Current Events in November 2010

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    Many Airports Adding Healthier Meal Choices

    But low-fat vegetarian options still hard to find in some cities

    With many of us likely to spend a chunk of the long Thanksgiving weekend in an airport somewhere, nutrition experts with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) are reporting that while many airport restaurants are adding healthier options to their menus, others still leave hungry travelers scrambling to find nutritious meals.

    PCRM dietitians studied 18 major airports in more than a dozen states and found that 82 percent of airport restaurants now offer at least one low-fat, high-fiber, cholesterol-free vegetarian entree -- three more than last year.

    Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport received the highest score for the second year in a row, and the majority of airports surveyed increased their healthful offerings since last year. But healthful choices are still difficult to find at some airports, including Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

    Improvement noted

    PCRM's 10th annual Airport Food Review finds considerable improvements since the inaugural review in 2001. Although some airports have lost points from year to year, the overall trend is toward offering passengers the healthful meals they need to handle the stress associated with air travel.

    In 2001, the average score was 57 percent. This score has risen 25 points to 82 percent. Detroit's airport is the decade's most improved, rising from last place in 2001 with a score of 33 percent to its current score of 96 percent.

    A restaurant was rated as healthful if it served at least one low-fat, high-fiber, cholesterol-free breakfast, lunch, or dinner entree. Healthful entrees at airports covered in this report include the Berkeley Vegan Pizza at zpizza at the Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport and the Tofusion Bowl at Ufood Grill in Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. San Francisco International Airport's Harbor Village Kitchen offers a range of healthful options, including a vegetable curry and rice plate, veggie samosas, and vegetarian chow mein.

    High-fiber, low-fat vegetarian foods have been shown to reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. A recent review published in the journal Diabetologia found that people who ate the most meat had the highest risk of type 2 diabetes. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition linked meaty diets to weight gain and concluded that reducing meat consumption could lead to weight loss.

    Results

    Overall, 82 percent of the restaurants at the 18 airports examined for the report offered at least one healthful entree. Detroit remained in first place for the third year in a row. The nation's two busiest airports -- Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Chicago O'Hare International Airport -- both fell to near the bottom of this year's list.

    While 12 of the 18 airports surveyed saw an increase in healthful options this year, five airports lost points. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport was the biggest loser, with a seven point decrease from last year's score. Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport lost three points and landed in last place with a score of 67 percent.

    Washington, D.C.,-area travelers looking for healthier options may want to consider flying out of Dulles International Airport, which was this year's most improved with a gain of 21 points from its 2009 score of 68 percent.

    Other airports showing significant improvements include Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, which jumped 11 points from 2009, and Miami International Airport, which rose nine points.

    Many Airports Adding Healthier Meal Choices But low-fat vegetarian options still hard to find in some cities ...

    Oregon Sues California Modification ‘Consultants’

    Big promises, few results

    The State of Oregon has filed a lawsuit against a California company, accusing it of repeatedly violating Oregon's Unfair Trade Practices Act and Mortgage Rescue Fraud Protection Act.

    The action accuses American Team Mortgage of charging more than $80,000 in fees from nearly three dozen Oregon homeowners in violation of Oregon law.

    "Homeowners facing foreclosure need help, not false promises," said Keith Dubanevich, Chief of Staff and Special Counsel to Oregon Attorney General Kroger.

    The lawsuit alleges that since January 2009, American Team Mortgage charged 32 homeowners a total of more than $80,000 in fees for mortgage loan modifications. Most of those fees were charged in advance of providing services in violation of Oregon law, the suit claims.

    Poor results

    The company obtained loan modifications for only a fraction of their Oregon clients, and possibly as few as two, the suit says. The state's complaint says the company solicited clients, saying it achieved successful results 95 percent of the time.

    Despite American Team Mortgage's poor record of obtaining loan modifications and despite promises to refund clients it could not help, the company refunded only two of the 32 Oregon homeowners who paid advance fees for loan modifications.

    By June 2010, the lawsuit alleges, American Team Mortgage effectively went out of business. Its phone number was disconnected. Mail was returned. Dozens of Oregon homeowners were left without a loan modification or a refund. At least one client lost his home to foreclosure. Others are facing foreclosure.

    To protect Oregon homeowners from predatory mortgage relief scams and unscrupulous loan modification practices, the Oregon Legislature passed laws in 2008 and 2009 regulating companies involved in foreclosure counseling and loan modification services.

    The lawsuit also alleges that American Team Mortgage failed to register with the state.

    States continue their crackdown on companies charging big, upfront fees and then failing to produce promised help on mortgage modifications....

    Consumer Preference Is In the Genes

    A new study that finds consumer preferences are often influenced by genetic inheritance

    Genetics may be responsible for what we buy and when we buy it, according to a new study about the buying patterns of twins.

    "Whether we like science fiction, hybrid cars, jazz, mustard, opera, and dark chocolate all seem to have a genetic component," says Aner Sela, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Florida, whose study will be published in the April 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

    "On the other hand," says Sela, "we didn't find such an effect for abstract art, body piercing, and cilantro, which people seem to either love or hate."

    While previous research has shown a heritable effect for intelligence, personality, and even for divorce, drug addiction and voting patterns, Sela notes this is the first study to show genetics play a role in consumer choices. "It's interesting to know that a lot of what we want and what we do is determined by our ancestors," he says.

    Twin study

    Sela and Itamar Simonson, professor of marketing at Stanford University, surveyed 110 identical twins and 70 same-sex fraternal twins about their product preferences and buying patterns, such as whether they would spend $100 on necessary groceries or a pampering massage.

    Similar choices were more common in identical twins, whose genetic coding is identical, than among fraternal twins, who share the same household environment but only half of their DNA.

    Marketing lessons

    The finding that consumer preferences are often determined by inherent factors could suggest that companies might sometimes be better advised to let consumers take the lead in expressive preferences and then react with certain products, rather than relying on marketing tactics to sway customers' buying behavior, Sela says.

    "Consumer researchers have often demonstrated that consumers behave irrationally and choose inconsistently," he says. "While this is sometimes true, we show that people are not just sheep in terms of being subject to manipulative influences, but actually bring with them to the decision-making process their personalities, inherent tendencies, and innate preferences."

    Decision-making styles

    The findings suggest that even certain "irrational" choice tendencies may be inherent. Beyond specific product likes and dislikes, there is a genetic basis for selecting a compromise or middle option, choosing between a sure gain and a risky gamble, and favoring "vice" over "virtue" in the form of a utilitarian or hedonistic option.

    These different styles of decision-making reveal themselves in a various ways when making consumer choices, Sela says. The tendency to select "vice" over "virtue," for example, might show up in using a $4 gift card for Godiva chocolates instead of a package of batteries.

    "While these preliminary results can be interpreted in more than one way, we hypothesize that a predisposition for prudent behavior might be at the heart of these kinds of behavioral patterns," Sela says.

    "The inclination to choose a compromise option -- selecting the middle option, going for the safe as opposed to the extreme choice, being risk-averse, preferring virtue over vice -- seem to relate to an underlying tendency to be prudent," he says. 

    Prudence can encompass cautiousness, discretion, moderation, being mindful, and getting prepared, according to Sela. "In some respects, it might be represented by the distinction between 'living on the edge' versus 'living in the mainstream'."

    A genetic component had not been established before in identifying a pattern for these individual differences that affect consumer behavior, Sela says. "Our research is groundbreaking with choice tendencies in general -- do I tend to be risk seeking, do I tend to be compromising, do I tend to be variety seeking -- making us really the first to show that those behaviors have a genetic basis."

    Consumer Preference Is In the Genes A new study that finds consumer preferences are often influenced by genetic inheritance ...

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      Beware Black Friday Shopping Scams

      Mobs at stores aren't the only thing you have to worry about

      For shoppers, Black Friday is about the biggest day of the year. It's becoming that for scammers, hopping to cash in on Americans' fixation on bargains.

      Many of these scams use the Internet to lure their victims. Some are old stand-bys but some take advantage of new technology. Here are some common scam and rip-off tactics you should guard against:

      'Smishing'

      You may receive phishing emails that attempt to solicit personal information. But, scammers have advanced this ploy by trying to get the same information with a text a message.

      Posing as a bank, con artists send text messages with a toll-free number, which is answered by a sham automated service that prompts callers to enter their account number and password.

      Why does it work so well? Most people assume text messages come from trusted sources because they rarely give out their cell phone number. But, random-dialing telemarketing services can hit any cell phone number by chance.

      If you receive a text about an account, check to make sure the call back number is legitimate by running a Google search or calling the institution's customer service line.

      Small and frequent charges

      'Tis the season to closely monitor your credit card statements, looking for frequent unauthorized charges of just a few dollars, or even a few cents. Scammers often make a series of these smaller charges to test if their victim catches them.

      In some cases, if the small charges go unreported, scammers will make much larger charges thinking their target won't contact the financial institution. In other cases, con artists make these low deductions to many accounts, accruing millions of dollars.

      Review your bank statement every month and carefully look at each item. Report any suspect charge within 60 days, as credit card companies are legally required to remove the charge while they investigate. If you do not report fraudulent charges, then you could be responsible for those payments.

      Skimmers

      This time of year, take extra precautions with your debit card. Con artists can set up skimming equipmentdesigned to capture magnetic stripe and keypad information when you input your PIN at ATM machines, gas pumps, restaurants or retailers. By extracting this information, scammers can make counterfeit ATM or debit cards and pull cash from victims' bank accounts.

      You can add a measure of security if you always process the debit card transaction as though you were using a credit card. That way, you do not have to type in your PIN and there is less liability for credit transactions in cases of fraud. Be vigilant about choosing credit at gas stations, which are notorious for skimming.

      Stick with only using ATMs at banks, because consumers must use PINs to access their account. If you use an ATM that is located in a place like a shopping mall or convenience store there is a greater chance that it might have been tampered. Take note of any changes in ATMs you use regularly that might signal tampering, such as a color difference in the card reader.

      Closely monitor your bank account to ensure no unauthorized charges have been made that could have resulted from skimming.

      Membership Programs

      With people spending more money online this season, be wary of unwanted membership programs that usually present themselves in online pop-ups and banner ads that appear when consumers make purchases from legitimate companies, such as online floral retailers.

      These ads will tout offers like "$10 cash back on your next purchase," but by agreeing to the program, consumers actually sign-up for a Web discount program run by a separate company. And even though they sometimes weren't asked again for their credit card information, the unsuspecting consumers find they've been charged a fee to take advantage of the offer or inadvertently agreed to a monthly subscription.

      Look out for pop-up windows that offer discounts or rewards. If you do click on the offer, make sure to read the fine print. Look at your credit card statement every month and report any unknown charge within 60 days. Check your inbox and spam folder for messages from Web loyalty programs preparing to charge your account. You might have a small window to unsubscribe to the program.

      Stripped Gift Cards

      When you purchase a gift card, be careful where you buy it. You are much safer buying it at a store where the cashier can place the amount of value on the card after you pay for it.

      Otherwise, while a card may say it has $50, it might be stripped of its value. Scammers use handheld scanners to read the code behind the magnetic or scratch-off strip and combine that information with the card number on the front to steal the money off of the card. They place the defunct cards back on the racks for some unknowing customer to purchase.

      Also, inspect the card to see if the magnetic strip appears to have been tampered with, and ask the cashier to scan the card to ensure it has money on it. Keep your receipts in case something does go awry.

      Counterfeit Electronics

      Fake products pose a threat to American consumers. While it is hard to see the harm in an imitation handbag, counterfeit electronics could have substandard wiring, faulty fuses, flammable plastic casings or dangerous chemicals.

      When buying electronics this holiday season, consumers should look for labels verifying the product has been certified by CSA International Underwriters Laboratory. To see what a genuine label looks like, go to www.CSA -International.org and click on 'Certification Marks.'

      Avoid buying fake products by checking for any misspellings on the package and the manufacturer's phone number and address. Also, ensure all listed components are in the package, including batteries, power cords and cases.

      Shoppers face a growing number of potential scams and rip-offs this holiday season....

      What You Need to Know about Smart Phone Apps before You Install Them

      They can contain viruses, spyware and malware that will take over your mobile phone

      Did you ever wonder where the term "killer app came from? At one time it meant an application so ingenious it killed the competition. Today, however with numerous viruses, spyware and malware infecting our gadgets, the term "killer App could take on a more negative connotation such as "that app just killed my cell phone."

      With the advent of the iPhone and android, apps have become as common as texting in today's mobile world. An estimated five billion Apps have been downloaded to iPhones alone. And the Gartner research group says the average smart phone user downloads nine apps a week.

      There are more than 225,000 apps in the App Store and Google's Android operating system has more than 80,000. It's a $7 billion market and it's less than three years old.

      What you may not be aware of is that App developers track everything you do. They not only know all about you, but they know how you use their apps as well. "So what?" you might say. Well consider this. The app you just installed involves banking. What you thought was a legitimate nifty piece of software is actually something a malicious developer created to gain access to your account details.

      John Hering is CEO of a mobile-security company called Lookout. He says Google, Apple and other vendors know which apps you bought, which you use and which you have erased from your phone. Developers and the analytics companies they employ access much more detailed data about how you use the app.

      Peter Farago, VP of marketing at analytics firm Flurry, adds that they can see, for example, how often and for how long you played a game and everything you did in it. He says that all this data is invaluable to developers, who use it to improve their apps. They can also use it to build audience profiles in order to help attract ad dollars. Advertisers may be looking for gaming fans, for example, and want to target ads to people who spend lots of time using particular titles—information app developers then share with the middlemen who sell ads.

      All the data that's tied to your smartphone gets circulated through a virtual system of companies. Jared Kaprove, former domestic-surveillance counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says there are no rules about what they can do with that data beyond some regulations about when it can be turned over to the government. Moreover, many of these companies have no policies for using and storing your data. That data can easily be stolen or misplaced, which can happen even at large corporations with good data-security practices.

       Kaprove adds that people aren't aware of how their data gets used and how valuable it is. But fearing consumer concern over privacy issues, the industry is trying to be open about its use of data and allows users to opt out of having theirs collected, according to Kaprove.

      Some developers don't even bother creating any useful content. They sit back and let their users do it for them. It's called crowdsourcing. For example, the app called Yelp offers free restaurant reviews. But their reviews are generated entirely by users of the app.

      We're apt to download all kinds of apps without even thinking about security and that's a mistake. Anytime you download something onto your phone, you're taking a risk that it might include malware, spyware or a virus. Anyone of them is harmful. According to Smart Money, one game app hijacked Windows mobile phones and used them to place calls to Somalia, running up hundreds of dollars in phone bills.

      Hering says the problem is only getting worse. His December 2009 surveys found there were four pieces of malware for every 100 smartphones. By May of this year that number it had jumped to nine.

      For a development firm to be profitable it must get its offerings into Apple's App Store. An estimated two-thirds of all app downloads for smartphones are made from that store. It's easy to use, and consumers feel safe because all apps have been reviewed and checked for malware or spyware.

      Check out that APP before you install it to make sure you're not getting more than you were hoping for such as viruses and malware...

      Verizon Offers Faster FiOS Service

      New speed said to be three times faster than regular FiOS

      Verizon FiOS customers now have the option of increasing their Internet speed. The telecommunications giant has begun offering what it says is the fastest mass-market broadband service in the U.S.

      The company has begun to roll out the ultra-high-speed service to the majority of the more than 12.5 million homes where FiOS is available, and will make the service available to Verizon FiOS small-business customers by the end of the year.

      Verizon said its new Internet service provides three times the downloading speed previously available to FiOS customers.

      "By offering the fastest mass-market Internet service in the nation, we're supporting the immediate and future speed needsof bandwidth-hungry consumers," said Eric Bruno, Verizon vice president of product management. "The new 150/35 Mbps FiOS Internet offer establishes a new benchmark for high-speed Internetin America, and paves the way for a flurry of emerging bandwidth-intensive applications to reach mainstream status."

      The difference

      How will consumers see the difference? Verizon says a downstream speed of 150 Mbps means consumers can download a two-hour, standard-definition movie (1.5 gigabytes) in less than 80 seconds, and a two-hour HD movie (5 GB) in less than four and a half minutes.

      Downloading 20 high-resolution photographs (100 megabytes) would take less than five and a half seconds using the 150/35 Mbps service.  With the 35 Mbps upstream speed, consumers can upload those same 20 high-resolution photos in less than 23 seconds.

      If you need that kind of speed, you'll pay a premium for it. Verizon says the 150/35 Mbps residential offer will be available to the majority of FiOS-eligible households, and sold as a stand-alone service starting at $194.99 a month when purchased with a one-year service agreement and Verizon wireline voice service.

      Verizon will continue to offer on a stand-alone basis its next-fastestFiOS Internetspeed of 50/20 Mbps, as well as its 25/25 and 15/5 speed tiers.  FiOS Internet speeds of 35/35 Mbps, 25/25 Mbps and 15/5 Mbps will continue to be available in bundled packages.

      Bruno said the 150/35 Mbps tier takes advantage of Verizon's all-fiber-optic network, and will ultimately serve 18 million households. 

      "Our new 150/35 Mbps offer will also support burgeoning bandwidth-intensive applications such as Internet video to TV and PC, 3D TV and movie downloads, high-definition and real-time video conferencing, and online data backup," said Bruno.

      Verizon is rolling out a turbo-charged version of its FiOS high speed Internet service...

      What You Get to Keep and What You Don't in a Bankruptcy

      When you file for bankruptcy protection that protection only goes so far

      Rising unemployment and reduced income has driven more than one and half million
      Americans to file for bankruptcy protection this year. And with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's prediction that it's going to take longer for the economy to recover than previously expected, we can expect even more bankruptcies next year.

      People considering this drastic move need to know that in 2006 the bankruptcy laws changed making bankruptcy a less attractive alternative. Unfortunately, according to Smart Money magazine, it is the most responsible consumers who pay their mortgage on time and save for retirement that wind up losing the most in the bankruptcy process.

      The American Bankruptcy Institute says nearly two thirds (65%) of those who filed for bankruptcy this year cited "income reduction” as the reason, while 42% listed "job loss” as a reason. Many chose both.

      Steve Elias is a bankruptcy attorney in Lakeport, California and co-author of "How to File for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.” In an interview with Smart Money, Elias said that bankruptcy filers who have been conscientious borrowers and consumers will often have equity in their homes, possess cars that are partly or fully paid for, and hold savings accounts designed to provide for them in the future. But there's no credit for being responsible when it comes to bankruptcy court — and the more responsible a consumer has been, the more they have for a trustee to take and sell off to pay creditors.

      Your FICO credit score will also take a huge hit. Someone with a magnificent credit score of 780 will drop 240 points if they file for bankruptcy. But if your score is only 680, it will only go down 150 points due to a bankruptcy.

      Two kinds

      In an earlier column I wrote on bankruptcies ("Is Bankruptcy Your Personal Bailout?” ConsumerAffairs.com, October 25, 2008) I explained the two types of bankruptcies, Chapter 13 and Chapter 7, and how they worked.

      A Chapter 13 bankruptcy is for someone who is trying to hold on to their assets and who also makes enough money to cover daily expenses and has something little left over to pay creditors a reduced amount. It works like this. A payment plan is set up through the court, but usually for less than the amount owed. Payments are made over a three-to-five year period, and must equal at least the amount of money creditors would have received if you filed for Chapter 7.

      As for Chapter 7, it's for anyone who has no assets such as a home or car, and has just enough to possibly cover daily expenses, but nothing more for a payment plan. In Chapter 7, all non-exempt assets are sold and proceeds are given to creditors. Most debts are then forgiven.

      In terms of what you can and can't keep in a bankruptcy often depends on where you live.

      Homestead exemption

      For example, Florida and Texas have what's known "homestead exemptions" which means your home is protected. Some states have rules governing occupancy and that you have to actually own the property. Other states only allow you to keep a home, provided you have a certain amount of equity invested in the property. There are a number of exemptions in each state that allow consumers to hold onto some assets.

      One of them is a federal credit known as the "wild card” option of up to about $12,000 per person, which is available in 16 states and Washington, D.C. and can be used to help you keep items like cars or jewelry. Some states have their own wild card options, but they're far less generous. There are also assets that bankruptcy trustees aren't interested in taking because they won't yield profits to pay creditors, such as a home or car that you owe more on than it's worth.

      Key assets

      There are five key assets that might be protected in bankruptcy.

      1. The first is your home. But as I said, it all depends on where you live and the equity you have in your house. In Florida you can keep up to 160 acres outside of city limits and up to half an acre and a home in cities. Texans can protect up to 200 acres of rural property or up to 10 acres in the city. And in general, if a home is worth less than the mortgage balance, you can keep it as long as you stay current with the mortgage payments.

      If you have equity in your home, most states offer an exemption, such as money from the bankruptcy trustee's sale of the home that stays with the homeowner. But over that amount, every penny of a sale is applied to outstanding debts and paying the trustee. In California, for example, the equity exemption is up to $175,000. Other states are far less generous: In Ohio, the state exemption for a home is only $45,600 if married or up to half that for singles. In Tennessee, the exemption is just $12,500 for singles and up to twice as much for couples.

      2.Next, tax-exempt retirement funds such as 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts (IRAs), are out of reach from creditors. IRAs are protected up to about $1.17 million per person. Howard Ehrenberg, a bankruptcy attorney and member of the Chapter 7 Panel of Trustees for Central District of California, says bankruptcy trustees view these accounts skeptically and will flag suspicious actions like dumping cash and investments - which are usually not protected in full in bankruptcy - into retirement plans. If you get caught trying to protect assets in that way you risk losing some of that amount.

      3.Whether you can keep your car varies from state to state as well. Usually, if you owe more than the car is worth you can generally keep it, as long as payments stay current. Free-and-clear car owners can keep a car if it's worth less than the state exemption, but drivers who have a car loan and some equity in their car can have their vehicle seized and sold, and recoup only their equity up to the exemption. Delaware and Nevada grant the most generous exemptions for cars, each up to around $15,000. In the 16 states that follow the federal exemptions, including Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the federal car exemption is just up to $3,450, but bankruptcy filers can also to dip into the federal "wild card” of up to roughly $12,000 to keep the vehicle. Married couples who jointly own the car can claim a federal exemption of up to $30,900. One of the strictest states is Florida, where the exemption is capped at $1,000 and there's a wild card option of up to $2,000 per person, assuming the couple hasn't claimed a homestead exemption.

      4.The fourth asset you can keep is a term life insurance policy. Whole-life insurance policies on the other hand are considered an investment vehicle. Depending on the state, there could be exemptions - Florida protects the entire policy, other states only protect a fraction. And in Ohio, life insurance policies remain intact when the beneficiary is a dependent; otherwise, there's no exemption, and the state's wild card is around $1,075 per person.

      5.Finally, a college savings plan such as a 529 plan may be exempt but it depends on a number of factors. If a 529 plan is less than two years old, protection is limited to $5,000 and creditors can take what's been saved beyond that. It's the same with college savings plans known as a Coverdell account. After that two-year period, the plan is safe, as long as the person filing for bankruptcy is not the beneficiary or if the beneficiary is not the child or grandchild. For example, if the bankruptcy filer is the beneficiary, that money can be used to pay creditors.

      If you’re thinking about filing for bankruptcy you need to know what this drastic move means in terms of what you can keep and what you can’t...

      'Pay For Play' Scandal Engulfs Better Business Bureau

      Los Angeles chapter allegedly gave "A" rating to non-existent business that paid its dues

      Bowing to pressure from Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) has agreed to stop awarding rating points to businesses that pay dues to the organization.

      The BBB also said it would "launch an immediate investigation" into an ABC News report that its biggest local chapter - the Los Angeles BBB - sold memberships to non-existent businesses that immediately received an "A" rating.

      The ABC report of the alleged "pay for play" scheme said that "A+" ratings were only given to businesses that paid an accreditation fee, while "F" grades were routinely given to businesses that declined to join the BBB and pay dues.

      The Los Angeles BBB is by far the largest of the 108 chapters in the U.S. It brought in $6.2 million in accreditation fees in 2008, the ABC News report said, and paid its president, William Mitchell, an annual salary of $409,490.

      Mitchell is credited with devising the letter grade system to replace the "satisfactory/unsatisfactory" rating the BBB had used previously. The ABC News report said Mitchell has testified that his office employed over 30 sales representatives who earned a 45 percent commission for selling first-year memberships to business owners.

      For his part, Blumenthal expressed concern that the BBB lacks sufficient resources to verify the information used for its ratings, which many consumers rely on when making purchasing decisions.

      "I am pleased that the BBB is heeding my call to sever ratings from dues -- but more needs to be done," Blumenthal said. "Pay-to-play -- or its perception -- is unacceptable and unconscionable, as the BBB has rightly recognized. Cash can no longer inflate BBB ratings, as happened under the old system."

      The BBB's executive committee approved the changes last week and said it would make a series of changes to its operations. In a statement, the organization said:

      • the BBB ratings system will no longer give additional points to accredited businesses because of their accredited status. BBB will continue to issue ratings based on the other 16 ratings factors currently used.

      • Immediately, BBB will make available on its website a streamlined process for receiving complaints on BBB sales practices, and will implement procedures for investigating each complaint.BBB will conduct a review of its process for accrediting businesses, and, as soon as possible, make changes that will apply system-wide.BBB will engage an independent third party to assist in its review process.

      • BBB will conduct a review of its process for accrediting businesses, and, as soon as possible, make changes that will apply system-wide.

      • BBB will engage an independent third party to assist in its review process.

      "For nearly 100 years, the BBB has stood for public trust, and we are taking these steps to maintain that trust," said Steve Cox, president and CEO, Council of Better Business Bureaus. "Given the feedback, we feel it is our duty to take immediate steps to address the concerns raised, and enhance our ability to help consumers easily and quickly find trustworthy businesses."

      Blumenthal said the changes, while admirable, left open the possibility that businesses would mislead consumers by providing inaccurate information to the BBB.

      "At the very least, the BBB has an ethical -- and perhaps legal -- obligation to clearly and prominently inform consumers of the severe and significant limitations of its rating system," Blumenthal said.

      "The BBB cannot rely on the word of businesses about licenses, state laws or other information; objective and independent confirmation is vital to accurate ratings."

      'Pay For Play' Scandal Engulfs Better Business Bureau. Los Angeles chapter allegedly gave "A" rating to non-existent business that paid its dues....

      Administration, GOP May Collide Over Net Neutrality

      Republicans warn regulators not to act unilaterally

      While the lame-duck Congress grapples with some unfinished business, the Federal Communications Commission may be preparing a major push to implement Net neutrality policies before the end of the year.

      Various media reports late last week suggested the FCC is readying an announcement this week that it will impose rules to prevent Internet service providers from favoring one provider's content over another. The Financial Times reports that industry executives fully expect the new regulations before the new Congress is seated.

      That has set off some Congressional Republicans, who are generally opposed to the Net neutrality concept. They appealed last week to the White House to wait until next year to address the issue.

      Equal footing

      Net neutrality refers to the principle that Internet content providers should have equal access to the Internet should suffer no restrictions on content, sites or platforms that may be attached. Network operators, such as AT&T, have objected to that principle, saying they have borne the cost of building and maintaining the network and should be allowed to control the amount of traffic traveling through it.

      In April a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC ruled the FCC lacks the authority to impose Net neutrality regulations on Internet providers and operators of broadband networks.

      The unanimous finding overturned the FCC's cease and desist order against Comcast, which had imposed measures to slow traffic to what it considered heavy users. The Court said the FCC, in issuing the order, failed to cite any specific law passed by Congress. In effect, the judges found that the federal agency could not impose restraints on Internet providers without the backing of Congress.

      No Congressional action

      With Republicans controlling the House in 2011, it may be unlikely that Congress will provide that backing. In fact, with Democrats controlling the White House and Congress for nearly two years, Net neutrality legislation hasn't gotten very far. President Obama has consistently supported Net neutrality and his choice of Julius Genachowski to head the FCC was seen as an additional statement of support, since Genachowski was known to be a strong proponent of the concept.

      Before the November elections changed the political landscape in Washington, lawmakers were proceeding on a Net neutrality bill authored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA).That bill managed to gain the support of some of the industry's major players, but Republicans remained opposed.

      Hoping to head off a unilateral move by the FCC, 18 Republican members of Congress have fired off a letter to Genachowski, asking him not to impose Net neutrality rules.

      "Reigniting the network neutrality debate will only distract us from other work and further jeopardize investment, innovation, and jobs,” the letter said.

      Reports that federal regulators may announce Net neutrality rules this week could set up a White House - GOP showdown....

      The Cheapest Cars to Insure Are Not Always the Cheapest Cars to Buy

      According to a study by InsWeb.com a car’s sticker price is only part of what goes in to determining insurance costs

      When you buy a car, whether for cash or with monthly payments, one cost you should consider has nothing to do with those fancy options or dealer rip-offs. And that's how much the car you're about to buy is going to cost you to insure. Let's just say that a cheap sticker price doesn't always translate into cheap insurance.

      A recent study by the online website that compares insurance providers, InsWeb.com, found that the cost of car insurance is based on a number of factors, including:

      • The age and driving record of the driver
      • A combination of purchase price and a model's loss history
      • An automobile's safety and security features
      • A record of the model's involvement in insurance claims

      That means a car that has a history of expensive liability and comprehensive claims will cost more to insure.

      According to InsWeb.com, the cheapest vehicles to insure are the Kia Sedona, Mazda's Mazda5, Ford Escape, Hyundai Santa Fe and Mercury Mariner.

      On the other hand, those vehicles topping the list of most expensive to insure are the Acura ZDX, Audi TTS, Audi A5, Cadillac Escalade and the Chevrolet Corvette.

      InsWeb compared car-insurance rate quotes for more than 400 models requested by customers between January and September for 2010 model-year vehicles.

      Brad Cooper, InsWeb's senior vice president of operations, says the least-expensive cars to buy often are not the cheapest to insure since they're commonly used by younger drivers. Instead, he adds that minivans tend to be the cheapest to insure because of their family-oriented drivers, while sports cars are usually the most expensive to insure.

      Other cars that are inexpensive to insure are the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Explorer, Subaru Outback, Kia Optima, and the Chevrolet Equinox.

      Among the more expensive cars beyond what we've already mentioned are the BMW Z4, Lexus SC, Jaguar XF, Cadillac STS, 10 Dodge Challenger and the BMW 128i.

      The most critical reasons that a car are more expensive to insure are generally the value of the vehicle and the vehicle model's loss history. A vehicle's value directly impacts what an insurance company will need to pay out in the event of a total loss. The loss history reflects a specific model's record of involvement in insurance claims. A model that has a history of expensive liability and comprehensive claims will cost more to insure.

      Because driver behavior has such a strong influence on the incidents that cause claims, a model's loss history is directly impacted by the individuals who drive it. That's why the lowest-priced cars available are not necessarily the least expensive cars to insure. Younger drivers often drive inexpensive vehicles, and younger drivers tend to be involved in more insurance claims. Along those same lines, sports cars are generally driven by individuals who want to drive fast, and speed is a factor in many claims.

      One expense you should consider when buying a car is how much it’s going to cost to insure...

      Government Takes Aim At Foreclosure Relief Scammers

      New rule makes it easier for struggling homeowners to spot a scam

      From now on, if you have a business offering to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure, you don't get paid until that homeowner has a written offer from their lender that the deal you negotiated is acceptable.

      It's the result of a new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rule and is part of the government's effort to weed out the scammers who have, for the last several years, preyed on the growing number of people losing their homes.

      "At a time when many Americans are struggling to pay their mortgages, peddlers of so-called mortgage relief services have taken hundreds of millions of dollars from hundreds of thousands of homeowners without ever delivering results," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. "By banning providers of these services from collecting fees until the customer is satisfied with the results, this rule will protect consumers from being victimized by these scams."

      The FTC's Mortgage Assistance Relief Services (MARS) Rule is aimed at bogus operations that falsely claim that, for a fee, they will negotiate with the consumer's mortgage lender or servicer to obtain a loan modification, a short sale, or other relief from foreclosure. Many of these operations pretend to be affiliated with the government and government housing assistance programs. The FTC has brought more than 30 cases against operations like these, and state and federal law enforcement partners have brought hundreds more.

      What it means for homeowners

      One of the most important aspects of the new rule is the way it helps identify a scammer. From now on, if a company offers to help a struggling homeowner avoid foreclosure, but requires a fee to be paid in advance, it clearly identifies the company as illegitimate. No homeowner should have any conversation with a company that asks for payment in advance.

      Thenew rule also requires mortgage relief companies to disclose key information to consumers to protect them from being misled and to help them make better informed purchasing decisions. In their advertising and in communications directed at individual consumers, such as telemarketing calls, the companies must disclose that: 

      • they are not associated with the government, and their services have not been approved by the government or the consumer's lender;
      • the lender may not agree to change the consumer's loan; and
      • if companies tell consumers to stop paying their mortgage, they must also tell them that they could lose their home and damage their credit rating.

      Companies also must explain in their communications to consumers that they can stop doing business with the company at any time, can accept or reject any offer the company obtains from the lender or servicer, and, if they reject the offer, they don't have to pay the company's fee. The companies also must disclose the amount of the fee.

      Lawyers are generally exempt from the rule, but they must meet three conditions. They have to be engaged in the practice of law, they must be licensed in the state where the consumer or the dwelling is located, and they must comply with state laws and regulations governing attorney conduct related to the rule.

      To be exempt from the advance fee ban, attorneys must meet a fourth requirement - they must place any fees they collect in a client trust account and abide by state laws and regulations covering such accounts.

      New federal rule requires foreclosure rescuers to provide results before they get paid....

      What Will Air Travel Be Like This Thanksgiving Holiday?

      Some passengers may protest new screening measures

      Thanksgiving week is traditionally the busiest week of the year for air travel. With newly installed security measures at major airports, what can travelers expect in the way of lines or delays?

      As this traveler-posted video at Chicago's O'Hare airport last week suggests, the new security measures, requiring all passengers to pass through full body scanners or submit to a pat-down, have slowed things down a bit.

      The wrinkles may have gotten worked out last week so that the process is smoother this week, but you might not want to count on it. Many in the traveling public have objected to the revealing body scans and intimate pat-downs, and at least one group have proposed a protest at the security gates this week to bottle-neck the process.

      Organized opt-out campaign

      A group of protestors who have launched the website wewontfly.com have urged travelers to "opt-out" of the body scans this week, forcing Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners to conduct more time-consuming pat-downs.

      "Should you decide to opt out, you must be aware that the TSA will perform a pat down instead of subjecting you to the WBI/AIT, AKA porno-scanner," the wbsite advises. "The TSA may try to pressure you into submitting to the scanners .You are not required by law to submit to imaging, however, many TSA employees may attempt to intimidate, coerce or insist that it is required."

      The site, which also urges consumers not to fly, as a way of protest, does not identify the individuals or groups responsible for it.

      Meanwhile, Flyers Rights, a consumer group formed in response to passenger strandings at airport tarmacs, has also entered the fray, calling on government transportation and safety officials to consult with consumer groups on the issue.

      Ignored

      "Airline Passengers have so far been ignored in this process," saidKate Hanni, Director of Flyers Rights. "Thus far, Secretary (Janet) Napolitano and Administrator (John) Pistole have taken meetings with airline executives, hotels, pilots unions, and flight attendant unions, but not a single meeting with the people who pay the money to fly. How is that possible or right?"

      TSA has remained busy in the last week dealing with the uprising and has thus far remained firm in its stance that the new screening measures are necessary. The agency has also addressed what it calls a number of "myths" about the process that have circulated on the Internet in recent days.

      For example, the TSA Blog said it is a myth that all children receive pat-downs when they pass through security. The agency responded after video showed up on the Internet of a shirtless young body receiving a pat-down from TSA personnel.

      In this case, TSA said the boy received the pat-down after he triggered the metal detector. The agency said that is the only type of instance where children receive the intimate frisking. http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/index.shtm

      TSA also denies that the pat-downs are invasive.

      "Only passengers who alarm a walk through metal detector or AIT machine or opt out of the AIT receive a pat-down," the agency said on its blog. "For this reason, it is designed to be thorough in order to detect any potential threats and keep the traveling public safe. Pat-downs are performed by same-gender officers and all passengers have the right to a private screening with a travel companion at any time."

      But according to various media reports over the weekend, the backlash is not dying down. How that affects Thanksgiving week travel remains to be seen, but passengers should probably give themselves a lot of extra time and prepare for the worst.

      The long lines at security checkpoints last week and a planned protest against tough screening measures may be bad news if you plan to fly this week....

      Ground Zero Workers Reach Settlement

      Agreement comes after years of protracted litigation, false starts

      As the ten-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks approaches, progress finally seems at hand: a recognizable building rises from a long-vacant lot in Lower Manhattan; waterfalls flow for the first time into the footprint of the former North Tower; and, this week, the vast majority of rescue workers accept a settlement providing for payouts relating to health-related claims rooted in work done in the months and years following the attacks.

      Just over 95 percent of the over 10,000 rescue workers agreed to the settlement, bringing an end to years of high-profile and contentious litigation. The agreement provides for a total payout of between $625 million and $815 million.

      Workers will receive payments of between $3,250 to $1.8 million, depending on the nature of their injuries. The lower figure represents the payout to workers who have suffered no actual injury but must live with the fear that they will eventually get sick; the higher figure correlates with plaintiffs who can show a connection between a loved one's death and that person's time at Ground Zero.

      Ranking injuries

      The agreement divides workers into four "tiers,” with the fourth tier representing the most severely injured workers. Those workers, who account for more than half of the plaintiffs, will get around 94 percent of the payment.

      Under the settlement, the amount each plaintiff will receive is based, in part, on how closely that person's condition can be linked to exposure to the toxins present at the site. As a result, plaintiffs with asthma stand to receive a bigger payout than some plaintiffs with cancer, since the former is more strongly "linked” to the contaminants.

      "A very good deal"

      U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who is overseeing the litigation, in June called the settlement "a very good deal," and encouraged workers to opt in rather than continue litigation. The remark carried extra weight in light of the fact that Hellerstein had thrown out a previous agreement in March, ruling that it provided too much to attorneys and too little to plaintiffs.

      That settlement would have resulted in aggregate payments of between $575 million and $657 million, with lawyers taking what Hellerstein called "a very large bite" -- nearly one-third of the total settlement.

      Following that ruling, attorneys reached an agreement that provided $125 million more for plaintiffs while reducing lawyers' fees to 25 percent. Hellerstein found those terms acceptable, calling the agreement "imperfect but fair.”

      In order for the settlement to take effect, at least 95 percent of workers needed to opt in; the final count, as of Friday, was just a hair over that, at 95.1 percent.

      Lawyers, mayor satisfied with result

      Judge Hellerstein wasn't the only one pleased with the outcome of the litigation.

      "We negotiated for over two years to achieve this settlement for our clients, which we truly believe is the best result, given the uncertainty of protracted litigation," Paul Napoli, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told The Wall Street Journal.

      And, in a statement, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg called the settlement "a fair and just resolution of these claims, protecting those who came to the aid of this city when we needed it most."

      Ground Zero Workers Reach Settlement Agreement comes after years of protracted litigation, false starts...

      What You Need to Know About the Job Interviewing Process

      A veteran career coach exposes some myths about job interviews

      You can forget everything you've ever read in books about job interviewing. Whatever they say, today it's different. There may be one or two tips worth remembering but overall, if you go into an interview thinking that you're going to experience what you've read about in some book, be prepared for a shock.

      It almost seems as if the hiring process has turned into the "wild west.” You would expect that those responsible for deciding who gets hired would at least know what they're doing. You expect them to be prepared, to know about your qualifications from your resume or even a pre-interview and to be able to answer questions about the company you might have.

      It's no wonder we have unemployment verging on 10%. How does anyone get hired anymore when the people doing the hiring at out to lunch?

      Veteran career coach David Couper tells Fortune magazine this month that job applicants should just toss their expectations out the window. And when it comes to the interview process, he's identified ten areas you need to know about before your next interview.

      Couper calls them the ten myths of the interview process. Here they are in reverse order of importance, something like Dave Letterman's top ten lists.

      Always prepared

      So, job interview myth number ten is that the interviewer is always prepared. Actually, says Couper, the person you're meeting with is probably so overworked and stressed out about having to hire someone that they have no idea what they should do or say.

      Couper's advice? Make it easy for him or her and just start talking about yourself.Tell them why you're a great fit for this job. It will become obvious they haven't read your resume, so just recap it briefly, and then tie it to the job you want. Tell them what they everything they need to know, so they won't have to come up with more questions.

      Thoroughly trained

      As for myth number 9, most interviewers have been trained to conduct thorough job interviews. Right. Human resources professionals get training in job interviewing techniques, but not the average hiring manager or the person ultimately responsible for choosing the best candidate. They don't have a clue and usually just wing it.

      Couper says it's going to be up to you to make up for their vague questions. So you need to be specific with two or three concrete examples of particular skills and experiences that highlight why they should hire you.

      Refreshments?

      Myth number 8 is that it's only polite to accept an interviewer's offer of refreshment. Forget it. They're just trying to be courteous when in reality they'd rather not have to bother. So unless the beverage in question is right there and won't take more than a second to get, just say, no, thank you.

      Couper says he once interviewed a job candidate who said she would love a cup of tea, which, he recalls, "meant I spent half the allotted interview time looking for a tea bag, heating water, and so on. It was irritating."

      Couper adds that another good reason decline a drink offer is that if the interview is long, you don't want to need a restroom halfway through the conversation.

      References

      Myth number seven is that interviewers expect you to hand over references' contact information right away. This almost never happens. Couper says to hold off until you're specifically asked for references and even then you can delay a bit by offering to send the information in an email in a day or two.

      There are two good reasons for not rushing it. Couper says that first you may not know until the end of the interview who would be the best reference for this particular job. He says if you get a sense that the interviewer cares most about teamwork, you want to choose someone who can attest to your skills in that area. A reference who can only talk about some other aspect of your work is not going to help.

      Second, you want time to prep your references, by gently coaching them on what you'd like them to say before the employer calls them.

      The right answer

      The next myth, number six, is a major one -- there's a right answer to every question an interviewer asks. Again, there often is no right or wrong answer.

      Sometimes how you approach your answer is far more important than the answer itself. Couper says that if you're presented with a hypothetical problem and then asked to solve it, try to think of a comparable situation from the past and tell what you did about it.

      Short answers

      Myth number five is that you should always keep your answers short. Couper says here's where doing lots of research before an interview really pays off. The more you've learned about the company and the job beforehand, the better able you are to tell why you are the right hire.

      Don't be afraid to talk at length about it, partly because it will spare the interviewer having to come up with another question for you and partly because "in a good interview, you should be talking about two-thirds of the time. A colleague went to an interview recently and went on and on about the company and how he didn't know how it would fit in but because he knew so much about the firm, he was hired anyway.

      Good looks

      Myth number 4 -- if you've got great qualifications, your appearance doesn't matter. Actually, your physical attractiveness probably plays a bigger part in the hiring decision than your qualifications. Besides, it's nearly a given that everyone who gets to the interview has been pre-screened and is assumed qualified.

      Couper says people care about your looks, so make the absolute most of what you've got. Even if you're not drop-dead gorgeous, it's impossible to overestimate the importance of looking healthy, energetic, and confident.

      Five years

      Myth number three is that when asked where you see yourself in five years, you should show tremendous ambition.

      Unfortunately, the five-year question is a common one, but it's also very tricky. Couper says interviewers want you to be a go-getter, but they're also afraid you'll get restless if you don't move up fast enough. So you want to say something that covers all bases, like, 'I'd be happy to stay in this job as long as I'm still learning things and making a valuable contribution."

      You might also consider turning the question around and asking, "Where do you see me in five years?" Sometimes the answer to that is "we'd expect you to keep doing the same thing we hired you to do.” There, you've just spotted a dead-end job.

      Job still open?

      The second greatest job interview myth is that if the company invites you to an interview that means the job is still open.

      If only this were true. Unfortunately, some hiring managers schedule an interview because you have an interesting resume and they just want to meet you. Other times the job may never have existed in the first place.

      This is some companies' way of doing market research on the cheap. They ask you about your current or recent duties, your pay scale, and so on, to get information for comparison purposes. Couper says that another possibility is that they may already have a strong internal candidate in mind for the job but just want to see if they come across someone better.

      If you get an interview through a networking contact, he adds, "an employer may interview you simply as a courtesy to the person who referred you, if that is someone they don't want to disappoint."

      But even if the job opening is phony, it's still worth going. Couper says that sometimes they discover you're a good fit for a different opening that really does exist. You never know where an interview might lead.

      Biggest myth

      And finally, the number one myth about job interviewing is that the most qualified person gets the job. You probably already guessed that one.

      In at least one crucial respect, a job interview is like a date: Chemistry counts. Couper says that a candidate who is less qualified, but has the right personality for the organization and hits it off with the interviewer, will almost always get hired over a candidate who merely looks good on paper.

      So, what can you do if you suspect you're not knocking an interviewer's socks off? At the end of the discussion, you'll probably be asked if you have any questions. Couper suggests that if you sense the person has reservations about your style ask what the ideal candidate for this job would be like. Then think fast.

      Try to talk about how you fit that profile, addressing any concerns the interviewer might have. This could be your last chance to seal the deal. Just keep in mind that there may not be anything you could say that would make a difference if the chemistry isn't there.

      Now you know how actors and actresses feel when they audition. Job interviewing is the same thing. It's your audition for the role of candidate. So don't take it personally if you don't get it. It has nothing to do with you or your qualifications.

      There’s more to the job interviewing process than meets the eye so here are some things you should know before your next interview...

      It's Time To Review Your Medicare Drug Plan

      Seniors should check the federal website each year for the best Medicare drug plan

      If you're a senior over 65, you've probably gone through the painful process of enrolling in what's called a Medicare Part D drug plan. It's complicated and confusing and something you probably never want to have to go through again.

      Well guess what? You should and for two important reasons. First, you're getting older and the medication you're taking may have changed. Plus, there are different plans available next year, and a different plan could save you a lot of money.

      And now is the time to do it while we're still in the open enrollment period which lasts until December 31.

      Financial columnist and author Terry Savage says seniors should check the federal website www.Medicare.gov each year for the best Medicare drug plan. They can do it by using the "planfinder tool."

      In a recent column for the Chicago Sun Times, Savage writes extensively about why seniors should bit the bullet and go through the process of selecting a Medicare Part D plan annually. She says they could be taking different medicines or dosages or the drug plan they now have could be changing its prices in January for the drugs they take.

      She also points out that there is new competition among those who offer these plans -- most notably Wal-Mart who has partnered with Humana to create a program that promises savings of as much as 30% for the average senior's total cost.

      For seniors who take a lot of medicines, they already know about the "doughnut hole" which is what they call the point where you have to pay for your drugs before the catastrophic coverage provided by the government kicks in.

      Savage says that this year, as part of the health reform bill, if you fall into that doughnut hole category, you'll receive a discount on branded drugs. Again, that makes it important to figure out which plan has the lowest overall cost.

      According to Savage, here's what you should know.

      You must sign up for Medicare Part D -- even if you don't take prescription medicines. It's required. If you don't sign up, then when you do need coverage you'll always pay higher premiums. The only exceptions to the need to sign up are those seniors with "equivalent" or "creditable" drug coverage from an employer's health care plan or retiree health plan. Your employer will give you a letter attesting to that coverage. Also, those many who receive medical benefits from the VA can get equivalent coverage.

      There are two ways to get Part D: You can buy Part D coverage from the private Prescription Drug Plan that is the least expensive based on the drugs you take. Each of these plans has its own monthly premium, deductible and co-pay per prescriptions above the deductible level. That's why you need to use the tool at Medicare.gov to figure out which plan is overall the least expensive for your situation.

      Or you can sign up for a Medicare HMO, known as Medicare Advantage. Then you won't need a separate Part D plan because all of your drugs will be covered by your HMO.

      Of the 27.7 million people enrolled in Medicare Part D drug plans, one-third are covered by Medicare Advantage plans.

      There is assistance for low-income beneficiaries: If your income is below $16,245 and you have few other assets, you qualify for assistance.

      As complicated as all this sounds, Savage says it's easier than you think. She says the only way to find the best and cheapest plan is to use the "planfinder tool" at www.Medicare.gov -- or call for help at (800) Medicare. All you need is your Medicare number and the names and dosages of all your prescriptions. Just enter that information, and the computer will generate a list of PDPs that are available in your neighborhood, with the least expensive on top, based on the drugs you're currently taking. You'll want to compare not only the monthly premium but the overall cost for the year before making a choice.

      As for the Humana/Wal-Mart RX plan, Savage says you might be able to save an average $450 a year. And you can access the Medicare tool right from the Wal-Mart website.

      If you're an adult child or grandchild, or neighbor of a senior, Savage encourages you to take the time to sit down with him or her and go through the process. In fact, she adds, you could probably do this while you're waiting for the turkey to cook on Thanksgiving. It will make them very thankful, says Savage.  

      Medicare drug plans are always changing so even if you have one, it might be worth your while to go through the process again ...

      Texas Takes Action Against Lubbock Mortgage Firms

      Firms allegedly took advantage of owner-financers

      The state of Texas has filed suit against two Lubbock, Tex., mortgage companies it says exploited home sellers who were providing owner financing to homebuyers.

      Owner financing has become more prevalent in the last two years because people who want to buy homes have a more difficult time qualifying for a mortgage. If the seller of the home owns it free and clear, they are free to "hold the note” themselves, collecting monthly payments from the buyer.

      It may be one way to expedite the sale of a property, but it means it could be 20 or 30 years before the seller receives all the money from the sale. While that may be acceptable for some, sellers who are near retirement age will often need the money soon.

      Enter a mortgage company, which offers to buy the note from the seller for a lump sum cash price. In many cases, the offer is about half what the mortgage is worth. The mortgage company buys the note, then collects the monthly payments, which include principle and interest.

      There is nothing wrong with such an arrangement as long as the seller fully understands the terms, and that's where Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has a problem with the two Lubbock firms. He says the companies and their owners orchestrated a complex scheme to defraud the original property owners.

      Deceptive Trade Practices Act

      The enforcement action names Enhance Mortgage Corp. and Templeton Mortgage Co. Inc. as defendants and charges both with violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

      According to court documents filed by the state, Enhance and Templeton primarily targeted former property owners who had previously self-financed the sale of their property to independent purchasers.

      According to state investigators, the defendants contacted former property owners who lacked knowledge about real estate transactions and offered to buy their owner-financed mortgages. Court documents indicate the defendants would offer to pay landowners up-front cash in exchange for their owner-financed mortgages—and therefore the right to receive monthly mortgage payments. Some of the former property owners were retirement-aged. State investigators believe they were targeted because they were likely to be enticed by the promise of up-front cash rather than a 20 to 30-year payment stream.

      Under Texas law, it is generally legal to purchase and sell interests in real property, including the rights of owner-financed mortgages. However, the defendants are charged with perpetrating a complex scheme that relied upon obscure contractual provisions to defraud former property owners with little or no financial or legal expertise.

      Key appraisal

      For example, one former property owner had previously sold his property to a buyer, who still owed $76,500 under the terms of the owner-financed mortgage. The defendants offered to pay the former property owner $30,000 cash in exchange for the right to receive the full $76,500 in future mortgage payments.

      Once the former property owner agreed to the $30,000 offer, the defendants drew up a contract and had the underlying property appraised. Unbeknownst to the former property owner, the contract provided that the defendant's cash purchase price would be reduced if the property's appraisal amount was less than the purchase amount—despite the fact that the mortgage would still yield the same amount of money regardless of the property value.

      After learning that he would be paid the lower appraised amount—rather than the original $30,000 agreed-upon price—the former property owner attempted to reject the deal. In response, the defendants filed a lawsuit against the former property owner in an attempt to force him to accept the lower amount of money.

      At one point, defendants Enhance and Templeton had as many as 75 lawsuits on file in the Lubbock County District Court. According to state investigators, the scheme orchestrated by Enhance and Templeton was specifically designed to defraud individuals who lacked knowledge or experience about complex real estate transactions.

      The state's enforcement action alleges that the defendants' dealings with the former property owners were not only deceptive—but that they violated Texas property laws.

      In addition to restitution for affected property owners, the State is seeking civil penalties of up to $20,000 for each violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

      If you are providing owner financing on a property sale, a new Texas case provides a cautionary tale....

      Guess What Rental Car Company Consumers Like Best?

      And it’s not Hertz or even Avis even though Avis says it’s still trying harder

      We all have our favorite rental car company and it can be based on a number of factors from price to the kind of cars they offer and to the way we're treated when we go there, so don't get bent out of shape if yours didn't make the cut in J.D. Power and Associates latest study of customer satisfaction with airport car rentals.

      After studying the customer evaluations of more than 11,500 car rental desks at airports around the country, J.D. Power and Associated have named an Enterprise car rental counter at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta the best.

      In fact, Enterprise has ranked highest in customer satisfaction among rental car companies for a seventh year in a row. J.D. Power and Associates measures the responses from both business and leisure travelers who react to such factors as costs and fees, the pickup and return process and the rental car itself.

      The second place slot went to National, followed by Hertz in third.

      The researchers also found that customer satisfaction in general with renting cars at airports has returned to pre-financial crisis levels and that the number of reported problems fell from 11% to 9% from a year earlier.

      Stuart Greif, vice president of the travel practice at J.D. Power and Associates, says the increase in customer satisfaction is due to improved operations by rental car companies as the market has started to come back, reversing the impact of downturn-related cuts.

      The latest J.D. Power and Associates study of customer satisfaction says you like Enterprise better than other car rental companies...

      Nearly One Million Consumers Getting Refunds From LifeLock

      Part of nationwide settlement

      LifeLock, an identity theft security firm, has begun mailing checks to customers nationwide, part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and 34 states.

      The settlement was reached in March of this year, following an investigation into the company's allegedly misleading advertising practices.

      LifeLock sells identity theft services that past advertisements allegedly claimed were "guaranteed" to protect consumers' personal information and prevent criminals from using it to open accounts in consumers' names. Some ads even included LifeLock CEO Todd Davis' social security number in an effort to demonstrate Davis' confidence in the services offered.

      The FTC and various state attorneys general charged that the fraud alerts that LifeLock placed on customers' credit files protected only against certain forms of identity theft and gave them no protection against the misuse of existing accounts, the most common type of identity theft. It also allegedly provided no protection against medical identity theft or employment identity theft, in which thieves use personal information to get medical care or apply for jobs.

      Not absolute

      Even for types of identity theft for which fraud alerts are most effective, LifeLock does not provide absolute protection, the investigation found. They alert creditors opening new accounts to take reasonable measures to verify that the individual applying for credit actually is who he or she claims to be, but in some instances, identity thieves can thwart even reasonable precautions.

      New account fraud, the type of identity theft for which fraud alerts are most effective, comprised only 17 percent of identity theft incidents, according to an FTC survey released in 2007.

      The FTC's complaint further alleged that LifeLock also claimed that it would prevent unauthorized changes to customers' address information, that it constantly monitored activity on customer credit reports, and that it would ensure that a customer always would receive a telephone call from a potential creditor before a new account was opened. The FTC charged that those claims were false.

      Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum says more than 70,000 LifeLock checks will be mailed to consumer in his state. Consumers will each receive a check for $10.87 and will have 60 days to cash the checks. The distribution represents all consumers who were eligible for refunds and closes out the period for filing refund claims.

      In addition to the refunds, LifeLock is prohibited from overstating the risk of identity theft to consumers, including whether a particular consumer has become or is likely to become a victim.

      LifeLock is also prohibited from misrepresenting that its services can protect against or eliminate the risk of identity theft or that it will constantly monitor activity on each of its customers' consumer reports.

      The Federal Trade Commission has begun distributing refund checks from LifeLock, part of a settlement involving the FTC and 34 states....

      Darvon and Darvocet Being Pulled From American Market

      The painkilling medication poses a risk of fatal heart abnormalities

      Xanodyne Pharmaceuticals Inc., the maker Darvon and Darvocet -- the brand version of the prescription pain medication propoxyphene -- has agreed to withdraw the medication from the U.S. market.

      The move comes at the request of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has also informed the generic manufacturers of propoxyphene-containing products of Xanodyne's decision and requested that they voluntarily remove their products as well.

      Risk of heart problems

      The FDA sought market withdrawal of propoxyphene after receiving new clinical data showing the drug puts users at risk of potentially serious or even fatal heart rhythm abnormalities. As a result of these data -- combined with other information, including new epidemiological data -- the agency concluded that the risks of the medication outweigh the benefits.

      "The FDA is pleased by Xanodyne's decision to voluntarily remove its products from the U.S. market," said John Jenkins, M.D., director of the Office of New Drugs in FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER). "These new heart data significantly alter propoxyphene's risk-benefit profile. The drug's effectiveness in reducing pain is no longer enough to outweigh the drug's serious potential heart risks."

      Doctors notified

      The FDA is advising health care professionals to stop prescribing propoxyphene to their patients. Anyone currently taking the drug should contact his or her health care professional as soon as possible to discuss switching to another pain management therapy.

      Propoxyphene is an opioid used to treat mild to moderate pain. First approved by the FDA in 1957, the drug is sold by prescription under various names both alone (e.g., Darvon) or in combination with acetaminophen (e.g., Darvocet).

      New information

      Since 1978, the FDA has received two requests to remove propoxyphene from the market. Until now, the agency had concluded that the benefits of propoxyphene for pain relief at recommended doses outweighed the safety risks of the drug.

      In January 2009, the FDA held an advisory committee meeting to address the efficacy and safety of propoxyphene. After considering the data submitted with the original drug applications for propoxyphene, as well as subsequent medical literature and postmarketing safety databases, the committee voted 14 to 12 against the continued marketing of propoxyphene products.

      In making this recommendation, the committee noted that additional information about the drug's cardiac effects would be relevant in weighing its risks and benefits.

      European precedent

      In June 2009, the European Medicines Agency (EMEA) recommended that the marketing authorizations for propoxyphene be withdrawn across the European Union. A phased withdrawal of propoxyphene is underway.

      In July 2009, the FDA decided to permit continued marketing, but required that a new boxed warning be added to the drug label alerting patients and health care professionals to the risk of a fatal overdose. In addition, the agency required Xanodyne to conduct a new safety study assessing unanswered questions about the effects of propoxyphene on the heart.

      Further review

      The agency now has reviewed the data from that study, which show that, even when taken at recommended doses, propoxyphene causes significant changes to the electrical activity of the heart. These changes, which can be seen on an electrocardiogram (EKG), can increase the risk for serious abnormal heart rhythms that have been linked to serious adverse effects, including sudden death.

      The available data also indicate that the risk of adverse events for any particular patient (even patients who have taken the drug for many years) is subject to change based on small changes in the health status of the patient, such as dehydration, a change in medications, or decreased kidney function.

      "With the new study results, for the first time we now have data showing that the standard therapeutic dose of propoxyphene can be harmful to the heart," said Gerald Dal Pan, M.D., M.H.S., director of the Office of Surveillance and Epidemiology, CDER. "However, long-time users of the drug need to know that these changes to the heart's electrical activity are not cumulative. Once patients stop taking propoxyphene, the risk will go away."

      Xanodyne is based in Newport, Ky.

      Darvon and Darvocet Being Pulled From American MarketThe painkilling medication poses a risk of fatal heart abnormalities...