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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.

Halloween Isn't Just Scary, It Can Be DeadlySimple 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:

COSTUMES:

  • 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.

CANDY:

  • 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.

DECORATIONS

  • 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.
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Toyota Bought Back Defective Vehicles, Lawsuit Says

Consolidated complaint alleges consumers were forced to sign nondisclosure agreements

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."

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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.

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

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.

 

 

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Seniors At Risk In Medicare Enrollment Scams

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

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

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." 

Targets

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.

 

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Getting Rid of Stretch Mark Scams

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

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.

photoTake 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."

What?

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

Huh?

"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?

Wrong.

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.

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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

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...

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.

 

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Court Stops Alleged Timeshare Resale Scam

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

Court Stops Timeshare Resale Fraudsters 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.

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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

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...

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.

 
 

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Verizon Pays Up To Settle ‘Mystery Charges’

Will pay fine and offer refunds to current and former customers

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

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.

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The Pitfalls Of Prepaid Credit Cards

Many come with huge fees

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

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.

 

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BPA Linked To Low Sperm Count

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

BPA Linked To Low Sperm CountThe 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 of Fertility 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.

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Cablevision-Fox Dispute Comes to Legal Blows

Class action lawsuit filed on behalf of annoyed baseball fans

Cablevision-Fox Dispute Comes to Legal Blows Class action lawsuit filed on behalf of annoyed baseball fans...

A group of New Yorkers up in arms over their inability to watch, among other things, the 2010 World Series has taken their grievances to the courts, arguing in a class action lawsuit that they deserve compensation for Cablevision's failure to provide Fox content over the past two weeks.

The suit, filed in federal court in New York, is the result of an ongoing impasse in negotiations over a renewal in Fox's contract with the cable provider. 

Although both sides are pointing fingers at one another, the lawsuit cites News Corp., Fox's parent company, as saying that "Cablevision has rejected numerous proposals from News Corp. to enter into a new agreement, including proposals on the same terms and conditions of other cable providers in the New York metropolitan market."

'An important time'

As a result of the dispute, Cablevision subscribers have been unable to access several Fox-owned channels -- including Fox News, Fox Business, National Geographic Wild, and three local affiliates -- since October 16. Instead, the suit says, consumers have been treated to "Cablevision's annoying and self-serving loop, which whines about News Corp.'s supposed failure to negotiate in good faith."

The suit notes that, "in terms of political, sports and entertainment programming, the service interruption comes at an important time." 

In addition to the World Series, which started on Wednesday, the complaint points out that "customers who are Philadelphia Phillies baseball fans were unable to watch their team compete in the National League Championship Series," and that Giants fans, many of whom are "unable to afford to attend ... games" in person, will miss the many Giants games that are aired on Fox. (Giants fans caught a break on Sunday, when their team defeated the Dallas Cowboys and clinched first place in the NFC East. That game was aired on ESPN.)

The suit also points out that "the Fox Channels ... provide a distinctive viewpoint in the political speech arena, which Cablevision's customers are being deprived of just days before a critical mid-term election."

Various claims

The suit is brought on behalf of three "subclasses:" Cablevision customers who live in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

The plaintiffs are demanding $450 million or potentially more, should the dispute continue for longer than four weeks. According to the suit, Cablevision's three million customers -- who pay an average of $150 per month for cable service -- were promised in their service agreements that they would receive "a credit for each 'known program or service interruption in excess of 24 consecutive hours.'"

They also want "a permanent injunction that enjoins Cablevision in the future from ignoring its contractual deadlines with content providers, and compels it to enter into a dispute resolution mechanism that insures resolution of any such disputes ... so that its customers not be deprived of programming content."

The suit alleges breach of contract, unjust enrichment and consumer fraud.

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Eating Healthy: Should Food Really Be Treated As Medicine?

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

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

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?

 

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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%

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...

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.

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Glucosamine May Kill Pancreatic Cells

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

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

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 the Journal 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.

 

 

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Study Claims Beverages Have Too Much Sweetener

Industry says researchers misinterpreted data

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

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," said Audrae 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.
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Breast Milk Gets Babies Out Of The NICU Faster

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

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.

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Walmart.com Moves In On Groupon

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

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.

photoWalmart 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.

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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

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

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?

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Looking for Ways to Reduce Your SmartPhone Bill?

Just be careful you’re not giving too much away

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...

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.

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Nutrition Basics Help Fight Child Obesity

Reading the label can go a long way toward making sure kids eat properly

Nutrition Basics Help Fight Child ObesityReading the label can go a long way toward making sure kids eat properly...

With childhood obesity on the rise, parents, schools -- even whole communities -- are getting behind the movement to help young people eat healthier.

FDA nutrition expert Shirley Blakely, a registered dietitian and the mother of two grown kids, says healthy eating at home and school begins at the grocery store.

As you head down the supermarket aisle, Blakely says you should zero-in on two things:

  • the Nutrition Facts label -- tells the number of calories and percentage of a day's worth of nutrients in one serving
  • the ingredients on the label of all prepared foods -- lists every ingredient that went into the product, with the predominant ingredient first, the next most prominent second, and so on in descending order

Checking ingredients

Ingredients in prepared foods are listed in descending order of prominence. If the cereal your kids like has some type of grain listed first, that's a good sign. But if fructose, high fructose corn syrup, or sucrose -- in other words, sugar -- is listed first, you'd best leave that item on the store shelf because added sugars are taking the place of other, more nutritious ingredients.

And sugar isn't always an additive. Some foods -- fruits, for example -- are naturally sweet without adding any sugar at all. If you check the Nutrition Facts label on canned or dried fruits that have no added sugar, you'll still see sugars listed. That's because the sugars in pineapple, raisins, prunes, and other fruits occur naturally.

The same is true for fresh apples, bananas, melons, and other items on your grocer's produce aisle, but they don't carry labels because they're completely unprocessed. If you want to know how many calories or nutrients they have, you'll have to look on the Internet or ask in the produce section of your grocery store.

Read the label

Blakely also says parents and kids should pay attention to portion sizes. Her advice: put just one serving on each person's plate. And make sure everyone in the family knows how to use the Nutrition Facts label to guide their food choices. Blakely says there are three things everyone should check when they read the label:

  • Serving size -- one container isn't necessarily one serving; make sure you're eating only one serving by measuring your food and eating it from a plate or bowl instead of out of the container.
  • Percent Daily Value -- tells what percentage of the recommended daily amount of each nutrient is in one serving of a food. Based on the amount of each nutrient recommendation for one day, five percent or less is low; 20 percent or more is high.
  • Nutrients -- try to get 20 percent or more of protein, fiber, and some essential vitamins and minerals (such as vitamin C and calcium) in a single serving; but limit your intake of saturated fats and sodium to five percent or less per serving of food. Strive for 0 trans fat, or trans fatty acids -- this harmful fat raises your bad cholesterol (LDL) and lowers your good cholesterol (HDL).

Some big changes could be in store for the Nutritional Facts Label. ConsumerAffairs.com's Sara Huffman reported recently that the Institute of Medicine is recommending information that is more useful to food shoppers be placed more prominently on packages.

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Parents and Trick-or-Treaters Warned About Halloween Dangers

Pedestrian accidents and recalled candy among biggest risks on Halloween night

Parents and Trick-or-Treaters Warned About Halloween DangersPedestrian accidents and recalled candy among biggest risks on Halloween night...

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

This gruesome holiday is one of the most dangerous nights of the year for pedestrians, according to Consumer Reports, which also points out that two candy manufacturers have issued product recalls recently.

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 are urged to 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. 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 CR. "There are just a few simple steps that parents and trick-or-treaters can take to ensure a happy Halloween!"

The magazine offers the following advice for a Happy Halloween:

Costumes

  • 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.

Candy

  • 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.

Decorations

  • Make sure the front of the house is well lit.
  • Use 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.
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Firesheep Is Latest Headache For Computer Users

Using an unsecured network in a coffee shop just got more more dangerous

A new add-on to the Firefox browser allows anyone on a public network to see what others on the network are doing...

Computer security specialists have issued a warning about Firesheep, a new downloadable add-on to the Firefox browser. If the person in a coffee shop with you has it, they can see exactly what you're doing online.

The feature was reportedly created by a Seattle software developer, whose purpose was to demonstrate how vulnerable unsecured networks are. Unfortunately, he's unleashed a tool that can turn a computer amateur into an accomplished hacker.

With Firesheep, a computer user can log onto a public network, in an airport or coffee shop, and get a list of all the computers that happen to be connected to the network at that moment.

Simply by double-clicking on one of the names, the Firesheep user can access whatever that computer user is doing online. If they are updating their Facebook account, the Firesheep user is also logged in.

Firesheep works by intercepting Internet cookies, which websites place on your computer when you visit so they will recognize you when you return. Professional hackers have had that tool in their arsenal for years. Now, thanks to Firesheep, anybody that as downloaded the add-on can do it.

200,000 downloads and counting

That's the scary part. Over 200,000 people downloaded Firesheep in the first three days, and it's likely to become even more prevalent in the days to come. It's going to make working on an unsecured network a lot more dangerous.

How can you protect yourself? For starters, you can avoid using your computer on public Wi-Fi networks that aren't encrypted. But that makes your computer a lot less useful.

Chet Wisniewski, a senior security advisor at the software security firm Sophos, says the best defense is to employ a Virtual Private Network (VPN) when connecting to Wi-Fi in a public place.

If you work for a large corporation, chances are you are already using a VPN. Many companies provide them for employees to connect to the office network while traveling, as a way to enhance security. It's basically a secure highway to the Internet.

But there are also VPN services available to consumers. There is a cost - as much as $10 a month - but it may be less than the cost of having your computer hijacked while you sip a latte.

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Toyota, Honda Top Consumer Reports Reliability Ratings

But Ford, GM turn in better performances, with Ford closer to edging Lexus

Toyota, Honda Top Consumer Reports Reliability Ratings. But Ford, GM turn in better performances, with Ford closer to edging Lexus...

Toyota and Honda took the blue ribbons in the annual Consumer Reports reliability survey, but Ford and General Motors turned in improved performances from previous years, with Ford taking top honors in the family car segment.

The highest-ranked brand overall was the Scion, a relatively new entrant from Toyota. The Porsche Boxster had the best score of any specific model. The Ford Fusion hybrid and V6 models were the magazine's top family car picks, edging out the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. GM scored well with its Chevrolet Equinox compact sport utility.

Chrysler and many high-priced European brands turned in less than stellar showings. The CR reviewers said the Chrysler brand suffered from an aging lineup while BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi suffered from fuel pump problems and other deficiencies.

The magazine found that 83 percent of Chevrolet models had average or better scores, up from 50 percent last year but Chevy is "still a way from the top," said David Champion, senior director of the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center. He said Ford and GM have taken "different paths to improving reliability."

"Some of GM's redesigned vehicles have scored well. The company has also dropped many of its below-average models. Ford has put its emphasis on fine-tuning existing platforms and limiting the number of new-model introductions," Champion said

The Ford brand now tops Mazda and Nissan, ranking just below Lexus.

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What Makes It Sweet Is What Makes It Toxic

Study finds scented household items contain toxic chemicals not listed on the label

What Makes It Sweet Is What Makes It Toxic Study finds scented household items contain toxic chemicals not listed on the label...

Consumers wanting to rid their homes of toxic chemicals should follow their noses.

A study led by the University of Washington discovered that 25 commonly used scented products (like laundry detergent and air freshener) emit an average of 17 chemicals each. Of the 133 different chemicals detected, nearly a quarter are classified as toxic or hazardous under at least one federal law.

Only one emitted compound was listed on a product label, and only two were publicly disclosed anywhere.

Even so-called "green" products were not "safe." 

"We analyzed best-selling products, and about half of them made some claim about being green, organic or natural," said lead author Anne Steinemann, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and of public affairs. "Surprisingly, the green products' emissions of hazardous chemicals were not significantly different from the other products."

More than a third of the products emitted at least one chemical classified as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and for which the EPA sets no safe exposure level.

Manufacturers are not required to disclose any ingredients in cleaning supplies, air fresheners or laundry products, all of which are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Neither these nor personal care products, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, are required to list ingredients used in fragrances, even though a single "fragrance" in a product can be a mixture of up to several hundred ingredients, Steinemann said.

So Steinemann and colleagues have used chemical sleuthing to discover what is emitted by the scented products commonly used in homes, public spaces and workplaces.

The study analyzed air fresheners including sprays, solids and oils; laundry products including detergents, fabric softeners and dryer sheets; personal care products such as soaps, hand sanitizers, lotions, deodorant and shampoos; and cleaning products including disinfectants, all-purpose sprays and dish detergent. All were widely used brands, with more than half being the top-selling product in its category.

Researchers placed a sample of each product in a closed glass container at room temperature and then analyzed the surrounding air for volatile organic compounds, small molecules that evaporate off a product's surface. They detected chemical concentrations ranging from 100 micrograms per cubic meter (the minimum value reported) to more than 1.6 million micrograms per cubic meter.

The most common emissions included limonene, a compound with a citrus scent; alpha-pinene and beta-pinene, compounds with a pine scent; ethanol; and acetone, a solvent found in nail polish remover.

All products emitted at least one chemical classified as toxic or hazardous. Eleven products emitted at least one probable carcinogen according to the EPA. These included acetaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane, formaldehyde and methylene chloride.

The only chemical listed on any product label was ethanol, and the only additional substance listed on a chemical safety report, known as a material safety data sheet, was 2-butoxyethanol.

"The products emitted more than 420 chemicals, collectively, but virtually none of them were disclosed to consumers, anywhere," Steinemann said.

Because product formulations are confidential, it was impossible to determine whether a chemical came from the product base, the fragrance added to the product, or both.

Tables included with the article list all chemicals emitted by each product and the associated concentrations, although they do not disclose the products' brand names.

"We don't want to give people the impression that if we reported on product 'A' and they buy product 'B,' that they're safe," Steinemann said. "We found potentially hazardous chemicals in all of the fragranced products we tested."

The study establishes the presence of various chemicals but makes no claims about the possible health effects. Two national surveys published by Steinemann and a colleague in 2009 found that about 20 percent of the population reported adverse health effects from air fresheners, and about 10 percent complained of adverse effects from laundry products vented to the outdoors. Among asthmatics, such complaints were roughly twice as common.

The Household Product Labeling Act, currently being reviewed by the U.S. Senate, would require manufacturers to list ingredients in air fresheners, soaps, laundry supplies and other consumer products. Steinemann says she is interested in fragrance mixtures, which are included in the proposed labeling act, because of the potential for unwanted exposure, or what she calls "secondhand scents."

As for what consumers who want to avoid such chemicals should do in the meantime, Steinemann suggests doing what Grandma did: cleaning with vinegar and baking soda and opening windows for ventilation.  And if there's no old-fashioned alternative for the product, find one that's fragrance-free.

"In the past two years, I've received more than 1,000 e-mails, messages, and telephone calls from people saying: 'Thank you for doing this research, these products are making me sick, and now I can start to understand why,'" Steinemann said.

The article is published online today in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review.

Steinemann is currently a visiting professor in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. Co-authors on the study are Ian MacGregor and Sydney Gordon at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio; Lisa Gallagher, Amy Davis and Daniel Ribeiro at the UW; and Lance Wallace, retired from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The research was partially funded by Seattle Public Utilities.

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Mortgage Modifications Slow Even More

September total lowest since 2009

As home foreclosures continue to rise, modifications fall off...

With banks under increased scrutiny for their foreclosure process, one would think a mortgage modification would be an increasingly attractive option. But in September, at least, they were harder to come by.

According to figures supplied by the U.S. Treasury Department, as part of its "Housing Scorecard," only 28,000 homeowners in default were able to secure a permanent loan modification. That's the fewest for any month since the program began in 2009. The government, however, sees the glass as half-full.

"Over the last 21 months, the Obama Administration's swift action in the housing market has kept millions of families in their homes and provided responsible borrowers with incentives to refinance or to become a homeowner," said HUD Assistant Secretary Raphael Bostic. "But, with many unavoidable foreclosures still in the pipeline, it's clear that we have a hard road ahead. That's why we're focused on successfully implementing the programs we've put in place - such as additional assistance on refinancing and helping unemployed homeowners stay in their homes - and ensuring that help is available to homeowners as soon as possible."

Trial modifications fall through

Administration officials say that, since April of 2009, record low interest rates have helped more than 7.1 million homeowners to refinance, resulting in more stable home prices and $12.7 billion in total borrower savings. But while the government points to the 3.52 million modification arrangements started between April 2009 and August 2010, nearly half were "trial" modifications, many of which were later rejected.

 What happens when a trial modification fails to become a permanent modification? Often the homeowner is left is worse condition. In a trial modification, the homeowner makes lower monthly payments for a number of months. If the modification is later denied, they not only owe the difference between their modified payment and their full mortgage payment, but late fees as well. Often, it damages their credit rating.

 Many consumers have complained of a perceived "stonewalling" on the part of the loan servicer when they attempted to secure a modification.

 "They took 18 months of 'back and forth' on my HAMP application and never wound up submitting it," Joan, of South Hamilton, Mass., complained to ConsumerAffairs.com, about her dealings with HSBC. "Now they want to seize my property in a sheriff's auction in 6 days. On the modification application, they kept coming back with one additional document they needed from me, usually an obscure document from two years ago. On several occasions they verbally acknowledged that my application was complete and that I should check back with them in a week. When I did so, they came back with: 'Oh the application expired. You'll have to submit a new application'".

Incentive to foreclose?

Despite strong encouragement from the government to modify troubled mortgages, it is easy to conclude that servicers are not exactly enthusiastic about them. The National Consumer Law Center conducted a study showing loan servicers lose money on modifications, but actually make money on foreclosures.

Industry analysts say more than four million households are in a severe state of default, but that many of them have yet to pop up on the radar screen, because formal foreclosure proceedings have not begun.

 

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Numbers Game: The True Cost of Credit Card Mail Offers

While there has been progress, a new analysis suggests deciding on a credit card remains too complicated

Numbers Game: The True Cost of Credit Card Mail Offers While there has been progress, a new analysis suggests deciding on a credit card remains too comp...

Credit card offers have grown increasingly complicated since 2000, when Congress required issuers to start disclosing pricing information on monthly billing statements. But new research from the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) finds that instead of providing clarity to consumers about the true cost of their credit cards, issuers responded by adding a confusing array of numbers to their offers

Specifically, CRL's research finds that numbers in credit card direct-mail offers increased 250 percent from 1999 to 2009, and at the peak in early 2009 the average credit card summary contained 33 figures.  Much of the increased complexity in offers came from new penalty rates and fees. 

CRL also finds that offer complexity varied widely among issuers: in most years, the most complex offer had six-to-eight times as many numbers as the simplest offer.  This suggests that it has been issuer choice -- not regulation -- that has made credit card terms more confusing.

CARD Act

The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009 appears to have made credit card contracts clearer, suggesting the law is having the intended effect of creating fair, understandable terms.

But credit card pricing remains far more complicated than just a decade ago, thwarting consumers' ability to comparison shop. Regulators must monitor industry practices carefully to determine whether more action is needed to enhance clarity. 

The CRL analysis focuses on the "Schumer Box" -- a key summary of terms within each offer. This disclosure, which summarizes costs to the consumer, contains the information most likely used when selecting a credit card. It does not include all card terms, but rather is intended to summarize the most important terms for consumers.

The general structure and the type of information that must be included in the Schumer Box are mandated by law that became effective in 2000 in legislation sponsored by then-U.S. Congressman Charles Schumer.

However, the law does not mandate or necessitate complex disclosures. Rather, the complexity of disclosures is a function of choices made by a card issuer.

Numbers, numbers, numbers

The average credit card offer's summary of terms had 33 figures at its peak in 2009. The most complex summary of terms analyzed had 55 numbers, while the simplest summary of terms had just five numbers.

In the peak period of May 2009, the number of numbers in a summary of terms varied considerably, from 14 to 48. In many periods, the most complex offer had more than six times as many numbers as the simplest.

Complexity of terms

Summary term complexity rose 250 percent between 1999 and the peak period in 2009, but declined 23 percent after implementation of key provisions of the CARD Act of 2009. The average number of numbers appearing in the Schumer Box grew by 250 percent from 13 numbers in 1999 to a peak of 33 numbers in 2009.

In 2010, after the Credit CARD Act, the complexity of contracts declined by 23 percent to an average of 26 numbers. A notable drop in offer complexity was observed after the CARD Act. Most of this has been due to simplification in Annual Percentage Rate (APR) terms.

The shift

The sources of complexity shifted from 1999 to 2009, with the latter year having a greater portion of numbers related to penalty fees and to APR. In 1999, 41 percent of numbers were related to APR, while 16 percent were related to penalty fees.  In 2009, 46 percent were related to APR, while 25 percent were related to penalty fees. The absolute level of numbers increased for all categories between 1999 and 2009.

After implementation of most provisions of the Credit CARD Act, 41 percent of numbers were related to APR, while 27 percent were related to penalty rates. However, even as the proportions of these figures remained more or less level over the implementation of the CARD Act, they were associated with an appreciably lower absolute count of numbers than was the case before reform.

Too much info

Each number in a credit card offer can generally be considered a dimension of price. All of these price dimensions must be considered simultaneously so that a consumer can make the best decisions regarding his or her credit cards.

There is evidence that consumers cannot grasp anything close to 30 dimensions simultaneously when making a decision, with previous research suggesting the number may be closer to seven. With a typical credit card offer and average processing capacity on the part of the consumer, over 75 percent of the price information will not be fully taken into account.

If a consumer is comparing offers, this quickly multiplies the number of dimensions involved. For example, if a consumer is comparing three credit card products, just looking at the introductory rate, the length of the introductory rate, and a single long-term purchase rate for each offer results in nine numbers. This already stretches the consumer's cognitive capacity. Consumers often make their best effort to comparison shop, but end up frustrated in their attempt to find the cheapest product.

Why do most issuers put so many numbers in their offers? Complexity in disclosures is a direct result of credit card issuer choices. In most years, the most complex offer had six-to-eight times as many numbers as the simplest offer. Both of these offers existed in the same regulatory environment. The difference was the complexity of the underlying product.

Policy recommendation

The Credit CARD Act appears to have reduced the complexity of credit card contracts, supporting the contention that the law is having its intended effect of creating more understandable and predictable credit card terms. However, credit cards still remain far more complex in their pricing than they were just a decade ago.

Price complexity can lead to a less competitive market by thwarting a consumer's ability to weigh all factors when comparing prices simultaneously and accurately. CRL recommends the trend toward more complex credit card offers should be monitored by regulators.

Complexity is down since Credit CARD Act implementation, but it is still higher than the complexity of offers just five years ago. More reform or rulemaking action by regulators may be warranted if complexity continues to stay high, CRL believes.

Borrower recommendations

Issuers are well aware that there are limitations to consumers' ability to attend to every detail of highly complex disclosures. The less scrupulous among them will give what seems a great offer with a prominent headline interest rate, while making up for it by using a variety of other fees and prices less obvious to the prospective cardholder. Consumers should not be deceived by this tactic.

It may be too difficult to weigh and compare all the prices and fees at once, so CRL recommends consumers choose the simple and transparent over the deal that looks too good to be true 

In the end, consumers likely will be better off with straightforward, honest pricing systems than with a 0 percent introductory offer that comes with considerable price changes and fees down the line.

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How to Buy a Car on Credit Even when Your Credit Score Isn’t So Good

Car dealers want to sell cars and use different criteria when determining credit worthiness

Even if your credit isn't great, you can still buy a car on credit and possibly get a good rate...

Are you in the market for a new or used car, but aren't sure your credit score is high enough to qualify for financing? You're probably not alone, given all of the news stories and car ads that boast 0% interest for qualified buyers.

What makes a "qualified" buyer these days? According to the Wall Street Journal, it's not who you think. In fact, the Journal says many dealerships rely on a different set of numbers other than your credit score.

The Journal offers these tips for anyone who's thinking about buying a car but may be holding back because they think their credit score is too low.

Tip one is to gather as much information as you can before you start shopping and not just about cars, but about your credit score as well. It may not be as bad as you think. You want to go into a dealership with the right information because if you think you have a low score and convey this to a car salesman, he or she may tell that you only qualify for a loan with a high interest rate when in reality your score actually qualified you for a much lower rate. Another reason to check your credit score is to make sure there are no errors in it. If there are, fix them.

Keep in mind that many auto dealerships rely on a different score that's geared to predicting, specifically, how you'll do at paying off a car loan, and that score could be somewhat higher -- or lower -- than your general credit score.

Tip two is to shop around. A car dealership may be able to offer you the lowest rate on your car loan because of its close relationships to automaker financing units. But don't take the dealer's word for it. You need to be sure it really is the lowest rate, and you should provide an incentive to get that best rate. For example, one way to possibly get a better rate is to make the dealer fight for it. You do that by walking into the dealership with a pre-approved loan the dealership has to beat.

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Those Quirky “Required Minimum Distribution” Rules or “RMDs” Are Coming Back

Many retirees didn’t even know RMDs had been put on hold for the past year or so

If you have an IRA or a 401(k) and are over 70 and ½ years old you’ll have to take what’s known as a required minimum distribution beginning Dec. 31, ...

Few things are more confusing in life than what's known as a required minimum distribution or "RMDs." Not to be mistaken for WMDs, or weapons of mass destruction, RMDs are nasty little rules that state when you reach a certain age -- 70½ to be precise --  you have to take a required minimum distribution from your tax-deferred retirement account such as an IRA or a 401(k) whether you want to or not. The IRS makes you take it.

Now for the past two years, RMDs have been on hold. Congress, in its collective wisdom, decided to do something to allow retirement nest eggs that were decimated by the market downturn time to recover. So in late 2008 they suspended for one year the IRS rule that requires older Americans to take withdrawals from their individual retirement accounts and 401(k)s.

Here's where things begin to get confusing. The suspension was supposed to be in place only for 2009. And account holders didn't have to withdraw money until April 1 of the year after they turn 70½. So, you would figure that people who turned 70½ in 2009 would have had until April 1 of 2010 to take their first required distribution. If only it was that simple.

As part of the 2009 suspension, people who turned 70½ in 2009 were allowed to skip their first mandatory withdrawal—the one that had to be taken by April 1. That means they now have to take only one distribution this year, and the deadline for that is New Years Eve, Dec. 31.

For people who turn 70½ in 2010, the normal rules will apply and they will have until April 1, 2011, to take their first distribution, and until Dec. 31, 2011, to take their second distribution. Still with me?

Now, what is a minimum distribution? Is it the same for everyone? Of course not. There's a formula.

In order to calculate the minimum amount the IRS requires you to withdraw you're your retirement account, you first check your account balance as of the previous Dec. 31. Then you divide that figure by your remaining life expectancy. Wait. You say you don't know how long you're going to life? That's okay. No one's perfect. The government has a way for you to get around that. They let you use the life expectancy number that corresponds to your current age as determined by the actuarial tables in IRS Publication 590.

If you're a beneficiary who inherited one of these accounts the situation is even more confusing. You generally must start taking withdrawals by Dec. 31 of the year, after the year in which the IRA owner died. You can spread the withdrawals over your own life expectancy. For a man who was 50 let's say, and inherited an IRA in 2008, he could spread out withdrawals over 34.2 years even though his life expectancy is only 32.2 more years.

That's because each subsequent year, the man must reduce this life-expectancy figure by one. While distributions were suspended in 2009, beneficiaries must still account for that year. When the man resumes distributions in 2010, he must subtract two years from the 34.2 figure he used in 2008—one for 2009 and one for 2010. So if you inherited an account in 2008, the deadline for taking the first withdrawal is Dec. 31, 2010.

I think it's time for my required minimum nap.

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New Tests Could Phase Out Starbucks Cards

The coffee chain expands mobile phone payment option to New Yorkers

New Tests Could Phase Out Starbucks CardsThe coffee chain expands mobile phone payment option to New Yorkers...

Adding to the list of changes Starbucks is currently making to its stores, the coffee chain announced it's expanding its Starbucks Card Mobile payment test to nearly 300 company-owned stores in New York City, and Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island.

For the past year, Starbucks tested the payment option - using the newly-launched Starbucks Card Mobile app - in 16 Seattle and Northern California locations along with 1,000 Starbucks in U.S. Target stores.

The app, available for a variety of BlackBerry smartphones, the iPhone, and the iPod Touch, will soon give New York area coffee fans the ability to pay for their purchases more quickly and without the need for an actual Starbucks card.

"Mobile technology is part of our customers' daily routine and with the expansion of mobile payment in our test cities, we're seeing more and more customers using their smartphones as their mobile wallets," said Brady Brewer, vice president Starbucks Card and Loyalty.

Brewer said Starbucks is responding to consumer demand for a faster, more convenient way to pay at the register.

The virtual Starbucks card works a lot like the plastic version; once downloading the free Starbucks Card Mobile App and setting up an account, a barcode will come up on the phone or iPod's screen that can be scanned on a special 2-D scanner at the register. The amount is automatically taken from the "card."

Consumers will also be able use the app to reload their card balance using a major credit card, check their My Starbucks Reward status, and find the closest Starbucks to them.

Currently almost one in five of all in-store transactions are paid for with a Starbucks Card and customers are on track to load more than $1 billion on Starbucks Cards this year. At the end of the third quarter, sales of Starbucks Cards were up 17% over last year and the reload on existing cards was up more than 59% percent compared to last year.

Starbucks hopes the new mobile payment system will appeal to these consumers by making card transactions even faster.

"With the expansion of mobile payment to New York City, we expect to see more and more customers trading their plastic Starbucks Cards for the digital version on their mobile phone," said Brewer.

iPhone and iPod touch users can download the app from the Apple App Store. BlackBerry smartphone users can text the word "GO" to 70845 or visit the Starbucks website from their device and download the app there.

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Are the 2010-2011 Seasonal Flu Vaccines Safe?

As the approaching flu season raises questions, federal health agencies provide some answers

Are the 2010-2011 Seasonal Flu Vaccines Safe? As the approaching flu season raises questions, federal health agencies provide some answers ...

Each year, the seasonal influenza vaccine contains three flu viruses  -- one influenza A (H3N2) virus, one influenza A (H1N1) virus, and one influenza B virus. The 2009 H1N1 (swine) flu) virus strain is included in the 2010-2011 seasonal flu vaccine because scientists continue to see this virus strain circulate in the U.S.

This season's vaccine is expected to have a similar safety profile as past seasonal flu vaccines. Over the years, hundreds of millions of Americans have received seasonal flu vaccines.

The most common side effects found from last year's H1N1 flu vaccines were soreness, redness, tenderness or swelling where the flu shot was given and nasal congestion after the flu vaccine nasal spray.

Feds to monitor vaccine

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are closely monitoring for any signs the vaccine is causing unexpected adverse events and are working with state and local health officials and other public health partners to investigate any unusual events.

The purpose of vaccine safety monitoring is to provide quick identification of any clinically significant adverse events following immunization. Adverse events -- including apparent side effects -- following immunization may be coincidental to (meaning occurring around the same time but not elated to vaccination) or caused by vaccination.

CDC and its partners use multiple systems to monitor the safety of this season's flu vaccines. Two of the primary systems that are being used to monitor the safety of these vaccines are: the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), which is jointly operated with FDA, and the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) Project.

Vaccine Adverse Event Report System

VAERS is a national program managed by both CDC and FDA to monitor the safety of all vaccines licensed in the United States. Healthcare providers are encouraged to report possible adverse events of concern after vaccination, even if they are not certain that the vaccine caused the event. VAERS relies on information included in these reports to monitor for clinically serious adverse events or health problems that follow vaccination.

Generally, VAERS cannot determine if an adverse event was caused by a vaccine but can help determine if further investigations are needed. FDA and CDC use VAERS data to help identify potential clinically serious vaccine adverse events or health outcomes. If concerns are identified in VAERS, usually further investigation is needed. One important system used to further evaluate concerns identified in VAERS is the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) Project.

Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) Project

The VSD Project is a vaccine safety system used to both identify and confirm adverse outcomes after immunization. This project is a collaboration between CDC and eight large managed care organizations, in which comprehensive medical information is collected on approximately nine million people.

The VSD project monitors their data weekly for certain adverse events that could be associated with newly licensed vaccines. VSD conducts studies of vaccine safety adverse events and health outcomes that may arise with any vaccine.

Additionally, CDC works with numerous partners, including other federal agencies, state and local health departments, professional organizations, and academic institutions, to actively follow individuals after vaccination to monitor for any potential adverse events.

Vaccine side effects

Both the flu shot and the nasal spray (LAIV or Flu Mist) vaccines have possible side effects. Among them:

The flu shot: The viruses in the flu shot are killed (inactivated), so you cannot get the flu from a flu shot. Some minor side effects that could occur are:

  • Soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given
  • Fever (low grade)
  • Aches
  • Nausea

If these problems occur, they begin soon after the shot and usually last a day or two. Almost all people who get flu shots have no serious problems. However, on rare occasions, they can cause serious problems, such as severe allergic reactions. A federal program has been created to help pay for the medical care and other specific expenses of certain persons who have a serious reaction to this vaccine. For more information about this program, call 1-888-275-4772 or visit the program's Website.

The nasal spray (also called LAIV): The viruses in the nasal-spray vaccine are weakened and do not cause severe symptoms often associated with influenza illness. (In clinical studies, transmission of vaccine viruses to close contacts has occurred only rarely.)

In children, side effects from LAIV can include:

  • runny nose
  • wheezing
  • headache
  • vomiting
  • muscle aches
  • fever

In adults, side effects from LAIV can include:

  • runny nose
  • headache
  • sore throat
  • cough

Mild problems that may be experienced include soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given, fainting (mainly adolescents), headache, muscle aches, fever, and nausea. If these problems occur, they usually begin soon after the shot and last 1-2 days. Life-threatening allergic reactions to vaccines are very rare. If they do occur, it is usually within a few minutes to a few hours after the shot is given.

This season's flu vaccine is made the same way as past seasonal flu vaccines. Millions of seasonal flu vaccines have been given safely. Millions of people have also safely received the 2009 H1N1 vaccine.

CDC expects that any side effects following vaccination with the 2010-2011 flu vaccine would be rare. Any side effects that may occur are expected to be similar to those experienced following past seasonal influenza vaccine.

Cause for concern

Signs of a serious allergic reaction can include difficulty breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, swelling around the eyes or lips, hives, paleness, weakness, a fast heartbeat or dizziness. In addition, after vaccination you should look for any unusual condition, such as a high fever or behavior changes.

If any unusual condition occurs following vaccination, seek medical attention right away. Tell your doctor what happened, the date and time it happened, and when the vaccination was given. Ask your doctor, nurse, or health department to report a possible reaction by filing a Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) form. Or you can file this report yourself through the VAERS Website or by calling 1-800-822-7967 to receive a copy of the VAERS form.

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Texas Credit Repair Companies Face Charges

Allegedly targeting Hispanic consumers

The State of Texas is taking action against two credit repair firms it says offers inaccurate and deceptive information....

Texas has charged two El Paso-based companies with operating unlicensed credit repair and credit restoration services. The State's enforcement action names Max Credit of El Paso - which is also known as Max Credit Express and Max Credit Express LLC - and its owner Jorge Almaraz; and Francisco Payan, the owner of Max Credit West as defendants.

"These defendants are charged with unlawfully misleading financially struggling Texans in an effort to recruit customers," said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. "Not only did the defendants operate unlicensed credit service organizations, but they also falsely indicated their agencies were law firms. Today's enforcement action seeks restitution for the defendants' customers and asks the court to prevent their firms from operating in violation of Texas law."

According to court documents filed by the State, the defendants advertised - and continue to advertise - their services to English and Spanish speakers with poor credit. Advertising through billboards, direct mail and the Internet, the defendants marketed their purported ability to repair their customers' credit histories and credit ratings

Credit repair services sometimes claim to be things they aren't, and Abbott says that's the case with the two companies. According to state investigators, the defendants' website falsely and unlawfully claims their organization is a "legal firm."

Inaccurate information

The site also inaccurately states that the defendants specialize in resolving poor credit pursuant to federal laws such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). However, Almaraz and Payan are not actually lawyers - and Payan has admitted he is not an FCRA expert.

The legal action also charges the defendants with unlawfully operating unlicensed credit service organizations (CSO). Under the Texas Credit Services Organization Act, CSOs must register with the Secretary of State and obtain a surety bond or surety account.

The State's investigation indicates that the defendants sold credit repair services to over 300 customers while the two companies were unregistered and lacked a bond. They allegedly charged $695 for individuals and $1,095 per couple.

After receiving a Civil Investigative Demand - a type of subpoena - from the Attorney General's Office, Almaraz took steps to register a newly created firm with state authorities. However, according to State investigators, the defendant's newly created, registered firm also improperly continue to make misleading claims in their advertisements.

Abbott is seeking restitution for the defendant's customers as well as civil penalties of $20,000 per violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

Consumers who encounter an offer for credit repair services should take several steps before signing a contract or agreement to repair or improve their credit:

Check their credit report. All Texans may request a free copy of their credit report once a year from each of the nationwide consumer credit reporting companies - Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. The official site created by the three major credit bureaus is www.annualcreditreport.com. 


Do their own research before believing a company's promise to fix or remove "negative items" on a credit report. Only items that are erroneous, inaccurate or obsolete (usually more than seven years old) can be legally removed from a debtor's credit report. 


Check with the Better Business Bureau and the Attorney General's Office and ask whether complaints have been filed against the company.

 

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Cuomo Files Employment Suit Against FedEx

Case is latest in long line addressing independent contractor-employee divide

Cuomo Files Employment Suit Against FedEx Case is latest in long line addressing independent contractor-employee divide...

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has filed suit against FedEx, alleging that the company's decision to label its delivery drivers "independent contractors," rather than "employees," deprives them of a range of benefits to which they would otherwise be entitled, in violation of state labor laws.

The suit, filed in New York state court on Thursday, says that FedEx "has the power to control, and does in fact control, almost all aspects of its drivers' work," including "hours, job duties, routes, and even clothing ... The drivers are clearly perceived by the public to be employees."

The suit goes on to point out that drivers are required by FedEx to buy or lease their own trucks and secure their own insurance plans.

Suit follows Montana settlement

Coincidentally enough, FedEx agreed on Wednesday to settle a similar suit brought by Montana's attorney general. Under that agreement, FedEx will pay $2.3 million to cover the costs of unemployment insurance, including insurance that was previously purchased by drivers themselves.

Despite Cuomo's claim that his suit was spurred solely by negotiations that "broke down," a cynic might wonder whether the Montana settlement was enough to convince him of the likelihood of winning his own case. Indeed, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock had framed his suit in terms strikingly similar to those used by Cuomo.

"This is a basic issue of fairness," Bullock said of the Montana case. "Every worker in Montana deserves the fundamental protections provided by law, and no employer can deny those protections by misclassifying employees as independent contractors."

But, then again, by Bullock's own admission, his settlement did relatively little for drivers. As little as $100,000 of the $2.3 million settlement will pay drivers for their own unemployment insurance costs; the rest will reimburse various Montana agencies that are still owed taxes on that insurance. And, critically, FedEx will not be required to reclassify its "independent contractors" as "employees."

"This settlement does not provide any assurance that we won't be back fighting a year from now," Bullock told ABC News. "One thing we do know, it's not going to be the degree of control that the state found they've been exercising over these guys the last few years."

An ongoing issue

One thing is for sure: this is an issue that FedEx has been fighting for years, and it doesn't look likely to go away anytime soon.

According to an August filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), at least 30 class action suits have been filed over the dispute to date.

A private lawsuit brought by FedEx drivers got mostly tossed from court in June, with a federal judge in Indiana ruling that the workers -- who were seeking full benefits, including medical, dental, and retirement plans -- had to exhaust internal company remedies before seeking the courts' assistance.

Cuomo smacks down FedEx's political attack

No matter what happens, the issue is sure to provide fodder for countless attorneys general to come, an angle that FedEx sought to play up in responding to Cuomo's suit.

Rather than issue the typical boilerplate statement denying liability and predicting that the suit will be laughed out of the courts, FedEx used the filing as an opportunity to attempt to discredit Cuomo, who is hoping to become New York's Governor-elect on November 2.

"It is disappointing that in the midst of his campaign for governor Attorney General Cuomo would choose to destroy that many jobs in New York," said FedEx spokesman Maury Lane, adding that the suit is "a real assault on the American working class."

Cuomo's office shot back with equal force.

"Any suggestion that the Attorney General's office handling of this case is improper is absurd," said Cuomo spokesman John Milgrim in a statement. "This office and a group of other states had been negotiating with FedEx for months. The case was filed, as was a similar case by Kentucky, when those discussions broke down."

FedEx, it could be noted, is not exactly throwing its political stones from a house made of anything solid. Longtime CEO Frederick W. Smith is a high-profile Republican who was touted as a potential Secretary of Defense for George W. Bush in 2000, and as a possible running mate for John McCain in 2008.

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Massachusetts Bars Two Payday Lenders From State

States targeting Internet lenders in payday loan crackdown

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley sues two Internet payday lenders....

A crackdown on Web-based payday lenders continues in Massachusetts. The State has barred two more of these businesses from offering loans to consumers in the Bay State.

Two more Internet based payday lenders that were selling high interest loans to Massachusetts consumers will be barred from doing business in the state under separate settlements filed by Attorney General Martha Coakley's Office.

The two separate settlements prevent payday lenders Nationwide Cash and Paragon Funding ("Paragon") from offering high-interest "payday" loans to Massachusetts consumers and require the lenders to return to consumers all interest charges and fees paid by Massachusetts consumers beyond the principal loan amount.

Nationwide Cash and Paragon are also required to forgive all outstanding balances on the illegal loans.

Attorney General Martha Coakley's office has already identified more than $24,000 in fees and interest owed to consumers by Nationwide Cash and Paragon, and the two lenders have agreed to pay any additional borrowers identified by the Attorney General who are entitled to restitution.

Nationwide Cash will also pay $10,000 to the Commonwealth; Paragon, which made fewer loans in Massachusetts, will make a payment of $5,000 to the Commonwealth.

The payday lenders will also cease all collection efforts, insist that credit reporting agencies remove these transactions from consumer credit records, and will not distribute promotional and marketing materials to Massachusetts consumers.

"Payday lenders often prey on residents who are already under a great deal of financial stress, and who may have no idea that these interest rates violate Massachusetts law," Coakley said. "These loans can have a devastating impact on an individual's bank account and credit report in a very short amount of time. Massachusetts has strong laws in place to protect consumers from high-interest loans.  Lenders cannot hide behind the guise of an out-of-state website to break the law."

Nationwide Cash, a Delaware-based lender, and Paragon, a Nevada-based lender, use the Internet to offer small, short-term loans (known as "payday" loans) to consumers. The loans, generally granted for a few hundred dollars or less, must be repaid within two to four weeks, and the lenders used consumers' bank accounts to secure repayment of the amount borrowed.

If consumers were unable to repay the loan principal, fees, and interest, Nationwide Cash and Paragon extended the loans, and added additional fees to the consumer debt, Coakley charged. According to the settlement, both lenders charged an unfair interest rate on these loans, which rose as high as 1095 percent annually in the case of Paragon and was frequently more than 700 percent annually for Nationwide Cash borrowers.  The excessive interest rates charged by Nationwide Cash and Paragon are in violation of state law which provides that unlicensed lenders of small loans may only charge 12 percent interest.

The agreements reached with Nationwide Cash and Paragon are part of an ongoing investigation by the Attorney General's Office into payday lenders that are circumventing Massachusetts loan laws by using the Internet to make illegal loans to Massachusetts consumers. In addition to the high interest rates, Coakley says Internet payday lending requires consumers to provide significant personal information, such as bank account numbers, social security numbers, personal references and employer contact information.

Consumers should be advised that in addition to potential threats to their financial privacy and security, the payday lender then has direct access to the consumer's bank account from which to withdraw fees and interest, and sometimes will contact employers, friends or family members in later efforts to collect on any unpaid loan amounts. 


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'Lucky 13' Tips for a Safe Halloween

Halloween will be more fun if you follow common sense guidelines for costumes and treats

‘Lucky 13’ Tips for a Safe HalloweenHalloween will be more fun if you follow common sense guidelines for costumes and treats...

Whether you're goblin or ghoul, vampire or witch, poor costume choices -- including decorative contact lenses and flammable costumes -- can haunt you long after Halloween if they cause injury.

With Halloween approaching, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) joins eye care professionals in discouraging the use of decorative contact lenses.

These experts warn that buying any kind of contact lenses without an examination and a prescription from an eye care professional can cause serious eye disorders and infections, which may lead to permanent vision loss. Even though it's illegal to sell decorative contact lenses without a valid prescription, the lenses are sold on the Internet and in retail shops and salons -- particularly around Halloween.

The decorative lenses make the wearer's eyes appear to glow in the dark, create the illusion of vertical "cat eyes," or change the wearer's eye color.

Safe costumes

"Although unauthorized use of decorative contact lenses is a concern year-round, Halloween is the time when people may be inclined to use them, perhaps as costume accessories," says FDA eye expert Bernard Lepri, O.D., M.S., M.Ed. "What troubles us is when they are bought and used without a valid prescription, without the involvement of a qualified eye care professional, or without appropriate follow-up care. This can lead to significant risks of eye injuries, including blindness."

To help you enjoy a safe and happy Halloween FDA, Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer the following "lucky 13" guidelines: 

 

  • Wear costumes made of fire-retardant materials; look for "flame resistant" on the label. If you make your costume, use flame-resistant fabrics such as polyester or nylon.
  • Wear bright, reflective costumes or add strips of reflective tape so you'll be more visible; make sure the costumes aren't so long that you're in danger of tripping.
  • Wear makeup and hats rather than masks that can obscure your vision.
  • Test the makeup you plan to use by putting a small amount on your arm a couple of days in advance. If you get a rash, redness, swelling, or other signs of irritation where you applied it, that's a sign you may be allergic to it.
  • Check FDA's list of color additives to see if additives in your makeup are FDA approved. If they aren't approved for their intended use, don't use it.
  • Don't wear decorative contact lenses unless you have seen an eye care professional and gotten a proper lens fitting and instructions for using the lenses.

Safe treats

Eating sweet treats is also a big part of the fun on Halloween. If you're trick-or-treating, health and safety experts say you should remember these tips:

  • Don't eat candy until it has been inspected at home.
  • Trick-or-treaters should eat a snack before heading out, so they won't be tempted to nibble on treats that haven't been inspected.
  • Tell children not to accept -- or eat -- anything that isn't commercially wrapped.
  • Parents of very young children should remove any choking hazards such as gum, peanuts, hard candies, or small toys.
  • Inspect commercially wrapped treats for signs of tampering, such as an unusual appearance or discoloration, tiny pinholes, or tears in wrappers. Throw away anything that looks suspicious.

For partygoers and party throwers, FDA recommends the following tips for two seasonal favorites:

  • Look for the warning label to avoid juice that hasn't been pasteurized or otherwise processed, especially packaged juice products that may have been made on site. When in doubt, ask! Always ask if you are unsure if a juice product is pasteurized. Normally, the juice found in your grocer's frozen food case, refrigerated section, or on the shelf in boxes, bottles, or cans is pasteurized.
  • Before bobbing for apples -- a favorite Halloween game -- reduce the amount of bacteria that might be on apples by thoroughly rinsing them under cool running water. As an added precaution, use a produce brush to remove surface dirt.
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When You Invest In Fine Art, Picture Some Fancy Profits

Just be sure you're not buying a fake

Investing in fine art takes the kind of research you’re not likely to find in an annual report...

If you're looking for an investment that will beat the stock market but don't feel like putting your money into emerging market funds, there's one market you may want to check out ─ the fine art market. Fine art, by the way, includes paintings, sculpture, prints, video and photography.

In fact, if you had added fine art to your portfolio over the last couple of years instead of bank stocks, your portfolio might not be looking so bleak. For the ten years that ended in July 2010, the price index of all fine art work sold more than once worldwide has produced a nearly 11% annualized return.

 

What this means is that the fine art market outperformed Standard & Poor's 500 index of large cap stocks, as well as most other asset classes except for gold, according to artprice.com, which tracks the market.


Recent strong sales of impressionist and modern art pieces pushed the Mei Moses All Art Index to a 13.4-percent gain for the first half of the year, compared to a 6.5 percent loss for the S&P 500 index, according to artasanasset.com, which maintains the index.

Philip Hoffman, chief executive of the Fine Art Fund Group, an international investment partnership in London, says there are a lot of opportunities to make significant capital growth "if you know how to buy and sell."

 

What is known as investment-grade art has been enjoying a low correlation with other asset classes, including stocks and bonds, strengthening its case as a candidate for portfolio diversification. Some maintain it can act as an inflation hedge, since "real assets" like gold tend to rise in value only when the value of money falls.

If that's the case, why doesn't everyone put their money into art? For one thing, art tends to be a little finicky or in the investment community, "a volatile asset." That's because it's hard to tell when demand for a certain genre or painter will suddenly surge or dissipate.

 

For example, after a ten-year run, Chinese contemporary art saw prices rise more than 500% and Indian art jumped 700%, before prices for works in both categories dropped by 30 percent two years in a row 2008 and 2009, according to Artprice.

 

Another reason to be careful is that art is far less liquid than other financial assets, making it harder to sell in a pinch. Lastly, indexes which track repeat sales are somewhat skewed because they include only art pieces that already have an established following. They ignore thousands of pieces whose value has yet to be determined.

 

If you're still interested, there are steps you can take to mitigate risk and boost your profit potential. According to Artprice, some 70 percent of all artwork sold at auction between January 2008 and June 2009 was priced at $5,000 or less. During that same period, "affordable" art priced below $5,000 gained 60 percent in value, while higher end pieces gained a staggering 150 percent.

 

But before you even think about using your hard earned money in this market, take time to learn about those forces that impact the art market overall, as well as the niche you're hoping to pursue. Paul Provost, senior vice president, director of trusts and estates at Christie's auction house in New York, says "the art market is made up of a series of micro markets and each one moves in accordance with its own dynamic."

 

American furniture and decorative folk art, for example, have a different demand cycle than, say, classical antiquities, impressionist paintings or post war contemporary pieces.

Provost adds that "it's the same with investing in the stock market. You have to drill down to the issues surrounding large-cap, mid-cap and small-cap stocks along with the different sectors. Talk to seasoned collectors. Go to the auction houses and ask questions. Get involved with the museum and befriend the curator. An educated consumer is going to be best equipped to maneuver in this marketplace."

 

Due diligence here has become even more important given the number of unscrupulous art dealers who traffic in fake imitation art. Provost says newcomers should stick with reputable brokers and auction houses that can verify authenticity. He points out that the art market is not immune to the same scandals that have rocked the financial services or real estate markets. He says "investors need to be careful about what they're doing, do their homework and understand who they're working with."

 

If you don't want to invest in one painting, you can also consider an art investment fund, but these are only open to high net worth investors. The Fine Art Fund Group, for example, is a diversified portfolio of high-end artwork, but it is only open to investors worth at least $2.5 million. Those who qualify can invest a minimum of $250,000 into the broader fund, $100,000 into a specialized fund or own part of a single painting.

 

Other investment funds, like the new "Collection of Modern Art" fund launched in May by Castlestone Management, requires a smaller minimum investment of around $10,000.

But it is open to investors only through financial advisors who can counsel clients on the risks and potential rewards involved.

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Tricking Kids Into Eating Better

How psychology and economics help kids make healthier choices at lunch time

Tricking Kids Into Eating Better How psychology and economics help kids make healthier choices at lunch time ...

Don't ban it, move it.

This is one conclusion of a new Cornell University study on kids, healthy foods, and their school lunchrooms.

In one set of schools, sales of fruit increased by 100% when it was moved to a colorful bowl. Salad bar sales tripled when the cart was placed in front of cash registers.

These findings, presented today at the School Nutrition Association's New York conference, underscore the easiest way to expand healthy lunchroom choices is to make an apple more convenient, cool, and visible than a cookie.

The conclusion of six different studies with over 11,000 middle and high school studies show that using psychology and economics might be a better way to encourage kids to make healthier food choices than simply outlawing junk food.

"It's not nutrition until someone eats it. You need to have foods that kids will eat, or they won't eat - or they'll eat worse" said Chris Wallace, Food Service Director for the Corning, New York School District.

We're focusing on giving Food Service Directors "low-cost/no cost" changes they can make immediately, said Brian Wansink, Co-Director of the Cornell Center of Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (BEN).

During his research presentation, he described other studies that showed:

  • Decreasing the size of bowls from 18 ounces to 14 ounces reduced the size of the average cereal serving at breakfast by 24 percent.
  • Sales of healthy sandwiches doubled when students were allowed to use a speedy "healthy express" checkout line (while kids buying buying calorie-dense foods like desserts and chips had to use regular, longer lines).
  • Moving the chocolate milk behind the plain milk led students to buy more plain milk.
  • Keeping ice cream in a freezer with a closed, opaque top significantly reduced the amount of ice cream taken.
  • Salad sales increased by a third when cafeteria workers simply asked each child, "Do you want a salad?"
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Nursing Home Costs a Big Factor in Retirement Adequacy Deficit

Adding the cost of assisted care would nearly double the shortfall in retirement savings

Nursing Home Costs a Big Factor in Retirement Adequacy Deficit Adding the cost of assisted care would nearly double the shortfall in retirement savings ...

With the "graying" of America well underway, a lot of attention is being given to making sure retirees will have enough money to last the rest of their lives.

Recent analysis by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) finds that the average retirement savings shortfall is about $48,000 per individual. But, adding nursing home and home health care costs would -- in some cases -- almost double that amount.

The research uses the Institute's Retirement Security Projection Model to estimate the total national aggregate and individual retirement deficits at age 65 for three categories of workers:

  • Early Boomers (born between 1948-1954, now ages 56-62).
  • Late Boomers (born between 1955-1964, now ages 46-55).
  • Generation Xers (born between 1965-1974, now ages 36-45).

More money needed

EBRI's analysis finds the aggregate national retirement savings shortfall is $4.6 trillion, for an overall average of $47,732 per individual. The average shortfall varies by age, gender, and marital status.

The Institute says adding nursing home and home health care expense increases the average individual retirement savings shortfall for married households by $25,317. Single males experience an average increase of $32,433, while single females have an increase of $46,425.

"This helps quantify just how large of an impact nursing home and home health care expenses can have on people in retirement," said Jack VanDerhei, EBRI research director and author of the report.

EBRI's estimates are present values (stated in 2010 dollars) at age 65, and represent the additional individual average amount needed at age 65 to eliminate expected deficits in retirement. EBRI notes this aggregate deficit assumed that people will receive current-law Social Security benefits.

Role of Social Security

Reflecting the importance of Social Security, the EBRI analysis finds that if Social Security retirement benefits were eliminated, the aggregate retirement income deficit would almost double -- to $8.5 trillion -- or an individual average of approximately $89,000.

EBRI's Retirement Security Projection Model has been developed since the late 1990s to estimate how much money individuals will need for "basic" expenses (food, shelter, etc.) and uninsured health care costs in retirement, and what financial resources they are likely to have at retirement age.

Younger consumers at risk

Earlier this year, EBRI released its 2010 Retirement Readiness Rating, which showed the degree to which Baby Boomers and GenXers are likely to be "at risk" of running short of money in retirement.

For instance, EBRI has found that 70 percent of households in the lowest one-third when ranked by pre-retirement income were classified as "at risk." EBRI's analysis also presents the percentage of compensation different groups would need in terms of additional savings to have a 50, 70, or 90 percent probability of retirement income adequacy.

 

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Credit Cards Getting High-Tech Makeover

Citi to test-market electronic card next month

After almost no design changes for 50 years, the credit card is going high-tech....

It's not your father's credit card. After 50 years of embossed numbers and a magnetic strip, credit cards will soon have more of a 21st century look.

In November one of the nation's largest credit card issuers, Citibank, will test market a card that features electronic options for the consumer. For example, at the register a customer can push a button on the card to choose whether to use points or pay with credit.

Other companies are developing plastic cards that can be used either as credit or debit cards. What they all have in common is technology. The current credit cards, designed when every transaction was recorded by making an imprint on a small carbon slip by running the card through a machine, will be replaced with one that are powered electronically.

Some of the new credit cards are being designed by Dynamics Inc., which unveiled its new anti-skimming technology this week at BAI Retail Delivery in Las Vegas. After all, the purpose of the new technological make-over is to make credit cards less prone to fraud.

Each year, the payment system loses billions of dollars from fscammers stealing credit card numbers. In fact, all that is needed to steal a credit card number today is a pen and paper or a portable card reader. More advanced fraudsters steal credit card numbers by breaking into merchant servers where the numbers are electronically stored. 

Thwarting scammers

Dynamics' anti-skimming device, called the Dynamic Credit Card, is designed to help protect consumers and merchants against this threat by automatically writing a new, unique dynamic security code onto its magnetic stripe for every in-store purchase. A display can also be added to the card so the card can automatically display a new, unique dynamic security code for every online purchase - thus replacing the three or four digit security code physically printed on traditional cards. 

"The Dynamic Credit Card technology eradicates skimming both domestically and internationally without changing a single card reader or impacting a single merchant system," said Jeff Mullen, Dynamics' CEO. 

The security benefits of new card technology can be increased when combined with other anti-fraud technologies. For example, Dynamic says codes can be added to its Dynamics' Hidden card, where an on-card interface requires a user to enter an unlocking code into the card in order to activate the card. That, the company says, renders a card useless if its is lost or stolen.

Citi calls its new card 2G and has designed it so that the user can change the data on the card's magnetic strip, just by pushing a button. They can still be used like existing cards at existing swipe terminals.

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If You Get an Email Warning from the IRS It’s Really a Phishing Scam

A sophisticated criminal cyber gang is posing as the IRS to steal your info

The Internal Revenue Service is being used in a Phishing Scam trying to steal your personal information...

Usually when we get mail from the IRS, we tend to open it immediately, often with a sense of dread. But now comes word from personal finance guru Jane Bryant Quinn of an insidious new phishing scam that uses the IRS to steal our personal financial information.

Writing for CBS MoneyWatch, Ms. Quinn says she recentlyreceived what appeared to be an email from the IRS claiming that a mistake had been made in her tax filing. If you get a similar warning do not click on the link. It's not the IRS. You are being phished by one of the largest and most sophisticated criminal gangs on the web known as Avalanche. 

Here's what happened to a savvy personal finance writer.

Ms. Quinn says she received a string of "urgent" IRS messages that read "LAST NOTICE: We decline your Federal tax payment," followed by an ID number. Or, "LAST NOTICE: The Identification Number used in the company identification field is not valid."

She admits that the first message gave her pause. The email appeared to come from the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (ETFPS), which is the website you use when paying your income taxes online. She then thought for a couple of seconds about whether she could have made a tax mistake. That's when her good sense took over.

Being knowledgeable about how these things work, Ms. Quinn correctly surmised that IRS does not use email to get in touch with taxpayers. It sends out what she describes as one of those "mean-looking envelopes with a lot of black type in the upper left-hand corner." Fortunately, she managed to get off the phish-hook and hit delete on the phony email.

But if you're caught by this scam and others like it, you're in for some bad news. The cyber thugs have raised the bar putting you at greater risk than you can imagine. Typical phishers are looking for personal financial information. You might be told that a Federal Express package was misdirected or that there's a question about your bank account. If you click, you're sent to a second screen where you're asked to "update" or "validate" your current data with a credit card number, or Social Security number, or the number and password of your bank account.

Most people didn't fall for those tactics so Avalanche came up with an ugly hunk of malware known as the Zeus banking Trojan. Ms. Quinn writes that if you click on the link provided by the LAST NOTICE IRS email, you might be taken only to an innocuous information page. You read, delete, and move on to something else. But during those few moments you're on the page, the malware will zap itself into your machine and you won't even know it's there. Then it takes user names and passwords to the financial accounts you manage online, logs in and sucks them dry. It sweeps up your address book, to spread itself to the computers of your contacts and friends. If you happen to be online with your bank when Zeus pops in, it will show you the real numbers while, in the background, it's pulling money out.

Zeus has been around for a while but what's new is that Avalanche has industrialized it, making it easy and fast to launch thousands of attacks, virtually all at once.

A lesson from Ms. Quinn - stop and think before you connect to any link you aren't familiar with or looks suspicious. Don't open any business email that you're not expecting. If you have a question, call or email the business yourself. Don't call the number that the questionable email gives you either. It might misdirect you to the scammer's line. If you email the business, check the address and type it into the URL line yourself, don't copy-and-paste the address that the questionable notice shows. She also recommends not opening emailed birthday cards. Two years ago, she opened one that appeared to come from a good friend. Only that "good friend" started sending streams of porn. It took her more than a year to get the problem under control.

 

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Survey Finds Big Gaps in Students’ Understanding of Simple Financial Matters

1 in 3 students do not believe in the 'American Dream' of owning their own home

Four in ten students do not believe that the more education they get the more money they will make ...

A survey conducted by Gallup and the financial literacy empowerment nonprofit Operation HOPE, found that one-third of American students do not believe in the American Dream of owning their own home. And 40% do not believe that staying in school and getting a good education will help them earn more money.

The findings of the Gallup-Operation HOPE Financial Literacy Index (GOHFLI) measures a youth's understanding of basic financial matters and how that awareness translates into an overall sense of hope, engagement and wellbeing.

Initial findings established that among the two-thirds of students who believe in the American Dream, 66% of students strongly believe that they will go to college in the future and buy their own home.

About 57% believe their parents are saving money for their future.

Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton and Operation HOPE Founder, Chairman and CEO John Hope Bryant said the findings show an extreme need for financial literacy interventions at all levels of education.

Clifton added that "a financially literate youth with a dream will be more hopeful and kids who are more hopeful will be more engaged in life, which could lead to less kids dropping out of high school and more kids pursuing their dreams."

Bryant said that he believes "our kids are dropping out of high school because they don't believe education is relevant to their futures." He added that we need to "make education relevant and show kids how to prosper, succeed, or even get rich if that is part of their dream. Bryant explained that financial literacy or what we call 'the language of money,' is a practical and tangible lesson that can empower youth to plan for their futures today.

Gallup polled over 500,000 students across the country and then asked in depth questions to 642 students between the ages of 10 and 18. The results have a sampling error of five percent in either direction.


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New State Laws Could Limit Checking Credit Histories of Job Applicants

Some are calling the practice racist and unfair while others see it as an important screening tool

The practice of using your credit history to determine whether you would be a good candidate for a job is under fire...

Have you ever wondered why you never heard from a potential employer even though your interview went well and you seem perfectly qualified for the job? It could be your credit history wasn't good enough.

So far four states have passed laws to limit the practice of using a job candidate's credit history in the hiring process and similar bills have been introduced in 20 other states and Congress.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the issue took on heightened interest when the recession left many unemployed workers with tattered credit. The concern being debated is that poor credit could become a barrier to landing a job. Meanwhile, the employers who use this practice say credit checks help them evaluate candidates and protect against fraud.

Another concern is the potential discriminatory impact on hiring. That prompted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to hold a hearing this week.

Opponents of the practice cite studies showing that African-Americans and Latinos tend to have lower credit scores. They also dispute whether credit reports are an accurate way to measure an employee's qualifications. One study showed that bad credit was a poor predictor of job performance.

State laws aimed at limiting the use of credit checks tend to carve out exceptions for certain industries. Oregon's law, for example, exempts federally insured banks and credit unions, as well as some jobs in other industries. In Illinois, debt collectors, insurance agents and some state and local government agencies are among those exempt.

Proponents of credit checks, which include fraud examiners and credit-reporting groups as well as employers, contend the histories are an important screening tool for employers and tend to be used sparingly. A recent Society for Human Resource Management study showed 60% of employers used credit checks to vet job candidates.

Michael Eastman is an executive director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He told the EEOC that employers take individuals' circumstances into account. Many at the hearing stressed that employers look for a pattern of careless financial behavior, not one-time events.

According to the Journal, supporters claim credit checks can also be used as a tool to protect businesses against fraud by people who are in debt and have trouble paying their bills on time.

One problem in evaluating credit checks is confusion over what information is included in credit reports, how employers use them and what research has been conducted on the effects of using the checks in employment.

Experian Information Solutions Inc., a company that provides credit reports, offers an employment report that includes details such as a credit history, evidence of bankruptcy or liens, and information on previous employers. What it doesn't include is a person's credit score. It is that which takes into account various details of a person's credit history and synthesizes them into one number. Much of the research on disparities in credit histories between racial groups is based on credit scores, though most employers never see that number.

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Use Free Wi-Fi? Use Caution

As free Wi-Fi becomes more prevalent, consumers urged to stay safe when logged on

Use Free Wi-Fi? Use Caution As free Wi-Fi becomes more prevalent, consumers urged to stay safe when logged on...

With the announcement that "The Starbucks Digital Network" is launching in all 6,800 company-operated U.S. stores, providing Starbucks customers with a wide array of free, premium online content, Norton wants to take the opportunity to provide consumers with some basic tips on how to stay safe when using all Wi-Fi networks.

"While Wi-Fi networks are a great resource when you're away from home, they inherently can carry some risks as well," says Marian Merritt, Norton's Internet Safety Advocate. "Use some common sense and don't just hop on a network with a strong signal. Find out which one is actually coming from the coffee shop or airport lounge you're sitting in. With a little extra precaution, you'll avoid so-called 'evil twin' networks that trick travelers into connecting to unknown networks."

1. Pay attention to your surroundings: Remember, if you can read his newspaper, the guy sitting next to you can also read your laptop screen! Just because you're in your "home away from home," doesn't mean you're not still in public.  Use a privacy screen for extra security.

2. Beware of "Evil Twins": Some Wi-Fi networks can appear to be legitimate, but are not. Criminals can create "dummy" networks or websites that contain the name of the establishment you're in, but actually will direct your information to their own computer. If you always use the access keys provided by the business, you'll be protected.

3. Always assume your Wi-Fi connections are being eavesdropped on: Never enter sensitive data (bank account information, social security numbers, etc.) when browsing the Web via a public Wi-Fi network.

"You should also avoid banking, shopping or updating your investment strategy until you're back at home," advises Merritt.


4. Set any Bluetooth devices to "hidden," not "discoverable"
:  If you do not use the Bluetooth function, turn it off altogether.

5. Keep your security software current and active
:  Remember: No matter where you're connected, PCs are vulnerable to the same viruses, Trojans, and worms as your home computer. Use a trusted security software and keep it updated.

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Ford Re-Issues Recall For Fire-Prone Vehicles

8.4 million fire-prone Fords are still on the road, even after repeated recalls

Ford Re-Issues Recall For Fire-Prone Vehicles. 8.4 million fire-prone Fords are still on the road, even after repeated recalls. ...

photoFor years, Ford and federal safety regulators were criticized for moving too slowly to recognize and remedy a fire-safety risk on millions of Ford vehicles.

Now it's Ford owners who are the target of a recall reprise. Federal regulators say that an estimated 8.4 million Ford vehicles that can possibly catch fire remain on the road because of lack of owner action even after the largest U.S. safety recall ever

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) urged owners of the 14 million vehicles recalled between 1999 and 2009 for leaky cruise-control switches to take their unrepaired vehicles in to dealers. The switches on those vehicles may leak into the antilock brake system, dripping onto hot engine components and causing a fire, even hours after the vehicle has been shut off and parked.

Among the models that have been recalled over the years are 1992-2003 E series, 1993-2003 F series, 1995-2003 Windstars, 1995-2002 Explorers and 1995-2003 Rangers.

"If not repaired, the vehicles can catch fire, even if they are turned off, parked and unattended," NHTSA's statement said. The agency said that about 60 percent of the 14 million recalled vehicles -- or 8.4 million - have not been brought in for repair by owners.

For years, ConsumerAffairs.com has been receiving reports of Ford vehicles burning to the ground, often while unoccupied.  In a real-life version of the iconic firehouse fire, we have several reports of firemen complaining that their Ford trucks burned to the ground while parked outside the firehouse.

More routine are complaints such as this from Craig of Lake Zurich, Ill.:

"On the way to work one morning, heard a loud noise, sounded like the muffler fell off. Looked out the rear view mirror and there was a line of fire coming towards my truck. Threw the truck in park and opened the door to get out. The flames were already coming up from the bottom of the truck. Jumped over them and ran for safety. The truck burned to the ground."

Then there was Charlie of Elbertom, Ga.:

"My 2001 Ford Supercab pickup caught fire and burned 2 nights ago. The truck had been parked for over 10 hours. It also burned a car parked next to it, the parking garage and melted the vinyl siding on my house. Loss of all vehicles, 2001 Ford Supercab F150 and a 96 Toyota Corolla. Plus the damage to my house and garage."

Both vehicles likely were among the millions recalled, but owners -- especially those who bought the cars and trucks second- or third-hand -- may not have received or responded to the recall  notices.

Today's statement singled out used-car owners who may not know whether the vehicles they bought had ever been returned to dealers for needed repairs. It also urged owners "to watch for potential warning signs of an imminent fire."

 

Those signs include a cruise-control system or brake lights that stop working, low brake fluid and the illumination of brake warning lights on the dashboard.

 

Ford has notified owners about the recalls a number of times, company spokesman Wesley Sherwood said. The repair rate for the Ford models has been "likely lower than typical" because of their age, he added.

A Ford owner can check whether a vehicle has been recalled and repaired by entering the vehicle identification number (VIN) on the following site: www.myford.com.

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Whole Grain Diet Linked to Lower Body Fat

Can help reduce heart disease and type 2 diabetes

Knowing the difference between "whole grain" and "refined grain" may keep you in better health....

Eating several servings of whole grains per day while limiting daily intake of refined grains appear to create less fat tissue in the body, according to researchers.

They add that limiting this particular type of fat tissue may help prevent cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

What's the difference between "whole" grain and "refined" grain? As the name implies, there is more of the grain in whole grain. It contains germ, endosperm and bran. Refined grain, on the other hand, usually just retains the endosperm.

Whole grains are a natural source of protein, as well as a source of carbohydrates.

Researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Researcher Center on Aging (USDA HNRCA) at Tufts University observed lower volumes of visceral adipose tissue (VAT) in people who chose to eat mostly whole grains instead of refined grains.

Whole grains three times a day

"VAT volume was approximately 10 percent lower in adults who reported eating three or more daily servings of whole grains and who limited their intake of refined grains to less than one serving per day," said first author Nicola McKeown, PhD, a scientist with the Nutritional Epidemiology Program at the USDA HNRCA.

An example of whole grain food is oatmeal or whole wheat bread. Examples of refined grain food are rice and white bread.

McKeown and colleagues, including senior author Caroline S. Fox, MD, MPH, medical officer at The Framingham Heart Study of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), examined diet questionnaires submitted by 2,834 men and women enrolled in The Framingham Heart Offspring and Third Generation study cohorts.

The participants, ages 32 to 83, underwent sophisticated tests to determine VAT and subcutaneous adipose tissue (SAT) volumes.

Visceral fat surrounds the intra-abdominal organs while subcutaneous fat is found just beneath the skin.

"Prior research suggests visceral fat is more closely tied to the development of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of risk factors including hypertension, unhealthy cholesterol levels and insulin resistance that can develop into cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes," said co-author Paul Jacques, director of the Nutritional Epidemiology Program at the USDA HNRCA and a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.

"Not surprisingly, when we compared the relationship of both visceral fat tissue and subcutaneous fat tissue to whole and refined grain intake, we saw a more striking association with visceral fat. The association persisted after we accounted for other lifestyle factors such as smoking, alcohol intake, fruit and vegetable intake, percentage of calories from fat and physical activity," Jacques said.

Read the labels

Adding whole grain foods to your diet will probably require some label-reading. When shopping, check the ingredients list closely. If the first ingredient in the list is "whole wheat," "whole meal," or whole corn," then it's a whole grain food item.

Try to avoid products with ingredients described as "enriched" or "bromated." That could indicated refined ingredients.

Just because the first ingredient is listed as "wheat flour," that doesn't necessarily mean it's a whole grain product. A better indicator is "wholegrain wheat flour" or "whole wheat flour."

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Consumer Groups Call for End to Abusive Overdraft Practices

Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is being urged to enforce provisions of a new Federal Reserve rule

Consumer Groups Call for End to Abusive Overdraft Practices Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is being urged to enforce provisions of a new Fede...

A coalition of consumer groups is calling on the Office of Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) to adopt stricter guidance that requires banks to use fair overdraft practices and fully inform consumers.

In a letter to Acting Comptroller of the Currency John Walsh, the groups - including the Consumer Federation of America, the National Consumer Law Center, the Center for Responsible Lending, Consumers Union, Consumer Action, National Association of Consumer Advocates and U.S. Public Interest Research Group -- note that the nation's largest banks charge customers overdraft fees averaging $35 per transaction, often adding up to hundreds of dollars per day.

Overdraft triggers

The most common triggers of overdraft fees are small debit card transactions -- which cost the consumer nothing when they are simply denied due to lack of funds.

Over the summer, a new Federal Reserve rule went into effect requiring banks to get consumers' consent or "opt-in" to pay overdraft fees for debit card single purchase and ATM overdrafts. But because the Fed did not address the size or frequency of overdraft fees, banks still have strong incentives to push customers to opt in, and then continue to barrage them with fees, the groups contend.

Banks are sending letters to consumers trying to persuade them to opt into paying fees for overdrafts, saying that they may need this service in an emergency. The groups claim the banks typically carry a far lower-cost option -- an overdraft line of credit -- and many also offer transfers from savings accounts or credit cards, which are also usually less expensive.

Time to step up

"The FDIC and Office of Thrift Supervision have already proposed strengthening overdraft guidelines for the banks they oversee. Now it is time for the OCC to take action," said Rebecca Borne of the Center for Responsible Lending. "The OCC should prohibit banks from steering customers into the highest cost overdraft option. Banks should be required to evaluate any customer who wants overdraft coverage to determine whether the consumer qualifies for a lower-cost overdraft option."

Lauren Saunders of the National Consumer Law Center notes that the largest banks typically rearrange and process payments largest first, which significantly increases fees for low-balance customers by causing multiple fees when a single large payment exhausts available funds. "The OCC should make it clear to banks that they should not post transactions in an order that maximizes fees," she says.

Time for action

The OCC's recent $33 million enforcement action involving Woodforest National Bank "illustrates the need for the OCC to address excessive overdraft fees across the board," said Jean Ann Fox of the Consumer Federation of America. "Woodforest Bank's practices do not appear to be atypical. The OCC should also limit the number of overdraft fees to six per year, consistent with the FDIC's recent proposal recognizing that charging more than six fees per year constitutes excessive use."

Consumers Union's Lauren Bowne says it appears that during the last few months a number of banks have been pressuring consumers or asking them repeatedly to opt in to overdraft coverage. She believes the OCC put a stop to it adding, "If a consumer declines to opt in or to provide an answer, the bank should be required to assume that the consumer does not wish to opt in and not solicit the consumer again."

Informing consumers

"Consumers must be given information about the comparative cost of each alternative in order to make a truly informed and meaningful choice, including a sample APR disclosure to compare fee-based overdraft loans with a traditional overdraft line of credit or transfer from a credit card," according to Linda Sherry of Consumer Action. "Every opt-in form should prominently display that the cost of not opting in to ATM and one-time debit card overdraft coverage is $0."

Consumers should get a clear and prominent message that declining to opt in means they will never incur any overdraft fees for ATM and single debit card transactions, the groups said.

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Momnesia? What Momnesia?

New study claims motherhood makes moms' brains grow

Momnesia? What Momnesia? New study claims motherhood makes moms' brains grow...

No one can argue that a baby changes everything.  A few years ago, experts agreed they even change their moms' brains.  Women, once sharp and focused, found themselves fuzzy and forgetful after getting pregnant or bringing their new baby home. The phenomena even got a funny, snappy name: "momnesia."

But new research claims motherhood may actually cause the brain to grow, not turn it into mush.

Exploratory research published by the American Psychological Association found that the brains of new mothers bulked up in areas linked to motivation and behavior, and that mothers who gushed the most about their babies showed the greatest growth in key parts of the mid-brain.

Led by neuroscientist Pilyoung Kim, PhD, now with the National Institute of Mental Health, the authors speculated that hormonal changes right after birth, including increases in estrogen, oxytocin and prolactin, may help make mothers' brains susceptible to reshaping in response to the baby. Their findings were published in the October issue of Behavioral Neuroscience.

The motivation to take care of a baby, and the hallmark traits of motherhood, might be less of an instinctive response and more of a result of active brain building, neuroscientists Craig Kinsley, PhD, and Elizabeth Meyer, PhD, wrote in a special commentary in the same journal issue.

The researchers performed baseline and follow-up high-resolution magnetic-resonance imaging on the brains of 19 women who gave birth at Yale-New Haven Hospital, 10 to boys and nine to girls. A comparison of images taken two to four weeks and three to four months after the women gave birth showed that gray matter volume increased by a small but significant amount in various parts of the brain.

In adults, gray matter volume doesn't ordinarily change over a few months without significant learning, brain injury or illness, or major environmental change.

The areas affected support maternal motivation (hypothalamus), reward and emotion processing (substantia nigra and amygdala), sensory integration (parietal lobe), and reasoning and judgment (prefrontal cortex).

In particular, the mothers who most enthusiastically rated their babies as special, beautiful, ideal, perfect and so on were significantly more likely to develop bigger mid-brains than the less awestruck mothers in key areas linked to maternal motivation, rewards and the regulation of emotions.  

The mothers averaged just over 33 years in age and 18 years of school. All were breastfeeding, nearly half had other children and none had serious postpartum depression.

Although these early findings require replication with a larger and more representative sample, they raise intriguing questions about the interaction between mother and child (or parent and child, since fathers are also the focus of study).

The intense sensory-tactile stimulation of a baby may trigger the adult brain to grow in key areas, allowing mothers, in this case, to "orchestrate a new and increased repertoire of complex interactive behaviors with infants," the authors wrote.

Expansion in the brain's "motivation" area in particular could lead to more nurturing, which would help babies survive and thrive physically, emotionally and cognitively.

Further study using adoptive mothers could help "tease out effects of postpartum hormones versus mother-infant interactions," said Kim, and help resolve the question of whether the brain changes behavior or behavior changes the brain - or both.

The authors said that postpartum depression may involve reductions in the same brain areas that grew in mothers who were not depressed. "The abnormal changes may be associated with difficulties in learning the rewarding value of infant stimuli and in regulating emotions during the postpartum period," they said.

Further study is expected to clarify what happens in the brains of mothers at risk, which may lead to improved interventions.

In their "Theoretical Comment," Kinsley and Meyer, of the University of Richmond, connected this research on human mothers to similar basic research findings in laboratory animals. All the scientists agreed that further research may show whether increased brain volumes are due to growth in nerve cells themselves, longer and more complex connections (dendrites and dendritic spines) between them, or bushier branching in nerve-cell networks.

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Whirlpool Wins Split Decision In Clothes Dryer Case

Company's 'steam' claims violated law but didn't commit fraud, jury rules

The bitter struggle between appliance giants Whirlpool and LG played itself out in court, with mixed results....

An Illinois Jury has ruled that Whirlpool violated the state's Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act in marketing its steam clothes dryers. But the jurors said that violation did not rise to the level of fraud.

At issue was Whirlpool's ads for its Cabrio and Duet steam dryers, as well as its Maytag Bravo line. The jury found Whirlpool was deceptive in describing the dryers as "steam" models, since they actually use a cold water spray.

Whirlpool, on its part, hailed the split verdict as a victory.

"We are very pleased with the decision," said Marc Bitzer, president, Whirlpool North America Region.  "This case is about consumer choice, competition in the American free market, and offering the kind of innovative laundry solutions Whirlpool has provided to consumers for nearly 100 years. Our steam dryers, which provide more convenient steam performance and consumer benefits, are a perfect example of our leadership.  This win means consumers will continue to have a choice in purchasing their steam laundry appliances."  

Nasty fight

The case was brought by Whirlpool's increasingly bitter rival, LG, which viewed the outcome as anything for a victory for its competitor.

In the case filed on Jan. 10, 2008, LG alleged that Whirlpool made false statements in marketing its Duet and Cabrio Steam Dryers, as well as the Maytag brand Bravo Steam Dryer manufactured by Whirlpool, because these products do not produce or use steam.  

Instead, they spray water from a cold water source into a heated drum, which tumble dries the wet clothes in the same manner as conventional dryers. Whirlpool claimed that evaporation from the heated clothes is steam, but the jury rejected that defense, finding that Whirlpool violated the Illinois Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

With Judge Amy St. Eve presiding, the eight-woman, one-man jury made its determination of facts in the case upon deliberating for one day, after hearing from more than 19 witnesses during the 11-day trial.

"Today's verdict reaffirms LG's commitment to develop and produce the most technologically innovative laundry machines on the market," said James Shad, president of LG Electronics USA.

Marketing battle

The case actually appeared to be more of a marketing battle than a legal argument. Lawyers for LG pointed up what they said were differences between LG's Steam Dryer and Whirlpool's Duet Steam Dryer.

Both brands, by the way, get their fair share of complaints from consumers writing to ConsumerAffairs.com.

Both Whirlpool and LG put out competing press releases claiming victory in the case. LG said "the court will now determine the scope of an injunction prohibiting Whirlpool from continuing to market its misting dryers as Steam Dryers."

Whirlpool responded by saying it "proved that its innovative steam dryers, from its Marion, Ohio factory, use steam to deliver the consumer benefits of wrinkle relaxation and odor reduction."

 

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‘Drive-Thru’ Radiation Cancer Treatment Poses Threat, Lawmaker Says

Patients spread radiation in hotels, taxis and other public places

A Congressional report says sending patients home immediately after receiving radiation treatments is not good policy....

Not long ago thyroid cancer patients who received a dose of radiation spent a day or two in the hospital. That's no longer the case, and one member of Congress thinks that poses a public health hazard.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) points to a congressional analysis that he says backs up his point. It highlights the potential dangers to public health from patients who have been released from the hospital after being treated with radioactive materials for cancers and other diseases.

"Releasing radioactively 'hot' patients who may expose an unwitting public to potentially dangerous levels of radiation makes absolutely no sense," Markey said. "Yet that is exactly what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's current policies allow." 

Markey, Chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, also sent a letter transmitting the analysis to Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Greg Jaczko in advance of two meetings the NRC is having on the subject. In the letter, Markey calls on the NRC to revise its regulations to ensure that the public is protected against unnecessary exposure to radioactive patients.

1,000 subjects

The subcommittee's investigation, which drew from a survey of more than 1,000 thyroid cancer survivors' experiences, indicates that there is a strong likelihood that members of the public have been unwittingly exposed to radiation from patients who are discharged after being treated with radioisotopes.

The analysis found that these risks occurred because of weak NRC regulations, ineffective oversight of those who administer these medical treatments, and the absence of clear guidance and procedures to ensure that such exposures do not occur. 

Prior to 1997, most treatments for thyroid cancer and other disorders would have occurred on an inpatient basis. Other countries have similar rules, not just for the projection of the patient but for those who might come in contact with the patient immediately following the treatment.

In 1997, NRC revised its regulations to allow for patients treated with radioactive materials whose bodies are emitting high levels of radiation to be sent home, even if they live with young children or pregnant women, who are most vulnerable to such exposures. Patients can also be sent to hotels for recovery, even though hotel workers or other hotel guests may be unwittingly exposed. 

The subcommittee's survey collected about 1,000 responses in just over two weeks, Markey said.

According to the National Cancer Institute, 44,670 new cases of thyroid cancer will be diagnosed in 2010, and other thyroid disorders are also treated with radioactive iodine.  The survey results indicate that:

Radioactive patients

Nearly seven percent of all patients who are treated with radioactive iodine on an outpatient basis choose to go to a hotel or similar facility to recover where they contaminate sheets, bedspreads, and other common room surfaces and could also potentially expose pregnant hotel workers or children of guests -who are the most susceptible for developing cancer as a result of radiation exposure.  In 2007, a patient was discovered to have contaminated two individuals as well as the sheets and towels used in almost an entire hotel in Illinois.  

Seventy-five percent of these patients go to hotels with their doctor's knowledge.  The NRC's guidelines require physicians to perform individualized calculations to ensure that patients won't contaminate those they contact if they are released from the hospital, but these calculations can't be reliably performed for hotels (because there is no way to know who is sleeping on the other side of the wall, who the next hotel guest will be, or whether the hotel cleaning staff is pregnant).

Ten percent of the patients never received any education on ways to reduce exposure to pregnant women and children from the radiation they emit.  The NRC has chosen to depend on the adequacy of instructions given to patients to ensure that they don't expose others to radiation.  In a response to a previous letter Rep. Markey sent to Jaczko on this issue, NRC indicated that it believes the public is adequately protected, provided that "adequate instructions are given at discharge to patients and family members." Clearly, the assumption that the instructions provided to patients are adequate is not supportable.  

Correspondence with state regulators, who implement and oversee NRC regulations in 37 States, also indicated that concerns with radioactive contamination of public transportation systems (NJ) and waste landfills (MA, MD) are other confounding problems associated with the immediate discharge of patients after treatment with radioactive iodine. 

Markey says the NRC should immediately start a rulemaking to revise its 1997 regulations surrounding the treatment of patients with radionuclides, and ensure that these regulations are made to be consistent with and as protective of the most vulnerable populations as policies that are in place in other developed countries. Hospitalization should be mandatory for those patients who are treated with doses of I-131 above internationally accepted threshold limits. 

Further he says the new regulations should ensure that patients who are released from the hospital after treatment are prohibited from recovering from such treatments in hotels or taking taxis or public transportation in the days that immediately follow treatment, and that specific written and verbal guidance prohibiting such activities is provided both to medical licensees and to patients. 

Enforcement actions should be taken against medical licensees who fail to provide such guidance to patients, or otherwise fail to advise a patient planning to violate the prohibitions that the regulations do not permit such activities.  In cases where the patients cannot identify a suitable outpatient facility in which to recover, NRC regulations should mandate in-patient stays.
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Zynga, Facebook Accused of Handing Out User Information

Lawsuits follow investigative piece about Facebook game data leak

Zynga, Facebook Accused of Handing Out User Information Lawsuits follow investigative piece about Facebook game data leak...

Two class action lawsuits target Facebook and the largest maker of Facebook applications -- alleging that the companies breached consumers' privacy by illegally sharing their information with third parties, in violation of Facebook's own policies.

Both suits follow a Wall Street Journal article on Monday detailing a disturbing apparent data breach -- or, more accurately, "leak" -- of consumer information.

Specifically, the article found that many Facebook applications "have been ... providing access to people's names and, in some cases, their friends' names ... to dozens of advertising and Internet tracking companies."

According to the report, the applications -- commonly called "apps" -- provide consumers' "user ID numbers," which can in turn be used to find their names and, in certain cases, other identifying information. The policy is in direct violation of Facebook's rules, which provide that developers cannot "directly or indirectly transfer any data you receive from us to (or use such data in connection with) any ad network, ad exchange, data broker, or other advertising related toolset, even if a user consents to such transfer or use."

Scores of users affected

The issue affects tens of millions of consumers who use Facebook apps, even those who have enabled the maximum privacy controls on their profiles, the Journal found. Additionally, all ten of the site's most popular apps transmit the user IDs and three of the top ten -- including FarmVille -- also send information about users' friends, according to the report.

The Journal found that data from the apps is going to "at least 25 advertising and data firms, several of which build profiles of Internet users by tracking their online activities."

Once the report was released, it took less than 12 hours for the lawsuits to start flying.

Separate suits, similar allegations

One of the lawsuits, filed Monday in a San Francisco federal court, targets Zynga, which makes many of Facebook's popular games, including FarmVille, Mafia Wars and Texas HoldEm.

That suit, which names Nancy Walther Graf as the lead plaintiff, accuses Zynga of "illegally sharing [customer data] with advertisers and data brokers" for "substantial profit," and is brought on behalf of all registered Facebook users in the U.S. who registered with Zynga any time after October 18, 2006.

Meanwhile, a Rhode Island suit targets Facebook directly, contending that it is responsible for the data leaks. The Rhode Island suit was originally filed in June but has been updated with charges similar to those in the California action.

"This appears to be another example of an online company failing the American public with empty promises to respect individual privacy rights," Michael Aschenbrener, one of the California plaintiffs' attorneys, said in a statement.

In a statement, Facebook said the California complaint "is without merit and we intend to defend against it vigorously."

The allegations between the two suits include breach of contract and violations of the Consumer Legal Remedies Act, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Stored Communications Act and the Computer Crime Law.

Facebook's been down this road before

Class action lawsuits alleging privacy violations are nothing new for Facebook. Most recently, in July, a Canadian law firm filed a suit taking issue with the website's late 2009 decision to change users' default privacy setting to "public," making scores of photos, friend lists, and other identifying information available to the world, even if the user had previously set stricter controls on her account. Users who wanted to return to the more stringent privacy settings had to go in and affirmatively change their account preferences.

And last November, both Facebook and Zynga were named in a suit brought by Facebook gamers who say they were scammed into giving up personal information in exchange for virtual "cash" that could be redeemed in Zynga-created games. All the users got, according to the suit, was a subscription to "a useless SMS service" -- and the monthly fees that go along with it.

And, perhaps most infamously, there was the Facebook Beacon disaster. Beacon, an advertising feature rolled out in November 2007, recorded users' activities on other websites, then relayed it back to their news feeds. Facebook agreed to shut Beacon down in September 2009 as part of the settlement of yet another class action.

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Toyota Recalling More Than 1 Million Vehicles

The automaker says the action is prompted by brake problems in certain Avalon, Highlander and Lexus models

Toyota Recalling More Than 1 Million Vehicles The automaker says the action is prompted by brake problems in certain Avalon, Highlander and Lexus models...

The word "recall" probably ranks right up there with certain four-letter words at Toyota headquarters. The once-proud automaker has recalled millions of automakers and suffered untold damage to its once-pristine reputation as the result of numerous safety-related problems.

The latest is today's recall of about 740,000 vehicles because of the risk that a small amount of brake fluid could leak from the brake master cylinder.

The recalled models are the  2005 through 2006 Avalon, 2004 through 2006 Highlander (non-Hybrid) and Lexus RX330, and 2006 Lexus GS300, IS250, and IS350 vehicles sold in the United States.

The company said that the brake fluid used during vehicle assembly for vehicles sold in the United States contains polymers, which act as lubricants for certain brake system components.

If during vehicle maintenance, brake fluid is used that does not contain such polymers or that contains an improper amount of polymers, a part of the internal rubber seal located at the end of the brake master cylinder piston may become dry and may curl during movement of the piston.

If this occurs, a small amount of the brake fluid could slowly leak from the brake master cylinder into the brake booster, resulting in illumination of the brake warning lamp.

If the brake warning lamp goes on and the vehicle continues to be driven without refilling the master cylinder brake fluid reservoir, the driver will begin to notice a spongy or soft brake pedal feel and braking performance may gradually decline.

Owners of the involved vehicles will be notified by first class mail beginning in early November 2010. Toyota and Lexus dealers will replace the brake master cylinder cup with a newly designed one at no charge to the vehicle owners.

As is usual in safety recalls, owners of models not covered by the recall have complained of similar problems.

Take Jennifer of Casa Grande, Ariz. She was driving her Toyota Tacoma pickup recently as she approached another vehicle that had stopped for a stop sign.

"It appeared the brakes were working but not catching as fast as usual so I put extra pressure on the brake. Getting too close than I should be for a stop, I pushed the brake to the floor and my truck dipped a bit appearing to come to a stop but then kept rolling and hit the car in front of me," she said.

In addition to the U.S. recall, Toyota is recalling nearly 600,000 vehicles in Japan because of defective fuel pump wires and brake master cylinders. In August, Toyota recalled 1.1 million Corolla and Matrix models that it said were prone to stalling.

Besides the latest recalls, Toyota is still struggling to deal with the fall-out from earlier recalls dealing with sudden acceleration. Most recently, Allstate Insurance Co. sued Toyota seeking to recover more than $3 million that the insurer says it paid in claims for accidents linked to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

ConsumerAffairs.com has received numerous reports of accidents and near-accidents involving unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. One of the most recent comes from Donna of Paso Robles, Calif.

"I was driving into a parking space, I applied the brake, instead of stopping, the car accelerated, it went over a 7 inch curb, and into a Shell gas station, going through a wall and plate glass window. My foot was on the brake the whole time, Donna said. When I saw the vehicle in Truman Lewis's report of 10/07/2010 regarding Toyota it was almost identical to what happened to us."

 Read more about Toyota.

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Work From Home Scams Are Prime Recruiting Areas for Cyber Criminals

A coalition of agencies is offering tips keep consumers from being drawn in

Work from Home Scams Are Prime Recruiting Areas for Cyber Criminals A coalition of agencies is offering tips keep consumers from being drawn in ...

Consumers continue to lose money from work-from-home scams that assist cyber criminals in moving stolen funds. Worse yet, due to their deliberate or unknowing participation in the scams, these individuals may face criminal charges.

Work-from-home scam victims are often recruited by organized cyber criminals through newspaper ads, online employment services, unsolicited emails or "spam" and social networking sites advertising work-from-home opportunities.

Once recruited, however, rather than becoming an employee of a legitimate business, the consumer is actually a "mule" for cyber criminals who use the consumer's or other victim's accounts to steal and launder money. In addition, the consumer's own identity or account may be compromised by the cyber criminals.

Example of a work-from-home scheme:

  • An individual applies for a position as a rebate or payments processor through an online job site or through an unsolicited email.
  • As a new employee, the individual is asked to provide his/her bank account information to his/her employer or to establish a new account using information provided by the employer.
  • Funds are deposited into the account that the employee is instructed to wire to a third (often international) account. The employee is instructed to deduct a percentage of the wired amount as their commission.
  • However, rather than processing rebates or processing payments, the individual is actually participating in a criminal activity by laundering stolen funds through his/her own account or a newly established account.

This past February, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) coordinated with state law enforcement officials and other federal agencies to announce a sweeping crackdown on job and work-from-home fraud schemes fueled by the economic downturn. Individuals who are knowing or unknowing participants in this type of scheme could be prosecuted.

Protect yourself:

  • Be wary of work-from-home opportunities. Research the legitimacy of the company through the Better Business Bureau (for US-based companies) or WHOIS/Domain Tools (for international companies) before providing personal or account information and/or agreeing to work for them. In addition, TrustedSource.org can help you identify companies that may be maliciously sending spam based on the volume of email sent from their Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. See also the FTC's recommendations.
  • Be cautious about any opportunities offering the chance to work from home with very little work or prior experience. Remember: if it looks too good to be true, it usually is.
  • Never pay for the privilege of working for an employer. Be suspicious of opportunities that require you to pay for things up front, such as supplies and other materials.
  • Never give your bank account details to anyone unless you know and trust them.
  • If you think you may be a victim of one of these scams, contact your financial institution immediately. Report any suspicious work-from-home offers or activities to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).

For more information, visit:

  • PhishBucket.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting job seekers from fraudulent job offers.
  • OnGuardOnline.org. Sponsored by the FTC, this site provides practical tips from the federal government and the technology industry to help you be on guard against Internet fraud, secure your computer, and protect your personal information.
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If You’re Looking for Work, Here Are the Top Ten States for Jobs and Business

In this economy, you may have to move to another state to get work

If you are among the millions of Americans looking for work, you may want to consider those states offering the most jobs...

With unemployment topping 9.6% and seven million fewer jobs to go around, finding work these days is a grueling process. For many, it means changing careers, and moving to another state. But one thing Americans want more than anything else according to the polls is the ability to work.

Therefore, if the job market in your geographic location seems to have dried up, it may be time to broaden your net to include jobs in other states, even if means moving across the country.

To help you find those areas with the most jobs, Forbes magazine has come out with its 10 best states for jobs and businesses and the best state for jobs this year is Utah, whose economy has grown 3.5% annually over the past five years, which is faster than any other state except North Dakota, which just missed the top ten and was the eleventh best state for jobs.

Utah's economic growth is three-and-a-half times faster than the U.S. as a whole. While total employment has shrunk in America over the past five years, in Utah it increased 1.5% annually. Household incomes have gone up 5% annually, which is tops in the country and twice as fast as the national average.

Here's something other states may want to take note of, or at least those running for governor. Utah lowered its corporate tax rate from 7% to 5% in 2008, to the delight of businesses. The rate is now one of the lowest in the country. The regulatory climate is also pro-business, with the Pacific Research Institute rating Utah second-best in the regulatory component of its U.S. Economic Freedom Index.

Utah's other plus factors include energy costs at 35% below the national average; an educated labor force, with 90% of residents holding a high school diploma (and 29% a college degree); a great quality of life with low poverty rates; a healthy populous; and ample recreational opportunities. Utah boasts a triple-A debt rating from Moody's, S&P and Fitch. Earlier this year Forbes crowned Utah the country's most fiscally fit state government.

Companies have taken notice. Goldman Sachs is expanding its operations in Utah, and its Salt Lake City office is now the company's second-largest in North America. Adobe is creating 1,000 new jobs while Oracle and eBay are both building large data centers in Salt Lake City.

The Forbes Best States ranking measures six vital categories for businesses: costs, labor supply, regulatory environment, current economic climate, growth prospects and quality of life. It factors in 33 points of data to determine the ranks in the six main areas. Business costs, which include labor, energy and taxes, are weighted the most. It also relies on 10 data sources, with research firm Moody's as the most-utilized resource.

Last year's number one state, Virginia, is number 2 this year. Virginia still has a very favorable business climate, with an educated labor supply and solid economic growth. But Virginia's business costs for labor and energy have crept up, which allowed Utah to beat it. Rounding out the top five are No. 3 North Carolina, No. 4 Colorado and fifth-ranked Washington.

The bottom five of the top ten include: 6. Oregon, 7. Texas, 8. Georgia, 9. Nebraska, and 10. Kansas.

Don't rule out the entire Northeast. Judging by Forbes rankings, despite high business costs and crippling budget deficits. New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts moved up in the rankings this year compared to last year. Massachusetts made the biggest move of any state this year, climbing from No. 34 to No. 16.

Business costs in Massachusetts may be the highest in the country: 22% above the national average, but venture capital continues to pour into the state taking advantage of the bright minds at elite universities in and around Boston and Cambridge. VCs invested $2.9 billion in Massachusetts companies last year, second only to California.

Perhaps the least likely state to provide work this year is Maine, which replaced No. 49 Rhode Island at the bottom of our rankings. Growth prospects in Maine have deteriorated relative to the rest of the country because of a number of business closings the past three years.

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How to Maintain Your Home with Tools Costing a total of $250

Home maintenance may be the bane of every homeowner but doesn’t have to be expensive

For a mere $250, a group of experts says you can buy all the tools you need to keep your house in great shape ...

 If you're like me, the idea of doing home repairs is right up there with getting my teeth cleaned. I know the repairs have to be made to maintain the value of my house just as regular cleanings maintain the teeth that are still in my mouth. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

The difference is that I go to a professional dentist for my teeth cleaning, and with home repairs, I try to do as much of that myself before calling in the expensive professionals. But what usually happens is that when I go to make a particular repair, I discover that I don't have the proper tools and end up having to call the carpenter, plumber or electrician. Each visit usually runs a minimum of $250. 

So if this sounds familiar to you, here are some tips from a group of experts who claim you can buy all the tools you need to maintain your home for a total of $250. We're talking about tools you can use instead of having to pick up the phone or run to the hardware store. The $250 figure is the minimum and the group also offers some more expensive alternatives for those of you with a bigger budget. 

This particular group was assembled by Bob Tedeschi, who wrote about them in The New York Times and includes Joe Ball, a vice president for construction operations for a home construction company, the Pulte Group; Ken Stone, director of the Hobby Shop, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); and Donna Shirey, the chairwoman of the National Association of Home Builders Re-modelers Division.

Here are the tools and supplies they recommend.

1. A hammer. But not just any hammer. They say buy a hammer with a hickory or ash handle, because the wood absorbs shock. If you use a steel-handled hammer for too long, your elbow will get sore. Also, the hammer should have a curved claw for pulling nails, not the straight claw. You'll want the hammer to have a smooth-face, not corrugated, so when you miss you don't permanently leave a crosshatch in the wood. The face should also be flat because nails hit with an angled or otherwise flawed surface are more likely to bend. As for cost, you can go with a $5 hickory-handle hammer from Sears, or if you want to spend more like $16 on Plumb's 16-ounce Premium Hickory Autograf curved claw hammer, go for it.

2. A screwdriver. The group recommends a multi-head screwdriver with two different size bits for slotted and Phillips screws, as well as Robertson (the square screws) and something called Torx bits. A ratcheted screwdriver is easier on the wrist, and a screwdriver that stores bits in the handle will save you from buying replacements. A good quality screwdriver will cost about $10. That's what you'll pay for the Stanley FatMax Ratcheting Multi-Bit Screwdriver.

3. A cordless drill. The going rate for a decent cordless drill is $50. However, for those with a bit (pardon the pun) more to spend, Mr. Ball, of Pulte Group, recommends a cordless hammer drill, which is four times as expensive as a standard drill but it opens up the ability of the tool and will last a lifetime. One suggestion is the DeWalt 1/2-inch, 18-volt Cordless Compact Hammer-drill kit, including battery and charger, for around $220.

4. A tape measure. Mr. Ball likes a one-inch-wide, 25-foot-long tape measure with a lock.  

5. Pliers. Buy a standard pair and needle-nose. You may also want to add a pair of 12-inch slip-joint pliers, for when you need more torque or a wide mouth for pipes. The group also recommends something called Mole-Grip pliers, which are commonly known as Vise-Grips. According to Mr. Ball, they give you teeth and leverage.

6. Wrenches. Buy one adjustable wrench and a set of standard and metric wrenches — each with one closed, or "box," end and one open end. And a set of socket wrenches — metric and standard — also helps especially if you find yourself putting together furniture.  

7. A level and a stud finder. They're often sold as a unit, but you may want to buy them separately if you like the feel and versatility of a two-foot-long level.

8. A foot-long wrecking bar is handy, especially one with a nicely tapered edge so you can slip it beneath existing wood.

9. Saw. Light carpentry jobs require a handsaw small enough to fit in your toolbox. Be sure it cuts on the pull stroke. That tends to be easier than cutting on the push stroke. One popular option is the Stanley FatMax Single-Edge Pull Saw for about $16. For more complicated carpentry, you may need a jig-saw. They're safer than circular saws plus they're fast, and they can cut straight or in curves. One recommendation is the Bosch JS470E 7-amp jigsaw with a top handle, for about $190. Another option is Bosch's 5-amp jigsaw, for around $125.

10. Toss in an assortment of screws, drywall fasteners and eight-penny nails, a small notebook, and a carpenter's pencil, and you're set. Total: around $10.

So, how did we do price-wise? Hammer-$5, Screwdriver-$10, Cordless drill $50, Tape Measure $3, Pliers-$16, Wrenches-$12, Level and stud finder-$8, Wrecking bar-$5, Saw-$10, Jigsaw-$125, Screws, nails, fasteners, notebook, pencil-$8. For a total of $252.

 

 

 

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Making Life Easier For Aging Pets

Simple tips to make life easier for senior cats and dogs

Making Life Easier For Aging PetsSimple tips to make life easier for senior cats and dogs...

Americans will do anything for their pets. But many pet owners don't realize the things they do for their pets must change as their four-legged friends get older.

Kansas State University veterinarian Susan Nelson says there are many simple things pet owners can do to ease the aging process for their beloved cats and dogs.

So, what constitutes "old age" in cats and dogs? Turns out, it's not as simple as the old "add seven years" equation we grew up using.

The average ages vary for cats and dogs to be considered a senior pet, said Nelson, who is also an assistant professor of clinical services at K-State.

According to an age analogy chart by Fortney and Goldston, cats are considered senior from the ages of 8 to 11 years old -- the equivalent of 48 to 60 human years. When cats reach age 12 -- equal to 64 human years -- they are considered geriatric.

The aging process for dogs varies according to weight. Dogs between 0 and 20 pounds are considered senior at 8 years old -- or 50 years old in human years -- and geriatric at 11 years old -- 62 in human years. Dogs that weigh more than 120 pounds are senior at age 4 -- 49 human years -- and geriatric at 6 years old -- equal to 69 human years. Dogs whose weights lie between the two ends of the chart are adjusted accordingly.

"Aging pets are a lot like aging people with respect to diseases and senility issues," Nelson said, citing diabetes, chronic kidney disease, cancer, osteoarthritis, periodontal disease and heart disease as some of the conditions that can afflict aging pets.

"Like people, routine exams and tests can help detect some of these problems earlier and make treatment more successful," Nelson said. "It's also important to work closely with your veterinarian, as many pets are on more than one type of medication as they age, just like humans."

Owners can prevent disease or increase longevity by helping their pets exercise, maintain a healthy weight and stay current on vaccines and heartworm prevention.

"Such actions obviously can't prevent all diseases, but when caught early, many diseases can be managed and extended good quality of life can be achieved," Nelson said.

"It is important to take pets in for a semiannual health exam and lab tests for early detection of problems," Nelson said. "Diseases such as systemic hypertension and Diabetes Mellitus are just a few that can occur at a relatively young age and often take owners by surprise. Urinary or fecal incontinence are other issues that may occur as your pet matures."

As pets age, their behavior can also change, Nelson said. They may have changes in appetite or activity, tend to sleep more, become easily disoriented or interact less with the family.

Pet owners may not expect some of their pets' behavioral changes, such as senility, phobias of thunderstorms or separation anxiety. Because senior pets can develop anxieties -- such as fear of loud noises, crowds and children -- pet owners should try to avoid those situations when possible and talk to their veterinarians about behavior modification and the possibility of behavior modifying medications if indicated.

To ease the aging process, avoid having pets run and jump because such activities are stressful on their joints. Walking or swimming are better alternatives for pets with osteoarthritis. Many joint supplements, pain medications and joint health diets are available to help osteoarthritis.

Owners also can provide a warm, quiet, soft place to sleep, soften food if painful teeth are a problem and change a pet's diet for specific diseases when prescribed by their veterinarian, Nelson said. Owners also can do simple helpful tasks, such as flipping yard lights on at night if a pet is having vision problems or moving a litter box for easier access if stairs are a problem.

Nelson said owners should visit with their veterinarian when they have any questions or concerns about their aging pets so they can learn the best ways to care for them. With some extra preventative care and awareness of their pets' needs, owners can provide a healthy and comfortable life for their aging friends.

"Lastly, give your senior pets lots of TLC -- tender, loving care," Nelson said.

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Add Free Checking to the List of Things That May No Longer Be Free

Free checking used to be a given, but now it’s becoming a rarity

Banks that do business with over half the households in America are making it more difficult to get free checking ...

Remember the good old days, when things like water, air and checking were free? Now you pay up to a dollar for a bottle of water, 50 cents for a few pounds of air pressure for your tires, and free checking, well, you might as well start saying goodbye to that too.

In fact, the cost of everyday banking is rising. My wife had to check her account yesterday at Wachovia to see who she had written a check to and the bank charged her $17 for that privilege.

As for those glory days when you could go into your friendly neighborhood branch bank and open a checking account for free? They're gone. Today, it's not uncommon to pay monthly chargers for each account, or be forced to maintain a particular level of balance along with a number of other conditions in order to keep costs down. If you want to use a teller for free, you can forget it. 

As usual, you can thank your federal government for passing a bunch of laws aimed at reforming the financial system that also ended up making it harder for banks to make money. So they're doing what every other business does when times are tough. They're passing the pain along to their customers and grabbing money where-ever they can.

Free checking? What, are you kidding?

Bank of America is the primary bank for half of all households in America. This week it said it was changing the way it does business to make up for what the government hath taken away.

If you open a new account at Bank of America today, you will pay $8.95 per month if you use a teller or want to receive a monthly statement on paper. Customers can still possibly get free banking but only if they do their banking online. However, many people are still afraid to use the Internet for financial transactions.

In defense of their actions, a Bank of America spokeswoman admitted something worth noting. She said "customers never had free checking accounts," adding that "they always paid for them in other ways such as penalty fees."

Bank of America isn't the only major bank charging fees for checking accounts. Many have already begun charging for paper statements. The average cost is around $7.50 a month.

According to the research firm Moebs Services, it is now up to the smaller Main Street banks and credit unions to use the disappearance of free checking at the major banks as away to attract customers.

So if you're looking for free checking, don't give up hope. That little community bank down the street might just be the answer. Just check their financials first to make sure they're not about to go out of business.

 

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Identity Theft 'Protection' Services Not Always Worth the Cost

Consumer group offers new tips to help shop for identity theft services

Consumers Continue To Be Plagued By ID TheftConsumer group offers new tips to help shop for identity theft services...

Identity theft continues to be the top complaint received by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and surveys by Javelin Strategy and Research show that identity fraud -- the unauthorized use of someone's personal information -- is on the rise.

With that in mind, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) is releasing Nine Things to Check When Shopping for Identity Theft Services.

Many companies sell services that promise to "protect your identity" but, as CFA reported last year, the claims that some identity theft services make are exaggerated or misleading. It's not easy to tell from their Web sites and advertising exactly how these services work, how much they cost, or what protection or assistance they really offer.

"Identity theft services may be able to help you detect identity theft quicker than you could yourself, and some also offer to help resolve your identity theft problems, but no service can absolutely prevent your personal information from being stolen," said Susan Grant, CFA's Director of Consumer Protection. "It's important for consumers to know what to steer clear of when purchasing identity theft services."

ID theft do's and don't's

CFA's new tips are designed to help consumers look for identity theft services that follow good practices. They also provide links to resources where consumers can learn about how to reduce the potential for becoming identity theft victims and how to resolve identity theft problems on their own.

The tips were developed in consultation with CFA's ID Theft Service Best Practice Group, which includes companies that provide identity theft services, consumer organizations, and consumer agencies.

The group is working on recommendations for best practices for identity theft service providers, primarily focused on how identity theft services are promoted. CFA plans to release the best practices later this year.

What to check when shopping for identity theft services:

  • Do the claims on the identity theft service's Web site or in its ads make you think the service will completely protect you against identity theft? If the answer is yes, steer clear! No one can absolutely protect your personal information from being stolen or fraudulently used, and identity theft service providers that follow good practices won't imply that they can.

 

  • Does the identity theft service use scare tactics to try to get you to enroll? If the answer is yes, steer clear! Identity theft service providers that follow good practices won't exaggerate the likelihood of becoming a victim or the harm that identity theft causes.

 

  • Does the identity theft service make basic information about the company easy to find on its Web site? If the answer is no, steer clear! Identity theft service providers that follow good practices will provide basic information such as the company name, the physical location of its headquarters, and how to contact it or its product distributor directly for answers to questions.

 

  • If the service offers to monitor your personal information and alert you if someone may be fraudulently using it, is it clear what it monitors? If the answer is no, steer clear! Identity theft service providers that follow good practices will make it easy to find information on their Web sites and through their customer service representatives about what is monitored and how frequently.

 

  • If the service offers to help identity theft victims, is it clear exactly what help it provides and who is eligible for it? If the answer is no, steer clear! This information can help you decide which service best meets your needs and what other steps you might want to take to protect yourself.

 

  • Is the cost of the service provided before you are asked for your payment information? If the answer is no, steer clear! Identity theft service providers that follow good practices will make clear and complete information about the cost of their programs available before you are asked for your name, address, and payment information.

 

  • Does the service have a clear, transparent privacy policy? If the answer is no, steer clear! Identity theft service providers that follow good practices post clear, transparent privacy policies on their Web sites and make that information available from their customer service representatives so that you can easily learn what types of personal information they collect, how they use that information, what types of information -- if any -- they share with others, what control you have over the collection and use of your personal information, and how your information is safeguarded.

 

  • If the identity theft service offers insurance or a guarantee, is it clear what is covered and who is eligible? If the answer is no, steer clear! Identity theft service providers that follow good practices should make it easy to find information on their Web sites and through their customer service representatives about exactly what the insurance or guarantee does for you and in what situations.
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Vitamin B12 May Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk

Lack of B12 also linked to vision loss in autistic children

Two new studies point to the importance of vitamin B12, found mostly in meat products, to the human diet....

Two new studies point to the importance of vitamin B12 for brain function, for old and young alike.

A new study appearing in the medical journal Neurology shows that vitamin B12 may protect against Alzheimer's disease, adding more evidence to the scientific debate about whether the vitamin is effective in reducing the risk of memory loss.

"Our findings show the need for further research on the role of vitamin B12 as a marker for identifying people who are at increased risk of Alzheimer's disease," said study author Babak Hooshmand, MD, MSc, with Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden. "Low levels of vitamin B12 are surprisingly common in the elderly. However, the few studies that have investigated the usefulness of vitamin B12 supplements to reduce the risk of memory loss have had mixed results."

For the seven-year study, researchers took blood samples from 271 Finnish people age 65 to 79 who did not have dementia at the start of the study. During that time, 17 people developed Alzheimer's disease. Blood samples were tested for levels for homocysteine, an amino acid associated with vitamin B12, and for levels of the active portion of the vitamin, called holotranscobalamin. Too much homocysteine in the blood has been linked to negative effects on the brain, such as stroke. However, higher levels of vitamin B12 can lower homocysteine.

The study found that for each micromolar increase in the concentration of homocysteine, the risk of Alzheimer's disease increased by 16 percent, whereas each picomolar increase in concentration of the active form of vitamin B12 reduced risk by two percent.

The results stayed the same after taking into account other factors, such as age, gender, education, smoking status, blood pressure and body mass index. The addition of folate did not appear to raise or lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease.

"More research is needed to confirm these findings before vitamin B12 should be used solely as a supplement to help protect memory," said Hooshmand. 

Autistic children

Meanwhile, researchers at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia have found that autistic children with severely limited diets may be at risk for vision loss due to vitamin B12 deficiency.

The Children's Hospital study, which appears in the journal Pediatrics, looked at three boys with autism who exhibited behaviors that indicated vision loss, such as groping for items or bumping into walls. Further evaluation and tests revealed optic nerve damage and low levels of B12.

The researchers administered a shot of intramuscular vitamin B12 and visual behavior improved modestly in each case after normal levels were reached. All three patients, ages 6, 7 and 13, ate almost no meat or dairy products, important sources of vitamin B12.

"To the best of our knowledge, these are the first three reported cases of vision loss related to a vitamin B12 deficiency related to poor diet in children with autism," said Stacy Pineles, M.D., lead author of the study. She conducted the research as a fellow at Children's Hospital and is now at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. "Clinicians should have a high index of suspicion for vitamin deficiencies and questions about diet should be part of routine history-taking in this population."

There have been many associations between autism and feeding difficulties, with diet-related deficiencies causing such illnesses as rickets, scurvy and dry eyes. With such patients, the researchers said, parents should also be advised to seek evaluation by a pediatric ophthalmologist or neuro-ophthalmologist who can perform a careful examination to rule out optic nerve damage. 

"Children who refuse foods from animal sources, such as meat and dairy products, are specifically at a higher risk for vitamin B12 deficiency," said Grant T. Liu, M.D., senior author of the study and a neuro-ophthalmologist at Children's Hospital. "In our experience, B12 deficiency optic neuropathy in autism is a recognizable, treatable, and at least partially reversible disorder."

Vitamin B12 can be found in fish, poultry and other meat products.


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Backpage.com Agrees to Suspend Adult Services Ads

Classified ad site succumbs to pressure from 21 state attorneys general

Backpage.com Agrees to Suspend Adult Services Ads. Classified ad site succumbs to pressure from 21 state attorneys general....

Under pressure from the attorneys general of 21 states, Backpage.com says it will shut down its adult services ads. Craiglist.org earlier caved in to the AG's demands.

"Today we announced the suspension of some limited areas of our Personals and Adult sections while we build up our safety defenses," Backpage said in a posting on its blog. "We also announced some significant steps we are taking to ensure that the content and images in the ads placed on our site is legal and in line with our terms of use."

Backpage also called for an industrywide task force to work with the attorneys general and child advocacy groups to develop "a holistic safety and security program."

The company said its security consultant, Hemanshu Nigam, was continuing to develop "strong defenses aginst those intent on placing illegal ads on our site."

Among the steps it said it was taking are:

  • The review of all ads and images in the personals and adult sections of the site.

  • The implementation of key word searches to quickly identify banned advertisements and inappropriate discussions.

  • The significant increase in staff to quickly identify illegal ads.

  • The implementation of roadblocks to prevent minors from accessing mature content.

  • The implementation of dedicated tools on the site to educate users regarding online safety and security.

  • The empowerment of users to report abuse and an expeditious process to handle user complaints.

"This is a great step in our fight against prostitution, human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children," said Mississippi Attorney
General Jim Hood. "We're going to keep an eye on these sites and make sure they live up to their promises."


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New Facebook Phishing Scams: 'American GUY' and 'I Will NEVER TEXT Again'

Links promise shocking videos, but expose profile information

New Facebook Phishing Scams: "American GUY" and "I Will NEVER TEXT Again"Links promise shocking videos, but expose profile information...

Two new Facebook status updates are spreading like wildfire on Dashboards this week. "This American GUY should be Stoned to Death for doing this to a GIRL (NO SURVEYS)!" and "I Will NEVER TEXT Again After Seeing THIS!"

Both phrases are links that ask you to "CLICK HERE TO SEE" the apparently shocking videos. And since your friends apparently clicked the links and liked them, you figure you've got to see what they're talking about.

Once your curiosity gets the best of you, you click, and are taken to a page where you are asked to give permission for access to your profile information.

The page looks innocent enough, like the one you would see if you were downloading FarmVille or any other popular Facebook game.

If you agree to hand over permission, you not only find there are no "shocking videos" but the rogue application has added itself to your list of "likes" in your profile, spammed your Friend List with the link (and your name attached to it), and now has access to all your personal profile information.

Scary stuff. But nothing new.

In August 2010, ConsumerAffairs.com reported on an apparent "dislike button" that could be downloaded and added to profiles.

Like the "American GUY" and "Text" scams, it turned out to be nothing more than a way to phish profile information from unsuspecting Facebook users.

Similar phishing scams have involved the promise of free gift cards or Apple iPads.

The "American GUY" scam is potentially more harmful than scams of the past. It could cost you money.

According to Facecrooks.com, a website chronicling new Facebook scams, before access to the "video", you're required to take an IQ test, then prompted to provide your cell phone number so they can send you "the results of the test." 

What actually happens is you sign yourself up for a monthly "service" that sends you text spam (and charges you for it).  The only way out of the charge is to contact your cell phone provider and inform them of the scam.

With both of the new scams, you also have to go into your profile information and delete the application from your list of "likes."

Facebook warns to use caution before clicking on any link that appears on your Dashboard, even if your friends have posted it.

Be especially wary if old friend writes on your Wall or sends you a message, Facebook cautions, because it's possible that the person's account has been taken over by a spammer. As always, be particularly cautious of posts or messages that contain misspellings or use bad grammar.

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Big Expectations, Not Small Paychecks, Cause Marital Strife

Study shows materialistic couples are generally unhappy, even if they're wealthy

Big Expectations, Not Small Paychecks, Cause Marital Strife Study shows materialistic couples are generally unhappy, even if they're wealthy...

Increasing levels of debt and bankruptcies are frequently blamed for divorces and conflict within marriage. But new Brigham Young University research suggests that marital woes that can result from financial ups and downs have as much to do with a couple's expectations as their paychecks and credit card bills.

The first-ever study to examine the impact of materialism on marital satisfaction found that highly materialistic spouses are about 40 percent more likely than non materialistic spouses to experience high levels of financial problems, which consequently harm their marital satisfaction. What's more, the impact of materialism held true across all income levels.

"For years there has been an emphasis on learning proper saving and budgeting techniques to avoid marital conflict over financial issues," said Jason Carroll, BYU assistant professor of family life and author of the study, in the new issue of the Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal. "But our study found that financial problems have as much to do with how we think about money as they do with how we spend money."

Simply put, if you and your spouse don't feel the need to have big houses, fancy cars, and extravagant vacations, then it won't be a problem if you can't afford them.

Carroll's study showed that materialism has an indirect effect on overall marital satisfaction by increasing the frequency of financial problems.

"For a highly materialistic spouse or couple, it takes less financial disturbance to trigger a financial problem," Carroll explained. "Some would say, 'I'm not living a good life and I don't have a good marriage if we can't afford to go on that vacation or purchase designer décor for our home,' where a less materialistic spouse would not view these limitations as a major issue."

The study looked at a nationally representative sample of 600 married couples, selected so that it reflected national averages in terms of ethnic composition, religious affiliation and socioeconomic levels.

All spouses reported their household income level, the degree to which financial matters have been a problem in their relationship, their own level of materialism and their overall level of satisfaction with their marriage.

About 35 percent of the sample reported high levels of materialism, while the remaining 65 percent had low materialism.

Never enough

The materialistic spouses reported more financial problems on average, regardless of income.

Using complex statistical analyses, Carroll's research team found that materialism among one or both spouses was a better way to predict a couple's financial problems than their income. The model also connected this higher level of financial problems with lower marital satisfaction.

"This study suggests that spouses set their own threshold for what they view as a money problem," Carroll said. "If spouses are overly materialistic, their threshold will be quite low, thereby increasing the likelihood that finances will be a problem in their marriages."

Carroll said that materialism may increase financial problems in marriage in two ways:

  • A spouse may use money unwisely in chasing unreasonable materialistic expectations, therefore causing actual money problems
  • Materialistic expectations may cause a spouse to interpret a financial situation negatively, leading to more complaints and conflicts, even when another couple with similar financial resources won't have such conflicts because of lower expectations.

That's why expectations are a key part to solving money problems in marriage, Carroll said.

"We need to rethink the idea that financial problems are always money problems" he said. "We need to start adjusting how much materialistic issues factor into our idea of what makes a good marriage and family life."

For starters, Carroll gave the following four recommendations:

Separate needs from wants.  It is often said, "Yesterday's luxuries have become today's necessities." In today's consumer culture, it is important for couples to carefully distinguish between their "needs" and their "wants" when it comes to family spending.

Check financial benchmarks.  Many people do not see their financial expectations are too high because they compare their spending habits to others who have more. Couples who typically compare themselves to others who have more than they do frequently develop a sense of entitlement and resentment, while couples who see their situation through the eye of those who have less are more likely to foster a sense of gratitude in their lives.

Focus on the simple. The saying goes, "The most important things in life are not things." While easy to say, this phrase is much harder to live. Financial strain in marriage, brought on by high materialistic expectations, often causes couples to not fully appreciate the simple aspects of their relationship that money cannot buy.

Lower expectations.  Financial problems in marriage are as much about expectations as they are about behaviors. Lowering financial expectations can benefit marriages in two ways. First, spouses will be more willing to avoid making purchases that create debt and stress in their relationship and, second, spouses will be more inclined to interpret their current situation with more gratitude and optimism.

Study coauthor Lukas Dean, who was Carroll's master's student at time of the research, will seek to help couples do that after he completes his Ph.D. in financial counseling at Texas Tech University.

Former BYU research associate Chongming Yang also assisted with the research.

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How Much Does It Take These Days to Have a Good Credit Score?

More than it used to according to one research group

Having a Good Credit Score Is Now More Difficult than It was Before the Recession...

Do you know your credit score? As important as this number is most of us don't really pay attention to it until we're about to borrow a lot money.

Well, according to Smart Money magazine, until recently, a credit score of 680 was considered pretty good which basically meant you paid most of your bills on time, "got dinged" slightly when you went shopped for a refi, but had a good enough credit record to get a loan at the best rates. 

Not anymore. These days 680 is second-tier says Smart Money. Now, you need a credit score of 720 to get large loans on the best terms. That includes one of those 0% interest credit cards with the longest promotion or a jumbo mortgage. It adds that 40-point difference between 680 and 720 will cost you thousands of dollars over the life of a typical loan.

According to Smart Money, there's not much wiggle room either, and that lenders place borrowers into brackets. That means someone with a score of 719 is in the same bracket with someone who has a score of 690.

Informa Research Services says that one point could cost more than $600 over the life of an average 36-month car loan, or $2,500 over the life of a 15-year home equity loan.

Too perfect

Here's an interesting tidbit. Lenders actually prefer you to have a score of 720 than a perfect score of 850. Why? Well, if you have a perfect score, they probably don't make much money off of you. Smart Money says that lenders believe someone with a score of 720 is most likely to repay their debts and least likely to default. At the same time, they're more profitable than people with a perfect score of 850, because they're also likely to carry a balance or incur fees - and therefore, to generate profit for the lender.

The change in what was considered a good credit score apparently happened after the market downturn of 2008 and began when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac settled on the 720 threshold for the best pricing. Because most mortgages are backed by Fannie or Freddie, the major lenders decided to keep the same threshold.

Obviously, reaching a credit score of 720 is harder than 680, especially with more people out of work and unable to pay their bills. In fact, to have a 720 score, according to Smart Money, you would need low balances on credit cards and a 15-year credit history. You may have been late on a couple payments over the last two years but that's it.

Even someone who regularly pays on time could drop from the mid-700s if he applied for several new credit cards recently. Even those who haven't missed a payment but carry balances that are more than 30% of their credit line could be in jeopardy along with those who have a short credit history but pay on time.

According to John Ulzheimer of Credit.com, if you are right on the edge of 720, you need to be careful because a small differences such as one extra credit inquiry - like when a lender looks up your credit score before approving you for a loan, or if a prospective employer pulls your credit report without telling the credit bureaus it's strictly for employment reasons - could put you under. He says the same thing could happen if you suddenly use more of your available credit because of a large purchase, so make sure you pay it off quickly.

As difficult as it sounds to maintain a 720 credit score, there are some folks who have a near perfect score. According to FICO, the company that designed our current credit model, they are out there.

Craig Watts, senior manager for Public Relations for FICO, told MainStreet.com that while most people score in the middle-to-low 700s on their credit scale, less than 1% of the U.S. population or one million people, do, in fact, net a full score of 850. Watts says they tend to be more conservative and a little older.  

Ulzheimer says you don't need a perfect score to get the best benefits. He says anyone a score above 760, is able to get the same benefits as those with perfect credit.

A score of 760 isn't easy to achieve either. MainStreet.com says that to reach the top tier you have to master not just the basics - maintaining positive payment history and a low debt to credit ratio, but you must pay attention to the details as well. If you want to be among the elite in credit scores, this is what MainStreet advises you to do:

  • Have a long and impressive payment history and a clean record
  • Maintain a diverse set of accounts, such as mortgages, car loans, revolving credit lines and credit cards
  • Have a "well-aged" credit report with a long and stellar credit history
  • Have a very limited number of credit inquiries on record, so don't be tempted to open a new store credit card just get 10% off.
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Survey Shows Younger Boomers Worry More About Retirement than Older Boomers

Separate survey finds 75% of workers 50 and older plan to work in Retirement

Surveys show recession had a greater impact on those in their 40s than boomers nearing retirement, while most older workers plan to work in retirement ...

Most of the news about  "anxiety over retirement" has been focused on those baby boomers in their 60s and either nearing or entering retirement. But a new survey shows it is the younger boomers, in their 40s, who are really more worried about retirement because of the economic downturn of the past two years. 

The survey by the Allianz Life Insurance Company of Americans found that 44-49 year olds expressed a greater need than their older counterparts in reducing their financial vulnerability and that a majority (54%) felt "totally unprepared" for retirement.

And although they had more time to recover from the market decline, this younger group also showed a greater need than older boomers to take more control of their financial future (47% vs. 35%) and attain more certainty and financial security (41% vs. 30%).

Allianz's "Reclaiming the Future" study also showed that despite this anxiety, only 19 percent of younger boomers are working with professional financial advisors, even though more than half (51%) said they wanted help planning for a stable retirement.

Meanwhile, in a separate survey by the SloanCenter on Aging and Work at BostonCollege, found that 75% of workers 50 and older expect to work during their retirement years. And nearly 10% of retirement-age workers in the study say they "will continue doing the same work until they die."

Interestingly, the study says that was the attitude among works some 60 years ago when more than 45% of men continued to work into their late 60s and beyond. But, over the decades, Social Security and pensions have allowed workers to retire as early as their 50s while maintaining their lifestyles. This changed again when pensions began to disappear.

The SloanCenter on Aging and Work study also found new attitudes about retirement and work:

  • 31% of those 50 and older say they would be bored not working.
  • 75% say they are interested in phased retirement, though few workplaces offer it.
  • 18% those of retirement age say they work to contribute and be productive
  • 53% are working for the money.

If you're a boomer looking for work or in retirement and looking for work, the AARP has what are called "Worksearch" offices in their state branches. Funded with a federal grant, the program provides job training and job placement for people 50 and older. These jobs are typically in nonprofit host agencies where they volunteer or work for minimum wage, in exchange for job training, but sometimes this leads to a permanent position with the organization.

Just be aware that those working in retirement often make less money, partly because they work fewer hours. According to AARP, one-third of working retirees put in a workweek of 21 or fewer hours. The typical retiree income is $43,000, about one-third less than that of non-retirees.


 

 

 

 

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Class Action Filed Over Meridia Withdrawal

Prominent Canadian firm begins nationwide suit

Class Action Filed Over Meridia WithdrawalProminent Canadian firm begins nationwide suit...

Litigation over the recent Meridia recall has already begun in earnest, with a prominent Canadian law firm announcing that it has filed a nationwide class action seeking "financial compensation for anyone in Canada who used Meridia."

"Our Statement of Claim asserts that one of Canada's most commonly prescribed anti-obesity drugs substantially increases a person's risk of a heart attack," said Tony Merchant, the firm's lead attorney, in a statement released last week.

"Merchant Law Group has already been contacted by former Meridia users from Québec, Ontario, and Alberta, many of whom have suffered serious side effects as a result of using Meridia. Our firm has launched nationwide class action litigation with the courts as a result."

A lawsuit was nearly inevitable after Meridia was pulled from the market on October 8 after a clinical trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that it increases users' risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. The study, which was funded by Meridia manufacturer Abbott Labs, prompted the Journal to write in an editorial that the drug should be pulled off the market.

In withdrawing the drug, the FDA said that Meridia's risks did not justify "the very modest weight loss that people achieve on this drug" -- an average of just five pounds per patient.

A long time coming

Indeed, national consumer advocacy group Public Citizen has been warning since 2002 that Meridia needs to be withdrawn from the market, citing clinical trials from before the drug was approved showing that obese patients taking the drug experienced increased blood pressure, pulse rate and palpatations.

"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 Citizen's Health Research Group said last year. "The FDA should therefore tell Abbott to pull Meridia from the market immediately."

Meridia was approved by the FDA in 1997 despite clinical trials showing that patients taking the drug were three times as likely to experience electrocardiogram changes as patients on a placebo regimen. The drug was approved in Canada in December 2000. As of March 2003, the FDA had already received reports of 49 cardiovascular deaths in patients taking Meridia, 27 of them in patients under age 50.

Last Wednesday, the Canadian government announced that it was also withdrawing Meridia's generic equivalent -- Apo-sibutramine -- from the market.

Consumers who believe they qualify to participate in the Canadian class action can visit the firm's webpage dedicated to the litigation. The site says that U.S. residents who have been injured by Meridia can email the firm, which will "contact you promptly concerning options available in the United States to seek financial compensation."

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Payday Loan Store Sued Over Security Issues

Firm allegedly tossed out sensitive consumer information

Payday lenders usually get in trouble over lending practices, but an Illinois firm is getting heat for another reason....

The State of Illinois has sued a payday lender, but not for the reason you think.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's suit against The Payday Loan Store (PLS) of Illinois, Inc., has nothing to do with predatory lending and everything to do about security. Madigan's suit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, claims PLS failed to safeguard customer data as promised.

The attorney general filed the suit after learning that documents containing customers' personal information had turned up in trash bins outside four store locations.

"Data security is absolutely critical to protecting consumers from identity theft," Madigan said. "Businesses that collect, use and ultimately dispose of sensitive personal information must live up to their promises to protect that information from unauthorized access in order to protect the financial privacy of consumers."

PLS, which sells high-cost, short-term loans throughout Illinois, provides customers with a privacy policy that promises the company will protect their customers' personal information by maintaining physical, electronic and procedural safeguards in compliance with federal regulations.

Did not maintain safeguards

The state's complaint alleges, however, that PLS did not maintain those safeguards and instead disposed of customers' personal information in publicly accessible trash containers.

The complaint alleges that a concerned individual alerted Bolingbrook, Ill., police that he had found documents containing sensitive information in a trash container behind the PLS location in Bolingbrook. The police retrieved approximately two boxes of documents containing nonpublic personal information, including Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, financial account numbers and PLS loan account numbers.

"Even in the Internet age, identity thieves continue to steal personal information using relatively low-tech methods, including 'Dumpster diving,' " Madigan said. "It's fortunate that these particular documents ended up with the police instead of in the hands of identity thieves, who could have used the information to wreak havoc on consumers' financial lives."

Madigan's complaint also alleges that PLS regularly told its customers it would comply with federal regulations to guard nonpublic information when in fact PLS did not comply with federal requirements to follow a security program and to take reasonable measures to protect consumer information from unauthorized access when disposing of it.

Madigan is asking the court to permanently bar the defendant from engaging in deceptive and unfair acts and practices. Madigan is seeking to have the defendant pay a civil penalty of $50,000 for each violation of the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, additional penalties of $50,000 for each violation committed with the intent to defraud and pay all prosecution costs.

Read more about the Payday Loan Store

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Identity Theft Seen as Threat by Poll Respondents

Poll underscores need for additional awareness and protection, credit counselors say

Majority Of Poll Respondents Feel At Risk Of Identity TheftPoll underscores need for additional awareness and protection, says NFCC...

A web poll conducted by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) on people's attitudes toward identity theft reveals that 66 percent of more than 1,300 respondents feel at risk.

"In recent years, identity theft has claimed more than 10 million victims per year, and has been the top complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for the last five years in a row," said Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the NFCC. "ID theft is alive and well, and anyone who doesn't think so is putting themselves at risk of being the next victim."

Of concern are the more than 30 percent of respondents who believe identity theft is declining or think they are immune because they've put one safety tip in place. These people are in definite need of education around identity theft protection, according to NFCC.

Protect Your Identity Week

To help meet that need, the NFCC and the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) have joined together to host Protect Your Identity Week (PYIW) October17-23.Nearly 200 events are being held in communities nationwide, including free shredding, educational workshops, credit report reviews, and responsible cell phone recycling. Consumers can locate an event near them by going to this map.

Additionally, the site is a resource for prevention tips, victim recovery tips, and includes the Identity Theft Risk Check quiz where individuals can assess their own personal risk of identity theft.

As part of Protect Your Identity Week, Cintas Corporation, national shredding partner for PYIW, is providing free document destruction at events across the country with the goal of making the Guinness Book of World Records for the most paper shredded in a 24-hour period.

A number of national organizations are putting their weight behind the initiative, including, Consumer Federation of America, American Bankers Association Education Foundation, Federal Trade Commission and National Council of La Raza.

The survey says

The actual survey question and results are as follows:

Q: I don't think I'm at risk of being a victim of identity theft because
A. Identity theft is on the decline = one percent
B. My credit card company has systems in place that protect me = nine percent
C.I don't carry my Social Security card in my wallet = 10 percent
D. I never open emails from unknown sources = 15 percent
E. I do think I am at risk of ID theft = 66 percent

The NFCC's September Financial Literacy Opinion Index was conducted via the homepage of the NFCC Web site from September 1-30, 2010 and answered by 1,352 individuals.

 

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New Jersey College Bans Alcohoic Energy Drinks From Campus

The beverages, nicknamed "blackout in a can", responsible for hospitalization of 23 students

New Jersey College Bans Alcohoic Energy Drinks From CampusThe beverages, nicknamed "blackout in a can", responsible for hospitalization of 23 students...

After 23 students were hospitalized for alcohol intoxication at the beginning of the Fall semester, Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey banned all alcoholic energy drinks on campus.

While all brands of alcoholic energy drinks are banned, one brand in particular, Four Loko, was called out by name. 

The drink, which comes in 23.5 oz cans, in flavors like Fruit Punch, Blue Raspberry, and Cranberry Lemonade, is cheap (about $2.50 each) and has an alcohol content of 12%.

Consuming a whole can of Four Loko apparently produces the same effect as drinking three beers, a can of Red Bull, and a shot of espresso.

Ramapo College is not the first school to ban alcoholic energy drinks. And this is not the first time mixing energy drinks with alcohol has caused concern.

In February 2010, ConsumerAffairs.com reported on a 2008 study done by the University of Florida about the negative effects of mixing alcohol and energy drinks.

In a study of college-aged adults exiting bars, patrons who consumed energy drinks mixed with alcohol had three times the risk of leaving a bar highly intoxicated and were four times more likely to intend to drive after drinking than bar patrons who drank alcohol only.

Which is terrifying when the average breath-alcohol concentration reading for those who mixed alcohol and energy drinks was 0.109, well above the legal driving limit of 0.08.

Study co-author Bruce Goldberger, a professor and director of toxicology in the UF College of Medicine said, "There's a very common misconception that if you drink caffeine with an alcoholic beverage the stimulant effect of the caffeine counteracts the depressant effect of the alcohol and that is not true. We know that caffeine aggravates the degree of intoxication, which can lead to risky behaviors."

In August 2007, ConsumerAffairs.com reported on concern over how alcoholic energy drinks are marketed.

Attorneys general from 28 states appealed to the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to crack down on misleading marketing of alcoholic energy drinks, complaining that the ads suggest they are healthy and are aimed at teenagers and young adults, many of whom are below the legal drinking age.

"Non-alcoholic energy drinks are very popular with today's youth," said Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers. "Beverage companies are unconscionably appealing to young drinkers with claims about the stimulating properties of alcoholic energy drinks. We urge TTB to take action to stop companies from making misleading claims."

While Four Loko is only sold in liquor stores, one wonders who the manufacturers will hope buys it. The cans are brightly colored; the flavors are fruity and sugary.

Unsurprisingly, it's not just college kids falling victim to the drink. High school students in Mahwah, NJ have been caught with cans of Four Loko, too.

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Medicare Tightens Rules On Power Wheelchairs

New law designed to reduce fraud by equipment salesmen

Medicare is changing the way it pays for motorized wheelchairs for seniors and some equipment makers are crying foul....

The TV commercial for a chain of motorized wheelchair stores features a geriatric spokesmodel who exclaims, "I didn't pay a penny for my Scooter, Medicare paid it all!"

If that was ever the case, things may be changing. A new law ends the first month purchase option for Medicare patients, as well as expansion of the competitive bidding process to provide equipment to Medicare recipients.

Companies that make and market these high-tech chairs to Medicare patients see the change as a threat. Jay Broadbent, CEO of Salt Lake City-based Alpine Home Medical, noted that these changes are coming at a time when power mobility providers are already experiencing increasing government audits, delays in reimbursement payments, and reimbursement cuts of more than 35 percent over the last five years.

Provider push-back

"Providers are at the point where we can't endure any more financial pressure and continue to offer quality products and services to Medicare beneficiaries," said Broadbent. "There has to be a realization in Washington that the fallout from the competitive bidding fiasco and elimination of the first-month purchase option is going to have a major impact on Medicare beneficiaries.  There simply are not going to be enough providers left standing to supply them with mobility equipment."

By eliminating the option for the first-month purchase, the government plans to pay providers rental payments over the first 13 months that a patient has the equipment. But with credit tight in the sluggish economy, many providers say they can't obtain the lines of credits and loans they need to afford the upfront cost of purchasing power wheelchairs from manufacturers.

The new law is scheduled to take effect on January 1, but providers are asking Congress to delay implementation for one year so they can have time to adjust their business models to account for the cash flow problems created by the new policy. Currently, Medicare will pay 80 percent of the Medicare-approved amount for a qualifying wheelchair, assuming you have met your Part B deductible and your doctor tells Medicare the wheel chair is medically necessary.

Fraud

The new law comes at a time when Medicare has been cracking down on fraud related to the purchase of power wheelchairs, which can cost thousands of dollars.

Last month the Justice Department announced the guilty pleas of three people in connection with a Medicare fraud scheme operated out of a Houston-area durable medical equipment (DME) company. 

In their pleas, the defendants admitted that they were paid kickbacks in exchange for referring Medicare beneficiaries to the DME company, Luant & Odera Inc. Luant & Odera submitted false and fraudulent claims to Medicare for medically unnecessary DME, including power wheelchairs, wheelchair accessories, and motorized scooters.

On its website, Medicare explains its concern with fraud, noting that most doctors, health care providers, suppliers, and private companies who work with Medicare are honest, but a few aren't.

"For example, some suppliers of medical equipment try to cheat the Medicare Program by offering power wheelchairs and scooters to people who don't qualify for these items under Medicare," the agency says. "Medicare is trying harder than ever to find and prevent fraud and abuse by working more closely with health care providers, strengthening oversight, and launching a national program to review claims."

Medicare offers the following red flags when dealing with equipment suppliers:

  • Suppliers offer you a free wheelchair or scooter
  • Suppliers offer to waive your copayment
  • Someone bills Medicare for equipment you never got
  • Someone bills Medicare for home medical equipment after it has been returned
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FDA: Knee Device Should Not Have Been Cleared for Marketing

Decision follows re-evaluation of scientific evidence

FDA: Knee Device Should Not Have Been Cleared for Marketing Decision follows re-evaluation of scientific evidence...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ruled that an orthopedic device used in the knee should not have been cleared for marketing in the United States.

The determination was announced following a re-evaluation of the scientific evidence that was undertaken after a September 2009 agency report identified problems in the agency's review of the device.
 
To correct this error, FDA will begin the process to rescind the product's marketing clearance. Before beginning this process, the FDA has asked the product's manufacturer, ReGen Biologics Inc., for a meeting to discuss the appropriate marketing pathway for the device and what data it would need to provide a reasonable assurance of safety and effectiveness.

Initial clearance

FDA cleared the Menaflex Collagen Scaffold for marketing in December 2008 for the repair and reinforcement of the meniscal tissue in the knee. The meniscus is a C-shaped disk of fibrocartilage in the knee that acts as a cushion between the ends of bones in the joint and helps lubricate the joint.

The September 2009 report recommended a scientific re-evaluation of the device because the administrative record did not supply a basis for the FDA's December 2008 decision to clear that was adequate to dispel questions about the role of outside pressures on the review process.

This re-evaluation, initiated in the fall of 2009, included a team of scientists at the agency who were not involved in previous reviews of the device. Another advisory committee meeting was also held in March 2010 (pdf file).
 

Safety questions

The FDA has now concluded that the Menaflex device is intended to be used for different purposes and is technologically dissimilar from devices already on the market, called "predicate devices." These differences can affect the safety and effectiveness of the Menaflex device.

For example, instead of simply repairing or reinforcing damaged tissue like predicate devices, Menaflex is intended to stimulate the growth of new tissue to replace tissue that was surgically removed. Because of these differences, the Menaflex device should not have been cleared by the agency.

It is unlikely that explanting the device will generally be appropriate or necessary because the device is resorbed and replaced with new tissue. However, patients who have had the Menaflex device implanted should talk with their surgeon or other health care professional about what, if any, steps should be taken.

Manufacturer's options

After implementing a rescission, which revokes a marketing clearance later determined to be erroneous, the FDA prohibits the manufacturer from further U.S. marketing until the agency approves or clears a new marketing application, or grants a classification petition.

After the FDA issues a rescission notice, a manufacturer has the option of requesting a regulatory hearing with the FDA or can choose to voluntarily withdraw their marketing clearance. The device will remain on the market until the agency rescinds its clearance.

The circumstances surrounding the Menaflex device are unique, and FDA's decision in this case does not affect the status of other devices on the market.

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Seven Ways to Save On Car Insurance

As you look for ways to cut costs, you may be overlooking an obvious one – your car insurance

You don't need Geico or the AARP to save you money on car insurance, you can do it yourself...

This is going to sound like one of those Geico ads, but how would you like to save $500 on your car insurance? This is better than any television ad. This is something you can do on your own without having to listen to some sales pitch from a gecko.

Thanks to U.S. News Report and certified financial planner Joel Ohman, here are seven tips for reducing the cost of your car insurance and you can do it from the comfort of your home.

Tip 1. Review coverage every six months and drop any coverage you don't need

You should review your car insurance coverage every six months or so. Even if it turns out that your current provider is still the best value on the market you may just find out that you are paying for a part of your auto insurance policy that you no longer need.

Not only do insurance rates change quite often but your insurance needs change more often than you may think. If you no longer have a new teenage driver or have changed cars, or have moved to a new zip code, all of these things may potentially cause you to be paying for coverage that you no longer need.

Tip 2. Search for discounts

Never assume that because you searched for all of the car insurance discounts available six months ago that now there are no new discounts that you may be eligible for.

New opportunities for saving money with a car insurance discount program pop up all of the time as different companies announce different discount programs in order to increase their market share.

Tip 3. Improve your credit score

It's no secret that a better credit score will result in better car insurance rates. You may have been working hard to improve your credit score over the last few months in order to qualify for lower interest rates for a home loan or auto loan and you are now starting to see some of your hard work pay off.

When you see an increase in your credit score don't let the opportunity slip by to check and see if this credit score improvement will result in an improvement in your auto insurance rates as well. You worked hard to improve your credit score so why not spend a few minutes to see if that can only help you get a lower interest rate but a lower car insurance rate as well?

Tip 4. Pay your premiums with a credit card

You can cut one to five percent off of your total car insurance premiums just by changing your method of payment.

With the average cash back credit card earning you anywhere from 1 percent to 5 percent cash back that's like getting a bill from your insurance company and then having to only pay 95 percent to 99 percent of the total instead of the full 100 percent!

One to 5 percent may not seem like much but as you can see with a cash back credit card calculator that money can quickly start to add up--depending upon how much money you spend each month if you use that cash back card for many of your purchases then your savings could end up being enough to pay for an entire year of college tuition after 15 to 20 years!

Tip 5. Tell your kids to keep their grades up

Virtually all of the major car insurance companies offer some form of good student discount. If your kids get good grades then you save money. Some companies offer savings for a lackluster C while most offer savings for you that range from 5 percent to 15 percent if your student maintains a B or an A on their report cards.

Tip 6. Take a defensive driving course

OK, maybe you have to leave the house for this one. Signing up for a defensive driving course will take up minimal time and save you money.

Taking a driving course just one time can result in lifetime savings on your car insurance. Check with your car insurance company as to what type of courses and course providers they will recognize for a discount on your policy.

Tip 7. See If Your Occupation Can Save You Money

Did you know that when car insurance actuaries calculate car insurance rates that they actually assign different risk classes to different types of occupations? Some occupations have cheap car insurance rates while other occupations get assigned an added level of risk that increases their rates.

The various occupation risk assessment algorithms will vary from one insurance company to the next but generally speaking professions like engineering and teaching will receive lower car insurance rates than business owners and attorneys.

 

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Watch Out For ATM Skimmers At Gas Pumps

Three men arrested for 'skimming' scam in California

Using a debit card at a gas pump could be risky if scammers have planted 'skimming' devices, capable of capturing numbers and PINs....

If you were looking for a good reason to protect your ATM card, the latest news from the California Attorney General's Office provides it.

Authorities have filed charges against three men they say stole $150,000 from consumers' bank accounts, using "skimmers" placed inside gas pumps in Northern California. The episode could give pause to anyone using a debit card at a "pay at the pump" station.

A "skimmer" is an electronic device that intercepts a consumer's debit card information when they swipe it. Sometimes its placed over the real card slot. Sometimes its embedded in the pump itself. If it captures the users credit card number and PIN, the operator can later clean out the unsuspecting consumer's bank account.

"These thieves broke into gas station pumps and installed devices that collected customers' debit and credit card numbers and ATM PINs," Attorney General Jerry Brown said. "Later they used that stolen information to create fraudulent cards, make purchases and withdraw thousands of dollars from victims' accounts." 

The three men face 42 counts of felony theft and one count of conspiracy. If convicted on all charges, the three could each face up to 31 years in prison. 

"Skimming" scams have been around a long time. In March, the California Attorney General's Office took over prosecution of the case from the Contra Costa District Attorney's office because the crimes occurred in multiple jurisdictions throughout Northern California.

In their high-tech crime spree, the three traveled to gas stations and banks across the Bay Area in a rented Cadillac Escalade. From November 2009 to February 2010, they are believed to have stolen $158,800 from 196 people. 

How a "skimming" scam works

To be able to install a device to steal debit card information usually requires access. In this case, Brown says the defendants acquired keys to unlock various kinds of gas station pumps.

Once they opened the pumps, they were able to connect two cables inside to their two-inch electronic device, which looked like a circuit board encased in electrical tape, and recorded ATM and credit card data as well as victims' PINs.

No tampering was visible on the outside of the pumps. The trio would later return to retrieve the skimmers, which took less than 20 seconds. 

The investigation began in February when police in Solano and Contra Costa counties reported an increase in identity theft and a 7-11 Store employee in Martinez noticed a skimming device inside a gas pump. Police removed the device, replaced it with a mock device and conducted 24-hour surveillance. Two of the men were arrested when they arrived to remove the device, Brown says. In total, seven devices were found inside gas pumps in Martinez, Benicia, Livermore, Hayward, Oakland, San Mateo and Sacramento. 

While allowing thieves access to your bank account usually means the money can't be recovered, Brown says in each of these cases, banks have reimbursed the victims. 
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Many Health Care Workers Blow Off Flu shots

Poll finds male-female divide when it comes to flu invincibility

Many Health Care Workers Blow Off Flu shots Poll finds male-female divide when it comes to flu invincibility ...

A disconcerting proportion of "at risk" groups will not be getting flu shots this year, according to a new Consumer Reports Health poll.  

Particularly worrisome is the find that only 40 percent of people in the "work risk" category -- meaning those who care for young children and those who work in residential nursing homes, hospitals, and other health care environments -- said they would definitely get the vaccine this year, which combines the seasonal and the 2009 H1N1 (swine) flus. Twenty-eight percent said they would definitely NOT get the vaccine.

"It's troubling to hear that people caring for young children, including infants, and the elderly are not planning on getting the vaccine" said Orly Avitzur, M.D., medical adviser, Consumer Reports Health.  "These health care workers are among the most likely to catch the disease and spread it to individuals in their care.  And it's no secret that small children and the elderly are at high risk for complications and even death."

Poll highlights and guidance for flu vaccines are available online.

In a bubble

The nationally representative poll, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, found additional examples of "at risk" populations living in a bubble.

For example, only 45 percent of those considered "at health risk" said they definitely planned on getting the flu vaccine this year.  This category includes people with lung conditions such as asthma, diabetics, people with heart conditions (except hypertension), those with immune system problems, and those with neurological or neuromuscular disease.  All of these conditions are linked to an increased likelihood of flu-related complications.  

"We suspect that part of the problem involves a lack of understanding of one's own health risks -- in fact, only 42 percent of those at health risk for flu complications described themselves as such," said Dr. Avitzur.

Only 51 percent of those in the "age-risk" category (i.e. those who are 65 and older) said they would definitely get the combined vaccine.  About one-third (33 percent) of those 65 and older believed they were at high risk of seasonal flu complications.

Vaccine worries

Reasons for not getting this year's vaccine lead with the belief that the swine flu epidemic was overblown last year (45 percent), followed by concerns about side effects (44 percent) and safety of the vaccine (41 percent).  Nearly one-third (28 percent) said they believed the vaccine doesn't work.

Some other poll highlights:

-- Overall, only 37 percent of those polled said they would definitely get the combined vaccine this year while 31 percent said it depends.  Thirty percent said they will definitely NOT get the vaccine this year.
-- Of those who did not get the seasonal flu vaccine last year, the top reason was the mistaken belief that it's best to build one's own natural immunities.   "We encourage every American to get this year's combined seasonal and 2009 H1N1 (swine) flu vaccine," said Dr. Avitzur.
--  Men were more likely than women (46 percent versus 35 percent) to cite "I do not get the flu" as a reason for not getting the flu vaccine.   Overall, 41 percent cited this excuse, a significant drop from the 54 percent who provided the same rationale in 2008, suggesting that more people are getting the message that they can't count on being immune to the flu.
--  When it comes to confidence in the safety of the combined vaccine, 69 percent said they were very or somewhat confident in the safety of the 2010 flu vaccine. By comparison, 62 percent were confident in the last year's H1N1 vaccine.  But overall, 25 percent were not too confident or not confident at all in the safety of the vaccine.
--  Those on the fence about getting this year's vaccine cited the following factors that might influence their plans this year:

  •  Advice from their health-care provider (73 percent)
  •  Reports about outbreaks in the community (62 percent)
  •  Guidelines or warnings from local or state health departments and/or federal agencies such as the Surgeon General or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (57 percent).

On a positive note, 58 percent of parents had their children vaccinated for seasonal flu last year, compared to only 41 percent in 2008. 

More good news: the majority of people (66 percent) told Consumer Reports Health that last year the swine shot and/or nasal vaccine was administered at no charge.  

And, in another sign that cost is not an impediment, only a small number (12 percent) cited cost as a reason for not getting the seasonal flu shot last year.

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EDTA Chelation Promoters Get Warning from FDA

Agency warns against making unsubstantiated claims for Chelation therapy, products

EDTA Chelation Promoters Get Warning from FDA. Agency warns against making unsubstantiated claims for Chelation therapy, products. ...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today warned eight companies that their over-the-counter (OTC) chelation products are unapproved drugs and devices and that it is a violation of federal law to make unproven claims about these products. There are no FDA-approved OTC chelation products.

The companies that received the warning letters claim that their products treat a range of diseases by removing toxic metals from the body.

Some also claim to treat autism spectrum disorder, cardiovascular diseases, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, macular degeneration, and other serious conditions. Some companies that received the warning letters also claim their products will detect the presence of heavy metals to justify the need for chelation therapy.

The drug products involved have not been evaluated by the FDA for treatment of these diseases, and violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), the agency said. Despite the claims of the companies that received warning letters, the effectiveness in treating any of the diseases listed is unsubstantiated.

Depending on the condition, when relying on unproven OTC chelation products to treat serious conditions, patients may delay seeking effective medical care.

In addition, the FDA said there are serious safety issues associated with chelation products, which can alter the levels of certain substances in the blood.  Even when used under medical supervision, these products can cause serious harm, including dehydration, kidney failure, and death.  

"These products are dangerously misleading because they are targeted to patients with serious conditions and limited treatment options," said Deborah Autor, director of the Office of Compliance in the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. "The FDA must take a firm stand against companies who prey on the vulnerability of patients seeking hope and relief."

The agency advises consumers to avoid non-prescription products offered for chelation or detoxification.

The only FDA-approved chelating agents are available by prescription only and are approved for use in specific indications such as lead poisoning and iron overload. Procedures involving these agents carry significant risks and should be performed only under medical supervision.

The FDA has noted an increase in "chelation therapy" products marketed on the Internet that claim to cleanse the body of toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Although some of the products are marketed as dietary supplements, they are unapproved drugs because they claim to treat, mitigate, prevent, or diagnose disease. The products come in various dosage forms, including transmucosal sprays, suppositories, capsules, liquid drops, and clay baths.

Some of the companies also sell unapproved screening tests that claim to detect the presence of heavy metals in urine to justify the need for chelation therapy.

"FDA will seek enforcement action against companies that promote therapeutic benefits of products not yet evaluated by the agency for safety and effectiveness." said Dara A. Corrigan, associate commissioner for Regulatory Affairs.

Under the FFDCA, companies that market products that claim to prevent, diagnose, treat or cure diseases must file an application with the FDA and provide data that demonstrate their products' safety and effectiveness.

The companies must take prompt action to correct the legal violations cited in the warnings letters or face possible legal action, including seizure and injunction. The FDA issued warning letters to the following companies:

Healthcare professionals and patients are encouraged to report adverse events or side effects related to the use of these products to the FDA's MedWatch Safety Information and Adverse Event Reporting Program:

  • Complete and submit the report online: www.fda.gov/MedWatch/report.htm

  • Download form or call 1-800-332-1088 to request a reporting form, then complete and return to the address on the pre-addressed form, or submit by fax to 1-800-FDA-0178

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How Well is Your 401(k) Performing? Do You Even Know?

Keeping track of your 401(k) could determine whether you can afford to retire or not

Just because 401(k) contributions are automatic, don't assume its performance is as well...

For many employed Americans, the 401(k) has replaced the pension as the primary source of their retirement savings. In many cases, it represents their entire retirement savings, so it's important to make sure it is performing at a level that will provide the nest egg you're hoping for.

Most of us just assume that when it comes to our 401(k), everything is all right. Each pay period, our company takes out a percentage of pre-tax wages, possibly matches the contribution, and deposits it into our 401(k) account. But how often do we check that account to make sure the return is what you were expecting? What? You said "never."

You're not alone. In the business they call it "inertia." Before 401(k) contributions became automatic "inertia" was considered the main culprit keeping employees from signing up. Today, 401(k) contributions are usually automatic. That same inertia now has more workers contributing to 401(k) plans because if you do nothing money is automatically deducted from your pay and deposited in a 401(k) account. To get out of it you have to take action, and most people don't. Now the problem with inertia is that people remain too complacent when it comes to what that money is invested in.

You should know that by next year it will be easier to figure out how much your plan is charging you, whether that fund you're pouring money into each month is still aligned with your goals, and who you can turn to for investment advice. But until then, you have to do the digging yourself.

Start by making sure you have a plan that fits your personality, whether you need hand-holding or prefer to go it alone. If your plan falls short, talk to your boss to see if he or she can improve it. A few small changes in how you save and invest your money today can make a huge difference in your future nest egg.

Here are some other key questions:

Q: Is my 401(k) is any good?

Your plan should offer a well-diversified mix of low-cost investment choices. An employer match is a plus because employees tend to save more when their company kicks in money. Investment guidance and regular, personalized report cards to show you whether you're on track are important parts of a great 401(k) plan.

Q: What's the right investment mix?

Make sure your investment mix matches your risk tolerance. Most plans have funds that range from aggressive-growth funds to income funds for those employees near retirement.

Q: How much of your salary should you save?

Probably more than you're saving now. Most employees are saving 7% a year or less, and employers are offering matching contributions of another 3-4% of pay. That adds up to about 10% which isn't going to be enough. Try to save about 15% of your gross salary, including any employer contribution.

Karen Blumenthal of The Wall Street Journal offers five common 401(k) mistakes and adjustments you can make to keep your retirement plans on track:

Mistake No. 1: Thinking the most important decision is how you invest your money.

Many of us agonize over selecting just the right funds or whether to put 50% or 65% into stocks. Sure, asset allocation can have an impact on your bottom line, though it is partly a game of luck, depending on whether you catch a rally in one sector or another. Your first priority, though, should be determining how much you need to save—and figuring out how to make that happen.

Unfortunately, compared with debating mutual funds, savings "is so unsexy that nobody wants to talk about it," says Mike Alfred, chief executive of Brightscope Inc., which rates 401(k) plans.

The average participant saves 7% to 8% of pay, but many retirement-plan advisers recommend you aim for 10% or more, before including your employer match. Under Internal Revenue Service rules, you can contribute as much as $16,500 to your 401(k) this year, plus an additional $5,500 if you are 50 or older. If you want to be more exact, try using an online financial-planning tool, such as the Economic Security Planner (basic.esplanner.com).

Mistake No. 2: Investing only enough to get the company match.

You don't want to leave any money on the table, so you definitely want to collect whatever the company is offering. But in reality, it may not be that great a deal. Some companies eliminated the match in the last downturn, and many haven't restored it.

Much more common—and much less discussed—is that many companies make that match hard to collect. Matches take up to six years to vest at 60% of the companies surveyed by the Profit Sharing/401k Council and half of those surveyed by Hewitt Associates, a human-resources consulting firm that recently became Aon Hewitt, a unit of Aon. In some cases, you may not receive any of the match for as long as three years, or you may get only a fraction of the match each year for six years.

Given the uncertain job market, it can be dicey to count on collecting your share. Instead, save for your future and maximize the tax advantage of contributing to the plan.

Mistake No. 3: Assuming your 401(k) can be invested for you alone because it is for your retirement.

If you are married, don't assume your investments are just for you. Many people choose investments without weighing what their spouse is doing or what other stocks or bonds they own. Retirement-planning software offered by many firms rarely ask how other family funds are invested.

Yet all of your savings will play a role in your future comfort. So at least once a year, you should put your investments and your spouse's together and make adjustments. If your spouse's plan has better international-fund options, your spouse could invest more heavily in those while you put more in bonds. If you haven't done this before, you may find it as much an exercise in trust as in investing.

Mistake No. 4: Investing too much in your company's stock—even after Enron and Lehman Brothers.

Last year, just 17% of companies matched employee contributions with company stock, down from 36% in 2005, according a survey by Hewitt. In addition, employees today can usually diversify those shares at any time; in 2005, more than half of the plans didn't offer that flexibility.

Still, Hewitt found that when company stock was an option, 21% of retirement-plan holdings were invested in it, an exceedingly large allocation to a single stock.

If you have ignored your company-stock holdings, now may be the time to diversify. Vanguard recommends that your company stock shouldn't make up more than 10% of your retirement-plan money.

Mistake No. 5: Picking funds based on performance alone.

Stock and bond returns are largely unpredictable. But the one factor that is predictable is the expense rate. When deciding which funds to invest in, zero in on the ones with the lowest expenses.

The impact could surprise you. A recent Hewitt analysis found that cutting investment fees by 25 basis points—or $25 per $10,000 investment—could have the same effect as receiving an extra half-percentage-point match from your employer over your career

 

 

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Consumer Reports: One In Five Hit By Cellular Bill Shock

The FCC is finally stepping in to straighten out the confusion

Consumer Reports: One In Five Hit By Cellular Bill ShockThe FCC is finally stepping in to straighten out the confusion...

What are your chances of getting zapped by cellular bill shock, an unexpectedly high monthly bill often resulting from voice, text, or data overages?

A new Consumer Reports survey conducted just last month found that, in the past 12 months, a whopping one in five CR Online subscribers received a bill that was significantly higher than they expected.

Doesn't add up

That figure is at odds with what big cell carriers said when the magazine reported about this issue only last May -- before CR had its own survey data. "I can tell you that it's a very, very small percentage," Nancy Stark, a Verizon spokeswoman, told Consumer Reports. "It's a very, very, very low percentage," said Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman.

Also, a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) survey discovered a smaller incidence than was found among CR readers: Just one person in six is ever bill-shocked, according to the FCC survey. The surprise bills for a third of the FCC group were at least $50, while they were $100 or more for 23 percent.

Corrective action

Now the FCC is proposing that carriers be required to send customers an alert before they run up an overage tab - something carriers oppose, according to The Wall Street Journal. AT&T and Verizon Wireless did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Consumers Union (CU), the publisher of Consumer Reports, supports the FCC proposal. "People should not be blindsided by these surprise charges on their bill," said Ellen Bloom, senior director of federal policy and Consumers Union's Washington, D.C., office, after the FCC's announcement of its proposal. "We think that's wrong, and we are worried that the problem is getting worse."

Bloom says that at a minimum, CU supports providing all consumers with free and timely "usage alerts." Consumers should know when they are getting close to a specified limit on data service, or they are about to run up steep roaming charges. "We also think it is critical for consumers to know how much they will be charged for going over their allotted time," said Bloom.

Nothing new

Cell phone bill shock has a long and ugly history. Back in 2005, Ed of Houston told ConsumerAffairs.com that his 68-year-old mother received a warranty replacement phone, from Cingular Wireless, for her defective Motorola phone. "After using the phone for a little over a month, she received her bill. It was for a whopping GRAND! $1000! ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS!" Her phone bill is usually somewhere around $80.

Ed says he learned she was being charged because her new Motorola flip phone did not hang up her calls when she closed it like her old Motorola flip phone. Apparently the phone also did not naturally hang up after either caller terminated the conversation. "Needless to say," Ed concludes, "she wound up being charged far more than the time she actually spent talking -- to the tune of some $900."

Howard of Madison, WI, wrote us in 2008 that "Since Oct 2007, I have received cell phone bills for more than $1000.00 a month from Sprint when my normal bill should be roughly 70.00 per month. I have called repeatedly and gotten promises that there would be credits and that they would correct the problems that caused my issues. (They are charging me for Text messaging and Data usage when I have unlimited for both!)"

But, he notes, "I have spent more than $4000 in cell phone bills since Oct 2007, and Sprint has done little to merely credit me for text usage and data usage. These are the only two elements that are being impacted, but both have cost me dearly."

FCC rules

As part of its announcement, the FCC suggested the following rules for wireless carriers to help prevent their customers from experiencing bill shock:

Over-the-Limit Alerts: Consumers that have limited bundles of voice, text, and/or data can incur expensive overage charges when their cap is exceeded. Without constant monitoring, these charges quickly add up -- particularly with "family plans" where multiple people share the same bundle.
The FCC's proposed rules would require customer notification, such as voice or text alerts, when approaching and having reached monthly limits that will result in overage charges.

Out-of-the-Country Alerts: Many American customers don't know that their "unlimited" minutes, texts, or data plans only cover use within U.S. borders. Consumers can see their bills skyrocket when they travel abroad because of the additional fees for "roaming" on a foreign mobile network.

The FCC's proposed rules would require mobile providers to notify customer when they are about to incur international or other roaming charges that are not covered by their monthly plans, and if they will be charged at higher-than-normal rates.

Easy-to-Find Tools: Many wireless providers use some technological tools to alert consumers about their bills. For example, iPad users automatically receive text alerts when they are about to go over their data limits. But these tools are not widely available and too many consumers don't know about them.

The FCC's proposed rules would require clear disclosure of any tools offered by mobile providers to set usage limits or review usage balances. The FCC is also asking whether all carriers should be required to offer the option of capping usage based on limits set by the consumer.

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Walking, Eating Celery May Ward Off Memory Loss

New research shows healthy diet, lifestyle helps keep cognitive abilities intact

By walking regularly and eating the right foods, you may be able to hold onto your "gray matter" longer...

 Simply walking every day could help you retain more of your memory function later in life, according to a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. However, it means doing a lot of walking.

 Kirk I. Erickson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and lead author of the study, says walking six miles a week could help the brain retain its size as individuals age. The study followed 299 older people who kept track of their walking distances.

 After a nine-year period, the subjects underwent brain scans to measure brain size. They were also tested for Alzheimer's disease and other forms of memory impairment, from mild to severe. Those who walked at least six miles each week were found to have more brain mass than those who walked less.

 Erickson says the findings are encouraging because they point to simple, inexpensive steps individuals can take to ward off dementia.

 "Just by walking regularly, and so maintaining a little bit of moderate physical activity, you can reduce your likelihood of developing Alzheimer's disease and spare brain tissue," he said.

Celery, peppers and carrots

 Other recent research points to additional easy steps to maintain memory function. Researchers writing in the Journal of Nutrition report a diet rich in the plant compound luteolin reduces age-related inflammation in the brain and related memory deficits by directly inhibiting the release of inflammatory molecules in the brain, researchers report.

Luteolin is found in many plants, including carrots, peppers, celery, olive oil, peppermint, rosemary and chamomile.

The researchers focused on microglial cells, specialized immune cells that reside in the brain and spinal cord. Infections stimulate microglia to produce signaling molecules, called cytokines, which spur a cascade of chemical changes in the brain.

 Some of these signaling molecules, the inflammatory cytokines, induce "sickness behavior": the sleepiness, loss of appetite, memory deficits and depressive behaviors that often accompany illness.

Inflammation

"We found previously that during normal aging, microglial cells become dysregulated and begin producing excessive levels of inflammatory cytokines," said University of Illinois animal sciences professor Rodney Johnson. "We think this contributes to cognitive aging and is a predisposing factor for the development of neurodegenerative diseases."

Johnson has spent nearly a decade studying the anti-inflammatory properties of nutrients and various bioactive plant compounds, including luteolin. Previous studies - by Johnson's lab and others - have shown that luteolin has anti-inflammatory effects in the body. This is the first study to suggest, however, that luteolin improves cognitive health by acting directly on the microglial cells to reduce their production of inflammatory cytokines in the brain.

 

 

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Class Action Takes on "Sleep Positioner" Manufacturers

Lawsuit follows warnings from FDA, CSPC that products pose risk

Class Action Takes on "Sleep Positioner" Manufacturers. Lawsuit follows warnings from FDA, CSPC that products pose risk...

A warning issued late last month regarding baby "sleep positioners" has sparked a class action lawsuit alleging that the product's manufacturers fraudulently marketed the products as safe.

On September 29, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) warned that the positioners pose a potential risk of suffocation, and urged parents to stop using the products immediately. The agencies noted that there are currently 12 known death linked to the products.

The lawsuit, filed last week in Illinois state court, names as defendants eight companies that produce sleep positioners. It is being brought as a putative class action on behalf of all Illinois consumers who bought a sleep positioner from one of the companies within the applicable statute of limitations period. The suit estimates that there are thousands of consumers who fit this description.

The suit says that the defendant companies "have falsely represented ... that their baby sleep positioners help prevent crib deaths when in fact [the manufacturers] do not possess (and have not possessed) competent scientific proof that these products are effective to prevent crib deaths."

While the suit notes that two of the defendants -- Kid Brands and Baby Delights -- have committed to stop selling the products, it alleges that none of the manufacturers "have ... taken all necessary actions to inform the public to stop using these dangerous products."

The suit notes the twisted irony of the situation, pointing out that the defendant companies "have or continue to market and sell these products for only one purpose: to prevent crib deaths," while, in reality, the products "pose a risk of crib death suffocation."

Class members, according to the suit, "have been or will be damaged in their purchases of these products in that they have been or will be deceived into purchasing a product that is not only not proven to be effective and safe but, in fact, is unsafe."

The suit alleges a single count -- consumer fraud. According to the complaint, "[b]y making unsupported ... representations about their products, [the defendant companies] committed or continue to commit consumer fraud and, among other things, engaged or continue to engage in false and deceptive conduct."

The eight companies targeted by the suit are Learning Curve Brands d/b/a The First Years Company; Summer Infant, Inc.; Kid Brands, Inc. d/b/a Sassy; Dex Products, Inc.; Kiwi Holdings, Inc. d/b/a Basic Comfort; Prince Lionheart, Inc.; Baby Delight, Inc.; and Munckin, Inc.

The announcement by the FDA and the CPSC noted that, in the past 13 years, there have been reports of 12 infant deaths related to the devices, most of which involved babies who rolled onto their stomach from their side. The agencies also received dozens of reports of babies who were found in hazardous positions after being placed on their back or side in the positioners.

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Facebook Junkies Can Feel Safer Checking Their Profile On The Go

The social networking site plans to offer temporary passwords and other security features

Facebook Junkies Can Feel Safer Checking Their Profile On The GoThe social networking site plans to offer temporary passwords and other security features...

Facebook plans to unveil an interesting new feature in the next coming weeks: disposable passwords.

Picture it: you're jonesing for a Facebook fix, but can only log in to a public computer.  You're skittish about entering your personal information into a computer that countless hands have touched.

What do you do? Risk exposing your username and password to the next person who sits at the computer or wait until you get home to see if your ex accepted your Friend Request?

Soon, you won't have to do either. 

On October 12, 2010, Facebook integrity team member Jake Brill blogged that when the security feature is available, all you'll have to do is text "otp" to 32665 from a cell phone number associated with your profile and a temporary password will be texted back to you - a password that can be used only once and expires after 20 minutes.

For now, the feature will only be available to those with U.S. cell phone numbers.

Brill goes on to say that along with temporary passwords, Facebook will soon give users the ability to log out of their profiles remotely.

"These session controls can be useful if you log into Facebook from a friend's phone or computer and then forget to sign out," Brill said.

Users can check to see if they're still logged in by going to their Account Settings and if they are, they'll be able to log out there.

This feature can be useful in the case of someone accessing your account without your permission - you'll be able to shut them out and change your password.

In the last year, Facebook has suffered some damage in the PR department with some privacy-related gaffs; one of the most recent being in late 2009 when they changed the default setting for scores of user information to "public."

As a result, users' names, photos, and friend lists all became available for everyone to see, even if the user had previously specified that only her friends could view it.

Perhaps these new login functions are proof that Facebook acknowledges most people are concerned with keeping their information private when it's online.

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Maybe Unemployment Remains High Because Companies Aren’t Filling the Jobs They keep Posting

One way to reduce unemployment is for companies to fill the positions they have open

If you're looking for a job, don't think one's available just because you saw an ad for it...

The unemployment rate for the past 15 months has averaged above 9.5%, which makes the current economic recovery, according to John Lott of Fox News, the worst "recovery" since the Great Depression.

Lott notes that the latest unemployment rate in September of 9.6 percent is bad enough, with a loss of almost 400,000 jobs since May. But if you taken into account those who have given up looking for work and those forced to take part-time jobs because they can't find full-time work, the unemployment rate is really 17.1 percent.

Here's something else to consider. The government surveys people over just a few days during the middle of the month to get its figure. The Gallup organization does its own unemployment survey each month where they interview 30,000 people over the entire month. They found a huge increase in the number of unemployed during the last half of September, right after the Department of Labor's survey was conducted and that unemployment has actually risen to over 10 percent.

Interestingly, when Barrack Obama began his presidency, unemployment was 7.6 percent. And today, despite those stimulus efforts to create jobs, the job market is in worse shape. What's going on? If more jobs are supposed to be available, why are more people out of work?

Could it be that companies are simply taking their time to fill those openings, or in some cases, not filling them at all?

A survey has found that employers are indeed being choosier in who they hire, are taking longer to make decisions, or are merely not trying as hard to fill the openings they have. The reasons, according to the giant staffing firm, Manpower Inc. include lack of confidence about the economy, an attempt to increase productivity among workers they already have, and a feeling that they have plenty of time to pick the best candidates.

It's not unusual for some organizations to spend a year looking for the right person to fill a mid to upper level management position. Why then do they keep job postings open? Some hiring managers are afraid that if they take the job opening down they'll lose a position that they one day may want to fill.

Meanwhile job applicants remain frustrated when they apply for these positions and then never hear back. Or they spend time going on interviews only to learn the position has been frozen or filled from within. If you're looking for a job and see an ad, don't automatically assume there's actually a position open, even though you may be right for it.

Economists estimate that if openings were turning into jobs at the pace they usually do, the unemployment rate would be about three percentage points lower.

Recent survey

A recent study by three economists - Steven Davis of the University of Chicago,  R. Jason Faberman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and John Haltiwanger of the University of Maryland - using Labor Department data, created what they call an estimate of "recruiting intensity."

This takes into account factors that influence how fast employers fill open jobs, such as advertising, pay and the rigor of their screening process. As of August, the recruiting intensity index stood 14% below the average for the seven years leading up to the recession. The economists estimate that the lack of intensity accounts for about a quarter of the shortfall in hires compared with openings.

 

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Aspen Dental Settles Pennsylvania Complaints

Consumers complained of misleading, confusing information about prices, discounts

Aspen Dental Settles Pennsylvania Complaints. Consumers complained of misleading, confusing information about prices, discounts....

Aspen Dental has reached a $175,000 consumer settlement with Pennsylvania. The company had been accused of using confusing or misleading information about discounts, coupons, free denture consultations, interest-free financing, free initial exams and other advertisements and promotions.

The New York-based company has 32 franchisees in Pennsylvania, including locations in Allentown, Altoona, Erie, Harrisburg, Johnstown, Lancaster, Pittsburgh, Reading, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and York.

Attorney General Tom Corbett said his office received more than 50 complaints from consumers regarding Aspen Dental business practices.

"Consumers went to Aspen Dental because they believed they could obtain low-cost solutions to their dental problems, only to be faced with confusing limitations and restrictions on coupons and other promotions, or undisclosed details about financing," Corbett said.

According to the terms of the settlement, Aspen Dental will pay $125,000 in restitution to consumers who have had valid claims involving products or services that were purchased on or before May 28, 2009.

Corbett said the AVC also requires Aspen Dental to provide all consumers with a copy of their treatment and financing plan, including an itemized list of all services and fees, disclosure of any cancellation fees, terms of any guarantees or warranties, the total amount due, estimated monthly payments and annual interest rate.  Aspen Dental must also place clear and conspicuous statements in all future advertisements and promotions, explaining any limitation or special qualifications. 

Additionally, the settlement requires Aspen Dental to pay $50,039 in costs, which will be used to support future consumer protection activities by the Attorney General's Office. 

Consumers who have already filed complaints with the Attorney General's Office concerning Aspen Dental are not required to take any additional action.

Consumers who have not yet contacted the Attorney General's Health Care Section about complaints involving Aspen Dental should file formal complaints before November 12th, 2010.

Complaints can be filed by calling the Attorney General's Health Care Hotline at 1-877-888-4877 or online at www.attorneygeneral.gov (Click on the "Complaints" button on the front page of the website and select the "Health Care Complaint Form" from the list that appears).

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More Massachusetts Motorcycle Riders Get Insurance Refunds

Total of 12 insurance companies didn't adjust premiums for declining value of bikes

A complaint from a single Massachusetts motorcycle owner has resulted in $33 million in refunds from 12 insurance companies....

The State of Massachusetts has reached settlements with five more auto insurance companies over allegations that they overcharged tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents for motorcycle insurance.

As a result, riders will get $12.1 million back from their insurance providers. State Attorney General Martha Coakley launched the investigation alleging that Arbella Mutual Insurance Company, Hanover Insurance Group, OneBeacon Insurance (aka Massachusetts Homeland), National Grange Mutual (NGM), and Norfolk & Dedham Group (N&D) used inflated and un-depreciated motorcycle values to calculate premiums for Massachusetts motorcycle riders, resulting in more than $12 million in overcharges.

Coakley reached similar settlements with seven other insurance companies earlier this year. In total, the 12 insurance companies that have settled with the Attorney General's Office are paying back more than $33.8 million to Massachusetts residents and over $1.5 million to the state. 

One consumer started it all

 "We began our industry-wide investigation into motorcycle insurance based on a single consumer complaint.  To date, that investigation has forced 12 insurance companies to return more than $33 million to Massachusetts motorcycle owners," Coakley said. "As this investigation demonstrates, and as the insurance companies in this state know, when consumers bring complaints to our office, we listen and we take action."

The settlements stem from allegations that these insurance companies were illegally using inflated motorcycle values to calculate premiums and failing to depreciate motorcycle values as policies renewed.  

For example, the couple from Lynnfield that filed a complaint with Coakley owned a 1999 Harley Davidson Road King Classic.  In each year between 2003 and 2008, the investigation showed that Safety Insurance Company had charged the couple premiums as if their 1999 Road King Classic were worth $20,000.    However, by 2008, the couple's motorcycle was nine-years-old and worth less than $12,000. 

 As a result, Safety overcharged the couple by more than $1,500.  As a result of this industry-wide investigation, the Attorney General's Office has identified over 100,000 policies that are eligible for refunds under the settlements reached to date.  Average refunds under the settlements are around $320.  


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Kansas Makes Two Sex-Soliciation Arrests, Blames Backpage.com

Attorney general says arrests prove online ads are being used to facilitate sex crimes against children

Kansas Makes Two Sex-Soliciation Arrests, Blames Backpage.com. Attorney general says arrests prove online ads are being used to facilitate sex crimes....

Kansas Attorney General Steve Six today announced two sex-solicitation arrests of men who allegedly answered ads placed on Backpage.com by law enforcement officers posing as young women and used the arrests to again demand that Backpage.com remove all of its adult services ads.

"Last month, agents in my office placed ads on Backpage.com similar to those typically placed by human traffickers and others offering sex with underage girls," Six said.  "In less than 72 hours the posting led to an alleged solicitation of sex and an arrest made by our agents and Kansas City Kansas police.  Then last week, the same ad led to an additional arrest.


"If it wasn't clear before, it should be now - ads placed on Backpage.com are being used on a daily basis to facilitate sex crimes against children," Six said.  "Without immediate reforms by Backpage.com, more and more young girls are going to become victims."

Federal law, which generally takes precedence over state laws, protects operators of interactive Web sites from liability for postings by their users but that has not stopped Six and 20 other state attorneys general from threatening and intimidating Backpage.com and, earlier, Craigslist.org, which removed its adult services ads in September.

As part of Operation Child Shield, agents from the Attorney General's office posted ads on Backpage.com.  An ad posted last month led to the arrest of Spencer Lee Hoff, a 27-year-old man from Liberty, Mo.  It is alleged Hoff travelled to a location in western Wyandotte County to meet with what he thought was a 14-year-old girl.  The arrest was made within 72 hours of the ad going up on the website. 

As a result of contact initiated by the same advertisement, agents last weekend arrested 31-year-old Steven Van Loenen of Merriam, Kans., for Electronic Solicitation.  As with the case involving Hoff, during the course of online conversations, it is alleged Van Loenen solicited sex from a 14-year-old girl, who was actually an undercover agent.  On October 8, Van Loenen arrived at a location in western Wyandotte County and was arrested. 

 "Ads soliciting sex, including prostitution and including likely human trafficking cases involving children, appear to be rampant on Backpage.com," said Six.  "I was shocked at the ease which our agents were able to apprehend the suspects in each of these cases.  If agents from the Attorney General's office are solicited this quickly, imagine how easy it is for pimps and traffickers to solicit sex.

 "On behalf of the 20 Attorneys General who I joined in a letter to Backpage.com, I once again call on the site to take down its Adult Services section and immediately implement stringent review standards to put a stop to these ads," continued Six.  "

 In a recent posting on its blog, Backpage.com said it has hired a security expert to beef up its operations.

"The safety and security of our community is a top priority for Backpage.com. Backpage.com has just retained Internet safety expert Hemanshu Nigam of SSP Blue to partner with us in implementing a holistic plan centered around preventing criminal activity on our site," the company said.

Nigam said his company would "take a thoughtful look at the site's infrastructure to determine where necessary and impactful changes can be made to provide a safer site."

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Feds Investigating Wireless Firms’ Billing Practices

Move follows complaints about 'mystery charges' and 'bill shock'

The Federal Communications Commission is looking into how wireless carriers bill their customers and is weighing new rules....

As expected, the Federal Communications Commission has launched an investigation into wireless carriers' billing practices, a move sparked in large part by Verizon's admission that it tacked small, unwanted charges onto some consumers' bills.

Previously the agency said it was looking into the way Verizon billed its customers. The FCC didn't specifically name the other companies under investigation, but its generally assumed all the providers are coming under scrutiny.

Verizon disclosed last week that some 15 million customers received more than $50 million in charges for data services that weren't part of their contract. Verizon said the false billing occurred because of a software glitch. It's promised to refund up to $90 million in bogus charges.

 "While I appreciate that Verizon Wireless has acknowledged its billing errors, the refunds to millions of Americans have been a long time coming," FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said last week.

 "It appears the company was first notified, more than two years ago, about certain billing errors. As I pointed out in December of last year, the company's initial response to public reports of the phantom fees was that it does not charge consumers for accidental launching of the web browser," he said.

 Belated action?

 Advocacy groups have been pushing the FCC to look into "bill shock" issues for some time.  Complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com about wireless billing practices have been piling up for years.

 Tonisha, of Los Angeles, experienced bill shock recently.

 "Being a customer nine years with Verizon Wireless I had grandfathered my way into having call detail free," she said in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com. "I changed my number on that line and they started charging me $1.99 a month. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. I called them to pay my bill to discover that it was $790.00."

 Jay, of Sioux City, Iowa, was among those complaining about being charged for Verizon services he didn't want.

 "I called about data usage on two phones I do not use web on but was pretty much told too bad, you push the wrong button you pay for the usage," he told ConsumerAffairs.com. " I did not use the web just pushed a wrong button and got charged for it. They didn't even credit it but why would they when its millions of dollars a month."

 FCC Chairman  Julius Genachowski is expected to unveil a new proposed rule that would require wireless companies to provide a warning to their customers when they are about to exceed voice, text and data limits that would significantly increase their bills.

The Washington Post reports the proposed rule will be formally presented at an FCC meeting this week and would require a majority vote by the Commissioners to take effect.
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Consumer Reports Index: American Consumers On the Mend

Latest survey sees economic difficulties declining, but stress on the rise

American consumers are seeing some real improvements this month, according to the Consumer Reports Index for October, with economic difficulties continuing...

American consumers are seeing some real improvements this month, according to the Consumer Reports Index for October, with economic difficulties continuing to decline, an improved retail picture and modest gains in employment.

 The CR Trouble Tracker Index has declined for four straight months and now stands at 50.5 -- down nearly three points from the prior month and well below its recent high of 63.5 in June.

 Positive developments were led by a decline in consumers unable to afford medical care or medications, to 12.7 percent from 13.6 percent in September; and a drop in the proportion of Americans who missed a payment on a major bill. On the downside, in the past 30 days, 3.0 percent reported they have missed a payment on their mortgage, compared with 2.4 percent in September.

 Consumer Reports Past 30-Day Retail Index for October is 9.9, on par with the prior month (9.8), but down from a year ago (10.4). There was a slight increase in consumer purchasing for personal electronics (23.2 percent, up 1.8 percentage points), and small appliances (18.5 percent, up 1.9 percentage points).

 Consumer Reports Next 30-Day Retail Index stands at 7.4, down from the prior month (7.6), capping three months of decline since July (8.5).  Small appliances posted a slight gain in October (11.5) from the prior month (10.6).

 Jobs outlook

The Consumer Reports Employment Index is up slightly this month to 49.5 from 49.1 in September. Overall labor force activity is modest, with fewer people claiming to have started a new job in the past 30 days (5.7 percent), than those that lost their job (6.7 percent).

 Job losses (6.7 percent) were largely unchanged from the prior month (6.9 percent), while job gains were up slightly (5.7 percent) from September (5.0 percent).  The employment index remains in negative territory, with job losses outpacing gains.

 Confidence low, stress up

 The Consumer Reports Consumer Sentiment Index is currently at 44.8. Sentiment has doggedly refused to enter positive territory (over 50) since it was first measured by the Consumer Reports Index on October 5, 2008 and stood at 45.3. The CR Stress Index is up in October to 63.2 from 60.1 the prior month, and is at its highest level since April 2010 when it hit 63.8.

 "Americans appear to be experiencing less financial woes, but the key factor continuing to depress consumers is weak employment growth," said Ed Farrell, a director of the Consumer Reports National Research Center.  "The lack of real improvement on the jobs front will dampen any meaningful improvement in economic activity."

 The Consumer Reports Index report, comprises five key indices: the Sentiment Index, the Trouble Tracker Index, the Stress Index, the Retail Index, and the Employment Index. Here are the key findings:

 Consumer Reports Sentiment Index

 The Consumer Reports Sentiment Index has changed little since October 2009, and now stands at 44.8, virtually unchanged from September (44.1).  The most optimistic consumers are between the ages of 18-34 and those with household incomes of $100,000 or more. The most pessimistic are between the ages of 35-64 and 65 or older and those with household incomes under $50,000.

 The Index captures respondents' attitudes regarding their financial situation, asking them if they are feeling better or worse off than a year ago. When the index is greater than 50, more consumers are feeling positive about their situation. When it is below 50, more consumers are feeling worse. The Sentiment Index can vary from a high of 100 to a low of 0.

 Consumer Reports Trouble Tracker Index

The Consumer Reports Trouble Tracker Index showed further improvement this month, pointing to fewer troubles for consumers, dropping to 50.5 in October from 53.7 in September, and is down substantially from one year ago (65.5).

Positive developments were led by a decline in consumers unable to afford medical care or medications, to 12.7 percent from 13.6 percent in September; and a drop in the proportion of people who missed a payment on a major bill.

On the downside, in the past 30 days, 3.0 percent reported that they have missed a payment on their mortgage, versus 2.4 percent in September. The leading problems faced by consumers include:

-- Unable to afford medical bills or medications (12.7 percent)

-- Missed payment on a major bill - not mortgage (8.7 percent)

-- Credit card increased rates/fees, reduced credit line (7.6 percent)

Lower-income households, earning less than $50,000 a year, have been disproportionately affected. In the past 30 days:

-- Unable to afford medical bills or medications (20.6 percent)

-- Missed payment on a major bill - not mortgage (14.4 percent)

--Credit card increased rates/fees, reduced credit line (10.1 percent)

The Consumer Reports Trouble Tracker focuses on both the proportion of consumers that have faced difficulties as well as the number of negative events they have encountered. The negative events include: the inability to pay medical bills or afford medication, missed mortgage payments, home foreclosure, interest-rate increase, penalty fees, reduced lines of credit or other changes in credit-card terms, job loss or layoffs, reduced healthcare coverage, or the denial of personal loans.

The Tracker Index is then calculated as the proportion of consumers that have experienced at least one of the negative events comprising the index multiplied by the average number of events encountered.

Consumer Reports Retail Index

The Consumer Reports Past 30-Day Retail Index for October, reflective of September activity, is 9.9 -- on par with the prior month but down from a year ago.

Looking at the category purchases over the past 30 days, there were slight increases logged for personal electronics and small appliances. Among the non-index categories for past 30-day purchases, new cars were up slightly from the prior month, but used cars were down from the month before. Home purchases were off slightly from the September pace.

The Next 30-Day Retail Index, reflective of planned purchases for October, is at 7.4, posting three months of decline from July's recent high of 8.5, and also is down from a year ago.

Within the only small appliances posted a slight gain from the prior month.  Among non-index categories, new and used cars are holding steady relative to the prior month. Planned purchasing for homes in the next 30 days, reflecting planned October activity, is up from September, and is at its strongest level of the past nine months.

The Consumer Reports Retail Index looks at consumer purchases in the past 30 days as well as the outlook for planned purchases in the next 30-days across several categories. It represents the proportion of respondents that made a purchase in the following categories: major home appliances, small home appliances, major home electronics, personal electronics, and major yard and garden equipment.

The Retail Index is a weighted calculation. For example, a major appliance is of greater value than a small appliance. Because of their size and frequency, car and home purchases are tracked separately.

Consumer Reports Stress Index

The CR Stress Index is up to 63.2 in October from 60.1 the prior month. Stress has increased steadily over the past two months, and now stands at its highest level since April 2010.

 The Reports Stress Index captures attitudes regarding the amount of stress consumers feel compared to a year ago. It asks whether they are feeling more stressed or less stressed. When it is more than 50, consumers are feeling more stress and when it is below 50 they are feeling less stress compared with a year ago. The index can vary from 100 (Total Stress) to a low of 0 (No Stress).

 Consumer Reports Employment Index

 The magazine's Employment Index is up slightly in October (49.5) from the prior month (49.1).

 Overall labor force activity is sluggish, with fewer people claiming to have started a new job in the past 30 days -- 5.7 percent -- than the 6.7 percent that lost their job. Job gains were up slightly from the prior month.

 Job losses in the past 30 days were largely unchanged from September. Workers earning less than $50,000 have been hit the hardest.

 The Consumer Reports Employment Index examines the change in employment of those that reported starting a new job versus those that have lost their jobs in the past 30 days. An index below 50 indicates more jobs were lost than gained, while a score more than 50 indicates more jobs were gained than lost in the past 30-

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Verizon Making 'iPhone Friendly' Changes To Its Network

Reports of an iPhone for the Verizon network after the first of the year pick up momentum

With the success of Android-based smartphones, Verizon Wireless is doing quite well without an iPhone. But they may be about to get one anyway....

The long-rumored, long-awaited Verizon Wireless iPhone may finally be about to happen.

The wireless network is making technical changes that could be in preparation for an iPhone that would run on its network. Currently, AT&T is the exclusive network for the iPhone.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that Verizon is making changes to its network so that smartphone users would be able to talk on their phones while accessing the Internet. Currently, it's a capability that AT&T possesses and has promoted heavily, pointing out that Verizon lacks that capability.

 Verizon executive Brian Higgins confirmed to the Journal that the changes are in the works, but said it's not something that has been in demand from Verizon's current subscribers - fueling speculation that the sole reason for doing it is to make Verizon more acceptable to Apple and current iPhone users.

AT&T's network has been the source of many complaints among iPhone users, who cite limited coverage and dropped calls, especially in major cities like New York and Los Angeles.

After months of below the surface rumblings, there are now more persistence reports that Verizon might offer an iPhone early next year.

 Network differences

 

While Verizon is making some accommodation in its network, chances are a Verizon iPhone would be different in some respects from an AT&T iPhone because of differences in the two carriers.

AT&T's standard is called Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS). Verizon's is called Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA). Some experts think it's inferior to UMTS in some respects and isn't used much outside the U.S. The principal difference, however, is the inability to access both voice and data at the same time, something Verizon is now addressing.

It was just last month that Verizon itself was downplaying the whole notion of a Verizon iPhone. Verizon Communications CEO Ivan Seidenberg, speaking at a Goldman Sachs conference, said little about the iPhone, expect that he hoped Apple would eventually make one for Verizon's 4G network, which will begin to deploy by the end of the year.

But with Verizon customers snapping up smartphones from Motorola and HTC, both of which run Google's Android software, Seidenberg didn't seem to feel the need for an iPhone to keep subscribers happy.

"We don't feel like we have an iPhone deficit. We would love to carry it when we get there, but we have to earn it," Seidenberg said.

Maybe Verizon's current subscribers don't have their heart set on Apple's trendy device, but there may be a competitive reason to jump through a few hoops to break AT&T's monopoly on the iPhone. A September survey by Credit Suisse suggested 23 percent of AT&T customers would become Verizon subscribers if Verizon had an iPhone.

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Radio Host Charged With Defrauding Real Estate Investors

Host of MoneyDots allegedly lured investors into bogus deals

Radio Host Charged With Defrauding Real Estate Investors. Host of MoneyDots allegedly lured investors into bogus deals....

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has charged a talk radio show host with misappropriating $2.5 million of approximately $7 million raised through the fraudulent sale of interests in two real estate investment funds.

The SEC contends that Barbra Alexander, the former president of APS Funding, used her status as host of an internationally-syndicated radio show for entrepreneurs called MoneyDots to lure investors who thought their money would be used to fund short-term loans secured by real estate.

Misdirected funds

Alexander along with the Monterey, Calif.-based firm's secretary/chief financial officer Beth Pina and vice president Michael E. Swanson instead stole investor money to pay themselves $1.2 million and finance MoneyDots and other unrelated businesses unbeknownst to investors, the SEC alleges. Alexander is accused of using $200,000 of investor funds to remodel her kitchen.

"Alexander led investors to believe she would invest their money in secured real estate financing, but she and her cohorts merely used the money for their own benefit," said Marc J. Fagel, director of the SEC's San Francisco regional office.

No investments

According to the SEC's complaint, Alexander, Pina and Swanson raised nearly $7 million from 50 investors for two investment funds managed by APS Funding. They claimed the funds would make short-term secured loans to homeowners and yield 12 percent annual returns to investors.

Contrary to what investors were told, $1.2 million of their money instead went directly to Alexander, Pina, and Swanson for personal use, and $1.3 million in investor funds was used to finance other businesses owned by Alexander and APS Funding, including MoneyDots.

The SEC further maintains that the trio advanced the scheme by sending monthly account statements to investors reflecting fictitious profits and -- in classic Ponzi scheme fashion -- paying out purported returns that actually came from new investors.

The SEC's complaint charges Alexander, Pina, Swanson, and APS Funding with violating the antifraud provisions of the federal securities laws, and also charges Alexander, Swanson, and APS Funding with the unregistered sale of securities. The action seeks injunctive relief, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, and monetary penalties.

In a related criminal proceeding, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California filed criminal actions against Alexander, Pina, and Swanson based on the same alleged misconduct.

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Want to Lose Weight? Bring On the Potatoes!

After years of bad press, the humble potato finally gets its just desserts

Want to lose weight? Bring on the potatoes! After years of bad press, the humble potato finally gets its just desserts...

Ahh... the poor potato.

In addition to being kind of ugly, the dirt-dwelling tuber found itself on many a "forbidden foods" list since the 1990s when low-carb diets became all the rage.

Atkins, The Zone, and the South Beach Diet all tout that cutting carbs completely will help aid weight loss. That all you need to do to get skinny (and stay skinny) is eat protein and fats.

And despite the dwindling popularity of low-carb diets today, some high-carb foods can't shake their bad reputations. Many people still believe that eating foods high in carbohydrates, like potatoes, will make them gain weight.

Not so, claims research just released by the University of California, Davis and the National Center for Food Safety and Technology, Illinois Institute of Technology. 

The findings of this study, which demonstrates that dieters can include potatoes in their eating plan and still shed unwanted pounds, were presented at the Obesity Society's 28th Annual Scientific Meeting held on October 8, 2010.  

The study sought to gain a better understanding of the role of potatoes and the glycemic index in weight loss, largely because some have questioned the inclusion of potatoes in a weight loss regimen due to the vegetable's designation as a high glycemic index (HGI) food.

Potatoes, like many other HGI foods, can cause blood sugar to spike after being consumed. This can make you feel hungry quickly after you've eaten. Which, obviously, is a dieting disaster.

But the results of this study can give any weight-conscious potato lover a reason to celebrate.

Researchers studied 86 overweight men and women over the course of 12 weeks to measure the effects of a reduced-calorie, modified glycemic index diet with the addition of potatoes. 

The subjects were randomly assigned to three groups and each had a diet that included five to seven servings of potatoes per week.  The results indicated that all three groups lost weight.

One group was given a list of foods with a low glycemic index (LGI) to include in their daily diet.  The second group was given a list of foods with a HGI to include in their daily diet. 

Both groups were to reduce their daily caloric intake by 500 calories while also consuming five to seven servings of potatoes each week. 

All participants were guided and monitored for compliance by a dietitian to only eat foods on their lists or like foods along with the provided potatoes.

Participants in the third group - called the "control group" - were allowed to choose their daily meals and caloric intake on their own, but were encouraged to adhere to the U.S. dietary guidelines and the food guide pyramid. The only requirement of the third group was - like the other two groups - they had to include five to seven servings of potatoes each week.

All subjects were provided recipes and counseled accordingly for successful dietary adherence. 

The results indicated that all three groups lost weight and there was no significant difference in weight lost between the low and high glycemic index groups.  

If this is surprising news to you, consider this: when you strip a potato down to its natural state, it's quite healthy.  One medium-size (5.3 ounce) skin-on potato contains just 110 calories per serving, boasts more potassium than a banana (620g), provides almost half the daily value of vitamin C (45 percent), and contains no fat, sodium or cholesterol.  

But before you get too excited, read that sentence again. Medium sized. Skin-on. Per serving. 

A medium (or perhaps "small" judging by the boulder-sized potatoes seen in today's grocery stores), naked potato is downright good for us. The heaping spoonfuls of butter, sour cream, and bacon bits we cram inside of it? Not so much.

"The results of this study confirm what health professionals and nutrition experts have said for years; when it comes to weight loss, it is not about eliminating a certain food or food groups, rather, it is reducing calories that count," said lead researcher Dr. Britt Burton-Freeman, PhD, MS. "There is no evidence that potatoes, when prepared in a healthful manner, contribute to weight gain.  In fact, we are seeing that they can be part of a weight loss program."

So, really, this is just more evidence proving it's not what we eat, but how much of it that effects our weight. That there's no "magic food" we can add or subtract from our meal plans to help us slim down.

Hmm... maybe this isn't such great news after all.

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Holiday Shopping Season Is Prime Time for Scammers

Smishing, teeny tiny charges, counterfeit electronics among the new scams

Now that Fall is in full swing, many consumers have started their holiday shopping. ...

Now that Fall is in full swing, many consumers have started their holiday shopping. With the various stores and websites we buy from as we work our way through everyone's wish lists, it's easy to become a target for scammers.

ShopSmart magazine has introduced a new feature in their November 2010 issue where they expose the newest scams that can torment consumers.

Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief of the magazinesaid,"At ShopSmart, our main job is to help consumers shop with confidence by providing information they need to get the best deals, but just as important as knowing how to sniff out great buys is understanding what it takes to avoid rip-offs. So ShopSmart put together a guide about the latest, sneakiest scams, and simple tips that can help consumers protect themselves."

ShopSmart's "Shopping Scams" feature highlights the newest scams and how to avoid them, the top sites to visit to help you stay safe online, and how to keep from getting taken advantage of by virtual pickpockets.

Some of the scams featured are "smishing," "teeny, tiny charges" and "counterfeit electronics."

"SMISHING"

"Smishing" is the newest twist on "phishing" - when you get an email from a supposedly trustworthy source like your bank or PayPal, claiming there's a problem with your account. The scammers hope you'll click the link in the scam email and enter in all your account information that they in turn use to steal your money.

Instead of an email, the "smishers" send you an SMS text message to your phone. The text says there's something wrong with your account and they provide a phone number they hope you'll call and then be duped into providing all your information.

How can you prevent getting "smished"? Do your research. Before even thinking about calling the number, Google it. If it's a legitimate number, it should match the information on the financial institution's official website. If it's a scam, you'll probably uncover websites full of other people who also got "smished" and want to talk about it.

An even better way to protect yourself is to simply call the financial institution and ask them if there is a problem with your account. A customer service rep can tell you everything you need to know. Plus, by letting them know you got "smished", they can in turn alert their customers of the scam.

Teeny tiny charges

When scammer gets a hold of your bank or credit card information, they may start off by robbing you a little at a time. Charges as small at 20 cents may show up on your statement along with an unfamiliar, yet corporate sounding company name and a bogus phone number.

Stop scammers in their tracks by staying on top of your monthly statements. If you check your accounts online, get into the habit of checking them several times a week, or even once a day.

If you think there's a fraudulent change on your card, no matter how small, call your bank or credit card company immediately to dispute it.

And do it fast - while you have as much as 60 days to report unauthorized charges on your credit card, you only have a couple days to report fraudulent changes on your debit card. Otherwise, you could be liable for the first $500 in fraudulent changes.

Counterfeit electronics

That brand new, in-the-box Nintendo Wii being sold on eBay for a Buy It Now price of $75 may seem like the perfect gift to put under the tree. Mostly because you're getting such a bargain, as the gaming system runs about $200 brand new. But if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Counterfeit electronics may seem like old news, but they're still being sold, ripping off and disappointing consumers everywhere.

All kinds of electronics have been illegally copied, including computers, phones, and handheld gaming devices.

Popular auction sites like eBay try to crack down on sellers hawking counterfeit goods, but there's only so much they can do. And there's only so much they can do if you get ripped off.

The safest plan is to spend the extra money and purchase electronics from well-known, reputable dealers that offer full refunds.

And check the box. Look for a label statingthat the product has been certified byCSA International or UnderwritersLaboratory.

Look at the product, too. Are there misspellings on the package? If the box is see-through, does it contain all of the listed components, including batteries, cases, and power cords? Is the manufacturer's contact information, including address and phone number, clearly displayed? If not, it's probably counterfeit.

But what if your desire to save money trumps your desire to own authentic electronics? In the long run, using counterfeit electronics can do more harm than good. Many of them could have substandard wiring, faulty fuses, flammable plastic casings, and could contain harmful chemicals such as lead and mercury.

With as busy as we get during the holiday season, it's easy to forget the simple steps it takes to keep our bank accounts safe. But the extra time it takes to do a little research pays off greatly in the end and makes for a happy, stress-free, scam-free December.


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Don’t Fall For Facebook Profile Scam

Despite scammers' claim you can't see who has accessed your profile

Scammers use curiosity about possible secret admirers in latest Facebook scheme....

Most people are curious about who might be curious about them. So when they log onto their Facebook account and see a new tool that will reveal who has accessed their profile, it might be tempting to click on it.

Big mistake.

Graham Cluley, security expert for Sophos software, says scammers are once again using Facebook as a lure for new victims.

"Right now we're seeing messages spreading across Facebook claiming to have found a way to allow you to sneakily tell who has been looking at your profile," Cluley writes in his blog. "And it's no shock to see that many people are intrigued as to who might be checking them out online."

However, Cluley points out that this is not new legitimate functionality that Facebook has built into its social network. Instead, if you click on the link you are taken to a third-party website which, to the untrained eye, may at first glance appear to still be on the real Facebook site, but is in fact designed to trick you into sharing their link further.

A typical message reads:

See who viewed your profile original version 2.0:
now you can see who viewed your facebook profile 
<LINK>

"As we've seen in the past in connection with other scams, the page encourages you to 'like' it and 'share' it numerous times before it will hand over the ability to see who has viewed your Facebook profile," Cluley warns. "This should, frankly, be enough to trigger your suspicions and have you rapidly retreating."

Cluley says so far, many Facebook users appear to be falling for the ruse. In doing so, he says, they are helping scammers spread their links across the Internet.

"Ultimately you have to have your wits about you to avoid scams like this," he said.

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Brazilian Blowout is Formaldehyde-Laden, Canadian Government Says

Testing shows levels grossly over government regulations

A popular hair treatment is facing widespread scrutiny....

A popular hair treatment is facing widespread scrutiny -- and a class action lawsuit -- after the Canadian government issued an advisory warning that the solution contains jaw-dropping levels of formaldehyde. 

Brazilian Blowout, a straightener that promises to leave hair "totally frizz-free, shiny, effortlessly manageable and with plenty of body and bounce," according to its website, was found to contain up to 12 percent formaldehyde. Canadian law forbids formaldehyde levels higher than 0.2 percent.

In its advisory on Thursday, Health Canada said it has received six complaints from consumers and two from hair stylists, all complaining of "burning eyes, nose, and throat, breathing difficulties, and one report of hair loss associated with use of the product."

That report apparently came from Suzanne Harvey, a Calgary woman who told the Times Colonist that her hair was "dropping on my arms to the point where my husband said, 'What's going on with your hair?'"

The shocking amounts of formaldehyde allegedly contained in the product are even more surprising in light of the manufacturer's claim that the product is totally formaldehyde-free. According to Brazilian Blowout's website, the product is: "The ONLY Professional Smoothing Treatment that improves the health of the hair. No damage! No harsh chemicals! NO FORMALDEHYDE!!"

Classified as probable carcinogen Formaldehyde is a probable carcinogen, with even one part per million potentially causing watery eyes, nausea, wheezing, and burning in the eyes, throat, and nose. Testing has shown that exposure to the chemical may have caused nasal cancer in lab rats.

For its part, Brand Building Communications, which distributes the product, said in a statement that the test results were inaccurate and the result of improper methodology. "It is important to understand that formaldehyde is not a cosmetic ingredient and never has been," according to the statement. "It is a gas that cannot be added to cosmetics and only exists in tiny trace amounts."

But the company's steadfastness wasn't enough to stave off a class action lawsuit, filed by salon owner Kim Ryley of Victoria, who has used the product since last October. Ryley said that, even in that relatively short period, she has experienced burning eyes and developed problems breathing. "I'm shocked and angry," Ryley told the Times Colonist. "The fact that we were sold and promoted a product that claims to be safe and formaldehyde-free is upsetting."

Her suit seeks compensation for both physical and financial injury as a result of using the product. Brazilian Blowout's website, which boasts that the product was American Salon's "2010 Professional's Choice Winner," says the product "will actually improve the health of color-treated/highlighted hair by conditioning the hair while sealing the cuticle for enhanced color, reduced frizz, and radiant shine."

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Dog Too Fat? New iPhone/iPad App May Help

We're fat, and so are our pets. Now there's help, at least for the pets.

New app will help you feed your pet the proper types, amounts of food...

Every year, Americans grow fatter and fatter.  

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has labeled us "obesogenic," meaning we're "characterized by environments that promote increased food intake, non-healthful foods, and physical inactivity."

We're fat. And we're passing it on... to our pets.

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, an estimated 51.5% of dogs and cats in the United States are overweight or obese. That's 89 million of our furry friends.

And the health risks for overweight and obese dogs and cats mirror those that can be found in their overweight and obese owners: osteoarthritis, insulin resistance and Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart and respiratory disease, cranial cruciate ligament injury (the tearing of important ligaments in the knees), kidney disease, and many forms of cancer.

Feeding our pets the right amounts of their food is key is keeping them trim and healthy.  But many of us probably don't know how much our dog or cat should be eating.

Sure, there are feeding guides on labels of nearly all bags and cans of pet food, but those are generally-recommended amounts. And person with a dog or cat will tell you just how unique his or her animal companion is.

Enter CU-PetHealth, a new app created by the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University.

The app, available for download on iTunes for $3.99, is designed to work on both the iPhone and the iPad.  

"The idea came from a class project about designing a way to manage your pet's health via smartphone technology," said Joe Wakshlag, assistant professor at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine.

"iPhone is what everybody was using as far as the students were concerned. They felt they could reach more people through the iPhone and the iPad."

Like other pet health apps, CU-PetHealth allows users to store their pet's medical history and set reminders for upcoming vet appointments.  But CU-PetHealth sets itself apart from the others by showing the user the proper amount of food to feed their dog or cat based on age, weight and other factors.

Keeping our dogs and cats healthy is as simple as feeding them the proper amounts of food, making sure they get enough exercise, and staying on top of their vet visits.  With smartphone apps like CU-PetHealth, it may get even simpler.

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Google Maps a Path to Driverless Cars

Automated test cars have driven more than 140,000 miles

We're all accustomed to letting Google take us where we want to go on the Internet and, via Google Maps, when we're behind the wheel. ...

We're all accustomed to letting Google take us where we want to go on the Internet and, via Google Maps, when we're behind the wheel. 

But it may not be long before Google will slide behind the wheel and take charge of the entire trip.  Google has been working on what it calls "autonomous driving" for quite some time and its seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention, The New York Times reported.

The test cars have gone more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human intervention, the report said.  

While it may sound far-fetched, the concept is actually quite far along in its development.  The system uses GPS navigation and a variety of sensors mounted on top of and around the car to make allowances for traffic, pedestrians and so forth.

Although it is said to work well now in the test cars, autonomous driving won't really start to deliver maximum benefits until nearly all cars are equipped with it.

And just what are those benefits?  Well, they're potentially pretty significant.  They include:

Safety.  37,000 people died in traffic accidents in the U.S. in 2008 and hundreds of thousands more were seriously injured.  Autonomous driving should make the roads much safer, since the computerized sensors react more quickly and more consistently than humans.

"According to the World Health Organization, more than 1.2 million lives are lost every year in road traffic accidents. We believe our technology has the potential to cut that number, perhaps by as much as half," said Sebastian Thrun, the Google engineer who's in charge of the project, in a posting on the Google Blog.

Congestion relief.  If all cars were computer-controlled, they would be able to drive more closely together, thus getting more efficient use out of existing roadways.  Traffic would move more smoothly, since the computerized systems would not display the unnecessary hesitations, haphazard accelerations and other eccentricities of human drivers.

Fuel economy.  Cars operate more efficiently when they are driven more smoothly, without the stops and starts and pedal-pumping that characterize most human drivers' habits.

Sobriety.  Software programs don't drink or do drugs, so presumably the problem of impaired drivers would be eliminated.

License and registration, please

Thrun, who was the co-developer of the Street View mapping service, is the first to admit that Google does not yet have a business plan that provides a road map to profitability for the project.  Many obstacles remain, not the least of them legal.

Currently, the law in nearly every state and country assumes that a vehicle is being driven by a human being.  While Google's cars would never speed (they would, of course, have the speed limits of all known roads built into the software), there could still be accidents and other incidents.

Who would get the ticket if an autonomous car was pulled over for a broken taillight?  That, and many other questions, remain to be worked out.

But for now, Thrun thinks the technical feasibility of the project is on the fast track.


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With Unemployment High, Job Scams a Growth Industry

Employment scams growing faster than the economy

With unemployment still at 9.6 percent, it's not surprising scammers are using the lure of a lucrative or glamorous job to hook victims. ...

With unemployment still at 9.6 percent, it's not surprising scammers are using the lure of a lucrative or glamorous job to hook victims.

SC Johnson, a global household products company, says it has learned scammers have been sending out fake employment offers from the company. They have even boldly placed ads in newspapers and the Internet, claiming to be SC Johnson.

In the most recent version, a fake job opportunity ad is placed in a newspaper and asks people to provide their resume, work history, contact information, etc. People are then selected for online interviews using Instant Message chats.

Applicants are offered a customer service position and a Cashier's Check to purchase software that is necessary for the position. Both the job offer and the Cashier's Check are, in fact, fake, the company says.

Bogus

"SC Johnson is in no way connected to this offer and warns applicants to be wary of any job offer that requires them to cash checks or to release bank account or credit card information," the company said in a statement. "All legitimate employment opportunities with SC Johnson are officially posted on  SC Johnson's web site.  

In Oregon, meanwhile, modeling jobs seem to have suddenly become available. But Oregon Oregon Attorney General John Kroger says most of the "jobs" are a sham.

 "Modeling scams come in a variety of forms, but one thing they all have in common is the scam artists behind them assume you're all beauty and no brains," Kroger said.

Kroger offered up a few of the more common internet modeling scams he's seen:

The, "Surprise! It's Not a Job Interview but a High-Pressure Sales Pitch" Scam

You respond to a "job" announcement on-line, and what you think is an interview for a modeling job turns into a high-pressure sales pitch for modeling or acting classes, "shoots" or "screen tests." The salesperson seems eager to assist you with your modeling career, but you must first pay them hundreds or thousands of dollars. It's all an act!  Never sign a document without reading and understanding it first - ask for a blank copy of the contract and take it home to review with someone you trust.

The, "Hurry: This Opportunity Won't Last Long" scam

Scam artists draft fake on-line ads for bogus modeling opportunities with the caveat that you must first pay to learn more about the opportunity. You may be required to pay for a monthly subscription to a "talent service" or a "limited offer on a discounted photo shoot," or wire money to cover the cost of a "booking agent." Don't be deceived by smooth sales talk - request an in-person meeting before you agree to pay for a modeling agent or scout. And remember: if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

The, "Easy Money for Small Work" Scam

Be leery of claims about high salaries. Successful models in smaller markets canearn $75 to $100 an hour, but the work is irregular. Ask the company for references. Get the names and contact information of models and actors who have successfully secured work through the company. When possible, request local contacts and try to meet with the referred contact in-person.

The, "Here's a Check for the Photo Session" Scam

Some scam artists try to attract your attention to modeling work with promises of free "photo shoots" and paid trips to New York City. After you express an interest in their offer, the crook will send you a fake check as "advanced payment" for the photo session. The crook then will ask you to wire transfer some of the counterfeit funds to a "photographer," "studio," or "booking agent" to seal the deal. NEVER WIRE MONEY as a means to secure a job. Money transfers are the preferred means for international scam artists to steal money - the money is hard to trace and the victim does not realize they have been scammed until after their bank notifies them that the original check they deposited is worthless.

The "You Have the Cutest Baby Ever" Scam

Bogus talent agents will try to convince proud parents and relatives that their child is modeling material and offer to set up a professional photo session for the little tyke. In reality, the modeling market for infants and toddlers is small. Moreover, because an infant's look will change quickly, rendering photos outdated, very few infants are marketed with professional photos. Legitimate agents, producers and advertising agencies will ask for casual snapshots.
Not all modeling agents or schools are bad - do your homework to make sure your beauty can truly shine.

What To Do

Here are a few quick tips to avoid a model rip-off:

  1. Get everything in writing, including promises that have been made orall
  2. Keep copies of important papers, such as your contract with the company and any literature or company advertisements.Be leery of companies that only accept payment by cash or money order - this is how scam artists prefer to be paid.
  3. Ask the agency for a list of specific jobs where it has placed its models and contact those companies to verify the agency's claims.
  4. Be suspicious of a company that requires an up-front fee to serve as your agent.
  5. Steer clear of companies that require you to use a specific photographer, rather, compare fees and work quality of several photographers.
  6. Check-out the company with both the consumer authorities or your state attorney general.
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Mortgage Services May Face Fraud Charges in New Jersey

White House throws cold water on idea of foreclosure moratorium

Another state may be preparing legal action against mortgageservicers for not properly reviewing and verifying documents beforeforeclosing on homes...

Another state may be preparing legal action against mortgage
servicers for not properly reviewing and verifying documents before
foreclosing on homes. New Jersey says it's investigating to determine
whether servicers violated the state's Consumer Fraud Act.

The State of Ohio last week filed a lawsuit against GMAC Mortgage,
based on an employee's sworn deposition that he did not always review
and sign foreclosure documents, as required by law.

New Jersey has asked mortgage companies to provide documentation on
how they have performed foreclosure filings. The state also has
contacted the National Association of Attorneys General to discuss
collaborative efforts.

"I'm concerned that what some are calling 'shortcuts' in the filing
process may in fact be a systemic pattern of fraud committed in our
state court system," New New Jersey Attorney General Paula T. Dow
said. "These companies have a legal obligation to follow procedures
before they attest to the facts."

Revelations that started it all

Ally Financial, formerly known as GMAC Mortgage, announced two
weeks ago that it was imposing a moratorium on foreclosures in 23
states, including New Jersey, after disclosing that its employees
routinely signed off on foreclosure affidavits without properly
reviewing them or verifying their accuracy. JP Mortgage Chase and Bank
of America have since announced similar halts to foreclosure
proceedings.

Last Friday BoA expanded the foreclosure halt to all 50 states. Dow
believes more lenders should consider taking that action.

"I'm asking all mortgage holders who are in the foreclosure process
to pause, review their procedures, and ensure that all statements that
they attest to are, in fact, properly reviewed and confirmed as being
accurate," Dow said. "New Jersey homeowners who are facing the trauma
of foreclosure and eviction are entitled to no less."

In New Jersey, foreclosure actions must be supported by an
Affidavit of Amount Due, which establishes the identity of the
mortgage/note holder and information concerning the default. GMAC
Mortgage admitted that, due to the crushing number of foreclosure
documents required for filing, employees sometimes took shortcuts.

"We want to know what past practice has been, and if we find the
Consumer Fraud Act has been violated, we expect the companies to
reform their business practices and to help any affected homeowners,"
said Thomas R. Calcagni, New Jersey's Acting Consumer Affairs
Director. "The large number of mortgage defaults and foreclosure
procedures that have occurred is no excuse for denying borrowers due
process."

White House cool to moratorium

Meanwhile, a White House advisor over the weekend dampened
speculation that the Obama Administration would press for a full
moratorium on home foreclosures. David Axelrod, interviewed on CBS
Face The Nation Sunday, questioned the need for a complete halt,
saying some foreclosures are justified and should go forward. Doing
so, he said, will ultimately help the housing market recover.

"Our hope is this moves rapidly and that this gets unwound very,
very quickly," he said.

However, a growing number of Democratic lawmakers, facing
re-election next month, have called for a complete stop to home
foreclosures. Lawmakers have also urged bank regulators and the
Justice Department to investigate whether mortgage companies violated
laws in handling foreclosures.


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Pet Insurance: Is It Worth the Cost?

Consumer Reports counsels caution before spending big bucks to insure your pet's health

Like health coverage for people, pet policies can be complicated...

Like health coverage for people, pet policies can be complicated. Consumer Reports Money Adviser recently analyzed the coverage and premiums from four pet health insurers and found people are willing to spend -- up to a point.

Before he died in 2008, Gremlin the Cat racked up nearly $10,000 in veterinary bills to treat salivary cancer, a rare disorder. The 13-year-old gray tabby was treated twice in a New York City veterinary hospital to shrink a tumor and died a few months later.

Gremlin's owner, Carol Sherwin of South Salem, N.Y., says she doesn't regret spending the money on Gremlin's care. But just to make sure her new kittens, Isabelli and Fang, don't take a similar bite out of her wallet, she plans to buy pet insurance. "They are my furry children," she says, "and I want them to be healthy and happy for as long as possible."

High cost of vet care

Some people will do anything for their pets. But a majority of owners draw the line after spending $500 for veterinary care, according to a recent survey by the Associated Press and Petside, a website. As costs move closer to $1,000, fewer pet owners are likely to pay for care.

That's where pet insurers say they can help. For monthly premiums of less than $10 to more than $90, they promise to pay a portion of a pet's bills for medical and surgical care, and -- depending on the policy -- some other types of care.

What you pay depends on where you live, your pet's breed and age, the deductible, and the coverage. Pet insurance, says Dennis Drent, CEO of Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI), the largest insurer, is intended to help owners avoid having to choose "economic euthanasia" -- letting a beloved animal go because they can't afford the vet costs.

Pet insurance is not widely held. At most, three percent of dogs and one percent of cats are insured, by some recent estimates. By focusing on the potentially high cost of care, insurers are hoping to change that. Coverage is promoted on TV, online, in supermarkets, in retail stores like Petco, and in veterinary offices.

Do you need it?

Is it worth the money? <em>Consumer Reports Money Adviser</em> shopped online and analyzed coverage by three brands: VPI, ASPCA Pet Health Insurance, and 24PetWatch QuickCare -- whose parent companies together control an estimated 87 percent of the market. The experts also examined a relative newcomer, Trupanion, which offers a simpler approach than the others. Counting variations in coverage and deductibles, CR looked at nine plans.

To compare them, the investigators used as a model Roxy, a purebred beagle, age 10, in Westchester County, N.Y. Her vet calls her a "basically healthy" dog.

Over the years she's had a few health problems. She was treated twice in an animal emergency room after downing potentially poisonous chocolate. She was also treated for a puncture wound after a fight with another dog. She's had two costly dental cleanings under anesthesia, suffered a few ear and eye infections, and as a pup had gastrointestinal distress.

Consumer Reports Money Adviser adjusted Roxy's total vet bills into present-day costs to create a model to judge how her lifetime expenses would have been covered under the nine policies. They also looked at how the value of the coverage changed if potentially costly elements to her medical history were added: chronic arthritis; incontinence as a result of spaying; hypothyroidism; the removal of a benign tumor; and euthanasia. Here are the findings:

Coverage limitations

Like human health insurers have traditionally done, pet insurers exclude pre-existing conditions from coverage. An insurer also might exclude a pet's condition from coverage at renewal. To address this, ASPCA Pet Health Insurance offers a "continuing care" option to new customers, which added 36 percent to Roxy's estimated premiums.

Richie of Forest Hills,  NY, advises people shopping for pet insurance to stay as far away as possible from any ASPCA policy. He tells ConsumerAffairs.com, ASPCA Pet Health Insurance "has many exclusions, but very few covered items." He claims that if you renew your policy on July 1, and your pet falls ill on June 30, the company treats this illness as a pre-existing condition and will not cover any expenses.

Cost-sharing

Pet owners face either a deductible, a co-pay, or both with most insurers. They might impose a maximum limit on treatment for individual illnesses, or on the yearly or lifetime reimbursement.

Exclusions

Carriers often exclude hip dysplasia, a chronic malady. QuickCare Gold won't cover any illness claims for Chinese shar-peis or their crossbreeds, though it will cover accidents. VPI has its own long list of excluded conditions.

Extra fees

They include a one-time fee of $25 for Trupanion and $2 a month for VPI and QuickCare customers who pay their premiums monthly rather than annually.

Claims quirks

With these plans, you foot the bill yourself and wait for reimbursement. ASPCA limits coverage to "reasonable costs" based on veterinary pricing in the area in which the fee was incurred. VPI posts a long schedule on its Website outlining the maximum payouts for each illness or injury. It's unlikely that most people won't slog through those details until after a claim is paid. They probably should. While consumer complaints to the national Better Business Bureau about all four insurers are few, they focus heavily on disputes over contract language. (The BBB rates newcomer Trupanion A-, and gives the others A+, its top rating.)

Costly or unnecessary add-ons

Some carriers let you add "wellness care" coverage to their accident and illness policies. The investigators say it's generally not worth the cost. ASPCA's Level 3 coverage adds spaying or neutering, an annual physical, three common vaccines, and fecal and heartworm tests to its Level 2 accident and illness coverage. The coverage also promises higher maximum benefits.

But for Roxy, it added $2,766 to the insurance cost over 10 years and paid out just $1,159 in benefits. VPI offers a "CareGuard Core" rider that costs $12 per month-$144 a year-but it never paid out that much in any year.
Playing the odds

Overall, CR found that the pet policies it analyzed were not worth the cost for a generally healthy animal. In healthy Roxy's case, none of the nine policies would have paid out more than the projected premiums over a 10-year period.

If you're unlucky enough to have a pet with a costly chronic condition or illness, or a young animal in need of major care, you could get a positive payout from pet insurance -- if your pet develops the condition while covered.
For a dog with chronic problems and very sick kitties, the Trupanion plans provided the highest net benefits.

Trupanion doesn't pay for wellness care or exams, and it imposes other limitations. But after a per-incident deductible, it promises to pay 90 percent of the bill, with no lifetime ceiling.

Insurance tips

While it's impossible to predict your pet's odds of contracting a costly illness, you can take a number of steps to keep him or her healthy and minimize veterinary costs.

  • Save in advance for vet bills. Dog owners spent an average of $225 last year on routine vet visits and $532 on surgical visits; for cats, the averages were $203 and $278, according to the American Pet Products Association. Consumer Reports Money Adviser's preferred alternative to pet insurance is to add a couple hundred dollars each year to an emergency savings fund for pet care.
  • Spay or neuter your pet. Among other advantages, neutered animals are less likely to get into fights. And spaying reduces the risk of breast cancer.
  • Get annual checkups. Make sure vaccinations are kept current.
  • Shop with your eyes open. If you're considering pet insurance, download a sample policy and its terms and conditions from the insurer's website and read them thoroughly for limitations, exceptions, and co-payments. (If the site doesn't include a sample contract, call the company to ask for one.) CR recommends coverage with simple, percentage-based payouts, and no reliance on judgments of what's "reasonable." Avoid riders for wellness care. If you plan to use the insurance for catastrophic coverage -- say, $1,000 and up -- go for the highest deductible you can comfortably afford.

 

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Pfizer Recalling Some Bottles of Lipitor

Company claims the action is 'precautionary'

Some consumers reported an odd odor in their Lipitor bottle....

Pfizer is recalling its 40 mg bottles of Lipitor due to what it calls "a small number of reports" of an uncharacteristic odor related to the bottles in which the drug is packaged. 

The drug company says a medical assessment has determined that the odor is not likely to cause adverse health consequences in patients taking Lipitor and that there is no need for those taking the medication to take any action.

Pfizer is advising patients to continue taking their medication as prescribed by their doctors, but says those experiencing the uncharacteristic odor associated with the medication should return the tablets to their pharmacist.

The company pledges to continue to monitor the situation and take any action necessary to ensure patient safety. It adds that it has taken a number of steps to ensure that there is no shortage of 40 mg Lipitor as a result of the recall.

Lipitor (atorvastatin calcium) is a prescription medicine that is used along with a low-fat diet. It lowers the LDL ("bad") cholesterol and triglycerides in a patient's blood. It can raise HDL ("good") cholesterol as well.

The drug has been shown to lower the risk for heart attack, stroke, certain types of heart surgery, and chest pain in patients who have heart disease or risk factors for heart disease such as age, smoking, high blood pressure, low HDL, or family history of early heart disease.

Lipitor should not be taken by those with liver problems or women who are nursing, pregnant or may become pregnant.

Common side effects include diarrhea, upset stomach, muscle and joint pain, and changes in some blood tests.

Those with questions about Lipitor should contact their doctor or pharmacist or call 1-888-LIPITOR.


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Dora the Explorer Sues Nickelodeon

Caitlin Sanchez says network “took advantage” of her

Nickelodeon, the popular kid's programming channel, has been slapped with a lawsuit by one of its biggest stars....

Nickelodeon, the popular kid's programming channel, has been slapped with a lawsuit by one of its biggest stars.

Caitlin Sanchez, the 14-year-old who until recently provided the voice of "Dora the Explorer," filed the suit Wednesday evening in New York Supreme Court in Manhattan, where the network is based.

Sanchez says Nickelodeon owes her millions of dollars for "merchandising, re-runs, promotional work and recordings." According to the suit, Sanchez "work[ed] hundreds of hours marketing the Dora Brand for free."

The suit alleges that Nickelodeon "took advantage of a hard-working teenage girl," and forced her and her parents "into signing an unconscionable contract with convoluted, vague and undefined terms that allowed producers of the Nickelodeon hit to exploit her."

The suit also says that Nickelodeon pushed Sanchez and her parents to sign the contract "within a half-hour of first seeing it," and didn't provide them enough time to seek legal counsel.

Nickelodeon says the suit is without merit.

"The claims being made are baseless," the network told CNN. "Unfortunately, Caitlin's voice changed and she was no longer able to portray the Dora character ... Caitlin's contract was extensively negotiated through her agent and in compliance with her union. She was well-compensated for her work and for personal appearances."

According to Sanchez's suit, she was paid $5,115 per episode.

Sanchez has provided the voice of Dora since 2007, taking over for Kathleen Herles. Nickelodeon says that Herles was also let go when her voice changed.

The show, which has been on the air since 2000, is a hit with kids and parents alike. Each episode involves a journey in which Dora goes exploring with the help of a map. Along the way, she uses short Spanish phrases as a way to teach viewers a new language. There is also a fully-Spanish version that airs on other networks.

The suit also names as defendants MTV, which owns Nickelodeon, and Viacom, MTV's parent company.
Sanchez, who lives in Fairview, New Jersey, has also made cameo appearances in Law & Order SVU and Lipstick Jungle.

Nickelodeon, which debuted in 1977 as Pinwheel, has spent the past two years remaking itself. In 2009, the network unveiled a new logo and renamed its subsidiary networks "Noggin" and "The N" as "Nick Jr." and "TeenNick," respectively. The network also launched a Canadian version last year.

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Investing Overseas Too Risky? It's Not As Risky as Not Investing Overseas

Here's an investing secret: find out where the wealthy are putting their money and follow their lead

Want a broad-based investment tip? Find out where the wealthy put their money and put yours there too....

Want a broad-based investment tip? Find out where the wealthy put their money and put yours there too.

Take, for example, the private banking clients of JPMorgan. A Private Banking "client" is a Wall Street euphemism for "rich." JP Morgan is telling its wealthy private banking clients to invest in emerging market equities and currencies such as the Indonesian rupiah and Indian rupee.

The Indonesian rupiah may be a bit of stretch for average investor's risk tolerance but the point we're making is that if you want to rebuild your shattered investment portfolio in this lifetime you're probably going to have to look overseas for any decent return. The U.S. markets are still climbing out of a "lost decade" and are now only back to where they were ten years ago. They're stuck in what financial experts call a "trading range," and there's no telling when they'll break out of it.

Emerging markets outperform U.S. markets

Emerging and frontier markets on the other hand are skyrocketing. Russia was up 129% last year and Sri Lanka had a year-to-date gain of 92% as of September 24 according to the MSCI, Inc. frontier index. Many American investors already invest in overseas markets just by buying shares of multinational companies. These days, three of the world's top five companies are headquartered in emerging markets and ten of the top 20 mutual funds invest in developing nations.

Consider this. According to Ibbotson Associates research, if you had invested $10,000 in the S&P 500 ten years ago, it would be worth only about $9,800 today. But if you had put the same amount in an international stock portfolio split between emerging and developed markets, your investment would have nearly doubled.

Still, on average, American investors have about 90 percent of their portfolio in U.S. securities.

We have to get used to the idea that the U.S. is no longer the global economic power it once was. A weak dollar coupled with a slow economy has put a serious drag on market performance. Moreover, emerging markets represent more than 70% of the world's population or four times that of developed markets and countries like India and China are seeing a surge in middle class consumerism.

Where's the real risk?

Jerome Booth is the head of research at Ashmore Investment, a UK-based emerging market fund. He's quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying "people used to think emerging markets were far riskier than developed markets. But the credit crunch has shown that western markets are just as risky, and just as exposed to risks like weak corporate governance and political interference."

That doesn't mean there isn't risk in foreign markets, especially in what are known as "frontier" markets in Africa, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, where you run the risk of political instability and corruption, where bribery is a normal business expense. There are also potential economic challenges such as China slowing its growth to avoid inflation or debt-ridden European nations cutting spending to the point they slide back into a recession.

Volatility abounds in some of these markets, but over time many of them have grown while the U.S. market, which has its own struggles with volatility, hasn't grown nearly as much. The key with global investing is to think long term.

A recent nationwide survey of mass affluent investors by Allianz Global Investors (AGI) and GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications found that most (71%) are looking for the best investment they can find and don't care whether it is foreign or domestic. The survey, which was conducted in August, found only 42% said they were confident they'll reach their long-term financial goals compared to 53% in April and nearly two-thirds (63%) believe a major stock market downturn is at least somewhat likely in the next year, compared to 53% in April.

Investing in the right foreign markets

Investing correctly, in the right foreign markets, could make the difference between a meager performance and a solid one. Try to find a trusted financial advisor who will recommend the appropriate allocation and then the best balance of investment vehicles—mutual funds, ETFs, foreign securities, or shares of U.S. companies with global operations. Some financial advisors are recommending clients allocate between 20 and 35% in emerging markets and even more if the client is younger. That may be a little extreme for older and more conservative clients, but they would also benefit from having some of their portfolio in foreign stocks, even if it's just five or ten percent.

So now that you're at least thinking about investing in other markets, how do you go about doing that? Again, talk to a financial advisor. Ask them what kind of international investments are available and right for you.

Stock Funds

One of the best ways to enter foreign markets is through mutual funds and Exchange Traded Funds or ETFs. Not all foreign stock funds perform the same way and may not give the robust returns you'd expect. Some international funds are overly invested in large European or Japanese companies and have little exposure to the fast-growing emerging markets. On the other hand, relying too much on those red hot developing markets like Brazil, India and China can expose your portfolio to more risk than your tolerance can handle.

You also have a choice between global funds or an international or foreign fund. A global fund can invest anywhere in the world and depends on where the fund's management team sees the best opportunities. Many global funds will have holdings in the U.S. as well as overseas which means you'll get the broadest possible diversification available in a single investment. An international fund, however, invests only outside the U.S. and therefore is likely to be more volatile.

As with domestic funds, you want to be aware of sales charges. If you're seeking low cost alternatives, you may want to invest in an overseas index fund or ETF (exchange-traded fund). These investments offer some of the same advantages as a mutual fund, but have significantly lower costs because they are not actively managed.

Foreign Stocks

More sophisticated investors may want to consider foreign equities. Just as one of the basic principles of successful investing is diversification by spreading your investments across different industries, investing beyond borders is merely an extension of that principle.

The underlying concept is that you're taking advantage of the superior growth of other countries and there are two primary ways to do this with stocks. You can either invest in companies located in other countries or in U.S. companies that do business internationally and derive much of their revenue from overseas. In fact, investing in companies like Apple, GE, and Avon, who do business in nearly every country on the planet, is about as global as you can get in terms of taking advantage of the world's economies.

Another option for investing in international stocks is to buy an American Depositary Receipt, or an ADR. These are shares of a foreign stock held by a U.S. bank. ADRs are traded on U.S. stock exchanges and allow U.S. investors to buy foreign stocks without having to deal with foreign currencies, the expense of opening an additional account or higher commissions, and foreign banks, not to mention other possible barriers such as language and different time zones. Any gains and losses will appear on a 1099 form that you will receive at the end of the year.

Foreign Bonds

Older investors, who prefer the more conservative fixed income investments, may want to look at emerging market bonds. Take Brazil for example. Its debt to gross domestic product ratio is lower than that of the U.S. and Brazil's 10-year local currency bonds yield 12.3 percent, compared with 3 percent for U.S. Treasuries.

The key to foreign investing is to not try it alone. If you're going to invest in foreign markets, work with a financial advisor who understands the risks, rewards and complexities of the global marketplace.


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Cell Phone 'Mystery Charges' Get FCC's Attention

Consumers complain about unexpected, confusing charges

The Federal Communications has promised to open an investigationnext week into "bill shock," in response to complaints from wirelesscustomers....

The Federal Communications has promised to open an investigation next week into "bill shock," in response to complaints from wireless customers.

The agency is also reportedly planning to introduce a proposal requiring wireless carriers to notify their customers if their bills have suddenly gone up.

The FCC action comes on the heels on an announcement by Verizon Wireless that it will refund up to $90 million to consumers who were wrongly charged for accessing the Internet with their mobile phones.

The company said it will notify about 15 million customers this month and next that it will apply credits to their accounts due to mistaken past data charges. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn says the action is long overdue.

"While I appreciate that Verizon Wireless has acknowledged its billing errors, the refunds to millions of Americans have been a long time coming," Clyburn said.

"It appears the company was first notified, more than two years ago, about certain billing errors. As I pointed out in December of last year, the company's initial response to public reports of the phantom fees was that it does not charge consumers for accidental launching of the web browser," he said.

Belated action?

While advocacy groups generally applaud the FCC's probe of bill shock, they note that it, too, was a long time in coming. Complaints about wireless billing practices have been piling up for years.

Tonisha, of Los Angeles, experienced bill shock recently.

"Being a customer nine years with Verizon Wireless I had grandfathered my way into having call detail free," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I changed my number on that line and they started charging me $1.99 a month. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. I called them to pay my bill to discover that it was $790.00."

Jay, of Sioux City, Iowa, was among those complaining about being charged for Verizon services he didn't want.

"I called about data usage on two phones I do not use web on but was pretty much told to bad, you push the wrong button you pay for the usage," he told ConsumerAffairs.com. " I did not use the web just pushed a wrong button and got charged for it. They didn't even credit it but why would they when its millions of dollars a month."

Cramming

A growing issue among wireless customers is "cramming," in which a third-party provider inserts a charge on a consumer's wireless bill. The law requires providers to pass along the charge, supposedly in the interests of increasing competition. However, the law has been repeatedly exploited by scammers to insert charges for non-existent services.

Consumer groups say the FCC should take action to make the wireless billing process easier for consumers to understand. Since many cellphones are now bundled with other communications services, the bills now take several pages and are hard to follow.

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New Android Cell Phone Interface Takes the Typing Out of Texting

Hands-Free Texting: Vlingo InCar activated by 'wake-up word'

With the crackdown on distracted driving, and with texting behind the wheel being compared to driving drunk, Vlingo Corporation believes it's onto someth...

With the crackdown on distracted driving, and with texting behind the wheel being compared to driving drunk, Vlingo Corporation believes it's onto something.

The company has announced a new beta feature for Android phone users that allows consumers to receive and send text messages without taking their hands off the wheel or their eyes off the road.

The interface, called Vlingo InCar, offers users:

· Voice-driven, hands free initiation - Vlingo enters listening mode upon Bluetooth connectivity

· Voice driven, hands free initiation using a "wake up word"

· Conversational user guidance instead of a touch screen

· Ability to send and respond to messages, make calls and get directions using only voice commands

"Vlingo InCar was a natural extension of Vlingo's functionality so that users can now have an alternative, hands free way to communicate when they need to respond to an urgent message," said Dave Grannan, president and CEO at Vlingo. "Although 30 states presently have full or partial bans on texting while driving (TWD), data from Vlingo's Texting While Driving in America 2010 Report shows that 35 percent of those surveyed still continue to TWD. Legislative action is an important step but clearly laws are not enough, we are going to need technology solutions."

Vlingo released a video demonstrating how the product works. A driver says the "wake up word," a code that activates the device. The driver then can instruct the device to send a text message to an individual in the address book. If the person replies, the device then reads the message aloud.

The company says it has the support of Sprint in promoting the new technology as a way to change consumers' behavior.

"With Vlingo's hands-free application on the Android Market, drivers are able to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel, and Sprint is pleased to support Vlingo InCar as an application for its wireless customers," said Ralph Reid, Sprint vice president for corporate social responsibility.

Vlingo InCar beta is exclusively available on the Sprint Now Network and is optimized for the HTC Evo and other Android 2.2 devices.

While safety advocates are genuinely horrified by drivers texting behind the wheel, they also take a dim view of even talking on a hands-free device while driving. Illinois highway officials, for example, include conversations with passengers and eating as contributors to distracted driving.


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Economy Sheds More Jobs in September

Unemployment rate holds steady as 95,000 payroll positions -- most of them government -- are lost

Another 95,000 jobs disappeared in September even as the unemployment rate was unchanged at 9.6 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics....

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Black Chamber Of Commerce Opposes Menthol Cigarette Ban

Claims action targets 'taste preference of African-Americans'

Now that the Food and Drug Administration has authority over tobacco products, the agency is considering whether it should ban cigarettes containing ment...

Now that the Food and Drug Administration has authority over tobacco products, the agency is considering whether it should ban cigarettes containing menthol.

The agency's scientific advisory committee met late this week to take up the matter of whether tobacco companies use menthol as a way to keep smokers hooked. The committee has been directed to write a report on the subject and could recommend regulating, or even banning the substance.

Committee members said they will look at whether tobacco companies are using menthol to disguise the harshness of the smoke and make it harder for people to quit. But the head of the National Black Chamber of Commerce sees the move as directed at African-Americans.

"It is no secret that menthol cigarettes provide a distinctive taste that is preferred by many African Americans," NBCC President Harry Alford said. "In making a recommendation, it is my fervent hope that the committee not make a decision based on mixed information, decades-old marketing information, inconclusive studies or preconceived notions."

Alford said it would be a "severe error" to completely ban a product under what he called "a paternalistic justification." In the absence of solid scientific evidence, he asks, why should the taste preference of African Americans be singled out for a ban?

The report is due in March and the committee's meetings this week concern what to include in the report. The tobacco industry said it has no evidence that putting menthol in cigarettes increases the likelihood that people will start smoking and find it harder to quit.

Previously, government regulators banned all other flavorings in cigarettes, except for menthol, on the grounds that it made it more likely children would start smoking.

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Debt Relief Firm Doesn't Deliver, North Carolina Charges

Consumer Law Group collected millions from consumers for little or no help

The state of North Carolina wants to put the Consumer Law Group out of business....

The state of North Carolina wants to put the Consumer Law Group out of business.

Attorney General Roy Cooper has filed a lawsuit that seeks to bar the firm from illegally collecting money to settle debts and force it to pay refunds to more than 3,000 North Carolinians.

"Taking advantage of consumers who are trying to pay off their bills is wrong, and it's also against the law," Cooper said. "Never agree to pay an upfront fee to anyone who promises to help get you out of debt."

Also named as defendants in the lawsuit filed by the AG's Consumer Protection Division are company managers Michael L. Metzner, Ran David Barnea and Daniel T. Post and a related company -- American Debt Negotiators, Inc.

Cooper is asking the court for a temporary ban on all defendants' illegal practices and a permanent ban to stop their unlawful debt adjusting and other deceptive practices. He also wants refunds for North Carolina consumers, cancellation of all contracts, payment of civil penalties, and a freeze of the company's assets.

False hope

The lawsuit contends that CLG has deceived consumers by promising to reduce their debts by half and leave them debt-free without bankruptcy, collecting more than $2.6 million from 3,000 North Carolinians to date.

In reality, CLG rarely works out agreements to settle debts but keeps substantial fees anyway. The company also claims its services are performed by attorneys when they are not, and misleads consumers to believe that its program is government-affiliated.

According to the Cooper's office, CLG pitches its services online and through radio advertisements, telemarketing calls, and local telephone book listings.

For example, the current Raleigh phone book includes 13 listings connected to CLG under "Consumer Credit Counseling." Although the listings are for local telephone numbers, they connect callers to telemarketers in the company's Florida office.

Consumers burned

Seven consumers have filed complaints about CLG with Cooper's Consumer Protection Division. Among them:

· A retired Raleigh couple living on a fixed income turned to CLG for help getting out of credit card debt. They heard about CLG through an ad on a local Christian radio station that said that the company's services were "part of the government's debt relief plan." After paying nearly $3,000 over 10 months, the couple has yet to get any help resolving their debts and can rarely get anyone at CLG to take their calls.

· A Winston-Salem woman who lost her job called a number in the phone book seeking credit counseling. The number she called connected her to CLG, which told her it would negotiate to reduce her debts and settle her bills. She made monthly payments to CLG for more than a year totaling close to $8,600 but got no help. She was eventually able to get $3,300 of her money back after calling the company repeatedly, but her debts remain.

· A disabled Sanford resident called CLG after hearing on the radio that it was affiliated with the president's stimulus plan, believing she could trust the company to help her resolve $10,000 in debt since it seemed to be a law firm. She made monthly payments to the company and took its advice not to speak with her creditors and to stop paying her credit card bills. After nearly a year with no results, she demanded her money back and eventually got a full refund after contacting the attorney general's Office. She now faces possible bankruptcy because her bills piled up during the time that CLG was supposed to be helping her.

Little or no help

As alleged in the complaint, CLG has collected more than $1.6 million from more than 650 North Carolina consumers -- supposedly to help resolve their debts. Of that money, only $202,000 has actually been used to pay down consumer debts. Most consumers who've paid the company have received little or no help settling their debts or working out payment plans with their creditors.

Under North Carolina law, it's illegal to charge an upfront fee to help negotiate debts -- also called debt adjusting or debt settlement. State law does allow qualified credit counselors to charge limited fees to help set up a plan to make timely payments on debt, called a debt management plan. However, state law limits the fees for debt management plans to an initial set-up fee of $40 and monthly fees of 10 percent of the monthly payment up to $40.

Cooper contends that despite its name, the CLG employs mostly telemarketers who pitch debt settlement services, not lawyers. While Metzner is a Florida lawyer, he is not licensed to practice in North Carolina and the company is not a law firm. A number of related businesses are located at the same address as CLG in Boca Raton, including American Credit Counseling, Inc., Leads 2 U, BMV Debt Management Corp., American Debt Negotiators, and Consumer Advocates Credit Counselors, Inc.

"If you need help digging out of debt, don't get trapped in a scam that puts you deeper in the hole," Cooper said. "Find a non-profit credit counselor in your community who can offer real help instead."

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Civil Rights Groups Renew Call for Immediate Moratorium On All Home Foreclosures

Minorities are bearing the brunt of foreclosures, according to the Center for Responsible Lending

National civil rights groups are renewing their April 2007 call to institute an immediate national moratorium on foreclosures....

National civil rights groups are renewing their April 2007 call to institute an immediate national moratorium on foreclosures.

The groups, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Fair Housing Alliance, National Council of La Raza, the NAACP and the Center for Responsible Lending say that until lenders in all 50 states demonstrate that they are adhering to all existing laws, regulations, and contractual guidelines related to loss mitigation and foreclosure legal process, they should not move forward with any foreclosures.

"If we don't take drastic measures now," says Wade Henderson, President & CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, "we can expect millions of additional foreclosures in the coming years, with a disproportionate number of them involving Latino and African-American families."

Nationwide action

Lenders across the country are announcing temporary foreclosure moratoria and attorneys general are calling for the same because of systemic illegal foreclosure filings and misrepresentations.

Among the latest is Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is demanding 23 additional loan servicers provide her office with information concerning the fairness and accuracy of their foreclosure procedures in courts across the state.

Madigan recently issued a similar demand to GMAC/Ally, Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase to halt all pending foreclosures in Illinois, including post-foreclosure sales and evictions, after they admitted they were filing false documents in foreclosure proceedings.

"The same mortgage giants and big banks that fraudulently put people into unfair loans are now fraudulently throwing people out of their homes," Madigan said. "They should not be above the law."

Madigan also announced she is helping convene a multistate task force of state attorneys general and bank regulators to coordinate states' reviews of servicers' foreclosure processes.

Uneven impact

Research demonstrates that just as minority communities were more likely to receive predatory subprime loans, they also suffer more from foreclosures. "Our research reveals that African-Americans and Latinos are almost 75 percent more likely to experience foreclosure than Whites, said Michael Calhoun, President of the Center for Responsible Lending.

"We cannot allow this injustice to continue," he added. "Mortgage servicers and lenders must work to preserve homeownership when possible; when not possible, they must follow the law when foreclosing." Moreover, the higher the concentration of racial minorities in a community, the higher the rates of foreclosure.

And it isn't just individual homeowners who are affected. Neighborhoods across America are being destroyed as each foreclosure has enormous spillover effects. Communities -- especially minority communities -- are seeing their home vacancy and crime rates increase while home values and tax bases are eroded.

Moratorim necessary

Because many lenders are not equipped to handle the current volume of home defaults, it's believed a foreclosure moratorium will give them a chance to develop adequate systems and capacity to preserve homeownership.

The groups are calling on Congress to investigate the widespread fraud and misrepresentation in foreclosure filings, and to revive legislation that would allow loan modifications in bankruptcy court proceedings.

The organizations say all lenders should be required to evaluate homeowners for loan modifications and other solutions, with strong transparency and accountability. Lenders who participate in the government's foreclosure prevention program (HAMP) or handle government-insured loans are already required to do so. Homeowners must also have recourse when their lenders deny loan modifications leading to unnecessary foreclosures.

Janet Murguía, President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, says Latino and black families have been deeply harmed by the economic meltdown through the loss of homes, jobs, and entire neighborhoods.

"Our communities were targeted by predatory lenders As a result, more than 1.3 million Latino families will lose their homes to foreclosure by the end of the crisis. Foreclosure prevention programs are not working, foreclosure rescue scams are rampant in our communities, and now fraudulent documentation is leading to a new wave of foreclosures," she said. "Enough is enough."


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Bank of America Halts All Foreclosures, Other Lenders Urged To Do the Same

Latest sign that the latest 'foreclosure crisis' is indeed serious

Oone of the nation's largest mortgage lenders, has announced that it has stopped property foreclosures nationwide....

Bank of America, one of the nation's largest mortgage lenders, has announced that it has stopped property foreclosures nationwide. Previously it has suspended foreclosure activity in 23 states with "judicial foreclosure" laws.

California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. called on all other lenders to halt foreclosing on California homes until the banks can demonstrate that they are complying with state law.

"All lenders should halt foreclosures until they clear up this mess and ensure that the process is fair and complies with California law," Brown said. "Bank of America has taken an important step, and the other major lenders should follow its lead."

JP Morgan Chase, the nation's third largest loan servicer, Ally Financial and One West have admitted that employees approved and signed foreclosure documents without first fully reviewing the borrowers' loan files. As a result, those borrowers lost their homes based on affidavits the bank never confirmed were accurate.

"Bank of America has extended our review of foreclosure documents to all fifty states," the company said in a statement Friday. "We will stop foreclosure sales until our assessment has been satisfactorily completed. Our ongoing assessment shows the basis for foreclosure decisions is accurate. We continue to serve the interests of our customers, investors and communities. Providing solutions for distressed homeowners remains our primary focus."

Ally Financial's GMAC Mortgage, PNC and JPMorgan Chasehave suspended foreclosure activity in at least some states in which they do business.

The reason, of course, is the new scrutiny lenders are under. It began last month when a mortgage official for GMAC Mortgage revealed in a deposition that he did not read all foreclosure documents before signing an affidavit swearing that he had.

At least 23 states require that an employee of the foreclosing agent attest in court that all the information in the foreclosure filing is accurate. They are required to sign the affidavit in the presence of a notary. Some lenders, it is alleged, employed robo-signers to process thousands of foreclosure affidavits each month.

Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, who earlier this weekcalled on Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, and Ally Financial to stop foreclosure actions in Delaware, commended BofA's action.

"We applaud Bank of America for doing the right thing by suspending foreclosure proceedings in all states while they review serious questions about their documentation review and verification procedures. Borrowers have an obligation to meet their mortgage payments and lenders have an obligation to follow the rules when they take foreclosure actions against homeowners. Everybody has to play by the same rules," Biden said.

See you in court

Attorneys representing dispossessed homeowners have pounced on the revelation, saying they will challenge many of these foreclosures in court. In addition, a number of states and the federal government have begun investigations.

In Ohio, Attorney General Richard Cordray filed a lawsuitthis week against GMAC Mortgage, charging the bank committed fraud in its foreclosures. Cordray bases the charge on the sworn testimony of the bank employee who admitted he didn't always read and sign foreclosure documents.

As a result of similar reports regarding depositions taken by a JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America employees, Cordray also requested that JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America suspend moving toward a judgment, sale, eviction or property transfer involving any foreclosure case with affidavits signed by those employees.

Cordray also sent letters to Wells Fargoand Citibank, requesting that the banks meet with his office to discuss foreclosure affidavit procedures.

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Sprint Settles Cell Phone Cramming Charges In Florida

Last of the wireless providers to make amends

Sprint has agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by the State ofFlorida after Sprint customers complained third-party providerscharged them for services t...

Sprint has agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by the State of
Florida after Sprint customers complained third-party providers
charged them for services they didn't agree to - a practice known as
"cramming."

Sprint has agreed to continue using a series of "best practices" standards previously established by the Florida Attorney General's Office which protects consumers from third-party "cramming," including charges for "free" ringtones and other cell phone content customers either did not order or did not realize would result in a monthly charge.

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

The investigation

A large number of complaints related to the mobile content industry led to an investigation which revealed that thousands of Florida consumers had received these charges on their cell phone bills.

Prior to the investigation, Sprint offered its customers the ability to block third-party mobile content and to implement parental controls free of charge. The investigation and subsequent settlement have been negotiated by the Attorney General's CyberFraud Section of the Economic Crimes Division.

Sprint has agreed to continue using the standards previously established by the Attorney General for advertising on websites, prohibiting the use of the word "free" without clear disclosure of the actual price and requiring all content providers and advertisers to clearly and conspicuously disclose the true cost of cell phone content.

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

Sprint will also continue its practice of issuing credits and refunds to consumers for unauthorized charges for third-party mobile content subscription purchases.

Settlement

As part of the settlement, the company will pay a total of $800,000 to reimburse the state for the costs of its investigation and to help the Attorney General's Office fund the efforts of the CyberFraud Section as it continues working toward similar reform across the industry. The agreement was negotiated with full cooperation from Sprint.

Sprint is the fourth and final wireless provider to adopt these standards and offer consumer refunds. T-Mobile reached an agreement in July 2010, Verizon Wireless reached an agreement in June 2009, and AT&T Mobility reached the first of these agreements in February 2008.

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Tax Relief Scam Collected More Than $60 Million

Company's owners lived lavish lifestyle, targeted financially distressed consumers

A federal judge has halted a national operation that allegedly bilked consumers out of more than $60 million by falsely claiming it can reduce tax debts....

A federal judge has halted a national operation that allegedly bilked consumers out of more than $60 million by falsely claiming it can reduce tax debts.

The company's California state business license was suspended last year for not paying its own taxes, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is seeking to make the defendants pay restitution to victims.

"We've made it a top priority to go after scammers who try to exploit the financial hardship of others," said David C. Vladeck, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "For people having a tough time paying their taxes, the last thing they need is to lose more money to a fraud."

Bogus claims

According to the FTC, American Tax Relief LLC falsely claims in TV, radio and Internet ads that it can settle consumers' delinquent federal and state taxes for a fraction of the amount they owe. The company also falsely claims that it can remove tax liens and stop wage garnishments, bank and tax levies, property seizures, and "unbearable monthly payments."

For example, the company's website states, "The IRS is currently accepting a fraction of back taxes owed to them (sic) for those who qualify. The IRS is allowing the people with delinquent tax liabilities a ONE-TIME opportunity to settle the debt ONCE AND FOR ALL. But at the same time, the IRS does not advertise, promote or even voluntarily suggest this program."

The FTC says the company has continued its deceptive practices even after federal agents executed a criminal search warrant on the operation's Beverly Hills business premises in April, 2010. At that time, authorities seized money from bank accounts and a Ferrari from the company's owner, and placed liens on two residences, including a $3.4 million house. At the time, one of the company's owners was leasing six other vehicles, including a Rolls Royce, a Bentley, two Porsches, and two Mercedes-Benzes, according to exhibits the FTC filed in court.

American Tax Relief charges up-front fees ranging from about $3,200 to $25,000 for the purported tax relief services. The company's ads include a toll-free number for consumers to call for a "free consultation." After speaking briefly with commission-based sales people who are supposedly "tax consultants," virtually all consumers are told that they "qualify" for a tax relief program, and that American Tax Relief can help them significantly reduce their tax debts, the FTC complaint alleges.

Little satisfaction

In reality, very few of the company's customers qualify for the promised tax relief programs, which are available only in very limited circumstances. Most people who hire the company would qualify at most for installment payment plans, which still require payment of the full amount owed, and which many taxpayers can easily arrange by themselves.

Many consumers are told they qualify for an "Offer in Compromise," which the IRS states is its only program that allows people to avoid paying the full amount of back taxes, and is available only in limited circumstances; taxpayers are eligible only after other payment options have been exhausted and the person's ability to pay has been reviewed.

Other consumers are told that they qualify for a "penalty abatement," which the company claims will eliminate both accumulated penalties and interest stemming from late payments. However, a penalty abatement is considered by the IRS only in very limited circumstances for people who have "reasonable cause" for the late payments, such as death, serious injury, natural disaster or the like.

Daniel of Cicero, NY, says he called American Tax Relief after seeing their ad and "they immediately told me they could reduce my tax debt, which was $38,000 to $3,00 or $4,000." He tells ConsumerAffairs.com that he sent them $4900 to start the process. "Had to keep sending them papers they requested over and over, IRS then contacted them -- IRS claims they never returned their phone calls and my claim was denied." When he tried again to contact American Tax Relief, Daniel says, "they never returned my calls.

"In my opinion," he concludes, "this company rips people off and does absolutely nothing for you but keep your money."

The FTC contends the company does not gather sufficient information from consumers to know whether they would be likely to qualify for either an Offer in Compromise or a penalty abatement.

The agency's complaint names Alexander Seung Hahn, Joo Hyun Park, and American Tax Relief LLC. Park's parents, Young Soon Park and Il Kon Park, are named because they are allegedly holding funds obtained from the defendants' customers.

On September 24, 2010, a federal judge in Chicago entered a temporary restraining order prohibiting deceptive claims, freezing the defendants' assets, and appointing a receiver to manage the company.


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Ohio Sues GMAC Mortgage for Fraud, Pennsylvania Launches Investigation

GMAC allegedly compounded homeowner misery through 'fraudulent and unfair and deceptive practices'

Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray yesterday filed suit against GMAC Mortgage and its parent, Ally Financial,...

States are rounding up the usual suspects in their investigations of misdeeds in the home mortgage business. In the latest action, Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray yesterday filed suit against GMAC Mortgageand its parent, Ally Financial, alleging the companies filed fraudulent affidavits to mislead the courts in hundreds of Ohio foreclosures.

In Pennsylvania, Attorney General Tom Corbett urged homeowners in his state to file complaints concerning questionable mortgage foreclosures to aid in his investgations.

Slamming the barn door after the horses had all fled, Bank of America yesterday announced it would stop writing home loans through independent brokers, an action taken more than a year ago by JPMorgan Chase.

"We know that as Ohioans were fighting to save their homes, this loan servicer benefited financially from the dire circumstances," said Cordray. "Instead of stepping up and assisting those at risk of losing their homes, it is clear that GMAC chose to compound the problem through fraudulent and unfair and deceptive practices."

According to the lawsuit, GMAC and its employees committed fraud on Ohio consumers and Ohio courts by signing and filing hundreds of false affidavits in foreclosure cases. The fraud came to light after a GMAC employee, Jefferey Stephan of Sellersville, Pa., testified in a foreclosure case out of Maine that from 2006 to 2010, he signed thousands of affidavits without verifying the content.

Through the lawsuit, Cordray is asking the court to grant a preliminary and permanent injunction preventing GMAC/Ally from proceeding to foreclose in any pending Ohio case or allowing the property to be sold. Cordray is also asking for civil penalties of up to $25,000 for every violation of Ohio's Consumer Sales Practices Act and for consumer restitution.

As a result of similar reports regarding depositions taken by a JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America employees, Cordray also requested that JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America suspend moving toward a judgment, sale, eviction or property transfer involving any foreclosure case with affidavits signed by those employees. Cordray also sent letters to Wells Fargo and Citibank, requesting that the banks meet with his office to discuss foreclosure affidavit procedures.

According to recent statistics from the Ohio Supreme Court, the wave of foreclosures in Ohio has shown no signs of receding. In the first half of this year, there have been 45,930 foreclosures in Ohio, which is ahead of last year's record-breaking pace. From 1995-2009, Ohio foreclosure filings quadrupled.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's Corbett went public with a plea for complaints from homeowners in the Keystone State.

"Pennsylvania residents who believe they are the victims of improper foreclosures should call the Attorney General's toll-free Consumer Protection Hotline, at 1-800-441-2555, as soon as possible in order to file formal complaints," Corbett said. "We are working to identify whether our Consumer Protection Laws were violated by lenders or mortgage servicing companies that may have failed to follow proper procedures regarding foreclosures."

In addition to filing a complaint with the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection, Corbett also recommended that homeowners who have received foreclosure notices should contact the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) for information about emergency mortgage assistance, foreclosure mitigation counseling and other services that may be available.

Pennsylvania consumers can call PHFA directly at 1-800-822-1174, or review detailed information about mortgage and foreclosure assistance services on the PHFA website, at: www.phfa.org/consumers/homeowners/hemap.aspx.

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Feds Try Creative Home Mortgage Loans to Sell Foreclosed Houses

FHA 203k and Fannie Mae HomePath mortgages aimed at backlog of foreclosures

the government is pushing some creative loans it hopes can help spur sales...

Creative financing got a bad name back in the heady days of the real estate boom, when anyone with a pulse could qualify for a loan. But with a rising glut of unsold homes on the market, the government is pushing some creative loans it hopes can help spur sales.

Conventional loans are harder to get and have tighter rules. For example, if a home needs significant repairs, a conventional loan will require that those repairs be made prior to settlement.

In the case of foreclosures, this presents something of a problem since the banks that own the property are generally unwilling to spend any money on repairs, insisting that the home be purchased "as is." If the prospective buyer can't get a conventional loan, what other options do they have?

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) offers something called the FHA 203k loan, which is tailor-made for a foreclosure purchase where repairs are needed. Sometimes called a "rehab" loan, the 203k is actually two loans in one.

Two loans in one

The buyer receives financing for the purchase price of the house, and a second amount for the estimated cost of repairs, identified by an FHA appraiser. The second amount is held in escrow while the sale proceeds to settlement.

After settlement, the repair work is paid for with the escrow fund. The homebuyer pays one mortgage that includes the financed portion of the purchase price and the cost of the repairs.

This loan is only available to buyers who plan to make the property their primary residence. It cannot be used to finance second homes or investment property.

The loan takes longer to close than a conventional loan and has higher costs. Its interest rates, however, are fairly competitive, based on the buyer's credit score.

For foreclosures only

Fannie Mae, meanwhile, has a loan program especially for financing properties that it has repossessed. It's called the HomePath Mortgage, but is available only on eligible property.

The benefits include:

· Low down payment and flexible mortgage terms (fixed-rate, adjustable-rate, or interest-only)

· You may qualify even if your credit is less than perfect

· Available to both owner occupiers and investors

· Down payment (at least 3 percent) can be funded by your own savings; a gift; a grant; or a loan from a nonprofit organization, state or local government, or employer

· No mortgage insurance

· No appraisal fees

· Also eligible for HomePath Renovation Mortgage

· HomePath Mortgage financing is available from a variety of lenders - both local and national.

"More than 87,000 families have purchased HomePath properties in the first half of 2010 - nearly double the number of Fannie Mae foreclosed properties sold in the first half of 2009," said Terry Edwards, executive vice president of Fannie Mae's Credit Portfolio Management. "We continue to look for ways to stabilize neighborhoods and offer incentives to qualified buyers who will occupy these properties over the long term and help support their communities."

Fannie Mae is even offering a special incentive to qualified home buyers who will be owner-occupants. If they close before December 31, 2010, they can receive up to 3.5 percent of the final sales price that can be used toward closing-cost assistance. In addition, selling agents representing owner-occupants will receive a $1,500 bonus.

As in the case with the FHA 203k loan, rates for Home Path loans are competitive, based on credit score.


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Missouri Gets 'Do Not Call' Injunction Against Satellite Radio Telemarketers

Sirius XM called 'trial' customers who were on Do Not Call list

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster went to court seeking apreliminary injunction against Sirius XM, saying it was callingconsumers who were on the ...

Satellite radio provider Sirius XM offered consumers a free trial of the service. Once the trial was over, the company's telemarketers called consumers to sell a subscription, and kept calling if the consumer declined.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster went to court seeking a preliminary injunction against Sirius XM, saying it was calling consumers who were on the state's Do No Call list. The company responded that it had a right to do so, since it had an "existing relationship" with the customer.

A Missouri court sided with Koster, who has also filed a lawsuit alleging violations of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act and the Telemarketing No-Call List Act. Koster said harassing telephone solicitation calls were made to consumers soliciting satellite radio subscriptions.

In issuing its order granting the preliminary injunction, the court found that the Attorney General's office had established a probability of success at trial on the merits. The judge found that the Missouri citizens on the no-call list would suffer a hardship if the preliminary injunction were not granted. The judge ruled that the preliminary injunction will be in place throughout the litigation until the full trial on the permanent injunction.

Threat to telemarketers

Should Koster win the lawsuit, telemarketers would find themselves at an even greater disadvantage. When Congress adopted the Do Not Call rule, telemarketers were able to carve out the "existing relationship" exception. If the company could persuade a consumer to accept a free trial, for example, that constituted a "relationship" and negated the Do Not Call rule.

In its ruling on preliminary injunction, the court specifically ordered Sirius XM to stop making repetitive calls to consumers on the no-call list who notified the defendant they rejected the Sirius XM subscription or after their free trial period expired, unless the consumer expressly authorized Sirius XM to call.

"Our office will continue to prosecute any business, regardless of its size, when it makes unlawful telemarketing calls to Missourians registered on our no-call list," Koster said. "It is a consumer's right to demand that illegal telemarketing calls that violate Missouri's laws stop, and no matter how aggressively it fights, no business is immune from Missouri's no-call law. We will continue to go after those who violate the law."

 

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Employment Prospects Looking Dim for Job Seekers

Most small business owners expect to delay hiring, say recovery is more than a year away

The outlook for finding a job remains murky, with six out of 10 small business owners nationwide saying they intend to increase capital spending but delay ...

The outlook for finding a job remains murky, with six out of 10 small business owners nationwide saying they intend to increase capital spending but delay hiring.

The findings in the PNC Economic Outlook survey are interpreted as a defensive position that reflects lingering concerns by businesses about the U.S. economy.

The findings in the fall edition of the biannual survey, which began in 2003, also found one out of 10 owners hired or plan to hire qualified employees due to the tax credit offered by the HIRE Act, passed by Congress in the spring.

Growing optimism

Overall, the outlook of small business owners has improved slightly as eight out of 10 (compared with 76 percent in the spring) are moderately to greatly optimistic about their own company's prospects today while 20 percent are pessimistic (vs. 23 percent).

"Until we see a solid pattern of small business hiring and investments re-established, the economic recovery will be a bumpy road, but not another ride over a cliff," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist for The PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. "These findings support PNC's view that the economy will remain transitional for the rest of 2010 and into the first half of 2011 -- with weak but persistent 'half-speed' real GDP and job gains."

Capital spending, sales, hiring

The survey, which gauges the mood and sentiment of small and medium sized business owners, found almost two-thirds (63 percent) plan to increase capital spending during the next six months. This is a significant increase from 49 percent in the spring.

Technology equipment spending leads the list of priorities as owners look to maintain their operations without adding additional employees.

The next six months

· Improved Access to Credit: While three out of four business owners (76 percent compared with 78 percent in the spring) do not intend to seek a new loan or line of credit, they do see greater access to financing. Thirteen percent (vs. nine percent in the spring) says it's easier to obtain credit while 44 percent (vs. 38 percent in the spring) say it's neither easy nor difficult compared to three months ago.

· Stalled Sales and Profits: Fewer than half (42 percent) expect their sales to increase versus 47 percent in the spring. In terms of profits, 31 percent expect an increase, as opposed to 37 percent in the spring.

· Hiring Outlook Improved: 22 percent expect to hire full-time employees, the same as spring and significantly better than one year ago (17 percent). Only 12 percent plan to reduce their workforce compared with 14 percent in the spring and 18 percent one year ago. Manufacturing companies are most likely to hire followed by the service industry.

· Still Waiting for U.S. Recovery: The overwhelming majority (91 percent) say the U.S. economy has yet to make any notable improvement. Seven out of 10 (71 percent) feel the recovery is more than one year away versus 20 percent who expect improvement within the next 12 months.

· Local View Is Better: The sentiment is slightly less negative closer to home as 57 percent are optimistic and 42 percent are pessimistic about the prospects for their local economy. This compares with 41 percent optimistic and 58 percent pessimistic for the U.S. economy.

· What's Your Worry?: One out of three (34 percent) say weak sales/demand for service is the most important challenge facing their business today. Their second concern -- at 21 percent -- is "changes in government policy that affect my business." These far outdistanced health insurance (12 percent) and taxes (11 percent).

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California Sues 'Forensic Audit' Home Mortgage Modification Scheme

Hundreds of desperate homeowners lose their money, many lost their homes

California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. has filed a $60 million lawsuit against a pair of Sacramento companies that lured desperate homeowners with...

California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. has filed a $60 million lawsuit against a pair of Sacramento companies that lured desperate homeowners with a deceptive marketing scheme that promised to obtain mortgage modifications through the use of computer-generated "forensic loan audits."

"These defendants dangled the term 'forensic loan audit' as a sure-fire remedy for the mortgage problems of homeowners in distress," Brown said. "In fact, it was no remedy at all, and hundreds of desperate California homeowners took the bait and lost their money -- and sometimes their homes."

Brown filed the $60 million lawsuit against US Loan Auditors, My US Legal Services, and five individuals, including two attorneys, who operate a fraudulent mortgage audit scheme that preys on desperate homeowners anxious to save their homes. The suit demands civil penalties, restitution for victims, and permanent injunctions to keep the companies and other defendants from fraudulently marketing forensic loan audits and legal services of little value.

The companies, based in Rancho Cordova, work together to market and sell "forensic loan audits" to homeowners, who pay thousands of dollars in up-front fees for a dubious computer-generated review of their mortgages. The audits purport to show violations of law by lenders, which sales agents cite to convince homeowners they have a strong legal case. Sales agents use these findings to encourage homeowners to stop making their mortgage payments and instead pay additional fees to bring "predatory lending" lawsuits against their lenders.

Brown said both companies deceive homeowners by assuring them that filing these lawsuits will give them "legal leverage" to obtain a loan modification and prevent lenders from foreclosing or collecting monthly mortgage payments. Homeowners who filed these lawsuits have lost thousands of dollars and placed themselves in greater danger of losing their homes.

My US Legal Services bilks clients for months, filing cookie-cutter complaints with little or no merit, billing unjustified monthly fees, and then dodging clients' phone calls or stringing them along with false assurances that a settlement is in progress, the lawsuit alleges.

Hundreds of California homeowners, many of them facing possible loss of their homes, have been duped into paying thousands of dollars to the two companies -- one homeowner paid more than $55,000 -- but received little or no relief, according to court documents.

Meanwhile, Brown said the "litigation mill" run by My US Legal Services has littered courts with hundreds of lawsuits that have scant chance of success. Two federal judges have expressed concern about the legitimacy of these lawsuits and have several times sanctioned attorneys involved.

In addition to the companies, Brown is suing the three owners: attorney and real estate broker James Sandison, Jeffrey Pulvino, and Shane Barker, as well as two California attorneys, Sharon L. Lapin and Jonathan G. Stein.

The State Bar filed disciplinary charges Tuesday against Sandison for alleged misappropriation of clients' funds and aiding the unauthorized practice of law.

If you are a California homeowner who has been scammed, you can file a complaint online with the Attorney General's office at: www.ag.ca.gov/consumers/general.php. You can learn more about avoiding scams and obtain a complaint form by visiting the Department of Real Estate's website at: www.dre.ca.gov.

If you have a complaint against Sandison, Lapin, Stein or any other lawyer involved in a loan modification or foreclosure relief service, contact the State Bar Complaint Hotline at 1-800-843-9053. Complaint forms and an explanation of the attorney discipline system are available online at: www.calbar.ca.gov.


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Pepsi, Coca-Cola Next On NYC Mayor Bloomberg's Public Enemies List

Mayor wants to outlaw the use of food stamps to buy sugary soft drinks

The week that the number of Americans on food stamps reached an all-time high, officials in New York have proposed new limits on the way food stamps can ...

The week that the number of Americans on food stamps reached an all-time high, officials in New York have proposed new limits on the way food stamps can be used.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed preventing the 1.7 million New Yorkers on food stamps to use them to purchase sugary soft drinks. New York Governor David Patterson has endorsed the idea, which must also be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program.

Bloomberg says Americans now consume an average of 200 to 300 more calories each day than they did 30 years ago. Nearly half of these calories come from sugar-sweetened drinks, which can contain as many as 16 packets of sugar in a 20-ounce bottle and a staggering 26 packets in a 32-ounce serving.

Even moderate consumption of these products can have health consequences. In a study of 91,000 women, those who drank one or more sugary drink each day were 83% more likely to develop diabetes over a four-year period than those who drank less than one a day. In New York City alone, diabetes causes 20,000 hospitalizations, 3,000 amputations and 4,700 deaths every year.

New York City Health Department statistics released last month show nearly 40 percent of public school children, through eighth grade, are overweight or obese. Bloomberg's crackdown on obesity follows his campaign against smoking and trans-fat. The city's health department has produced a YouTube video to drive its message home.

"Roughly three out of five New Yorkers are overweight or obese, and sugary beverages are fueling the epidemic," said Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City Health Commissioner. "While this video is lighthearted, its message is serious. The sugar consumed in these drinks can lead to obesity and other health consequences, including diabetes and heart disease. We hope that this campaign will encourage people to consider healthier alternatives to sugary drinks, such as water, seltzer or low-fat milk. Even small changes can have real health benefits."


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FDA Charges New York Company Takes Safety Shortcuts With Its Beet, Carrot and Nut Juices

Double Trouble Carrot Punch, Beet Carrot Juice Drink, other 'health drinks' may not be so safe, agency charges

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is trying to shut down Juices Incorporated, a Brooklyn, N.Y., company that bottles a variety of fruit juices. The FD...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is trying to shut down Juices Incorporated, a Brooklyn, N.Y., company that bottles a variety of fruit juices. The FDA says the company is using unsafe practices that could expose consumers to botulism and other potentially deadly illnesses.

Drinks manufactured by the company, also known as Juices International and Juices Enterprises, include: Double Trouble Carrot Punch, Carrot Juice Drink, Carrot & Ginger Drink, Beet Carrot Juice Drink, Agony Peanut Punch, Cashew Punch, and Irish Sea Moss. Other company products stored at the facility during FDA visits were: Front End Lifter Magnum Punch, Ginger Beer, Sorrell Drink, Pineapple Twist and Soursop Juice.

Among the violations FDA investigators said they observed at the company's plant were failures to:

• adequately heat and refrigerate low-acid vegetable juices to destroy or prevent growth of dangerous microorganisms

• properly clean food-contact surfaces

• maintain plumbing in a manner that avoids a source of possible food and water contamination.

Failure to identify and control food hazards could lead to the formation of Clostridium botulinum (C. bot.) bacteria that can germinate in the carrot and beet juices made by the company. The neurotoxin formed by C. bot., when ingested in even very small amounts, could cause paralysis, difficulty breathing and potentially death from asphyxiation. In 2006, six cases of botulism in the United States and Canada were linked to refrigerated carrot juice. However, the FDA said it is not aware of illnesses associated with Juices Incorporated's juice products.

The complaint filed by the U.S. Justice Department today also charges Juices Incorporated with failing to conform to current good manufacturing practice (GMP) requirements for making, packing, or holding human food. Juice products that are produced under conditions that do not comply with HACCP or GMP requirements are considered adulterated under the Food and Drug Act.

The FDA said its most recent inspection of the Juices facility in March 2010 found the same or similar violations observed during previous inspections of the company. The agency issued warning letters to the company in April 2008 and October 2009, and the company promised to bring its operations into compliance but did not make the necessary changes.

"Today's action shows that FDA will seek enforcement action to make sure that those companies that must have preventative controls in place to ensure the safety of their products adhere to all applicable requirements," said Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs Dara A. Corrigan.

"Consumers must have a comfort level that the products they buy in their markets are safe to eat and to drink," said Loretta E. Lynch, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. "We will continue to act with the FDA to ensure that companies that produce food and juice under dangerous conditions take corrective action."

The company purchases ingredients, such as carrots and beets, that originate outside of New York and sells products to food service establishments primarily in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.


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Prostate Cancer Treatment Progress: Death Rate Declines 45%

African-American men twice as likely to die from the disease

While prostate cancer remains a serious health concern for menover 60, the disease is becoming less threatening....

While prostate cancer remains a serious health concern for men over 60, the disease is becoming less threatening. American men with prostate cancer were 45 percent less likely to die from the disease in 2006 than they were in 1999, according to the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

The federal agency found that the rate at which American men died from prostate cancer declined from 23.5 deaths to 13 deaths per 100,000 males during the period.

The analysis also shows that following changes:

· Compared with white men, black men were still more than twice as likely to die from prostate cancer in 2006 just as they were in 1999, 69 to 50.5 deaths and 29 deaths to 22 deaths per 100,000 males during the period.

· The rate for Hispanics and Asian-American Pacific Islanders declined from 23 to 18 and from 17 to 14 , respectively per 100,000 males.

· Men age 65 and older were 20 percent less likely to succumb to prostate cancer in 2006 compared with 1999. Their rate plummeted from 205 deaths to 164 deaths per 100,000 males.

While AHRQ didn't give a reason for the decline in deaths, it's likely that early detection was a major contributor. In current clinical practice, men with elevated levels of Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) are considered at risk of having prostate cancer.

PSA is a substance produced by the prostate gland and, when increased amounts are found in the blood, patients are typically referred for diagnostic biopsies to confirm the presence of prostate cancer. A regular PSA test can give doctors a head start on treatment.

Predictor

A recent study published in the British Medical Journal found that a man's PSA level measured at age 60 could predict his lifetime risk of dying of prostate cancer.

Dr. Hans Lilja, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and colleagues studied data from 1,167 Swedish men 60 years of age who provided blood samples in 1981 and were followed up to age 85. Only a minority of men age 60 with PSA levels higher than 2 ng/mL experienced fatal prostate cancer, but those men comprised 90 percent of the prostate cancer deaths.

Men with a PSA level of 2 or higher at age 60 have 17 times and 26 times increased odds of metastasis and death from prostate cancer, respectively, than men with PSA levels of 0.65-0.99, according to the study.


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Bravo Sports Recalls AirZone, Variflex Trampolines

160,000 trampolines recalled

Bravo Sports Recalls AirZone, Variflex Trampolines...

Bravo Sports is recalling about 160,000 trampolines. Incorrectly assembled trampolines can allow the top rails and legs to bend or break during normal use, resulting in partial collapse of the trampoline.

Bravo has received 247 reports of top rails bending or breaking during normal use. Four injuries have been reported due to the bending and breaking of trampolines.

This recall involves AirZone and Variflex trampolines with model numbers 137083 (with wheels), 137536, 137683, 138088, 138467, 138472, 138489, 139275, 139283, 139284, 139300 and 139706. The model number is found on the safety label sewn to the pad cover. The units are 12', 13' and 14' and come in blue, yellow and red.

The trampolines, made in China, were sold at sporting goods and mass market retail stores nationwide and on the Internet from January 2007 through September 2010 for between $200 and $400.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled trampolines. Consumers should contact Bravo Sports for instructions on how to inspect the trampoline for top rail damage and to request revised assembly instructions. Top rails and legs damaged due to assembly errors will be replaced at no charge by Bravo Sports.

For additional information, contact Bravo Sports at toll-free (877)-500-2459 between 7:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's website at www.airzonevariflex-recall.com.

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



Read more: https://www.consumeraffairs.com/recalls04/2010/bravo-sports-recalls-trampolines.html#ixzz123NvCQCz
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Weight Loss and Sleep Go Together

Study: Get more sleep, lose more weight

When dieters in a recent study got a full night's sleep, they lost the same amount of weight as when they slept less. ...

hen dieters in a recent study got a full night's sleep, they lost the same amount of weight as when they slept less. When dieters got adequate sleep, however, more than half of the weight they lost was fat. When they cut back on their sleep, only one-fourth of their weight loss came from fat.

They also felt hungrier. When sleep was restricted, dieters produced higher levels of ghrelin, a hormone that triggers hunger and reduces energy expenditure.




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Binge Drinking Still a Problem Among High School Students, Young Adults

Report says white men are more likely than women and minorities to engage in risky conduct

More than a quarter of all high school students and adults ages 18 to 34 engaged in binge drinking during the past month, according to the findings from a ...

More than a quarter of all high school students and adults ages 18 to 34 engaged in binge drinking during the past month, according to the findings from a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The report shows that each year more than 33 million adults have reported binge drinking -- defined as having four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men over a short period of time, usually a couple of hours. And the report said levels of binge drinking have not declined during the past 15 years.

The CDC report found men are more than twice as likely to binge drink than women (21 percent versus 10 percent). It said binge drinking is more common among non-Hispanic whites (16 percent) than among non-Hispanic blacks, (10 percent).

Taking risks

"Binge drinking increases many health risks, including fatal car crashes, contracting a sexually transmitted disease, dating violence, and drug overdoses," said CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. "Excessive alcohol use remains the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States and leads to a wide range of health and social problems."

In this report, CDC scientists analyzed data on self-reports of binge drinking within the past 30 days for about 412,000 U.S. adults aged 18 years and older from the 2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), and for approximately 16,000 U.S. high school students from the 2009 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS).

Shocking numbers

"Alarmingly, almost 1 in 3 adults and 2 in 3 high school students who drink alcohol also binge drink, which usually leads to intoxication," said Dr. Robert Brewer, M.D., M.P.H., alcohol program leader at CDC and one of the authors of the report. "Although most binge drinkers are not alcohol-dependent or alcoholics, they often engage in this high-risk behavior without realizing the health and social problems of their drinking. States and communities need to consider further strategies to create an environment that discourages binge drinking."

Drinking too much, including binge drinking, causes more than 79,000 deaths in the United States each year. Binge drinkers also put themselves and others at risk of car crashes, violence, the risk of HIV transmission and sexually transmitted diseases, and unplanned pregnancy.

Over time, drinking too much can lead to liver disease, certain cancers, heart disease, stroke, and other chronic diseases. Binge drinking can also cause harm to a developing fetus, such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, if a woman drinks while pregnant.

Binge drinking varies widely from state to state, with estimates of binge drinking for adults ranging from 6.8 percent in Tennessee to 23.9 percent in Wisconsin. It is most common in the Midwest, North Central Plains, lower New England, Delaware, Alaska, Nevada, and the District of Columbia.

Tips for parents

Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., Director of the Parenting Institute and the Thriving Teens Project at the New York University Child Study Center offers these tips for parents concerned about their children's drinking:

· Clearly state what actions you expect your teen to take when confronted with substance use. Teens who know what their parents expect from them are much less likely to use substances, including alcohol.

· Talk about the alcohol use that your children observe. Parents need to make it clear how they want their children to handle substances, such as alcohol and tobacco. Children need to have controlled exposure to learn the rules of acceptable use.

· Help your teen find leisure activities and places for leisure activities that are substance-free. Then, keep track of where, with whom, and what your teen is doing after school and during other free times.

· Limit the access your children have to substances. Teens use substances that are available. They report that they sneak alcohol from home stocks, take cigarettes from relatives, and obtain marijuana from people that they know well.

· Inform teens about the honest dangers that are associated with alcohol use and abuse. Although teens are not highly influenced by such information, some discussion of negative consequences has some impact on the decisions they make. Especially emphasize how alcohol clouds one's judgment and makes one more likely to be harmed in other ways.


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Mortgage Applications Reveal Burst Of Homebuying Activity

But the number of people refinancing existing mortgages falls despite low interest rates

Mortgage applications for home purchases jumped 9.1 percent lastweek...

Mortgage applications for home purchases jumped 9.1 percent last week, suggesting buyers are beginning to return to the housing market. It was the best showing since early May.

Because the number of people refinancing existing mortgages dropped 2.5 percent, the overall Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey was down for the week.

"The increase in purchase activity was led by a 17.2 percent increase in FHA applications, while conventional purchase applications also increased by 3.6 percent," said Jay Brinkmann, MBA's Chief Economist.

"This is the second straight weekly increase in purchase applications and the highest Purchase Index level since the expiration of the homebuyer tax credit program. One possible driver of last week's big increase in FHA applications was a desire by borrowers to get applications in before new FHA requirements took effect October 4th, which included somewhat higher credit score and down payment requirements."

The refinance share of mortgage activity decreased to 78.9 percent of total applications from 80.7 percent the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 6.1 percent from 6.0 percent of total applications from the previous week.

Falling rates

Meanwhile, record low interest rates continue to get lower. The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages decreased to 4.25 percent from 4.38 percent, with points decreasing to 1.00 from 1.01 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value (LTV) ratio loans.

The 30-year contract rate is the lowest recorded in the survey, with the previous low being the rate observed last week. The effective rate also decreased from last week.


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Recession's Effects Intensify In Cities

Cities making sharpest cuts in at least a quarter of a century

cities are now less able to meet their fiscal needs in 2011 and beyond. Financial officers are reporting the largest spending cuts and loss of revenue in t...

The nation's cities are continuing to be hammered by the effects of the recession.

According to the National League of Cities' (NLC) annual report on cities' fiscal conditions, cities are now less able to meet their fiscal needs in 2011 and beyond. Financial officers are reporting the largest spending cuts and loss of revenue in the 25-year history of the survey.

In the research brief, "City Fiscal Conditions in 2010," 87 percent of city finance officers report their cities are worse off financially than in 2009. City revenues -- as generated in property, sales, and income taxes -- will decline -3.2 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars according to finance officers.

Severe cuts

To compensate, city officials are cutting back spending, with expenditures declining by -2.3 percent. These are the largest cutbacks in spending in the history of the survey and the fourth year in a row that revenue declined.

Financial pressures are forcing cities to fire workers (79 percent), delay or cancel capital infrastructure projects (69 percent), and modify health benefits (34 percent). There were also significant increases in the number of officers reporting across-the-board services cuts (25 percent) and public safety cuts (25 percent). Public safety is usually reduced only as a last resort option.

"This historic recession has forced city officials to make difficult decisions that impact the social and economic fabric of their communities," said Ronald O. Loveridge, mayor of Riverside, CA and president of NLC. He continued, "This recession is making city officials fundamentally rethink and repurpose the provision of services in their communities. Some are innovating and finding creative solutions but, regrettably, without the necessary resources, cities will continue to have a difficult time assisting their residents through these trying economic times."

Revenue crunch

The continuing weakness in the housing market, along with poor retail sales, has reduced the available revenue by significant margins. The responses from the finance officers clearly illustrate that the effects of the economic crash are intensifying in cities.

Because most tax revenue is collected at specific points during the year, and since it takes time for housing assessments to catch up to current values, cities will still be feeling the full effect of the downturn in 2011. The national economy's slow recovery to date also means the recession's effects will potentially linger in cities for several more years.

Spotty recovery

"These stark numbers continue the trend we've been seeing for the past several years: lower revenue and reduced services at a time when there is an increased demand for services," said co-author Christopher Hoene, director of the Center for Research and Innovation for the National League of Cities. He continued, "Unfortunately, because of the loss in revenue, cities will face even more difficult circumstances in the months, if not years, to come."

Cities have been forced to confront low consumer spending, unemployment, and cuts in state aid that have severely affected the types of services and the manner in which they are offered by cities. In response, many cities are revisiting the range of services provided and looking for new service-delivery models in order to balance budgets and minimize the impacts of cuts on residents.

"While certain segments of the economy may be under recovery, cities as a whole are not yet experiencing growth," said co-author Michael A. Pagano, dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He continued, "As a consequence, cities are facing very serious financial hurdles right now in providing basic public services."


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Ibuprofen Shown Effective Against Migraine Headaches

Over-the-counter medication helped half of those taking it in a trial

a new study suggests migraine relief could be as close as the medicine chest....

For those who suffer the debilitating effects of migraine headache, almost nothing short of lying down in a dark room seems to provide relief. But now a new study suggests relief could be as close as the medicine chest.

A new Cochrane review finds that about half of those with migraine headaches reported pain relief within two hours after taking over-the-counter ibuprofen, such as Advil or Motrin.

"We knew that many migraineurs rely on over-the-counter medication to treat attacks and surveys show that while some find them helpful, many are dissatisfied," said review co-author Sheena Derry of the Pain Research and Nuffield Department of Anaesthetics at the University of Oxford.

Migraine headache is intense throbbing pain on one side of the head, and an attack can last anywhere between four and 72 hours. Symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, aura and increased sensitivity to light and sound often accompany migraines.

The systematic review was published by The Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization that evaluates medical research. Systematic reviews draw evidence-based conclusions about medical practice after considering both the content and quality of existing medical trials on a topic.

In the Top 20

According to the Migraine Research Foundation, migraine ranks in the top 20 of the world's most disabling medical illnesses with more than 10 percent of the population, including children, suffering from the condition.

Migraine also causes less productivity at work and school. Fewer than 10 percent of sufferers are able to work or function normally during their migraine attacks, and American employers lose more than $13 billion each year as a result of 113 million lost work days, according to the Migraine Research Foundation.

To relieve their headache pain, almost half (49 percent) of migraine sufferers use over-the-counter medication only, 20 percent use prescription medication and 29 percent use both, according to the Cochrane review.

Derry said she and her fellow reviewers conducted the Cochrane review to help provide a more definitive answer on whether ibuprofen is effective for migraine pain. They also wondered whether also taking an antiemetic to relieve nausea was better than taking an ibuprofen alone.

"We knew that there were a number of published trials using ibuprofen for acute treatment of attacks," she said. "Individual trials, however, can be misleading for a number of reasons, and generally it is recognized that using systematic review and meta-analysis is likely to provide a more accurate estimate of the effects of any intervention."

The study

The reviewers evaluated nine studies with 4,373 adult participants who had a diagnosis of migraine headache. The average age of the participants was 30 to 40 years and all had a history of migraine for at least 12 months before entering the studies.

In total, 414 people with migraines underwent treatment with 200 milligrams of ibuprofen, 1,615 received a dose of 400 milligrams, 208 received a 600-milligram dose and 1,127 received a placebo.

Twenty-six percent of patients taking the 400-milligram dose were pain free within two hours, compared with 20 percent who took the smaller dose and 11 percent who received a placebo. In the same period, 57 percent who took 400 milligrams of ibuprofen had their pain reduced from moderate or severe to "no worse than mild," compared with 25 percent taking a placebo.

"For those who experience these outcomes, ibuprofen is a useful, inexpensive and readily available treatment," Derry said. "Those who don't experience good outcomes will need to look at alternative treatments."


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Botox Maker Allergan Fined $375 Million for Unlawful Marketing Practices

Allergan illegally promoted drug for off-label use, feds charged

Allergan, Inc. pleaded guilty and was sentenced to pay $375 million to resolve its criminal case arising from its unlawful marketing and promotion of Botox...

Allergan, Inc. pleaded guilty and was sentenced to pay $375 million to resolve its criminal case arising from its unlawful marketing and promotion of Botoxfor uses not approved as safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The resolution includes a criminal fine and forfeiture totaling $375 million.

"The FDA approval process is designed to help protect the public, and when a manufacturer puts potential profits and sales ahead of the approval process, they risk paying a bigger price," United States Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said. "At the time of the offenses, Allergan knew that there was insufficient clinical evidence for the wide range of claims the company was promoting and pushing with doctors. We hope other companies are paying close attention to what can happen if they don't follow the rules and rush towards making profits."

Botox is a prescription biological product containing botulinum toxin type A, a purified neurotoxin. Under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act ("FDCA"), a company must specify each intended use of a biologic product in an application submitted to the FDA. After the FDA approves the product as safe and effective for a specified use, any promotion by the manufacturer for any other uses - known as "off-label" uses - renders that product misbranded.

According to United States Attorney Yates and the information presented in court: Allergan pleaded guilty for promoting Botox between 2000 to 2005 for headache, pain, spasticity, and juvenile cerebral palsy - none of which were FDA approved uses during that period. The FDA approved BOTOX for limited therapeutic uses in that period: strabismus (crossed eyes) and blepharospasm (involuntary eyelid muscle contraction), cervical dystonia (involuntary neck muscle contraction) and primary axillary hyperhidrosis (excessive underarm sweating).

According to the evidence, Allergan made it a top corporate priority to maximize sales of Botox for so-called "off-label" uses, such as headache, pain, and spasticity. Allergan's off-label marketing tactics included calling on doctors who typically treat patients with off-label conditions.

In 2003, Allergan doubled the size of its teams that assisted doctors in obtaining reimbursement for such off-label Botox injections. Allergan held workshops to teach doctors and their office staffs how to bill for off-label uses, conducted detailed audits of doctors' billing records to demonstrate how they could make money by injecting Botox, and operated the Botox Reimbursement Hotline which provided a wide array of free on-demand services to doctors for off-label uses.

Allergan also lobbied government healthcare programs to expand coverage for off-label uses, directed physician workshops and dinners focused on off-label uses, paid doctors to attend "Advisory Boards" promoting off-label uses, and created a purportedly independent neurotoxin education organization to stimulate increased use of Botox for off-label indications.

Although all of the approved uses for Botox in 2000-2005 were relatively rare, Allergan exploited its on-label cervical dystonia ("CD") indication to grow off-label headache ("HA") and pain sales. In 2003, Allergan developed the "CD/HA Initiative" as a "rescue strategy" in the event of negative results from its headache clinical trials to ensure continued expansion into the headache market. As part of this initiative, Allergan marketed Botox for headache and pain by claiming that cervical dystonia was "underdiagnosed" and that doctors could diagnose cervical dystonia based on headache and pain symptoms, even when the doctor "doesn't see any cervical dystonia."

The company has signed a plea agreement admitting its guilt to a criminal misdemeanor for misbranding Botox in violation of the FDCA. Under the plea agreement, Allergan will pay a criminal fine of $350 million and forfeit assets of $25 million. Allergan's guilty plea and sentence was accepted yesterday by U.S. District Court Judge Orinda D. Evans in Atlanta.

The criminal plea and sentence is part of a global resolution of criminal and civil allegations. Allergan has also signed a civil settlement agreement in which the company agrees to pay an additional $225 million to the federal government and the states to resolve claims that its unlawful marketing practices caused false claims to be submitted to government health care programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, TRICARE, and to the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program, the Department of Veterans' Affairs, and the Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs.

Allergan markets Botox for its approved cosmetic use under the trade name Botox Cosmetic. Botox Cosmetic has its own FDA-approved label and drug code. The guilty plea and sentence announced today does not address Botox Cosmetic.

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Bank of America To Stop Writing Mortgages Through Independent Brokers

BofA joins Chase in eliminating brokers, blamed for many toxic loans

Bank of America says it will stop writing home mortgages through independent brokers, who've been blamed for many of the lax practices that created bad loa...

Bank of America says it will stop writing home mortgages through independent brokers, who've been blamed for many of the lax practices that created bad loans and fueled huge losses that led to the economic meltdown still haunting the real estate market.

Bank of America, currently the third-biggest U.S. mortgage lender through independent brokers, said it would focus its resources on direct lending and acquiring loans from other originators.

"By exiting the first mortgage wholesale channel, we can redirect critical operational resources to further enhance our capabilities in direct-to-consumer channels," said Barbara Desoer, president of Bank of America Home Loans. "This is an investment in strengthening our competitive position by delivering on the services our mortgage customers expect from Bank of America."

Other major lenders, including JPMorgan Chase & Co., have also stopped marketing through brokers, who accounted for about ten percent of U.S. home lending during the first half of 2010, down from 31 percent in 2005.

Chase quit funding home loans through mortgage brokers in January 2009. Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said in a speech a short time later that, "my biggest mistake, probably of my whole career, was not closing down our mortgage-broker business sooner."

Citigroup began downsizing its wholesale operations in 2008.

Major lenders are facing a blizzard of litigation and investigations following disclosures that loan servicers and mortgage companies may have taken shortcuts in processing foreclosure documents.

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Chest Pressure-Only CPR More Effective In Saving Lives

Many bystanders unwilling to provide mouth-to-mouth aid

Chest compression-only bystander CPR may be as effective as conventional CPR with rescue breathing for out-of-hospital cardiac arrest....

You're at a family gathering or a crowded shopping mall when, suddenly, someone drops to the floor with a heart attack, unable to breathe.

How do you respond? Your first instinct might be to provide mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but that that might not be necessary. A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) says Chest compression-only bystander CPR may be as effective as conventional CPR with rescue breathing for out-of-hospital cardiac arrest.

Out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is a major public health problem, affecting approximately 300 000 people in the U.S. each year. Although survival rates vary considerably, overall survival is generally less than 10 percent among those in whom resuscitation is attempted.

Having a bystander respond with CPR significantly increases a victim's chances of survival, but unfortunately, bystanders respond in fewer than 30 percent of cases.

Few responders

Why so few people responding? Researches guessed that the expectation that mouth-to-mouth breathing assistance was needed proved to be intimidating. Bystanders were either reluctant to make such intimate contact with a stranger, or felt they lacked the knowledge of how to do it correctly.

When researchers analyzed more than 4,000 cases of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest, they found that victims who received compression-only resuscitation did just as well as those who received traditional mouth-to-mouth assistance. In fact, their survival odds were a little better.

Among patients with out-of-hospital cardiac arrest, layperson compression-only CPR was associated with increased survival compared with conventional CPR, leading to a recommendation for bystanders to administer chest-only CPR when confronted with such an emergency.

Policy change might lead more people to respond

"In this study, we evaluated whether intentional, widespread public endorsement of compression-only CPR for adult sudden cardiac arrest would be associated with an increased likelihood that lay rescuers would perform CPR and an increased likelihood of survival to hospital discharge compared with no bystander CPR and conventional CPR," the authors concluded.

The Red Cross has, for some time, encouraged untrained laypersons to respond in emergency situations with compression-only CPR.

"We recognize that upon witnessing the sudden collapse of an adult, calling 9-1-1, and providing Compression-Only CPR until an AED is available is an acceptable alternative for those who are unwilling, unable, or not trained to perform full CPR," the Red Cross said.

The video below, produced in conjunction with the Red Cross, shows how to administer compression-only CPR.


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Nigerian Prince Scam Turns to Fax Distribution

In the world of scams, what's old is sometimes new again

Scammers often employ new technology, like the Internet, to separate victims from their money, but other times go back to what's worked in the past....

Scammers often employ new technology, like the Internet, to separate victims from their money, but other times go back to what's worked in the past.

Lately, some scammers supposedly operating out of Tanzania have been using the 1980s technology of fax communications to put a new face on that tried and true story of the deposed prince needing to transfer large sums of money out of the country.

Known as a "419 scam," named for section 419 of the Nigerian penal code, this scheme is normally implemented with an email. Though the butt of numerous jokes, it has nonetheless been enormously effective as victims want to believe that a total stranger in distress is willing to cut them in on millions of dollars.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood says his office has begun receiving reports of the 419 scam hitting fax machines in the state. It consists of a message stating that the sender has a large sum of money and needs help transferring it out of a foreign country. As a reward for the consumer's help, the sender promises to pay the consumer a share of the funds.

Evolution

The scam is always evolving. A sample of the most recent fax regarding Tanzania begins:

"MAY I USE THIS OPPORTUNITY TO INTRODUCE MYSELF TO YOU MY NAME IS CHARLES TAYLOR (JNR) I AM THE SON OF FORMER PRESIDENT OF LIBERIA. A COUNTRY IN WEST AFRICA, MY FATHER WHO IS CURRENTLY BEING HELD AGAINST HIS WILL BY THE UNITED NATIONS FOR ALLEGED OFFENCES OF WAR CRIMES. HE IS CURRENTLY FACING COURT TRIAL IN THE HAGUE IN NETHERLANDS. MY FATHER IS A GOOD MAN WHO TRIED TO DO SO MUCH FOR OUR PEOPLE LIBERIANS. I AM CONTACTING YOU WITH THE BELIEVE THAT WE WILL DEVELOP A CORDIAL BUSINESS RELATIONSHIP..."

The fax goes on to say that Mr. Taylor's father has a large sum of money - in this case $177 million in bank security vaults in the name of a friend, who has just recently died. The father has supposedly directed the son to use this money for investment purposes in our country. The fax promises funds in exchange for assistance in transferring the funds out of Tanzania. Details are to be conveyed once contact information is received.

"Don't assist these criminals in the transfer of funds, regardless of what is promised, or you will become the victim," said Hood.

Tips

Hood also offers the following tips to help consumers avoid becoming victims of these and other common scams:

• Never reply to a fax, email, pop-up, telephone or text message that asks for personal or financial information. Legitimate companies will not ask for this information in that format.

• Always contact the organization asking for your personal information using a telephone number you know to be correct to inquire why the information is needed. Never call or text the number left in the message, and never follow an Internet link to a site.

• Never fax or email personal or financial information. Review credit card and bank statements as soon as you receive them to determine whether there are any unauthorized charges.

• Keep your anti-virus software up to date. In addition, use a firewall, which helps to make you invisible on the Internet and blocks communication from unauthorized sources.

• Be cautious about opening attachments or downloading files from emails you receive, regardless of the sender.

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NIH Expands High Blood Pressure Trial To Include More Older Adults

Does a lower blood pressure goal cut the risk of heart and kidney diseases, stroke, and cognitive decline?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) plans to add about 1,750 participants over the age of 75 to its upcoming Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial...

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) plans to add about 1,750 participants over the age of 75 to its upcoming Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial (SPRINT).

The idea is to determine whether a lower blood pressure range in older adults will reduce cardiovascular and kidney diseases, age-related cognitive decline, and dementia.

"No large-scale clinical trial has examined the impact of aggressively lowering systolic blood pressure among older adults," said Susan B. Shurin, M.D., acting director of the NIH's National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

Specific areas of study

"The SPRINT study and the senior expansion address four of the 10 common causes of death and disability in adults over 75 years: heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, and dementia," Shurin pointed out. "The addition of these participants promises to provide useful scientific and public health information on a large and growing segment of the population."

Current clinical guidelines recommend maintaining a systolic blood pressure -- the top number in a blood pressure reading -- of less than 140 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) for healthy adults of all ages and 130 mm Hg for adults with kidney disease or diabetes. Two previous trials found that reducing systolic blood pressure in older participants reduced stroke, heart failure, and overall cardiovascular events by more than 30 percent.

SPRINT will evaluate the safety and potential benefits or risks of maintaining systolic blood pressure at either less than 140 mm Hg (standard group) or less than 120 mm Hg (treatment group) -- a lower target than currently recommended or studied in previous trials.

Researchers will treat study participants with commonly available medications to achieve their target blood pressure. Those in the treatment group will take an average of three to four medications. Those in the standard group will take an average of two medications.

Participants will be seen in clinics every month at the beginning of the study and less frequently as they reach their blood pressure targets. The study will include standard tests for determining the health of the heart, kidneys, and brain.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and the National Institute on Aging (NIA) support SPRINT Memory and Cognition IN Decreased Hypertension (SPRINT-MIND), a substudy of SPRINT that focuses on the impact of lowering systolic blood pressure on cognitive decline and development of dementia.

All-encompassing

The study will also include brain imaging to measure treatment effects on brain structure. Participants in SPRINT-Senior, as the study expansion is known, will also be included in SPRINT-MIND.

SPRINT-Senior will be conducted through the existing SPRINT clinical center networks:

• Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Cleveland (Principal Investigator: Jackson T. Wright, M.D., Ph.D.)

• Department of Veterans Affairs, VA Medical Center, Memphis (Principal Investigator: William C. Cushman, M.D.)

• University of Alabama at Birmingham (Principal Investigator: Suzanne Oparil, M.D.)

• University of Utah, Salt Lake City (Principal Investigator: Alfred K. Cheung, M.D.)

• Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, Winston-Salem, N.C. (Principal Investigator: David C. Goff, Jr., M.D., Ph.D.

The coordinating center for the study is Wake Forest Baptist (Principal Investigator: David Reboussin, Ph.D.).

Announced in 2009, SPRINT is a nine-year study to be conducted in over 70 clinical sites across the United States. Including the 1,750 new SPRINT-Senior participants, approximately 9,250 people age 55 years or older are expected to be enrolled.

Participants will have systolic blood pressure of 130 mm Hg or higher as well as a history of cardiovascular disease; be at high risk for heart disease by having at least one additional risk factor, such as a history of smoking or a high blood cholesterol level; or have chronic kidney disease. Over 40 percent of the SPRINT participants are expected to have chronic kidney disease.

SPRINT and SPRINT-Senior are examples of comparative effectiveness research, which compares different interventions or strategies to prevent, diagnose, treat, and monitor health conditions in clinical settings. SPRINT enrollment will begin this fall.

The first two years of SPRINT-Senior will cost $12.7 million, and is being funded by the economic stimulus. NIH is providing $30.1 million for the remaining six years of the project.

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Class Action Addresses 15-Passenger Vans' Safety Problems

Canadian suit filed by mother who lost son in crash

vA Canadian woman has filed a class action lawsuit against Ford, alleging that its 15-passenger vans' propensity to roll over caused her son's death. ...

A Canadian woman has filed a class action lawsuit against Ford, alleging that its 15-passenger vans' propensity to roll over caused her 26-year-old son's death more than two years ago.

Stella Gurr, of British Columbia, lost her son, Michael Benedetti Gurr, in September 2008, when the Ford E-Series van in which he was riding ran off the Trans-Canada Highway, rolling several times.

The suit is being handled by Tony Merchant, the high-profile Canadian attorney who has filed, among others, a lawsuit taking issue with Facebook's privacy policies and one alleging that denture cream manufacturers failed to warn consumers that overuse of the products could lead to zinc poisoning.

Merchant is planning to seek a refund for every Canadian who owns one of the vans, and is pursuing compensation for anyone with a relative who was killed or injured in an E-Series crash. Merchant eventually plans to expand the lawsuit to all ten Canadian provinces.

Lobbying for stricter regulation

Since her son's death, Gurr has been urging the Canadian government to ban the use of 15-seat vans to transport children on field trips and other outings. Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have already instituted such bans, and U.S. law prohibits the vans from being used for children of high school age and younger. No such ban exists for college students, however.

Joining Gurr in her lobbying effort is Isabelle Hains of New Brunswick, who lost her son in a similar accident in January 2008. Daniel Hains was one of seven high school basketball players killed on the way back from an away game when their Ford E-Series van collided head-on with a transport truck on an icy highway.

Last week, Gurr and Hains met with Canadian Transportation Minister Chuck Strahl, who has been studying measures to more strictly regulate the vans.

"It's my duty as a mother to send a message loud and clear to the [department] to ban 15-passenger vans," Hains told reporters last week. "The time for studying and debating passed a long time ago."

Long history of problems

And indeed, the vans' safety problems have been well-established for years. In April 2001, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a consumer advisory stating that the vans are especially prone to roll over when fully loaded, and that only trained drivers should be behind the wheel in those situations. According to NHTSA's analysis, when the vans are filled to capacity, their center of gravity shifts rearward and upward, which increases the chance that the driver will lose control, especially in emergency situations.

The Safety Forum, a U.S. watchdog group, calls the vans "high-riding death traps" that are "among the most lethal vehicles on the road today." According to the group, 15-passenger vans are involved in rollover accidents more often than any other type of vehicle, with over half of the victims either killed or seriously injured as a result. And while other cars involved in a single-vehicle accident have only a 33 percent chance of rolling over, the vans' rollover rate is above 50 percent.

Between 1992 and 2002 alone, over 1,100 people were killed in single-vehicle accidents involving the vans, according to NHTSA.

Yet despite the vans' atrocious safety record, they remain on the road, with predictable results. On Sunday, four members of a Georgia church group were killed when their Dodge Ram Wagon blew a tire and rolled over, ejecting several of its occupants.

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Payday Loan Scam Drained Consumers' Bank Accounts

Consumers applying for loans were tricked into applying for debit card, FTC charges

The technology officer of a payday loan marketer has agreed to pay $850,000 to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges....

The technology officer of a payday loan marketer has agreed to pay $850,000 to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges for his role in an allegedly deceptive and unfair scheme.

The scheme allegedly debited the bank accounts of hundreds of thousands of cash-strapped consumers in violation of federal law.

The FTC complaint contends that Swish Marketing Inc. and its three officers -- Mark Benning, Matthew Patterson, and Jason Strober -- operated Websites advertising short-term, or "payday," loan-matching services. The Websites included an online loan application form that tricked consumers into unknowingly ordering a debit card when they applied for a loan online.

Consumers duped

On numerous sites, clicking the button for submitting loan applications led to four product offers unrelated to the loan, each with tiny "Yes" and "No" buttons. "No" was pre-clicked for three of them; "Yes" was pre-clicked for a debit card, with fine-print disclosures asserting the consumer's consent to have their bank account debited. Consumers who simply clicked a prominent "Finish matching me with a payday loan provider!" button were charged for the debit card. Other websites touted the card as a "bonus" and disclosed the fee only in fine print below the submit button. As a result, consumers allegedly were improperly charged up to $54.95 each.

In August 2009, the FTC charged these marketers and VirtualWorks LLC -- the debit card company that helped them design the online offers -- with deceptive business practices. The debit card company paid Swish Marketing up to $15 for each transaction. The debit card company defendants have settled the charges against them.

Additional charges

In April 2010, the FTC filed an amended complaint against the payday loan marketers, adding an allegation that the defendants sold consumers' bank account information to the debit card company without the consumers' consent.

The amended complaint further states that Benning, Patterson, and Strober were made aware of consumer complaints about the unauthorized debits, as indicated in their e-mail and instant messages. For example, Patterson explained that consumers were going "ballistic" about the debit because the offer was defaulted to yes "...and customers don't see it." More than six months after first learning of the complaints, Benning allegedly described the practice of defaulting to "Yes" as "fraud and identity theft."

The settlement order with Strober, the Vice President of Product Development and/or Engineering of Swish Marketing, bars him from misrepresenting material facts about a product or service, such as the cost or the method for charging consumers. He also is permanently prohibited from misrepresenting that a product or service is free or a "bonus" without disclosing all material terms and conditions, and from charging consumers without first disclosing what billing information will be used, the amount to be paid, how and on whose account the payment will be assessed, and all material terms and conditions.

The order further requires that transactions be affirmatively authorized by consumers, and that Strober, in marketing financial products or services, monitor his affiliates to ensure compliance with the order. He also is required to provide specific cooperation to the FTC in its ongoing litigation. In addition, the order requires him to pay $850,000.

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BMW, Hyundai Models Win Five-Star Safety Ratings

BMW and Hyundai were the big winners as federal safety regulators unveiled an updated safety ratings system for passenger cars.

BMW, Hyundai Models Win Five-Star Safety Ratings: BMW and Hyundai were the big winners as federal safety regulators unveiled an updated safety ratings...

BMW and Hyundai were the big winners as federal safety regulators unveiled an updated safety ratings system for passenger cars. The upgraded ratings system will now evaluate side pole crash testing and crash prevention-technologies. And, for the first time, it will use female crash test dummies to simulate crash scenarios involving women, not just men.

The BMW 5 Series four-door, rear-wheel-drive sedan received a 4 for Overall Frontal Crash Rating and 5's for Overall Side Crash Rating and Rollover Rating for an Overall Vehicle Score of 5.

A late model-year release of the Hyundai Sonata received identical scores. An earlier Sonata release received an overall rating of 4, as did 27 other makes and models. Two models of Toyota Camry received ratings of 3 and one vehicle -- a Nissan Versa - got a 2-star rating.

the The Department of Transportation (DOT) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have unveiled an enhanced 5-Star Safety Ratings System for new vehicles. At the same time DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and NHTSA Administrator David Strickland released the safety ratings for the first model year 2011 vehicles tested under the program.

"More stars equal safer cars," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "With our upgraded Five-Star Safety Ratings System, we're raising the bar on safety. Through new tests, better crash data, and higher standards, we are making the safety ratings tougher and more meaningful for consumers."

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) welcomes the revised standards, saying the government "has taken a step in the right direction to beef up its testing program."

Changing the grades

Vehicle safety ratings range from one to five stars, with one star being the lowest and five stars the highest. Because so many vehicles had reached the highest rating under the old rating criteria, and because the new standards are much more rigorous, not all previously rated 5-star vehicles will remain at five stars.

The new 5-Star Safety Ratings System evaluates the safety of passenger cars, SUVs, vans and pickup trucks in three broad areas -- frontal crash, side crash, and rollover resistance. For model year 2011, NHTSA will rate 24 passenger cars, 20 sport utility vehicles, two vans and nine pickups under the new ratings system.

"We want consumers to embrace these new safety technologies as a way to make vehicles safer," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "We believe electronic stability control, lane departure warning, and forward collision warning offer significant safety benefits and consumers should consider them when buying a new car."

Ratings and consumers

One of the most significant changes to the ratings program for consumers is the addition of an Overall Vehicle Score for each vehicle tested. That score combines the results of a frontal crash test, side crash tests and rollover resistance tests and compares those results to the average risk of injury and potential for vehicle rollover of other vehicles.

NHTSA recommends consumers consider vehicles with crash avoidance technologies that meet the 5-Star Safety Ratings minimum performance tests, such as forward collision warning (FCW), lane departure warning (LDW), and electronic stability control (ESC). All of the 2011 model year vehicles currently rated have ESC as standard, except for the Nissan Versa, in which it is optional.

IIHS spokesman Russ Rader points out that his organization and the government "test for different aspects of performance" and that that when considering a purchase, "consumers should look for vehicles that perform well in both sets of tests."

More information, including the full list of newly-rated vehicles is available at Safercar.gov, the official Website for the Federal government's 5-Star Safety Ratings Program. There, consumers can also find comprehensive information about safe driving, vehicle defects, safety recalls, and passenger safety.

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Allstate Insurance Sues Toyota Over Unintended Acceleration Claims

Insurer seeks $3 million in damages for claims paid to accident victims

Allstate Insurance Co. has filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court seeking to recover more than $3 million that the insurer says it paid in claims....

Like a stalled car on a freeway, Toyota is being slammed from all sides in the controversy over unintended acceleration claims. The latest to pile on is Allstate Insurance Co., which has filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court seeking to recover more than $3 million that the insurer says it paid in claims for accidents linked to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

News of the latest legal action comes just a day after Toyota issued a statement saying it has examined more than 4,000 vehicles and found no evidence that its electronic throttle control is to blame for the cases of unintended acceleration repoprted by consumers. The company's findings are supported by government tests that have also uncovered no evidence of problems in Toyota's electronics.

But the Allstate suit claims that Toyota waited too long to respond to complaints about unintended acceleration and failed to install a brake override system that automatically releases the accelerator when the brake pedal is pressed.

Allstate charges Toyota "essentially hid the problem" instead of recalling the cars. "This has resulted in numerous claims of instances of property damage and injuries, including in some instances fatalities," the suit says. A Toyota spokesman said the suit's allegations "have no basis."

Toyota already faces several class-action complaints and numerous individual personal injury claims, and it's likely that other insurance companies will follow Allstate in seeking compensation from the Japanese automaker.

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, a Toyota executive said the company "has not found a single case in which electronics would lead to sudden unintended acceleration." Steve St. Angelo said Toyota has reviewed 4,200 complaints so far.

Drivers, for years, have reported instances in which their car accelerated on its own and failed to stop, even when they applied brakes. In some cases, these reports of sudden acceleration resulted in crashes.

But for the better part of a year government safety investigators have probed the thousands of reports of sudden acceleration in some Toyota vehicles. In a preliminary report to Congress in August, they said they have uncovered no evidence of problems in the vehicles' electronics.

Toyota has insisted from the start that, whatever the reason for these anomalies, they weren't caused by hiccups in the vehicles' sophisticated electronics. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in its preliminary report, said it had reviewed 58 of the more than 3,000 submitted cases, and found no evidence of an electronics flaw.

Toyota yesterday said that complaints of sudden-acceleration incidents have dropped 80 percent since April.

The company also said it has added a "brake-override control" to 84 percent of the Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles now on sale in the U.S. and said it intends to be the first manufacturer to affer the safety technology in all of its models. The software is intended to ensure that, even if the accelerator sticks, pressing the brake will cause the accelerator to release.

"Toyota has made significant progress in recent months to help ensure that our customers can have complete confidence in the quality, safety and reliability of their vehicles, and our latest initiatives build on those accomplishments," said St. Angelo, Toyota's chief quality control officer for North America. "Toyota's continuous efforts to strengthen vehicle quality and safety, and to respond swiftly and thoroughly to our customers' concerns, are driven by our core values and will always be a fundamental part of our company. Our goal is to set new, even higher standards for quality assurance and customer responsiveness in both the factory and the market by continuing to put our customers first in everything that we do."

Since September 2009, Toyota has recalled about nine million vehicles to either replace floor mats or alter the design of accelerator pedals. The NHTSA report said investigators found only one case in which a floor mat trapped a gas pedal, pressing it to the floor, and no case in which the gas pedal became stuck.

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New Credit Card Law Hasn't Done Much to Relieve Consumer Dissatisfaction

Consumer Reports finds perils still exist; identifies some good cards, and some bad ones

A national survey shows a slightly lower level of dissatisfaction among consumers with their credit cards than last year...

With the provisions of the Credit Card Act of 2009 now in full effect, a national survey shows a slightly lower level of dissatisfaction among consumers with their credit cards than last year.

However, Consumer Reports says credit cards remain one of the lowest-rated services it has ever analyzed with only 45 percent of respondents saying they are completely or very satisfied with their cards.

Still in the red

The survey, conducted in July by the magazine's National Research Center, also shows consumers are carrying less credit card debt, with median balances of $3,793 -- $1,100 lower than in 2009.

In addition some 23 percent of respondents said they were motivated to pay off their credit cards faster by the Minimum Payment Warning on their bills mandated by the new law. The warning shows cardholders how long it would take to retire their debt and the total amount of interest they must pay if they made only the minimum payment each month.

Of the people who carried a balance, 23 percent owed more than $10,000 compared with 30 percent last year. Still, 18 percent said they wouldn't be able to handle their expenses for six months without credit cards; 19 percent said it would take longer than two years to pay off their balances; and 20 percent didn't know when they'd be able to.

Despite some positive changes, there is still plenty of peril out there. Among other reforms, the card act bars issuers from raising rates in the first year or on existing balances unless your payment is 60 days late. Banks can still impose annual fees, slash cardholder's borrowing limit, cancel their account without notice, and raise their minimum payment. In CR's survey, 47 percent of respondents complained about such experiences.

Best Credit Cards

The best card for consumers depends on whether they pay their balances in full each month, and, if so, what types of rewards they're looking for. Consumer Reports money experts surveyed the marketplace and found that none of these nationally available cards limit the amount of points, miles, or cash-back consumers can earn. None charge an annual fee in the first year. Cards are listed in alphabetical order.

· CASH-BACK CARDS (Higher APRs make these rewards cards most suitable for people who pay off balances in full each month): Amazon.com Rewards Visa, American Express Blue Cash, American Express Costco TrueEarnings, Capital One No Hassle Cash Rewards, Chase Freedom, Fidelity Rewards American Express, PenFed Visa Platinum Cashback Rewards.

· TRAVEL CARDS (These cards offer the best deals for frequent travelers.): Capital One Venture Rewards, PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express.

· LOW-INTEREST/FEES CARDS (For consumers who carry a balance or want to transfer a balance): Iberiabank Visa Classic, PenFed Promise Visa and Simmons First Visa Platinum.

Worst Credit Cards

Some of the worst cards with the highest-fees are aimed at people with a poor or limited credit history. The two cards below are particularly fee-laden and may be the worst options available:

· First Premier Bank Mastercard: This card now advertises a $25 to $95 processing charge (which fluctuates by the minute, depending on when you click on the card's website). What's worse is that when magazine drilled deeper into the fine print, it found a $75 annual fee and an APR of 23.9 percent to 59.9 percent on purchases and cash advances (again, depending on when you visit the site).

So cardholders could face a minimum of $100 or a maximum of $170 in fees in the first year for a card with only a $300 initial credit limit. Other fees include an $11 charge for expediting bill payment over the phone and a credit-limit increase fee equal to 50 percent of the increase. So for every $100 that First Premier increases the cardholder's credit limit it charges him $50. Also, look out for copycats of this card. First Premier Bank markets very similar cards under the names Centennial and Aventium.

· Platinum Zero Secured Visa from Applied Bank: The Platinum Zero's marketing trades off its name -- zero percent APR on purchases, zero application fee, zero annual fee. But Consumer Reports found the zero fees end about halfway through the terms and conditions with a $9.95 monthly "maintenance" fee that equates to $119.40 annually.

If cardholders are late paying their bill, they will get hit with a fee of up to $35. And though the card claims to charge zero percent APR on purchases, the agreement states, "There is no grace period for the account. Interest charges accrue on purchases, cash advances and our charges beginning on the date the transaction occurs or on the first day of the billing cycle in which the transaction is received by us or, at our option, the date the transaction is posted to your account."

Consumer Reports Credit Card Use survey is based on an online nationally representative sample of American adults, conducted by the CR National Research Center. A total of 1,212 interviews were completed among adults aged 18+. Interviewing took place between July 3 and July 22, 2010. The margin of error is +/- 3.5 points at a 95 percent confidence level.

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Breast Cancer Groups Denounce Alcoholic Beverage 'Partners'

Companies deny they're trying to capitalize on cancer cure efforts

Hundreds of businesses and organizations are lending their support to publicize efforts to find a cure...

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and hundreds of businesses and organizations are lending their support to publicize efforts to find a cure.

But not all that support is welcome. When alcoholic beverage companies take up the cause, it raises eyebrows.

Mike's Hard Lemonade now comes in a pink variety to promote the cause. And Chambord, which markets pink vodka and liqueurs, urges people to "pink their drink," saying that "by adding a splash of Chambord to any cocktail, you're supporting breast cancer awareness year-round."

But some breast cancer survivors aren't happy, saying it's hypocritical to raise money for research while selling a product that contributes to the disease.

Both the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute say even moderate drinking increases breast cancer risk.

"Anybody trying to sell alcohol to promote breast cancer awareness should be ashamed of themselves," said Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group.

Chambord's website notes that its Pink Your Drink campaign has raised more than $50,000 in donations for the Breast Cancer Network of Strength and other patient groups.

Mike's Hard Lemonade has given $500,000 over the past two years to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, company president Phil O'Neil says. The company was inspired by the loss of an employee named Jacqueline who died after a long battle with breast cancer.

"The donations we make to breast cancer research are not tied to sales; they are our way of honoring Jacqueline," O'Neil said in a statement.

But in many cases, cause-related marketing is not about charity, said Dwight Burlingame, associate executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

"These businesses are promoting their product," he said.

At least one breast cancer charity is walking away from alcohol-related gifts.

"We have a partnership with alcohol, and I don't understand it, either," said Cindy Geoghegan, the new interim CEO at Breast Cancer Network for Strength. "Those kinds of relationships will not continue."

And though the Breast Cancer Research Foundation said it appreciates donations from Mike's Hard Lemonade, spokeswoman Anna DeLuca says, the group "in no way, shape or form endorses the consumption of alcohol."

"This donation does not constitute a partnership," DeLuca said.

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Ford May Revive Lincoln Continental Model, Scrap Hundreds of Dealers

Sagging brand losing ground to Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus

Lincoln may try to resurrect its legendary Continental model as part of a restructuring program that will also see a reduction in the number of dealers....

Lincoln may try to resurrect its legendary Continental model as part of a restructuring program that will also see a sharp reduction in the number of Lincoln dealers around the continent.

Many Lincoln dealers were, until last spring, Lincoln-Mercury dealers. But now that Ford has killed off Mercury, dealers find themselves, shall we say, lacking in high-demand merchandise. Ford CEO Alan Mulally hopes to change that, but to save the Lincoln dealers he plans to destroy about 500 of them.

It always sounds strange when car manufacturers say that to grow, they need to reduce the number of dealers. Various justifications are offered. In Lincoln's case, the rap on many existing dealers is that they run a down-market operation that stacks up poorly against the competition -- namely, Lexus, BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.

At a closed-door meeting with Lincoln dealers yesterday, Mulally reportedly showed videos of customers of Lexus, BMW and so forth talking about why they like their cars and how they are treated at the dealership. Some of the customers also had a few things to say about Lincoln, some of them not so complimentary.

The problem seems to be two-fold: a. Many Lincoln dealerships are in less-than-choice locations and don't present an image as upscale as their European and Japanese competitors; and b. Many consumers associate Lincoln with the aging Town Car, popular with limousine services but basically a dolled-up Ford Crown Victoria.

Well, not to worry. Mulally made it clear that the Town Car is on its way to the history books -- along with those 500 or so dealers. Although no details were offered, Ford said its design teams are hard at work on new sedans, SUVs and maybe even a pickup truck.

Meanwhile, dealers were told that if they want to remain on board, they need to make a serious financial commitment, including upgrading their showrooms and service departments to the level that luxury car purchasers have come to expect. Walking into a European or upscale Japanese dealership these days is more like visiting a spa than a car showroom. You never see anyone walking around with a greasy rag sticking out of his pocket, not even in the service department.

Lincoln today has about 1,200 dealers, about 500 of them in the 130 largest urban areas. Those urban areas account for about 85 percent of all luxury vehicle sales in the United States, so you have to wonder what those other 700 dealers are doing with their time.

One place Lincoln might start to rehabilitate its image is to do something about its vehicles' propensity to spit out spark plugs -- a failing that runs in the Ford family.

"The spark plug spit out in my used 1998 Lincoln Navigator with a big 5.4-liter V-8 engine causing over 4,000 dollars of damage," said Kevin of Chicago.

Eliminating Ford/Lincoln's bothersome penchant to burst into flames would also go a long way with motorists like Diane of Murrieta, Calif.

"At or around 2am on April 11th, my husband awoke to a loud noise in our garage. He opened the door to the garage to see that our 2001 Navigator was on fire in our driveway. The fire department arson expert told us about this problem with Fords and Lincolns. Before that morning, we had never heard of such a thing. We've owned the car since early 2003, and have never been notified by Ford or Lincoln of a recall, or any problems with the car," Diane said.

Salvaging Lincoln may be Ford's last chance to keep a toehold in the luxury market. It has already sold off Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin and Volvo, saying it needed to concentrate its resources on its mass-market Ford brand.


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Debt Consolidation Firms Will Soon Be Barred From Charging Upfront Fees

New rules take effect later this month but consumers must still be vigilant

On October 28, a new rule imposed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) takes effect, prohibiting debt consolidation firms from charging any upfront fees....

You rarely see or hear their ads on television and radio any more, but they're still out there, waiting in the weeds to take your money and destroy your credit rating.

"They" are those predatory debt consolidation companies who promise to pay off your credit card debt for a small portion of what you owe or to help you repair a poor credit score. Unlike legitimate debt relief advisors, these unscrupulous scam artists charge high upfront fees, talk you into stop paying your credit card bills and more often than not leave you in worse shape than before.

On October 28, a new rule imposed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) takes effect, designed to prevent debt consolidation firms from charging any upfront fees until the consumer has received either interest rate or principal reductions from their creditors. Debt settlement companies will be barred from charging advance fees until they successfully renegotiate a client's debt balance.

While the rule deals with one of the most abusive tactics used by these companies, it still doesn't stop them from diverting your hard-earned money into phony accounts or destroying your credit score by getting you to stop paying your creditors.

As Mark Huffman reported last month, the FTC rolled out the first phase of new rules aimed at protecting consumers from unscrupulous debt settlement companies by governing how they market themselves. So far, the initial response has been that their radio and television ads that seemed to appear every few minutes have all but disappeared.

Those rules, which went into effect on September 27, prohibited debt services providers from misrepresenting their program, its success rate or any material program features. Companies were also required to give consumers more detailed disclosures of the potential negative side effects of debt settlement or how long it might take to see any results.

The problem with the new FTC rules is that they only apply to telemarketers and over- the-phone sales. Granted, those categories make up the vast majority of debt relief transactions, but those companies can continue to scam unsuspecting consumers just by using the Internet or in any face-to-face transactions.

Up to the states

For any real muscle in taking down these debt bullies, you have to rely on your state government, or more specifically, state lawmakers and the state attorney general. The FTC rules may provide some leverage to those states that take on the predatory debt consolidators, but it will be up to individual states to pass new laws that actually prohibit abusive practices.

In Oregon, the attorney general reached an agreement with the country's largest debt relief company, the Texas-based Credit Solutions of America, which was accused of charging high upfront fees and encouraging consumers to quit paying their creditors. In that case, Oregon customers of CSA may be entitled to a partial refund. But CSA has a nationwide client base, so any customers in other states still have to fend for themselves if they aren't satisfied with the service they receive.

The file segregation scam

One of the most devious scams is something called "file segregation." The shady debt relief agency shows you how to get an employee identification number from the IRS.

This nine-digit number can be used as a substitute for a Social Security number. You would then use this number to apply for new credit, using a different address and phone number, and begin to build up a good credit score by using your new credit card and paying it off early.

The debt consolidation company will claim this is all completely legal, when in actuality they are helping you to commit a felony by creating a false identity.

Doing it yourself

Even legitimate debt relief agencies charge something, so you may want to try to deal with your debt problems yourself. For example, to fix your credit report, the first thing you should do is correct any errors, which are common. The Fair Credit Reporting Act gives you the right to dispute any information on your credit report along with receiving one free copy of that report every year from each of the three major credit-reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

If you find a mistake or a suspicious item, contact the creditor, and if the issue remains unresolved, dispute the item with the credit bureau. You can also add a personal statement to your credit reports about a specific item, providing details that you feel may be relevant to creditors.

If the negative information is accurate, there's nothing you, or a credit-repair company, can do to change it no matter what some agencies claim. In fact, there's nothing that a credit relief company can do that you can't do for yourself.

The best way to fix your credit is to pay off your bills on time. If you need help, there are nonprofit agencies that can assist you in negotiating with creditors and creating a budget that works for you. And there are many legitimate debt settlement counselors out there that never charge upfront fees and you can find them by going to the National Foundation of Credit Counselors.

Read more about credit

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More States Clamp Down on Home Mortgage Foreclosures Following Reports of Irregularities

Texas, Delaware and Ohio demand suspensions, special reviews of foreclosure

Texas, Delaware and Ohio are among the latest states to clamp down on home foreclosures following disclosures that loan servicers and mortgage companies ma...

Texas, Delaware and Ohio are among the latest states to clamp down on home foreclosures following disclosures that loan servicers and mortgage companies may have taken shortcuts in processing foreclosure documents.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott today called on 30 loan services to halt all foreclosures as well as all sales of properties previously foreclosed upon and all evictions of consumers living in foreclosed properties.

In Delaware, Attorney General Beau Biden called on three banks to stop foreclosure actions in Delaware amid questions about their foreclosures procedures. The banks have announced they are delaying foreclosure proceedings in 23 other states while they review whether their staff signed foreclosure documentation in thousands of cases without verifying the accuracy of those documents.

In a letter sent to Ohio judges, Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray asked the courts to make a special review of all foreclosure cases that involve GMAC Mortgage. Cordray said the letter was sent in response to recent reports of questionable affidavit procedures by the large loan servicer. It appears that affidavits were being signed en masse, and that those signing them were attesting to having personal knowledge about matters that they in fact knew little or nothing about.

It was the revelation that a GMAC Mortgage employee did not always read and sign foreclosure affidavits that sent the first shock wave through the industry. Twenty-three states require something called "judicial foreclosure," meaning that the lender must file an affidavit with the court, stating that the information in the foreclosure documents is accurate and the foreclosure is justified.

The law in those 23 states requires that a bank official attest that they have read the documents and verified the information, and then sign it in the presence of a notary public.

Faced with processing 10,000 or more foreclosures a month, bank officials apparently took shortcuts. Lawyers representing homeowners fighting foreclosure are claiming the process was not legal. Some representing homeowners whose foreclosed homes have already been sold to new buyers say they will challenge the legality of those sales in court.

The 'other' states

Even in states that don't have that provision, challenges to foreclosures could be mounted if it is shown that the foreclosure documents were inaccurate or that they were not properly signed -- and it is those states that are now questioning the foreclosure process. In Texas, Attorney General Abbott said he wants to know whether mortgage issuers and loan servicers used "robosigned" affidavits and other documents. He sent suspension notices were sent to 30 loan servicers doing business in Texas in an effort to determine the full harm Texas homeowners may have suffered or could suffer as a result of these business practices.

In Delaware, Attorney General Biden has called on Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, and Ally Financial (formerly GMAC) to stop their foreclosure actions in his state, as well as in the 23 states that require judicial foreclosure.

"When Delawareans sign a mortgage agreement with a bank, they expect the bank will follow Delaware's laws, rules and regulations," Biden said. "Everybody has to play by the same rules. Just as homeowners have an obligation to pay their mortgages on time, banks also have to follow Delaware's mortgage laws. We are acting to make sure that mortgage banks are following the law and that Delaware homeowners receive all of the legal protections they deserve."

"Foreclosure can leave long-lasting financial and emotional scars on children and families," Biden said. "Today we are taking another step to help homeowners by asking banks to suspend foreclosures until we can verify they have followed Delaware laws governing mortgage paperwork. It is important that no Delaware family loses their home because a bank makes a paperwork error."

In Ohio, Attorney General Cordray asked judges to case a skeptical eye on all GMAC/Ally foreclosures, noting that Ally has conceded that "affidavits were being signed en masse, and that those signing them were attesting to having personal knowledge about matters that they in fact knew little or nothing about."

"Many Ohioans are struggling to remain in their homes and are in absolutely desperate situations," said Cordray. "It is critical that all involved in the foreclosure process recognize the dire circumstances of these Ohioans and protect the integrity of the system through careful vigilance. It is with this in mind that I request courts throughout the state to monitor these cases which may be the result of questionable practices."

Cordray said that in July 2009, he was the first attorney general in the nation to file a lawsuit against a loan servicer for violations of the state's consumer laws. His office currently has cases pending against three loan servicers: Carrington Mortgage Services LLC, American Home Mortgage Services Inc. and Barclays Capital Real Estate dba HomEq Servicing. Earlier this month, a Montgomery County Common Pleas judge affirmed Cordray's case against HomeEq by overruling the defendant's motion to dismiss, which has cleared the way for Cordray's case to move forward.

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Facebook Presents New Etiquette Challenges - Like 'Unfriending'

The key to keeping friends - post sparingly, be interesting

it only makes sense to study the phenomena that seemingly everyone - from our best friends to our grandmas - are partaking in...

Facebook is everywhere. The social networking site has grown from being just for college students to having over 500 million active members. The David Fincher film about Facebook's creation, "The Social Network" is currently topping the box office at 22.4 million dollars. It's only 8:30 in the morning and so far, I've heard the word "Facebook" said on TV at least three times. Facebook. Is. Everywhere.

So, it only makes sense to study the phenomena that seemingly everyone - from our best friends to our grandmas - are partaking in.

Christopher Sibona, a PhD student in the Computer Science and Information Systems program at the University of Colorado Denver has revealed his study of the top reasons for "unfriending" on Facebook - a first of its kind.

"Researchers spend a lot of time examining how people form friendships online but little is known on how those relationships end," Sibona said.

And they do end. And it's actually called "unfriending." "Unfriend" was named "word of the year" in 2009 by the New Oxford American Dictionary. To unfriend, to not unfriend, or to be unfriended (and then perhaps re-friended?) is always the question.

What's the number one way to go from having 342 friends to having 341? Sibona found, after surveying 1,500 Facebook users (on Twitter, ironically) that it's not talking about polarizing topics like politics or religion (that was number two) or even posting inappropriate, crude, or racist things (that was number three). It was "frequent, unimportant posts."

So, if you plan to live-blog sitting on the couch, waiting for the UPS guy to show up, you better make it entertaining.

The study delves further, citing that 57 percent of those surveyed unfriended for online reasons, while 26.9 percent did so for offline behavior. Sibona also found that those making friend requests stood a much higher chance of being unfriended while those doing the unfriending seemed to have the upper hand in the relationship.

Some of those surveyed were hurt when they got unfriended while others were simply amused.

"There are a wide variety of reactions depending on who did the unfriending and why," Sibona said.

Which makes sense; if that guy you met at a party who you have barely spoken to in two months unfriends you, no big deal. But if your mom and her whole side of the family unfriends you? Something's wrong.

What's a Facebook newbie to do to keep the friends she has and gain some new ones? Keep it simple, keep it light, and always err on the side of caution. Especially these days when 54.6 percent of recruiters look up potential employees on Facebook. The types of behavior that will get you unfriended on Facebook might also cost you that new job you interviewed for.

On the subject of unfriend-worthy behavior on Facebook, a new trend is cropping up this month where female Facebook users post status updates like "I like it on the floor" or "I like it on the couch." These cheeky statements are not a glimpse into these women's sexual proclivities, but rather an attempt to raise breast cancer awareness. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

While the sentiment is nice, the action can be annoying (or creepy, depending on who posts what) but before you go on an unfriending spree, consider linking these ladies to any number of websites where they can donate to cancer research, or encourage them to get off the computer and take a walk, as exercise is a great way to combat cancer.

However, don't be shocked if you get unfriended for this.

---

Sara Huffman likes it on the chair with her cat lying on top of it.


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Verizon Wireless To Refund $90 Million in Cell Phone Charges

Many consumers hit with incorrect Internet access charges

Verizon Wireless has agreed to provide up to $90 million inrefunds to consumers....

Verizon Wireless has agreed to provide up to $90 million in refunds to consumers who were wrongly charged for accessing the Internet with their mobile phones.

"In October and November, we are notifying about 15 million customers, through their regular bill messages, that we are applying credits to their accounts due to mistaken past data charges," said Mary Coyne, Deputy General Counsel, Verizon Wireless. "We will mail former customers refund checks. In most cases, these credits are in the $2 to $6 range; some will receive larger credits or refunds."

As smartphones began to become the standard in wireless devices, some consumers who simply wanted a phone for voice communications found themselves being charged for a service they didn't want or need.

Awad of Burke, Va., told ConsumerAffairs.com he purchased a phone after being assured by Verizon that it could be used for voice and text messaging only. He said he signed up for unlimited texting because he had two teen-agers.

"I still see over charges for this month and for previous month that I have received," he said. "I am getting tired for this billing system for Verizon. It is simply designed to take more money than the services provided to consumers."

Verizon says that after reviewing customer accounts, the company discovered that over the past several years approximately 15 million customers who did not have data plans were billed for data sessions on their phones that they did not initiate.

"These customers would normally have been billed at the standard rate of $1.99 per megabyte for any data they chose to access from their phones," Coyne said. "The majority of the data sessions involved minor data exchanges caused by software built into their phones; others included accessing certain web links, which should not have incurred charges. We have addressed these issues to avoid unintended data charges in the future."

FCC pressure

Verizon announced the refunds while in the midst of negotiations with the Federal Communications Commission, which is looking into the complaints about unauthorized charges. The New York Times quotes sources close to the talks as saying the agency is likely to press for additional penalties for Verizon's unauthorized charges.

The $90 million refund is the largest ever initiated by a telecommunications company.

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IRS Provides Tax Relief for Homeowners With Corrosive Drywall

New procedure sets out method for determining loss caused by drywall damage

New guidance from the IRS enables affected taxpayers to treat damages from corrosive drywall as a casualty loss and provides a "safe harbor" formula...

If you're one of the many homeowners who suffered property losses due to the effects of certain imported drywall installed in homes between 2001 and 2009, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has some good news for you.

Called Revenue Procedure 2010-36, new guidance from the IRS enables affected taxpayers to treat damages from corrosive drywall as a casualty loss and provides a "safe harbor" formula for determining the amount of the loss.

In numerous instances, homeowners with certain imported drywall have reported blackening or corrosion of copper electrical wiring and copper components of household appliances, as well as the presence of sulfur gas odors.

Noxious odors

"In October 2009 we discovered we had Chinese drywall," Carol of Birmingham, AL, writes ConsumerAffairs.com. She says a forensic specialist took samples and investigated and his report "proved we have a high concentration of gases that have corroded our coils in our air conditioners, pipes on our hot water heater, jewelry, silver service, etc."

In addition, she says, "We had been sick frequently, which seemed to puzzle our physician. I have asthma, which has gotten increasingly worse. The smell of the gas has gotten worse with time and I wonder if we will end up with our house on fire and have nothing left or if my life will be shortened due to the gases causing health issues. I have gotten acne all on my face and never have had a problem."

As far as economic consequences are concerned, Carol tells us, "We have lost the worth of our house at the age of 68. All the wiring is corroded in the house."

Guy from Pearland, TX, says he's complained about smell in his home for over three years and now has found out he has Chinese toxic drywall. He tells ConsumerAffairs.com his builder, Meritage Homes of Texas, LLC, "now admits it, but swears they did not know about it three years ago." The company, he says wants to "come in and completely gut the house, vent out the chemical and issue me a certificate that certifies that the house is now free of chemical. I do not want that as the house is so poorly built that I don't think it would ever be livable." Guy says he has joined a class action suit and "will just keep breathing the fumes and hope for the best."

In November 2009, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reported that an indoor air study of a sample of 51 homes found a strong association between the problem drywall, levels of hydrogen sulfide in those homes and corrosion of metals in those homes.

Tax Relief

Revenue Procedure 2010-36 provides the following relief:

· Individuals who pay to repair damage to their personal residences or household appliances resulting from corrosive drywall may treat the amount paid as a casualty loss in the year of payment.

· Taxpayers who have already filed their income tax return for the year of payment generally have three years to file an amended return and claim the deduction. The amount of a loss that may be claimed depends on whether the taxpayer has a pending claim for reimbursement (or intends to pursue reimbursement) of the loss through property insurance, litigation or otherwise.

· In cases where a taxpayer does not have a pending claim for reimbursement, the she may claim as a loss all unreimbursed amounts paid during the taxable year to repair damage to the her personal residence and household appliances resulting from corrosive drywall.

· If a taxpayer does have a pending claim (or intends to pursue reimbursement), a he may claim a loss for 75 percent of the unreimbursed amount paid during the taxable year to repair damage to the his personal residence and household appliances that resulted from corrosive drywall.

A taxpayer who has been fully reimbursed before filing a return for the year the loss was sustained may not claim a loss. One who has a pending claim for reimbursement (or intends to pursue reimbursement) may have income or an additional deduction in subsequent taxable years depending on the actual amount of reimbursement received.

For purposes of this revenue procedure, the term "corrosive drywall" means drywall that is identified as problem drywall under the two step identification method published by the CPSC and the Department of Housing and Urban Development in their interim guidance dated January 28, 2010.

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Racial Pattern Seen In Mortgage Foreclosure Crisis

Foreclosures hit hardest in racially segregated neighborhoods, researchers say

A new study finds that racially segregated neighborhoods were bearing the brunt of the home losses....

As foreclosures began to escalate in 2007, many community activists suggested racially segregated neighborhoods were bearing the brunt of the home losses. Now a new study lends credibility to that claim.

In the analysis, published in the American Sociological Review, researchers Jacob Rugh and Douglas Massey argue that residential segregation created a unique niche of minority clients who were differentially marketed risky subprime loans that were in great demand for use in mortgage-backed securities that could be sold on secondary markets.

Although the rise in subprime lending and the ensuing wave of foreclosures was partly a result of market forces that have been well-documented, they argue the foreclosure crisis was also a highly racialized process.

To test their argument, the authors use data from the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. Findings show that black segregation, and to a lesser extent Hispanic segregation, are powerful predictors of the number and rate of foreclosures in the United States - even after removing the effects of a variety of other market conditions such as average creditworthiness, the degree of zoning regulation, coverage under the Community Reinvestment Act, and the overall rate of subprime lending.

Segregation's role

"This study is critical to our understanding of the foreclosure crisis since it shows the important and independent role that racial segregation played in the housing bust," said Rugh.

A special statistical analysis provided strong evidence that the effect of black segregation on foreclosures is causal and not simply a correlation.

"While policy makers understand that the housing crisis affected minorities much more than others, they are quick to attribute this outcome to the personal failures of those losing their homes - poor credit and weaker economic position," said Massey. "In fact, something more profound was taking place; institutional racism played a big part in this crisis."

Key contributor

The authors conclude that Hispanic and black racial segregation was a key contributing cause of the foreclosure crisis.

"This outcome was not simply a result of neutral market forces but was structured on the basis of race and ethnicity through the social fact of residential segregation," the authors wrote.

In the final analysis, the authors conclude, the racialization of America's foreclosure crisis occurred because of a systematic failure to enforce basic civil rights laws in the United States.

"In addition to tighter regulation of lending, rating, and securitization practices, greater civil rights enforcement has an important role to play in cleaning up U.S. markets," they write. "It is in the nation's interest for federal authorities to take stronger and more energetic steps to rid U.S. real estate and lending markets of discrimination, not simply to promote a more integrated and just society but to avoid future catastrophic financial losses."

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Prescription Drugs Blamed for Many Cases of Parkinsonism

Drug-induced Parkinsonism often misdiagnosed as more serious Parkinson's disease

As many as one of every 10 people who went to a Parkinson's disease center were found to have drug-induced Parkinsonism....

A new article published in WorstPills.org, a monthly newsletter published by Public Citizen, highlights the widespread nature of drug-induced Parkinsonism and the need for patients and doctors to be aware of the potential to be misdiagnosed.

The article includes a list of 49 prescription drugs known to cause drug-induced Parkinsonism.

Recent information has established that as many as one of every 10 people who went to a Parkinson's disease center were found to have drug-induced Parkinsonism -- not the more serious disease for which it is often mistaken.

Misdiagnosis

The people were misdiagnosed as having the more common illness, Parkinson's disease, which is irreversible and has unknown causes. Drug-induced Parkinsonism, however, is reversible and is brought on by medication use.

"The bad news is that too many doctors do not know about the diseases' differences, are inadequately aware of drug-induced Parkinsonism and therefore do not get a careful history from the patient about what drugs they started before the onset," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group and editor of WorstPills.org. "Doctors then mistake drug-induced Parkinsonism for the more commonly occurring Parkinson's disease."

This means that instead of suspecting a drug-induced origin and stopping the offending drug, doctors may mistakenly treat drug-induced Parkinsonism with another drug -- as though they were treating Parkinson's disease -- while leaving the patient on the drug that caused the illness in the first place, Wolfe said.

Aging can make one prone to drug-induced Parkinsonism, and older people may be especially sensitive to drug-induced Parkinsonism from antipsychotic drugs. Also, almost 100 percent of people infected with HIV will get drug-induced Parkinsonism if given antipsychotic drugs, the article said.

Knowing the difference

Some symptoms of Parkinsonism that can distinguish it from Parkinson's disease include:

· Symptoms on both the left and right sides (with Parkinson's disease, the symptoms are typically on only one side);

· Symptoms end once the drug is no longer used (Parkinson's disease is chronic and progressive); and

· No degeneration in the brain (Parkinson's disease causes brain degeneration in a specific area).

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Multi-National Internet Fraud Ring Smashed

FBI, international agencies disrupt attempted theft of $220 million

The FBI and international law enforcement agencies have disrupted a large-scale, international organized cybercrime operation active in several countries....

The FBI and international law enforcement agencies have disrupted a large-scale, international organized cybercrime operation active in several countries that resulted in numerous search warrants and arrests.

Operation Trident Breach began in May 2009 when FBI agents in Omaha, Nebraska, were alerted to automated clearing house (ACH) batch payments to 46 separate bank accounts throughout the United States. Quickly realizing the scope of the crime, the Bureau partnered with local, state, and federal partners, cybercrime task forces, working groups, and foreign police agencies in the Netherlands, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom to go after those responsible.

Multiple targets

The cyber thieves targeted small- to medium-sized companies, municipalities, churches, and individuals, infecting their computers using a version of the Zeus Botnet. The malware captured passwords, account numbers, and other data used to log into online banking accounts. This scheme resulted in the attempted theft of $220 million, with actual losses of $70 million from victims' bank accounts.

"No one country, no one company, and no one agency can stop cybercrime," said FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, III. "The only way to do that is by standing together. For ultimately, we all face the same threat. Together, the FBI and its international partners can and will find better ways to safeguard our systems, minimize these attacks, and stop those who would do us harm."

The FBI including the New York Money Mule Working Group, the Newark Cyber Crime Task Force, the Omaha Cyber Crime Task Force, the Netherlands Police Agency, the Security Service of Ukraine, the SBU, and the United Kingdom's Metropolitan Police Service participated in the operation.

International cooperation

Assistant Director Gordon M. Snow of the FBI's Cyber Division said, "During this investigation, the FBI worked closely with our overseas counterparts to identify subjects who were instrumental in the development and control of the malicious software, those who facilitated the use of malware, and those who saw a means to make quick, easy money-the mules."

"The skill, dedication, and expansive cooperation provided by our local, state, and federal law enforcement partners in the U.S. and in the Netherlands, Ukraine, and United Kingdom were crucial to the success of this effort," Snow said. "The FBI appreciates the financial industry working groups and public-private partnerships that work tirelessly to inform the American public about this criminal threat and provide recommendations on how businesses can protect themselves."

The multi-agency partnership, including support from Internet security researchers, gave law enforcement the opportunity to gather intelligence about this scheme and significantly disrupt the activities of cyber criminals and money mules who took part in these crimes.

Pim Takkenberg, team leader of the National High-Tech Crime Unit, Netherlands Police Agency, said: "The National High-Tech Crime Unit's involvement in this international operation is representative of the commitment that the KLPD and the National Prosecutor's Office have made to the fight against cyber crime in addition to the need for worldwide cooperation among all partners."

In a previously issued statement, Deputy Chief Inspector Terry Wilson from the Metropolitan Police Central e-Crime Unit, said: "We believe we have disrupted a highly organized criminal network, which has used sophisticated methods to siphon large amounts of cash from many innocent peoples' accounts, causing immense personal anxiety and significant financial harm, which of course, banks have had to repay at considerable cost to the economy."

The FBI and the Ukrainian SBU have forged a strong partnership to target cyber criminals around the world. The SBU has combined its technical and investigative expertise with the FBI in joint pursuit of organized cyber criminals who inflict damage to international financial infrastructure.

On September 30, 2010, the SBU detained five individuals who were key subjects responsible for this overarching scheme. Additionally, eight search warrants were executed by approximately 50 SBU officers and its elite tactical operations teams.

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Prostate Problems Are Common But Not Usually Serious

New therapies make most prostate problems curable

Problems with the small gland are common in men past the age of 50. The good news is that most prostate conditions can be treated successfully...

If you're like most men, you probably don't like thinking about your prostate -- but it is worth doing once in a while.

The fact is, according to the newsletter NIH News in Health that problems with the small gland are common in men past the age of 50. The good news is that most prostate conditions can be treated successfully.

The prostate is about the size of a walnut. It wraps around the urethra, the tube that carries urine out of the bladder. During sexual climax, or ejaculation, the prostate adds fluid to sperm to create semen, which also leaves the body through the urethra.

Identifying the problems

For men under 50, the most common prostate problem is prostatitis. It can cause a burning feeling when you urinate or an urge to urinate more often. You might have a fever or just feel tired.

Prostatitis is caused by the prostate becoming inflamed or irritated. Some kinds are caused by bacteria. If you have bacterial prostatitis, your doctor can spot it by looking at your urine through a microscope. Bacterial prostatitis can usually be treated with an antibiotic.

But most of the time, there's no clear cause for prostatitis. Researchers have yet to identify a clearly effective treatment when the cause is unknown. You may have to work with your doctor to find a treatment that works for you. Changing your diet or taking warm baths may help. No single solution works for everyone.

For men over 50, the most common prostate problem is prostate enlargement, or benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). The prostate naturally grows larger as you get older. As it grows, it squeezes the urethra. The pressure can affect bladder control.

BPH can lead to more serious problems, such as urinary tract infections. In rare cases, the constant urination problems can lead to kidney damage.

Several treatments are available for BPH. In recent years, scientists have developed medicines that can shrink or relax the prostate to keep it from blocking the bladder opening. Researchers have also developed devices that allow doctors to remove parts of the prostate without major surgery. The procedures can usually be done in a clinic or hospital without an overnight stay. More invasive surgery is also an option.

More serious problem

The symptoms of prostate cancer, in which cancer cells form in the tissues of the prostate, can be similar to those of BPH. However, most of the time patients are diagnosed with prostate cancer after results from a blood test prompt a prostate biopsy.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in American men after skin cancer. But most men with prostate cancer don't die from it. Many prostate cancers never even cause symptoms or become a serious threat to health. That's because prostate cancer tends to grow more slowly than many other cancers. A prostate tumor may grow for 30 years before it gets large enough to cause symptoms. Several treatment options are available.

Certain risk factors have been linked to prostate cancer -- for example, eating a high-fat diet. NIH-funded scientists are now looking at how prostate cancer can be prevented. NIH also has many research programs aimed at finding treatments for BPH and other prostate problems.

See your doctor right away if something doesn't seem right to you down there. And if you can't urinate at all, get medical help immediately.

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Toshiba To Offer No-Glasses 3D TV

But improvement in technology still has its limitations

Toshiba introduces a small screen 3D TV that viewers can watch, getting the full 3D effect, without wearing glasses....

When skeptics talk about 3D television, they inevitably get around to the requirement posed by those silly glasses. Who, they ask, wants to sit in their living room wearing special glasses, just so they can watch TV in 3D?

Toshiba says it has an answer, announcing that it will introduce a small screen 3D TV that viewers can watch, getting the full 3D effect, without wearing 3D glasses. The 12- and 20-inch sets will hit the market in December in Japan, though Toshiba did not say when they would be available in the U.S.

The initial price for the Glasses-less 3D REGZA GL1 will start at about 120,000 yen, with is roughly $1,400. The 20-inch model will cost about twice as much.

While Toshiba may have gotten rid of the glasses problem, technology blogger Jared Newman, of PC World, suggests consumers not get too excited. He notes that viewers must sit directly in front of the screen in order to get the 3D effect. That can limit how many people you invite over to watch the big game. And its a pretty hefty price tag, he points out, for such a small TV.

Toshiba, meanwhile, says "the new Glasses-less 3D REGZA GL1 series employ an integral imaging system and perpendicular lenticular sheet that can display natural and smooth high quality 3D images."

The company says the integral imaging systems is based on the principal of sampling and collecting form several directions the light reflected from an object, and then faithfully reproducing the light through the display to realize smooth, natural images. Until now, Toshiba says, conventional 3D technology without glasses has produced a fall off in image resolution and increased blurring that has prevented practical use.

Toshiba said it employs an LED backlit LCD panel specially designed for 3D content that systematically aligns pixels, and has also adopted a perpendicular lenticular sheet in order to realize precise rendering and natural, high quality 3D images.

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Visa, MasterCard Settle Antitrust Lawsuit; American Express Fights On

Proposed settlement will allow merchants to offer discounts to customers using less-costly credit, debit cards

Seven states today joined the U.S. Department of Justice in a civil antitrust lawsuit challenging rules made by American Express, MasterCard and Visa....

Seven states today joined the U.S. Department of Justice in a civil antitrust lawsuit challenging rules made by American Express, MasterCard and Visa that prevent merchants from offering consumers discounts, rewards and information about card costs, ultimately resulting in consumers paying more for their purchases.

"When you see a sign on a cash register requiring a minimum purchase or extra fee for using a credit card, it's because of the unfair practice established by these companies," Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray said. "Merchants are charged a 'swipe fee' for each brand of credit card — but they can't tell consumers what those costs are or otherwise reward consumers for using less expensive credit cards to make a purchase. Those agreements stifle competition at the cash register. And we all know how those 'gotcha' fees add up."

The attorneys general of Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Texas also signed onto the litigation, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

Visa, MasterCard and American Express handled more than $1.6 trillion in transactions last year, Cordray said.

"Accepting credit cards costs U.S. merchants $35 billion each year. Clearly it is vital for small businesses to be able to conduct credit card transactions, but they should be able to use all the leverage they can to get the best deal for themselves and to pass the savings on to their customers."

Visa and MasterCard settled with the Department of Justice immediately after the complaint was filed. If approved by the court, the two companies will be required to allow merchants to offer discounts, incentives and information to consumers to encourage the use of payment methods that are less costly.

"With today's lawsuit, we are sending a clear message: We will not tolerate anticompetitive practices," said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. "We want to put more money in consumers' pockets, and by eliminating credit card companies' anticompetitive rules, we will accomplish that."

The proposed settlement requires MasterCard and Visa to allow their merchants to:

· Offer consumers an immediate discount or rebate or a free or discounted product or service for using a particular credit card network, low-cost card within that network or other form of payment.
· Express a preference for the use of a particular credit card network, low-cost card within that network or other form of payment.
· Promote a particular credit card network, low-cost card within that network or other form of payment through posted information or other communications to consumers.
· Communicate to consumers the cost incurred by the merchant when a consumer uses a particular credit card network, type of card within that network or other form of payment.

The proposed settlement allows any merchant that only accepts Visa and MasterCard to take advantage of the relief immediately.

Amex case continues

The ongoing litigation against American Express seeks to allow merchants that accept American Express to engage in the same kind of discounting and encouragement that the proposed settlement with MasterCard and Visa allows. Until American Express's restraints on merchants are lifted, the many merchants that accept American Express, as well as Visa and MasterCard, will not be able to take full advantage of their new options under the proposed settlement, according to the Justice Department.

American Express Company, the parent of American Express Travel Related Services Company Inc., is a New York corporation, with its principal place of business in New York City. Cardholders used American Express credit and charge cards for $419.8 billion in purchases in 2009. MasterCard is a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Purchase, New York. Cardholders used MasterCard credit and charge cards for $476.9 billion in purchases in 2009. Visa is a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in San Francisco. Cardholders used Visa credit and charge cards for $764.2 billion in purchases in 2009.

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United-Continental Merger Closes but Southwest-AirTran Deal More Likely to Spur Competition

Delta-Northwest, knocked out of No. 1 spot, pledges to 'make flying better'

United Airlines pushed back into the top spot Friday by completing its merger with Continental....

There's more than one way to be No. 1. In the airline business, the most popular -- though not necessarily the most consumer-friendly -- strategy in recent years is to grow by gobbling up the competition. United Airlines pushed back into the top spot Friday by completing its merger with Continental.

The new company -- imaginatively christened United Continental Holdings, Inc. -- will be known on the New York Stock Exchange as "UAL." Those watching carefully will note that, like so many supposed "mergers," the deal amounts to waving a wand and making Continental slowly disappear.

United's move left Delta sitting on the tarmac in the No. 2 spot. Delta had wiggled its way into the top spot two years ago with its acquisition of Northwest Airlines, a merger that is still a long way from being complete. As is often the case, Delta and Northwest continue to operate virtually independently of each other, with different paint jobs, reservation systems and so forth.

The same is likely to be the case for United and Continental. Though now officially wed, they're not likely to display new wedding rings anytime soon. The two airlines will operate separately until they receive a single operating certificate from U.S. regulators and customers will continue using separate ticketing facilities until the spring of 2011, when the company expects to combine operations.

"We have a lot of hard work ahead as we begin to implement the integration plan, but our co-workers are enthusiastic about the opportunities this merger will bring them," said Jeffrey Smisek, who will head the new company. Smisek was formerly Continental's CEO. United Continental will be headquartered in Chicago but Houston will be its largest hub.

Smisek has about 90 days to reach definitive agreements with the many unions involved in the $3 billion deal. United veterans are eager to reclaim pay that they gave up during the three years that United was in bankruptcy and Continental's unionized workers of wary of how they'll fare by being submerged into the larger United.

But Smisek, a self-proclaimed "airline geek" says he's excited by the exercise.

"If you are an airline geek, it doesn't get any better than this: bringing these two carriers together," Smisek told The Los Angeles Times last week. "They are the perfect marriage, the perfect fit. I think we're creating a tremendous carrier here.""

How about lower fares?

Meanwhile in Atlanta, Delta is seeking to put the best face on its new secondary position by saying it will be putting its energies into improving customer service while United tries to successfully digest Continental.

"No one who flies is waiting for a bigger airline, they're waiting for one that's committed to making flying better," says an ad that's part of Delta's new campaign.

Cute, but we'd wager that what many consumers are really waiting for is a bigger Southwest Airlines. And they're about to get it. Southwest's AirTran gives low-fare Southwest entry into key markets -- like, oh, the East Coast -- that it has been locked out of for years. Its acquisition of AirTran will bring Southwest's low-fare structure to New York's LaGuardia, Washington's Reagan National and Boston's Logan.

When Southwest enters a new market or expands its presence in an existing market, the effect on other carriers is often both rapid and easily detected. Unlike Delta and United's vague promise of "making flying better," Southwest makes its cheaper, forcing legacy carriers to lower their fares.

Unlike the United-Continental-Delta-Northwest deals, which came as no surprise to anyone, the Southwest-AirTran deal was kept under wraps until the last minute. Employees of both carriers were as surprised as everyone else -- and some of them felt like it was Christmas in September. One AirTran pilot we talked with said his salary doubled in one day, as the new management informed him that, instead of his $37,000 AirTran salary, he would be making about $74,000 as a Southwest jet jockey.

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Toyota Says Tests Find No Evidence Its Electronics Cause Unintended Acceleration

Automaker says it reviewed more than 4,000 cases, found no flaw in its electronics

Toyota says it has examined more than 4,000 vehicles and has found no evidence that its throttle control is to blame for unintended acceleration....

Toyota says it has examined more than 4,000 vehicles and has found no evidence that its electronic throttle control is to blame for the cases of unintended acceleration repoprted by consumers. The company's findings are supported by government tests that have also uncovered no evidence of problems in Toyota's electronics.

In a conference call with reporters, a Toyota executive said the company "has not found a single case in which electronics would lead to sudden unintended acceleration." Steve St. Angelo said Toyota has reviewed 4,200 complaints so far.

Drivers, for years, have reported instances in which their car accelerated on its own and failed to stop, even when they applied brakes. In some cases, these reports of sudden acceleration resulted in crashes.

But for the better part of a year government safety investigators have probed the thousands of reports of sudden acceleration in some Toyota vehicles. In a preliminary report to Congress in August, they said they have uncovered no evidence of problems in the vehicles' electronics.

Toyota has insisted from the start that, whatever the reason for these anomalies, they weren't caused by hiccups in the vehicles' sophisticated electronics. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in its preliminary report, said it had reviewed 58 of the more than 3,000 submitted cases, and found no evidence of an electronics flaw.

Toyota today said that complaints of sudden-acceleration incidents have dropped 80 percent since April.

The company also said it has added a "brake-override control" to 84 percent of the Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles now on sale in the U.S. and said it intends to be the first manufacturer to affer the safety technology in all of its models. The software is intended to ensure that, even if the accelerator sticks, pressing the brake will cause the accelerator to release.

"Toyota has made significant progress in recent months to help ensure that our customers can have complete confidence in the quality, safety and reliability of their vehicles, and our latest initiatives build on those accomplishments," said St. Angelo, Toyota's chief quality control officer for North America. "Toyota's continuous efforts to strengthen vehicle quality and safety, and to respond swiftly and thoroughly to our customers' concerns, are driven by our core values and will always be a fundamental part of our company. Our goal is to set new, even higher standards for quality assurance and customer responsiveness in both the factory and the market by continuing to put our customers first in everything that we do."

Since September 2009, Toyota has recalled about nine million vehicles to either replace floor mats or alter the design of accelerator pedals. The NHTSA report said investigators found only one case in which a floor mat trapped a gas pedal, pressing it to the floor, and no case in which the gas pedal became stuck.


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Bankruptcy Filings Surge In 2010 As Hard Times Grow Steadily Worse for Many Consumers

Total is up 11 percent in the first nine months of the year

For millions of Americans, 2010 is shaping up as a miserable year. For some, things just seem to be getting worse....

The recession may be officially over, but for millions of Americans, 2010 is shaping up as a miserable year. For some, things just seem to be getting worse.

The evidence can be seen in the latest bankruptcy statistics. U.S. consumer bankruptcy filings totaled 1,165,172 nationwide during the first nine months of 2010, through September 30, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute (Abr>BI). That amounts to an 11 percent increase over the 1,046,449 total consumer filings during the same period a year ago.

Highest since 2005

The ABI analyzed data from the National Bankruptcy Research Center (NBKRC). The consumer filings for the three-quarters of 2010 represent the highest total since 2005, when Congress enacted the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA) to try and stem the tide of filings.

"While the 2005 bankruptcy overhaul law aimed to reduce filings, overall consumer debt and continued financial stress have led to consumer bankruptcies climbing back to pre-BAPCPA levels," said ABI Executive Director Samuel J. Gerdano. "We expect that there will be nearly 1.6 million new bankruptcy filings by year end."

The overall September consumer filing total of 130,329 was 4.4 percent more than the 124,790 consumer filings recorded in September 2009. The September total also represented a 3.3 percent increase from the August 2010 total of 127,028 consumer filings.

Chapter 13 filings constituted 30 percent of all consumer cases in September, a slight increase from August.

Warnings

When Congress changed the bankruptcy law in 2005, there were plenty of warnings that it could take a harsh toll on consumers. The measure garnered bipartisan support, and had the objective of making it more difficult for consumers to walk away from debts.

Elizabeth Warren, at the time a Harvard professor and now President Obama's advisor for setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, was one of those sounding a warning five years ago.

"This bill was designed to point a thousand daggers squarely at consumers in trouble ... it's like narrowing the doors to a hospital and expecting everyone to squeeze their way in," she said in opposition to the bill.

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Gastric Bypass and Pregnancy: A Bad Combination

Your baby may pay for your weight-loss surgery

The number of obese teens receiving gastric bypass surgery in America is growing. But the therapy is not without its problems....

The number of obese teens receiving gastric bypass surgery in America is growing. So are the reasons why the popular weight-loss remedy may not be such an easy fix.

Diana L. Farmer, MD, Chief of Pediatric Surgery at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in San Francisco, California has been studying the possible link between gastric bypass surgery in teen girls and an increased link for neural tube defects in their babies. Farmer presented her study at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference and Exhibition in San Francisco Sunday.

A neural tube defect (NTD) is an opening in the spinal cord or brain that occurs very early in development. In about the third or fourth weeks of pregnancy, specialized cells on the fetus's back begin to fuse and form the neural tube. When the neural tube does not close completely, an NTD develops. Spina Bifida is a well-known NTD.

One of the easiest ways for women to combat NTDs in their babies is to take pre-natal vitamins, especially those containing folic acid.

However, when gastric bypass surgery is involved, pregnant women must be even more diligent about taking their pre-natal vitamins, as the surgery makes it very difficult for the body to absorb important nutrients.

Teenage gastric bypass surgery recipients often don't receive the nutrients they need, as they tend to be forgetful or even rebellious when it comes to taking their vitamins, Farmer said.

"We postulate that the malabsorption of folate, poor compliance with nutritional supplements and a higher risk of unintended pregnancies places young women at an increased risk for pregnancies complicated with neural tube defects. Although obesity is epidemic in this country, we believe non-reversible gastric bypass surgery should be avoided in adolescent women given the potential increased risk of fetal neural tube defects," she said.

Farmer said that if gastric bypass surgery is performed on a teen-aged girl, "great efforts must be made to minimize the risks of both unintended pregnancies and nutritional deficiencies." She recommends extensive pre-surgery counseling and frequent post-operative follow-up, as well as consideration of a highly effective form for birth control, such as an intra-uterine device, or IUD.

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Food Allergy More Likely to Afflict Children, Males, Blacks

NIH study finds risk is 4.4 times higher for male black children

Children, males and blacks are at increased risk for food allergies, a new study finds....

Children, males and blacks are at increased risk for food allergies, a new study finds.

The research, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health and appears in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, estimates that 2.5 percent of the United States population, or about 7.6 million Americans, have food allergies. Food allergy rates were found to be higher for children, non-Hispanic blacks, and males, according to the researchers. The odds of male black children having food allergies were 4.4 times higher than others in the general population.

The research, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health and appears in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, is the first to use a nationally representative sample, as well as specific immunoglobulin E (IgE) or antibody levels to quantify allergic sensitization to common foods, including peanuts, milk, eggs, and shrimp.

The hallmark of food allergy is production of IgE antibodies to a specific food protein. Once IgE antibody is made, further exposure to the food triggers an allergic response. IgE levels are often high in people with allergies.

"This study is very comprehensive in its scope. It is the first study to use specific blood serum levels and look at food allergies across the whole life spectrum, from young children aged 1 to 5, to adults 60 and older," said Darryl Zeldin, M.D., acting clinical director at the NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and senior author on the paper. "This research has helped us identify some high risk populations for food allergies." In addition to the identification of race, ethnicity, gender, and age as risk factors for food allergies, the researchers also found an association between food allergy and severe asthma.

Food allergy rates were highest (4.2 percent) for children 1 to 5 years. The lowest rates (1.3 percent) were found in adults over the age of 60. The prevalence of peanut allergies in children aged 1 to 5 was 1.8 percent and in children aged 6 to19, it was 2.7 percent. In adults, the rate was 0.3 percent.

The odds of patients with asthma and food allergies experiencing a severe asthma attack were 6.9 times higher than those without clinically defined food allergies.

"This study provides further credence that food allergies may be contributing to severe asthma episodes, and suggests that people with a food allergy and asthma should closely monitor both conditions and be aware that they might be related," said Andrew Liu, M.D., of National Jewish Health and the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Denver, and lead author on the paper.

The data used for the study comes from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2005-2006. NHANES is a large nationally representative survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Zeldin and Liu note more research is needed to understand why certain groups are at increased risk for food allergy. The authors comment in the paper that food allergies may be under-recognized in blacks, males, and children, because previous studies relied on self-reporting and not food-specific serum IgE levels.

"Having an accurate estimate of the prevalence of food allergies is helpful to public health policy makers, schools and day care facilities, and other care providers as they plan and allocate resources to recognize and treat food allergies," said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., NIEHS director.

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Novartis Pays $420 Million for Off-Label Promotion of Epilepsy Drug

Company unlawfully marketed the drug for psychiatric and pain relief uses

ovartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation has agreed to pay $422.5 million to resolve charges arising from the marketing of an anti-epilepsy drug....

Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation has agreed to pay $422.5 million to resolve criminal and civil liability arising from the illegal marketing of certain pharmaceutical products, the Justice Department announced.

According to the agreement reached with the government, the East Hanover, N.J.-based company will plead guilty to a misdemeanor and pay a $185 million combined criminal fine and forfeiture for the off-label promotion of Trileptal in violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Trileptal as an anti-epileptic drug, for the treatment of partial seizures, but not for any psychiatric, pain or other uses. Once a pharmaceutical is approved by the FDA, a manufacturer may not market or promote it for any use not specified in its new drug application. The unauthorized uses are also known as "unapproved" or "off-label" uses.

In addition to the criminal fine and forfeiture, Novartis has agreed to pay $237.5 million to resolve civil allegations under the False Claims Act that the company unlawfully marketed Trileptal and five other drugs, and thereby caused false claims to be submitted to government health care programs. Specifically, the civil settlement resolves allegations that Novartis illegally promoted Trileptal for a variety of uses, including psychiatric and pain uses, which were not medically accepted indications and therefore not covered by those programs.

In addition, the agreement resolves allegations that the company paid kickbacks to health care professionals to induce them to prescribe Trileptal and five other drugs, Diovan, Zelnorm, Sandostatin, Exforge and Tekturna. The federal share of the civil settlement is $149,241,306, and the state Medicaid share of the civil settlement is $88,258,694.

"This resolution demonstrates the Department of Justice's ongoing dedication to taking action against pharmaceutical fraud in all its forms," said Tony West, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division of the Department of Justice. "Unlawful off-label promotion and providing illegal inducements to health care professionals undermine the integrity of our health care system and we will continue to pursue these types of violations."

"Off-label marketing can undermine the doctor-patient relationship and adversely influence the clear judgment that a doctor's patients have come to rely on and trust," said Zane D. Memeger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. "Pharmaceutical companies have a legal obligation to promote the drugs they manufacture only for uses that the Food and Drug Administration has deemed are safe and effective. That legal obligation takes priority over a company's bottom line.

The civil settlement resolves four lawsuits filed under the qui tam, or whistleblower, provisions of the False Claims Act, which allow private citizens with knowledge of fraud to bring civil actions on behalf of the United States and share in any recovery. The four cases are: U.S. ex rel. Austin v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation; U.S. ex rel. McKee v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation; U.S. ex rel. Copeland v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation; and U.S. ex rel. Garrity v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation. As part of today's resolution, the whistleblowers, all former employees of Novartis, will receive payments totaling more than $25 million from the federal share of the civil recovery.

"This settlement represents a landmark victory in our district's continuing battle against health care fraud. We intend to bring to justice any pharmaceutical company that attempts to cloud physicians' medical judgment through kickback practices and illegal promotional activities," said A. Brian Albritton, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida.

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Gas Prices Continue to Fall

With outlook for economy still weak, no upward pressure on prices

Consumers found gas prices returned to normal in the last week....

Consumers found gas prices returned to normal in the last week after a pipeline leak last month caused a temporary price spike, especially in the Mid-west.

The national average price of self-serve unleaded fell to $2.692 a gallon today, down from $2.710 last Friday, according to AAA. The price is almost back to its level of four weeks ago.

The price of diesel fuel is $2.975 a gallon, up a fraction of a cent from last week.

The outlook for the fall suggests oil prices remaining in the narrow range they occupied throughout the summer, which should keep gasoline stable.

Weak demand

"There continues to be little evidence to suggest that the economy is set for a rapid recovery," said Andrew Delmege, AAA's manager of regulatory affairs. "Many economists and market watchers believe the domestic economy has a long road back to substantial growth and, consequently, increased demand for energy. This can help to explain why oil prices have remained in a $70-$80 price range since Memorial Day."

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported this week that U.S. stockpiles of both oil and gasoline were down a bit in the last week, but both remain near 20 year highs. U.S. refineries have reduced their output by two percent, and are now operating at about 85 percent capacity.

The states with the most expensive gasoline today are:

Alaska ($3.484)
Hawaii ($3.421)
California ($2.993)
Washington ($2.991)
Idaho ($2.969)
Oregon ($2.913)
Utah ($2.886)
Montana ($2.884)
New York ($2.821)
Illinois ($2.818)

The states with the least expensive gasoline today are:

New Jersey ($2.499)
South Carolina ($2.507)
Missouri ($2.534)
Texas ($2.549)
Tennessee ($2.551)
Mississippi ($2.555)
Virginia ($2.558)
Alabama ($2.560)
Georgia ($2.575)
Louisiana ($2.578)

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Gold 'Investments' May Not Pay Off, Consumer Group Warns

Consumer group says some dealers may be using scare tactics to sell gold

Some gold dealers may be leveraging recessionary fears to steer consumers into buying gold and precious coins at inflated prices....

Consumers may consider gold and precious coins to be an effective investment hedge against inflation, but recent investigations by federal, state and local enforcement agencies suggest that some gold dealers may be leveraging recessionary fears to steer consumers into buying gold and precious coins at inflated prices.

That's prompted the National Consumers League (NCL) to throw its support to H.R. 6149 -- the "Coin and Precious Metal Disclosure Act," which the nation's oldest nonprofit consumer organization says would do much to give consumers an accurate picture of the risks associated with buying gold and precious coins.

Questionable sales tactics

In a letter to Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg conveyed the nonprofit organization's concerns about the proliferation of gold coins being marketed to consumers as investments, particularly in the midst of a difficult economy.

"Purchasing gold may be a useful way for consumers to diversify their investment portfolios. However, we are disturbed by reports of gold dealers pressuring customers to purchase collectible coins at prices inflated far beyond market value," wrote Greenberg. "Further, it concerns us that salespeople working for a prominent gold dealer were found by the Securities Division of the Secretary of State of Missouri to be offering financial advice to consumers without being licensed as investment advisors."

H.R. 6149 is designed to address these concerns by requiring disclosure of relevant fees and the purchase price, melt value, and resale value of coins and metal bullion.

NCL contends that these disclosures will help consumers more effectively evaluate gold investment opportunities.

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FDA Bans Unapproved Gout Medicine

Oral colchicine has been used to prevent gout and treat gout flare-ups

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has told companies they must to stop manufacturing single-ingredient oral colchicine within 45 days....

Companies that manufacture, distribute or market unapproved single-ingredient oral colchicine, a medication commonly used for the daily prevention of gout, to treat acute gout flare-ups, and for the treatment of Familial Mediterranean Fever (FMF) may no longer do so.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has told the companies they must to stop manufacturing single-ingredient oral colchicine within 45 days and stop shipping it in interstate commerce within 90 days. A small amount of unapproved colchicine is expected to be available after these dates until supplies are exhausted.

Many single ingredient oral colchicine products have been used by the medical community for decades. These and a variety of other medications have not received the mandatory modern-day FDA-approval required of all prescription drugs.

The exception

Colcrys is the only FDA-approved single-ingredient oral colchicine product available on the U.S. market. Approved by the FDA in 2009, Colcrys' prescribing information contains important safety data and recommendations on drug interactions and dosing not available with unapproved products.

The manufacturer of Colcrys, Mutual Pharmaceutical/URL Pharma, has established a Patient Assistance Program (PAP) and a Co-Pay Assistance Program (CAP) to ensure that all patients will be able to continue affordable access to colchicine. The company also has informed FDA that it will maintain the programs at a minimum until there is FDA-approved generic competition for Colcrys.

The PAP covers three groups of people: those with insurance; those without insurance; and Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in Part D who do not want the cost of Colcrys to contribute toward their true out-of-pocket expenditures under Part D. The CAP helps eligible patients reduce their Colcrys prescription co-pay to no more than $25 per prescription. Specific information on these programs can be found at here, and here or by calling 1-888-811-8423.

Safety a priority

"The need for drugs to go through the FDA approval process is clearly demonstrated by our review of oral colchicine tablets," said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER). "Without our safety review and proper drug labeling, the old standard of care would likely have continued, to the detriment of patients."

Unapproved versions of colchicine are not generic drugs. Generic drugs are approved by the FDA to assure that the approved generic drug products meet the same standards as the innovator drug. All single-ingredient oral colchicine products -- other than Colcrys -- that are currently being marketed are unapproved drugs and have never been evaluated by the agency.

"It is a priority for the FDA to get unapproved medications, such as older versions of single ingredient oral colchicine, either updated to conform to FDA's current approval standards or off the market," said Deborah M. Autor, director of CDER's Office of Compliance. "The FDA remains committed to ensuring that prescription drugs have the necessary FDA approval. We encourage companies to actively pursue approval or face the type of action announced today."

The FDA previously took action against unapproved colchicine for injection products on Feb. 6, 2008. This continuing initiative is designed to bring all unapproved medications -- including single-ingredient oral colchicines -- up to modern-day safety, efficacy, labeling, and quality standards by ensuring that they comply with FDA approval requirements, officials stressed.


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FCC Seeks High-Speed Broadband for Schools and Libraries

Changes in the E-Rate program would bring faster Web access to those areas not currently covered

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says it has upgraded and modernized the E-rate program to bring fast, affordable Internet access to schools....

Coming to a school or library near you: a faster Internet connection

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says it has upgraded and modernized the E-rate program to bring fast, affordable Internet access to schools and libraries across the country.

The changes are designed to help ensure that America's students can learn and develop the high-tech skills necessary to compete in the 21st Century economy.

The National Broadband Plan (NBP) laid out a series of recommendations to promote broadband-enabled, cutting-edge learning inside and outside the classroom. One of the key recommendations is modernizing the FCC's E-rate program, established by Congress to bring connectivity to all schools and libraries across the country. Thus far, 97 percent of American schools and nearly all public libraries now have basic Internet access.

Need for Speed

But the plan found that basic broadband connectivity is too slow to keep up with the innovative high-tech tools that are now essential for a world-class education. According to a recent FCC survey, 78 percent of E-rate recipients say they need faster connections to meet the speed and capacity demands of their students, teachers, and library patrons.

The FCC's E-rate Order makes it easier for schools and libraries to get the highest speeds for the lowest prices by increasing their options for broadband providers and streamlining the application process. The Order is part of the Commission's continuing transformation of the Universal Service Fund (USF), of which the E-rate program is part, to deploy broadband throughout the U.S.

The FCC's upgrades to E-rate include:

• Super-Fast Fiber: The FCC's E-rate Order will help bring affordable, super-fast fiber connections to schools and libraries. It allows participants to use E-rate funds to connect to the Internet in the most cost-effective way possible, including via unused fiber optic lines already in place across the country and through existing state, regional and local networks. With these fiber networks, schools and libraries can provide students and communities with cutting-edge connectivity, while at the same time saving millions of dollars by bypassing more expensive options.

• School Spots: The FCC is also opening the door to 'School Spots" -- where schools have the option to provide Internet access to the local community after students go home. With affordable fiber, these School Spots are a major step toward the National Broadband Plan's goal of connecting an anchor institution in every community to affordable one gigabit per second broadband. School Spots will help ensure that people who otherwise lack access can use broadband.

• Learning On-the-Go: The FCC is launching a pilot program that supports off-campus wireless Internet connectivity for mobile learning devices. Education doesn't stop at the schoolyard gate or the library door. Digital textbooks and other innovative wireless devices allow students to learn in a real-world context, inside the classroom and beyond. Because of their low cost and accessibility, these mobile devices can also help advance digital equality, particularly for children from economically disadvantaged communities.

• 21st Century E-rate Program: The Order brings E-rate into the 21st Century by making the program more effective and efficient. These improvements include:

-- Indexing the cap on E-rate funding to inflation in a fiscally responsible manner, so that the program can more fully meet the needs of students and communities. Since 1997 when the E-rate program started, inflation has raised costs 30 percent but the program has remained capped, significantly decreasing its effective purchasing power. In September 2010, the Commission reserved hundreds of millions of dollars annually from another program of the USF to cover the incremental E-rate support (less than $25 million next year) it is providing, without growing the overall size of the Fund.

-- Supporting connections to the dormitories of schools that serve students facing unique challenges, such as Tribal schools or schools for children with physical, cognitive, or behavioral disabilities.

-- Bolstering protections against waste, fraud, and abuse by codifying competitive bidding requirements and clarifying ethics obligations.

-- Streamlining the E-rate application process for educators and librarians.

Formally called the Schools and Libraries Universal Service program, the E-rate program provides up to $2.25 billion annually to support telephone and Internet connections at schools and libraries across the country. The program supports both the cost of telecommunications and Internet service and the installation of internal networks.

Since it was established by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the program has connected most of the nation's classrooms to the Internet, and supports continued service and necessary upgrades of school and library networks.

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