs.com that as of August 17, 2010, he had yet to receive the money. "This is a bogus company," he concludes, "who prey on people who are struggling to keep afloat."

All three foreclosure rescue operations have been charged with multiple violations of Ohio law, including failure to deliver, misrepresentation and unfair or deceptive acts or practices. Cordray is seeking civil penalties from each of the companies in addition to full restitution for consumers. Further at the AG's request, the court has ordered an attachment of NHAF's assets, pending resolution of the case.

With these lawsuits, Cordray has taken formal legal action against 14 foreclosure rescue scam operations targeting Ohio homeowners since he took office in January 2009. He also has sued three mortgage servicers for unfair or deceptive loan modification practices.

The lawsuits against Carrington Mortgage Services, American Home Mortgage Servicing Inc. and Barclays Capital Real Estate dba HomEq Servicing for violations of Ohio's Consumer Sales Practices Act introduce an unprecedented legal strategy into the fight against foreclosure.

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Ohio Sues Work From Home Business Scheme

NSA Technologies took money but didn't deliver work from home jobs, state charges

Ohio Attorney General sued three Northeast Ohioans for their roles in NSA Techologies, a work from home business scheme that left consumers without promise...


Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray has sued three Northeast Ohioans for their roles in NSA Techologies, a work from home business scheme that left consumers without promised jobs and out of money.

"As unemployed Ohioans searched for jobs, these individuals sought to profit from the desperation of others," said Cordray. "My office has received more than 100 complaints from consumers who felt that they were ripped off by the deceptive practices of NSA Technologies. With this lawsuit, I intend to collect full restitution and stop the abhorrent business practices of these three individuals."

The lawsuit charges NSA Technologies LLC and its principals, Mark W. Jenney of Akron; Victor J. Bierman III of Broadview Heights; and Vincent E. Fisher of Copley with multiple violations of Ohio's Consumer Sales Practices Act (CSPA).

According to the lawsuit, NSA Technologies advertised work from home jobs, self-employment guides and job placement services through online ads. In the suit, Cordray accuses the operation of taking money from Ohioans in payment some victims paid hundreds of dollars apiece and then not providing the services that were purchased.

Additionally, the trio issued flyers to patrons after the purchase, threatening to "blacklist" consumers through www.badcustomer.com if the bank charges were disputed.

The lawsuit charges the operation with violations that include failure to deliver or provide refunds, unfair or deceptive sales practices and unconscionable acts. Cordray is seeking restitution, civil penalties and a permanent injunction.

Work from home jobs - a few tips

Cordray offers the following tips to protect Ohioans searching for work at home jobs:

• Don't pay for help finding work. Some business opportunities involve upfront costs, but for most jobs, you should be making money, not spending it. Be suspicious of companies that make you pay for "exclusive information," mandatory training sessions, starter kits or other materials, especially if they ask you to wire transfer money to a foreign country.

• Check a company's reputation with the Better Business Bureau and search complaints filed with the Ohio Attorney General's Office.

• Don't trust unrealistic salaries or vague job descriptions. Demand a detailed description of the work involved before you commit to a job.

• Beware of lengthy contracts. Don't sign a contract without reading the fine print. Scam artists may try to slip in certain clauses, hoping you won't read them. Written contracts generally are binding, so take the contract to an attorney or trusted friend to review, and don't sign until you fully understand the agreement.

• Take your time. Don't give in to high-pressure tactics. If a company doesn't give you enough time to review a contract or make a decision, don't do business with it.

• Be wary of suspicious interviews. Interviews that take place at unusual locations (such as hotel lobbies, restaurants or other locations outside a normal place of business) are fishy. Be skeptical of group interviews and representatives that seem to be selling the company to you. If you feel pressured, walk away. You probably have good reason to be suspicious.

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Get Sweaty To Get Some Sleep

Aerobic exercise is just thing to help you nod off, study finds

Get Sweaty To Get Some Sleep...


If you're over 50, this probably is not what you want to hear. But, a new study finds regular aerobic exercise helps older adults sleep better and feel more vigorous.

The study is the first to examine the effect of aerobic exercise on middle-aged and older adults with a diagnosis of insomnia. About half the people in these age groups complain of chronic insomnia symptoms.

The aerobic exercise trial resulted in the most dramatic improvement in patients' reported quality of sleep, including sleep duration, compared to any other non-pharmacological intervention.

Need for sleep

"This is relevant to a huge portion of the population," says Phyllis Zee, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern University and senior author of a paper to be published in the October issue of Sleep Medicine.

"Insomnia increases with age," Zee says. "Around middle age, sleep begins to change dramatically. It is essential that we identify behavioral ways to improve sleep. Now we have promising results showing aerobic exercise is a simple strategy to help people sleep better and feel more vigorous."

The drug-free strategy also is desirable, because it eliminates the potential of a sleeping medication interacting with other drugs a person may be taking, says lead author Kathryn Reid, research assistant professor.

Sleep is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, like nutrition and exercise, notes Zee.

"By improving a person's sleep, you can improve their physical and mental health," Zee says. "Sleep is a barometer of health, like someone's temperature. It should be the fifth vital sign. If a person says he or she isn't sleeping well, we know they are more likely to be in poor health with problems managing their hypertension or diabetes."

Sweating with the oldies

The study included 23 sedentary adults, primarily women, 55 and older who had difficulty falling sleep and/or staying asleep and impaired daytime functioning. Women have the highest prevalence of insomnia.

After a conditioning period, the aerobic physical activity group exercised for two 20-minute sessions four times per week or one 30-to-40-minute session four times a week, both for 16 weeks. Participants worked at 75 percent of their maximum heart rate on at least two activities including walking or using a stationary bicycle or treadmill.

Participants in the non-physical activity group participated in recreational or educational activities, such as a cooking class or a museum lecture, which met for about 45 minutes three to five times a week for 16 weeks.

Both groups received education about good sleep hygiene, which includes sleeping in a cool, dark, and quiet room, going to bed the same time every night, and not staying in bed too long, if you can't fall asleep.

Overall benefits

Exercise improved the participants' self-reported sleep quality, elevating them from a diagnosis of poor sleeper to good sleeper. They also reported fewer depressive symptoms, more vitality, and less daytime sleepiness.

"Better sleep gave them pep, that magical ingredient that makes you want to get up and get out into the world to do things," Reid says.

"Exercise is good for metabolism, weight management, and cardiovascular health and now it's good for sleep," Zee says.

A from booklet the National Institutes of Health. (NIH) available with suggestions to help you get to sleep.



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Nationwide Class Action Filed Over Egg Contamination

Lawyer says suit could cover 76,000 individuals

Avvo.com Publishes False Information, Suit Charges...


The Iowa egg farms apparently responsible for the recent salmonella outbreak have been named in a class action lawsuit, brought on behalf of six consumers who became sick after eating tainted eggs.

The suit, filed Wednesday in a Chicago federal court, says that Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms failed to adequately and properly test, inspect and comply with federal and statutory regulations, leading to the outbreak that sickened over 1,500 consumers.

Kenneth Moll, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Chicago ABC affiliate WLS-TV that the class could eventually grow to over 76,000 people.

The class members include every purchaser and consumer of eggs from both farms from April of this year to August, Moll said. The class seeks reimbursement for everyone who purchased these eggs.

The suit is the first nationwide class action brought over the incident.

The complaint alleges that the farms failed to utilize and/or implement a reasonably sterile environment in the manufacture of eggs; and failed to manufacture eggs in a reasonably safe condition for public consumption. The plaintiffs' attorneys are planning to personally inspect the farms over the next few weeks, an effort they hope will turn up additional evidence.

More bad news

Over the past few weeks, things have gone from bad to worse for the farms that appear to be at the epicenter of the outbreak. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported that both farms had a number of serious health violations, including rodent and bug infestations, manure, holes in the walls, and dead flies too numerous to count. FDA official Michael Taylor said the conditions represented significant deviations from what should be happening.

Congressional investigations currently underway have uncovered shocking information about one of the the farms' safety records. The House Energy and Commerce Committee discovered documents showing that testing for salmonella at Wright County Egg came back positive 426 times in the period between 2008 and 2010. Up to 67 of those results were this year alone.

Making matters worse, the committee's leadership says that Wright County Egg CEO Jack DeCoster didn't provide those documents when Congress asked him for data in August.

In a joint letter to DeCoster, chairman Henry Waxman and subcommittee chairman Bart Stupak told DeCoster to come prepared to explain why your facilities tested potentially positive for salmonella on so many occasions ... and whether you shared these results with FDA or other federal or state food safety official.

The named plaintiffs are from Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New York and Mississippi. They are seeking disgorgement of profits from the contaminated eggs, compensatory and punitive damages, and the creation of a monitoring program that can respond to health problems facing class members.

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Samsung Introduces Tablet Computer

But company fails to mention how much it will cost

Samsung Introduces Tablet Computer...


photo
Hoping to give Apple some competition, Samsung has announced plans for a tablet computer as an alternative to the popular iPad.

While Apple's iPad has connectivity through AT&T's network, the new Samsung Galaxy Tab will connect using Verizon Wireless. The product will launch in the coming weeks, Samsung said.

In announcing the product, Samsung failed to mention how much it would cost to buy one. The technology publication PC World notes that a 16GB Samsung Galaxy Tab is already being marketed in the UK, at a price of over $1000, about twice the price of an Apple iPad.

According to a company release, the Galexy will feature a seven-inch touch screen and a 1.2 GHz Cortex A8 Hummingbird Application processor.

"The Samsung Galaxy Tab is an exciting addition to the Verizon Wireless Android portfolio," said John Stratton, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Verizon Wireless. "Coupled with the nation's largest 3G network, the Galaxy Tab is a powerhouse that will be as exciting to use as it is practical for both consumers and business customers."

Verizon Wireless will market the Galaxy Tab with a number of exclusive applications such as V CAST Music with Rhapsody, V CAST Video on Demand, V CAST Song ID, VZ Navigator, along with games "Let's Golf" and "N.O.V.A."

Flash support

Unlike the original iPad, the Galaxy will offer full support for Adobe Flash 10.1 for video and mobile gaming and an integrated entertainment, multimedia and social networking experience. Apple this month relaxed its ban on Flash apps, saying it was responding to feedback from developers.

Key features of the new tablet computer include:

• TFT display with WSVGA resolution Delivers 1024 x 600 resolution whether watching a movie or reading a book

• Rear-facing, 3.0-megapixel camera and camcorder AutoFocus captures DVD quality video

• Front-facing, 1.3-megapixel camera and camcorder Enables video chat with other people who have video conferencing capabilities (applications available in Android Market)

• Corporate Email Supports Android 2.2 Exchange ActiveSync e-mail to synchronize corporate e-mail, contacts and calendars from office e-mail accounts

• Wi-Fi connectivity (802.11 b/g/n)

• Built-in 2 GB internal memory with 16 GB pre-installed microSD expandable to 32 GB

• 4,000 mAh Battery Provides ample power to watch movies, share content and surf the Web for hours

• Ultra thin and weighing less than a pound For users who don't want to be weighed down by adding a mobile tablet to their pocket or purse

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CDC: Decline In US Adult Smoking Rate Stalled

Half of children still exposed to secondhand smoke

CDC: Decline In US Adult Smoking Rate Stalled...


Even though they know they shouldn't, one in five adults in the U.S continues to smoke cigarettes. Additionally, four in 10 nonsmokers were exposed to cigarette smoke during 2007-2008, according to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among children between the ages of three and 11 years old, 54 percent were exposed to secondhand smoke. Nearly all (98 percent) children who live with a smoker are exposed and have measurable levels of toxic chemicals from cigarette smoke.

Smoking rate steady

According to the report, the number of adult smokers dropped between 2000 and 2005, but smoking has remained at about 20-21 percent since 2005. In 2009, more men (nearly 24 percent) than women (about 18 percent) smoked and about 31 percent of those living below poverty level smoked. Fewer than six percent of adults with a graduate degree smoke compared with more than 25 percent of adults with no high school diploma.

Further, nearly 90 million non-smoking Americans are exposed to secondhand smoke and have measurable levels of toxic chemicals from cigarette smoke. Black non-smokers are one-third more likely than white smokers, and twice as likely as Mexican-American smokers, to have measurable exposure to tobacco.

"Smoking is still the leading preventable cause of death in this country," said CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. "But progress is possible. Strong state laws that protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke, higher cigarette prices, aggressive ad campaigns that show the human impact of smoking and well-funded tobacco control programs decrease the number of adult smokers and save lives."

On the decline

In 2009, smoking among adults was lowest in Utah, followed by California. The Golden State has had a long-running comprehensive tobacco control program. Adult smoking in California declined by about 40 percent during 1998-2006, and as a result lung cancer in California has been declining four times faster than in the rest of the nation.

Maine, New York, and Washington have seen 45-60 percent reductions in youth smoking with sustained statewide efforts. If each state supported comprehensive tobacco control programs for five years with CDC recommended levels of funding, an estimated five million fewer people would smoke, resulting in prevention of premature tobacco-related deaths.

Kicking the habit

The federal government is stepping up its efforts to reduce tobacco use in order to achieve the tobacco use targets in Healthy People 2010 and Healthy People 2020. The 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to regulate the manufacturing, marketing, and distribution of tobacco products and has provided new opportunities to reduce tobacco use.

In addition, the Communities Putting Prevention to Work program provides guidance and funding for states and communities to change policies to prevent tobacco use and protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. The latter is especially important, according to CDC, given that more than half of young children are exposed to secondhand smoke. Children whose parents smoke are twice as likely to smoke themselves, but kids who grow up in communities with comprehensive smoke-free laws are much less likely to become smokers.

Among local initiatives is a proposed ban by New York City on smoking in parks and at beaches. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids praises Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City Health Commissioner, for "their strong leadership in the fight against tobacco use."

Smoking causes cancers of the lung, mouth, stomach, pancreas, kidney, colon, cervix, bladder and leukemia, as well as heart attacks, stroke, blindness, pneumonia, emphysema and other lung diseases, and many other health problems.

Exposure to secondhand smoke causes sudden infant death syndrome and low birth weight, acute respiratory infections, middle ear disease, exacerbated asthma, respiratory symptoms, and decreased lung function in children. It also causes heart disease and lung cancer in nonsmoking adults.



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Refund Forms Sent to Bruce Springsteen Concert Ticketholders Who Overpaid

More than 1,000 Springsteen concert fans will be getting refunds

Refund Forms Sent to Bruce Springsteen Concert Ticketholders Who Overpaid...

Music fans who paid too much for their Bruce Springsteen concert tickets take heart: the check will soon be in the mail.

An administrator working for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has mailed claim forms to 1,018 consumers who are eligible for refunds because they allegedly were steered from the Ticketmaster website to its ticket resale website TicketsNow while buying tickets to attend a Springsteen concert last year.

Ticketmaster and its affiliates agreed to pay refunds to some of the concertgoers to settle FTC charges that they used deceptive bait-and-switch tactics to sell event tickets.

The claim forms were mailed earlier this month to some concertgoers who bought tickets for shows in 14 cities: Glendale, Ariz.; San Jose, Calif.; Los Angeles, Calif.; Denver, Colo.; Hartford, Conn.; Atlanta, Ga.; Chicago, Ill.; Boston, Mass.; Saint Paul, Minn.; East Rutherford, N.J.; Long Island, N.Y.; Pittsburgh, Pa..; University Park, Pa..; and Washington, DC.

According to the February 2010 FTC complaint, Ticketmaster steered unknowing consumers to TicketsNow, where tickets were offered at prices that were sometimes double, triple, or quadruple the face value of the ticket. Under the settlement, these concertgoers will get back the difference between what they paid for their tickets and what they would have paid on Ticketmaster.

For example, if a consumer paid $400 for two tickets from TicketsNow, and those same two tickets would have cost $200 from Ticketmaster, the customer will get a $200 refund.

Ticketmaster provided the FTC with a list that included the 1,018 eligible concertgoers who had not received refunds for the extra money they paid to buy the higher-priced tickets from TicketsNow.

All claims must be made by mail and postmarked on or before October 8, 2010. There is no way to submit a claim form online. No date has been set yet for distribution of the checks.

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White House Picks Elizabeth Warren to Head Consumer Protection Agency

Outspoken Harvard professor is seen as a champion of working Americans, a scourge of big business

White House Picks Elizabeth Warren to Head Consumer Protection Agency...

By Truman Lewis
ConsumerAffairs.Com

September 16, 2010
photo It's unofficially official -- the White House is naming Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren to run the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (BCFP). Sort of.

Technically, President Obama has so far appointed Warren only to a lead role in setting up the agency but around Washington, that's pretty much the same thing. If you insist on knowing the complete title, it's Assistant to the President and Special Advisor to the Treasury Secretary.

The interim appointment means Warren won't yet have to undergo Senate confirmation, a process that would likely be highly unpleasant, given Warren's penchant for outspoken criticism of business and government alike.

The new bureau will be writing and enforcing rules governing credit cards, mortgages and other financial tools that too often turn into traps that trip up the unwary or unlucky consumer. An outspoken critic of Wall Street and big banks, Warren is likely to cause severe indigestion both in New York and Washington, where her scathing criticism of government's response to the mortgage crisis has not been warmly received.

"So many of the people in financial trouble are desperately trying to hold it all together. They are struggling to save themselves, their children and their elderly parents from the consequences of complete collapse. They work hard, but they just can't seem to get it right," said Warren in an interview with the Harvard Law Bulletin earlier this year. "Doing this kind of work is not just about numbers and regressions. It's about human beings."

A native of Oklahoma, Warren earlier this decade ran an intensive Harvard study of 2,000 families that had gone bankrupt. The Harvard Consumer Bankruptcy Project found that even families with two working partners were often just barely scraping by and were in danger of bankruptcy and homelessness if hit with a job loss, divorce or serious illness.

The situation is even worse for single parents, most of whom are women, Warren said. They often have a mere 4 percent of income remaining after they pay their fixed costs -- items like mortgages and rent, car payments, healthcare costs and insurance. All have risen drastically as a percentage of income in recent decades.

She and her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, a Wharton M.B.A. and former consultant with McKinsey & Co., co-authored a book, "The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke" (Basic Books, 2003) that drew on the Harvard study -- and perhaps helped shape her view of the financial meltdown that left so many families bereft over the last few years.

Access to credit

The financial services industry fiercely opposed creation of the BCFP, perhaps fearing a populist like Warren would be named to run it. Bankers and Republicans have claimed the new agency's regulations will do little to protect consumers and will instead make it even harder to get credit.

Known in its legislative gestation period as the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the measure was signed into law by President Obama in July, after supporters fought for months to pass the legislation that they say will protect consumers from hidden fees and investment scams and require the financial industry to provide clear information so consumers can make the best financial decisions.

Obama echoed those claims in his remarks as he signed the measure at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington. "These protections will be enforced by a new consumer watchdog with just one job: looking out for people - not big banks, not lenders, not investment houses - looking out for people as they interact with the financial system," he said.

"If youve ever applied for a credit card, a student loan, or a mortgage, you know the feeling of signing your name to pages of barely understandable fine print. What often happens as a result is that many Americans are caught by hidden fees and penalties, or saddled with loans they cant afford," Obama said.

Obama added: "With this law, well crack down on abusive practices in the mortgage industry. Well make sure that contracts are simpler - putting an end to many hidden penalties and fees in complex mortgages - so folks know what theyre signing.

"With this law, students who take out college loans will be provided clear and concise information about their obligations.

"And with this law, ordinary investors - like seniors and folks saving for retirement - will be able to receive more information about the costs and risks of mutual funds and other investment products, so that they can make better financial decisions as to what will work for them. "

With an eye on the upcoming midterm elections, Republicans -- who had almost unanimously opposed the measure -- said that the government's attempt to more closely regulate banks and Wall Street would lead to more bailouts, not fewer. Republican Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana echoed last week's call by Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) to repeal the measure.

"This financial-services reform is nothing more than a permanent bailout of Wall Street that will restrict credit, kill jobs, raise taxes and expand government control of the private sector," Pence said.

Obama returned the favor, calling the Republicans "a partisan minority determined to block change."

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Fly You to the Moon? Boeing Plans Tourist Flights Into Space

But will the semi-governmental experience matched that planned by Virgin Galatic?

Fly You to the Moon? Boeing Plans Tourist Flights Into Space...


The lunch of a Soyuz FG rocket, which has carried previous Space Adventure flights. -- NASA photo

Eat your heart out, Richard Branson. Virgin Galatic has some serious competition in the space tourism sector -- Boeing says it and its partner Space Adventures, Ltd. will be offering tourist-class seats from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station and beyond by 2015.

Of course, knowing commercial air travel, it's possible flights will leave a bit later than that, or perhaps wind up somewhere else entirely. No word on yet on whether food will cost extra, or for that matter, whether there'll be anything beyond Tang and pretzels.

All of this plays into the plans of the Obama Administration, which would like for the National Aeronautrics and Space Administration (NASA) to get serious about building commercial space travel into something other than science fiction.

Taking a page from the commercial airline industry, NASA is basically jamming a few more seats into the Boeing Crew Space Transportation-100 (CST-100) spacecraft, so that it can carry four space station crew members and three tourists on each flight.

"By combining our talents, we can better offer safe, affordable transportation to commercial spaceflight customers," said Brewster Shaw, vice president and general manager of Boeing's Space Exploration division. "To date, all commercial flights for private spaceflight participants to the ISS have been contracted by Space Adventures. If NASA and the international partners continue to accommodate commercial spaceflight participants on ISS, this agreement will be in concert with the NASA administrator's stated intent to promote space commerce in low Earth orbit."

Space Adventures, headquartered in Vienna, Va., has flown seven spaceflight participants on eight missions to the space station so far. It's not exactly the Washington-New York Shuttle but it's more than the competition, Sir Richard's Virgin Galactic.

On the other hand, while Boeing and its partners are issuing press releases and thinking up new acronyms, Virgin Galactic is already accepting reservations for flights on its VSS Enterprise, which made its first crewed flight July 15. Tickets are $200,000 but only a $20,000 deposit is required.

photo The VSS Enterprise and its mothership. -- VSS Photo

Passenger manifest

 

And who might go on such a trip?

The Boeing/NASA/Space Adventures triumvirate puts it like this: "Potential customers for excess seating capacity include private individuals, companies, non-governmental organizations, and U.S. federal agencies other than NASA. Boeing plans to use the CST-100 to provide crew transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) and future commercial LEO platforms.

Intelligence operatives and junketeering politicians, in other words.

Virgin makes no presumptions about its passengers and instead portrays the experience as, well, a dream: "As you hurtle through the edges of the atmosphere, the large windows show the cobalt blue sky turning to mauve and indigo and finally to black. You're on a high; this is really happening, you're loving it and you're coping well."

"Later that evening, sitting with your astronaut wings, you know that life will never quite be the same again," purrs Virgin. Hard to argue with that.

 

 

 

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Pension Money Lost in Chrysler Bankruptcy, Executives Claim

Class action lawsuit raises questions about bankruptcy structure

Avvo.com Publishes False Information, Suit Charges...


When all is said and done, car buyers -- and owners -- won't be the only ones affected by Chrysler's 2009 bankruptcy and reorganization. The company's financial woes are also proving troublesome for its former employees -- and they aren't happy about it.

In a class action lawsuit filed this week, around 450 Chrysler retirees claim they lost over $100 million in pension payments as a result of the way the bankruptcy was structured. According to the lawsuit, Daimler AG and Cerberus -- Chrysler's former owners -- failed to transfer the pensions to New Chrysler, the company that emerged after the bankruptcy.

Among the plaintiffs is former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca, who ironically steered the company away from what looked like inevitable bankruptcy in the late 1970s.

According to the suit, Daimler converted current executives' pensions into annuities back in 2005, when the company began experiencing financial problems. For reasons unexplained, the company failed to do the same with former employees' pensions.

The suit also contends that Cerberus, which bought Chrysler from Daimler in 2007, failed to protect the pension fund from creditors before the bankruptcy -- or perhaps converted the funds itself.

Sheldon Miller, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement that the shortfall has caused the executives to make drastic changes to their retirement plans at a time when they can't go out and find other jobs to supplement their incomes.

Miller said there are no plans for an additional suit against New Chrysler.

Everybody involved in this suit loves that company and like everybody else wants to see it succeed, Miller said. The plaintiffs in our case are trying to assure that there won't be similar hardships for Chrysler's current employees, many of whom worked for and with the people involved in this suit.

Chrysler has seen more than its share of turmoil over the past decade or so. In 1998, the company was purchased by Daimler-Benz AG, the longtime Mercedes manufacturer. In 2007, Daimler sold 80 percent of the company to Cerbeus, a private equity firm that counts among its leadership former Vice President Dan Quayle and former Treasury Secretary John Snow. Cerbeus gave up its equity stake less than two years later, when Chrysler declared bankruptcy and transferred most of its assets to New Chrysler. Fiat, the Italian automaker, currently has a 20 percent stake in New Chrysler.

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Who's the Biggest Payday Lender? Would You Believe Wells Fargo?

Report says big banks starve small customers, lavish loans on payday lenders

Who's the Biggest Payday Lender? Would You Believe Wells Fargo?...


The weak economy is making it harder for big banks to lend money and that's driving cash-poor consumers into the arms of unscrupulous payday lenders, right?

Well, not quite, says a report that finds big banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America are only too eager to lend billions of dollars to some industries like, oh, the payday lenders.

While small businesses and individuals have struggled to get affordable loans in the wake of the taxpayer bailouts, payday lenders have received new and amended credit agreements from Wall Street, says the report. Instead of wading further into the business of predatory payday lending, big banks need to stop financing these lenders and instead lend to businesses and individuals that create wealth, rather than destroy it.

In fact, the study by grassroot groups National People's Action and Public Accountability Initiative singles out Wells Fargo, saying it finances more payday lenders than any other big bank, pouring fuel onto the already flaming growth of big payday lenders like Advance America and Cash Advance Centers, Inc.

The report, dubbed "The Predator's Creditors," includes diagrams showing the ties between payday lenders and the big banks that benefited from the Troubled Asset-Relief Program, perhaps justifying the Tea Party allegation that the Wall Street bailouts haven't done much for Main Street.

Chart from "The Predator's Creditors" shows links between big banks and payday lenders.

"Ultimately, the big banks that borrow at near-zero interest rates from the Federal Reserve are not far removed from the payday companies that lend money at 500%, the report charges.

Lest anyone thinks the report is making a mountain from the proverbial molehill, the report notes that the growth of the payday loan industry has been virtually explosive, growing from 2,000 payday stores in 1995 to ten times that number today, while loan volume by publicly-traded lenders has nearly doubled from 2003 to 2007, as banks and other traditional lenders began cutting back their consumer loan activity.

Nor is it that the payday lenders simply appeared at the bankers' door. The report chronicles the founding and growth of Advance America, the largest payday lending company. It secured somewhere between $40 and $50 million in financing from Wells Fargo, Wachovia (now part of Wells Fargo) and NationsBank (now Bank of America) before it had even begun operating.

How? "Using their connections," said Gary Rivlin, author of Broke USA, which traces the recent impoverishment of the middle class.

Those connections are still solid. Today, the report finds, big banks offer over $1.5 billion in credit to major, publicly traded payday lenders, about $3 billion to the industry as a whole. Wells Fargo lends to more payday loan companies than any other big bank, lending to both publicly- and privately-held companies.

While some large banks refuse to finance payday lenders because of the "reputational risk," most are only too happy to take the money. And good money it is. The report estimates that major publicly-traded payday lenders paid about $70 million in interest in 2009.

The biggest payday lenders, the report found, are financed by a number of TARP-financed banks, which received billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts. They include Bank of America, JPMorgan, Wells Fargo, US Bank, KeyBank and Banco Popular.

Instead of wading further into the business of predatory payday lending, big banks need to stop financing these lenders and instead lend to businesses and individuals that create wealth, rather than destroy it, the report charged.

Industry reaction

Industry reaction was swift. A Wells Fargo spokesman said the bank "exercises strict due diligence with these customers." Steve Schlein of a payday lenders organization said payday loans "are a valuable service to millions of American consumers that have short-term financial needs."

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Connecticut Consumers Eligible for 'Lemon-Aid'

Detailed work orders are needed to participate in program

Connecticut Consumers Eligible for 'Lemon-Aid'...

By James Limbach
ConsumerAffairs.Com

September 16, 2010
Help is available to Connecticut consumers who think they've bought a "lemon" -- a new passenger vehicle or motorcycle that is at the shop for the same problem week after week.

But, for that to happen, they have take part in the state's Lemon Law Program, said Connecticut Consumer Protection Commissioner Jerry.

"People may be missing an opportunity to receive repayment or even a new vehicle from the manufacturer if they don't take advantage of this low-cost arbitration program," Farrell said. "But documentation is extremely important. An owner who keeps bringing his car back for the same problem needs to be certain that the problem -- the car's 'symptoms,' if you will -- get included on each repair order."

Under state law, the auto shop must provide consumers with a written repair order when they pick up their vehicles. The repair order must contain the customer's complaint, the date, the mechanic's proposed diagnosis and solution, and the amount paid.

"Make sure you check your repair order carefully while you're still at the shop," Farrell said. "If all those details are not spelled out in writing -- especially the specific problem your vehicle is having -- ask that the information be entered in, and get the shop to print you a revised repair order."

Be thorough

Vague documentation will not be enough to qualify the car as a "lemon" under the guidelines of the state program, Farrell said. To qualify for arbitration under the "Lemon Law" all of the following conditions must be met:

• 1. the consumer must have purchased or leased the vehicle in Connecticut and it must have a passenger, combination or motorcycle registration;

• 2. the defect must be covered by the manufacturer's written warranty;

• 3. the same defect must occur four times within the first 24,000 miles or two years, whichever first occurs, or, the vehicle must be out of service for more than 30 days for repair for any defects during the 24,000 miles/two year time period; and

• 4. the manufacturer must have been given a reasonable opportunity to repair the defect (this requirement is met if the vehicle has been subject to repair four times, or, two times in the first twelve months for a defect that poses a serious risk of death or bodily injury) and in some situations, based upon the facts, one repair attempt could be sufficient.

The vehicle owner must pay a one-time $50 fee to apply for the arbitration program.

Peter from Winsted, CT, who could likely benefit from the program, tells of a stalling problem he had with his Jeep Commander Limited, 4.7L. "The dealer has looked at it and has found no solution," he writes ConsumerAffairs.com. "All they tell us is it is a result of poor design. That is unacceptable, my wife drives this car and her safety is at risk. Even one of the repair employees laughed it off and said, 'oh it happens to me all the time, it is kind of fun.' Fun for who? I am so angry."

As long as the vehicle was bought in Connecticut, and all other criteria are met, even a person living in another state is protected by Connecticut's Automobile Dispute Settlement Program, commonly known as the Lemon Law.

"As the first program of its type in the United States, Connecticut's Automobile Dispute Settlement Program has provided relief to about 6,400 owners of defective new passenger vehicles and motorcycles," Farrell said. "Manufacturer defects can quickly turn a 'dream car' into a financial and logistical nightmare, and consumers can't afford to shoulder the cost of this burden. We're fortunate to have the Lemon Law program available to provide cost-effective, timely arbitration to resolve disputes between consumers and automobile manufacturers."

The Automobile Dispute Settlement Program closed the 2009-2010 fiscal year with $1,063,000 awarded to consumers in cash and replacement vehicles. Since 1984 the program has returned nearly $55 million to consumers in cash refunds and replacement automobiles.

Connecticut, of course, is not the only state with a Lemon Law. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have them. A list of the states, with the provisions of their laws, can be found here.

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Vishing Scam Hits FDIC

Scammers use delinquent loans ruse to collect personal information

Telephone-based phishing, or vishing, scams are nothing new. They rank among the most popular socially-engineered schemes perpetrated by fraudsters....


Telephone-based phishing, or vishing, scams are nothing new. They rank among the most popular socially-engineered schemes perpetrated by fraudsters.

What is new is the latest target: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which is warning of a vishing scam that is duping consumers.

According to the FDIC's statement, the criminals behind the vishing calls allegedly told consumers they were delinquent in loan payments that had been applied for over the Internet or made through a payday lender. The loans may or may have not even existed, giving the vishers opportunity to collect personal information to confirm the authenticity of the loans. Recipients of the calls said the vishers requested everything from Social Security numbers to dates of birth.

The FDIC-related vishing scam is but one in a number of targeted vishing attacks reported in recent months -- a reflection of the growing sophistication of the criminals who perpetrate socially engineered schemes.

Vishing can be powerful

In July and August, several community banks and credit unions were targeted in a series of vishing attacks that hit consumers in rural areas. The calls and texts made to land-line and mobile phones, in most cases, claimed that customer accounts from specific institutions had either been compromised or closed, offering the fraudsters opportunity to collect personal account information.

Mike Urban, senior director of global fraud solutions at FICO, which provides decision-management and predictive-analytics solutions, says vishing scams are expected to increase, as other socially engineered schemes such as e-mail phishing attacks have become more difficult for criminals to pull off.

"The criminals are continuing to leverage communication channels beyond traditional e-mail phishing and disguise themselves behind more trusted names to get consumer information that they can turn into profits," he says.

'Socially engineered' scam

Vishing itself is a relatively low-tech crime, says Robert Siciliano, a McAfee security consultant and founder of IDTheftSecurity.com. The problem is that it's a socially engineered scheme that is hard to fight. Phishing attacks can be combated with more advanced spam filters.

Vishing preys on consumer trust, making the role of customer and member education ever more critical. "Consumers should not respond to any request that comes through on the phone to provide any information that could compromise their identity in any way," he says.

Peter Cassidy of the Anti-Phishing Working Group, says the FDIC-related vishing case proves that the financial industry should brace itself for a growing number of more crafty socially engineered schemes. "Vishing can be powerful, in part, because people are used to receiving calls, when it comes to financial information," he says.

Couple that power with the ease and low cost of perpetrating a vishing attack, and it's easy to see why these types of attacks are expected to multiply. "Out of 10,000 calls the vishers made, even if they only get a fraction to respond, it's worth it for them," he says.

Using the FDIC or the Internal Revenue Service as a veil also proves that the social-engineering muscle put behind these schemes is getting stronger, Cassidy says. In July, a vishing-by-fax scam hit small U.S. business-owners, telling them they were owed tax refunds from the IRS, and then asked them to provide personal information in response to the fax.

"The FDIC would never call you, but a lot of people don't know that," he says. "They're used to seeing the FDIC logo on the wall at the bank; they're familiar with the IRS, because they file taxes every year. These guys are getting good at what they do, and it's going to take a unified approach (from the industry) to fight these kinds of attacks."

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Illinois Ponzi Schemer Draws Prison Time

Suburban Chicago man cheated 75 victims out of $28 million

Illinois Ponzi Schemer Draws Prison Time ...


"Despicable," "outrageous," causing "tragic" consequences for victims, are phrases and words a federal judge used in sentencing a suburban Chicago man to prison for swindling some 75 victims -- many of whom lost their retirement funds and life savings.

U.S. District Judge John Darrah nearly doubled advisory federal sentencing guidelines in imposing a 10-year prison term on Matthew Scott, who lured his victims -- including many close friends -- to invest approximately $28 million over nine years in a business that he falsely represented purchased used high-speed commercial printers that were re-sold for a substantial profit. Scott, who then used the money instead to make "Ponzi-type" payments to earlier investors, had pleaded guilty in January to one count of mail fraud.

Scott, 51, was ordered to begin serving his sentence on Sept. 23 and was also ordered to pay $4.9 million in restitution. Judge Darrah imposed the sentence after hearing directly from three victims of the fraud scheme, as well as considering victim impact letters from more than a dozen others.

Plea deal

Mail fraud carries maximum penalty of 20 years, but Scott's plea agreement anticipated a sentencing guidelines range of 63 to 78 months. Judge Darrah determined that 10 years was a reasonable sentence under the circumstances.

Scott was president and sole owner of a printer repair company known as Gelsco, Inc., located in Northlake. Between early 2000 and March 2009, he fraudulently obtained at least $28 million from approximately 75 investors, and caused the victims to lose a total of $4.9 million.

Elaborate scheme

Scott admitted that he falsely told investors that their funds would be used to purchase, or finance the purchase of, printers that had a value of more than $100,000, which would be sold to third parties. He further claimed that there were specific buyers and sellers of printers, when, in fact, he and Gelsco did not purchase or finance any such printers. Instead, Scott fabricated false purchase orders, invoices, promissory notes and other documents that he provided to investors.

He lied to investors, saying Gelsco increased the cost of the printers approximately 10-12 percent and earned substantial profits, usually within 90 days or less, which he promised to split with the investors. In fact, he never attempted to build a business or generate profits.

Over nine years, Scott had to raise funds continually from investors to make payments to earlier investors, all of which he concealed and intentionally failed to disclose to new and old investors alike.

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New Treatment For Gout Approved

Targeted at adults who don't respond to traditional treatments

New Treatment For Gout Approved...


Adults suffering from gout now have a new treatment. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Krystexxa (pegloticase) to treat the painful condition in adults who do not respond to or who cannot tolerate conventional therapy.

Gout occurs due to an excess of the bodily waste uric acid, which is eventually deposited as needle-like crystals in the joints or in soft tissue. These crystals can cause intermittent swelling, redness, heat, pain and stiffness in the joints.

Gout is strongly associated with obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, and occurs more often in men, in women after menopause, and in people with kidney disease.

"About three percent of the three million adults who suffer from gout are not helped by conventional therapy. This new drug offers an important new option for them," said Badrul Chowdhury, M.D., director of the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Rheumatology Products in the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

Metabolizes uric acid

For patients with gout, the conventional therapy is to receive drugs that lower the amount of uric acid in the blood -- for example, the xanthine oxidase inhibitors Zyloprim (allopurinol) and Uloric (febuxostat). Krystexxa is an enzyme that lowers uric acid levels by metabolizing it into a harmless chemical that is excreted in the urine. The drug is administered to patients every two weeks as an intravenous infusion.

Two six-month clinical trials of 212 total patients demonstrated that the drug lowered uric acid levels and reduced deposits of uric acid crystals in joints and soft tissue, the FDA said.

Since one out of every four patients in the clinical trials experienced a severe allergic reaction when receiving an infusion of Krystexxa, health care providers should dispense a corticosteroid and an antihistamine to their patients beforehand to minimize the risk of such a reaction, the agency advised. Other reactions during the clinical trials included gout flare, nausea, injection site bruising, irritation of the nasal passages, constipation, chest pain and vomiting.

Physicians are also being warned to be cautious about administering Krystexxa to patients with congestive heart failure because the drug was not studied in this patient population.

Krystexxa is being approved with a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy that includes a medication guide for patients and materials for healthcare providers to communicate the risk of severe infusion and allergic reactions. The drug is manufactured by Savient Pharmaceuticals Inc. of East Brunswick, N.J.



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Firm Offers Airline Seat With Even Less Leg Room

Seat shaped like saddle offered as way to squeeze more passengers into coach

Firm Offers Airline Seat With Even Less Leg Room...


Just when you thought it couldn't get more uncomfortable in a commercial airline's coach section, a manufacturer is unveiling a new airline seat with even less leg room.

The "SkyRider," officially introduced this week, will allow airlines that install them to shoehorn even more passengers into coach. Some airlines may opt to install just a few of the seats and offer them at a discounted price.

The SkyRider, which is shaped like a saddle, allows 23 inches of leg room, about seven inches less than a normal seat in coach. The occupant sits at an angle, with her legs supporting more of her weight. Because the passengers are sitting at an angle, the seats can overlap.

The SkyRider also includes a tray table like other airline seats, though it is a fraction of the size. But since airlines rarely give passengers anything to eat on flights these days, it might prove more than adequate.

Italian manufacturer Aviointeriors Group came up with the SkyRider, seeing it as a way for discount airlines to squeeze more revenue out of each flight. An official of the company says that the seat could be comfortable on flights up to three hours.

The SkyRider was designed, perhaps, with discount Irish carrier Ryanair in mind. The airline petitioned the government of Ireland to allow it to outfit cabins so that passengers stand up, like strap-hangers on a subway car, for the flight. Safety officials said they would not allow passengers to stand during take-offs and landings.

Airlines have been under pressure to make each flight more profitable. Over the last two years most have added fees for everything from checked baggage to pillows and blankets.

Giddy-up

Aviointeriors Group displayed its SkyRider at the Aircraft Interiors Expo Americas conference in Long Beach, Calif., this week. Aviation International News, a industry trade publication, reports the SkyRider display at the Expo drew crowds of incredulous gawkers. The publication describes the seat as a "cross between a miniature horse saddle and a thinly sliced seat back."

It's not known if any U.S. carriers are actively considering it, but Dominique Menoud, the company's director general, told USA Today they shouldn't hesitate to install the saddle seats.

"Cowboys ride eight hours on their horses during the day and still feel comfortable in the saddle," he said.



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Chrysler Renames, Tries to Freshen Up the Sebring

Since it's smaller than the Chrysler 300, the new model will be known as the Chrysler 200

Chrysler Renames, Tries to Freshen Up the Sebring...

By Truman Lewis
ConsumerAffairs.com


What's in a name? Maybe not much. The Chrysler Sebring, a sedate if not downright dowdy sedan, has never conjured up any memories of the Sebring International Raceway, so it might as well be called something generic like, say, the Chrysler 200.

Chrysler must have had the same thought because, sure enough, the company says its redesigned mid-sized sedan will henceforth be known as the Chrysler 200.

The last time we drove a Sebring was in Los Angeles a year or so ago, when we found ourselves at the airport while our Mini was at home, 40 miles away. We rented a Sebring convertible from Hertz and felt that we'd been taken back in time to the 1960s. The interior looked like our grandmother's living room and the thing rocked its way around turns as though it had rocking chairs where the suspension should have been.

It had all the excitement of an afternoon in Burbank, although any droptop is always pleasing as one cruises up the PCH.

The company showed the slightly reworked car to dealers at a meeting in Orlando yesterday and said it would be arriving in showrooms later this year. There were no reports of dealers swooning with enthusiasm, though it has been so long since Chrysler has rolled out any new models that any change at all is no doubt welcome.

The 200 will be available with the new Chrysler Pentastar V-6 engine and a six-speed automatic transmission or with a 2.4-liter I-4 engine and a four- or six-speed automatic. It will also feature a stiffer body, new suspension, a new rear sway bar and much-needed attention to noise and vibration.

So, the origin of the Sebring name was clear enough, even though the car was about as far from a sports or racing car as anyone could imagine. So where does the 200 come from?

Well, yes, it is smaller than the Chrysler 300. But the company insists the 200 comes from the electric-powered concept car that Chrysler displayed at the 2009 Detroit auto show. You know, the one that was never built.

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Poll Shows Consumers' Doubts About E-Cigarettes

Survey indicates most want regulation of marketing, exposure to minors

Poll Shows Consumers' Doubts About E-Cigarettes...


Cigarette marketing is tightly regulated, but not so a relatively new cigarette substitute, something called an electronic cigarette. These devices are heavily promoted as a way for smokers to inhale nicotine but not the toxins of tobacco cigarettes.

 

Health advocates are unconvinced and, according to a new poll, so are consumers.

The University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health found that 91 percent of adults in the U.S. think manufacturers should be required to test e-cigarettes for safety.

Likewise, an overwhelming majority -- 85 percent -- favor prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and 82 percent think the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should regulate e-cigarettes like other nicotine-containing products. According to the poll, 68 percent of adults think e-cigarettes should have health warnings like tobacco cigarettes and other nicotine products.

The FDA is already on record criticizing e-cigarettes as potentially toxic since they haven't been tested in FDA-recognized scientific trials. Also of concern: there are no age restrictions on sales of these new nicotine-containing products.

Warning letters

Last week the FDA issued warning letters to five e-cigarette distributors for various violations of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) including unsubstantiated claims and poor manufacturing practices.

Also, in a letter to the Electronic Cigarette Association, FDA said the agency intends to regulate electronic cigarette and related products in a manner consistent with its mission of protecting the public health. The letter outlines the regulatory pathway for marketing drug products in compliance with the FDCA. For a drug product to gain FDA approval, a company must demonstrate to the agency that the product is safe and effective for its intended use. The company must also demonstrate that manufacturing methods are adequate to preserve the strength, quality and purity of the product.

At least two state attorneys general -- Oregon's John Kroger and California's Jerry Brown -- have waged vigorous campaigns against e-cigarettes.

In January Brown sued the Florida-based e-cigarette retailer Smoking Everywhere for making what he said are "misleading and irresponsible" claims that electronic cigarettes are a safe alternative to smoking. He also said the company has targeted minors with its marketing.

Beginning last year, Kroger reached settlements with retailers and manufacturers not to sell or market the products in Oregon.

Unfettered promotion

While ads for cigarettes have been banned from the airways since 1970s, commercials for e-cigarettes as "stop smoking aids" show up regularly on radio and cable TV.

"It is clear from this poll that U.S. adults are not waiting for scientific evidence of adverse health effects of e-cigarettes before asking that they be regulated and restricted," said Matthew M. Davis, M.D., director of the poll and associate professor of pediatrics and internal medicine in the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the U-M Medical School. "Rather, they support restrictions on e-cigarettes based on potential risks -- not just immediate health effects, but also the possibility that e-cigarettes may lead youth toward later use of tobacco cigarettes."

E-Cigarettes are battery-operated devices that look like cigarettes but do not burn tobacco. Instead, e-cigarettes have replaceable cartridges of liquid containing nicotine, which is inhaled as a vapor along with flavors like tobacco and chocolate.

E-Cigarettes are available in stores, mall kiosks and over the Internet.

Davis said the poll adds to the mounting public dialogue about e-cigarettes, which he says has so far consisted of claims and counter-claims by opponents and proponents but minimal scientific data.

 

 

 

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Student Loan Default Rate Rises

For-profit schools in the lead with double-digit default rate

Student Loan Default Rate Rises...



Recent college graduates appear to be struggling to repay student loans, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).

The national default rate for fiscal year 2008 -- the most recent period for which statistics are available -- is seven percent, propelled higher by an 11.6 percent default rate for for-profit schools. In comparison, the default rate at public colleges and universities is six percent and four percent for private, non-profit schools.

The default rate is a snapshot in time, representing the borrowers whose first loan repayments came due between October 1, 2007, and September 30, 2008, and who defaulted before September 30, 2009. During this time, almost 3.4 million borrowers entered repayment, and more than 238,000 defaulted on their loans.

They attended 5,860 participating institutions. Borrowers who default after their first two years of repayment are not measured as defaulters in today's data.

Students are struggling

"This data confirms what we already know: that many students are struggling to pay back their student loans during very difficult economic times. That's why the administration has expanded programs like income based repayment and Pell grants to help students in financial need," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Duncan also expressed concern about the high rate of default among students attending for-profit schools, whom he says are the most likely to be unable to repay.

"While for-profit schools have profited and prospered thanks to federal dollars, some of their students have not," Duncan said. "Far too many for-profit schools are saddling students with debt they cannot afford in exchange for degrees and certificates they cannot use. This is a disservice to students and taxpayers, and undermines the valuable work being done by the for-profit education industry as a whole."

Over the summer the Obama administration proposed new rules to regulate federal aid to for-profit schools, arguing most of the money was going to the institutions' bottom line. Last month the The Senate Committee on Health, Labor, Education and Pensions held hearings on recruitment practices at these institutions.

Complaints mount

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.

Jodi said that as classes were about to begin, 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!

Jodi said once she started classes she learned that her Pell Grant amounted to only $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."

For-profits lead

In its latest report on loan defaults, DOE notes that students at for-profit schools represented 26 percent of the borrower population and 43 percent of all defaulters. The median federal student loan debt carried by students earning associate degrees at for-profit institutions was $14,000. The majority of students at community colleges do not borrow.

Under current rules, all schools with default rates of 25 percent or greater for three consecutive years face loss of eligibility in the federal student aid programs. This year, two schools are affected by this provision: Charleston School of Beauty Culture, Charleston, W. Va.; and Human Resource Development & Employment-Stanley Technical Institute of Clarksburg, W.Va.

Schools with a default rate greater than 40 percent in the latest year may lose eligibility to participate in the federal loan programs. This year three schools are subject to this provision: Cuttin' Up Beauty Academy, Denver; Academy of Healing Arts, Las Vegas; and Clinton Junior College, Rock Hill, S.C.

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J.D. Power: Incidence of Dropped Calls Increases Among Wireless Provider Switchers

Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular rank highest in wireless call quality performance

J.D. Power: Incidence of Dropped Calls Increases Among Wireless Provider Switchers...


Few things are more aggravating than having your cell phone signal drop out in the middle of a call. But, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2010 U.S. Wireless Call Quality Performance Study -- Volume 2 -- it seems to be happening more.

The latest survey shows problem rates related to dropped calls have increased notably from six months ago among wireless customers who are most likely to switch providers.

Seven problem areas

The semiannual study measures wireless call quality, based on seven problem areas that impact overall carrier performance: dropped calls; static/interference; failed call connection on the first try; voice distortion; echoes; no immediate voicemail notification; and no immediate text message notification.

Call quality issues are measured as problems per 100 (PP100) calls, where a lower score reflects fewer problems and higher call quality. Performance was examined in six regions: Northeast; Mid-Atlantic; Southeast; North Central; Southwest; and West.

The study finds that 14 percent of customers say they "definitely will" or "probably will" switch wireless providers in the next 12 months and that these customers experience a particularly high rate of call-related problems. The rate of call quality problems among customers who say they "definitely will" switch their current wireless provider is more than four times higher than problem rates among customers who say they "definitely will not" switch in the next 12 months (29 PP100 vs. 7 PP100, respectively).

Why they switch

Specifically, dropped calls are primarily driving the high switching rate, compared with other call quality issues. For example, problem rates average 20 PP100 among customers who say they "definitely will" switch carriers within the next year and also say they had at least one dropped call. Furthermore, the rate of dropped call problems among customers who say they "definitely will" switch has increased by 33 percent from six months ago.

In comparison, among those wireless customers who experience calls that are not connected on the first try, the average problem rate is 11 PP100, up slightly from 10 PP100 six months ago.

"With an increasingly competitive environment and the complexity of services often used in conjunction with cell phones steadily on the rise, carriers that offer superior network quality may improve their likelihood of attracting new customers and increasing customer retention," said Kirk Parsons, senior director of wireless services at J.D. Power and Associates. "In fact, improving network quality and, in turn, retaining the customers most likely to switch are beneficial financial incentives for wireless carriers, as customers who are more likely to switch tend to spend an average of $82 per month and make or receive 127 calls per month, while those who aren't considering switching spend $78 and make or receive 104 calls per month, on average."

Regional rankings

For a 12th consecutive reporting period, Verizon Wireless ranks highest in both the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. The company achieves fewer customer-reported problems with dropped calls, initial connections and interference, compared with the regional averages. Verizon Wireless also ranks highest in the West region and ranks highest in the Southeast region in a tie with both Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile.

In the North Central region, U.S. Cellular ranks highest for a 10th consecutive reporting period. Compared with the regional average, it has fewer customer-reported problems with dropped calls, failed initial connections, interference and echoes.

In the Southwest region, T-Mobile ranks highest, due mainly to lower reported PP100 ratings in voice-centric dimensions such as interference, echoes and voice distortion, compared with the regional averages.

"Wireless customers rely on their phones to do everything from providing them with driving directions to sending picture messages, as well as placing calls, so carriers must provide their customers with problem-free experiences to keep them satisfied," said Parsons. "Wireless customers have higher expectations than ever before of their phones and the networks on which they operate."

Complaints roll in

ConsumerAffairs.com hears tons of complaints about dropped calls. A sampling includes:

• Verizon Wireless customer Victoria of Dublin, CA, who writes, "I was told that I can use my cell phone from coast to coast and that they have more towers so less dropped calls. But I even got dropped talking to Verizon Tech; they had to call me back on a landline phone."

• Yvette of Vicksburg, MS, tells us, that when she opened her T-Mobile account, "the service wasn't great to begin with but got worse as time went by. Dropped calls, loss of signal for no reason right in the middle of calls etc. I finally decided to switch to another cell phone company."

• "My husband and I began experiencing a very high amount of dropped calls on our Nextel mobile phones," wrote Christina, of Baltimore. "Finally after four months of not being able to make a cell call without it being dropped, I called to cancel."

Additional study findings

• Wireless usage patterns continue to evolve, as fewer calls are made or received and customers use their devices more often for text messaging, which increasingly is the preferred method for communication. The study finds that wireless customers receive 144 text message notifications per month -- 29 percent more text message notifications than reported one year ago.

• PP100 scores continue to be higher among smartphone customers than among traditional handset customers -- 13PP100 vs. 9PP100. However, both rates are lower than those reported six months ago.

• Among the top 27 U.S. markets, the PP100 score is lowest among wireless customers in the Tampa, Fla., area (5 PP100), and highest among wireless customers in Charlotte, N.C. (19 PP100).

The study, based on responses from 26,595 wireless customers, was conducted between January and June 2010.

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Your Baby Can Read - Really?

Experts question the value of teaching infants to recognize written words

The increasingly competitive nature of preschools pressures parents to consider early reading programs that may not guarantee academic success....

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NJM Insurance Group, USAA Group Among Leaders In Car Insurance Survey

Consumer Reportspolled 28,000 claim filers; offers tips for saving money

NJM Insurance Group, USAA Group Among Leaders In Car Insurance Survey...


Dealing with a car insurance claim can be a hassle, especially after an accident when consumers really need good customer service and a fast response. A Consumer Reports'

The CR car insurance survey reader scores for claims-related problems and timely payment are based on the experiences of 28,241 respondents who filed claims that were settled or rejected from January 2006 to June 2009. The score reflects overall satisfaction with claims handling. A score of 100 would mean all readers were completely satisfied; 80, very satisfied, on average; 60, fairly well satisfied.

Availability for some insurers is limited by region or policyholder eligibility rules. All 22 rated companies scored well with an 81 or higher, but some did better than others. Among the highest-rated were NJM Insurance Group (New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Company), USAA Group, Amica Mutual Group, and Auto-Owners Insurance Group of Companies, with overall satisfaction scores of 92 or higher. Customers for all four companies had relatively few problems with their claims.

Overall consumers indicated that 25 percent of claims took more than two weeks for payment to be received.

Mixed experiences

Cortney of Albuquerque, NM, has been with USAA for 13 years and loves them. "They have never steered me wrong," she writes ConsumerAffairs.com. "They have fought for me, when fighting with other insurance companies and supported me when I needed it." Recently, she says, "My car was hit in a parking lot while my family was in a restaurant eating a delicious dessert this weekend. My claim has been started, I was able to do that online and have already received a call from USAA about where to go from here. Unfortunately, I'll pay the deductible because, well, the driver left no note. But...they can't help that."

Then there's the experience of Michael of Carlsbad, CA. "I have been insured by USAA Insurance for over 40 years with no accidents and no tickets of any kind," he tells ConsumerAffairs.com. "USAA just increased my vehicle insurance premium by 47 percent. Their explanation is that they have decided to recalculate California premiums on the basis of their overall California loss experience -- and not just on the drivers record or other use categories. Their notification came too late for me to find a new carrier, but I certainly will before the next renewal date."

Saving on insurance

Saving on car insurance is not only a matter of finding the lowest premium; there are number of issue to consider. To help consumers find the right policy at the right coverage for the best price, Consumer Reports' October issue has more than 10 tips to help you save money on car insurance. Here are few highlights:

• Do an annual rate check. Check rates from other insurers annually to make sure you're getting the best deal. But if you've been with the same insurer for a long time, it might be tough to beat its rates. That's one reason shopping around didn't pay off for CR's survey respondents: More than 60 percent have been with the same carrier for 10 or more years.

• Report reduced mileage. A major cost component in auto insurance is miles driven per year. The average is about 12,000. But if you've changed jobs and commute fewer miles, the lower mileage might translate into lower premiums. A new job that's only six miles closer than your old one could reduce your annual commuting miles by 3,000 and cut your annual premium by $50. Let your insurer know if you've retired or lost your job; your reduced driving could cut 5 to 10 percent off your premiums.

• Choose your car wisely. Insurance premiums will vary by auto model. When comparing models, ask your car dealer to show you the "Relative Collision Insurance Cost Information Booklet," produced annually by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The Highway Loss Data Institute also posts data on collision, bodily injury and property-damage liability, and other types of losses by vehicle model. Or ask your insurer for premium quotes on the different models under consideration.

• Set the deductible right. A higher deductible reduces your premium because you pay more out of pocket if you have a claim. Hiking your deductible from $200 to $500 can cut your premium on collision by 15 to 30 percent. Go to $1,000 and you could save 40 percent. If you have a good driving record and haven't had an at-fault accident in years -- if ever -- opting for a higher deductible on collision might be a good bet. Just make sure you can afford to pay it if your luck runs out

• Manage teenage-driver risk. Teenage drivers have higher accident rates, so adding a teenager to your policy can hike your costs by 50 to 100 percent. Immaturity and lack of driving experience help make motor-vehicle crashes the leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers. You can protect your child and cut your rates, by making him or her take a driving course before getting a license. Consider having your teenager wait until age 18 or 19 to get a license, instead of the usual 16 in most states or as young as 14 in some. Inform your insurer if the child isn't licensed or is away at college without a car.

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Pipeline Leak Pushes Gas Prices Higher

Biggest surge in price found in Midwestern states

Pipeline Leak Pushes Gas Prices Higher...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.Com

September 13, 2010
The price of gasoline -- stable over the last two or three weeks -- rose about two cents a gallon over the weekend, pushed higher by a leak in a major oil pipeline from Canada.

Nationwide, the average price of self-serve regular rose two cents a gallon over the weekend, but rose significantly more in the Midwestern states served by the pipeline. In Illinois, for example, the average price of self-serve regular today is $2.91 cents a gallon, up a nickel from Sunday's price. It's 12 cents a gallon higher than it was a week ago.

Michigan and Indiana have experienced similar rapid increases in gas prices.

Pipeline leak

The problem began late last week when Enbridge Energy Partners LP shut down its pipeline because of a leak in the pipe at Romeoville, Ill. The company reported today that more than 6,000 barrels of crude leaked from the line before it could be shut down. The company says the pipeline can move transport 670,000 barrels of oil from Canada to the U.S. each day.

The line, which serves various refineries, has interrupted the supply of crude oil used to create gasoline and other products. The company declined to say how long it believed the pipeline will remain shut down, but analysts think the spike in gasoline prices it has caused will be temporary.

Even so, commodity traders have seized on the leak as a reason to bid up the price of oil. Light, sweet crude for October delivery rose $.85 to $77.30 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices are up 3.8 percent since the pipeline was shut down on Thursday.

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Feds: Gas Tank Straps Rusting on Ford Trucks

NHTSA probes complaints that 1.4 million trucks may be a fire hazard ... again

Feds: Gas Tank Straps Rusting on Ford Trucks: The Ford F-150 has always been notable for its tendency to burst into flames, even when parked and unattended...

The Ford F-150 has always been notable for its tendency to burst into flames, even when parked and unattended. And now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says the things may also combust when rolling down the road.

The latest problem, it seems, is that the two straps which hold the gas tank in place are rusting, allowing the gas tanks to come loose and fall out on the road. This not only presents a hazard to those in the truck but also to vehicles that may be behind them, NHTSA notes.

The agency says about 1.4 million F-150s from the 1997-2001 model years are potentially affected. It has received 32 complaints from vehicle owners, including 28 cases in which the gas tank wound up dragging along the ground or detached completely.

One truck owner said he heard a dragging noise and found that both straps had rusted out, leaving the tank dangling from the fuel line.

It may not be only the F-150s that have the problem, though. ConsumerAffairs.com has heard from owners of other Ford models that experienced similar failures.

David of Hilton Head Island, S.C., said his 2005 Ford 500 sedan caught fire in 2007 while he was driving down I-95 to Florida. He said the fire started in the rear of the car and was first noticed when flames licked up through the back deck.

David and his three passengers got out safely but the car burned "quickly and completely." David said he suspected the gas tank straps were at fault but was not able to confirm it.

Ford recalled millions of F-150s and other models plagued by a faulty cruise control switch prone to overheating and starting a fire.

 

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Clinical Trial Confirms Health Risks of Meridia

Diet drug carries 'significant' risk of heart attack and stroke

Clinical Trial Confirms Health Risks of Meridia...

By Truman Lewis
ConsumerAffairs.com

September 13, 2010
A clinical trial of Meridia finds that the controversial diet pill not only raises the risk of heart attacks and strokes but also doesn't do much to trim excess weight. European regulators have ordered the drug removed from the market but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to move more gingerly.

The FDA has asked a panel of experts to make recommendations about the drug, but isn't bound by the panel's recommendations. The consumer group Public Citizen has been pressuring the FDA to ban Meridia for years, with no success.

Last December, Public Citizen cited early results of the clinical trial, known as "SCOUT," showing that Meridia caused a "significantly increased number" of heart attacks and strokes, the second time in four years it had asked the FDA to withdraw the drug.

The latest study -- financed by Meridia manufacturer Abbott Labs and published in the New England Journal of Medicine -- found that while the drug did raise the risk of heart attacks and strokes, Meridia's label already warned against the use of the drug in patients with heart problems.

But that didn't stop the editors of the Journal from writing an unusual editorial saying that the study clearly showed Meridia should be removed from the market.

The editors didn't challenge the study's findings but said the authors didn't go far enough, noting that many overweight persons may have cardiovascular disease without realizing it and might therefore be putting themselves at risk by using the medication.

The FDA's cautious approach reflects the view that medications that may be beneficial to some individuals should not be banned because of the damage they may or may not cause to others but the agency's critics don't buy it.

If the FDA truly intends to operate as a public health agency, then it should acknowledge that the continued approval of this drug cannot be justified based on science, said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizens Health Research Group said last year. The FDA should therefore tell Abbott to pull Meridia from the market immediately.

Public Citizen first petitioned the FDA to ban sibutramine, the active ingredient in Meridia, on March 19, 2002. The organization based its request on results of pre-approval clinical trials that demonstrated increases in blood pressure, pulse rate and palpitations in obese patients taking the drug.

Despite scientific evidence that these patients were three times more likely to experience clinically significant electrocardiogram changes than obese patients taking placebos - coupled with the minimal benefit of an average six-and-a-half pound weight-loss difference between the two groups - the FDA approved the drug in 1997.

By March 2003, there were reports to the FDAs adverse reaction system of 49 cardiovascular deaths among patients taking Meridia. Twenty-seven of the 49 (55 percent) were in people younger than 50 years old. The number is likely higher, as the FDA estimates that only one in 10 adverse reactions to drugs are reported to the agency.

Based on the findings from the SCOUT study and Public Citizens updated figures based on an analysis of FDA data, Public Citizen calculates that there have been 84 post-approval cardiovascular deaths of patients taking Meridia. This includes 32 patients who were 50 or younger and 11 patients 30 or younger.



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FAA Proposes Rule To Fight Pilot Fatigue

Feds see benefits to both pilots and passengers

FAA Proposes Rule To Fight Pilot Fatigue...

September 13, 2010
The Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have made what they call a "landmark proposal" to fight fatigue among commercial pilots by setting new flight time and rest requirements based on fatigue science.

"This proposal is a significant enhancement for aviation safety," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "Both pilots and passengers will benefit from these proposed rules that will continue to ensure the safety of our nation's air transportation system."

Last year, LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt identified the issue of pilot fatigue as a top priority during the Airline Safety Call to Action following the crash of Colgan Air 3407 in February 2009. Babbitt launched an aggressive effort to take advantage of the latest research on fatigue to create a new pilot flight, duty and rest proposal.

The proposal is compatible with provisions in the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, which directs the FAA to issue a regulation no later than August 1, 2011, to specify limitations on the hours of pilot flight and duty time to address problems relating to pilot fatigue.

"I know firsthand that fighting fatigue is a serious issue, and it is the joint responsibility of both the airline and the pilot," said Babbitt. "After years of debate, the aviation community is moving forward to give pilots the tools they need to manage fatigue and fly safely."

Uniform requirements

Currently there are different rest requirements for domestic, international and unscheduled flights. The proposed rule would eliminate these distinctions. The proposal also sets different requirements for pilots based on the time of day and number of scheduled segments, as well as time zones, type of flights, and likelihood that a pilot is able to sleep under different circumstances.

The proposal defines "flight duty" as the period of time when a pilot reports for duty with the intention of flying an aircraft, operating a simulator or operating a flight training device. A pilot's entire duty period can include both "flight duty" and other tasks that do not involve flight time, such as record keeping and ground training.

The FAA proposes to set a nine-hour minimum opportunity for rest prior to the duty period, a one-hour increase over the current rules. The proposed rule would establish a new method for measuring a pilot's rest period, so that the pilot can have the chance to receive at least eight hours of sleep during that rest period.

Cumulative fatigue would be addressed by placing weekly and 28-day limits on the amount of time a pilot may be assigned any type of duty. Additionally, 28-day and annual limits would be placed on flight time. Pilots would have to be given at least 30 consecutive hours free from duty on a weekly basis, a 25 percent increase over the current rules.

Congress recently mandated that all air carriers have a Fatigue Risk Management Plan (FRMP). Each carrier will be able to develop its own set of policies and procedures to reduce the risks of pilot fatigue and improve alertness. The FAA has prepared guidance material to help the airlines develop their FRMP.



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Connecticut Investigating Better Business Bureau

Objects to new system for rating businesses

Connecticut Investigating BetterBusiness Bureau...



The Better Business Bureau is usually the one collecting complaints. Now, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has a complaint about the private consumer group.

I remain concerned about the Better Business Bureaus rating system and my offices investigation is continuing, Blumenthal said in a statement. We have reached no conclusions.

Blumenthal said he is disturbed by a 2009 change in the BBB's rating system for businesses. In the past, the bureau labeled businesses "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory" for resolving consumer complaints. In 2009, the business watchdog launched a new rating system.

New rating system

In January of that year the BBB began rating businesses based on 16 weighted categories with a scale from AAA to F. The BBB Reliability Report's algorithm calculating a company's ranking revolves around a set of subjective characteristics including the nature of business, length of time since opening, whether the business is "problematic in the industry," and BBB accreditation, i.e., are they a paying member.

My office last month wrote the Connecticut BBB requesting information regarding my concerns -- especially the role of dues in determining ratings and potential harm to businesses that decline to join -- and we await a response, Blumenthal said. My office is reaching out to BBB to help facilitate a response.

Business complaints

ConsumerAffairs.com has also received complaints from businesses, objecting to the way they are rated by the BBB.

BBB gave our company a D- rating for 'failing' to provide them with information, Eric, of Manahawkin, N.J., told ConsumerAffairs.com. We are not a member! The notion that a private company can demand you snap to and provide them with information or risk having your business damaged is astonishing.

Bluenthal agrees.

BBB ratings should be based exclusively on performance, honesty and responsiveness, he said. Rankings should not be affected by membership in the BBB. Any suggestion or appearance of pay-to-play threatens to undermine the accuracy and credibility of the BBBs ratings, potentially misleading consumers and unfairly tainting nonmember businesses.

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How Often Should You Change Your Oil?

If you're driving a new car, changing every 3,000 miles could be wasteful

It has been an article of faith a among drivers, passed down from one generation of motorists to another: change your oil every 3,000 miles....

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Scammers Creating 57,000 Fake Web Sites A Week

Phony web pages can snag consumers when they show up in search engines

Scammers Creating 57,000 Fake Web Sites A Week: Scammers trying to steal consumers' identities create fake websites to simulate actual web pages of banks a...


Scammers trying to steal consumers' identities create fake websites to simulate actual web pages of banks and well known companies. They create so many pages its almost impossible for search engines to weed them out.

A new study by PandaLabs, a software security firm, estimates hackers are creating 57,000 new Web addresses each week. They position and index these phony sites on leading search engines in the hope that unwary users will click them by mistake.

Those who do will see their computers infected or any data they enter on these pages fall into the hands of criminals. To do this, they use an average of 375 company brands and names of private institutions from all over the world, all of them instantly recognizable. eBay, Western Union and Visa top the rankings of the most frequently used keywords; followed by Amazon, Bank of America, Paypal and the Internal Revenue Service.

As it often happens, a consumer will receive an email that appears to come from a recognizable entity. The message entices the recipient to click on a link that will take him to a web page that, for all appearances, is part of the real company's Web site. But any information entered on the page goes straight to the scammer.

These days, most web savvy consumers know better than to click on links in Spam emails. However, if a fake website shows up in a Google search, that can catch even the most savvy computer user off guard.

Impersonating bank sites

According to the study, some 65 percent of these fake websites are positioned as belonging to banks. For the most part, they pose as banks in order to steal users' login credentials.

Online stores and auction sites are also popular, with eBay the most widely used. Other financial institutions (such as investment funds or stockbrokers) and government organizations occupy the following positions. The latter is largely accounted for by the IRS or other tax-related sites.

Payment platforms, led by Paypal, and ISPs are in fifth and sixth place, while gaming sites -- topped by World of Warcraft -- complete the ranking.

Just as in previous years malware or phishing was typically distributed via email, in 2009 and particularly this year, hackers have opted for BHSEO techniques, which involves creating fake websites using the names of famous brands.

This way, when users search for these names, a link to the malicious website will appear among the first results returned. When they visit these sites, one of two things will happen: either malware will be downloaded onto the user's computer -- with or without their knowledge -- or the website spoofs the appearance of a genuine page, a bank say, and users will unwittingly enter their details which will fall into the hands of criminals.

Extra caution

"The problem is that when you visit a website through search engines, it can be difficult for users to know whether it is genuine or not," said Luis Corrons, Technical Director of PandaLabs. "For this reason, and given the proliferation of this technique, it is advisable to go to banking sites or online stores by typing in the address in the browser, rather than using search engines which, although they are making an effort to mitigate the situation by changing indexing algorithms, cannot fully evade the great avalanche of new Web addresses being created by hackers every day."

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Nissan Recalls 2008-2010 Models to Fix Garmin GPS

Nissan Recalls 2008-2010 Models to Fix Garmin GPS...

Nissan is recalling vehicles equipped with Garmin NUVI Model 750, 760 and 765 navigation system. The batteries in the GPS units can overheat, possibly causing a fire.

The recalled models and model years are:

NISSAN / ALTIMA 2008-2010
NISSAN / FRONTIER 2008-2010
NISSAN / PATHFINDER 2008-2010
NISSAN / ROGUE 2008-2010
NISSAN / SENTRA 2008-2010
NISSAN / VERSA 2008-2010
NISSAN / XTERRA 2008-2010

Garmin technicians will replace the battery and insert a spacer on top of the battery when the recall begins later this month.

Owners may contact Garmin at 1-866-957-1981 or Nissan at 1-800-647-7261.

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

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Do You Really Need An Anti-Virus Program?

Latest operating systems provide greater protection, but is it enough?

Since the Internet became part of mass communication, computer users have purchased anti-virus software to protect against worms, Trojans, and other nasty ...

Since the Internet became part of mass communication in the mid 1990s, computer users have purchased anti-virus software to protect against worms, Trojans, and other nasty computer bugs.

PCs came loaded with trial versions of the software that could be purchased for about $40. You bought it without thinking much about it because no rational person would surf the Web without it.

But improvements in the Windows operating system and Apple and Linux's long-standing built-in defenses have some wondering if consumers still need to add an anti-virus program to their computers. The answer differs, depending on who you talk to.

An anti-virus program resides on your computer and monitors your system when it's connected to the Internet. It's supposed to stop viruses from downloading onto your computer and it runs routine scans to search for bugs that may have slipped through.

Plenty did in the early days of the Windows operating system, which was famous for its vulnerabilities. But beginning with the much-maligned Vista operating system, some IT experts say Windows' built-in defenses are adequate to provide protection.

Beginning with Vista, Microsoft added something called User Account Control (UAC), which remains alert to suspicious changes in your system and will temporarily stop running programs when it detects malware is involved.

Not perfect

But its not foolproof. We recently discovered a dangerous Trojan on one of our laptops running Vista. We found it running a scan with Webroot Anti-Virus. Yes, it slipped past Vista's defenses, but the anti-virus program also failed to block it from downloading. However, we probably would not have found it without the anti-virus scan.

Other Windows tools include Defender and Firewall, both of which are designed to increase the security of your computer and the integrity of your Internet connection, and both are part of Vista and Windows 7.

The debate over the effectiveness of stand-alone anti-virus programs heated up over the summer with the publication of a report by NSS Labs, an independent testing firm that analyzed 10 off-the-shelf anti-virus programs. The researchers tested the programs' effectiveness at detecting 123 common computer exploits software designed to exploit vulnerabilities in the system.

In many cases, the exploits were old versions. Hackers normally modify and improve them once security companies start producing patches for them. None of the exploits in the test employed advanced anti-detection features that are common today.

In other words, the test used computer exploits that weren't very sophisticated. In that light, the results were a bit disappointing.

Disappointing results

The 10 programs had a combined average detection rate of 76 percent, meaning 24 percent of the exploits escaped detection. Only three of the 10 anti-virus programs had a 100 percent detection rate.

When youre talking about exploits that have been published on a government funded web site for months on end, theres really no good excuse as to why youre not covering that, said NNS President Rick Moy. Since there are far fewer exploits than malware, it is imperative that attacks be defeated in the earliest possible stage.

But plenty of computer security experts say running a stand-alone anti-virus program makes sense. They point to tests performed by Webroot's Threat Research team that discovered Windows Defender failed to block 84 percent of a testing sample-set that included 15 of the most common variations of existing spyware and malware.

The threat level is only going to increase in the years ahead, they say, and buying extra protection for $40 a year just makes sense. It might, but the debate is likely to continue.

New threats for Mac and Linux

Even Macintosh and Linux users may need protection eventually. A 2007 study found that out of 236,000 known malware programs, only seven of them targeted the Mac operating system. Three years later, there are a lot more, due in part, perhaps, to Mac's recent sales successes. There are more tempting targets out there, and every hacker loves a challenge.

For that same reason Linux systems could soon become more vulnerable as well. Hackers haven't bothered in the past because Linux users tended to be more computer savvy and there weren't that many of them. There still aren't many Linux viruses, but experts say that could change as the operating system gets wider use.

Linux-based systems, however, tend to have a much higher level of built-in security, as most Web servers run on Linux.

As for anti-virus software makers, they aren't going out of business anytime soon. They are setting their sights set on the burgeoning field of smartphones, designing software to protect mobile systems from the growing number of threats. These products, however, are not likely to be something consumers will buy for their individual phones, but provided to cellular carriers to block threats at the main gateway.

Read reviews

See what our readers have to say about popular anti-virus programs.

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Pet Owner Applauds Petcurean's Handling of Foreign Object Incident

Unlike other companies, Petcurean apologizes, promises to investigate

Pet Owner Applauds Petcurean's Handling of Foreign Object Incident...


Finding a piece of metal in a bag of cat food would upset make most pet owners and make them leery of using the companys products again. But not Leslie K. of Tabernacle, New Jersey.

She says discovering a quarter-inch piece of metal in her cats bag of Petcurean Go! Natural dry trout food renewed her confidence in the Canadian company and its products.

Dont misunderstand. The recent discovery shocked and worried the cat owner.

When I saw the piece of metal it scared me, she told ConsumerAffairs.com. I saw it when I knocked the bag over ... I grabbed the piece of metal as my two cats were eating the food on the floor.

But Leslie says the way Petcurean handled her concerns has made her a loyal customer.

I received an immediate apology. They were concerned and said they were going to attempt to make sure it never happened again.

I didnt get the standard automatic response that many pet food makers give customers, like weve never had a complaint like before, or you did this, or that piece of metal must have been on the floor, she added. They took my concerns seriously and said they wanted to do something right away.

photo Piece of metal found in Leslie K's cat food. -- Photo supplied by consumer.

What impressed Leslie just as much is the speed in which the company addressed her concerns.

This happened around 1:30 or 2pm on Sunday (August 29), she recalls. I filled out Petcureans e-mail form and told them what happened. They contacted me around 5pm on Sunday and the first part of their response was an apology. They actually responded to me twice on a Sunday. They said they wanted more details and the piece of metal.

Leslie told the company shed already notified the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the New Jersey Department of Agriculture about the incident.

I told Petcurean they could have the piece of metal as long as it was okay with the FDA and the Department of Agriculture, she says. The company said that sounded good and told me they understood why I would notify other people.

Asked to compare Petcureans response to the way other pet food makers handle customer complaints, Leslie told us: Its like night and day.

Lets compare this to Mars handling of the recent complaint about a dead toad in a can of Pedigree dog food, she says. Mars was implying that the pet owner did this (put the toad in the food). And that struck me as same standard line that almost everyone gets who has ever had a problem with pet food.

Petcurean, on the other hand, was standing up for its product and doing the right thing.

Its a good lesson for pet food makers nationwide, she says. Im certainly impressed with how Petcurean handled my case. And I wont buy anything made by Mars because I dont do business with companies who deal with customers the way Mars does.

A spokeswoman for Petcurean told us the company took Leslies concerns seriously and immediately launched an investigation.

At this point in time, we have not received any other complaints of this nature and it appears to be an isolated incident, said spokeswoman Michele Dixon. When we receive the piece of metal in question, we will begin a thorough investigation on behalf of our customers and our company.

Petcurean, she said, will test the metal to determine its composition.

If the contamination originated at our facility, we can then determine ways to prevent future issues.

The companys quality control methods include a four-point screening process specifically for possible metal contamination, Dixon said.

This lot of cat food (Go! Natural Grain Free Trout Formula, Best by date Dec 16 10, 91016 2B42258, UPC 15260 00040) successfully passed our four critical control points ... We are now awaiting the metal sample to complete our full investigation.

Back in New Jersey, Leslie told us she sent Petcurean the piece of metal earlier this week.

The Department of Agriculture didnt want the metal and neither did the FDA, she says. I notified them because if there are more (metal pieces) in other bags I didnt want anyones pets to be harmed. Will she feed her cats Petcurean products again?

I already am, Leslie says. I am feeding another one of their dry foods as a treat to my cats. Any company can have an accident. Its how the company deals with it that matters to me. And Im impressed with how Petcurean dealt with me.



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How Do You Know When You're Too Old To Drive?

Older drivers are often very safe drivers but here are some signs to watch out for

Giving up your car has major psychological barriers. It represents a loss of youth, vigor, independence. But it also raises fears about the obvious: How wi...

By Fred Cicetti


A reader writes: My father is 78 and his driving is getting scary. Ive been asking him to give up the keys, but he wont do it. Any suggestions about how to handle this?

Here are some questions driving experts recommend asking older motorists to determine if they are still road-worthy:

• Do other drivers often honk at me?
• Have I had some accidents?
• Do I get lost, even on roads I know?
• Do cars or pedestrians seem to appear out of nowhere?
• Have passengers in my car told me they are worried about my driving?
• Am I driving less because I am unsure about my driving skills?

Give these questions to your father. Its extremely difficult to give up driving, but he might be persuaded. Ill share a personal anecdote that could help.

When I was a boy, my grandfather refused to listen to my father who was telling him it was time to quit driving. One afternoon, I was riding with my grandfather. He drifted across the white dividing line in the road several times. He hadnt noticed he was driving erratically. I told him I wouldnt ride with him anymore because I was afraid. He gave the car keys to my father the next day.

Giving up your car has major psychological barriers. It represents a loss of youth, vigor, independence. But it also raises fears about the obvious: How will I get around?

If your father asks this question, tell him that the American Automobile Association estimates that the average cost of owning and running a car is about $6,420 a year or $123 a week. You can get around pretty well by taxi, bus and train for $123 a week.

Older adults are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. There were 18.9 million older licensed drivers in 2000a 36 percent increase from a decade earlier. By 2020, it is estimated that more than 40 million older Americans will be licensed drivers.

Facts & figures

Here are some interesting statistics. Older drivers:

• Tend to drive when conditions are safest. They limit their driving during bad weather and at night, and they drive fewer miles than younger drivers
• Are the least likely to kill other drivers.
• Are more likely than younger drivers to die from injuries in car accidents.
• Wear safety belts more often than any other age groups except preschool children.
• Are less likely to drink and drive than other drivers.

Many seniors continue to be capable drivers. However, there are changes that affect our skills.

Joints stiffen. Muscles weaken. Eyesight and hearing diminish. Reflexes slow down. Your attention span may shrink. And these are just the normal changes that dont include the affects of disease and the medications we take.

To deal with the effects of aging on our driving, here are some tips:

• Plan to drive on streets you know.
• Take routes that avoid tricky ramps and left turns.
• Add extra time for travel so you dont feel pressed.
• Don't drive when you are tired.
• Avoid listening to the radio or talking with passengers.
• Leave more space than you think you need between you and the car in front of you.
• Use your rear window defogger to keep the window clear at all times.
• Always turn your headlights on when driving.
• If you dont have them, get large mirrors for your car.
• Replace your windshield wiper blades often.
• Take a driving refresher class. Some car insurance companies lower your bill when you pass this type of class.

All Rights Reserved 2010 by Fred Cicetti

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Avvo.com Responds to Ratings Lawsuit

Chalks up dispute to misunderstood lawyer-rating system

Avvo.com, a website providing information and ratings of attorneys across the country, was being sued by a lawyer who says the site defamed him....


Last week, we reported that Avvo.com, a website providing information and ratings of attorneys across the country, was being sued by a lawyer who says the site defamed him.

Larry Joe Davis, a St. Petersberg, Fla., lawyer, alleges in his suit that the site erroneously listed him as an employment/labor law attorney, and gave the wrong address for his business. Davis also claims that his consumer rating jumped by nearly a point as soon as he logged in, and then fell again once he removed information he added to his profile.

This, Davis says, proves that Avvo purposely publishes false and misleading information regarding attorneys in an attempt to coerce them into logging in and editing their profile.

But any good lawyer knows that there are two sides to every story -- and Josh King, Avvo's vice president and general counsel, wants to tell his.

According to King, Davis is an attorney with a spotty record who doesn't understand how Avvo works and doesn't like the fact that we're publicizing the fact that he's been sanctioned.

Davis's claim that merely logging into the site raises an attorney's rating makes sense once one understands how Avvo works, King says.

How it works

The website creates attorney profiles from the ground up, using mostly public records data, King says. Thus, most attorneys -- about 95 percent nationwide -- have an Avvo profile, even if they've never heard of the website.

The typical profile is relatively sparse and contains the most basic attorney information: name, contact information, his license status, and whether he has been disciplined.

If a lawyer wants to add information to his profile, he can claim it by logging in and verifying that the profile is in fact his own. Once his profile has been claimed, the lawyer can add as much information as he wants -- photographs, publications, speeches, and the like. Lawyers can also change outdated or incorrect information.

According to King, attorneys who haven't added or changed information typically receive a rating of no concern or, if the lawyer has been sanctioned or otherwise disciplined, attention.

But once the lawyer adds or updates information on her profile, the website uses an algorithm to create a numerical rating based on the available data. Generally speaking, the more information added, the higher the rating.

Just claiming the profile doesn't increase your rating, King explains. But if you add information in, odds are the rating is going to go up because [the algorithm] has more to work with.

Conversely, King says, if you delete information, then [the rating] probably goes down, since [the algorithm] has less to work with.

Similar to dismissed suit

As for the lawsuit, King says he's seen this movie before. In 2007, shortly after Avvo's launch, lawyers John Browne and Alan Wenokur filed a class action lawsuit alleging that their Avvo ratings were inaccurate and misleading.

In an order dismissing the suit, Judge Robert Lasnik of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Seattle ruled that the rating system is protected speech under the First Amendment, and that the system is not only defensible, it is virtually impossible to prove wrong.

In a June 2007 blog post addressing Browne and Wenokur's lawsuit, Avvo CEO Mark Britton called it a predictable response from lawyers who have disciplinary actions in their backgrounds that will now be presented for their potential clients to see.

In addressing Larry Joe Davis's suit, Britton similarly writes that the real issue [in the suit is that] that Mr. Davis was sanctioned by the Florida State Bar in 2007 and he doesnt want you to know about it.

As far as Davis's lawsuit, King said that he has reached out to Davis -- who never contacted him personally before filing suit -- and offered to explain in greater detail how the site works. King said he is confident that the suit will be thrown out and that the real remaining question is whether there are going to be sanctions, penalties, or attorney's fees that the company will be able to collect.

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Gas Prices Show Little Movement In Last Week

Demand for gas is ahead of last year, but so are supplies

Gas Prices Show Little Movement In Last Week...

With the summer driving season behind them, motorists should find lower fuel prices in the weeks ahead, but so far prices have remained flat.

The national average price of self-serve regular gas is $2.683 s gallon, according to AAA. That's about the same price as a week ago.

The average price of diesel fuel is also almost the same as it was last week -- $2.954 a gallon.

The latest report on supplies shows a surprising drop in stockpiles of both crude oil and gasoline. However supplies remain above the level of a year ago. The U.S. Energy Information Administration this week reported crude inventories fell by nearly two million barrels in the previous week, twice as much as analysts expected.

Gasoline supplies fell by 200,000 barrels. Demand for gasoline over the four weeks ended September 3 was up 1.1 percent from the same period a year ago.

"The passing of Labor Day marks the traditional end of the summer driving season," said Andrew Delmege, AAA's manager of regulatory Affairs. "But this year has been anything but traditional. Crude supplies have remained at significantly high levels throughout the year and show no immediate signs of a change in status. This year has also been marked by very fragile demand, particularly over the summer."

The states with the most expensive gasoline today are:

Alaska ($3.508)
Hawaii ($3.466)
California ($3.039)
Washington ($3.027)
Idaho ($2.981)
Oregon ($2.959)
Utah ($2.917)
Montana ($2.890)
Nevada ($2.861)
New York ($2.817)

The states with the least expensive gasoline today are:

South Carolina ($2.453)
New Jersey ($2.490)
Missouri ($2.491)
Mississippi ($2.501)
Tennessee ($2.505)
Alabama ($2.512)
Virginia ($2.512)
Texas ($2.515)
Louisiana ($2.542)
Georgia ($2.561)

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Short Sleepers Face Health Risks

Study sees an association between sleep duration and a pre-diabetic state

Short Sleepers Face Health Risks...

September 10, 2010
People who sleep fewer than six hours a night may be three times more likely to develop a condition that leads to diabetes and heart disease, according to new research.

A study by a team of researchers from the University of Warwick and the University at Buffalo finds short sleep duration is associated with an elevated risk of a pre-diabetic state, known as incident-impaired fasting glycaemia (IFG). Details were reported recently in the Annals of Epidemiology journal.

The condition means that your body isn't able to regulate glucose as efficiently as it should. People with IFG have a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes and are at an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

The researchers looked at six years of data from 1,455 participants in the Western New York Health Study.

All participants were between the ages of 35 and 79 years of age and all completed a clinical examination that included measures of resting blood pressure, height, and weight. They also completed questionnaires about their general health and well-being and sleeping patterns.

Six-hour threshold

"We found that short sleep -- less than six hours -- was associated with a significant, three-fold increased likelihood of developing IFG, compared to people who got an average of six to eight hours sleep a night," says lead author Saverio Stranges of the Warwick Medical School.

Stranges says there were a number of ways in which sleep loss could lead to disordered glucose metabolism.

"Previous studies have shown that short sleep duration results in a 28 percent increase in mean levels of the appetite stimulating hormone ghrelin so it can affect feeding behaviors," he notes. "Other studies have also shown that a lack of sleep can decrease glucose tolerance and increases the production of cortisol, a hormone produced in response to stress."

More research is needed, Stranges concludes, "but our study does suggest a very strong correlation between lack of sleep and type 2 diabetes and heart disease."



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Caller ID 'Spoofing' a Growing Threat

It's very easy for con artists to display a false Caller ID

Caller ID spoofing is the practice of using the telephone network to display a number on the recipients Caller ID display which is not that of the actual o...


Have you ever had a telephone call when you checked the Caller ID and decided it was a call you wanted to take, only to find out when you answered the call, it was not the caller you anticipated? If this has happened to you, you have been the victim of Caller ID spoofing, notes the North Dakota Attorney General's Office.

Caller ID spoofing is the practice of using the telephone network to display a number on the recipients Caller ID display which is not that of the actual originating phone. The fraudulent uses of this practice are increasing.

Gaining access to Caller ID spoofing capabilities is as easy as logging onto one of several well known websites, creating an account, providing a credit card number for fees associated with the call (for as little as $10 per 60 minutes), entering your pin number, and entering any number you wish to spoof. You can even disguise your voice if you wish, choosing either a male or female voice!

While there are legitimate uses for Caller ID spoofing, here are some uses that are not considered legitimate:

• Voicemail Hacking Caller ID spoofing can, in some cases, be used to access voicemail boxes with some providers. Many phone providers have taken steps to prevent this from happening on their systems.

• Wire Fraud scammers have figured out that businesses providing wire transfer services rely on Caller ID to verify that the caller is calling from their home phone numbers. The scammers will call to initiate a wire transfer with the Caller ID of the person they are pretending to be, and will use that persons credit card or bank account to transfer funds to another account - most often in another country.

• Phone Phishing phishing scammers are using Caller ID spoofing to gain personal information from victims over the telephone by appearing to be from the victims bank or credit card company, etc. Phone phishing is fraudulent and is illegal.

• Threats Caller ID spoofing has been used to phone in bomb threats, kidnapping and other threats to law enforcement. Law enforcement takes threats seriously and investigations cost thousands of dollars in resources until the threat is proven to be a hoax.

• Prank Calls Caller ID spoofing is often used in making prank calls to friends and family. While these calls are often harmless, they can cause alarm to the recipient of the call.

While there is currently no way to block your phone from Caller ID spoofing, here are some common tips to remember when you receive a telephone call:

• Dont trust anyone. Anyone you do business with already has the information they need on you. They will not call and ask you your social security number or to verify your account number.

• If you receive a call from your bank, credit card company etc., write down the number on the caller ID, hang up and redial their number.

• Dont assume it is who you think it is, even if the Caller ID indicates it is a relative, your childrens school or the local police department. You may wish to exercise some caution. For instance, you could hang up and call the number back.

• If you have additional questions regarding Caller ID spoofing, contact the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) consumer hotline at 1-888-225-5322.

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Beware of Credit Card Interest Rate Rip-Off

Scam artists promise to lower credit card interest rate for a fee

Beware of Credit Card Interest Rate Rip-Off...


Consumers are being peppered with solicitations from companies promising to lower credit card interest rates for a fee.

Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray said his office has received dozens of complaints from consumers who have received the solicitations, which in most cases turn out to be a rip-off.

"These companies are collecting fees for a service that consumers do not need," Cordray said. "They are not offering anything that consumers cannot do on their own. While the solicitations may be touting 'guarantees' and 'exclusive offers,' the companies have no more clout with creditors than consumers do."

Most often, the solicitations come in the form of automated calls and claim to be from generically titled agencies such as Card Member Services or Credit Card Services. In the majority of cases, these organizations will charge an upfront fee to negotiate with creditors for lower interest rates and, in the end, consumers are no better off than if they had negotiated on their own.

Cordray offers the following tips to consumers who hope to lower credit card interest rates:

• Call your credit card company directly. Explain that you are a good customer and that you would like a lower interest rate. If you have received better offers with other credit card companies, mention this and explain that you may switch to a competitor if you do not get a better rate with your company.

• Be persistent. If you do not get a lower rate the first time you call, then call again. Ask to speak to a supervisor or someone with the authority to lower your interest rate. If you are a new customer, it may be difficult to obtain a lower rate, but keep trying anyway.

• If possible, keep balances at 30 percent or less of your available credit. Also make all your payments on time. This will put you in a better position to negotiate and it also will help improve your credit score.

• For additional help, contact a nonprofit credit counseling service in your area. There should never be a charge for the service.

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Floridians Cautioned On Hurricane Window Film

Product doesn't live up to claims, attorney general says

Prudent homeowners making preparations for what might be to come have been warned against buying so-called "hurricane protection" products without fully in...

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Avoid 'Cheerleaders Gone Wild' On Facebook

Sexy come-on is latest 'clickjacking' scheme

If you get a message on your Facebook page saying Cheerleaders gone wild have to see this, ignore it. That's the advice from security expert Graham Cluley ...



If you get a message on your Facebook page saying Cheerleaders gone wild have to see this, ignore it. That's the advice from security expert Graham Cluley of Sophos software.

Cluley says the security company is seeing many of these messages, which he says are part of a clever clickjacking scheme. Clickjacking is a technique whereby hackers trick web users into revealing confidential information or take control of their computer when they click on seemingly harmless web pages.

If you click on the cheerleaders link it will take you to what appears to be a Facebook page. The page has text that declares the content you are about to access is "inappropriate for some users" as it "may contain shocking graphics, nudity or disrespect other individuals". The warning, which is designed to appear like an official Facebook message, asks you to confirm that you are 18 years old or older before you can proceed.

Setting the hook

Now that they have your attention, the scammers then ask you to press the numbers 1, 2 and 3 in a particular order to prove that you really are a human being. When you click on the buttons, however, you are being clickjacked.

You may think you are just pressing numbers in a particular sequence, but in fact your mouse clicks are invisibly confirming that you "Like" the "Cheerleaders gone wild" page, something that you may not want your friends and family to see, which gets communicated to other Facebook users via your newsfeed, Cluley writes in his blog.

It turns out you are also being clickjacked into liking pages called Funniest Videos On the Web" and "Free ringtones every day". But you may not realize this, Cluley says, unless you examine your profile carefully and check your list of "liked" pages.

Engrossed in the video

But you probably haven't noticed any of this, of course, because by now you are watching a YouTube video of a group of young cheerleaders up to antics which, quite frankly, I didn't find at all shocking and didn't involve any nudity. At least that was the case when I checked it out, Cluley said.

If you really wanted to see the video, you could have accessed it directly from YouTube. If you watched it through the bogus Facebook offering, you simply helped out a group of spammers who clickjacked you into helping pump up their page views. Cluley says if you were victimized, be sure to clean up your Facebook profile and remove references to the "Cheerleaders Gone Wild" and other pages.

You should always be wary of suspicious out-of-character posts made by your Facebook friends, Cluley said.

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U.S. Traffic Fatalities Hit Lowest Level In Six Decades

Across-the-board declines were registered in 2009 despite a slight increase in road travel

U.S. Traffic Fatalities Hit Lowest Level In Six Decades...


Highway deaths fell to 33,808 during 2009 -- the lowest number since 1950, according to updated fatality and injury data. The record-breaking decline in traffic fatalities occurred even while estimated vehicle miles traveled in 2009 increased by 0.2 percent over 2008 levels.

In addition, 2009 saw the lowest fatality and injury rates ever recorded: 1.13 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2009, versus 1.26 deaths for 2008.

Fatalities declined in all categories of vehicles including motorcycles, which saw fatalities fall by 850 from 2008, breaking an 11-year cycle of annual increases.

"At the Department of Transportation, we are laser-focused on our top priority: safety," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "Today's announcement shows that America's roads are the safest they've ever been. But they must be safer. And we will not rest until they are."

The stats

According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study based on 2006 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for those between the ages of three and 34.

In addition to the record-breaking drop in fatalities, the number of people injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2009 declined for a 10th straight year in a row -- falling an estimated 5.5 percent from 2008, according to NHTSA data.

Alcohol impaired driving fatalities declined by 7.4 percent in 2009 -- 10,839 compared with 11,711 reported in 2008. Overall, 33 states and Puerto Rico experienced a decline in the number of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in 2009 from 2008.

The numbers "reflect the tangible benefits of record seat belt use and strong anti-drunk driving enforcement campaigns," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "But we are still losing more than 30,000 lives a year on our highways, and about a third of these involve drunk driving. We will continue to work with our state partners to strictly enforce both seat belt use and anti-drunk driving laws across this nation, every day and every night."

From the data

Highlights of the latest Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and related NHTSA data include the following:

• 33,808 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2009, a 9.7 percent decline from 37,423 deaths reported in 2008, and the lowest number of deaths since 1950 (which had 33,186).

• An estimated 2.217 million people were injured in 2009, a 5.5 percent decline from 2.346 million in 2008.

• 30,797 fatal crashes occurred in 2009, down 9.9 percent from 34,172 in 2008. All crashes (fatal, injury and property damage only) were down by 5.3 percent in 2009 from a year ago.

• Forty-one states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico all had reductions in fatalities, led by Florida (with 422 fewer fatalities) and Texas (with 405 fewer fatalities).

Distracted Driving Summit

As part of the effort to reduce traffic fatalities, DOT Secretary LaHood is convening a National Distracted Driving Summit on Sept. 21 in Washington, D.C. The meeting is expected to bring together leading transportation officials, safety advocates, law enforcement, industry representatives, researchers and victims affected by distraction-related crashes to address challenges and identify opportunities for national anti-distracted driving efforts.

LaHood held a similar summit in the autumn of 2009 prompting a national conversation about texting and talking on cell phones while driving.

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Ford Settles Case Alleging Wrongful Death of Former Met

Second settlement this year where plaintiff alleged defective seat belt

Ford Settles Case Alleging Wrongful Death of Former Met...


Ford has settled a wrongful death suit brought by the family of an up-and-coming baseball player who was killed when his Ford Explorer rolled over in 2001.

The settlement, terms of which were not disclosed, followed a stunning $131 million jury verdict for the plaintiffs -- the ninth largest verdict against a car manufacturer in U.S. history. The settlement, observers say, was likely an attempt by Ford to avoid an additional award of punitive damages, which could have increased the company's liability by tens of millions of additional dollars.

The suit was brought by the family of Brian Cole, a New York Met drafted in 1998. On March 31, 2001, Cole was en route from Mets training camp in Florida to his home in Mississippi when his Explorer rolled over, ejecting him from the car and killing him. His 17-year-old cousin Ryan walked away from the accident.

Tab Turner, the Cole family's attorney, said that Brian was wearing his seat belt, but that it malfunctioned when the car rolled over.

Long-running problem

The case was a fresh reminder of the Explorer's nearly decade-old travails. Beginning in 2000, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened an investigation into the vehicle's unusually high incidence of fatalities -- over 100 people had died in accidents involving Explorers -- and was initially unsure whether the problem lay with the vehicles themselves or the Firestone tires with which they were equipped.

Firestone eventually got the lion's share of the blame; 3.85 million Firestone tires were recalled, and in 2002 NHTSA declined to open an investigation into the Explorer itself.

Since then, Ford and Firestone have faced hundreds of lawsuits resulting from accidents attributed to the Explorer's design and/or the tendency of the tread on certain Firestone models to separate.

Turner, who has specialized in Explorer rollover cases for ten years, said the jury "put zero percent of the fault on Brian Cole and 100 percent of the fault on Ford Motor Co. for a defective and unreasonably dangerous vehicle."

Ford denies liability

Despite the settlement, Ford remains adamant that the accident was a result of Cole's reckless driving, and continues to insist that he wasn't wearing his seat belt.

Ford spokeswoman Marcey Evans accused the court of denying Ford "a fair trial by excluding evidence that the jury should have heard and considered about Brian's driving and the speculative nature of plaintiffs' claims."

"Brian Cole had been driving over 80 mph when he drifted off road for unknown reasons, suddenly turned his steering wheel 295 degrees, lost control, and caused the vehicle to roll over more than three times," Evans said. "He was not wearing his safety belt and died after being ejected from the vehicle. His passenger, who was properly belted, walked away from the accident."

Earlier settlement

Interestingly, though, in January Ford settled another lawsuit alleging failure of an Explorer seatbelt during a crash. In that case, plaintiff Lynn Wheeler was riding in the center rear seat of an Explorer when the car was rear-ended, allegedly causing the latch to malfunction. The seat collapsed on top of Wheeler, who was thrown into the center console and paralyzed from the neck down.

Wheeler's attorneys said Ford knew the center rear lap belt was defective, but put off fixing it in the interest of saving money. That case, too, was settled after the jury handed down a verdict but before it decided on possible punitive damages.

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Publishers Clearinghouse Settles With 32 States

$3.5 million agreement with 32 states toughens 2001 settlement

Publishers Clearing House, which operates sweepstakes promotions nationwide, has agreed to pay $3.5 million to settle deceptive marketing charges brought b...


Publishers Clearing House, which operates sweepstakes promotions nationwide, has agreed to pay $3.5 million to settle deceptive marketing charges brought by 32 states and the District of Columbia. The company also agreed to alter its marketing materials.

The settlement modifies the terms of a prior, but similar judgment reached in 2001. After reviewing recent consumer complaints and PCH promotional materials, investigators determined that consumers could still be confused by the nature and language of some of the companys subsequent sweepstakes promotional mailings.

The company had been accused of suggesting that making purchases through Publishers Clearing House would improve the odds of winning a cash prize.

This company just doesnt get it, said Vermont Attorney General William H. Sorrell, So as often as we need to take legal action to protect our citizens, well do so.

In addition to Vermont, the states participating in the settlement include Oregon, Nevada, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Colorado, Florida, Alaska, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Arizona, District of Columbia, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia.

Stronger provisions

The new agreement contains stronger provisions to ensure that consumers are not further misled or confused by the companys sweepstakes promotions, including greatly increased consumer surveys to ensure that consumers understand that purchasing does not increase their chances of winning a sweepstakes prize.

I have been entering this contest for many months, Mary, of Albany, Ohio, said in one of more than 840 complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com last month. There's always a deadline for entering even though the contest does not end until Feb, 2012.It's just a scam to get you to buy.

This settlement will insure that Publishers Clearing House plays by the rules and does not exploit Oregonians, said Attorney General Kroger.

Under the terms of the settlement, Publishers Clearing House has agreed to:

• Change the language the company uses in its mailings that insinuated that the more consumers spend with Publishers Clearing House the more likely they are to win prizes;

• Not use some specific tactics, such as telling a recipient that his or her entry code has a key code for the winning entry;

• Cease using the tactic of sending a communication from the Board of Judges to indicate that the recipient is close to winning; and,

• Hire an ombudsman to review the companys solicitations on a quarterly basis.

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Amazon.com Users Growing Targets of Phishing Scams

Scammers seek to steal customers' log-in information

Amazon.com Users Growing Targets of Phishing Scams...


If you have an account with Amazon.com -- and millions of consumers do -- be on the lookout for new and evolving phishing scams aimed at stealing your account username and password.

Identity thieves have launched a new scheme in recent weeks, allowing them to gain access to victims' accounts and order as much merchandise as they want. If the victims keep a credit card on file with Amazon, those illegal purchases can be billed to the victims.

The scam takes many forms but in one recent batch of spam emails, the subject line says "Verify Your New Email Address." Since most targets haven't changed their email address, naturally they are concerned enough to open and read the email.

The message directs the recipients to click on a link that takes them to what they believe to be a page on Amazon.com's site, but in reality is a page controlled by the scammers. They are directed to log in to their account and, if they do, the scammer records their user name and password.

Amazon.com is increasingly a popular vehicles for scammers and identity thieves because so many people all over the world have accounts. In another version of the scam, victims receive emails, made to look like they are from Amazon.com, with the subject line "Thank You For Your Order." It's objective is the same -- to steal your log in information.

"From time to time, you might receive e-mails that look like they come from Amazon.com, but they are, in fact, falsified," Amazon.com warns on its website. "Often these e-mails direct you to a Web site that looks similar to the Amazon.com Web site, where you might be asked to provide account information such as your e-mail address and password combination. Unfortunately, these false Web sites can steal your sensitive information; later, this information may be used to commit fraud."

The company says the schemes can not only steal account log-in information, but download dangerous virus and malware programs.

Dead giveaways

Amazon.com says it will never ask you for the following information in an e-mail communication:

• Your Social Security number or tax identification number

• Your credit card number, PIN number, or credit card security code (including "updates" to any of the above)

• Your mother's maiden name

• Your Amazon.com password

Amazon.com said it will not ask you to verify or confirm your Amazon.com account information by clicking on a link from an e-mail. It also said it does not send order confirmations or other unsolicited requests that require you to open attachments, nor do they permit their merchants to do so.

"We recommend that you do not open any e-mail attachments from suspicious or unknown sources," the company warns.

Also, be on the lookout for poor grammar or typographical errors. Some phishing e-mails are translated from other languages or are sent without being proofread, and as a result, contain bad grammar or typographical errors.

Take a closer look

Still not sure the email is from Amazon.com? Then check the return address.

While phishers often send forged e-mail to make it look like it came from Amazon.com, you can sometimes determine whether it's authentic by checking the return address. If the "from" line of the e-mail looks like "amazon-security@hotmail.com" or "amazon-fraud@msn.com," or contains the name of another Internet service provider, you can be sure it is a fraudulent e-mail.

Finally, check the Web site address. Genuine Amazon.com web sites are always hosted on the "amazon.com" domain--"http://www.amazon.com/" (or "https://www.amazon.com/.) Sometimes the link included in spoofed e-mails looks like a genuine Amazon.com address. You can check where it actually points to by hovering your mouse over the link -- the actual Web site where it points to will be shown in the status bar at the bottom of your browser window or as a pop-up.

"We never use a web address such as "http://security-amazon.com/" or an IP address followed by directories such as "http://123.456.789.123/amazon.com/," the company said.

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Payment Processor Settles State And Federal Charges

Allegedly aided scammers in placing unauthorized charges

Payment Processor Settles State And Federal Charges ...


The former president of a payment processing company has agreed to settle charges brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and seven states for his role in an operation that allegedly debited more than $200 million in bogus charges from consumers' bank accounts.

Derrelle Janey was president of Your Money Access, LLC from 2003 to 2006. According to a 2007 complaint filed by the FTC and the states of Illinois, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio and Vermont, the company processed unauthorized debits on behalf of deceptive telemarketers and Internet-based schemes that were violating the FTC's Telemarketing Sales Rule and state and federal consumer protection laws.

Banking system access

According to the complaint, the company played a critical role in helping many of its clients carry out these schemes by providing access to the banking system and the means to extract money from consumers' bank accounts. Between June 23, 2004, and March 31, 2006, Your Money Access processed more than $200 million in debits and attempted debits.

More than $69 million of the attempted debits were returned or rejected by consumers or their banks for various reasons, an indication that in many cases consumers had never authorized the charges. In many instances, the merchants either failed to deliver the promised products or services or sent consumers relatively worthless items.

Janey is a defendant in the complaint along with YMA, YMA Company, LLC, and Tarzenea Dixon, former CEO of YMA. He is the fourth and final defendant to reach a settlement with the FTC and attorneys general. Default judgments were previously reached against YMA and YMA Company. Dixon also reached a prior settlement.

Deceptive scheme

"These defendants were part of a scheme to deceive consumers and take their money," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. "They processed charges that consumers often never authorized, and the products and services peddled by these telemarketers often turned out to be bogus."

YMA's clients -- telemarketers -- peddled government grant information, identity theft protection and prescription discount plans. Telemarketers placed cold calls offering consumers these products that were of questionable value and reliability, solicited their bank account information and passed on the information to the defendant to complete the debit. In many cases, consumers were not aware they had made a purchase until the charge showed up on their bank statement.

Under the settlement, Janey agreed never to participate in the processing of payments debited from consumer bank accounts or knowingly aid anyone who is violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The order imposed a $625,000 judgment against Janey, but due to his financial state he is required to pay only $15,000, which will go to the U.S. Treasury. The court suspended the remainder due to Janey's financial dire straits. The court can lift this suspension if it finds that Janey lied about his current financial situation.

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Is It Worth the Extra Money?

Consumer Reportslatest taste tests find some store brands at least as good as national brands

Is It Worth the Extra Money?...


When it comes to taste, store brand products can compete with their name-brand counterparts and save shoppers more than a thousand dollars a year on grocery bills, according to a new Consumer Reports study.

In 21 head-to-head taste matchups, national brands won seven times, the store brand came out on top in three instances, and the remainder resulted in ties.

"The study reaffirms that store brands are worth a try," said Tod Marks, senior projects editor for CR. "For a family that spends $100 a week on groceries, the savings could add up to more than $1,500 a year."

Consumer Reports' price study evaluated five supermarket chains and compared store-and name-brand prices for 30 everyday items at five chains, collecting a total of 283 price quotes. The magazine found the average savings with store brands was 30 percent, but shoppers saved as much as 52 percent on some items.

Store-brand stigma

Although the savings are significant, some shoppers are still reluctant to try store-brand products, according to a Consumer Reports nationally-represented survey. The top reasons for those who don't buy store brands are: "I prefer name brands," "The name brand tastes better," and "I don't know if store brands are as high in quality." Respondents 18 to 39 years old were particularly likely to question the quality of store brands.

Still, 84 percent of Americans purchased store brands in the past year, and 93 percent of store-brand shoppers said they would keep buying as many store brands after the economy recovers. Nationwide, store brands accounted for almost one of four products sold in supermarkets and a record $55.5 billion in sales last year.

Consumer Reports found nutrition similar for most of the tested products, despite the perception among 17 percent of survey respondents who said that "name-brand foods are more nutritious." The most notable differences: Mott's applesauce has more sugar than Publix, Ore-Ida fries have more sodium than Jewel, and Kellogg's Froot Loops have 3 grams of fiber vs. 1 gram in Stop & Shop Fruit Swirls.

Exceptions

Shoppers are devoted to certain categories as well. Though they'll purchase store-brand paper goods and plastics, at least half of respondents rarely or never buy store-brand wine, pet food, soda, or soup. But CR's trained testers found that when it came to products like soup, the name brand didn't always reign:

• Chicken soup: Food Lion's (36 cents per serving) Lotsa' Noodles soup beat out Campbell's Chicken Noodle (41 cents per serving) for having a little more intense flavor. Campbell's had oily broth, with fatty pieces of chicken.

• Orange juice: Publix Premium won over Tropicana for having a bit less of a cooked flavor with slightly less bitter taste.

• Hot dogs: America's Choice (A&P;, $2.64 per package) beef hot dogs trumped Oscar Mayer ($3.65 per package) for their juicy and flavorful franks.

Name brands trump

Name brands did win in seven of the categories, including mayonnaise, mozzarella cheese, and frozen French fries, but the majority of the matchups found that the store brand and name brand were of similar quality. A tie doesn't mean the taste was identical. Two products may be equally fresh and flavorful, with ingredients of similar quality, but taste dissimilar because the recipe or seasonings differ. Some products that tied include:

• Ketchup: Heinz ($2.76 per bottle) is spicier, while Target's Market Pantry ($1.174 per bottle) brand is more tomatoey.

• Peanut butter: Tasters detected more deeply roasted nuts in Skippy (19 cents per serving), while Albertsons (15 cents per serving) has a hint of molasses flavor.

• Potato chips: Both Lays (29 cents per serving) and Walmart's Great Value (15 cents per serving) have a nice balance of real potato flavor, fat, and saltiness.

Significant Savings

National brands are generally pricier than store brands, not so much because of what's in the package but because of the cost of developing the product and turning it into a household name.

There's no reason store brands shouldn't hold their own, according to CR, since some companies manufacture both, including Sara Lee, Reynolds, 4C, McCormick, Feit, Manischewitz, Joy Cone, Stonewall Kitchen, and Royal Oak. Plus, most grocers offer a money-back guarantee if their products can't meet the consumer's expectations. (National brands stand behind their products too, of course).

Despite the savings, the price advantage may be narrowing. In recent years, some national-brand makers have lowered prices and stepped up promotional activities.

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New Booster Ratings: 21 Best Bets and 7 Good Bets

Eight out of 72 seats evaluated by IIHS are not recommended

Most belt-positioning boosters, though, don't offer consistently good fit in all vehicles. This is the bottom line in the IIHS third round of booster evalu...


Booster seats are better than they used to be at fitting lap and shoulder belts on 4 to 8-year-old kids to restrain them in a crash, so parents don't have to search as hard for a good fit for their child and vehicle.

Most belt-positioning boosters, though, don't offer consistently good fit in all vehicles. This is the bottom line in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) third round of booster evaluations.

Researchers assessed the safety belt fit of 72 boosters, assigning the best ones the top ratings of BEST BET or GOOD BET because they position belts correctly on average booster-age kids in most vehicles. The worst performers are ones the Institute doesn't recommend because they do a poor job of fitting belts. A good booster routes the lap belt across a child's upper thighs and positions the shoulder belt at midshoulder.

IIHS doesn't conduct vehicle crash tests to evaluate boosters because boosters don't do the restraining in a crash. It's the fit of the belt that's important.

"For the first time top-rated boosters outnumber ones the Institute doesn't recommend," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research. "Now more than ever manufacturers are paying attention to belt fit, and it's showing up in our ratings."

Twenty-one boosters are BEST BET models, and seven earn GOOD BET (see list below). Another eight aren't recommended at all. This represents a market shift. Last year only nine seats out of 60 the Institute evaluated earned BEST BET.

Even though poor performers make up a smaller percentage of boosters evaluated this year, 36 fall in the middle because they don't consistently fit belts well on most kids in most cars, minivans, and SUVs. Most of these are backless boosters with good lap belt scores but not good shoulder belt scores.

"Unlike the top performers, consumers can't assume boosters in the in-between group will work in every family vehicle. Some may be fine, but parents still need to try them out to see if the lap and shoulder belts fit their kids correctly," McCartt says. Obvious red flags are lap belts that ride up on the tummy and shoulder belts that either fall off the shoulder or rub against a child's neck. McCartt advises parents to keep looking until they find a booster that fits.

Institute engineers assess boosters using a crash test dummy representing an average-size six-year-old. They measure how three-point lap and shoulder belts fit the dummy in each of the boosters under four conditions spanning the range of belt configurations in a wide variety of vehicle types. A booster's overall rating is based on the range of scores for each measurement.

Why fit matters

No federal standard dictates how a booster should position belts. The government's dynamic tests of crash performance don't measure what boosters are meant to do, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) only ranks boosters by how easy they are to use. Manufacturers crash test boosters, but these simulations don't tell parents how boosters will fit kids in their cars. Every state and the District of Columbia has a child restraint law, but they differ when it comes to booster-age kids. In 27 states and DC, the laws cover kids until age eight, with exceptions for kids who are big for their ages.

The Institute in 2008 began evaluating boosters to help make selecting appropriate ones less of a guessing game. Since then some manufacturers have adopted the IIHS test protocol and booster seat fixture to help evaluate belt fit on the new boosters they're designing.

Britax Child Safety Inc. is one. The North Carolina-based company has one BEST BET (Britax Frontier 85) and one GOOD BET (Britax Parkway SG) this year.

Belts do the main job of keeping kids in boosters safe in crashes, but belts along with vehicle seats are designed for adults, not children, so it's important for boosters to lift kids into position for lap/shoulder belts to provide proper restraint. Children 4-8 who ride in boosters are 45 percent less likely to sustain injuries in crashes than children restrained by belts alone.

Wider variety of seats

New this year to the BEST BET ranks are seats by Chicco, Cybex, Graco, Harmony, and The First Years. These manufacturers join Britax, Clek, Combi, Dorel, Evenflo, and Recaro, which had BEST BET boosters in Institute evaluations last year and have models in the latest round.

"Parents looking for top-rated seats now have more choices that include several affordable picks," McCartt says. "Consumers don't have to spend much money on a booster to get good all-around belt fit. In fact, shoppers can find several BEST BET boosters for $50 or less through online retailers."

Forty-nine boosters are carryovers from the Institute's 2009 ratings because they still are in production. These include 7 BEST BET models, 5 GOOD BET boosters, and 6 that aren't recommended.

Harmony improves

It's clear that some manufacturers are taking the ratings to heart. Harmony Juvenile Products has five BEST BET boosters, more than any other manufacturer. One of them, the Harmony Secure Comfort Deluxe backless, wasn't recommended last year. The company modified it to eliminate the earlier problem with lap belt fit.

Dorel Juvenile Group has five seats that rate either BEST BET or GOOD BET, including the new Safety 1st Boost Air Protect. The firm sells seats under the names Cosco, Dorel, Eddie Bauer, Maxi-Cosi, Safeguard, and Safety 1st. Dorel also makes 4 boosters the Institute doesn't recommend, down from 7 in the prior round of evaluations.

What to do

What should parents do if a booster they already have isn't one the Institute recommends using? McCartt advises parents in this situation to take note of how the safety belts in their vehicle fit their child next time they're in the car.

"If the booster isn't doing a good job -- if the lap belt is up on your son or daughter's tummy or if the shoulder belt is falling off your child's shoulder -- then find a replacement booster seat as soon as practical, but you'll probably want to keep using the old one until then," McCartt says.

Booster evaluation results

BEST BETS

• Britax Frontier 85 (combination highback)

• Chicco Keyfit Strada (dual highback)

• Clek Oobr (dual highback)

• Cosco Juvenile Pronto (dual highback)

• Cybex Solution X-Fix (highback)

• Eddie Bauer Auto Booster (dual highback)

• Evenflo Big Kid Amp (backless)

• Evenflo Maestro (combination highback)

• Graco TurboBooster Crawford (dual highback)

• Harmony Baby Armor (dual highback)

• Harmony Dreamtime (dual backless)

• Harmony Dreamtime (dual highback)

• Harmony Secure Comfort Deluxe (backless)

• Harmony Youth Booster Seat (backless)

• Maxi-Cosi Rodi XR (dual highback)

• Recaro ProBOOSTER (highback)

• Recaro ProSPORT (combination highback)

• Recaro Vivo (highback)

• Recaro Young Sport (combination highback)

• Safety 1st Boost Air Protect (dual highback)

• The First Years Pathway B570 (highback)

GOOD BETS

• Britax Parkway SG (dual highback)

• Combi Kobuk Air Thru (dual backless)

• Combi Kobuk Air Thru (dual highback)

• Evenflo Symphony 65 (3-in-1 highback)

• Graco TurboBooster Sachi (dual highback)

• Graco TurboBooster Wander (dual highback)

• Maxi-Cosi Rodi (dual highback)

NOT RECOMMENDED

• Eddie Bauer Deluxe (combination highback)

• Eddie Bauer Deluxe 3-in-1 (highback)

• Evenflo Express (combination highback)

• Evenflo Generations 65 (combination highback)

• Evenflo Sightseer (highback)

• Harmony Baby Armor (dual backless)

• Safety 1st All-in-One (3-in-1 highback)

• Safety 1st Alpha Omega Elite (3-in-1 highback)

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Teflon May Cause High Cholesterol in Children

Study shows latest potential negative effect of non-stick chemicals

Teflon May Cause High Cholesterol in Children...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

September 8, 2010
Non-stick cookware might be easier to use than the polished pots and pans the professionals use, but its Teflon coating has long given consumers pause. The chemicals found in the coating have already been linked to cancer, birth defects, and behavioral problems.

Now a new study suggests that those chemicals may also raise children's cholesterol levels.

The study, being published in the September issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, found that children with higher levels of certain chemicals in their bloodstream had higher levels of total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol -- the kind you don't want.

The study specifically zeroed in on perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS), both of which are essential materials in non-stick cookware. The study, which examined over 12,000 children in the mid-Ohio river valley in 2005 and 2006, compared subjects with the highest PFOA levels to those with the lowest. The first groups' total cholesterol levels were 4.6 points higher, and their LDL levels were 3.8 points higher.

The study, authored by Stephanie Frisbee of the West Virginia University School of Medicine, noted that there is no definitive proof that the chemicals actually cause cholesterol levels to rise, but she called it a matter worth additional research.

Latest negative findings

The study is hardly the first to show potentially negative effects from PFOA. A suspected carcinogen, PFOA has been shown to cause liver cancer in rodents and rainbow trout, and has been linked to birth defects and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.

PFOA and PFOS are also prevalent in humans' bloodstreams. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study found that the substances are present in the bloodstreams of over 90 percent of Americans. In 2008, researchers found traces of the substances in human breast milk, with levels high enough to elicit a warning that milk should be considered as an additional source of PFCs [perfluorinated compounds] when determining a child's total exposure.

Those findings, while perhaps alarming, are not surprising in light of the fact that up to 70 percent of cookware in the U.S. has a non-stick coating. PFOA is also found in stain-resistant carpeting, microwave popcorn bags, and grease-resistant food containers like pizza boxes and french fry containers.

In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched a global stewardship program encouraging companies to voluntarily reduce PFOA levels by 95 percent by 2010 and to eliminate them completely by 2015.

A major class action lawsuit involving non-stick cookware was dismissed last year by a federal judge in Iowa. The judge ruled that the lawsuit, which alleged that housewares company DuPont knew for over 20 years that its non-stick cookware could make consumers sick, concerned individual issues that couldn't be properly tried as a class action.

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Vending Machine Food Linked To Obesity

Products in machines compete with school lunch program, study finds

Vending Machine Food Linked To Obesity...


Eating food from a vending machine on a regular basis may put children on a path to obesity, diabetes and coronary artery disease, according to researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School.

The study also looked at foods sold in school stores, snack bars and other related sales that compete with USDA lunch program offerings and found that these pose the same health and diet risks in school-aged children.

"The foods that children are exposed to early on in life influence the pattern for their eating habits as adults," said lead study author Madhuri Kakarala, M.D., Ph.D., clinical lecturer of internal medicine at the U-M Medical School.

Previous studies assessing the nutritional value of school lunches and the impact they have on children's overall health have found similar results, but this study is the first to look specifically at competitive foods and beverages -- those sold at snack bars or vending machines, rather than through the USDA lunch program.

At the same time, the USDA lunch program may have problems of its own. A USDA study released last month found that children who eat school lunches that are part of the federal government's National School Lunch Program are more likely to become overweight.

In the U-M study, researchers analyzed data from 2,309 children in grades one through 12 from schools across the country. Interviewers administered questionnaires to obtain 24-hour food intake data on a given school day. Second-day food intake data was obtained from a group of students to account for day-to-day usual intakes.

Loaded with vending machines

Among those surveyed, 22 percent of school children consumed competitive or vended food items in a school day. Usage was highest in high school, where 88 percent of schools had vending machines, versus 52 percent of middle schools and 16 percent of elementary schools. Competitive food and beverage consumers had significantly higher sugar intakes and lower dietary fiber, vitamin B levels and iron intakes than non-consumers.

Soft drinks accounted for more than two-thirds of beverages offered in school vending machines and stores. Desserts and fried snacks were the most commonly consumed vended items among elementary school children and beverages other than milk and fruit juice were the most commonly consumed items among middle and high school students. Other frequently consumed vended foods included candy, snack chips, crackers, cookies, cakes and ice cream.

The results did not show a significant difference in students' consumption of these items based on family income or race and ethnicity.

Findings of this study appear in the September issue of the Journal of School Health.

Detrimental to children's diet

"Consumption of vended foods and beverages currently offered in U.S. schools is detrimental to children's diet quality," Kakarala said. "Childhood obesity, resulting from poor dietary choices, such as those found in this study, greatly increases the risk for many chronic diseases. A healthy school food environment can reduce these dietary risks."

Based on their findings, the study authors recommend school administrators design guidelines restricting vended and competitive foods and beverages to those that are rich with nutrients and not energy-dense. Additionally, school food service personnel can prepare point-of-service materials and displays to promote more healthful foods such as fresh fruit, yogurt, low-fat milk, juice and sandwiches.

"Targeted nutrition education to promote the importance of healthful snacks is further stressed by the Child Nutrition Act -- the major federal legislation that determines school food policy and resources," Kakarala said. "These and other types of school-enforced policies can be very helpful for children in making smarter eating choices throughout the school day."



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FDA Stepping Up Inspections Under New Egg Rule

Agency plans to insure compliance with new egg safety rules

FDA Stepping Up Inspections Under New Egg Rule...


Federal regulators are making plans to inspect the facilities where 80 percent of the country's eggs are produced, after issuing reports on the investigation of a Salmonella Enteritidis outbreak that has sickened nearly 1,500 people.

Over the next 15 months, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigators will team up with state and local partners to visit about 600 egg producers -- those with 50,000 or more laying hens -- to determine if their facilities are in compliance with an egg safety rule that went into effect in July.

Michael Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, says the rule sets safety standards designed to prevent outbreaks of Salmonella Enteritidis like the one that has led to the recall of more than 500 million eggs.

"We think that the industry's compliance with this rule will significantly reduce the risk of (Salmonella Enteritidis) infections and outbreaks in the future," Taylor said during a conference call with reporters.

New rules

Since the egg safety rule went into effect on July 9, FDA officials have been moving forward with plans aimed at ensuring the safety of the nation's egg supply. Now, facilities with 50,000 or more laying hens must implement controls to prevent contamination, including: refrigeration of eggs within 36 hours of laying, ensuring chicks are from uninfected flocks, and testing hen houses for Salmonella Enteriditis.

Under the rule, egg producers are legally responsible for implementing measures that will prevent egg contamination.

Taylor says the rule came too late to prevent the current outbreak, "but we think it is going to be a powerful tool for preventing outbreaks like this in the future."

Since Aug. 12 when the inspections first began, FDA investigators have observed and documented conditions at facilities operated by the two Iowa companies at the center of the egg recall -- Hillandale Farms of Iowa and Wright County Egg.

David Elder, FDA's director of regional operations, says inspectors found "significant objectionable" conditions at poultry houses, including live and dead flies that were "too numerous to count," live rodents, maggots, and structural damage that allowed animals to enter poultry houses. He says inspections over the next 15 months and beyond will ensure egg producers are meeting FDA standards under the new rule.

Examine your eggs

FDA officials are warning consumers not to use eggs from the lots that are being recalled. Here's what to look for when examining the eggs in your refrigerator:

• 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. It appears 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, except in leap years.

Eggs affected by the recall were shipped between early April through mid-August to grocery distribution sites, retail grocery stores, food wholesalers, distribution centers, and food service companies nationwide.

Although the companies have identified dozens of brand names under which the eggs were sold, other brands are unknown. Some eggs were sold individually and repackaged under names that may not be on the companies' distribution lists.

If you have some of the recalled eggs or you're not sure who the producer was, throw them away or return them to the retailer for a refund.



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Amazon Still Struggling With 'Wrap Rage'

Now enlisting consumers to help pressure manufacturers

Amazon Still Struggling With 'Wrap Rage'...


For the last two years online retailer Amazon.com has been on a mission to persuade manufacturers to produce product packages that are easier for consumers to open. The results so far have been less than stellar.

According to The New York Times, Amazon has only been able to persuade manufacturers to make easier-to-open packages for about 600 of the millions of products Amazon sells. Traditional retailers like products in large cases and multiple layers of plastic because its believed to deter theft. Amazon says someone ordering online shouldn't have to deal with the frustration required to get access to their purchase.

Amazon rolled out its campaign against 'wrap rage' two years ago as a growing number of consumers questioned why products have to come sealed in impenetrable plastic. Amazon responded by launching what it called "Frustration-Free Packaging," a new initiative designed to make it easier for customers to liberate products from their packages.

"I think we've all experienced the frustration that sometimes occurs when you try to get a new toy or electronics product out of its package," Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, said at the time. "It will take many years, but our vision is to offer our entire catalog of products in Frustration-Free Packaging."

Clamshells and wire ties

Amazon focused first on two kinds of items: those enclosed in hard plastic cases known as "clamshells" and those secured with plastic-coated wire ties, commonly used in toy packaging.

Frustration-Free Packaging got an early boost when 19 best-selling products from leading manufacturers including Fisher-Price, Mattel, Microsoft and electronics manufacturer Transcend, signed onto the program.

In addition to making packages easier to open, Amazon said a major goal of the Frustration-Free Packaging initiative is to be more environmentally friendly by using less packaging material.

But after initial interest, the program has been slow to catch on with other manufacturers. Now, Amazon says it plans to step up the pressure.

One way the company plans to do that is by harnessing the power of consumers. The retailer has begun collecting angry consumer feedback about impossible to open packages and delivering it directly to the manufacturers. Amazon points out that Frustration-Free products have -- on average -- a 73 percent reduction in negative feedback when consumers post product reviews on the site.

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Feds Sue Light Bulb Manufacturer Over Claims

Suit alleges company exagerated claims for its LED bulbs

Feds Sue Light Bulb Manufacturer Over Claims: Consumers should use caution when shopping for popular Light Emitting Diode (LED) bulbs, making sure claims r...


photo
Consumers should use caution when shopping for popular Light Emitting Diode (LED) bulbs, making sure claims reflect reality.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has sued a California-based light bulb manufacturer and its principals to stop them from misleading consumers by exaggerating the light output and life expectancy of its LED bulbs.

The agency filed a complaint charging that since 2008, Lights of America, Inc. has overstated the light output and life expectancy of its LED bulbs on packages and in brochures. The agency also charges that Lights of America misled consumers about how the brightness of its LED bulbs compares to traditional incandescent lights.

Manufacturers have recently begun selling LED bulbs for household use because they are a higher-efficiency, longer-lasting alternative to incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs. Although the initial price tag may be higher, well-designed and manufactured LED bulbs save on energy costs and last much longer than other types of light bulbs.

Significantly less light

The FTC alleges that in many instances, Lights of Americas LED bulbs produced significantly less light, as measured in lumens, than the company claimed in its promotional materials.

For example, one bulb was promoted as producing 90 lumens of light output, but Lights of Americas own tests showed it produced only 43 lumens.

Also, in many cases, Lights of America deceptively compared the brightness of its LED light bulbs with incandescent bulbs, the FTC alleges. For example, the firm claimed that one of its LED lantern bulbs could replace a 40-watt incandescent bulb. However, while the typical 40-watt incandescent bulb produces about 400 lumens, the Lights of America LED bulb produced only 74 lumens.

Moreover, the FTC complaint states that in many instances, Lights of Americas LED bulbs would not last as long as the companys promotional materials said they would. In one case, for example, the firm said that one of its LED recessed bulbs would last 30,000 hours. Independent tests, however, showed that the bulb would not last as long as claimed because it lost 80 percent of its light output after only 1,000 hours.

In filing the complaint, the FTC is seeking a permanent injunction to stop the defendants allegedly illegal conduct, as well as monetary redress for consumers who bought the deceptively labeled products.

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Summer Figures On Child Drownings Released

Little change found in swimming incidents during the summer of 2010

Summer Figures On Child Drownings Released...


With kids across America heading back-to-school, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Home Safety Council (HSC), a Pool Safely campaign partner, are releasing a snapshot on drowning incidents for the 2010 summer swimming season.

 

On average, more than 200 children younger than 15 drown in pools or spas between Memorial Day and Labor Day. This year, unfortunately, appears to have been no different.

The 2010 Pool Safely Summer Snapshot on Pool Safety in the United States indicates that at least 172 children younger than 15 have drowned since Memorial Day weekend, according to news reports collected nationwide. In addition, there have been more than 180 non-fatal incidents involving children in pools and spas, according to media accounts.

2010 Summer Snapshot

The more than 350 child drownings and non-fatal incidents since Memorial Day Weekend include:

• California 27 drownings; 15 non-fatal incidents;

• Florida 14 drownings; 19 non-fatal incidents;

• Arizona 9 drownings; 21 non-fatal incidents,

• Texas 12 drownings; 17 non-fatal incidents; and

• Ohio 10 drownings; 11 non-fatal incidents.

Staying safe

"Back to school does not mean the end of the swimming season. Many children in warm weather states have fun in the water all year," said Inez Tenenbaum, CPSC Chairman. "Far too many families have been impacted by child drownings this summer."

"Families with above or in-ground pools and spas must be vigilant about pool supervision, especially when there are children present," said Meri-K Appy, president of the non-profit Home Safety Council. "When a pool or spa is a part of your day-to-day life, it's easy to take for granted that your family members are following pool safety rules. Always have an adult actively watching whenever children are in or near the water."

In addition, Appy reminds families that the safest pools have four-sided fencing that blocks direct access from the home. Fences should have self-closing and self-latching gates.

Additional safety steps include pool alarms on doors leading from the home to the pool area, heavy-duty pool covers, as well as anti-entrapment safety drain covers.

According to Tenenbaum and Appy, being prepared means taking some steps such as having rescue equipment and a cordless phone poolside in case of emergency, and being trained means knowing how to do CPR and ensuring that children know how to swim.

This summer, the Pool Safely campaign released a series of public service announcements that remind the American public how to stay safe in and around pools and spas. The campaign also debuted a kids safety education program that includes an educational video and online activity to help parents teach children about danger spots in and around pools and spas.

 

 

 

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Bogus Debt Collectors Impersonating Bank Regulators

Latest attempt to scam victims into paying phony debts

Bogus Debt Collectors Impersonating Bank Regulators ...


They've impersonated lawyers, police officers, private investigators and agents for a number of different payday lenders. Now these scammers try to convince their victims they work for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

So far, it's one of the fastest-growing scams of 2010. The scammer has obtained the Social Security number or other sensitive information about the victim and claims the victim owes a debt of some kind. Better pay up immediately, they are told, or risk losing their jobs, getting arrested, or both.

Officials at FDIC, which has nothing to do with consumer debt in the first place, report getting numerous reports of suspicious telephone calls where the caller claims to represent the FDIC and is calling regarding the collection of an outstanding debt. Why the scammers choose the little known federal agency is not clear, though FDIC has crept into the public consciousness lately by handling a large number of bank closings over the last two years.

"The caller attempts to authenticate the claim by providing sensitive personal information, such as name, Social Security number, and date of birth, supposedly taken from the loan application," the agency said in a statement. "The recipient is then strongly urged to make a payment over the phone to 'avoid a lawsuit and possible arrest.' In some instances, the caller is said to sound aggressive and threatening."

Just hang up

These suspicious telephone calls, of course, are fraudulent. FDIC says recipients should consider them an attempt to steal money or collect personal identifying information. The FDIC said it generally does not initiate unsolicited telephone calls to consumers and is not involved with the collection of debts on behalf of operating lenders and financial institutions.

If a caller demonstrates that he or she has the recipient's sensitive personal information, such as Social Security number, date of birth, and bank account numbers, the recipient may be the victim of identity theft and should review his or her credit reports for signs of possible fraud.

The individual should also consider placing a "fraud alert" on his or her credit reports. This can be done by contacting one of the three consumer reporting companies listed below. Only one of the three companies needs to be contacted. That company is required to contact the other two, which will place an alert on their versions of the report.

Contacting the credit reporting agencies

TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, California 92834-6790

Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; ; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, Georgia 30374-0241

Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); P.O. Box 9554, Allen, Texas 75013

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McDonald's At the Bottom of Consumer Reports Burger Ratings

In-N-Out Burger, Five Guys Burgers and Fries top survey of magazine's subscribers

McDonald's At the Bottom of <em>Consumer Reports</em> Burger Ratings...

McDonald's may have served billions of burgers, but according to a recent survey of 28,000 Consumer Reports'subscribers, they fall at the bottom of the list among fast-food restaurants. Among the standouts were In-N-Out Burger and Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

"In this case, the bigger-name burger wasn't better" said Tod Marks, Senior Project Editor for CR. "The Five Guys patty was more flavorful, juicy and meaty tasting."

The magazine recently polled 28,000 online subscribers and asked them to rate the burgers they had eaten on their last visit on a scale of 1 to 10 -- from least delicious burger ever eaten to most. Eighteen fast-food restaurants across the country were rated.

Although other popular fast-food chains such as Wendy's and Burger King fared better than McDonald's, they scored far worse than the highest-rated chains. Other fast-food frontrunners noted for their delicious burgers included Fuddruckers, Burgerville and Back Yard Burgers.

On-scene ratings

In addition to conducting the survey, Consumer Reports sent a reporter to make an informal comparison of the fare at Five Guys and McDonald's (he couldn't get his hands on an In-N-Out Burger).

Five Guys basic burger of two 3.3-ounce griddled patties on a lightly browned sesame seed bun was bigger and beefier came with a $5 price tag and offered 15 free toppings choices. McDonald's $1-burger -- a 3.5 ounce patty with pickle slices, bits of raw onion, and a dab of ketchup and mustard on a lightly browned bun -- tasted mild and more greasy than beefy with the major flavor coming from the toppings, in the opinion of the CR reporter.

Attitude

It isn't just the quality of the food that can have an effect on the consumer. Corrine of Spring Hill, FL, tells ConsumerAffairs.com of an interesting incident involving a local McDonald's.

"I waited in line in their lobby for about a minute and a-half and was very impressed with their speed of service. I placed my order and got it all in about thirty seconds. The crewmember was very polite and I didn't have any complaints what-so-ever. I was shocked, I thought I would offer some compliments, and I asked the crewmember if I could speak to a manager." Then, she says, things started to go downhill.

"The manager comes up to me and says, 'What?' -- but with the tone as if I were a piece of scum. I told her that her employee was polite and that I was very impressed with the store and the manager said, 'Yep and I suppose you want something for free, don't you?' "

The result, says Corrine, "I bypass this McDonald's now because several times after this happened, I will come in and hear the manager say, 'Here comes that *****' or she'll say something snide."

 

 

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Press Releases Tout Phony Credit Card Law

Growing disinformation campaign seeks to confuse consumers

Press Releases Tout Phony Credit Card Law...

Did you hear that Congress passed a law in July making it easier for you to pay your credit card company less than you owe?

Well forget it, because it never happened. It's just the latest misinformation and outright falsehoods swirling around the debt settlement industry that continues to do a banner business in a miserable economy.

At least two press releases posted online in the last two months, by the same individual, proclaim the good news that the Credit Card Debt Settlement Act of 2010 makes credit card debt settlement a much more viable alternative.

But what exactly is the Credit Card Debt Settlement Act of 2010?

There is no such law, Frank Dorman, spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission, told ConsumerAffairs.com.

What about the radio commercial that claims a provision of the new CARD Act, which took effect earlier this year and ends many abusive credit card company practices, gives you the right to settle your credit card debt?

Not in there, Dorman said.

Making up news

The inaccurate press releases are published on Atomic5 and i-Newswire by FreeDebtSettlementAdvice.com, where you are invited to enter your name, address, phone number and email to get free debt help. The Columbus, Ohio address listed on the news release does not exist.

What does exist is a recent crackdown on the credit card debt settlement industry by the FTC. It may be that action that some in the debt settlement business hope to misrepresent to the public.

Starting on October 27, 2010, for-profit companies that sell debt relief services over the telephone may no longer charge a fee before they settle or reduce a customers credit card or other unsecured debt.

Three other Telemarketing Sales Rule provisions to take effect on September 27, 2010, will:

• require debt relief companies to make specific disclosures to consumers;

• prohibit them from making misrepresentations;

• and extend the Telemarketing Sales Rule to cover calls consumers make to these firms in response to debt relief advertising.

The rule is not being made to make it easier for consumers to settle their credit card debt, but to make it harder for them to get ripped off by companies promising they can help.

This rule will stop companies who offer consumers false promises of reducing credit card debts by half or more in exchange for large, up-front fees, said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. Too many of these companies pick the last dollar out of consumers pockets and far from leaving them better off, push them deeper into debt, even bankruptcy.

In the meantime, consumers should take information from debt settlement advertisements and "news" releases with a large grain of salt.

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Salmonella Concerns Prompt Recall of Dog Treats

No reports of illnesses have been linked to the product

Salmonella Concerns Prompt Recall of Dog Treats...


Fears of salmonella contamination have triggered a recall of nearly 75,000 dog treats by the The Hartz Mountain Corporation.

The New Jersey-based pet products company over the weekend voluntarily pulled one lot of its Hartz Naturals Real Beef Treats for Dogs off store shelves, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said.

The recall is limited to the eight-ounce bags of the beef treats that have the lot code BZ0969101E and the UPC number of 32700-11519.

Hartz imported the treats from Brazilian supplier Bertin S.A. According to the FDA, Bertin tested the products before shipping them to the United States and did not detect any signs of the bacterium that can cause food poisoning.

Random sample testing by the FDA, however, uncovered the presence of salmonella in the dog treats, the federal agency said.

No ill effects

Hartz is "aggressively investigating the source of the problem," the FDA said. Although the company has not received any reports of illnesses -- in dogs or humans -- linked to the treats, it is pulling the products from all retail stores and distribution centers, the FDA said.

The agency warned that pet owners can become infected if they handle any salmonella-tainted products, especially if they don't wash their hands after touching them.

Salmonella cause serious infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems, the FDA said. Symptoms of salmonella infections in dogs and humans include fever, diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, and nausea. People or dogs experiencing those symptoms should immediately seek medical attention, the FDA said.

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

Dog owners who have any of the recalled treats should immediately throw them away, the FDA said. For more information about this action or how to obtain a refund, pet owners can contact Hartz at 1-800-275-1414.



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FTC: Payday Lender Illegally Garnished Borrowers Wages

ECash owner settles charges, litigation continues against others

ECash owner settles charges, litigation continues against others ...


One of the owners of a payday loan and debt collection operation has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges for his role in a scheme that illegally tried to garnish borrowers wages and used other illegal debt-collection practices.

According to the FTCs complaint, the defendants, doing business as Ecash and GeteCash, offered loans to be repaid from borrowers upcoming paychecks. Online loan applicants checked a box indicating their agreement with loan terms, including an inconspicuous wage assignment clause that said that their wages would be garnished to cover delinquent loan payments. Then, using the name LoanPointe, the defendants attempted to collect on the offered payday loans.

Federal law allows federal agencies to require employers to garnish employees wages without a court order when the employees owe the government money. According to the complaint, in letters to employers that sought garnishment of their employees wages, GeteCash and LoanPointe tried to pass themselves off as having the same collection rights as the government.

The FTCs complaint also alleges that GeteCash and LoanPointe falsely stated that consumers knew their pay would be garnished and had an opportunity to dispute the debt. In addition, GeteCash and LoanPointe allegedly violated the law when they told employers and co-workers about consumers debts without their consent.

Under the settlement order, Mark S. Lofgren is banned from collecting debts through wage assignment. He is also permanently prohibited from misrepresenting facts in order to collect a debt; contacting a consumers employer in trying to collect a debt, unless he is seeking location information or has a valid court order of garnishment; and disclosing a debt to any third party.

In addition, Lofgren is barred from violating the Credit Practices Rule and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, selling or otherwise benefitting from customers personal or financial information, and failing to properly dispose of customer information. The order imposes a $38,133 judgment that is suspended based on his inability pay. The full judgment will become due immediately if he is found to have misrepresented his financial condition.

Litigation continues against Joe S. Strom, LoanPointe, LLC, and Eastbrook, LLC, also doing business as Ecash and GeteCash.

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Google Settles Buzz Lawsuit

Settlement money will fund Internet privacy efforts

Settlement money will fund Internet privacy efforts...


Google has agreed to pay $8.5 million to settle a class action lawsuit alleging that Google Buzz, the search engine's attempt at social networking, failed to take steps to protect users' privacy.

The suit was filed in February by Harvard Law student Eva Hibnick, who discovered Buzz only when she logged into her Gmail account on February 9 -- the day Buzz was formally launched -- and saw the application advertised on the left side of her screen.

Hibnick's suit alleged that Buzz broadcast users' private information without obtaining advance permission, or even warning them that certain data was about to become public.

Indeed, Todd Jackson, the project manager in charge of introducing Buzz, went so far as to write on Google's blog that Buzz is built right into Gmail, so you don't have to peck out an entirely new set of friends from scratch -- it just works.

Blogger says Buzz put her in danger

One of Hibnick's biggest concerns was Buzz's auto-follow feature, which automatically signed users up to receive status updates from the six contacts that they most frequently spoke with.

Hibnick was not alone in her concern; on February 11, blogger Harriet Jacobs recounted her own personal horror story. Jacobs wrote that, while her two most frequently-used contacts were her boyfriend and her mother, [t]here's a BIG drop-off between them and my other 'most frequent' contacts.

Jacobs's third most frequent contact was none other than her abusive ex-husband. Equally troubling, several of this ex-husband's close friends rounded out the top six.

Which is why its SO EXCITING, Google, Jacobs blogged, that you AUTOMATICALLY allowed all my most frequent contacts access to my Reader, which in many instances contained my current location or workplace.

My privacy concerns are not trite, Jacobs continued. They are linked to my actual physical safety, and I will now have to spend the next few days maintaining that safety by continually knocking down followers as they pop up.

Google quickly did away with auto-follow, instead providing a list of recommendations but leaving the ultimate decision with the user.

Google pleased with settlement

In a statement, Google declared itself satisfied with the [settlement] agreement and glad to move forward.

We have always been committed to offering users transparency and choice in Buzz and all our products, and will continue to work together with users to provide the best user experience possible, Google said.

The bulk of the settlement money will be provided to groups promoting Internet privacy. Part of the fund will also cover attorneys' fees. When the suit was originally filed, Hibnick's lawyer, Gary Mason, said that money wasn't really an object.

What we'd like to see as result is a commitment from Google that they're not going to do this again the next time they launch a product, Mason said at the time.

The settlement, which was filed in federal court in San Jose, California, still requires final approval from a judge.

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Scam Artists Capitalize on High Unemployment Rate

Watch for these red flags when looking for jobs

As the unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent, scammers are taking advantage of the opportunity by preying on the unemployed, the Better Business Burea...


As the unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent, scammers are taking advantage of the opportunity by preying on the unemployed, the Better Business Bureau warns. Identifying the common red flags of a scam is one way for job hunters to protect themselves and their wallet.

According to the Labor Department, new jobless claims in mid-August unexpectedly jumped to 500,000, an increase of 12,000 over the previous week. Not only did jobless claims rise suddenly, but the length of unemployment is bleak for many. According to a July report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 45 percent of unemployed Americans had been out of work for more than 6 months.

The dismal employment rate means that a lot of people are desperate for work and may be grasping for any job which creates a great opportunity for scammers, said Stephen A. Cox, President and CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Not thoroughly researching a job opportunity can make a bad situation even worse and a victim can lose hundreds or even thousands of dollars to any number of job-related scams.

BBB recommends looking out for the following seven red flags when searching for a job:

Red Flag: The employer offers the opportunity to become rich without leaving home
While many legitimate businesses allow employees to work from home, there are also a lot of scammers trying to take advantage of senior citizens, stay-at-home moms, students and injured or handicapped people looking to make money conveniently at home. Job hunters should use extreme caution when considering a work-at-home offer and always research the company at www.bbb.org and at www.consumeraffairs.com.

Red Flag: The employer asks for money upfront
It is rarely advisable for an applicant to pay upfront fees or make a required purchase to get a job. BBB often hears from job hunters who paid a phony employer for supposedly required background checks or training for jobs that didnt exist. Always research the job thoroughly before opening up your wallet. Also be wary of job placement companies that ask for large upfront fees to find you a job.

Red Flag: The salary and benefits offered seem too-good-to-be-true.
The adage holds true for job offers: if the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Phony employers might brag about exceptionally high salary potential and excellent benefits for little work and no experience necessary in order to lure unsuspecting job hunters into their scam.

Red Flag: Employer e-mails are rife with grammatical and spelling errors.
Online fraud is often perpetrated by scammers located outside the U.S. Their first language usually isnt English and this is often evident in their poor grasp of the language which can include poor grammar and the misspelling of common words.

Red Flag: The employer requires you to check your credit report
After posting their resumes online or responding to online job listings, many job hunters received what they thought was good news: an e-mail from an interested employer. In order to be considered for the job, the applicant has to check his or her credit report through a recommended website. The truth is, the e-mail is just an attempt to get the job hunter to divulge sensitive financial information or sign up for credit monitoring services.

Red Flag: The employer is quick to ask for personal information such as Social Security or bank account numbers
Some job seekers have been surprised to learn theyve gotten a job without having to do a single interview. However, when the employer then asked for personal information in order to fill out the necessary paperwork, suspicions were raised and rightly so. Regardless of the reason, a job applicant should never give out his or her Social Security or bank account numbers over the phone or email and only after theyve confirmed the job is legitimate.

Red Flag: The job requires you to wire money through Western Union or MoneyGram or receive and forward suspicious goods
Many phony jobs require the employee to cash a check sent by the company through the mail and then wire a portion of the money on to another entity. Reasons given for this requirement vary from scam to scam. Whatever the reason though, the check might clear the employees bank account but will eventually turn out to be a fake and the employee is out the money he or she wired back to the scammers. BBB also warns against receiving and mailing suspicious goodssuch as electronics or luxury itemsoverseas.

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Choosing the Right Lawn Mower

Fall is a good time to buy, but be sure to get a mower that suits your needs

Fall is a good time to buy, but be sure to get a mower that suits your needs...


As the warm summer sun fades into the cooler days of fall, lawns and their caretakers -- that's you -- will face the chore of getting ready for winter and, not too long after that, preparing for spring.

 

In much of the country, lawn care is almost a year-round task, which puts a strain not only on the homeowner but also the lawn mowers and other tools essential to maintaining a healthy and attractive lawn.

Here are a few tips and suggestions to help keep everything -- your back included -- in working order.

Walk-behind mowers

Storage

The most important step in insuring the longevity of your walk-behind mower is to store it in a dry place. Bori Kim, an employee of Park Oaks Mower Service in Thousand Oaks, CA, insists, 9 out 10 complaints I receive are from moisture build up within the carburetor or gasoline tank. High moisture levels will plug up the mower, requiring a trip to the shop to get things running again. In order to save an unnecessary repair bill, Bori suggests a simple fix -- store the mower and gas in a dry area and there shouldnt be any problems.

Blades

Albert Garcia, an employee of Home Depot in Camarillo, CA, offers a few tips for the maintenance of your walk-behind mowers blades. He suggests using a broom to brush down the blades after use in order to minimize rust build up as well as wear and tear. Albert also recommends periodically checking the mower blade and bolts for any abnormalities.

If the mower looks asymmetrical or unbalanced, its a good idea to take it in for either a sharpening or even a repair if necessary.

Air filter

The air filter in your lawn mower should be serviced regularly. Saedi, an employee of the Do-It Center in Agoura Hills, CA, recommends that, with casual usage, cleaning the air filter every three months is necessary for keeping the mower engine running properly. Another tip: cleaning the mower body after use can reduce the intake of debris into the air filter.

Engine oil

Park Oaks Mower Service advises draining and replacing the engine oil every three months. An easy way to time this is at the beginning of each season, or at the same time you service your air filter.

Spark plugs

Spark plugs should be replaced after every 100 or so hours of operation, according to Bori Kim. Ask your local lawn mower service center for help with your particular model or consult the instructions that came with it if you are unsure how to do this.

Wheel size

Changing the wheels on your particular brand of mower may not be an option, but Albert explains that he receives less complaints regarding mowers with bigger wheels, which keep the mower body higher off the ground and farther from debris.

Fuel type

Make sure you are using the correct type of fuel if you have a gas-powered lawn mower. Do not put two-cycle gas into a four-cycle engine for example, or the gas may ruin the spark plug.

Maintenance kits

Home Depot sells a range of maintenance kits that include air filters and spark plugs, enabling lawn mower owners to do virtually all the general upkeep required to keep their mower running in top shape for years to come. Albert suggests a lawn mower repair kit to all his customers.

Recommendation

Park Oaks Mower Services recommends the Honda line. The mowers are well-designed, reliable, and user-friendly. Furthermore, Bori insists he sees the least amount of Honda mowers in for repair.

General Tips for Buyers

Fall is a good time to buy a new mower because most stores are moving them out to make way for winter merchandise. But, whatever the time of year, its important to consider a few extra factors that may affect longevity before buying a new lawn mower.

Degree of usage

In terms of scale, a walk-behind lawn mower can, according to Park Oaks Mower Services, comfortably service around an acre of land. If you have a 2 or 3-acre parcel, it may be a better choice to purchase a ride-on mower, otherwise it could be physically taxing to both you and your mower.

Remote starters

Remotely started mowers are becoming increasingly popular, but the added complexity means more difficult repairs. Albert Garcia praises the novelty of the new technology, but insists, remote starters are still relatively new, and it may be a safer bet to stick with pull or button starts until they work out all the kinks.

Electric vs. Gas Powered

This is a matter of both personal choice and, if using a corded electric, property layout. Gas powered mowers are more powerful and portable, but significantly louder to use and more expensive to maintain, Saedi explains. He believes that electric mowers may be more appropriate for a residential user with easy access to an electrical outlet, while gas is reserved for larger or commercial-scale mowing.

Environmental considerations

The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized a new emission control program that will effect lawn mowers and weed-whackers. This new law will come into effect next year, potentially impacting the brand lines.

Protection plan

If you are in a particularly wet or humid area, purchasing a protection plan on your mower may be a good way to ensure your lawn stays groomed for years to come. Home Depot offers a plan on all of its lawn mower product lines.

Weed whackers

 

As a general guideline, the same rules apply to maintaining your weed-whacker as your mower, minus blade maintenance. One quick tip: Albert Garcia recommends making sure you are aware of how to rewind the line before you purchase a new weed-whacker.

Ride-On Mowers

For users who have opted for a ride-on mower, Cal Coast Machinerys sales representative John JT Tarascio offers a few pointers:

Preventive maintenance

JT affirms the best way to make your ride-on mower last is to follow the maintenance guidelines. From his experiences, the number one cause of failures is from poor oil and air filter maintenance. He suggests checking the air filter and fluid levels more rather than less to insure the best possible performance out of your machine.

Parts

Cal Coast Machinery deals with John Deere tractors and mowers, and JT recommends only using the companys parts on John Deere mowers. His mantra regarding repairs is quality over the cheapest stuff out there.

Fuel

Using the recommended fuel grade will keep you mower running as smoothly as possible.

Grease

The idlers on the mower deck are greasable, explains JT. Keeping those bearings well greased is an important step for giving your mower a longer life span. Any sealed bearings on the mower do not need to be greased, and should have a ten or more year lifespan.

Keeping the deck level

Ensuring an even cut is essential for any lawn mower. In order to maintain an even level for the mower deck, manual adjustments will occasionally be required. JT explains, the deck should remain level as long as you dont hit anything significant, like a curb for example. If you do need to change the mower deck level, there are (on the John Deere models) threaded rods on each side which allow for easy adjustment.

Recommendation

JT recommends John Deeres X series. The X series is a commercial/residential line that is geared slightly more towards the commercial end. It features thicker steel and a more solid front axel than the LA (formerly L) line, as well as the Kawasaki engine. This added comfort and convenience starts at around $4,000 compared to the LA lines $2400, but JT thinks the price is well worth it.

These tips should help keep your mower running in top shape for years to come, meaning your lawn will be looking its best no matter what Nature throws its way.

But be forewarned -- not everyone shares JT's high evaluation of John Deere equipment.

"We bought our first (and last) Deere 4 years ago. We mow once a week during the summer and have logged 175 hours on the 1700 machine. The transmission is shot. Upon internet investigation, this seems to be a common and costly problem. What a disappointment," said Bob of St. Charles, Mo., one of more than 300 John Deere owners who've submitted complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com.

Nearly every other brand gets the same -- or worse -- treatment, though Honda comes out better than most.

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Phony Funeral Ring Scams Insurance Companies, Fed Charge

Mortuary employee stages funerals with cow parts and mannequins

Phony Funeral Ring Scams Insurance Companies, Fed Charge ...

By Lisa Wade McCormick
ConsumerAffairs.com


A federal jury has indicted a California woman for her role in a morbid insurance scheme that staged funerals, forged death certificates, and even filled an exhumed coffin with cow parts and a mannequin.

 

Jean Crump, 67, of South Los Angeles, is the fourth and final member of the extravagant insurance fraud ring charged in the plot that duped life insurance companies out of thousands of dollars, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said.

Jurors found Crump -- a former mortuary employee -- guilty of two counts of wire fraud and one count of mail fraud.

During its investigation, the FBI discovered that Crump and her three female accomplices filed fraudulent claims against $1.2 million in life insurance policies for a person who had not died as they alleged.

The FBIs investigation revealed the women went to great lengths to lend credibility to their scheme, including staging a funeral and burying an empty casket.

In one instance, investigators learned that Crump and her accomplices bought life insurance policies for a Jim Davis, and named his so-called niece and nephew as the beneficiaries.

When Davis allegedly died, Crump and her partners in the scheme created a fraudulent death certificate -- with a doctors forged signature -- to collect the life insurance money, the FBI said.

The women also staged a phony funeral for Davis and recruited people to play mourning family members in case anyone was watching, the FBI said.

The sham didnt stop there.

Documents the women filed with financial companies also claimed they purchased an ornate casket and elaborate floral arrangements for Davis funeral, the FBI said. The women even purchased a burial plot for Davis and buried him without a headstone.

Federal investigators learned the women also made up grossly inflated bills from a mortuary to cover Davis funeral and burial costs. The women then wired those bills which listed different amounts -- to two assignment companies.

Both companies paid the mortuary, which was owned and operated by one of the four players involved in the insurance scheme, Lydia Pearce.

One company paid Pearces mortuary nearly $30,000 and the other paid a little more than $16,000, the FBI said. An insurance company also paid more than $230,000 in life insurance to Davis so-called nephew.

The womens scheme unraveled when two insurance took a closer look at the claims, the FBI said.

After an insurance investigator started asking questions, Crump and her accomplices exhumed the coffin that allegedly contained Davis remains and filled it with a mannequin and cow parts to ensure the proper weight. The women then sent the coffin to a crematory and filed fraudulent documents with the County of Los Angeles stating the remains were scattered at sea.

Investigators with the FBIs Los Angeles office also learned that Crump offered a physician $50,000 to create medical records documenting the phony death certificate.

Crump is scheduled to be sentenced on November 29 for her role in the scheme. She faces a maximum sentence of 90 years in prison, the FBI said.

The jury in Crumps case, which returned its verdict on August 27, could not reach a decision on two mail fraud charges connected to a $50,000 life insurance policy for a woman who died in 2004, the FBI said.

The other women charged in connection with this insurance scheme, the FBI said, are:

• Faye Shilling, 61, of Hawthorne, California. She has pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud and is also scheduled to be sentenced on November 29;

• Barbara Ann Lynn, 64, of Los Angeles, California. She has pleaded guilty for her role in the scam and was sentenced to one-year of home detention as part of three-year probation;

• Lydia Eileen Pearce, 35, of Signal Hill, California. She pleaded guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced on November 8.

The FBI said each of the women brought their own expertise to the scheme. Crump and Pearce, for example, worked in mortuaries and knew about funerals and death documents. Shilling, a phlebotomist, understood how to file insurance claims. And Lynn was a notary who used her stamp to make the fraudulent documents look legitimate.

Insurance companies, however, werent the only ones duped in the womens scheme.

The FBI learned the women also defrauded several financial assignment companies. Funeral homes and mortuaries often use those types of companies to advance cash for funeral expenses. In exchange for those advance payments, the companies receive a portion of the deceaseds life insurance policies.

The FBI said consumers can protect themselves from insurance fraud by:

• Reading all insurance policies carefully and only paying for coverage they ordered;

• Avoiding policies that are sold over the phone or door-to-door. Also be wary if the price for the coverage seems too low;

• Always writing premium checks to the insurer not the agent. And never sign a blank claim form;

• Checking with their states insurance department to ensure the company and agent are licensed. Consumers should contact those departments if they suspect theyve become a victim of insurance fraud.

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Craigslist Bows to Censorship, Closes Adult Services Section

Gang of 17 state attorneys general intimidate popular site into censoring its users' ads

Craigslist Bows to Censorship, Closes Adult Services Section...

By Truman Lewis
ConsumerAffairs.com

September 5, 2010
photo Bowing to years of threats and intimidation by 17 state attorneys general, Craigslist has shuttered its Adult Services section, pilloried by the AGs for supposedly fostering prostitution and child abuse, problems which have festered for centuries.

The Craigslist home page now shows a black bar reading "censored" where the Adult Services link formerly appeared. Adult Services ads are estimated to have generated about $36 million of annual business for the nont-for-profit site, about a third of its total income.

The company made no statement about the action and it's not known if it is intended to be permanent or if Craigslist is trying to make a point. The black-out affects only the United States. Web users in Cuba, China and other countries without a tradition of free speech are still able to access the ads.

The attorneys general -- ignoring federal law which shields Web sites from liability for postings by users -- have sought to hold Craigslist responsible for ads said to include offers of prostitution and other activities that are illegal in some jurisdictions.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields Internet forums from liability for the content of postings by users. Individuals making the postings, however, retain responsibility for their statements.

Oddly, newspapers, professional journalism organizations and civil liberties groups have been relatively silent on the AGs' persecution of Craigslist, although some commentators were quick to note that it's unlikely the persecution of Craigslist will put an end to online advertising of a sexual nature.

"If the "Adult Services" section is gone for good, it's a safe bet those type of listings may soon flood other categories on the site," said PC World's Paul Suarez.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) did not respond to ConsumerAffairs.com's request for comment Sunday.

However, the EFF came to Craigslist's defense last week in an unrelated case involving a lawsuit filed against the site by an individual who sued Craigslist for allegedly posting ads written by an impersonator.

In that case, an individual referred to as Scott P. complained to Craigslist that a series of ads had been written by impersonators. Craigslist responded by saying it would take care of the matter and removed the ads. When the ads were re-posted, Scott P. sued, saying Craigslist had agreed to solve the problem.

EFF said such suits could discourage Craigslist and other Web publishers from trying to help solve their readers' problems.

"Section 230 was a deliberate effort by Congress to encourage service providers to find innovative ways to self-regulate," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. "Yet Craigslist is facing the prospect of extended litigation because it tried to do just that. Allowing this litigation to continue could result in websites being less helpful to users with complaints."

Additionally troublesome is the specter of further lawsuits, which could convince other Internet innovators not to host user content at all, EFF said.

"Congress created Section 230 to allow for online interactivity without a flood of lawsuits. But this case could undermine the immunity that the law created," said Opsahl. "If litigation can survive merely because a plaintiff asserts that the site made a vague promise, sites may decide that allowing comments or user generated content is not worth the legal exposure. Then we'll lose the vibrant online environment that Section 230 helped create in the first place."

Joining EFF in the letter to court were the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Citizen Media Law Project, and law professors Eric Goldman, David S. Levine, David G. Post, and Jason Schultz. Separately, a group of Internet companies, including Yahoo!, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Google and Linkedin filed another amicus brief in support of Craiglist.

Screening criticized

In their latest attack, the 17 states wrote to Craiglist CEO Jim Buckmaster and founder Craig Newmark, contending that since Craiglist was not screening ads to the politicians' satisfaction, it should stop accepting them altogether and shut down the Adult Services section.

The increasingly sharp public criticism of Craiglists Adult Services section reflects a growing recognition that ads for prostitution -- including ads trafficking children -- are rampant on it, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said. In our view, the company should take immediate action to end these ads."

In a blog posting, Craiglist CEO Jim Buckmaster said the company began manually screeening Adult Services ads in May 2009 and, since then, has intensified its efforts to keep objectionable material from being posted on its site.

"Before being posted each individual ad is reviewed by an attorney licensed to practice law in the US, trained to enforce Craiglists posting guidelines, which are stricter than those typically used by yellow pages, newspapers, or any other company that we are aware of," Buckmaster said. "More than 700,000 ads were rejected by those attorneys in the year following implementation of manual screening, for falling short of our guidelines."

Our uniquely intensive manual screening process has resulted in a mass exodus of those unwilling to abide by Craiglists standards, manually enforced on an ad-by-ad basis.

But in their statement, the attorneys general discounted Craiglist's efforts.

Your much-touted 'manual review' of Adult Services ads has failed to yield any discernible reduction in obvious solicitations, the letter says. We recognize that Craiglist may lose the considerable revenue generated by the Adult Services ads, the attorneys general said. No amount of money can justify the scourge of illegal prostitution, and the suffering of the woman and children who will continue to be victimized, in the market and trafficking provided by Craiglist.

Hot spot

The AGs said that even following its 2008 public pledge to attorneys general and the public that it would better police its own site, Craiglist remains a hot spot for blatant prostitution ads.

In July 2010, two girls who said that they were trafficked for sex through Craiglist wrote an open letter to Craiglist officials, pleading for the elimination of the Adult Services section. The girls told of brutalization and assault suffered not just by them, but also by untold numbers of other children, the attorneys general said.

The attorneys general call recent blog posts and public statements from Buckmaster and Newmark, including a CNN interview, deeply troubling because they seem to imply that victims, law enforcement officials and childrens advocates are at least partially to blame for these incidents due to their failure to provide Craiglist with police reports, ad copy or links documenting the crimes.

The attorneys general said this position fails to acknowledge that Craiglist is the only party positioned to stop these ads before they are published. While the perpetrators may eventually be apprehended and brought to justice, the victims -- assuming they survive -- will carry the scars for life, the attorneys general said.

Not alone

But in his blog, Buckmaster suggested that Craiglist is being unfairly singled out for criticism while other companies -- including eBay -- continue to profit from pornography and prostitution.

Buckmaster said that eBay's LOQUO.com site offers "tens of thousands of exceptionally hardcore pornographic ads explicity offering sex for sale." He said eBay has blocked access to the site from U.S. addresses but continues to make the site available internationally.

Buckmaster scoffed at eBay's promise to take down the spicy ads.

Ill make a friendly wager that rather than taking down such listings, which eBay has aggressively marketed over the years to a very high level of profitability, upselling their users to higher and higher fees, eBay will instead soon sell their non family friendly sites such as this one to the highest bidder.

Participating states

States participating in the campaign to censor Craigslist postings are: Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia.

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Minnesota Man Pleads Guilty Running $80 Million Ponzi Scheme

Officials say at least 17 lenders were scammed in bogus funding scheme

Minnesota Man Pleads Guilty Running $80 Million Ponzi Scheme ...


A Minnesota man has pleaded guilty in federal court in Minneapolis to operating a Ponzi scheme that defrauded at least 17 lenders in Minnesota and several other states. The lenders suffered losses in excess of $79 million, according to the government's investigation.

Forty-one-year-old Corey N. Johnston appeared before United States District Court Judge David S. Doty and entered a plea of guilty to one count of bank fraud and one count of filing a false income tax return in connection to this crime. Johnston was charged on August 6, 2010.

Loan participation scheme

In his plea agreement, Johnston admitted that from 2005 through March of 2009, he oversold participation in large commercial and personal loans arranged by him through his company, First United Funding (FUF). Loan participation is a common banking 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 scheme involved selling more than 100 percent participation in at least 10 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 money expected.

Scam investments

For example, Johnston 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 sold 100 percent participation in that loan to Western National Bank. At the same time, however, he persuaded several other banks to participate in the loan, including 100 percent participation by The National Bank in Bettendorf, Iowa, as well as partial participation by four other lending institutions. In all, Johnston solicited and received $23.65 million from six banks for the $7 million loan.

In addition, Johnston 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.

However, he simultaneously obtained full loan participation from Choice Financial, The National Bank, and Hillcrest Bank, along with partial participation from four other banks. Johnston solicited a total of $38.65 million for an $8 million loan. Six additional lenders also were defrauded during the course of this scheme by overselling participation in other loans.

Johnston used some of the proceeds of the fraud to repay other loans and perpetuate the scheme. He also diverted fraud proceeds for his personal use as well as for use by family members. Furthermore, Johnston failed to report the fraudulent income on his 2005 federal income tax return. That failure resulted in an underpayment of taxes to the United States of approximately $508,905.

For his crimes, Johnston faces a potential maximum penalty of 30 years in prison on the bank fraud charge and three years on the charge of filing a false income tax return. Judge Doty will determine his sentence at a future hearing, yet to be scheduled.

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Texan Charged With Unlawfully Soliciting Funds for War Heroes Memorial

The U.S. Fallen Heroes Foundation is getting a close look from the IRS

Texan Charged With Unlawfully Soliciting Funds for War Heroes Memorial...


Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has charged the chairman of the U.S. Fallen Heroes Foundation with diverting the organization's charitable funds for his personal use.

Evan Walter Coleman, who also uses the name Walter E. Coleman, founded the U.S. Fallen Heroes Foundation in March 2010, ostensibly to construct a national memorial in Kennedale, Texas, for Iraq, Afghanistan and Gulf War veterans. Coleman abruptly resigned as the charity's chairman just one day before he was required to respond to a subpoena from the AG's office.

Earlier this summer, Abbott's office was contacted by veterans who expressed concerns about the legitimacy of Coleman and his organization. After reviewing information provided by the veterans, state investigators concluded Coleman fabricated IRS forms to create the impression that his foundation was a legitimate, registered 501(c)(3) public charity.

Solicited donations

According to state investigators, Coleman solicited charitable contributions from individual and business donors for a national monument honoring Iraq, Afghanistan and Gulf War veterans. To help raise funds, Coleman placed donation jars for the monument in several business locations.

Coleman, who used the additional name Walter Raleigh Coleman Jr., falsely told donors that the foundation was a legitimate, federally recognized charity and was authorized to receive tax-exempt donations. In addition to misleading beneficiaries, Coleman also made these false representations to the City of Kennedale and the local First National Bank.

In order to acquire a real estate purchase contract with the city for land on which to build the memorial, Coleman provided a fraudulent IRS letter and falsified tax-exempt application. Additionally, Abbott's preliminary review of the U.S. Fallen Heroes Foundation's records indicated that Coleman diverted donors' charitable contributions to cover his personal expenses -- including his mortgage payments and utility bills.

After submitting his resignation as chairman of the foundation on July 28, Coleman notified the Office of the Attorney General that he had appointed Larry W. Summers to act as new chairman in his absence. Summers, who is not a defendant in this case, has fully cooperated with investigators from both the attorney general's office and the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office.

The state's enforcement action is seeking civil penalties of up to $20,000 per violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, as well as attorneys' fees and court costs. Court documents ask the court to set aside any funds that were fraudulently collected under false pretenses and decide whether to order that donated funds be returned to contributors or redistributed to the reorganized U.S. Fallen Heroes Foundation.

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Gas Prices Lower Heading Into Labor Day Weekend

Prices level off after recent drop but near lowest point of thesummer

Gas Prices Lower Heading Into LaborDay Weekend...

Motorists are enjoying lower prices for fuel heading into the Labor Day weekend, as many Americans hit the road in a final summer fling.

The nationwide average price of self-serve regular gas is $2.681 a gallon, fractionally lower than last Friday, according to AAA. While the decline in gas prices has slowed in the last week, prices are down about a dime a gallon in the last three weeks.

Today's average price of diesel fuel is $2.953, compared with $2.959 a week ago.

Prices fell throughout much of August as more evidence emerged that the economy is not rebounding as fast as many economists predicted. That sent oil prices falling toward the $70 a barrel mark, pulling retail gas prices down with them.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration this week reported oil inventories in the latest week rose more than expected, but product stockpiles dropped. Crude oil inventories for the week ended Aug. 27 increased 3.4 million barrels. Gasoline stocks fell 200,000 barrels; analysts expected a drop of one million barrels.

10 percent travel increase

"AAA is forecasting a 10 percent increase in travel over the Labor Day holiday weekend, with 90 percent of travelers taking trips by automobile," said Andrew Delmege, AAA's manager of regulatory affairs. "The good news for drivers is that they will be able to factor in a reliable, consistent fuel price in their travel budgets."

The states with the most expensive gasoline today are:

Alaska ($3.525)
Hawaii ($3.459)
California ($3.066)
Washington ($3.048)
Oregon ($2.976)
Idaho ($2.986)
Utah ($2.922)
Nevada ($2.893)
Montana ($2.894)
New York ($2.829)

The states with the least expensive gasoline today are:

South Carolina ($2.447)
Mississippi ($2.493)
Tennessee ($2.501)
Missouri ($2.501)
New Jersey ($2.502)
Alabama ($2.507)
Virginia ($2.509)
Texas ($2.514)
Georgia ($2.539)
Louisiana ($2.547)

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Illinois Accuses California Company Of 'Cramming'

Firm selling ID protection service used third partyrelationship to add charges to consumers' bills

Illinois Accuses California Company Of 'Cramming': Nothing is more aggravating than finding you've been charged for something you never wanted or agreed to...

September 3, 2010
Nothing is more aggravating than finding you've been charged for something you never wanted or agreed to buy. The State of Illinois, responding to thousands of complaints, has sued a California firm placing unauthorized charges on consumers' phone bills, a practice known as "cramming."

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed suit alleging that a Web-based California business signed up and charged thousands of Illinois consumers for identity protection assistance even though the consumers never asked to purchase such a service.

The lawsuit contends that ID Lifeguards, Inc., and its owner, Arthur Natanyan of Burbank, California, deceived consumers into unknowingly purchasing the identity protection when they responded to a sales offer for other products or services on a third-party Web site. According to the complaint, between September 2009 and March 2010, the defendants charged $157,562 for unauthorized services on the phone bills of 5,071 Illinois consumers.

Irony

"The defendants in this case claim to be in the business of identity protection, but in fact they're in the business of scamming people out of their hard-earned money," Madigan said.

The attorney general's lawsuit alleges that ID Lifeguards, in addition to maintaining its own Web site, marketed its identity protection services on several websites belonging to other companies and offering products and services unrelated to identity protection, such as discount coupons and online contests.

Consumers responding to offers on these third-party Web sites were automatically directed to a sign-up page owned by the defendants and prompted to provide personal information. By completing the sign-up page, consumers were unknowingly signed up for ID Lifeguards' purported services and billed $12.95 a month for those services, with the charges appearing in the miscellaneous section on their phone bills.

Where's my credit report?

Additionally, ID Lifeguards' Web site claims the company provides consumers with free copies of their credit reports, yet none of the consumers who spoke with Madigan's office had received copies of their reports from the defendants.

"Unfortunately, it is fairly easy for companies to add charges to your telephone bill that have nothing to do with your phone service," Madigan said. "Consumers should be aware of this and carefully check their phone bills each month for any additional charges."

To further reduce the risk of becoming the victim of a scam artist, Madigan advised consumers to call their local phone company and request that third-party billings be blocked from their phone bill.

In the suit, Madigan is asking the court to prohibit the defendants from engaging in the business of offering identity protection services in Illinois. She also seeks to have the defendants pay restitution to consumers, a civil penalty of $50,000 per defendant, and additional penalties of $50,000 for each act committed with the intent to defraud.

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Window Maker Cleans Up Claims About Energy Savings

Great Lakes Windows agrees to screen out false sales representations

Window Maker Cleans Up Claims About Energy Savings...


An Ohio-based window manufacturer has settled allegations over erroneous energy-savings claims.

In a settlement with the Washington State Attorney Generals Office, Great Lakes Window, Inc. agrees not to make false or unsubstantiated representations about the energy efficiency of their window products.

Window manufacturers like Great Lakes and not just companies that sell windows directly to consumers must avoid deceptive marketing tactics like energy savings pledge programs that promote false or unsubstantiated energy savings claims, said Assistant Attorney General Jack Zurlini. Our settlement prohibits those marketing practices and puts a few dollars into the pockets of affected consumers.

Great Lakes Window, Inc. sells replacement windows to retail window companies nationwide, including businesses in Washington state. One such company is Statewide, Inc., also known as Penguin Windows. The Attorney Generals Office reached a separate settlement with Penguin Windows in March.

From about 2004 through 2009, Great Lakes sponsored an energy savings pledge program used by Penguin Windows. The program promised that consumers who purchased new windows and doors throughout their homes would save at least 40 percent in energy costs the first year, or be paid the difference. In its complaint, the Attorney Generals Office says the claim was false a violation of the states Consumer Protection Act.

The AGs Office says the energy savings actually realized as a result of replacing old windows varies greatly due to many energy-consumption factors, including the type, size and location of the windows replaced; the homes insulation; the climate at the homes location and the type and condition of the homes heating and cooling systems. As a result, consumers should not believe advertising claims that promise all homeowners will realize the same high percentage of energy savings.

The only way to accurately estimate the actual energy savings a particular home will achieve by replacing windows is to have an extensive whole-home energy audit conducted by a reputable company that looks at all energy-consumption factors, not just the windows.

Under the settlement, Great Lakes does not admit to wrongdoing and specifically denies the allegations. However, it agrees not to engage in the prohibited marketing practices and will set aside $50,000 for refunds for qualifying homeowners. The window manufacturer will also review and respond to written customer complaints about energy efficiency claims and keep records of those complaints for four years.

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FTC Stops False Claims By Credit Repair Operation

Family-run scam surrenders cars, houses and real estate

FTC Stops False Claims By Credit Repair Operation ...

By James Limbach
ConsumerAffairs.Com

September 2, 2010
A credit repair operation has reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and has agreed to stop making false claims and stop charging up-front fees.

The settlement is part of a continuing crackdown on scams that target financially strapped consumers -- in this case taking hundreds of dollars in fees to purportedly remove negative information from consumers' credit reports even if the information is accurate and timely.

The FTC filed the action in Operation Clean Sweep in October 2008.

The settlement agreement requires that Clean Credit Report Services, Inc., Ricardo A. Miranda, Ruthy Villabona, and their son, Daniel R. Miranda give up two cars, three houses, and six commercial properties in Broward and Miami-Dade counties in Florida, and in Bogota, Colombia.

Broken promises

According to the agency, they told consumers they would help remove all the negative remarks from their credit reports, as well as current debt. Clean Credit often debited $400 from consumers' bank accounts before receiving a signed contract, and then did little, if anything, to fulfill its promises.

Nicole of Deerfield Beach, FL, says she was scammed by Clean Credit Report Services. "We paid $760.00 in January 2006. The company sent us a package filled with dispute letters for us to sign and mail to all three credit bureaus," she writes ConsumerAffairs.com.

"When I called them to find out the update on my account they said they were sending out more dispute letters, that was never done," she says. "Now when we call the company all they tell us is our accounts are being reviewed -- and that's if you get good phone reception or someone who speaks English. When I demanded my money back because they did not commit to the service they offered -- to clean our credit, and continue to monitor our credit reports to verify these negative items don't appear again -- they refused without explanation."

Up-front money ban

The settlement order bars Clean Credit and its owners from making misrepresentations about any good or service, such as the ability to improve a consumer's creditworthiness or remove negative information from a consumer's credit report. The order also prohibits the operation from charging money up-front for credit repair services, and from collecting payments from consumers who purchased its services before October 22, 2008, when the court froze the defendants' assets, including their bank accounts. It further bars the defendants from disclosing, benefiting from, or failing to properly dispose of customer information.

In addition, the settlement order imposes a $14.4 million judgment that will be suspended, contingent upon the defendants surrendering their assets, including frozen funds totaling about $165,000 and any proceeds received from selling their six commercial and three residential properties under foreclosure in Florida; commercial property in Bogota, Colombia; a 1992 Mercedes S300; and a 1997 Chevrolet Venture.

The full judgment will become due immediately if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

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Feds Seek More Oversight Over For-Profit Colleges

Industry has abysmal record when it comes to students repaying loans

Feds Seek More Oversight OverFor-Profit Colleges...


A report last month showing many students at for-profit colleges aren't repaying their school loans has prompted the federal government to propose new oversight for these enterprises.

The U.S. Department of Education has proposed rules that would make these for-profit colleges and universities ineligible for government-backed student loans if fewer than 35 percent of students and former students are paying their loans. Schools would also be denied access to federal funds if graduates are spending more than 12 percent of their income to pay back student loans.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has asked Senate Education Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) for more federal scrutiny of for-profit schools. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) is also an advocate of greater oversight.

While responsible for-profit colleges offer a valuable alternative to students, there are too many schools taking advantage of students and making money hand over fist, Durbin said. Some for-profit colleges are spending a quarter of their revenues on marketing and recruiting, and up to 90 percent of those revenues come from federal funding.

"We need to consider whether it is wise for companies to profit so handsomely on federal funding when the results dont match the investment. And we need Congressional action to rein in abuses and ensure that taxpayer dollars are being wisely spent, Durbin said.

Plenty of complaints

Students writing to ConsumerAffairs.com have long complained about for-profit schools' financial aid policies and the financial burden it places on them.

I applied for information to the University of Phoenix at the end of May, 2009, Jodi of Brigham City, Utah, told ConsumerAffairs.com. I was approved and told to apply for financial aid. I explained that I couldn't afford to get too much in student loans and they said to apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Told that her tuition would be about $8,000, Jodi said she told her counselors she couldn't afford to borrow that much. She said she was told that she would likely get most of that money in a Pell Grant. But it didn't work out that way.

On June 24 I, received a letter stating that I got $1,179 in Pell money, and $8,000 in student loans, Jodi said.

Amy of Anchorage, Alaska, says she is in her third year at Strayer University and, to date, has not received any money from financial aid.

I called last week and was told that the administration department does not speak to the financial side and so there is a mess up and there is no telling when my money will come, Amy told ConsumerAffairs.com. I was shocked and sent a complaint to the main office in Virginia, last week. No response still! They have the money I have to pay back with interest and will not give it to me or call me back.

Raking in federal dollars

Durbin says many for-profit colleges that have raked in federal dollars while leaving students poorly trained and drowning in debt. These schools have flourished, in part he says, because of a lack of federal oversight.

The vast majority of for-profit colleges see 75 to 90 percent of their revenues coming directly from the federal government. The amount of revenue that can come from federal student loans and Pell Grants is capped at 90 percent, but Durbin says many schools are lobbying for that cap to be removed.

Because most courses are taken online, many students turn to for-profit colleges because they offer flexible schedules and distance learning. They also have open enrollment. Unlike private and state-supported colleges, students do not have to meet admission standards.

The industry is growing rapidly, with the help of federal dollars. While for-profit schools enroll just 10 percent of all students in higher education, Durbin says they receive 25 percent of all federal financial aid.

$20 billion in student loans

The Illinois Senator says the industry as a whole received $20 billion in student loans and $4 billion in Pell Grants from the federal government last year. As of 2008, the 14 publicly traded companies in the industry enrolled 1.4 million students, a 225 percent increase over the past ten years.

According to the Department of Education, for-profit colleges are the only type of school where the majority of students are unable to repay on the principal of their student loanonly 36 percent of former students are in repayment. In addition, for-profit colleges cost five times more than public two-year colleges and twice as much as public four-year universities on average.

The lawmaker says many for-profit colleges engage in aggressive student recruiting, spending barely half of their revenues on education and nearly one-third on recruiting and marketing. According to a recent investigative study conducted by the Government Accountability Office, recruiters at all 15 for-profit colleges studied purposefully misled potential students about the costs, duration, and quality of their programs.

Students, especially low-income students, come to these colleges in droves, lured by promises of high-paying careers, flexible courses, and easy financial aid, Durbin said. But when they enroll, they may find that far less money is put into educating them than on recruiting them. And if they do leave with a degree or certificate, they may find that it is basically worthless.

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Pending Home Sales Rise In July

Realtors trade group predicts a 'long' recovery process

Pending Home Sales Rise In July...

September 2, 2010
Following a sharp drop in the months immediately after expiration of the home buyer tax credit, pending home sales have modestly risen, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

The Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), which is based on pending sales of existing homes, rose 5.2 percent -- to 79.4 based on contracts signed in July. The June figure was revised downward to 75.5 , but remains 19.1 percent below July 2009 when it was 98.1.

The data reflect contracts and not closings, which normally occur with a lag time of one or two months.

Long road ahead

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, cautioned that there would be a long recovery process. "Home sales will remain soft in the months ahead, but improved affordability conditions should help with a recovery," he said. "But the recovery looks to be a long process. For those who bought at or near the peak several years ago, particularly in markets experiencing big bubbles, it may take over a decade to fully recover lost equity."

Yun believes affordability could reach a generational high in the second half of this year because of rock-bottom mortgage interest rates, helped partly by the Fed's very accommodative monetary policy. "The loan underwriting standards are tighter, but home buyers can improve their chances of getting a loan by staying well within their budget," he noted.

Regional breakdown

The PHSI in the Northeast rose 6.3 percent -- to 62.5 in July, but is 21.1 percent below a year ago. In the Midwest the index increased 4.1 percent -- to 66.7, but remains 25.7 percent below July 2009. Pending home sales in the South rose 1.2 percent to an index of 86.3, but are 15.6 percent lower than a year ago. In the West the index jumped 11.6 percent to 95.0, but is 17.6 percent below July 2009.

The national index had fallen 29.9 percent in May and another 2.8 percent in June.

The PHSI rounds out a series of reports on the housing market. Late last month, NAR reported a drop in existing home sales for July. And the government reported sales of new homes sank July to the lowest point since government started keeping records in 1963.



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Credit Card Marketers Targeting Students Get New Scrutiny

New York attorney general probes relationships between collegesand lenders

Credit Card Marketers TargetingStudents Get New Scrutiny...



It used to be that the Freshman 15 referred to the 15 extra pounds freshmen put on when they left home for college. These days the Freshman 15 is as likely to refer to the $15,000 in debt college students can accumulate in no time.

In an effort to curtail the temptation for college students who may lack financial literacy skills, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has launched a statewide investigation into deceptive credit card marketing practices that target college students through their colleges.

Cuomo has sent letters to every college and university in New York requesting that the schools submit any exclusive contracts they currently have with credit and debit card companies so that his office can examine them for problematic marketing practices. The letters also call on the schools to adopt policies that will help students avoid getting saddled with credit card debt before their graduation.

Cuomo has already investigated conflicts of interest in the student lending industry, which led to nationwide reforms. Like student loans, credit cards are a major cause of students increasing debt burdens. Cumom says banks and credit card companies target students in part because they are less financially savvy and more likely to incur fees and penalties that result in substantial profits for credit card companies.

Mountain of debt

Todays students are facing a growing mountain of debt that can burden them long after graduation, Cuomo said. As a new school year begins, we want to make sure that colleges and universities are doing all that they can to help students avoid financial dangers. Especially in this difficult economy, schools must ensure that credit card companies are not engaging in deceptive marketing practices and jeopardizing the futures of their students.

The Attorney Generals investigation concerns deceptive credit card marketing practices that have targeted students, such as: Schools have given marketers their students personal contact information - without students permission - to allow companies to solicit students by mail, telephone, and online.

Credit card companies have bombarded students with solicitations at student centers, athletic events, orientations, classroom buildings, and other campus locations.

Credit card companies pay schools for the exclusive right to market cards to their students and to brand cards with their insignia. Schools have entered into these deals without evaluating if the terms of the cards are in their students best interests and without a competitive bidding process.

Selling out students?

Some schools have had a provision in their contracts with credit card companies that provide the schools with a percentage of the finance charges assessed to certain credit card accounts.

Companies have lured students by providing free gifts and food when they applied for a credit card.

As part of the investigation, Attorney General Cuomo has sent letters to the approximately 300 colleges and universities in New York calling on the schools to:

• Submit any exclusive contracts they currently have with credit and debit card companies for an evaluation by his office. The Attorney Generals office will review the contracts for any problematic practices that put students at risk.

• Ensure that their practices comply with the provisions of a 2009 federal law, the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act (the Credit CARD Act), which provides new protections to college students from deceptive credit card marketing practices and unfair credit card terms, and other recent changes in federal law concerning debit cards.

• Educate their students about the serious consequences of credit card debt by offering financial literacy programs. Many college students do not understand the negative effects that late payments will have on their credit history or the far-reaching problems that a poor credit history can cause.

Cuomo cites figures showing the average college student graduates with nearly $4,100 in credit card debt, on top of an average of $20,000 in loans for students at four-year colleges. This combined debt burden can be overwhelming for new graduates, he says, particularly as they face the uncertainties of todays difficult economic climate.

He says credit card debt has been found to slow students progress toward obtaining a college degree, as some students become forced to drop out of college and obtain full-time employment to meet their debt obligations. High-interest credit card debt limits graduates career choices and threatens students employment prospects, since many employers check applicants credit scores during the hiring process.

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Gartner: Worldwide PC Shipments To Grow In 2010

Overall shipments are seen rising 19 percent, with growth slowing in the second half of the year

Gartner: Worldwide PC Shipments To Grow In 2010...


Worldwide PC shipments are projected to total 367.8 million units in this year -- a 19.2 percent increase from 308.3 million units shipped in 2009, according to the latest preliminary forecast by Gartner, Inc.

"The PC market revived in the first half of 2010, but the real test of its resilience is yet to come," said Ranjit Atwal, research director at Gartner, an information technology research and advisory company. "We have reduced our forecast for second-half 2010 PC growth to 15.3 percent, approximately two percent below our previous forecast, in light of the uncertain economic outlook for the United States and Western Europe."

Slower consumer PC purchases

Atwal said there is no doubt that consumer, if not business, PC demand has slowed relative to expectations in mature markets. Recent dramatic shifts in the PC supply chain were "in no small part a reaction to fears of a sharp slowdown in mature-market demand," he said. "However, suppliers' risk-aversion is as much a factor in these shifts as any actual downshift in demand."

Consumers buoyed the PC market in 2009 as businesses delayed their purchases. But the slow pace of economic recovery and austerity measures in Europe have made PC suppliers very cautious in 2010. Atwal believes consumer demand is likely to remain strong even if the economic recovery stalls because consumers now view the PC as a relative 'necessity' rather than a 'luxury' and will continue to spend on PCs, even at the expense of other consumer electronic devices.

Gartner analysts said businesses will find it very difficult to delay PC replacements further. The age of the professional PC installed base is already at an all-time high.

"Businesses that delay replacing much longer risk alienating employees, burdening themselves with more service requests and support costs, and ultimately facing higher migration costs when they eventually migrate to Windows 7," Atwal said. "The bottom line is that businesses need to refresh their PCs sooner rather than later. Thus, the full bloom of the long-awaited professional PC refresh can't be more than a few quarters ahead."

The mini factor

Mini-notebooks' impact on the PC market has peaked and is now waning, according to Raphael Vasquez, research analyst at Gartner. Mini-notebooks' share of mobile PC shipments declined for the second consecutive quarter in the second quarter of 2010, falling under 18 percent.

Mini-notebooks' share of the mobile PC market peaked in late 2009, when they accounted for nearly 20 percent of total mobile PC shipments. Their share is expected to continue falling until it reaches around 10 percent by late 2014.

"We still think the mini-notebook has a place in the mobile PC market, but not as a substitute for a standard mobile PC. Indeed, the recent decline in mini-notebooks' share of the mobile PC market reflects a general realization among buyers that mini-notebooks are less-than-perfect substitutes for standard low-end laptops," Vasquez said. "Buyers who once would have bought a mini-notebook based solely on its low price now seem more inclined to buy a low-end standard notebook, especially since the prices of the two have converged. Mini-notebooks are slowly but surely carving out a market niche for themselves as companion devices. However, the emergence of media tablets is a growing threat to that niche."

Gartner defines a tablet PC as having a touchscreen size of five inches or more, outfitted with a full-function operating system (OS), such as Windows 7, Windows Vista, Windows XP or Mac OS X. A media tablet is defined as a device that has a screen size of five inches or larger and is outfitted with a restricted-function OS, such as iPhone, Android and Chrome.

Gartner includes tablet PCs in its PC market statistics and forecasts, but excludes media tablets from both. Nonetheless, media tablets will affect the PC market, especially mini-notebooks, and the forecast reflects this impact, said George Shiffler, research director at Gartner.

"The iPad hasn't had much of an impact on mini-notebook units so far, if only because it is generally priced higher than most mini-notebooks," said George Shiffler, research director at Gartner. "However, we anticipate lower-priced iPad imitations will begin to take larger bites out of mini-notebook units as they are released next year."

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Online Travel Booking Sites Not Always A Good Deal

Travelers can sometimes get the same discounts directly from hotels

Online Travel Booking Sites Not Always A Good Deal...


The Internet was supposed to change the way we do lots of things, including book hotel rooms. Travel sites like Orbitz, PriceLine.com, Hotels.com and Expedia have sprung up in recent years with the promise of better prices.

But do you really save money? Increasingly, evidence suggests smart comparative shopping can provide the same or better results, with more flexibility than these sites offer.

The business model for these booking sites isn't exactly new and is relatively simple. Hotel rooms, rental cars and airplane tickets are perishable commodities. On any given day, an empty hotel room, an unsold plane ticket or an idle rental car loses all of its value to the hotel, airline or rental car agency. Better to get something, rather than nothing, the theory goes.

Acting as a broker, or middleman, the booking site negotiates a lower rate for these about-to-perish commodities and sells them to consumers for a slightly higher price. The consumer saves money and the broker pockets a small profit. At least that's the way its supposed to work.

More deals for the asking

But in this economy travel and hospitality businesses are more competitive than ever, and many offer very good deals on their own. Josie, of Oakhurst, Calif., owns a small bed and breakfast near a national park. Her establishment is listed with Hotels.com, Expedia, Travelocity, Kayak and some other small affiliated booking sites through Bedandbreakfast.com.

"We list through these booking sites only because they seem to be the way everyone is booking these days," Josie told ConsumerAffairs.com.

But she warns consumers this isn't the best way to book a room, at least not at her B & B.

"They list our B & B at about $1.50 less than we advertise," she said. "Usually if anyone asks we'll give them five to 10 percent discount just for asking."

There have been cases, she says, when she does not receive the booking from the booking site and the client is the one who suffers if there is no vacancy. And there have been other problems.

Bad information

"The room descriptions are often wrong ,stating there is a spa tub, or a fireplace or is a pet-friendly room when it is not," she said. "The latest problem we had was a guest who was told by Hotels.com that there was a shuttle from the other side of the park to our B & B which is an hour drive away! There is no shuttle!"

William, a traveler from Keizer, Ore., said he booked two nights at a hotel through Orbitz and paid a total of $220.

"When I got to the hotel I found out they would have charged just $165.57 for the stay," he said. "I called Orbitz and they said the hotel had no right to tell me their price."

Penelope, of Kernersville, N.C., experienced the "lost" reservation so many others have reported in recent months. Having booked a three night stay through Hotels.com, she arrived to find no such reservation existed. The hotel was able to provide a room, but she had to pay for it. Since she had already paid Hotels.com for it, she paid twice.

"I contacted Hotels.com for a refund the next day," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I was told the refund was put through. It has been two weeks and I still have not received the refund."

Wrong hotel

Maureen, of Brooklyn, N.Y., booked a hotel using the "name that price" option on Priceline.com. She got her price, but not the hotel she thought she had booked.

"They had a map that had four zones," she said. "I chose zone one and made an offer for a hotel that was accepted. Only problem is that the hotel was not in the area that I requested!"

When a consumers use a booking site to reserve a hotel room, they pay in advance and the payment, in most cases, is non-refundable. But today, many hotels will also give you a lower price if you make a non-refundable reservation.

For example, the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore's Inner Harbor charges $249 for a room, but $199 for the same room if made with an advance, non-refundable purchase. Other hotels, increasingly have similar policies.

Consumers should also remember that using a booking site to purchase a hotel room a month or two in advance greatly reduces any discount the booking site can offer. Hotels are more likely to offer attractive discounts -- both to you and to booking sites -- closer to the arrival date, since they have a better idea how many extra rooms they have and how many with "perish" if they don't book them.



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Feds Can't Explain Rash of Pampers Problems

Babies' bottoms still being burned but no one knows quite why

Feds Can't Explain Rash of Pampers Problems...


You might remember that, back in May, parents were complaining that the new Procter & Gamble's Pampers "Dry Max" diapers seemed to be associated with a particularly virulent diaper rash.

Far from pampering the upset parents, P&G basically called them liars. "For a number of weeks, Pampers has been a subject of growing but completely false rumors fueled by social media that its new Dry Max diaper causes rashes and other skin irritations," snapped Jodi Allen, P&G Vice President for Pampers.

Moving with its usual alacrity, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) looked into the matter and today issued its findings, namely: none.

"To date, the review has not identified any specific cause linking Dry Max diapers to diaper rash," the CPSC said in a statement on its Web site. But fear not, CPSC said it will "continue to evaluate consumer complaints related to Pampers Dry Max diapers and will provide parents with updated information if this assessment changes."

The agency said that from April through August 2010, it received nearly 4,700 incident reports about diaper rash. Nearly 85 percent of these complaints came in May and then dropped off significantly.

CPSC said it and its sister agency in Canada "considered certain characteristics of the diaper, including the materials used, the construction of the diaper, and heat and moisture retention issues." But, after its intensive probe, it found nothing.

So was it just mass hysteria? Or a calculated attempt by consumers to give P&G acute indigestion?

"While the investigation thus far does not find a link between the diapers and the health complaints received, CPSC recognizes the serious concerns expressed by parents. CPSC staff cannot rule out that there may exist a health concern for some babies, especially those babies that may be sensitive and develop rashes or other skin problems as a result of contact with the materials in this or other products," the agency's statement concluded.

Not quite over

But while P&G and the CPSC seem content to believe that complaints have "dropped off significantly," consumers continue to complain to ConsumerAffairs.com about the issue.

Just yesterday, Rosalind of Avondale, Ariz., reported that her grandson developed a rash after just three diaper changes with Pampers Cruisers.

"We have used Pampers for years but in comparing the new diapers to a few left over at home, we discovered that the new bag had a distinct chemical odor," Rosalind said.

Was Rosalind happy to find that P&G and her government have known about the problem since May? She was not.

"If they had taken these parents seriously, my grandson would not have experienced the trauma that he endured last night. I am outraged by the position P&G; has taken and am committed to being heard on this matter. Someone has to stop big business from placing profits above people."

Maybe it's just a bad batch of diapers? Could be, but if so, it's certainly been widely distributed. Belinda wrote to us just last week from Elsburg, South Africa.

"I bought Pampers Premium for my babies and it burnt their little bums. So I bought Pampers Active Baby and it is so thin you could see they they were watering. I had to use two nappies so as not for them to wet themselves. This was the first time that this has happened as I only use Pampers," Belinda said.

Closer to home, Sarah of New Kensington, Pa., wrote:

"I had just bought a box of Pampers Swaddlers with Dry Max at my local Target. I have been using Swaddlers on my daughter since she was born 4 months prior to this incident with absolutely NO problems. When I went to Target that day I bought the "new" Dry Max swaddlers. Within 1 hour my daughter started doing this gasping sound for air, almost like she couldn't catch her breath.

Sarah said her daughter's condition deteriorated so rapidly that she rushed her to Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh.

"When we got there and went to check her rectal she had a severe chemical burn all over her entire bottom! From front to back. The rash was so bad and so painful it was causing her so much pain she couldn't breathe. I felt horrible and couldn't believe what had happened. I put a ton of Desitin on her bottom and discontinued using the swaddlers. Within 12 hours of discontinuing the swaddlers the burn was healing and her breathing was getting a lot better. "



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Filthy Conditions at Egg Farms Driving Cage-Free Movement

Consumers voting with their wallets after 'disgusting' revelations

Filthy Conditions at Egg Farms Driving Cage-Free Movement...

Recent findings of piles of manure, rodents, and other unsanitary conditions on the Iowa farms linked to the massive salmonella-tainted egg recall are disgusting, but not surprising to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

The conditions on farms owned by Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms Inc. mirror those found on four other Iowa egg producing farms during a Humane Society investigation earlier this year.

The findings are shocking and disgusting, but unfortunately they are the same as weve documented repeatedly, and as recently as February and March of this year, Dr. Michael Greger, the HSUSs director of public health and animal agriculture told ConsumerAffairs.com. This is an industry-wide problem. These practices are the same as we found in our investigations in Iowaand in other investigations across the country.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the past week inspected the Iowa farms now blamed for the countrys largest egg recall and, according to their reports, found such deplorable conditions as:

• Doors to hen laying houses blocked by excessive amounts of manure;
• Dark liquid that appeared to be manure seeping though the foundations of hen laying houses;
• Employees working in hen laying houses who did not wear or change protective clothing when moving from house to house. One employee walked out of a hen house with a metal scraper and went to another house without cleaning or sanitizing the equipment;
• Live mice in egg laying houses;
• Live and dead flies too numerous to count inside egg laying houses;
• Live and dead maggots too numerous to count in a manure pit;
• Liquid manure streaming out of a 6 inch gap in a manure pit door;
• Nearly 50 un-caged hens tracking manure from the pit to the hen house areas;
• Scores of unsealed rodent holes.

photo

The FDA reports also revealed that several samples collected during the inspections tested positive for Salmonella Enteritidis, the strain of bacterium that has sickened people in 10 states. Those samples were taken from manure and the feed mill at Wright County Egg facilities and from water at an egg washing station on a Hillandale farm.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this outbreak is the largest Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) epidemic in U.S. history. The outbreak has triggered a recall of more a half-billion eggs and sickened approximately 1,470 people from May 1 to August 25, 2010, the CDC said.

But the Humane Societys Dr. Greger said these widespread health problems might have been prevented if the industry and government regulators would have investigated the deplorable conditions his organization exposed earlier this year on other Iowa egg producing farms.

The FDA seemed shocked by our findings back in April, he said. But we have not gotten word that they (FDA inspectors) have gone to the four farms we investigated; we certainly hoped they would.

The Humane Society said it discovered such rampant abuses and appalling conditions inside Iowas Rose Acre Farms and Rembrandt Enterprises, the nation's second-and third-largest egg producers, as:

• Manure pits that hadnt been maintained. One worked said a manure pit under a pullet shed hadnt been cleaned in two years;
• Abandoned and starving hens found in manure pits;
• Trapped hens that couldnt reach food or water. The Humane Society said battery cages can trap hens by their wings, necks, legs and feet in the wire;
• Hens with broken bones. The HSUS said it documented workers who yanked young hens from their cages or slammed battery cage doors shut on the birds' wings, legs and necks. Those treatments caused the hens bones to break;
• Hens with eye and beak infections. In some cases, the hens had abscesses that caused their eyes to close and beaks and mouths to swell;
• High death rates.

The HSUS said its undercover investigator pulled dead young hens, some of them mummified and rotting for weeks, from cages every day;
• Inhumane depopulation methods. The HSUS said it documented workers who grabbed hens by their legs and crammed them into gassing carts. The birds were then killed with carbon dioxide.

The Iowa egg producing farms highlighted in the HSUSs investigation house about 10 million caged hens, the organization said. One facility had 18 structures that each confined approximately 300,000 birds.

Deeply troubling

"Our investigation is a deeply troubling indictment of the battery cage egg industry in America, specifically implicating two of its top three egg producers," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The HSUS. "Misery and suffering are standard at these facilities, and this investigation reveals that animals simply cannot be properly cared for in facilities of this size and type.

Humane Society officials advocate switching from these caged living conditions for hens nationwide to cage-free environments a move they say will reduce the likelihood of salmonella contamination in the egg industry and increase the humane treatment of the birds.

On egg producing farms across the country, the Humane Society said there are now about 280 million hens confined to cages so small the birds cant spread their wings, walk, or even lay eggs in nests.

The extreme confinement enables farms to cram hundreds of thousands of birds under a single roof, Dr. Greger told us. And when you have hundreds of thousands of birds you have a high volume of contaminated fecal dust, which is one way that salmonella spreads.

The massive manure pits (on these farms) are also breeding grounds for flies and maggots and are implicated in the spread of salmonella.

Properly cleaning and disinfecting the cages in these facilities is all but impossible, Dr. Greger said.

The problems were now seeing (with salmonella) are intrinsic to caging, he said. You cant disinfect between flocks so when you put in a new flock (in the cages) they are instantly re-infected.

Imagine a football field-sized shed filled with rows of cages that are stacked high, Dr. Greger added. How do you clean all that equipment? Even with gold standard equipment, you cant sterilize all the cages and the facilities. There are too many nooks and crannies.

Ten studies have also found that hens forced to live in confined cages have much higher rates of salmonella than birds in cage-free environments, the Humane Society said. A 2010 study revealed that caged flocks are 20 times more likely to have salmonella infections than cage-free hens.

Cage-free movement

The cage-free alternative movement is gaining support from consumers, politicians, and even religious leaders across the country and around the world.

Michigan and California have passed legislation to phase out cages for laying hens, the Humane Society said. Agriculture leaders in Ohio have also agreed to a moratorium on the construction of new cage egg facilities. And the European Union will ban barren battery cages starting in 2012.

On Tuesday, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, condemned caged facilities for laying hens.

The abuse we inflict on hens has always been particularly disturbing to me and I have always been particularly concerned toward how these animals are treated in industrial food production, he wrote in a statement. I am troubled to learn about the practice of confining egg laying hens in tiny cages. In these cages, birds cannot engage in their natural behaviours, such as spreading their wings, laying eggs in a nesting area, perching, scratching at the ground, even standing on a solid surface. Each hen has less space to live than the very sheet of paper I have written this letter on.

Turning these defenseless animals into egg-producing machines with no consideration for their welfare whatsoever is a degradation of our own humanity, the Dalai Lama added. Switching to cage-free eggs would reduce the suffering of these animals.

But how can consumers ensure theyre buying eggs produced on cage-free farms?

Check the labels on the cartons, Dr. Greger said. Consumers can be assured the eggs didnt come from hens confined to unsanitary conditions if the cartons states theyre USDA organic eggs, he said.

Consumers should also buy from local farmers. Go to your local farmers markets and establish a relationship with the farmers, Dr. Greger said. They should welcome you to their farms. If they dont want you there, that should tell you something.

Many retailers, restaurants, and supermarkets across the country are now switching to cage-free eggs, Dr. Greger said. Those businesses include Sara Lee, Hellmann's mayonnaise, Starbucks, Wolfgang Puck, Burger King, Denny's, Carl's Jr., Hardee's, Subway, Quiznos, Wal-Mart, Costco, Harris Teeter and Safeway.

What we say to consumers is they can vote with their wallets and choose to support the more hygienic and humane cage-free producers, Dr. Greger said.

Back in Iowa, Hillandale Farms said 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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Citigroup To Cut Fees for Wealthier Customers

But customers already in the Citigold program aren't all ecstatic

Citigroup To Cut Fees for Wealthier Customers...

 

Hoping to stop a sharp slide in its customer base, Citigroup will stop charging monthly fees to customers who keep $50,000 in their combined accounts, according to financial industry sources.

The bank, which has slipped to fourth place in the U.S., may also cut or eliminate fees for some customers at the basic account levels. But many consumers say Citibank has a long way to go to win them back.

"I withdrew all funds from my business account and notified Citibank by mail that Company has closed and requested account to be closed," said Tanal of Fremont, Calif. "In the meantime, instead of closing account, Citibank decided to charge me monthly fees for having a 'low' balance."

"Citibank has refused to close the account unless I go in to the branch to pay the balance due from bank charges," Tamal complained.

High fees may be galling but impersonal, and often ineffective, customer service is close behind, according to the consumers who write to ConsumerAffairs.com about their frustrations wtih Citibank.

"Before leaving for Europe, I talked by phone with two bank officers to make sure that my ATM card would work; they both said there would be no problem," said "D" of Alto, N.M. "I moved more than $2,000 into my account to make sure that I would have enough spending money. But I tried 7 ATMs in 3 cities and coud not access funds from my account.

"When I returned, I went to the bank and they blamed some employee who no longer worked there. When I said that was not sufficient, I received a letter from the bank president suggesting that I move my accounts to another bank, which I did. The bank promised unsurpassed service but their service isn't even up to average," D said.

Bank officials say they're on the case.

If we offer a much better service than what our customers are getting today, they are going to bring more of their business to us, Citigroups U.S. retail-banking head, Brad Dinsmore, said in an not-so-hard-hitting interview with Bloomberg News. By lowering the threshold to $50,000, it will allow us to offer Citigold to more customers.

That won't wash too well with Greg of Raleigh, N.C., who was miffed when his Citicard was declined and infuriated when the Citi turned a deaf ear.

"I have been a Citibank credit card customer since 1983. I was at my Doctor's office today, paying a $385 bill when I was told my credit card had been declined," Greg said in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com. "I called Citibank, Customer Service told me my account was 5 days past the due date. ... They said my credit card payment was due on June 20, 2010 and today is June 25, 2010. She said that is their policy and she could not override it.

"I asked for a supervisor, and the same response was given. I pay my balance in full each month. I can't believe this is how they treat a long time customer who has perfect credit. As soon as I get my credit card rewards, I will dump Citibank, once and for all," Greg vowed.

Citi introduced the Citigold accounts in the 1980s to attract affluent savers. They come with a dedicated hotline, free checks, theater promotions and fee waivers on wire transfers. Until now, the minimum balance to avoid a monthly $25 fee for Citigold service was $100,000.

Citigold tarnished?

But Citigold customers, like Sherif of Cairo, Egypt, are as vocal in their dissatisfaction as those of lesser net worth.

"I am a Citigold member for long years. Today my Citigold debit Card expired and the new one was not delivered. When i called the customer service they said sorry sir it will be delivered to you," Sherif said.

"I use my debit card to cash almost daily from my account and ive been unable to use it now for one week. I would have expected that a new card would arrive at least 15 days prior to the expiry of the old card to avoid a loyal customer dissatisfaction but that was not the case ... not even an appology for the delay.",/p>

Edward of Mt. Pleasant, S.C., blames Citibank for the loss of $3,250.

"I have been a customer of CitiBank (CitiGold) since 2000. I have used their online banking system for hundreds of wire transfers and recurring payments. On December 6th a final recurring payment of $3250 was sent after which I went online and cancelled all future recurring payments," he said.

"While reviewing my statement in January, it was apparent Citibank had sent out another $3250 payment on January 6. Ovbiously I contacted them immediately and let them know this was not authorized by me and in fact had been cancelled by me. After several days of investigating, they said the funds were not retrievable from the other parties bank. ... On February 6, Citibank again sent out another $3250 and deducted the money from my account leaving me with $700 in my checking account."

"I am still out $3250 and now they have closed my account and put me in collections," said Edward, who said he is retired and lives on a fixed income.

Read more Citigold complaints

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DOT Updates 'Fly Rights' Airline Consumer Guide

Pamphlet has the latest on bumping, baggage compensation and delays

DOT Updates 'Fly Rights' Airline Consumer Guide...


The updated version of Fly Rights: A Consumer Guide to Air Travel -- the popular guide to air travelers' rights put out by the Department of Transportation (DOT) -- is hot off the presses.

"We take the rights of airline passengers very seriously," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "Ensuring that the flying public has access to the best possible resources and consumer information is an important part of our mission, and this new version of Fly Rights will help air travelers better understand their rights as consumers."

Since it was first published in 1973, Fly Rights has provided air travelers with helpful advice on such issues as how to get the best airfare, what to expect when a flight is delayed or canceled, and how to avoid travel scams.

The guide provides easy-to-read information on federal airline regulations in a number of areas, including accommodating air travelers with disabilities and rules for bumping and baggage compensation. Fly Rights also contains information on airline safety, air traveler health and how to file official complaints against airlines.

The latest version includes updated information on the DOT's new consumer protections, including the three-hour limit on tarmac delays for domestic flights, the requirement for large airlines to display on-time performance information for domestic flights on their websites, and the requirement for airlines to respond to consumer complaints about an air travel experience. It also features new formatting and graphics to make it easier to read.

Horror stories about tarmac delays have made the issue a hot-button item in the news for years.

Bethany of Kingwood, TX, wrote ConsumerAffairs.com of being stuck on a Continental Airlines flight going from Houston to New York LaGuardia. "Because of weather problems in NYC, traffic was diverted to Dulles in Washington, D.C. Of course, the airlines assume no responsibility for weather delays; however, our plane also had mechanical difficulties. Long after other planes were back in the air, we sat first on the plane for nearly four hours and then in the terminal."

And -- just over a year ago -- there was the incident involving 47 passengers who were trapped aboard Continental Flight 2816 overnight.

Fly Rights is available online.

In addition to Fly Rights, the Department recently developed another guide to assist the flying public. When Kids Fly Alone provides air travel tips for parents of unaccompanied minors.

Print copies of both Fly Rights and When Kids Fly Alone may be obtained free of charge from the DOT warehouse by e-mail at dotwarehouse@dot.gov or by writing to DOT Warehouse, 3341-Q 75th Ave., Lanham, MD 20785.



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FDIC: 829 Banks on the Brink

10% of U.S. banks at risk of failure

FDIC: 829 Banks on the Brink...


The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) warns that 829 of the nation's 7,800 banks were on its problem list at the end of June, up from 775 three months earlier.

So far this year, 118 banks have failed, compared to 140 closed by regulators during all of 2009.

The banks on the problem list are mostly smaller institutions, not surprising since most of them did not benefit from the massive government bail-out of Wall Street. As smaller banks set aside more money to be ready for future loan losses, it becomes harder for them to remain competitive.

Not surprisingly, the troubles on Main Street are reducing the number of banks in the U.S. The FDIC said in its regular quarterly report that there were 104 fewer banks in the second quarter of the year, compared with the first quarter. And for the first time in the 38 years that the reports have been issued, no new banks were added.

"The smaller banks are recovering, but it is at a slower rate," FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair said. "It hit the large banks first and then the community banks, so they will be lagging the larger banks in terms of coming out of this."

"Without question, the industry still faces challenges," Bair said. "Earnings remain low by historical standards, and the numbers of unprofitable institutions, problem banks and failures remain high. But the banking sector is gaining strength. Earnings have grown, and most asset quality indicators are moving in the right direction."

Commercial banks and savings institutions insured by the FDIC reported an aggregate profit of $21.6 billion in the second quarter, a $26 billion improvement from net loss of $4.4 billion posted by the industry in the year-ago period. This is the highest quarterly earnings total since the third quarter of 2007. Despite the improvement, earnings remain below historical norms, the FDIC noted.

The FDIC doesn't publicly identify the banks on its problem list.

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California Legislature Defeats BPA Ban

Consumer advocates say lobbyists snatched defeat from the jawsof victory

California Legislature Defeats BPA Ban...


California lawmakers considered -- but in the end rejected -- a proposed ban on the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles, sippy cups and infant formula cans sold in in the Golden State.

The bill passed the State Assembly in July and the Senate a month earlier, but needed to be approved by the Senate again in what should have been a non-controversial procedural vote. The last-minute defeat was unexpected and came as a shock to some consumer advocates.

"Once again we see children's health sacrificed to the cold altar of money and influence," said Renee Sharp, director of the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) California office. "Apparently, the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Toxicology Program, and several other states and countries around the world have expressed serious concern and/or taken action to reduce BPA exposures means little compared to how money talks in Sacramento."

Under study

To date the FDA has taken no action against BPA but said it continues to study it. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) last year announced a new $30 million study of BPA's effects on humans.

The government study will examine the safety of BPA and could result in recommendations for further curbs on its use.

"We know that many people are concerned about Bisphenol A and we want to support the best science we can to provide the answers," said Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), in a statement last November.

Wide human exposure

BPA has been detected in the urine of more than 90 percent of Americans and animal studies have linked it with infertility, weight gain, behavioral changes, early onset puberty, prostate and breast cancer and diabetes. The new research will focus on low-dose exposures to BPA and effects on behavior, obesity, diabetes, reproductive disorders, asthma, cardiovascular diseases and various cancers.

Researchers will also see if the effects of BPA exposure can be passed from parents to their children.

In May Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) introduced an amendment to the Food Safety and Modernization Act that would ban BPA in most food and beverage containers. The amendment is strongly opposed by the food industry, which had been supporting the bill up until that time.

BPA is widely used in plastic beverage bottles and in the liners of canned food. The chemical is valued within the industry because it makes normally soft plastic containers more rigid.

In California, disappointed supporters of the bill that would have banned BPA in children's products attributed their reversal of fortunes to intense food industry lobbying.



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Big Banks Have Profitable Second Quarter

Bottom line the best in nearly three years, although small banks are still in trouble

Big Banks Have Profitable Second Quarter...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.Com

September 1, 2010
Banks and savings institutions insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) reported a profit of $21.6 billion in the second quarter of 2010, a $26 billion improvement from the $4.4 billion net loss the industry posted in the second quarter of 2009.

It's the highest quarterly earnings total since the third quarter of 2007.

"This is the best quarterly profit for the banking sector in almost three years," said FDIC Chairman Sheila C. Bair. "Nearly two out of every three banks are reporting better year-over-year earnings. As long as economic conditions remain supportive, most institutions should maintain profitability and increase their capacity to lend."

But as you break down the numbers, you see that big banks are doing much better than small ones. So far this year, FDIC has helped close 118 banks -- most of them small local and regional lenders. And despite the overall improvement, earnings remain below historical norms.

On the positive side, 20 percent of institutions reported a net loss for the quarter, compared with 29 percent a year earlier. And, the average return on assets (ROA) -- a basic yardstick of profitability -- rose to 0.65 percent, from negative 0.13 percent a year ago.

Bodes well for the economy

The improvement in the banking sector is significant for the overall economy, since it was the banking meltdown that sent the economy into a downward spiral two years ago. Despite the remaining problems, Bair remains hopeful.

"The banking sector is gaining strength. Earnings have grown, and most asset quality indicators are moving in the right direction," she said.

Another hopeful sign is the reason banks are doing better. According to the FDIC report, there are fewer bad loans. The report notes that non-current loans fell for the first time since the first quarter of 2006.

There are also fewer bad loans among credit card borrowers, making large banks that issue credit cards more profitable. Most issuers increased interest rates and reduced access to credit in the last 15 months to compensate for expected higher default rates.

Extra cash

Banks that were holding large amounts of capital in reserve to cover expected losses were free to release those reserves in the second quarter, adding to the bottom line.

For example, Citibank released $585 million of its reserve helping it achieve a profit of $2.7 billion. Wells Fargo released $341 million, boosting profits to $2.5 billion.

Small banks, meanwhile, continue to struggle under the weight of underwater commercial real estate loans. The bank failure toll for 2010 stands at 118, on pace to be significantly worse than last year.

But in a small but hopeful sign, FDIC did not report a single bank closing last week, a break from what has become a Friday evening ritual.

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Fitness Center Operator Prohibited From Using Misleading Mailings

Bally Total Fitness sent fake past-due bills to former members, must issue refunds

Fitness Center Operator Prohibited From Using Misleading Mailings...


Bally Total Fitness Corp. has signed an agreed judgment with the Texas Attorney General's Office that prohibits the California-based company from continuing to send its former members misleading "past-due" mailings.

Under the agreement, Bally must provide refunds to Texas consumers who were deceived into paying fees they did not actually owe and who did not use its fitness facilities.

Bally operates 24 fitness centers in and around the Dallas, Houston and San Antonio areas. An investigation by Attorney General Greg Abbott's office revealed that between summer 2009 and March 2010, Bally mailed more than 11,000 misleading "past due" collection notices to former customers in an attempt to encourage them to rejoin their former gym.

Notices of arrears

The notices, which created the false impression that former members owed Bally outstanding membership fees, were actually an attempt to get former members to renew their memberships.

The judgment also includes an injunction that prohibits Bally from indicating that current or former members owe a balance unless the balance is actually owed. Bally also is banned from claiming harmful information may be submitted to a credit bureau when Bally's records do not support such a representation.

According to records obtained by the state, more than 1,000 Texas consumers made payments to Bally after receiving the improper past-due collection notices. Under the agreement, Bally will send out settlement notices to customers who are automatically eligible for restitution. Any customers who do not receive a notice but believe they are entitled to restitution should file a complaint with the AG's office.

The improper collection notices that led to the enforcement action indicated that recipients owed "past-due" fees under Bally's "Value Plan" -- fees for which the notice demanded immediate payment. Some of Bally's past due notices even claimed that failure to remit a payment could result in a negative entry on the former members' credit reports.

Texas's enforcement action charged Bally with attempting to confuse its former Value Plan members with deceptive bills so they would make payments that were not actually owed and which effectively reinstated a lapsed membership they did not want.

Under their skin

It isn't just Bally's collection notice practices that have consumers ticked off.

"I signed a one year contract with Bally's and used my Visa to pay the entire year in one payment -- I specifically did not want to be charged a monthly fee," Alba of Bothell, WA, tells ConsumerAffairs.com. "Six months after the one year was up, my husband noticed Bally's charge on the Visa -- a review of Visa charges showed monthly charges past the one year contract. When I complained to the corporate office they said that they could not give me a refund because 'that's just the way the paperwork came to us'. No where on my paperwork does it say that I agreed to pay monthly payments!"

Stavros of Schererville, IN, says he cancelled his membership by sending a registered letter and the signed cancellation notice to Bally. "I continue to receive monthly bills. When I tried to call to complain, the recording said that there is a high volume of calls and they could not answer my call. This has been a big harassment from Bally's."

Texas consumers who believe they have been deceived by similar fraudulent business practices may call the Office of the Attorney General's toll-free complaint line at (800) 252-8011 or file a complaint online.

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Avvo.com Publishes False Information, Suit Charges

Florida lawyer says website coerces attorneys into participating

Avvo.com Publishes False Information, Suit Charges...


Avvo.com, a website that provides consumer ratings of attorneys nationwide, has been slapped with a lawsuit spearheaded by a Florida attorney. Larry Joe Davis, Jr. says he was defamed by the site and punished when he tried to fight back.

Davis, of St. Petersburg, says Avvo "purports to list over 90 percent of lawyers in the United States, and...all members of the Florida Bar." According to the suit, those listings are made "without [the lawyers'] knowledge, input or approval, based on allegedly available public information, primarily, information made available by the Florida Bar."

Bad info

Davis, who is representing himself, claims much of the "public information" listed on the site is just plain wrong.

He notes that he is "board certified" in health law, meaning that he has attained "the highest level of evaluation by The Florida Bar of competency and experience within an area of law, and professionalism and ethics in practice."

Despite this certification, Davis says Avvo lists him "as practicing '100 percent employment/labor' law" -- an area in which he does not practice at all. Davis says Avvo never brought the error to his attention. Avvo made the same mistake with eight out of ten other board-certified health attorneys in the Tampa Bay area, according to the suit.

Plaintiff in the dark

Davis didn't become aware of the erroneous listing until August 19, when a prospective client called him seeking advice regarding a "hostile work environment," according to the suit. It was the latest of several calls involving such a situation.

When Davis asked the consumer how she found his number, the client "responded that she had found the name on Avvo.com and that [Davis] was listed (in a pie-chart at the very top of the screen) as '100 percent employment law.'"

If that wasn't bad enough, the client told Davis that she called him "because he was the lowest rated employment lawyer" on Avvo.com, and none of the other lawyers had answered her call. The client thought that Davis, "being a poorly ranked lawyer, might answer her call (i.e. she assumed that [Davis] would be desperate for employment law clients)."

Davis also alleges that Avvo got his address wrong, "despite that Avvo.com asserts it provides the business address 'of record' with the Florida Bar."

Error by design?

Immediately following the August 19 call, Davis logged onto Avvo in an attempt to correct the information on his profile. As soon as he logged in, according to the suit, his "rating jumped from a 4.3 out of 10 to a 5 out of 10."

After exploring the site a bit, Davis decided he was "not thrilled with Avvo.com's business strategy" and tried to get his profile removed altogether. As soon as he removed the information he had added -- leaving those fields blank -- his "rating...automatically became a '3.7 Caution' (in red letters) out of 10," according to the complaint.

According to the complaint, Davis's troubles were by design. Davis alleges that Avvo purposely and regularly publishes "false and misleading information regarding attorneys, and by doing so attempts to coerce their participation in exchange for improving (making accurate) their Avvo.com listing and rating." Thus, Davis alleges, his rating jumped from a 4.3 to a 5 as a result of his simply logging into the site. Conversely, if a lawyer doesn't affirmatively participate on the site, the suit alleges, "Avvo.com punishes the lawyer with a much lower rating."

Davis's suit charges Avvo with libel, libel by omission, and violation of several Florida statutes. He is seeking damages and an injunction.

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Feds Wrest $600 Million Settlement from Botox Maker

Allergan illegally promoted drug for off-label use, feds charged

Feds Wrest $600 Million Settlement from Botox Maker...

Here's the latest wrinkle in the long-running Botox case: Botox manufacturer Allergan has agreed to pay $600 million to settle federal charges that it illegally promoted so-called "off-label" uses of the drug.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Botox only for use in rare conditions but prosecutors said the company has vigorously promoted it for off-label uses, including relief from headaches, pain, spasticity and juvenile cerebral palsy.

"Allergan made it a top corporate priority to maximize sales of far more lucrative off-label uses that were not approved by FDA," U.S. Attorney Sally Yates said. "Allergan further demanded tremendous growth in these off-label sales year after year, even when there was little clinical evidence that these uses were effective."

Allergan has agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of misbranding Botox in violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, federal authorities said. The settlement is not final until approved by a federal judge.

The Irvine, Calif., company was named in both civil and criminal complaints filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta.

Other cases

In an unrelated case, Botox users and their families are pursuing a class action lawsuit against Allergan, claiming the company failed to adequately warn users of the drug's dangers.

The suit, filed in July 2008, claims the toxin-based drug killed at least three people, including a seven-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who got Botox injections to help control spasticity in her limbs.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said in February that Botox was being injected at an alarming rate among children, especially those who are being treated for limb spasticity associated with cerebral palsy.

It noted that neither Botox nor a similar product, Myobloc, was approved for such use in the U.S. and said there have been deaths associated with the usage of the two treatments among children.

In March 2008, Allergan said it had received a subpoena from the U.S. Justice Department seeking documents regarding Botox promotional practices. The company said its understanding was that the inquiry involves questions regarding alleged off-label promotion relating to the use of Botox for the treatment of headache.

The FDA said in February 2008 that it knew of no deaths among adults but the class action, filed in California's Orange County Superior Court, said a 69-year-old Texas nurse and a 71-year-old woman both died after receiving Botox injections.

The nurse had been receiving injections for neck and shoulder pain, while the 71-year-old, who lived in Arizona, was taking Botox at a mall clinic for wrinkles around her mouth. The suit says she had trouble breathing and swallowing after the treatment and died a short time later.

All three of the cases involved uses of Botox that are not approved by the FDA.

The suit also charges that Botox left at least 12 other patients with a range of disabilities, including some who were taking the drug for approved uses, such as smoothing frown lines.

Approved uses

Botox and Myobloc are designed to block nerve impulses to certain muscles, causing them to relax. Both products are approved to treat cervical dystonia, or uncontrolled muscle contractions of the neck and shoulder muscles. Botox is also approved for cosmetic use to treat wrinkles between the eyebrows and to help control excessive underarm sweating.

In some cases, the toxic, active ingredient in Botox and Myobloc -- a derivative of botulism toxin Type A, one of the deadliest poisons known -- can affect respiratory muscles and cause difficulty swallowing, a condition known as dysphagia. Both products warn doctors and consumers of that side effect.

The the FDA said in February that what is new is that it appears the active ingredient in Botox can spread from distant parts of the body -- such as children's leg muscles -- to muscles that affect breathing rather than being just a local event as previously believed.

In January, the consumer group Public Citizen said it found 16 deaths reported with usage of Botox or Myobloc from November 1997 through 2006. The group filed a petition with the FDA seeking the agency's strictest black-box warning discussing difficulty swallowing, pneumonia as a result of food getting into the lungs and, in rare instances, death from pneumonia.

The suit charges that several of the plaintiffs were hospitalized and now suffer from chronic, life-altering conditions, including difficulty swallowing.

"Thousands of people are getting these injections with no warning to speak of," said Ray Chester, one of the lawyers representing plaintiffs in the suit.

Allergan maintains the drug is safe and says millions of people have taken it with no problems.

 



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