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    Halloween Isn't Just Scary, It Can Be Deadly

    Simple steps can keep kids safe on the night of October 31st.

    Ghosts and goblins aren't the only things parents and kids should watch out for this Halloween.

    Consumer Reports warns the holiday is one of the most dangerous nights of the year for pedestrians; and, recently, two candy manufacturers have issued product recalls.

    Halloween is the second deadliest day for all pedestrians after New Year's Day. Fatal collisions between motor vehicles and young pedestrians occur most frequently between the hours of 4 and 8 p.m. Parents should take special care to make sure their trick-or-treaters are easily visible to motorists.

    Additionally, two recent candy recalls can pose a threat to unsuspecting trick-or-treaters. Manufacturer Colombina recalled certain lots of their Mega Pops lollipops because they may contain traces of foreign particles. The pops came in 14-oz and 28-oz bags, with watermelon, cherry, orange, and grape flavors. 

    Additionally, parents of children with nut allergies should be aware that Nestle recalled lots of its Raisinets candies because they contained undeclared peanuts.

    "While Halloween can be lots of fun for trick-or-treaters and parents alike, it can also pose safety risks for those not taking proper precautions," said Don Mays, Sr. Director of Safety and Technical Policy for Consumer Reports. "There are just a few simple steps that parents and trick-or-treaters can take to ensure a happy Halloween!"

    Consumer Reports offers the following advice for a Happy Halloween:


    • Wear bright-colored costumes and trim costumes and candy bags with reflective tape.
    • Make a flashlight part of the costume to help trick-or-treaters see easily as well as aid them in being seen.
    • Shoes should be sturdy and fit well so the child isn't wobbly or unsteady.
    • Opt for facial make-up instead of masks that can obstruct vision.
    • Choose costumes labeled "flame resistant."
    • Costumes should be short enough for children to walk in without tripping. Avoid big, baggy sleeves, trailing cloaks and billowing skirts.


    • Parents should tell their children to refrain from eating their candy while out trick-or-treating.
    • Provide children with a few sweet treats to snack on while they are away.
    • Carefully inspect candy when children get home to ensure they haven't received any recalled or other potentially dangerous products.


    • Make sure the front of the house well lit. And steer clear of candles to go the job. Consumer Reports recommends using battery operated electric candles rather than real flames to decorate porches and pumpkins.
    • Clear porches and front yards of garden hoses, lawn decorations or anything a child could trip over.
    • Sweep wet leaves from sidewalks and steps.
    • Check outdoor lights and replace any burned-out bulbs.
    • Place lit jack-o-lanterns away from doorsteps and landings.

    Halloween Isn't Just Scary, It Can Be DeadlySimple steps can keep kids safe on the night of October 31st....

    Toyota Bought Back Defective Vehicles, Lawsuit Says

    Consolidated complaint alleges consumers were forced to sign nondisclosure agreements

    Explosive new claims in an ongoing class action lawsuit concerning the Toyota unintended acceleration saga threaten to land a new blow on the beleaguered automaker and raise new questions about its safety record -- and its integrity.

    In court papers filed this week, the plaintiffs claim that Toyota secretly bought back cars from consumers who complained about unintended acceleration, then made them sign non-disclosure agreements to prevent the practice from becoming public. The consumers were also allegedly barred from filing suit against Toyota.

    Once the cars were back in Toyota's hands, its technicians successfully replicated the acceleration defect, but failed to inform federal investigators, the plaintiffs say.

    The claims come in an amended consolidated complaint filed in the mega-suit being heard in federal court in California. The action consists of over 100 federal suits that were consolidated in April and are now being treated as a single proceeding.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the number of suits and issues involved, the amended complaint -- filed Wednesday -- is over 700 pages long, not including hundreds of additional pages of attached exhibits.

    Toyota "tried to cover it up": plaintiffs

    By way of example, the lawsuit cites a July 2009 incident at an unnamed Toyota dealership. A service manager at the dealership says that a Toyota Tacoma pickup accelerated from 71 to 95 miles per hour even though his foot was off the pedal, according to an account in The Los Angeles Times.

    Toyota "knew it had a problem, but they didn't know the cause of the problem," Steve Berman, the plaintiffs' lead attorney, told the Times. "They maintained their silence and tried to cover it up."

    Olivia Alair, a spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) told The Detroit Free Press that the agency received the reports from Toyota's dealerships this year "as part of our ongoing investigation of unintended acceleration, but we didn't receive complaints directly from the consumers."

    Toyota takes issue with some claims

    In a statement, Toyota admitted buying back two cars, but, contrary to the plaintiffs' allegations, claimed that it was not able to replicate the defect in those vehicles.

    "As part of our commitment to investigate acceleration concerns, we have voluntarily repurchased other vehicles," company spokesman Brian Lyons said. "The repurchase was not mandatory or directed through an arbitration or court process."

    Lyons also said that affected consumers were required to sign a "settlement agreement," relieving Toyota of liability, but that no requirements were made with regard to confidentiality.

    The allegations are the latest in a long line of seemingly damning claims about the epic disaster. Lawyers for the plaintiffs have also claimed that Toyota knew of the defect as far back as 2003, and called it "extremely dangerous." And in January, a Toyota executive reportedly urged the company to "come clean" about the defect, warning that Toyota "was not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet."

    Toyota Bought Back Defective Vehicles, Lawsuit Says Consolidated complaint alleges consumers were forced to sign nondisclosure agreements...

    What Tax Considerations Investors Need to Make Before the End of This Year

    Don’t wait too long to take advantage of certain tax issues that could expire on December 31.

    It may be five and a half months until your 2010 tax return is due, but there are a few things to consider now or at least before the end of the year that could impact your taxes going forward.

    For example, the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire in the next two months if they're not extended and that means everyone will see a tax increase next year. Now, the Obama administration has been considering extending the Bush tax cuts permanently for those who earn less than $250,000. But the Republicans want them extended for everyone.

    So where does that leave us? Basically, if the tax cuts do not get extended, you may want to consider how that change will affect several common investing situations.

    If you're thinking about selling a stock, a business, or even a piece of investment real estate, the current long-term capital gains rate is 15 percent for investments held over twelve months. If the tax cuts expire, that rate goes to 20 percent. That means if you are lucky enough to have an investment with a $100,000 gain, your tax would go from $15,000 to $20,000.

    If you're considering converting a traditional IRA or retirement account to a Roth IRA, the tax implications of this decision could be significant. Remember, all tax brackets are scheduled to increase to a higher tax liability. Many people have considered the Roth conversion principally because when converting in 2010, the investor can spread the tax liability over 2011 and 2012. However, if the Bush tax cuts are not extended, tax rates in those two years will be higher and paying the tax in 2010 would be more beneficial.

    Finally, just being in a higher tax environment has an impact. This holds true for those exercising stock options or cashing in restricted stock. It is also important to consider when deciding to take money out of a qualified retirement plan as a distribution versus taking income from non-qualified taxable assets. The implications also extend to when and how to take deferred compensation income, as this can trigger a high income tax.

    The point is, you only have two months to decide whether to take action based on the assumption that taxes will be higher on January 1.

    There are some tax considerations that may need to be handled before January 1, 2011 or face the possibility of higher taxes next year ...

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      Seniors At Risk In Medicare Enrollment Scams

      Open enrollment period, Nov. 15 - Dec. 31, fraught with pitfalls

      It's not just the holidays that are on the horizon, but the Medicare enrollment season. Medicare's open enrollment is from November 15 to December 31, and scammers are poised to take advantage of it.

      One reason is the new complexity of the process. Because of the new health care law, there will be many more coverage options, requiring choices by current retirees and the first wave of newly eligible baby boomers.

      "It's a complicated year for Medicare beneficiaries," Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a nonprofit group that helps Medicare beneficiaries, told the New York Times recently

      "While Medicare undoubtedly offers Ohioans many beneficial options, we anticipate that this year's enrollment period will bring about a new wave of scams," said Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray. "Scam artists will attempt to use the new healthcare reform law to confuse seniors who are not familiar with the system. So far this year, my office has received more than 60 reports of Medicare-related scams, and we expect the number to climb as the enrollment period approaches."


      If you're on Medicare, you could be the target of a stranger trying to gain access to your personal information. Complaints filed with Cordray's office already describe unsolicited callers requesting personal information such as Social Security numbers and checking account information as well as Medicare ID numbers, which sometimes mirror the policyholder's Social Security number.

      This trend mirrors data collected by Cincinnati-based Pro Seniors Inc., a nonprofit that provides legal guidance to older Ohioans.

      Cordray warns that scammers will also use high-pressure sales tactics and claim that seniors must re-enroll in Medicare in order to claim their benefits. Also, some seniors may hear a sales pitch that offers special, limited-time offers or phony add-on discount prescription drug plans, he said.

      Cordray offers these tips for senior citizens enrolling in Medicare this year:

      • Never provide any personal information over the phone if you are unsure about who is requesting the information.
      • Hang up on callers that pressure you for personal information or request that you enroll in a Medicare product over the phone. It's shrewd to be rude!
      • Always review your quarterly Medicare Summary Notice to determine possible fraud or errors.

      Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray warns seniors that scammers are trying to exploit new complexities in Medicare....

      Getting Rid of Stretch Mark Scams

      Consumers looking for a free trial get trapped in a web of fees.

      It sounds like such a deal! Especially when the company says you can use the entire thingand just send back the empty container.

      Consumers might think they're pulling a fast one on these companies, or they just think they're being smart with their money. But what seems like a simple transaction turns into a nightmarish web of "membership programs" and policy technicalities that ends up costing the consumer way more than a couple of bucks.

      And the problem is, new products spring up every day, snaring well-meaning consumers with the same old shady tactics.

      Take Celtrixa, for example. The lotion is touted as a powerful aid in reducing the appearance of stretch marks.

      A full-size bottle of the lotion costs over a hundred dollars, but consumers who want to try it out can do a "free, 30-day trial." Just pay shipping and handling. What's the harm in that?

      As it turns out, plenty.

      The "fine" print

      Consumers who want to try Celtrixa click the advertisement and are brought to a webpage where they fill in their billing information and credit card number (to pay for the $2 shipping fee).

      Near the "send" button, in regular-sized, black type reads a disclaimer:

      "We'll send you 2 bottles of Celtrixa to try Risk Free for 30 days (a $120 value). If you like your results and want to continue looking younger, you don't have to do anything else. Your credit card will be billed in two payments of $59.95 each, the first payment 30 days after you receive the shipment and the second 30 days later. To ensure you do not run out of Celtrixa and continue getting improved results, you'll receive a new 60-day supply every 2 months after that as a member of our Celtrixa Beauty Program. Your same credit card provided today will be automatically billed $6.95 shipping and processing for each new shipment plus $59.95 every 30 days. All NJ residents will be charged sales tax. If you're not completely satisfied, simply call Celtrixa® at 866-922-9791 and return your bottles within 30 days of receiving your shipment - even if they are empty - for a full refund of your purchase price less any insurance paid and shipping and processing fees. No hassles. No commitment. The Free MiracleBurn Cream is yours to keep as our gift. As a member of our Celtrixa Beauty Program, you are not obligated to continue. Cancel at any time!!! Please note: The Risk Free is for first time customers only. Customer responsible for return postage."

      Did you read all that? If you're like most people, no.

      So let's break it down, shall we?

      "We'll send you 2 bottles of Celtrixa to try Risk Free for 30 days (a $120 value)."

      Okay, great. So far, so good.

      "If you like your results and want to continue looking younger, you don't have to do anything else. Your credit card will be billed in two payments of $59.95 each, the first payment 30 days after you receive the shipment and the second 30 days later."

      This is where it gets a little sticky.  See, the trial is free, but the lotion is not. So, if you keep it, you have to pay $120 for it.

      Consumers who actually read this far might think, "Whatever. I'll just return it before the 30-day trial is up."  But we'll discuss the 30-day trial in a minute. Moving on...

      "To ensure you do not run out of Celtrixa and continue getting improved results, you'll receive a new 60-day supply every 2 months after that as a member of our Celtrixa Beauty Program. Your same credit card provided today will be automatically billed $6.95 shipping and processing for each new shipment plus $59.95 every 30 days."

      Did you catch that? If you keep the free trial bottle of lotion, you are enrolled in their "beauty program" and are billed $60 to $67 every month and receive a bottle of lotion every other month.

      "All NJ residents will be charged sales tax."

      Those Garden Staters. Just can't catch a break, can they?

      "If you're not completely satisfied, simply call Celtrixa at 866-922-9791 and return your bottles within 30 days of receiving your shipment - even if they are empty - for a full refund of your purchase price less any insurance paid and shipping and processing fees."

      Is this in reference to the lotion received for the "free trial" or any subsequent bottles received? Who knows, since it's not specified.

      "No hassles. No commitment."

      No comment.

      "The Free MiracleBurn Cream is yours to keep as our gift."

      Thank you?

      "As a member of our Celtrixa Beauty Program, you are not obligated to continue."


      "Cancel at any time!!! Please note: The Risk Free is for first time customers only."


      "Customer responsible for return postage."

      Of course.

      The "free 30-day trial"

      Consumers who still feel confident they can avoid ending up in an expensive auto-ship program may still go ahead with the trial.

      After all, you have a whole month to try and then return the product, right?


      The only way to get a totally accurate idea of how the "30 day trial" works is to visit Celtrixa's official website and wade through the very long, very dense "Customer Service" page.

      And even then, they don't say exactly how the trial works. Most troubling, they never say exactly when the 30 day trial starts. Consumers may assume the trial starts once they receive the product in the mail and can, you know, try the product.

      But it turns out, the trial starts the day consumers place their order. 

      The "free trial" days tick off from there.

      According to Celtrixa's website, orders take up to two days to process and ship out. Those two days are included in the "30 day trial."

      Celtrixa's website also states regular shipping time ranges from 10 to 14 days. "Rush" shipping ranges from 7 to 10 days. Those shipping days are included in the "30 day trial."

      That's as many as 16 days before the consumer receives the product in the mail.  Those 16 days are included in the 30 day trial.

      Consumers who want to return the product before the 30 days is up has to figure in how many days it could take for the product to get back to the company, as those shipping days also count towards the trial.

      So say it takes five days for the product to ship back to the company. That leaves the consumer about a week to try out the lotion.

      Of course, the makers of Celtrixa recommend using the lotion for at least two weeks to see any results.

      The "preferred customer beauty program"

      If the product is not returned within the 30 days, or it gets lost in the mail, the company automatically charges the consumer full price for the trial bottle ($120), then places the consumer in their "preferred customer beauty program."  That's when the whole process gets really messy.

      Most consumers don't even know they've been enrolled into a "program" until they start seeing huge charges on their credit cards and boxes of lotion starts arriving at their door.

      Getting out of the "program" involves calling the company and making a special request. That is, if you can get a human being on the phone.

      Preying on human nature

      Gone are the days of teeny-tiny fine print. Companies like the one selling Celtrixa put the terms and conditions right in front of your face, in regular-sized type.

      But usually, the details are vague, the sentences are densely written, and the whole thing is formatted in such a way that it's unappealing to the eye.

      Perhaps someone hopes consumers will skim the first couple sentences and then be so busy submitting their credit card information, they'll gloss over the important details (which are usually near the end of the disclaimer for this very reason).

      So are these "free trial" deals actually "scams"? Technically, no.  But the companies that offer them have made it so complicated to adhere to the rules of the trial, it's easier to just stay away.

      Getting Rid of Stretch Mark Scams. Consumers looking for a free trial get trapped in a web of fees....

      Next 15 Years Could Be Brutal for Boomers Saving for Retirement

      Study predicts boomers won’t be able to save enough to retire, because market won’t grow that much over next 15 years

      When the Wall Street Journal issues a warning we should listen. The headline read: "Retirement disaster ahead" and it cited a report by John West and Rob Arnott of Research Affiliates, an investment management firm in Newport Beach, California.

      They conclude that many Americans are heading toward a retirement disaster and don't even realize it. They go on to claim that even many of those running big pension funds don't know. To be blunt, and to quote Mr. Arnott, "we're headed for a retirement train wreck and it's going to get really ugly over the next 15 years."

      They use some fairly compelling mathematical formulas to back this up. Consider this. The returns you get from stocks or stock funds are impacted by four things: dividends, earnings growth, inflation and changes in valuation.

      The researchers point out that the dividend yield on U.S. stocks is about 2.2%. Historically, earnings have only grown by a surprisingly low 1% a year in real, inflation-adjusted terms. And the average since 1900 is only about 1.2%, and in the last half century just 0.6%. That's not a lot. Will it get any better? Not likely, especially with the U.S. population getting older and heavily in debt.

      Now, toss in a 2% inflation forecast and Research Affiliates forecasts a long-term return of 5.2%. As for any changes in valuation, some generations are lucky. They invest in the stock market when it's depressed and shares are cheap in relation to earnings. This was the case in the 1930s and the 1970s. Then they retire and cash out when the market is booming and shares are expensive in relation to earnings-such as in the 1960s and 1990s.

      But today, with boomers already entering their retirement years, they're not going to do as well. The stock market's latest rally has lifted shares already to pretty high levels in relation to what are called average cyclically-adjusted earnings.

      This is the well known "Shiller Price to Earnings index" named after Yale professor Robert Shiller and has been a good indicator of market value. Right now it's at about 22 or well above its historic average of 16. And the only time the market has boomed from these levels, was in the late 1990s bubble, a situation no one expects to be repeated in the next decade.

      Bonds? Even worse

      As for bonds, thanks to the recent boom, the picture for investors looks even worse. And there is less wiggle room because bond coupons and the repayment of principal are fixed. Based on the yields of prices across all investment grade bonds, Mr. West and Mr. Arnott calculate that the likely long-term bond returns will be about 2.5%.

      So a typical conservative investor with 60% of his portfolio in stocks and 40% in bonds can expect a weighted average return of only about 4.1%. When you strip out 2% inflation that means investors can only expect about 2.1%. What does this mean? Someone who saves $10,000 a year for 30 years and averages a 2.5% return will wind up with $420,000. That could last a few years. But probably not 20 or 30 years which is the length of time you could live in retirement.

      Now, how many Americans have socked away $420,000 for retirement? Not very many, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, or EBRI. Earlier this year EBRI released a devastating report that said one out of every three working Americans do not have any retirement savings beyond Social Security.

      The report also said that 35% of those over 65 rely almost totally on Social Security alone. But the real scare came when EBRI added that of the remaining two-thirds of working Americans who have some retirement savings was that half have saved only $2,000 or less.

      With tens of millions of baby boomers entering retirement over the next 15 years, the scenario could look like something out of a "Mad Max" movie. The consequences of so many people forced to live on a couple thousand dollars a month from Social Security will turn this country into a third world nation.

      Meanwhile, businesses continue to sit on more than $1 trillion in cash that could be used to create jobs but instead of using it they're keeping the cash on the sidelines because they too are worried about the future. Unemployment continues to stay at levels not seen since the Great Depression and no one in any position of authority appears to be doing anything about it.

      Scared yet? Happy Halloween.

      Halloween is just around the corner so here’s a scary image: tens of millions of baby boomers walking around like zombies looking for work unable to reti...

      Court Stops Alleged Timeshare Resale Scam

      Scammers took advantage of consumers by promising they had buyers lined up

      A federal court has put a stop to a telemarketing operation that allegedly scammed millions of dollars from property owners hoping to sell their timeshares.

      The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) claimed the ring, operating out of South Florida, conned consumers by promising that they had buyers lined up and waiting. Only after making a hefty up-front payment did the consumers learn that there were no buyers. The victims found it nearly impossible to get their money back from the defendants, many of whom have long criminal histories.

      "When cash-strapped consumers are trying to sell their property, the last thing they need is to lose thousands of dollars to scam artists who promise a quick sale, but then provide no services at all," said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

      Timeshare owners under pressure

      The case is part of an FTC effort to crack down on con artists who use fraud and deception to take advantage of consumers hit hard by the recent economic downturn.

      Many of the defrauded consumers needed to sell their timeshares to help pay their living expenses. According to the FTC, the number of complaints related to fraudulent timeshare resales has more than tripled over the past three years, as more consumers have attempted to sell their timeshares.

      In this case, the defendants allegedly defrauded consumers nationwide out of millions of dollars before being shuttered by the court. They also are well known to the South Florida Better Business Bureau (BBB) which, together with the FTC and the Florida Attorney General's Office, has received hundreds of complaints from consumers about their conduct. The BBB has given the firm, Timeshare Mega Media and Marketing Group, an F rating, the lowest rating it can give a business.

      Money upfront

      According to the FTC's complaint, Timeshare Mega Media, two related companies, and six individuals used a telemarketing boiler room in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. They told timeshare owners who were attempting to sell their units that a buyer was lined up and a deal had been negotiated on their behalf, but that before the sale could be completed, consumers would have to pay an up-front fee, usually $1,996, by credit card.

      The FTC's complaint charges that Timeshare Mega Media's representatives typically claimed the fee was for sale-related costs, such as realtor fees, closing costs, title searches, or document processing. They also told consumers that this fee would be refunded at closing.

      In some cases, if a consumer owned an expensive timeshare, the fee could be more than $1,996, ranging up to 10 percent of the asking price. Consumers also were told that their timeshare sales would close quickly, often in as few as 30 days.

      Misleading claims

      The FTC maintains that, after the consumers paid the fee, they were told to expect a contract from Timeshare Mega Media. What they received turned out to be a contract to market and advertise their timeshare, and not a sales contract. Many consumers signed and returned the contract thinking it was a sales contract.

      Those who questioned its validity were given the run-around by the company and falsely told that a sales contract would follow. In fact, according to the agency, the company never had any timeshare buyers lined up. When consumers discovered this and demanded their money back, they found it nearly impossible to get a refund, or even get a call back.

      The FTC's complaint was filed against Timeshare Mega Media and Marketing Group, Inc., also doing business as (d/b/a) Timeshare Market Pro, Inc.; Timeshare Market Pro, Inc.; Tapia Consulting, Inc.; Joseph Crapella, also known as Joseph John Philbin; Pasquale Pappalardo; Lisa Tumminia Pappalardo; Pasqualino Agovino; Louis Tobias Duany; and Patricia A. Walker.

      In filing the complaint, the FTC is seeking a permanent halt to the defendants' allegedly illegal conduct and to provide money back to consumers who were harmed by their violations of the FTC Act and Telemarketing Sales Rule.

      Court Stops Timeshare Resale Fraudsters Scammers took advantage of consumers by promising they had buyers lined up ...

      Investors Seeking High Returns Face Forex Scam Risk

      Forex fraud is growing as foreign exchange brokers find new ways to bilk people out of their money

      Famed bank robber Willie Sutton is often quoted as saying he targeted banks because that's where the money was. Well, today, unscrupulous brokers are following in Willie's footsteps by focusing on the growing $1.5 trillion foreign exchange (Forex) market for the same reason. It's about 50 times bigger than the stock market.

      As investors become disillusioned by the poor returns from stocks and other securities, more and more are turning to the Forex market where currency values rise and fall in the blink of an eye, and the lure of easy money becomes too hard to resist.

      Scams in the forex market are typically committed by brokers who make promises of guaranteed high returns and quick turnarounds. And it's becoming a global problem.

      Federal officials charged a pair of Boston-area currency traders this week with scamming investors out of more than $30 million. Meanwhile, nine lenders in Asia, including the Bank of East Asia and the so-called "Big Four" mainland banks, have been fined for illegal foreign exchange transactions.

      The case in Boston alleges the two founders of the Boston Trading and Research Company, LLC had raised $40 million from 750 investors, but then used the money on operating expenses, luxury SUVs and entertainment, including a Florida home. The money was meant to be invested in a foreign currency trading venture, which allegedly promised customers it would put a cap on any losses. Instead, trades had actually lost 90% of the customers' money.

      That's just one way forex brokers cheat traders. The situation in Asia involves large banks and is still unfolding. But it appears the banks being investigated allegedly breached a number of banking rules, but authorities were not giving out details. Apparently the investigation has been going on for nine months and involved 197 cases totaling more than $7.34 billion.

      Aggressive marketing

      The primary tool being used today by forex brokers is some very aggressive and misleading marketing. It's designed to lure investors with promotional offers on the Internet, television and in newspapers. The victims are usually new to the forex market and don't understand the complexities.

      Author's message: Remember investing rule number one. If you don't understand how an investment works don't invest in it.

      Many forex scammers will claim to offer you a hot new currency trading strategy that has "no financial risk" and is designed to "beat the market." That should trigger an alarm bell. If it has no risk, then it doesn't exist. It's a fraud. All financial transactions have a certain amount of risk.

      So who's watching out for these crooks? There are government agencies set up to regulate Forex brokers such as the National Futures Association (NFA) or the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).

      If you're still game to play in this highly volatile market, you can check to make sure a forex broker is actually registered with the NFA or the CFTC because even the phony ones will claim to be registered when they're actually not.

      Another way to weed out the thieves is to go through the various contract terms and conditions that are proposed to you. Some forex brokers will offer a guarantee of large returns on your investment. If the word "guarantee" pops up in the conversation get as far away from these thieves as possible.

      The $1.5 trillion Forex Market has become the latest target for thieves so if you’re not a currency trading expert maybe you should leave this to the pro...

      Verizon Pays Up To Settle ‘Mystery Charges’

      Will pay fine and offer refunds to current and former customers

      Verizon is writing a very big check.

      In a Federal Communications Commission consent decree, the telecommunications giant was fined a record $25 million and agreed to refund $52.8 million to customers who found small "mystery charges" on their wireless bills.

      The federal regulator found that Verizon may have overcharged as many as 15 million wireless customers for its pay-as-you-go data plans. The extra charges were the result of unauthorized data transfers from applications.

      "Verizon Wireless works very hard to simplify the wireless experience for customers and to ensure that customer bills are accurate," the company said in a statement. "Nonetheless, internal billing processes can be complex and, in this case, we made inadvertent billing mistakes. We accept responsibility for those errors, and apologize to our customers who received accidental data charges on their bills."

      10-month investigation

      The agreement wraps up a nearly year-long probe into a series of $1.99 per megabyte charges that showed up on bills of Verizon customers who had not subscribed to a data plan. The FCC began looking into the matter in response to consumer complaints.

      "Today's settlement requires Verizon Wireless to make meaningful business reforms, prevent future overcharges, and provide consumers clear, easy-to-understand information about their choices," said Michele Ellison, chief of the FCC's enforcement bureau.

      Verizon said it is issuing credits and refunds on its own initiative and "because it is the right thing to do for our customers."

      "Fixing this for our customers has been our aim since last year, as we stated publicly at that time," the company said.

      Verizon had previously announced that it would reimburse about 15 million current and former customers who may have been mistakenly billed. It said it would also will provide targeted information about data usage and tracking to new and existing customers, in both English and Spanish; establish a special internal team to track, identify and address customer data usage complaints; and provide additional training on data charge and credit issues to all of our customer-facing customer care employees.

      Who gets a refund?

      Who is eligible for a refund? Verizon wireless customers who do not have data plans and who pay for data usage on a per megabyte basis. Verizon said it is currently notifying eligible current and former customers that it is applying credits to their accounts or sending refunds in October and November.

      Current customers will be notified in upcoming bills; former customers will receive a letter and refund check in the mail.

      Verizon Wireless will pay a record fine and make refunds to clear up complaints about 'mystery charges' appearing on consumers' bills....

      The Pitfalls Of Prepaid Credit Cards

      Many come with huge fees

      In theory, it's a sensible idea for someone who can't qualify for a credit card, and who is trying to rebuild their credit. But many consumers who receive prepaid credit cards find the theory simply doesn't hold up in practice.

      A prepaid credit card looks like and works just like a regular credit or debt card, but there is one very big difference. Instead of borrowing the money from the credit card company when you make a purchase, you are actually using your own money.

      When a consumer obtains a prepaid card, they send the company the amount they want the card to be worth. For example, if you send in $500, your credit card has $500 worth of purchasing power. At least, theoretically.

      With a regular credit card, you are using the bank's money. The bank covers your purchase and sends you a monthly bill for all your purchases. You either pay it off, in which case there is no interest. If you pay on time, there is no fee.

      Reasonable terms?

      Since you are using your own money on a prepaid card, it stands to reason that the terms would be at least as favorable as a regular credit card, if not more so. But it doesn't work out that way.

      Let's return to the example of the consumer who sent $500 for a prepaid card. In fact, they have less than $500 to spend because the credit card company immediately starts collecting fees.

      Bevon, of Miramar, Fla., activated her AccountNow prepaid card in June and added $75 to it.

      "I first used it at a Citgo gas station to purchase $10 in gasoline," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I then proceeded to use it at a department store but unsuccessfully. I then called the customer service department only to find out that they took $9.95 for maintenance fee and I won't be able to use the card until the gas station transaction is cleared."

      Mounting fees

      Despite the fact that it was Bevon's own money, the bank froze the amount on her card until the $10 gas charge cleared. By then, the fees were adding up.

      "My Balance is now $39.00 and I have only used it for a $10 transaction," she said.

      One nice feature about a prepaid credit card is you can't spend more than the money on your card. If the purchase will put you over the limit, your card will be declined at the point of sale. But that doesn't mean that you can't end up owing the bank money, something that should be theoretically impossible with a prepaid card.

      "I got a First National Bank of Marin secured credit card about nine years ago," Jason, of Wichita, Kan., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I put $50 on it and spent $21 before calling them and telling them to cancel it. The next thing I know I get a bill for $379.49."

      After paying it, Jason through he was finished with FNBM. But he was wrong.

      "Two years later I'm getting a bill for $573," he said. "I called them and they said since I didn't cut up the card and send it to them I was still being charged."

      Ways to save on fees

      In spite of all the fee-laden cards, a careful, savvy consumer can actually find prepaid cards with more reasonable fees. There are ways to save on fees too. Avoiding ATMs and selecting the "credit" option instead of the "debit" option when making a purchase saves money.

      For that reason, and perhaps because of rising anger at big banks, a recent Mintel business survey found that 25 percent of households earning more than $100K per year -- the more profitable and desirable customers for banks -- agreed that they would be interested in using prepaid cards. Their main motivation is to avoid overdraft and/or other types of banking fees.

      It's hard not to believe that prepaid credit card issuers sock users with huge fees because, up until now, most of the users have been those with little credit and few financial options. They charge them big fees because they can.

      If more financially savvy consumers begin increasing their use of prepaid cards, figuring out ways to avoid the fees, it will be interesting to see if prepaid credit card companies find new ways to levy big fees.

      A prepaid credit card should be a great thing. For most consumers, it isn't....

      BPA Linked To Low Sperm Count

      The controversial chemical found in many common plastics can harm male fertility

      Men concerned about their sperm count should steer clear of Bisphenol-A, or BPA, a chemical created in the production of polycarbonated plastics and epoxy resins found in baby bottles, plastic containers, the linings of cans used for food and beverages, and in dental sealants.

      A five-year study conducted by Kaiser Permanente concluded that high exposure to BPA was significantly associated with decreased sperm concentration, decreased total sperm count, decreased sperm vitality and decreased sperm motility.

      The study, which appears in the Journal ofFertility and Sterility, recruited 514 workers in factories in China and compared workers who had high urine BPA levels with those with low urine BPA.

      Men with higher urine BPA levels had 2-4 times the risk of having poor semen quality, including low sperm concentration, low sperm vitality and motility.

      Previous studies

      Previous studies of BPA and sperm counts found a detrimental association between BPA and male reproductive systems in mice and rats, but this is the first study to report an adverse association between BPA and semen quality in humans.

      This study is the third in a series, published by Dr. Li and his colleagues, that examines the effect of BPA in humans.

      The first study, published in November 2009 in the Oxford Journals Human Reproduction, found that exposure to high levels of BPA in the workplace increases the risk of reduced sexual function in men.

      The second study, published in May 2010 in the Journal of Andrology, found that increasing BPA levels in urine are associated with worsening male sexual function.

      Funded by the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, this new study adds to emerging human evidence questioning the safety of BPA.

      "Compared with men without detectable urine BPA, those with detectable urine BPA had more than three times the risk of lowered sperm concentration and lower sperm vitality, more than four times the risk of a lower sperm count, and more than twice the risk of lower sperm motility," said the study's lead author. De-Kun Li, MD, PhD, a reproductive and perinatal epidemiologist at Kaiser Permanente's Division of Research in Oakland, Calif.

      He added that urine BPA was not associated with semen volume or abnormal sperm morphology.

      "Similar dose-response associations were observed among participants with only environmental BPA exposure at levels comparable to men in the general United States population," said Li.

      Despite a markedly reduced sample size in this group of men exposed only to low environmental BPA sources, the inverse correlation between increased urine BPA level and decreased sperm concentration and total sperm count remain statistically significant, the researchers explained.

      "The consistency of the findings between the current and the previous two studies, despite different exposure measurements (urine BPA levels vs. BPA exposure in the workplace) and end points (semen quality vs. sexual function), strengthens the validity of these findings," said Dr. Li. "The finding of the adverse BPA effect on semen quality illustrates two points: first, exposure to BPA now has been linked to changes in semen quality, an objective physiological measure. Second, this association shows BPA potential potency: it could lead to pathological changes of the male reproductive system in addition to the changes of sexual function."

      Highly suspect

      The researchers explained that BPA is believed by some to be a highly suspect human endocrine disrupter, likely affecting both male and female reproductive systems. This new epidemiological study of BPA's effects on the male reproductive system provides evidence that has been lacking as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and various other U.S. government panels have explored this controversial topic.

      These findings, Dr. Li also points out, may portend adverse BPA effects beyond the male reproductive system. Semen quality and malesexual dysfunction could be more sensitive early indicators for adverse BPA effects than other disease endpoints that are more difficult to study, such as cancer or metabolic diseases.

      For this study, workers in participating factories with and without BPA exposure in the workplace were identified and deemed eligible for the study. Among 888 eligible workers, 514 (58 percent) agreed to participate in the study. Of them, 218 participants provided both urine and semen specimens and were included in the final analyses.

      Through an in-person interview, participants provided information on demographic characteristics; potential risk factors that may influence semen quality including smoking, alcohol use, chronic diseases, history of sub-fertility, exposure to other chemicals and heavy metals; and recent exposure to heat sources such as a steam bath, as well as occupational history.

      BPA Linked To Low Sperm CountThe controversial chemical found in many common plastics can harm male fertility...

      Eating Healthy: Should Food Really Be Treated As Medicine?

      Will you need a prescription the next time you go grocery shopping?

      Eating healthy foods has always made sense. But do you really want to trust that cookie to prevent a heart attack? Well, that's what companies like Nestle and other giant food conglomerates are hoping. 

      In fact, Nestle, which just happens to be the largest food company in the world, has created the Nestle Science S.A. and the Nestle Institute of Health Science to find cost effective ways to prevent and treat acute and chronic diseases.

      Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been investigating food companies that claim their foods are as good as drugs when it comes to treating or preventing certain illnesses like diabetes, or cardiovascular disease, even Alzheimer's.

      Nestle says it's still going ahead with developing foods designed to prevent and treat such health conditions and plans to market them as medicine.

      This is giving the FDA acid reflux. 

      Last month the FDA sued a pomegranate juice marketer for pushing something called POM Wonderful. It's marketed by the billionaire couple that also sells Fiji Water. The FDA sued over what it called deceptive advertising by claiming POM juice will treat or prevent heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction. Hmmm. No wonder it's hard to find.

      The company's limp (pardon the pun) defense? Freedom of speech. While not actually calling POM medicine, it makes scientific claims such as "new research offers further proof of the health-healthy benefits of POM Wonderful juice." Or POM leads to "a 30% decrease in arterial plaque." Ads promise that POM would help consumers "cheat death," by drinking "health in a bottle." 

      The FTC says such claims are "false and unsubstantiated" to which POM responded by saying POM is a food not a drug and that all we do is share the results of published scientific research and make clear that these studies, while promising, are also preliminary.

      Companies like Nestle, Kraft, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Kellogg, and General Mills have also been known to take advantage of the often misunderstood regulations allowing food to be marketed as medicine with seemingly exaggerated health claims. This could soon change and the FDA has increased its enforcement somewhat. The problem remains an absence of federal laws, regulations, and enforcement policies prohibiting such claims.

      Meanwhile, what about those so-called functional foods? We're talking about power bars, and Gatorade, now known just "G." This is a $27 billion market and that it's growing 4% a year. The category could ultimately make up a fifth of the entire food market, according to Price Waterhouse. But then they don't make outrageous claims either.

      Did anyone ever get sued for promising that if you ate an apple a day you'd keep the doctor away?

      The bridge between big food and big pharma has been built and the FDA isn’t happy about it...

      College Tuition Continues to Climb with Public College Costs Rising More Than Private Schools

      In-state public college tuitions are expected to rise an average 7.9% this school year, while private college costs are rising only 4.5%

      Here's a no-brainer. College costs are going up again this year, just like they do every year. What may be different however, is that the cost of going to an in-state public college or university is going up nearly twice as fast as the cost of going to a private school.

      According to a study released by the not-for-profit organization, the College Board, the average increase for in-state tuition for the 2010-2011 school year is nearly eight percent (7.9%) while private school tuition is only up 4.5%. The College Board is the same group that administers the SATs in case you were wondering.

      There was a bit of silver lining in the College Board report. There have been record increases in federal grant aid in the form of Pell Grants and tax credits.

      The study titled Trends in Student Aid 2010 and Trends in College Pricing 2010 reports that despite rising prices, the average net prices after considering grant aid and tax benefits have increased more slowly than the Consumer Price Index over the past five years.

      The average price of tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year institutions is $7,605 in 2010-11, a jump of $555 from the previous year. At private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities, the average price is $27,293, which represents an increase of 4.5 percent, or $1,164. Published tuition and fees at public two-year colleges increased by $155 (6.0 percent) to $2,713 and for-profit institutions charge an average of $13,935, $679 (5.1 percent) more in 2010-11 than the year before.

      Increases in grant aid and tax credits don't benefit all students, but they are providing a financial boost for millions of families and students. The largest increase in Pell Grant history led to $28.2 billion in grant aid reaching 7.7 million students in the 2009-10 school year. That was an increase of almost $10 billion from 2008-09. Grant aid from colleges and universities is also growing, and many students continue to rely on grants from states and private sources.

      The College Board is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1900 to expand access to higher education. Today, the membership association is made up of more than 5,700 of the nation's leading educational institutions and is dedicated to promoting excellence and equity in education. Each year, the College Board helps more than seven million students prepare for a successful transition to college through programs and services in college readiness and college success — including the SATs and the Advanced Placement Program. The organization also serves the education community through research and advocacy on behalf of students, educators and schools.

      It’s going to cost you more to send your children to state colleges this year, but there is a record increase in federal aid to offset the increase...

      Glucosamine May Kill Pancreatic Cells

      Heavy use of dietary supplement may increase diabetes risk, researchers warn

      High doses or prolonged use of glucosamine causes the death of pancreatic cells and could increase the risk of developing diabetes, according to a team of Canadian researchers at Université Laval's Faculty of Pharmacy.

      Details of this discovery were recently published on the website of theJournal of Endocrinology.

      Glucosamine, naturally abundant in shellfish, has long been used to treat joint pain. It is one of the most widely non-vitamin, non-mineral dietary supplements used by U.S. consumers.

      But in recent years studies have cast doubt on its usefulness. A 2009 study presented at the American College of Rheumatology Annual Scientific Meeting in Philadelphia suggested glucosamine provides little help.

      Previous studies

      Prior studies of glucosamine and its role in the prevention of joint damage in knee osteoarthritis, as assessed by X-ray, have produced conflicting results.

      The pancreatic tests conducted by Frédéric Picard and his team revealed that glucosamine exposure causes a significant increase in mortality in insulin-producing pancreatic cells, a phenomenon tied to the development of diabetes. Cell death rate increases with glucosamine dose and exposure time.

      "In our experiments, we used doses five to ten times higher than that recommended by most manufacturers, or 1,500 mg/day," Picard said. "Previous studies showed that a significant proportion of glucosamine users up the dose hoping to increase the effects," he said.

      Potentially harmful effects

      Picard and his team maintain that glucosamine triggers a mechanism intended to lower very high blood sugar levels. However, this reaction negatively affects SIRT1, a protein critical to cell survival. A high concentration of glucosamine diminishes the level of SIRT1, leading to cell death in the tissues where this protein is abundant, such as the pancreas.

      Individuals who use large amounts of glucosamine, those who consume it for long periods, and those with little SIRT1 in their cells are therefore believed to be at greater risk of developing diabetes.

      In a number of mammal species, SIRT1 level diminishes with age. This phenomenon has not been shown in humans but if it were the case, the elderly—who constitute the target market for glucosamine—would be even more vulnerable.

      "The key point of our work is that glucosamine can have effects that are far from harmless and should be used with great caution," Picard said.

      The popular dietary supplement glucosamine may have potentially harmful effects, according to Canadian researchers....

      Study Claims Beverages Have Too Much Sweetener

      Industry says researchers misinterpreted data

      Health researchers have sharpened their focus on beverages as a contributor to the rising obesity rate, with a new study now suggesting the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) used to sweeten most popular beverages is delivering a megadose of fructose, far higher than previously thought.

      Researchers at the Childhood Obesity Research Center at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine analyzed the sugar profiles of 23 popular sodas and discovered what they call surprising information about the amount of fructose in the drinks. 

      Contrary to prevailing assumptions, the findings show that the HFCS, a mixture of glucose and fructose produced from corn, in popular sodas may be as high as 65 percent fructose, nearly 20 percent higher than commonly assumed.

      "The elevated fructose levels in the sodas most Americans drink are of particular concern because of the negative effects fructose has on the body," said study author Dr. Michael Goran. "Unlike glucose, over consumption of fructose is directly responsible for a broad spectrum of negative health effects."

      Industry responds

      Fructose makers immediately challenged the findings, saying the study failed to use standard analytical procedures to measure the content of sugars present.

      "Consumers should know that fructose is safe.  It exists in higher levels in pear juice concentrate than what these researchers claim to have found in their study," saidAudrae Erickson, President of the Corn Refiners Association. "Fructose is commonly found in many fruits and vegetables, as well as honey, maple syrup, processed sugars, and high fructose corn syrup or corn sugar."

      The group said it would be "premature to draw conclusions from this paper."

      The researchers, however, said the weight gain caused by sugary sodas can dramatically increase the risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But Goran maintains that, because the body processes fructose differently than glucose, consuming large amounts of fructose greatly exacerbates the risk for those diseases by also causing fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, increased triglyceride levels and an acute rise in blood pressure. 

      Nearly a gallon of soda per week

      According to the study, the average American drinks over 50 gallons of soda a year, ingesting about 34 pounds of sugar. Over the past 30 years, the jump in consumption of soda accounts for 43 percent of the per capita increase in daily caloric intake, making it the prime driver behind the obesity epidemic.

      "Given the huge amount of soda Americans consume, it's important that we have a more exact understanding of what we're drinking, including specific label information on the types of sugars. The lack of information -- or perhaps even misinformation -- we have had about the fructose levels in HFCS-sweetened beverages means that soda drinkers may be gambling with their health even more than we have previously thought," said Dr. Harold Goldstein of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

      Health researchers in California say their analysis of popular beverages shows they contain a lot more high fructose corn syrup than previously thought....

      Breast Milk Gets Babies Out Of The NICU Faster

      Study shows sick newborns benefit from eating even the smallest amount of breast milk

      Over the years, doctors, nurses and new mothers have learned how beneficial breastfeeding is for new babies. But many people may not realize how powerful mother's milk is, especially when it comes to strengthening the bodies of very sick newborns.

      Pediatric researchers at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia presented findings from a continuous quality improvement (CQI) project in which nurses helped mothers attain high rates of breast-feeding in very sick babies -- newborns with complex birth defects requiring surgery and intensive care.

      Many of these highly vulnerable newborns immediately experience a paradoxical situation. Their mother's milk helps to fend off infection and provides easily digestible, nutritious ingredients that can reduce the infant's stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

      But because the babies are often in critical condition, breast-feeding may not be considered a priority, or even be feasible, when compared to urgent medical problems.

      "Human milk is important for all newborns, but especially for sick infants," said project mentor Diane L. Spatz, Ph.D., R.N.-B.C., nurse researcher, of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

      Breast milk protects an infant in the NICU from necrotizing enterocolitis -- a devastating disease of the bowel -- and from a host of infectious diseases.

      Spatz and co-author Taryn M. Edwards, B.S.N., R.N.-B.C., also of Children's Hospital, tracked 80 newborns in the Children's Hospital NICU during 2008 and 2009. All were born with complex surgical anomalies, such as abdominal wall defects, abnormalities in the esophagus, or congenital diaphragmatic hernia (a defect in the diaphragm, the muscle separating the chest cavity from the abdomen).

      Of the 80 infants in the study, 58 were eating from their mother's breast before being discharged from the hospital because of a system called the Transition to Breast Pathway.

      The step-wise system, led by NICU nurses, teach new mothers how to pump their breast milk, then how to best feed it to their very ill infants. In some cases, babies started out by being fed a few drops of breast milk on the end of a pacifier or cotton swab.

      New moms also learned the benefits of skin-to-skin contact with their newborns, as it reduces stress for both mother and child, increases milk supply, and nurtures the all-important mother-infant bond.

      "This CQI project demonstrates that even the most vulnerable infants can transition to at-breast feeds prior to discharge," said Spatz. "This pathway can be replicated in intensive-care nurseries throughout the world, allowing infants to achieve improved health outcomes, and their mothers to have the opportunity to follow the natural path of bonding that breastfeeding allows for."

      The study appears in the July/September 2010 issue of the Journal of Perinatal & Neonatal Nursing.

      Maybe someone should photocopy it and send it to the folks at the IRS.

      On Monday, they announced nursing mothers were not allowed to use their tax-sheltered health care accounts to pay for breast-feeding supplies, like pumps and bottles, because breast-feeding "does not have enough health benefits to qualify as a form of medical care."

      While nursing mothers weren't allowed a tax break on pumping supplies (which can run anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a year) under old regulations, it's amazing that, despite the ever-growing body of evidence proving the preventative care benefits of breast milk for babies, the IRS refuses to budge.

      But fear not: people with allergies will be able to write off any expenses incurred from ripping out the grass in their yards and replacing it with artificial turf.

      Because plastic grass has enough health benefits to qualify as a form for medical care.

      Breast Milk Gets Babies Out Of The NICU Faster Study shows sick newborns benefit from eating even the smallest amount of breast milk...

      Walmart.com Moves In On Groupon

      Giant retailer launches CrowdSaver, which unlocks discounts once enough customers opt in

      Look out, Groupon! Walmart.com is muscling into your space.

      The retail giant says it's launching a deals app called CrowdSaver. It unlocks an online-only discount once enough consumers opt in, similar to the group deals Groupon has popularized.

      Walmart said it took less than 24 hours from the time it launched CrowdSaver until it hit the deal threshold of 5,000 "likes," which triggered a discount of 18 percent off a $500 plasma TV with wall mount.

      Crowdsaver puts "you in charge of lower prices. If the deal gets enough likes, the price drops for everyone," said a posting on Walmart's Facebook page. The company didn't announce the program through its regular p.r. Channels, instead rolling it out on Facebook.

      Walmart explained the program this way on its Facebook page: " If the deal gets enough Likes, the price drops for everyone. Our first deal is the Element 42" Plasma TV with Wall Mount. Get it for $398 instead of $488. Only fans get to vote, so rally your friends to Like it too!"

      Be sure to read the fine print, which says: "The CrowdSaver price is only available if the required number of 'like' votes is met. This threshold of required votes may vary for each CrowdSaver item. Each customer may only vote to 'like' an item once. CrowdSaver prices are only available at Walmart.com. Each customer may purchase only one item at the CrowdSaver price while supplies last. The price is available until we sell out of the item online."

      Groupon, a Chicago-based start-up, has grown exponentially with its model, which is a local version of CrowedSaver.

      Groupon triggers discounts and coupons for local businesses once a pre-determined number of people commit to an offer. Once that number is reached, customers pay upfront, print a coupon and redeem it when they're ready.

      Groupon has been quietly experimenting on national, CrowdSaver-style, deals as well. In August, consumers spent $11 million to buy Gap coupons.

      Walmart.com Moves In On Groupon. Giant retailer launches CrowdSaver, which unlocks discounts once enough customers opt in....

      How Would You Like Washington to Buy Your Children a Computer?

      Well, you’ve got about two months to take advantage of something that will allow that to happen

      There are plenty of great deals on computers these days but nothing beats free. How would you like to buy your kids a new computer, compliments of Uncle Sam? Well you can, sort of. You just have to act soon.

      There are two tax incentives that allow you to buy a computer with money from tax-favored 529 accounts and Cloverdell education savings accounts or ESAs. But both are going to expire December 31.

      529 Plans are set up for college students and ESAs are for students from kindergarten through grad school.

      Writing for Forbes magazine, Ashlea Eberling says that what 529s and ESAs have in common is that the money you put in them grows tax-free, and withdrawals aren't taxed if used for educational expenses. Therefore, you can take money out of these tax-favored accounts to buy any computer, or educational software with the exception of games.

      For 529s, the computer provision came in as part of President Obama's early stimulus and is good for 2009 and 2010 only. For ESAs, the computer provision came in as part of the 2001 Bush tax cuts package, set to expire December. 31.

      The caveat is that you have to have enough money in these accounts to have grown in value the amount you're going to pay for a computer. Even if it doesn't cover the entire cost, it's kind of like buying a computer on sale which is better than nothing.

      How often does the government give you a gift like that?

      Two tax incentives are due to expire that would allow you to buy a computer with money in tax-favored accounts...

      Looking for Ways to Reduce Your SmartPhone Bill?

      Just be careful you’re not giving too much away

      You finally broke down and got one of those smart phones and were feeling pretty good about it too until you opened your first bill. Ouch! Bill shock. All those apps use a lot of data and that data cost money.

      Well, the phone companies aren't stupid, so it appears that in order to stem customer outrage and attract new customers who didn't want to pay much to begin with, they're about to introduce some lower priced data plans this week. AT&T already announced it was going to offer a reduced data plan.

      Following AT&T's lead, both Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile are expected to unveil new cell phone data plans that offer lower prices if you're willing to give up unlimited data plans. But, wait there's a catch. There usually is. The $15 you save with the reduced plan might not be worth it - and if you switch, there could be no going back.

      The cell phone companies are using these cheaper, limited data plans to attract those buyers who were turned off by the typical $30 monthly data charges they get when they buy a smartphone. In exchange for the lower price, users agree to pay extra if they exceed their limit, which earns more money for the providers.

      This may not be a problem today, but as you increase those apps and use your phone for data-intensive activities like watching videos and getting driving directions, you're more likely to go over the limit. And that's going to cost you even more than the unlimited plan you gave up.

      After hitting T-Mobile's 200 megabyte limit, users would pay more than $10 in extra data charges for every half-hour TV show or every 6.5 hours of a streaming music service.

      So before you ditch your unlimited data plan, here's what you need to know. It takes just two half-hour sitcoms to blow through 200 megabytes - typically the limit on the cheapest tier. If you're streaming music or video for more than four hours a day, you'll exhaust the higher, 2GB limit. And that's not even counting simple tasks like texting, web browsing and e-mail. Video is likely to become a bigger part of regular cell phone use in the near future, as streaming full-length TV shows and movies becomes easier, and new features enable easy video conferencing. .

      Smartphone users who primarily access the web and e-mail have the least to worry about. Those tasks don't use much data, which makes it unlikely you'd reach even the smaller cap.

      Android owners tend to be heavy Google Tools users, using more data by repeatedly synching calendars, documents and other content. One saving grace for consumers: More phones support wireless connections and switch to WiFi automatically when it's available. That's a free connection for people who want to use their phone for video or other intensive features and doesn't affect a data plan. You can find a WiFi icon in your phone's connection status bar, next to the bars indicating your cell phone signal strength.

      If you're looking for ways to keep you cell phone bill from getting out of control, here are a few tips from CBS Moneywatch.

      1. Call Customer Service and ask for a better deal. It costs the companies far less to negotiate with you than to lose you as a customer all together. So cell phone companies have customer retention departments for the purpose of offering you perks, deals and discounts to keep you happy. Mention competitors' deals and that you've been a longtime customer.

      2. Monitor Usage. While the FCC is pushing to force cell phone companies to alert us before we exceed our monthly minutes, it's still our responsibility to pay close attention. Otherwise, going over the allotted minutes in your cell plan can cost anywhere from 40 to 50 cents per minute. Reach out to your cell provider to get alerts either via text or by dialing (both free). Verizon users, for example, can call #MIN and get an update via text message. There are also a growing number of free iPhone apps for AT&T customers - like Cell Minute Tracker that help you track usage and monitor your monthly bill. 

      3. Try Friends & Family Plans. This can include anyone you know - it could be a roommate, a boyfriend, girlfriend, or even an upstairs neighbor. If there's someone you want to pair up with to qualify for the friends and family rate, the savings could be worth it. Just make sure it's someone you trust: One of you will be on the hook for the entire bill. (You can try to get the bill split up, but the policy varies carrier.) What's the payoff? At T-Mobile, an $60-per-month personal plan drops to $50 when you add another line: a $120 annual savings. Verizon and  T-Mobile, meanwhile, have plans that let you add up to five phone numbers that you can connect to free of charge - regardless of the other person's carrier, and even if it's a land line.

      4. Use In-Network or Mobile-to-Mobile Minutes. Ask the people you talk with most who their providers are. If several of them share your carrier - be it AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon - you could get free calls to them if you sign up for an "in-network" minutes plan. This can help avoid running over your minutes each month.

      5. Go Prepaid. Pay-as-you-go phones typically cost 10 cents per minute plus a small daily access fee - say, $1 each day the phone is used. It's like a cell phone with training wheels - and a smart option if you're on a tight budget, or for parents who want to control their kids' cell phone usage. Just make sure whatever plan you choose allows you to rollover any minutes you don't use to the next month.

      With Smartphones taking over the cellphone market, monthly costs went up to pay for all that data; now you can cut those plans but you may not want to...