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News in January 2011

No-Limit Credit Card Might Not Be Such A Good Deal

Study suggests it takes a toll on credit score

Most people who have a credit card are aware of their credit limit. But lately issuers have been providing some cards with No Pre-set Spending Limit (NPSL), which sounds like a good card to have.

Plenty of credit experts say it isn't.

The problem with unlimited credit is how it affect your credit, or FICO, score. CardHub.com produced a study of NPSL cards and how they dragged down FICO scores. The problem, they found, was in how these card issuers determined "credit utilization," a key part of the credit score.

The study also found:

  • The way that most issuers report NPSL cards often creates high utilization ratios on these accounts.
  • The credit card companies that were least transparent in disclosing this information were U.S. Bank and HSBC. These issuers declined to answer questions related to the study even though this information is readily available to their competitors.
  • NPSL cards lack the predictability of traditional credit cards, and therefore consumers who use these cards run the risk of being declined at point of sale when making large purchases.

The issuers who have NPSL cards that get reported in a way that do not affect the credit utilization ratio that FICO uses are Chase and Citi.

A hassle

The credit reporting drawbacks of these cards, coupled with the fact that No Pre-Set Spending Limit does not mean unlimited spending power as the name suggests, make these cards much more of a hassle than traditional credit cards, the study concluded.

"Consumers who use these cards are not able to manage their accounts the way they can with traditional credit cards, making them vulnerable to hits in their credit scores," the authors wrote.

Because a NPSL card does not have a credit limit, it makes it difficult to determine a consumer's credit utilization ratio, which is an important variable in calculating consumer credit scores. The credit utilization ratio is the percentage of available credit that a consumer uses.

According to FICO, the "Proportion of credit lines used (proportion of balances to total credit limits on certain types of revolving accounts)" is factored into the "Amounts Owed" portion of a consumer's score, a portion that counts for almost 30 percent of the total score.

Compounded confusion

The study says this confusion is compounded by the fact that each credit card issuer reports NPSL credit cards differently to the credit bureaus. In order to understand how the NPSL cards from different issuers affect customers' credit scores, the website contacted representatives from the 10 largest credit card issuers, based on outstanding balances. It also contacted a representative from FICO to understand what information FICO uses to calculate utilization ratios.

"Based on the results of these inquires, we found that not all NPSL cards are included in the credit utilization variable of consumers' credit scores," the authors write. "A FICO spokesperson confirmed that these cards are only included in the utilization ratio if their trade line is categorized as a revolving credit card and either a credit limit or high balance amount is reported. Additionally, if the account is reported as an open line of credit, as opposed to a revolving credit card, it will be excluded from utilization calculations."

The FICO representative explained that in the absence of a reported credit limit, FICO will look to the high balance to use as the 'limit' in utilization ratios. A high balance or high credit is the highest balance reported to the credit bureaus, sometimes within a certain time period and sometimes over the life of the account.

Is there any good reason to have a NPSL card? It depends. Some NPSL cards offer attractive rewards, like generous air miles, and include perks not available on other cards. Still, those benefits should be weighed against a possible hit to your credit score.

 

A study finds that No Pre-set Spending Limit credit cards can have a negative impact on your FICO score....

CDC Finds No Evidence Imported Drywall Caused Homeowner Deaths

Study of 11 deaths finds all involved long-term chronic disease

Killer drywall? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says no. The CDC investigated 11 deaths of people who had lived in or visited homes that contained Chinese drywall that caused unpleasant odors, corroded metals and made homes uninhabitable.

The CDC reviewed each of the deaths, which occurred in Louisiana, Virginia and Florida but said it found no evidence that the drywall was a contributing factor in any of the deaths.

However, the CDC said government agencies should continue monitoring health reports involving exposure to imported drywall.

The problem was originally blamed on a shortage of American-manufactured drywall, ostensibly due to the housing boom and extensive construction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Recently, however, suspicions have arisen that the problem dates back further. Some Florida experts have suggested that the defective drywall was installed as early as 2004.

Many homeowners complained of headaches, dry eyes, and bloody noses, among other allergy-like symptoms, but the most serious documented damage was to wiring and appliances that were damaged by sulfuric gases emitted by the Chinese drywall.

In Louisiana, the CDC team reviewed five deaths involving persons aged 59-78. All five had multiple long-term, severe, preexisting chronic health conditions including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and lupus.

In Virginia, an 82-year-old person who suffered from chronic heart disease died of pneumonia. The medical examiner found no clinical evidence that exposure to sulfur gases played any role in the death.

In Florida, five deaths involved individuals aged 60-86. All had severe preexisting health conditions. Four had cancer, two had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and another was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

"Based on the review of the records and available information by the state public health authorities exposure to imported drywall was not believe to be a contributing factor in these deaths," the CDC's report said.

The CDC study was requested by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which has been leading the federal government's response to the problem. CPSC said it is "in the final stages of competing its scientific investigation" into the problem drywall.

CDC Finds No Evidence Imported Drywall Caused Homeowner Deaths. Study of 11 deaths finds all involved long-term chronic disease....

Reinsurance Broker Guy Carpenter Agrees to $4.25 Million Antitrust Settlement

Company conspired to inflate insurance costs nationwide, Connecticut charged

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen today announced a $4.25 million settlement with one of the world’s largest reinsurance brokers, Guy Carpenter & Company, LLC, and Excess Reinsurance Company, ending a landmark antitrust case that began in October 2007.

The settlement resolves claims that Guy Carpenter orchestrated a series of conspiracies in the reinsurance industry that illegally inflated insurance and reinsurance costs nationwide.

Under terms of the agreement, Guy Carpenter and Excess Reinsurance deny all liability, but will pay the state $4.25 million to settle the lawsuit. In addition, Guy Carpenter will undertake significant nationwide business reforms, including enhanced disclosure and a formalized system for obtaining competitive quotes to ensure its clients receive the best rates and terms for insurance.

“Like the lawsuit, this settlement is ground-breaking in that it requires Guy Carpenter and a number of reinsurers to change the way they conduct business – not just in Connecticut, but on a nationwide basis,” Jepsen said. “As a result of the business reforms that Guy Carpenter has agreed to, the market for reinsurance will be more transparent, more competitive and, ultimately, may lead to lower prices for insurance.”

The litigation against the two companies was the first of its kind brought by an antitrust enforcement agency – state or federal—in the reinsurance industry, and previously resulted in a $1.3 million settlement with The Hartford Financial Services Group in October 2009. Terms of the latest settlement remain in effect for five years.

Reinsurance is purchased by insurance companies to cover exposure to claims on the policies they write. Because the cost of reinsurance is typically passed on to consumers, anti-competitive practices by reinsurers drive up prices to individuals and businesses purchasing the coverage.

Anti-competitive practices can also hurt other reinsurance companies seeking to compete for the business in an open market.

Jepsen commended Guy Carpenter and Excess Reinsurance for agreeing to the settlement. “Guy Carpenter has chosen to make significant changes to the way it does business. These changes will not only benefit its clients, but the reinsurance industry in general,” Jepsen said.

The state sued Guy Carpenter in 2007 for allegedly orchestrating a series of conspiracies with dozens of reinsurers, including Excess Re in which Guy Carpenter was a part owner, which illegally inflated costs for insurance companies and consumers nationwide over several decades.

According to the allegations in the complaint, Guy Carpenter created select groups of reinsurers, which it called “facilities,” and funneled lucrative reinsurance business to those co-conspirators for undisclosed commissions and other benefits. The reinsurers in the groups agreed not to compete against the prices or terms set by Guy Carpenter for the business. The practice essentially created a closed market that Guy Carpenter said was “insulated from competition” or any market forces. The state’s investigation showed the practice pushed up costs 10 to 40 percent in some cases.

The complaint alleged that the facilities were used to provide reinsurance to Guy Carpenter’s smallest clients, those who were relying on the broker’s expertise to obtain the best coverage at the lowest prices. Guy Carpenter never disclosed its relationship with the other companies in the

facilities or that it was often setting the price and terms for reinsurance contracts.

 

Reinsurance Broker Guy Carpenter Agrees to $4.25 Million Antitrust Settlement. Company conspired to inflate insurance costs nationwide....

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    Nader Urges Fiat to Recall 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees

    Calls the Jeep "a modern day Pinto for soccer moms" prone to burst into flames

    Consumer crusader Ralph Nader is calling on Fiat to recall 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, saying they are "a modern day Pinto for soccer moms with a fuel tank located dangerously behind the rear axle in the crush zone of an impact. "

    "Now that Fiat has purchased Chrysler, it has the moral obligation to remedy the deadly fuel tank design in the Jeep Grand Cherokee before more innocent victims are burned today, not only in the United States, but also in Europe,” Nader said in a speech in Milan, Italy, where he had received an award from an automotive magazine.

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been conducting an investigation of the problem and could order a recall of 3 million of the vehicles. Chrysler has defended the Jeeps and said they do not pose an unusual risk.

    NHTSA opened its investigation in August 2010 after finding that the fuel tank may have been linked to 22 crashes and 14 deaths. But the Nader-founded Center for Auto Safety says it has found 44 accidents in which the fuel tank has burst into flames, causing 64 deaths.

    "The victims include mothers like Susan Kline who had just dropped her two children off at school and was hit from behind by a 2004 Toyota Sienna when she slowed her 1996 Grand Cherokee for a car stopped in front of her," Nader said in a statement on the Center for Auto Safety Web site. 

    "Her door jammed shut in the crash and Mrs Kline struggled unsuccessfully to get out the passenger side but was burned alive." 

    Nader cited two other fatal accidents and said that in all three crashes, "the striking vehicles had low front ends that submarined under the Jeep and into the fuel system structure behind the rear axle."

    While Fiat is not responsible for the design of the 1993-2004 Grand Cherokee, "It has the moral obligation to remedy the deadly fuel tank design in the Jeep Grand Cherokee before more innocent victims are burned today, not only in the United States, but also in Europe where Chrysler marketed the Grand Cherokee since 1994 in its Build Up for Export (BUX) plan."

    Nader noted that when DaimlerChrysler owned the Jeep brand, Daimley ordered the fuel tank moved to a safer location, beginning with 2005 models.

    The subcompact Ford Pinto was recalled by Ford in 1978 after Nader and other safety advocates claimed it was unusually prone to burst into flames in rear-end collisions.

    Nader Urges Fiat to Recall 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees. Calls the Jeep "a modern day Pinto for soccer moms" prone to burst into flames....

    Don't Forget to Pee During The Super Bowl

    Health expert provides simple, yet important tips to staying injury-free on Sunday

    As millions of Americans prepare to tune into the Super Bowl this weekend, remember that a little common sense can keep the excitement on your TV screen and out of your living room.

    “I’ve seen a number of injuries, some fatal, occur on Super Bowl Sunday because people often pay more attention to the game than to their health and safety,” said Dr. Jeff Kalina, associate medical director of emergency medicine at The Methodist Hospital in Houston.

    Kalina said the ER is usually busy every year after the big game and he and his colleagues expect it to be no different on Sunday.

    While the activities that can lead to injury are obvious, like drunk driving, others, like eating too much junk food, may seem completely harmless until the damage is done.

    Kalina said stomach ailments, some severe, can occur from combining too much alcohol with too many salty, calorie-dense snack foods.

    Combining too much alcohol with the urge to watch Superbowl commercials can also lead to an embarrassing condition known as urinary retention, a condition where the bladder gets so full the muscles are not strong enough to generate a stream.

    “During most sporting events people will get up and use the restroom during the commercials and not have any problem,” said Kalina.

    But since the commercials can sometimes be the best part about Superbowl Sunday, many people forgo bathroom breaks. Kalina said the only remedy for a full, exhausted bladder is a catheter.

    Adding to the list of alcohol-related injuries that can occur on Super Bowl Sunday is a potential for domestic violence.

    “There is a lot of testosterone flying around during the Super Bowl. You mix that with alcohol and underlying relationship problems and you have a recipe for disaster,” said Kalina.

    Kalina recommends women who have a potentially violent husband on their hands should consider staying away from the house or party that night. (Or, perhaps, the overzealous hubby can stay at a buddy’s house that night until he cools off?)

    Kalina has seen all types of cases following the Super Bowl, many of which included too much alcohol: a man so drunk he broke his teeth trying to open a beer bottle, people who threw out their backs by abruptly standing to cheer, and one guy so unhappy with his losing team that he threw his television out the window of his third floor apartment.

    Luckily no one was on the street below.

    Kalina's advice for staying safe is something many football junkies might have a hard time doing: remember, the Superbowl just a game.

    “Don’t drink too much, don’t eat too much, and get up and go to the bathroom. Doing all these things will make your gathering and viewing of the Big Game much more enjoyable.”

    Don't Forget to Pee During The Superbowl Health expert provides simple, yet important tips to staying injury-free on Sunday...

    Michigan Latest State To Sue Countrywide Financial

    Seeks to recover losses from investments in Countrywide stock

    Last week the State of Oregon pulled out of a class action settlement with Countrywide Financial and filed its own action against the subprime lender, claiming its deception led to massive losses in state pension funds.

    This week the State of Michigan has followed the lead. Attorney General Bill Schuette and Treasurer Andy Dillon say the state's action against Countrywide Financial Corporation, its underwriters, auditor and some of its former executives and directors, seeks to recover $65 million in taxpayer-funded state pension funds. 

    Schuette filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, accusing the defendants of participating in a massive corporate fraud scheme that depleted State of Michigan pension funds by millions of dollars.

    "Protecting the hard-earned dollars of Michigan taxpayers from fraud is one of my top priorities," said Schuette. 

    The complaint

    In the complaint, the Attorney General's office alleges Countrywide had effectively become a subprime lender while telling investors that it continued to maintain stringent mortgage loan underwriting standards that differentiated it from its competitors and subprime lenders. 

    Throughout the March 12, 2004 through March 7, 2008 time period, Countrywide assured the market that it should not be affected by a downturn in the housing market.  However, during that period, Countrywide's stock price dropped about 90 percent, from over $35 per share to about $5 per share. 

    The suit claims this came as a result of disclosures revealing Countrywide's lax mortgage underwriting guidelines, cascading mortgage defaults, and an increased use of "pay option" adjustable rate mortgages, no documentation mortgages and other risky loan types.  This represented a loss of market capitalization of approximately $17 billion.  The State of Michigan Retirement Systems lost over $65 million.

    Inflated stock prices

    Michigan further claims that Countrywide's stock was artificially inflated during the class period because defendants made these false and misleading statements, which concealed their fundamental shift in core mortgage-related business strategy.  In addition, Countrywide also misstated their financial statements because reserves for loan losses, representation and warranty liability were materially understated.

    "Nearly 540,000 participants and beneficiaries are depending on State Pension Funds to secure their retirement," said State Treasurer Andy Dillon. "We take our obligation to protect those funds very seriously."     

    The State of Michigan Retirement Systems (SMRS), which invests on behalf of Michigan Public School Employees, State Employees, State Police and Michigan Judges, hold combined assets of approximately $47.5 billion, making the SMRS one of the largest pension systems in the nation. 

    Countrywide Financial is currently owned by Bank of America.

     

    Michigan has joined Oregon in suing Countywide Financial, because of its steep stock price declines....

    What Happened To the Savings Rate?

    Consumers are spending more, saving less

    When the U.S. economy drove off a cliff in October 2008, one result was a higher savings rate for consumers. Instead of running up a bigger balance on credit cards, consumers were suddenly socking away cash for a rainy day.

    While that's admirable thrift when analyzed on an individual basis, it didn't do much for economic growth, which economists held out as the best hope for pulling us out of the economic quicksand. Now, there are signs consumers are resuming some of their old habits.

    The U.S. Commerce Department reports Americans earned more and spent more in December. Personal income was up 0.4 percent for the last month of the year, with real personal consumption spending rising an identical amount.

    Year-end spending spree

     "Today's data show consumer spending clearly accelerated at the end of last year," said Acting Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank. "Personal income also posted stronger gains in the fourth quarter compared to the third."

    As he broke down the data, economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, of Holland, Pa., found consumers increased their spending on bigger ticket durable goods. But it wasn't confined to that.

    "Critically, purchases of services -- which constitute about seventy percent of spending -- are starting to come back," Naroff said. "People are buying the little things that make them happy and that points to rising confidence a better future spending ahead.

    A consumer with the means and confidence to spend bodes well for the future of the economy, Blank says. And more help may be on the way.

    "Looking ahead, we expect disposable personal income to get a boost from the Middle Class Tax Relief Act of 2010, which increases the take-home pay of many working families," she said, 

    Tax holiday

    That measures reduces the payroll tax by two percent for wage-earners. While adding to the short-term budget deficit, the tax holiday will put more money in consumers' pockets -- money economists and administration officials hope consumers will spend.

    Naroff notes consumers' income rose more from investments rather than wages. While money is money, he says dividends and interest aren't enough to drive economic growth.

    "We really do need greater increases in wages and salaries if consumers will keep going back to the malls and showrooms," he said. 

    While the savings rate fell again in December, it's still at five percent. That may be a healthy level, as far as stimulating economic growth is concerned.

    "It is likely that the savings rate will fall some more but there is only so much of future consumption growth that can be funded out of savings given the cautious nature of households," Naroff said.

    Naroff says it's still all about jobs, since more employees means more income and more spending.  

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    The Commerce Department reports the savings rate fell again in December, as consumers spent more to stimulate the economy....

    Credit Card Chargebacks Under Attack

    "Chargeback recovery service" offers "soft" and "aggressive" collection options

    One of the major advantages of buying a product or service with a credit card is the “chargeback” – the process that allows the customer to dispute a charge if the transaction is not completed satisfactorily.

    But now, a New York company plans to change all that. US Digital Transactions Corporation (USDT) is lauching a “chargeback recovery service” that it says is aimed at combating “friendly fraud” by intimidating customers into paying and threatening to damage their credit rating if they don't.

    “'Friendly fraud" occurs when a consumer, without a valid reason, refuses acceptance of the charge for a transaction they performed and reports the false claim to their bank/card issuer requesting a refund or chargeback,'” the US Digital said in a press release today.

    The company claimed that about 20 percent of the $138 billion in annual credit card fraud is attributed to friendly fraud and said honest merchants are often the victims.

    "Chargebacks can be the most frustrating aspect of a business. The merchant must comply with regulations set forth by the card associations to refute the chargeback and most often the merchant ends up losing the revenue. A merchant can also lose their ability to accept credit/debit cards if the percentage of chargebacks is too high," said Greg Wooten, US Digital CEO.

    USDT said it would offer businesses both “soft and aggressive options for revenue recovery.”

    The “soft” option would consist of “an easy-to-use, fully automated and economical flat fee collection service whereby a merchant sends a series of time-tested debt collection letters to the debtor and receives 100% of all collected revenue. This option will additionally report the debt to all three major credit bureaus.”

    The company's press release didn't spell out what the “aggressive” option would consist of.

     

    Credit Card Chargebacks Under Attack. "Chargeback recovery service" offers "soft" and "aggressive" collection options....

    Feds Announce New Dietary Guidelines

    Aim is to help consumers make healthier food choices and confront obesity epidemic

    The Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) have released of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the federal government's evidence-based nutritional guidance.

    The goal of the guidelines is to promote health, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and reduce the prevalence of overweight and obesity through improved nutrition and physical activity.

    Fighting obesity

    Because more than one-third of children and more than two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese, the 7th edition of the guidelines places stronger emphasis on reducing calorie consumption and increasing physical activity.

    “The 2010 Dietary Guidelines are being released at a time when the majority of adults and one in three children is overweight or obese and this is a crisis that we can no longer ignore,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.  “These new and improved dietary recommendations give individuals the information to make thoughtful choices of healthier foods in the right portions and to complement those choices with physical activity.  The bottom line is that most Americans need to trim our waistlines to reduce the risk of developing diet-related chronic disease. Improving our eating habits is not only good for every individual and family, but also for our country.”

    The new 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans focus on balancing calories with physical activity, and encourage Americans to consume more healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and seafood, and to consume less sodium, saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and refined grains.

    “Helping Americans incorporate these guidelines into their everyday lives is important to improving the overall health of the American people,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “The new Dietary Guidelines provide concrete action steps to help people live healthier, more physically active and longer lives.”

    The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans include 23 Key Recommendations for the general population and six additional Key Recommendations for specific population groups, such as women who are pregnant. Key Recommendations are the most important messages within the Guidelines in terms of their implications for improving public health.  The recommendations are intended as an integrated set of advice to achieve an overall healthy eating pattern.  To get the full benefit, all Americans should carry out the Dietary Guidelines recommendations in their entirety.

    Tips for healthy eating

    More consumer-friendly advice and tools, including a next generation Food Pyramid, will be released by USDA and HHS in the coming months. Below is a preview of some of the tips that will be provided to help consumers translate the Dietary Guidelines into their everyday lives:

    • Enjoy your food, but eat less.
    • Avoid oversized portions.
    • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
    • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.
    • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals – and choose the foods with lower numbers.
    • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

     

    Healthier lives

    This edition of the Dietary Guidelines comes at a critical juncture for America’s health and prosperity.   By adopting the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines, the government says, people can live healthier lives and contribute to a lowering of health-care costs, helping to strengthen America’s long-term economic competitiveness and overall productivity.

    USDA and HHS conducted the review of the scientific literature and developed and issued the 7th edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in a joint effort that is mandated by Congress. The guidelines form the basis of nutrition education programs, federal nutrition assistance programs such as school meals programs and Meals on Wheels programs for seniors, and dietary advice provided by health professionals.

    The Dietary Guidelines, based on the most sound scientific information, provide authoritative advice for people two years and older about how proper dietary habits can promote health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases, officials say.

    Feds Announce New Dietary Guidelines Aim is to help consumers make healthier food choices and confront obesity epidemic ...

    Jr. Texas Taffy Pet Treats Recalled

    Possible Salmonella contamination feared

    Merrick Pet Care, Inc. of Amarillo, Texas is recalling the Jr. Texas Taffy pet treat (ITEM # 27077, UPC # 02280827077, All Lots up to and including 10364) because they have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.  Merrick Pet Care has made the decision to recall all Jr. Texas Taffy pet treats in the abundance of caution. Salmonella can affect animals and there is risk to humans from handling contaminated pet products.

    People handling the treats can become infected with Salmonella, especially if they have not thoroughly washed their hands after having contact with the chews or any surfaces exposed to these products.  Consumers should dispose of these products in a safe manner by securing them in a covered trash receptacle. 

    Healthy people infected with Salmonella should monitor themselves for some or all of the following symptoms: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping and fever. Rarely, Salmonella can result in more serious ailments, including arterial infections, endocarditis, arthritis, muscle pain, eye irritation, and urinary tract symptoms. Consumers exhibiting these signs after having contact with this product should contact their healthcare providers immediately.

    Pets with Salmonella infections may be lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Some pets will have only decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain. Infected but otherwise healthy pets can be carriers and infect other animals or humans. If your pet has consumed the recalled product and has these symptoms, please contact your veterinarian immediately.

    TheJr. Texas Taffy was shipped to distributors and retailers throughout the US.  These individuals have been notified and have activated their recall procedures.

    No illnesses have been reported to date.

    Consumers who have purchased the Jr. Texas Taffy are urged to return the unused portion to the place of purchase for a full refund. Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-800-664-7387 M-F 8:00am – 5:00pm CST.

    Jr. Texas Taffy Pet Treats Recalled. Possible Salmonella contamination feared....

    Consumers Union Rankled By Changes In Wireless Plans

    Group presses companies to step up effort to notify consumers

    AT&T and Verizon have made some changes in their wireless plans and Consumers Union (CU) isn't happy about it. 

    The nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports has written the chief executives of the two firms and the head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), calling on the firms to alert their customers.

    AT&T has made extensive changes to its text messaging plans and upgrade discount program, while Verizon has ended its upgrade discount program.

    Consumer notice

    In separate letters to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, Verizon CEO Daniel Mead, and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, CU policy counsel Parul P. Desai said the companies need to step up their efforts to inform consumers about the changes and the implications for their pocketbooks -- including any overage charges that may occur.

    She said the companies should notify each customer affected by the changes individually and make all consumers aware of the specifics of the plans at the point of sale.

    “In light of the tough economic times many consumers are facing, these companies need to provide greater transparency in, and disclosure of, these new plans and terms of service,” Desai said.

    Texting changes

    AT&T Wireless has dropped its $5/200 text messages-per-month plan and its $15/1500 text messages-per-month plan. The only options for consumers are $10 a month for 1000 messages or $20 a month for unlimited messages.

    AT&T has also changed part of its upgrade discount program, which let customers upgrade their phone after two years and receive a discount of $50 or $100 off of the subsidized phone price. New customers no longer have this option, and current customers now have until July 23 to exercise this upgrade discount.

    Discount plan changes

    Verizon Wireless has discontinued its upgrade discount plan New Every Two, which allowed customers that were renewing their contracts to receive an additional discount on top of the subsidized price of the phone they purchased. Now current customers can redeem the New Every Two benefit just one more time, and they will not be eligible for it after that.

    In her letter to the FCC, Desai noted that the agency is currently looking at cell phone "bill shock" and the need for greater transparency and disclosure of business practices. She urged the FCC to swiftly resolve these proceedings “so that all carriers would be required to appropriately notify consumers of rates, terms of service, overage charges and other relevant information.”

    Consumers Union rankled by changes in wireless plans Group presses companies to step up effort to notify consumers ...

    Super Bowl Ads: Are They Worth It?

    Expert on commercials says sponsors probably aren't getting their money's worth

    One of the fun things about watching the Super Bowl on TV is seeing some of the ads companies come up with. They often are more entertaining that what's happening on the field. In fact, some newspapers devote entire columns to reviewing the commercials as though they were the main event.

    But when all is said and done, do they get the job done? Probably not, says Richard Feinberg, a consumer psychologist in Purdue University's Department of Consumer Sciences and Retailing.

    Huge audience, huge stakes

    An estimated 110 million people are expected to watch the Feb. 6 Super Bowl. When they aren't watching the football matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, they'll be bombarded by more than 100 commercials for everything from beer to clothing to cars. Thirty-second ads will cost between $2.8 million and $3 million.

    The problem, Feinberg says, is that the $3 million gets just one play of the commercial, and that one airing may not compel consumers to get off the couch and buy the product.

    "Since repetition is the foundation of consumer memory, companies just might be better off with 10 $300,000 commercials than one $3 million commercial," he says.

    The disconnect

    Research suggests many viewers like the ads as much as or more than the game itself, Feinberg says. While the extra attention further enhances the effect of a 30-second commercial, liking an ad doesn't necessarily lead to sales.

    A study by Feinberg suggests that even if people watch the commercials, they have a limited impact on longer-term memory. And if consumers cannot remember the companies or the products, the commercials do not lead to sales.

    He asked 100 consumers who watched the 2010 Super Bowl to recall details from as many of the commercials as they could. About 30 percent could accurately recall at least one company with a commercial, but respondents had low confidence in their memory, indicating that they "thought" that the company had a commercial. Few could accurately recall details of the commercials.

    No guarantee

    Feinberg says the most effective Super Bowl commercials are connected to a range of social media, other advertisements and promotions. The use of animals, humor, special effects and celebrities increase memorability, but that alone does not mean an increase in sales, he says.

    "Super Bowl commercials are celebrated for their creativity and humor, but that doesn't guarantee that consumers will become more aware of a product or make a purchase more likely than if the money had been spent in a less expensive but still effective way," Feinberg says.

    Super Bowl Ads: Are They Worth It?Expert on commercials says sponsors probably aren't getting their money's worth...

    When Deducting Mileage, Keep Careful Records

    The mileage deduction can add up, but you may be asked to provide proof

    The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) allows you to deduct mileage on your personal vehicle under certain circumstances. But you need to know what those circumstances are, and keep careful records.

    For example, the IRS allows business owners using their vehicle for company business to deduct 50 cents per mile driven on their 2010 tax return. The rate also has been set for 2011 at 51 cents per mile.

    You can also deduct what are called “medical miles.” These are trips to the doctor or for medical treatment. Mileage can be deducted at 16.5 cents per mile for 2010 and 19 cents per mile for 2011.

    If you do volunteer work for a qualified charity, the IRS allows you to deduct mileage at the rate of 14 cents per mile, for both 2010 and 2011.

    Estimates won’t cut it

    But you can’t guess or estimate at the mileage. The IRS will want to see a log of the travel, made at the time the mileage is incurred. The log needs to show the mileage at the start of the trip and at the end, along with the date and purpose of the trip.

    Some examples of mileage that can be deducted as business travel include:

    • If you work from a home office -- driving from your home office to meet a client for business purposes
    • When you drive to a bank to make deposits or other business transactions
    • When you drive to pickup mail from your P.O. Box or from your UPS Store
    • When you drive to the Post Office to buy stamps (for your business of course) or send business mail
    • When you drive to an office supply store to make purchases for your business

    Technology aid

    The CarCheckup is a device made to provide diagnostic help for carowners. It works with foreign and domestic makes, starting with the 1996 model year. It can tell owners how the engine is performing and why, for example, the “check engine” light is on.

    But the company also says it can be useful if you need to keep a log of your mileage for tax purposes.

    “Consumers are equipping themselves with a gadget that lets them track and store vehicle mileage online so it’s simple to deduct from their taxes,” said company spokesman Jim Hoff.

    The cellphone-sized device plugs directly into your car’s diagnostic port, required on all vehicles made after 1996 and usually located just under the steering column, and records information from the vehicle’s computer while you drive. Then, you remove it, swing out the build-in USB port, and plug it into your computer. CarCheckup will automatically upload your car’s data including the date, time, mileage and more for each trip.

    Hoff quotes the IRS as saying “if you prepare a record in a computer memory device with the aid of a logging program, it is considered an adequate record."

    You can check out the IRS rules on business travel here.

    If you choose to deduct vehicle mileage, keep in mind that you can’t deduct gasoline purchases or maintenance expenses. However, you may be able to deduct fees and taxes, interest on your vehicle loan, and qualifying tolls and packing expenses. Check with your accountant or tax professional to make sure you qualify for a mileage deduction.

    A technological aid might help you keep track of deductible vehicle miles....

    Why You Shouldn't Trust Those Debt Settlement Commercials

    Beware of the false promises they advertise and advance fees

    You can't listen to satellite radio or watch cable TV without being bombarded by commercials for companies claiming they can help you reduce your debt, whether it be to credit card companies or the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

    A common characteristic of these ads is the warning that "there are a lot of scammers" out there making similar claims, but that you can trust them. How do you know? You might not want to take their word on that score. (Read consumer complaints about debt settlement companies).

    Another common trait of these commercials is the disclaimer "if you have $10,000 or more in credit card debt..." they can help you. Why $10,000?

    Because many companies charge a percentage -- usually around 10 percent -- of your total debt as their fee. The more money you owe, the more you will have to pay them. If your debt is less than $10,000, they really aren't interested in helping you because their fee would be too low.

    The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) amended the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) last year to add specific provisions to curb deceptive and abusive practices associated with debt relief services. One key change is that many more businesses will now be subject to the TSR.

    The new rule expands the scope to cover not only outbound calls from the companies but inbound calls from consumers, in response to advertisements and other solicitations. There are three main changes to the rule, but one in particular will have the most impact.

    No more upfront fees

    Businesses can't collect any fees from a customer before they have settled or otherwise resolved the consumer's debts. If a company renegotiates a customer's debts one after the other, it can collect a fee for each debt it has renegotiated, but it can't front-load payments.

    That means they can't charge any money up front. They must do the work before they get paid. This makes the debt settlement business much more risky and less lucrative. If a company demands an upfront payment from you, it is violating the law. You should assume it's a scam.

    In the past ten years, the FTC and state law enforcement partners have filed more than 250 actions to stop deceptive and abusive practices by members of the debt relief industry. Even so, you should not assume that the remaining companies will always play by the rule.

    Review the changes in the law

    Instead of believing what the companies say in their commercials, consumers should know and understand the changes in the FTC rules by which the agency hopes to prevent consumer fraud. In addition to not allowing advance fees for services, the rule also prevents debt settlement companies from charging consumers until:

    • They successfully settle or otherwise change the terms of at least one of the customer's debts;
    • There's a settlement agreement, debt management plan, or other agreement that has the OK of both the creditor and the customer; and
    • The customer has made at least one payment to the creditor as a result of the agreement negotiated by the debt relief provider.

     If customers enroll multiple debts in a company's program, the rule makes it clear they can't front-load their fees.

    Consumers should perhaps take all these debt settlement commercials with a grain of salt. After all, settling debt is not as easy as many people make it sound.

    "Many people owe money on their credit cards and are struggling to keep up with their bills because of the bad economy," said Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson last year, after suing six debt settlement companies doing business in her state. "People who are swimming in debt are often desperate for a life preserver, but they should know that debt settlement companies usually just anchor them down with even more financial problems."

     

    There are new rules for debt settlement companies, but that doesn't mean they all are obeying them....

    Ticketmaster Settles Class Action Suit Challenging Order ProcessingFee

    Company sets aside $22 million to pay consumers, lawyers

    Ticketmaster has agreed to settle a class action lawsuit that charged its order processing fee was a “profit component” unrelated to actual expenses and alleged its UPS delivery option included an artificial mark-up.

    The suit was originally filed in Los Angeles in October 2003. It was broadened to a class action late last year to include anyone who purchased tickets through Ticketmaster.com from October 1999 through May 2010.

    The settlement was revealed in a routine SEC filing by Live Nation Entertainment, Ticketmaster's parent company.

    Consumers who qualify as plaintiffs will be entitled to receive a cash payment from Ticketmaster or discounts off future ticket purchases.

    The company said it had "not acknowledged any violations of law or liability in connection with the matter, but have agreed to the settlement in order to eliminate the uncertainties and expense of further protracted litigation."

    Ticketmaster has long been the source of consumer complaints about high service fees and other allegedly abusive charges and activities. The merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster was slowed last year by Congressional inquiries and an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and 17 states.

    As a result of the combined federal and state efforts, the newly combined company was required to make significant changes to the merger agreement.

    "Our office became concerned that Live Nation and Ticketmaster would be the only option to get tickets to concerts when they announced their merger," said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in January 2010. "We are pleased with [the] settlement, which should create a more competitive ticketing market.

    At issue was competition and the price consumers have to pay for tickets. In 2008, Ticketmaster had 80 percent of the primary ticketing services market. Ticketmaster and Live Nation - Ticketmaster's primary source of competition - announced plans to merge in February 2009.

    After reviewing the proposed merger, the Department of Justice and 17 state Attorneys General decided that divestitures and anti-retaliation provisions were necessary to protect competition. Ticketmaster must provide access to one of its major technology platforms and sell Paciolan, a Delaware corporation that provides ticketing services throughout the United States and is owned by Ticketmaster. The federal and state officials are hoping to eliminate consumer complaints, like this one about Ticketmaster:

    “Every time I am forced to use this company I am infuriated," Melanie, of Calabasas, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com last year. "This time, after five phone calls lasting over three hours in length total, I received one ticket and $15.00 worth of extortionate charges, which are each hilariously termed from facilities charge, convenience charge, processing fee and my favorite TicketFast (printing fee). This is outrageous."

    In 2009, the state of New Jersey has reached a settlement with Ticketmaster to resolve more than 2,000 complaints from consumers who said they were unfairly denied tickets to two concerns by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

     

    Ticketmaster Settles Class Action Suit Challenging Order Processing Fee. Company sets aside $22 million to pay consumers, lawyers....

    Google Reaches Agreement With Connecticut Over Street View Data

    Company accidentally gathered data from unencrypted neworks

    Google has reached an agreement with Connecticut over the “payload data” the company accidentally collected from consumers and businesses in the state during 2008 and 2009.

    The data was collected using Street View cars equipped with cameras an a Wi-Fi antenna. The antenna inadvertently collected data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

    Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen and Consumer Protection Commissioner Jerry Farrell said Friday they have reached an agreement with Google, Inc. over the company’s objection to a demand that it produce the data.

    The stipulation will allow Google and the state of Connecticut, and the 40-state coalition it is leading, to begin negotiations to resolve the data collection issue without going to court to enforce a subpoena issued in December on behalf of the state.

    Google has said it is "profoundly sorry" for having mistakenly collected payload data from unencrypted wireless networks.

    "As soon as we realized what had happened, we stopped collecting all Wi-Fi data from our Street View cars and immediately informed the authorities," a company spokesman said. "We did not want and have never used the payload data in any of our products and services.”

    The company has said that it wanted to delete the data but was barred from doing so by the subpoena issued by Jepson's predecessor, Richard Blumenthal. Google had been fighting the subpoena but the agreement reached Friday resolved the issue.

    “This is a good result for the people of Connecticut. The stipulation means we can proceed to negotiate a settlement of the critical privacy issues implicated here without the need for a protracted and costly fight in the courts, although we are ready to do so if we are unable to come to a satisfactory agreement through negotiation,” Jepsen said.

    The subpoena was issued after Google refused to provide access to information requested to confirm that Google had gathered private information and to determine the frequency of any violations of law. Google has now stipulated that while collecting network identification information for use in offering “location aware” services, it did in fact collect and store the payload data that contained private information.

    In particular, Google stipulates, for purposes of settlement discussions, that the payload data collected contained URLs of requested Web pages, partial or complete e-mail communications or other information, including confidential and private information the network user was transmitting over the unsecured network while Google’s Street View car was within range.

    Google also will not contest during settlement negotiations that such private information was collected every day that the Street View cars operated.

    Negotiations with Google are continuing.

    Google, Reaches Agreement With Connecticut Over Street View Data. Company accidentally gathered data from unencrypted neworks....

    Illinois Sues Chicago Duct-Cleaning Company

    Suit charges firm fraudulently charged to fix non-existent mold, mildew damage

    Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed a lawsuit against a Chicago area air duct and vent cleaning company for soliciting work it failed to complete and for repeatedly misleading consumers, particularly senior citizens, to purchase services they didn’t need.

    Madigan’s lawsuit was filed in Cook County Circuit Court against Moshe Kesem, of Schaumburg, and his two business entities, Warranty USA Inc. and Air Duct Cleaning Pros, both based in Schaumburg. The suit alleges that since November 2009 Kesem has fraudulently charged consumers for expensive mitigation of mold and mildew damage that did not actually exist in their homes.

    “This company targeted vulnerable seniors and deceived homeowners into purchasing services they didn’t need,” Madigan said. “Consumers should know illegitimate contractors are always scamming people out of their hard-earned money. So homeowners need to investigate contractors before signing contracts and beginning projects. Never get pressured to rush into a contract.”

    The Attorney General alleges Kesem showed consumers fake pictures of extensive mold or mildew damage to their homes in order to charge them for clean-up and other services. The suit alleges homeowners who contracted work through Kesem at advertised discounts later were charged for additional services they did not request or approve. Madigan also alleges Kesem regularly tacked on fraudulent services that were not necessary to address fictional problems—sometimes adding more than $1,000 to the bill.

    The defendant was known to target seniors for services they did not need and charge extra costs for work his company did not do. Some consumers objected to the high costs, while others paid the defendant to avoid his threats demanding payment. One consumer reported spending $2,494 so that Kesem and his workers would leave her home.

    Consumers in Cook, Lake, DuPage, Will and Kane counties reported to Madigan’s office charges totaling more than $17,350 due to fraudulent contracts with the defendant.

    Madigan’s lawsuit alleges violations of the state’s Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act and the Home Repair and Remodeling Act and asks the court to prohibit the defendant from working in the home repair trade in Illinois. The suit seeks to cancel Kesem’s pending contracts and obtain restitution for affected consumers. The lawsuit also seeks to impose on Kesem a civil penalty of $50,000, penalties of $50,000 for each violation found to be committed with the intent to defraud, and additional penalties of $10,000 for each violation found to be committed against a person 65 years or older.

    Consumers can find tips for finding a reputable contractor by visiting Madigan’s website, www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov.

    Illinois Sues Chicago Duct-Cleaning Company. Suit charges firm fraudulently charged to fix non-existent mold, mildew damage....

    Class Action Takes on Groupon

    Says site's coupons contain illegal expiration date

    A class action lawsuit accuses Groupon of selling gift certificates with short expiration dates, knowing full well that many consumers won't use them in time.

    The suit, filed in federal court in the Southern District of California, takes issue with Groupon's so-called “Daily Deals” -- offerings sent out by e-mail to its “massive subscription base (comprised of tens of millions of consumers nationwide).” The offers cover a wide variety of products and services -- “restaurants and bars, salons and spas, clothing and other retail items, and ... instructional lessons” -- and are sent, as the name suggests, on a daily basis. The deals are only activated if enough consumers decide to take advantage of the offer.

    Groupon has recently caught fire with consumers looking for deals on a variety of products and services. As noted by the complaint, the company's “business model is based on offering discounts to consumers en masse by directly partnering with retail businesses that provide the products or services.” The revenue collected from Daily Deals is split between Groupon and the retailers.

    “Onerous conditions”

    The revenue-sharing arrangement is at the heart of the scheme alleged in the suit. The complaint, which also names department store Nordstrom as a defendant, says that Groupon and its participating retailers “create[] a sense of urgency among consumers to quickly purchase [Groupons] by offering 'Daily Deals' for a short amount of time, usually a 24-hour period.” Consumers buy the certificates for fear of running out of time, thereby subjecting themselves to the “onerous sales conditions imposed by Groupon, including illegal expiration terms, which are relatively short, often just a few months,” according to the complaint.

    Once consumers have their hands on a Groupon, many are unable to redeem it before the expiration date, and are thereby “left with nothing, despite already having paid for the particular service or product,” according to the suit.

    The suit notes that “the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act ('CARD Act') and the Electronic Funds Transfer Act ('EFTA') ... specifically prohibit the sale and issuance of gift certificates, such as 'groupons,' with expiration dates,” as does a California consumer protection statute.

    The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

    Groupon vs. Google

    Groupon, launched in November 2008, has quickly developed a following among cost-conscious consumers. Last year, the site collected a whopping $500 million from its sale of gift certificates, according to the suit. Last year, the site turned down a $6 billion dollar offer from Google, citing the need to maintain employee morale and relationships with clients.

    Thoroughly spurned, Google wasted no time in announcing that it was testing a Groupon competitor -- Google Offers. Google spokesman Neil Tyler said the web giant was “communicating with small businesses to enlist their support and participation in a test of a prepaid offers/vouchers program.”

    Last week, tech site Mashable reported that Google Offers was getting ready to launch, citing a fact sheet describing the enterprise as “a new product to help potential customers and clientele find great deals in their area through a daily email.”

    Class Action Takes on GrouponSays site's coupons contain illegal expiration date...

    Health Officials Aren't Finished With Energy Drinks

    Researchers call for more consumer education and stricter federal regulations

    Even though controversy has died down over Four Loko and other highly-caffeinated alcoholic beverages, it appears health officials still have a wary eye trained on energy drinks.

    Love Red Bull? You might want to stock up now.

    According to researchers at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and Wake Forest University School of Medicine, highly-caffeinated energy drinks -- even those containing no alcohol -- may pose a significant threat to individuals and public health.

    In a new online commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), they recommend immediate consumer action, education by health providers, voluntary disclosures by manufacturers and new federal labeling requirements.

    “Recent action to make pre-mixed alcoholic energy drinks unavailable was an important first step, but more continued action is needed,” says University of Maryland School of Public Health researcher Amelia Arria.

    “Individuals can still mix these highly caffeinated energy drinks with alcohol on their own. It is also concerning that no regulation exists with regard to the level of caffeine that can be in an energy drink.”

    Arria, who also directs the Center on Young Adult Health and Development, and co-author Mary Claire O’Brien, associate professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, alerted various state attorneys general to the risks of alcoholic energy drinks starting in 2009.

    These actions culminated last November in actions against Four Loko and similar products by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission.

    HEALTH RISKS

    The JAMA paper cites three public health concerns surrounding all packaged energy drinks containing moderate to high levels of caffeine:

    Consumers often mix alcohol and energy drinks: “Energy drinks have become enmeshed in the subculture of partying,” the paper says.

    “The practice of mixing energy drinks with alcohol -- which is more widespread than generally recognized -- has been linked consistently to drinking high volumes of alcohol per drinking session and subsequent serious alcohol-related consequences such as sexual assault and driving while intoxicated… Research has demonstrated that individuals who combine energy drinks with alcohol underestimate their true level of impairment.”

    Caffeine can have adverse health effects in susceptible individuals: “Therefore continued public health awareness regarding high levels of caffeine consumption, no matter what the beverage source, in sensitive individuals is certainly warranted,” the researchers write.

    Energy drink use appears to be associated with alcohol dependence and other drug use: More research is needed to clarify the possible mechanisms underlying the associations that have been observed in research studies.

    The researchers recommend several “proactive steps to protect public health:”

    • Health care professions should inform their patients of the risks of consuming highly caffeinated energy drinks;
    • Individuals should educate themselves about those risks;
    • Manufacturers should warn consumers about the risks of mixing their products with alcohol;
    • Regulatory agencies should require energy drink manufacturers to disclose caffeine content on product labels and display appropriate warnings.

     

    Health Officials Aren't Finished With Energy Drinks Researchers call for more consumer education and stricter federal regulations...

    Volt Surges Forward, Prius Plugs In, Volvo Tries to Catch Up

    Automakers trying various formulas to gain an edge in the hybrid/EV race

    General Motors is putting the hammer down and says it will launch the Chevrolet Volt in all 50 states by the end of the year. It had planned to roll out the Volt in only six states this year but is stepping up production because of increased interest from customers, said Rick Scheidt, Chevrolet vice president of U.S. marketing.

    Volt deliveries began in December and initial plans were to sell the nearly-all-electric car in California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Texas and Michigan this year.

    But Scheidt said customers will be able to order Volts from dealers nationwide beginning in April. Deliveries will begin in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii in the third quarter.

    “This is the right thing to do for our customers and our dealers who are seeing increased traffic onto their showroom floors,” Scheidt said.

    Plug-in Prius

    Toyota is racing to get its plug-in Prius model ready for a retail launch next year. As part of its development process, the company has loaned 163 plug-in Priuses to universities, utilities and Zipcar and other car-sharing services.

    During the tests, the Priuses will be periodically examined by Toyota dealers, who'll perform data downloads to analyze driving and charging patterns.

    The plug-in Prius – called the Prius PHV – currently has a 13-mile EV-only range and can be charged from a standard 110-volt outlet in about three hours.

    Once its EV-only range is exhauster, it gets about 50 miles per gallon in "regular hybrid" mode.

    Volvo V60

    Volvo says it's preparing to unveil a plug-in diesel-electric hybrid, based on the V60 station wagon, at the Geneva auto show in March. Volvo says the car gets the equivalent of 124 miles per gallon and can be driven up to 31 miles using electricity only.

    The V60 hybrid is scheduled to go into production in 2012.

     

    Volt Surges Forward, Prius Plugs In, Volvo Tries to Catch Up. Automakers trying various formulas to gain an edge in the hybrid/EV race....

    Winter Storm Watch: Heed Truman's Advice

    Celebrating the obvious, Truman offers pointers for harried homeowners

    You hear all kinds of advice from government agencies when bad weather strikes. We're warned not to shovel too much snow, not to eat food that may have spoiled while the power was off and so on and so forth.

    All of this is true, of course, but the winter storms that have blasted the East Coast the last few weeks have revealed some additional pointers. Here are a few that we, in our constant search for consumer enlightenment, have established through painful trial and error.

    • Don't count on your cell phone. When the lights went out in suburban Washington, D.C., this week, most of us immediately dived smartly for our smartphones, swamping the networks. A call from down the block sounded worse than the first words from the moon. It didn't matter all that much since our battery soon failed anyway. Our HTC Incredible is normally hard-pressed to run for an entire day on its battery. It lasted about eight hours after the lights went out.

    • Don't count on your Kindle. We went cold turkey Wednesday morning when, for whatever reason, the Wall Street Journal didn't arrive on our Kindle. We had sacrificed a few hours of reading Tuesday night to keep the battery fresh for the morning, but our efforts were in vain, and our Tuesday night was very boring.

    • Don't rent an expensive Pay Per View movie on a stormy winter evening. When the power goes out and stays out, your purchase flies off into the void.

    • Watch where you park. We were careful not to park any of our fleet where it might be obliterated by passing snow plows, rare though such things are in our neck of the woods. What we didn't think of was the big tree that used to lean over our driveway. It doesn't lean anymore. Weighted down with snow, it fell onto our month-old Volkswagen.

    • Those paper fire logs? Yeah, they look nice but they don't generate much heat. We had to wade out into the snow to retrieve some actual firewood from our long-neglected woodpile. It's hard to get wet hard wood burning but when you do, it will warm up a room nicely. (Cautionary note from our legal department: Only try this if you have a fireplace. Be sure to open the damper.)

    • Be careful with candles. They are incredibly dangerous. Left to their own devices, other family members will put them in bookcases, next to piles of laundry and in the exact location where the cat is likely to leap.

    • Don't assume the dogs are OK. Huddled beneath piles of blankets deep in the night, we noticed the dogs – who are not welcome under the covers -- were shivering. We got them their own blanket, which seemed to resolve the issue.

    • Keep at least one faucet open slightly to keep water moving in your pipes. Frozen pipes are no fun.

    • Drain your garden hoses before winter settles in. Gazing out the kitchen window at the Winter Hinterland, we discovered what seemed to be sleet but was in fact our garden hose exploding and shooting ice all over our deck, which subsequently became quite slippery.

    • Don't go to a lot of trouble digging out your electric snow-blower. It won't work very well without electricity.

    • Kick the coffee habit now!  Or make a thermos full of coffee at the first sign of bad weather.  Ever tried to make coffee on a gas grill in the middle of a blizzard?
    • Don't buy a house on a hill.

    Winter Storm Watch: Heed Truman's Advice Celebrating the obvious, Truman offers pointers for harried homeowners...

    Keeping Food Safe During An Emergency

    Winter weather events leave many homes without power

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture is issuing recommendations to help minimize the potential for foodborne illnesses in the wake of continuing winter weather patterns that dump multiple inches of snow and bring strong chilling winds that can leave wide swaths of communities without power for extended periods.

    "Food safety becomes even more of a critical public health issue when winter storms that bring heavy snow, ice, bitter cold and strong winds are part of the forecast," said USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service Administrator Al Almanza. "I want to make sure those who could be impacted by winter storms have the information they need so they can ensure the safety of the food and water they may consume, even in the event of power outages."

    Steps to follow to prepare for a possible weather emergency:

    • Keep an appliance thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer. An appliance thermometer will indicate the temperature inside the refrigerator and freezer in case of a power outage and help determine the safety of the food.

    • Make sure the freezer is at 0°F or below and the refrigerator is at 40°F or below.

    • Freeze containers of water for ice to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator or coolers after the power is out.

    • Freeze refrigerated items such as leftovers, milk and fresh meat and poultry that you may not need immediately — this helps keep them at a safe temperature longer.

    • Plan ahead and know where dry ice and block ice can be purchased.

    • Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerator food cold if the power will be out for more than 4 hours. Purchase or make ice cubes and store in the freezer for use in the refrigerator or in a cooler. Freeze gel packs ahead of time for use in coolers.

    • Group food together in the freezer — this helps the food stay cold longer.

    • Store food on shelves that will be safely out of the way of contaminated water in case of flooding.

    Steps to follow after the weather emergency:

    • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature.

    • The refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about 4 hours if it is unopened. A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) and the door remains closed.

    • Discard refrigerated perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers and deli items after 4 hours without power.

    • Food may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40° F or below when checked with a food thermometer.

    • Never taste a food to determine its safety!

    • Obtain dry or block ice to keep your refrigerator and freezer as cold as possible if the power is going to be out for a prolonged period of time. Fifty pounds of dry ice should hold an 18-cubic-foot full freezer for 2 days.

    • If the power has been out for several days, check the temperature of the freezer with an appliance thermometer. If the appliance thermometer reads 40° F or below, the food is safe to refreeze.

    • If a thermometer has not been kept in the freezer, check each package of food to determine its safety. If the food still contains ice crystals, the food is safe.

    • Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it has come into contact with flood water. Discard wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples and pacifiers.

    • Thoroughly wash all metal pans, ceramic dishes and utensils that came in contact with flood water with hot soapy water and sanitize by boiling them in clean water or by immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water.

    • Undamaged, commercially prepared foods in all-metal cans and retort pouches (for example, flexible, shelf-stable juice or seafood pouches) can be saved.

    • Use bottled water that has not been exposed to flood waters. If bottled water is not available, tap water can be boiled for safety. For more information on drinking water safely during weather emergencies, access the FSIS publication "Keeping Food Safe During an Emergency" at: www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Keeping_Food_Safe_During_an_Emergency/index.asp

    • When in Doubt, Throw it Out!

    Keeping Food Safe During An EmergencyWinter weather events leave many homes without power...

    2010 Foreclosure Activity Presents Mixed Picture

    But 'deep faultlines of risk' remain in hardest hit markets

    Foreclosure activity increased last year in 149 of the nation's 206 metropolitan areas with a population of 200,000 or more -- suggesting the foreclosure problem has yet to peak.

    But the year-end report from RealtyTrac, a foreclosure marketing firm, also showed the metro areas with the 10 highest  foreclosure rates all posted decreasing foreclosure activity since2009. Six  of the top 10 also posted decreasing foreclosure activity from 2008. Analysts say that suggests stability may be returning to the hardest-hit markets.

    "Foreclosure floodwaters receded somewhat in 2010 in the nation's hardest-hit housing markets," said James J. Saccacio, chief  executive officer of RealtyTrac. "Even so, foreclosure levels remained five to 10 times higher than historic norms in most of those hard-hit markets, where deep faultlines of risk remain and could potentially trigger more waves of  foreclosure activity in 2011 and beyond. Meanwhile foreclosures became more  widespread in 2010 as high unemployment drove activity up in 72 percent of the  nation's metro areas, many of which were relatively insulated from the initial  foreclosure tsunami."

    The usual suspects

    California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona cities accounted for 19 of the top 20  metro foreclosure rates, with Boise City-Nampa, Idaho the lone exception at No.  20. Boise also was one of only three metros in the top 20 where foreclosure  activity increased from 2009, along with the Florida metro areas of Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach at No. 13 and Tampa-St.  Petersburg-Clearwater at No. 17.

    Top 10 metro foreclosure rates

    Las Vegas-Paradise continued to post the nation's highest metro foreclosure rate, with one in  every 9 housing units (10.88 percent) receiving a foreclosure filing in 2010 -- nearly five times the national average. A total of 88,198 Las Vegas-area  properties received a foreclosure filing in 2010, a decrease of 7 percent from  2009 but still up 31 percent from 2008.

    Despite decreasing foreclosure activity from both  2009 and 2008, Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Fla., documented the nation's second highest metro  foreclosure rate -- with one in every 12 housing units (8.40 percent) receiving a  foreclosure filing in 2010. A total of 30,660 properties in the metro area  received a foreclosure filing in 2010, down 28 percent from 2009 and down 25  percent from 2008.

    Modesto, Calif., also reported a decrease in  foreclosure activity from 2009 and 2008, but the metro area still posted the  nation's third highest metro foreclosure rate with one in every 14 housing  units (7.34 percent) receiving a foreclosure filing in 2010.

    Along with Cape Coral-Fort Myers and Modesto, four other metro areas with foreclosure rates in the top 10 also reported two-year  decreases in foreclosure activity: No. 6 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario,  Calif., where foreclosure activity was down nearly 20 percent from 2009 and  nearly 10 percent from 2008; No. 7 Stockton, Calif., where foreclosure activity  was down nearly 19 percent from 2009 and nearly 25 percent from 2008; No. 8  Merced, Calif., where foreclosure activity was down nearly 31 percent from 2009  and 30 percent from 2008; and No. 10 Vallejo-Fairfield, Calif., where foreclosure  activity was down 12 percent from 2009 and 3 percent from 2008.

    Other metro areas with foreclosure rates in the top 10 were Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale at No. 4 (7.27 percent); Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach at No. 5 (7.08  percent); and Orlando-Kissimmee at No. 9 (6.86 percent).

    Foreclosure activity trends were evenly split in  the nation's 20 largest metro areas, with 10 of those metro areas showing  decreasing foreclosure activity from 2009, and 10 showing increasing  foreclosure activity from 2009.

    In its report on 2010 foreclosures, RealtyTrac finds some improvement in the nation's hardest hit housing markets....

    Guidant and Boston Scientific Sued for Selling Defective Heart Devices

    The government says the devices were implanted in Medicare patients

    The United States has filed a complaint against Boston Scientific Corp. and related Guidant entities under the False Claims Act for conduct relating to certain of its cardiac devices, according to the Justice Department (DOJ).

    The government accuses Guidant of selling cardiac devices -- the Ventak Prizm 2 and the Renewal 1 and 2 -- even though the company knew the devices were defective. Despite Guidant’s fixing the defect in these lines of devices, the company continued to sell their remaining stock of defective devices anyway.

    The devices at issue are implantable cardioverter defibrillators, which are designed to deliver therapy to prevent sudden cardiac death. They are surgically implanted into patients’ chests. When they detect an irregular heartbeat, the devices send an electrical pulse to the heart to "shock" it back to normal rhythm.

    Problems hidden

    The government’s complaint alleges that Guidant hid the problems with their defibrillators from patients, doctors and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In February 2010, Guidant pleaded guilty to misleading the FDA about the problems in the devices. A district court in Minnesota accepted the company’s plea on Jan. 12, 2011. Guidant was acquired by Boston Scientific in 2006.

    "Patients with serious heart conditions who depend on these devices should not have to second-guess whether they are safe and effective," said Tony West, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Division. "When a medical device manufacturer conceals problems with its products, as is alleged here, not only is taxpayer money wasted, but lives are put at risk."

    "When companies like Guidant request and receive federal dollars for products they know to be defective, the United States is committed to aggressively seeking the recovery of those payments," said John R. Marti, First Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota. "That is especially true when the defective products endanger human lives. In today’s environment, it is essential that Medicare and other public health care programs be made whole to ensure their continued vitality for future generations."

    The United States alleges that Guidant knew as early as April 2002 that an implantable cardiac device it manufactured and sold, known as the Prizm 2, contained a potentially life-threatening defect. The government’s complaint also maintains Guidant knew as early as November 2003 that another implantable device it manufactured and sold -- the Renewal 1 and 2 -- contained a similar, potentially life-threatening defect.

    Yet, the United States alleges that, even after Guidant took corrective action to fix the defects, the company continued to sell its stock of the old, defective versions of the devices. Moreover, as information about the cause and nature of the defect grew within the top ranks of the company, the United States contends that Guidant took steps to hide the problem from patients, doctors and the FDA.

    Failure to disclose

    According to the government’s complaint, instead of disclosing the problem, Guidant issued a misleading communication to doctors that misinformed them about the nature of the defect.

    The United States alleges that Guidant did not fully disclose the problem in the devices to doctors and the FDA until May 2005, after first being contacted by a reporter. The company subsequently recalled the devices shortly after a front-page article about the defects appeared in The New York Times.

    The United States joined a lawsuit filed under the qui tam or whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act by James Allen, who allegedly received one of the defective devices. Under the act’s qui tam provisions, a private citizen, known as a "relator," can sue on behalf of the United States and share in any recovery. The case is United States ex rel. Allen v. Guidant LLC et al., No. 11-CV-22 (D. Minn.).

    Guidant and Boston Scientific Sued for Selling Defective Heart Devices The government says the devices were implanted in Medicare patients ...

    Marginal Nursing Home Options for Poor

    Study of ZIP codes shows vulnerability of facilities

    Nursing homes in the poorest ZIP codes in the country are twice as likely to close as the richest ones, giving residents -- particularly minorities -- fewer choices for long term care.

    Overall, the United States lost five percent, or 96,902, of its total nursing home beds between 1999 and 2008, as patients with means sought assisted living or other forms of home and community-based care instead.

    Nursing homes were also 1.38 times more likely to close in the most predominantly black ZIP codes than in ZIP codes with the lowest representation of blacks, and 1.37 times as likely to close in the most predominantly Hispanic ZIP codes than in the least Hispanic areas.

    The research is reported in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

    Long-term issue

    “This is an issue that is not going to go away, precisely because of the aging of the population and the increasing bifurcation of society into rich and poor,” says Vince Mor, professor of community health at Brown University.

    Researchers, led by Zhanlian Feng, assistant professor of community health, say in the future people in poor urban neighborhoods will have to travel significantly farther to a nursing home. In ZIP codes where at least one nursing home closed during the decade, the shortest distance to another home increased to 3.81 miles from 2.73 miles.

    “The further the patient is from their neighborhood, the more difficult it is for their family members and their neighbors to come visit them,” Mor says.

    Vulnerability

    In the study period, most nursing homes, whether freestanding or on hospital campuses, in rich neighborhoods and poor ones, have become more economically vulnerable. Homes that depend on Medicare and Medicaid for most or all of their revenue -- for instance those serving poor patients -- have suffered the most pressure.

    When money becomes tight, especially at a somewhat inefficiently run home, quality of care declines, sometimes to the point where officials must consider shutting it down.

    “This leads to a moral dilemma,” Mor says. “If the local nursing home is closed because their quality is so poor, that’s good, but the cost of that closure is disproportionately borne by a community. How much do you invest in a failing facility and how do you make that investment without rewarding a bad actor who runs a lousy place?”

    Alternatives

    If finding new money for nursing homes is not the entire answer for preserving access for the poor to long-term care, another option is to shift more money toward alternatives like assisted living, home-based care and community-based care, Mor says.

    The new health care law and a system of waivers within Medicaid encourage states to do just that, but they are not targeted specifically to helping the urban poor or minorities, and they are optional programs. By contrast, reimbursements for nursing home care are legally required.

    “Given the current budget environment, it is really uncertain how sustainable these alternatives will be,” says Feng. “Nursing homes are generally perceived as a last resort,” he says, but for millions of Americans desirable options in that undesired choice continue to decline.

    The study was funded in part by the National Institute on Aging.

    Marginal Nursing Home Options for Poor Study of ZIP codes shows vulnerability of facilities ...

    Dennis Kucinich Sues Over Unwanted Olive Pit

    Congressman says 2008 incident caused him permanent damage

    It's happened to most of us: you order something with an olive in it -- maybe a salad or a sandwich -- and bite into it, discovering suddenly that the fruit is not of the pitless variety. This may lead to a grimace or, on a bad day, maybe a curse -- but a lawsuit?

    That's apparently the end game for Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who says in court papers that a wrap he ordered from a Capitol Hill cafeteria was “unwholesome and unfit for human consumption, in that it was represented to contain pitted olives, yet unknown to plaintiff contained an unpitted olive.”

    Kucinich's suit, filed Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Superior Court, says that the wrap caused him “serious and permanent dental and oral injuries requiring multiple surgery and oral procedures.” The congressman also claims that he has suffered “significant pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment.”

    Years-old incident

    Despite the significant media coverage that Kucnich's suit has engendered, the incident happened nearly three years ago -- his suit says that he purchased the wrap “on or about April 17, 2008.”

    The suit targets Restaurant Associates, which manages the cafeteria in the Longworth House Office Building, one of the four buildings used by members of the House of Representatives, as well as its parent company Compass Group.

    Kucinich, whose campaign Website labels him “America's most courageous congressman,” hasn't been publicly exhibiting any of the “pain [and] suffering” he says he has experienced. According to an ABC report, Kucinich gave a speech on the floor of the house shortly after the alleged incident occurred. He also made no public mention of the injurious sandwich until five days after the mishap.

    Negligence and warranty claims alleged

    Kucinich's lawsuit alleges counts in negligence and breach of implied warranty. As to the negligence count, his complaint says the defendants “breached [their duty of care] by serving plaintiff food that ... contained dangerous substances, namely an olive pit, that a consumer would not reasonably expect to find in the final product served.” Regarding the breach of implied warranty claim, Kucinich says that the defendants reneged on their implied promise that “food sold by them for consumption was was fit for the ordinary purposes for which such goods are used.”

    The suit, which demands damages in the amount of $150,000, was filed by Andrew R. Young, a prominent Cleveland-area attorney whose website lists him as a Super Lawyer.

    Dennis Kucinich Sues Over Unwanted Olive PitCongressman says 2008 incident caused him permanent damage...

    Even If They're Tiny, Baby Teeth Need To See Dentist, Too

    Parents urged to take kids to dentist earlier than they may think

    Most parents may not realize that about the time the first little teeth start sprouting up through their infants’ gums is the best time to start seeing a dentist.

    Think it’s too early? Temple University pediatric dentist Mark Helpin says taking your toddler to see the dentist puts him or her on the path to overall good health.

    Early start

    “A child should be first seen by a dentist by 12 months of age or within six months of the time that the first tooth emerges into the mouth,” said Helpin, who is acting chair of pediatric dentistry in Temple’s Maurice H. Kornberg School of Dentistry.

    Helpin said at such at early age, the dentist’s focus will be more on prevention than treatment, including oral hygiene instructions such as how to clean the whole mouth, diet, fluoride, non-nutritional habits such as thumb sucking and injury prevention.

    “We’re trying to follow the medical model of care for children by preventing disease from occurring before it begins,” he said. “What we want is to establish a ‘dental home’ for the child, as well as their parents, where they can go to get comprehensive and continuous oral health care.”

    Thorough exam

    According to Helpin, during the initial visit, the dentist should thoroughly exam the child’s teeth and gums, the roof and floor of the mouth and the shape of the developing jaws.

    He or she should also discuss proper diet and nutrition and show the parent or guardian how to brush at home. The dentist may also clean the child’s teeth -- even if it’s only one or two to start.

    Helpin said that although some might think preventive care is less important for baby teeth since they eventually fall out, keeping a young child’s teeth and mouth clean is imperative in order to control cavity-causing bacteria.

    “Cavities are an infectious disease and are the most common, chronic disease during childhood,” he said. “It is five times more prevalent in children than asthma. And it is entirely preventable if we begin a program of oral health care early on.”

    Need for treatment 

    Left untreated, Helpin says cavities can cause an infection that can make a child ill. Cavities can also affect the development of permanent teeth if left untreated.

    “The permanent tooth is sitting under the primary tooth and if it is exposed to this infection, it can become malformed,” he said. “In addition, the baby teeth guide the permanent teeth to where they should go in the mouth.”

    Good development in permanent teeth is important for aesthetics, chewing and biting and speech development.

    Helpin said if a primary tooth needs to be extracted due to infection caused by an untreated cavity, the permanent tooth may need assistance from a dentist in finding its proper location in the mouth.

    “It’s best to keep babies, infants, toddlers and children healthy, and that includes good oral health that starts with an early visit to the dentist,” he said.

    Even If They're Tiny, Baby Teeth Need To See Dentist, TooParents urged to take kids to dentist earlier than they may think...

    Teens With Food Allergies May Feel Unsafe in School

    Survey reveals the lack of consistency adds to the anxiety of having a life-threatening allergy

    Discussion about kids with food allergies tends to focus on the elementary school set.  Parents and teachers are encouraged to play a very active role in making sure the classroom is a safe haven for little ones.

    But what about when those young kids with food allergies enter high school?

    Despite being older and wiser, new research reveals teens with severe food allergies feel less safe and less confident school personnel will keep them safe once they leave the sixth grade.

    The study consulted directly with 20 kids -- ten children ages 8 through 12 and ten teenagers -- from various public schools in Ontario, Canada.

    All the participants have potentially life-threatening food allergies which require them to carry an injectable form of adrenaline to treat episodes should they come in contact with a food allergen.

    Both age groups said they felt isolated, excluded, or were more likely to be teased as a result of various environmental or social barriers. Most kids said they regularly miss out on school activities, camps, or time with friends.

    “I feel left out because I can’t have everything, like my friends and the other people in my family,” one 16-year-old said.

    Close friends provide key support to allergic kids but the teenage study participants said the thing that kept them from feeling totally safe in school was uninformed or misinformed teachers and school personnel.

    And while those can be found at any grade level, elementary schools were considered safer because of the stronger presence of parents and consistent routines involving supervised lunch rooms, trained staff, and better communication strategies.

    Less supervision

    High schools were perceived as less safe because of the lack of homerooms, unsupervised lunch areas where food fights sometimes take place, and more uninformed staff.

    Young children relied more on parents and teachers to cope, whereas teens often anxiously fended for themselves by avoiding risky foods, educating others, navigating confusing food labels and quickly escaping from unsafe places.

    Some felt disempowered and overburdened and even developed symptoms like constant hand washing or waiting to eat until an adult was present who was available to drive them to the hospital.

    Lead authors Nancy Fenton and Susan Elliott said the study “provided insight into more effective ways of informing educational and interventional efforts in responding to risk in schools.”

    The study is considered exploratory by the authors, who caution against broader conclusions because of its limited sample size, but said the findings also suggest teens can benefit from discussing their perceptions of the safety of their school environment in improving their ability to cope.

    The research also provides information for parents and allergic children to help inform school policies around risk management and coping.

    Food allergy affects up to 6 percent of young children and results in an estimated 150-200 fatalities each year in the U.S. and 15-20 deaths in Canada.

    Accidental exposures are common and occur in homes, camps and restaurants in addition to schools.

    The study, “Illustrating Risk: Anaphylaxis Through the Eyes of the Food-Allergic Child,” was conducted by Canadian researchers and appears in the January issue of the journal “Risk Analysis” published by the Society for Risk Analysis.

    The authors include Nancy Fenton of McMaster University, Susan J. Elliott of the University of Waterloo, Lisa Cicutto of the University of Toronto, Ann E. Clarke of McGill University, Laurie Harada of Anaphylaxis Canada, and Elizabeth McPhee of the Community Services Agency in Hamilton, Ontario.

    The research was funded by AllerGen-NCE, Inc., with the support of Anaphylaxis Canada.

    Teens With Food Allergies May Feel Unsafe in School Survey reveals the lack of consistency adds to the anxiety of having a life-threatening allergy...

    FDA Wants Safer Automated External Defibrillators

    Malfunctions and recalls have been rising steadily in recent years

    Nearly 300,000 Americans collapse from cardiac arrest each year. Quick response by medical personnel and bystanders using automated external defibrillators (AEDs) save some of them, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says there are too many instances of faulty and malfunctioning defibrillators.

    An FDA advisory panel has been studying the issue, amid reports that there have been more than 28,000 reports of defibrillators failing and at least 68 recalls issued involving hundreds of thousands of the devices over the last five years.

    Some of the malfunctions have caused or contributed to patient deaths, the FDA said, and a report found that the number of problems has been increasing over the last few years.

    Even as malfunctions and recalls increase, the medical devices industry has been pressing for less strict regulation, a suggestion the FDA has so far rejected.

    “While the FDA continues to advocate use of these important life-saving devices and is not recommending any change to current clinical practices, we believe the devices can be improved in ways that improve patient safety,” the agency said in a statement.

    Testifying before the advisory panel, Dr. Michael Carome, deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, said 17 of the recalls were serious enough to be Class I recalls, involving situations in which there is a reasonable probability that using the product will cause serious injury or death.

    Collectively, these 17 Class I recalls alone involve well over 100,000 AEDs and have resulted in deaths or life-threatening situations for many patients, Carome said.

    “In the interest of protecting public health and promoting innovation, it is imperative that FDA reject industry wishes” and maintain strict regulation of the design and manufacture of the devices, Carome said, adding that applications for new designs “must include data from robust clinical trials that reasonably assure that AEDs are safe and effective.”

    In a related development, a Read more finds that cardiac arrests that can be treated by electric stimulation, also known as shockable arrests, were found at a higher frequency in public settings than in the home. Read more

     

    FDA Wants Safer Automated External Defibrillators. Malfunctions and recalls have been rising steadily in recent years....

    Auto Warranty Marketer Booted From North Carolina

    Third firm barred from selling service contracts in last three months

    An auto service contract company that used illegal telemarketing calls to trick seniors and other car owners into signing up is now barred from operating in North Carolina, Attorney General Roy Cooper said Tuesday.

    Automotive Protection of New Jersey is the third company prohibited from selling or pitching auto service contracts in North Carolina in as many months. In November, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper won an agreement with the individuals who ran U.S. Fidelis, formerly the nation's number one seller of car service contracts. In December, Credexx and its owner were banned from doing business in the state.

    Under scrutiny

    "Each week, we hear from people who aren't getting their money's worth from auto service contracts," Cooper said. "We're watching this industry closely to protect North Carolina drivers."

    Superior Court Judge Abraham Penn Jones on Tuesday granted Cooper's request for a default judgment against Automotive Protection and its manager Christopher Doyle. The judgment resolves Cooper's suit filed against the company in February of 2009.

    Under the judgment, the defendants are prohibited from telemarketing in North Carolina and from selling or administering auto service contracts in the state. Any consumer who purchased a contract from Automotive Protection now has the option to cancel it. Automotive Protection and Doyle have also been ordered to pay $4.5 million in civil penalties, which would go to North Carolina public schools.

    Not true warranties

    Auto service contracts are different from true warranties, which are included in the price of vehicles and offered through the manufacturer. Service contracts are sold separately, usually by third party sellers, for an extra charge.  Consumers often pay more than $1,000 for an auto service contract.

    Over the years, ConsumerAffairs.com has received hundreds of complaints about various companies selling these service contracts. The most common complaint is the coverage is very limited. Often, the consumer’s needed repair isn’t covered.

    These policies are heavily marketed through direct mail and telemarketing, with an implied message that a consumer faces financial exposure if they do not purchase one of these contracts.

    Cooper says a total of 25 consumers filed complaints about Automotive Protection calls and sales practices, and the Attorney General's Office was able to work with the third-party finance company to cancel some contracts and save consumers money.

    Targeting seniors

    An investigation by Cooper's Consumer Protection Division uncovered that Automotive Protection targeted consumers aged 65 or older and frequently called people who had signed up for the Do Not Call Registry to stop telemarketing calls. The company's telemarketers tricked consumers by pretending to represent car manufacturers and claiming to sell auto service contracts that offered bumper-to-bumper protection.

    Consumers were told they could cancel anytime, but those who purchased a contract had a difficult time getting the company to honor their wish to cancel. Cooper says Automotive Protection gave out the wrong contact information to make it hard for consumers to reach the company, refused to answer the phone or return consumers' messages, and claimed they didn't receive the cancellation notices. In some cases, even when consumers cancelled properly, the defendants charged their bank accounts or credit cards anyway.

    "Think twice before you respond to a pitch for an auto service contract," Cooper urged consumers. "Do your own research to see if you really want or need extra warranty coverage. Don't just take the sellers' word for it."

    Keep the following tips in mind to avoid trouble with auto service contracts:

    • Don't fall for urgent calls or letters warning you that your car warranty is about to expire. Be sure to review your current warranty to see if it's still active and don't give in to pressure from salespeople.
    • Read both the manufacturer's warranty and the service contract carefully. If they cover many of the same parts for the same period of time, you probably don't need the service contract. 
    • Read the entire contract before you sign or pay any money. Make sure that any spoken promises are put in writing. If the service contract doesn't say that an item is covered, assume that it isn't.
    • Most extended service contracts have a deductible, meaning you'll pay a fee for each repair. Be sure to read the contract to determine if you're required to pay upfront for the repair and then wait to be reimbursed.
    • Make sure you are dealing with a reputable seller and are ready to purchase before you give them your bank account or credit card information over the telephone.

     

    The State of North Carolina has barred another telemarketer from trying to sell extended service contracts in the state....

    Ian's Recalls Two Gluten-Free Products

    Cites risk of contamination by Listeria bacteria

    Ian’s is voluntarily recalling specific lot numbers of two products due to a risk of contamination with Listeria monocytogenes. 

    Listeria monocytogenes is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people and others with weakened immune systems. 

    Although healthy persons may suffer only short-term symptoms such as high fever, severe headaches, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea, Listeria infection can cause miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women. 

    The following two products with the specific use-by dates and UPC codes listed are being recalled because they may have been distributed to retailers nationwide and sold in the frozen foods section of the supermarket:

    • 8-ounce boxes of Ian’s Wheat Free, Gluten Free Mac and No Cheese with a use-by date of 26Aug2011 and UPC code 7-49512-43670-8 (372 packages affected)

    • 8-ounce boxes of Ian’s Wheat Free, Gluten Free French Bread Pizza with a use-by date of 28Aug2011 and UPC code 7-49512-91572-2 (120 packages impacted)

     

     

    A total of 492 individual boxes are potentially affected.

     

    Consumers who purchased the above products with the specific use-by dates and UPC codes listed are asked to return the products to the place of purchase to receive a full refund.

     

    Products that do not contain the specific use-by dates and UPC codes listed are not affected by the recall, and can be used by consumers.

    Ian's Recalls Two Gluten-Free Products Cites risk of contamination by Listeria bacteria ...

    Credit Card Offers On the Increase

    But some consumers will pay higher rates and fees

    If it seems like your mailbox is overflowing with new credit card offers, it may not be your imagination. Direct mail industry sources report credit card companies, after hunkering down for more than a year, are actively looking for new customers.

    One source, Synovate's Mail Monitor, puts the total number of credit card solicitations world-wide at 2.73 billion -- a 96 percent increase over 2009. That same year, some credit card companies closed out millions of credit card accounts to reduce their risk of default.

    "Synovate Mail Monitor also recorded the third consecutive quarterly increase in credit card mailings since we hit a significant low in the third quarter of 2009," said  Anuj Shahani, Director of Competitive Tracking Services for Synovate's Financial Services group. "Despite the uncertainty introduced by the CARD Act, Fin Reg, and other such legislative changes, we are seeing the credit card issuers get back to market, trying to entice consumers once again."

    Double the offers

    During the second quarter of 2010, U.S. households received 640.3 million credit card offers -- an 83 percent increase -- versus 349.1 million offers mailed during the same time a year ago. Chase was the leading issuer, quadrupling their mailings versus the same period in the prior year.

    Citibank, the second largest mailer for the second quarter of 2010, demonstrated a major comeback by showing significant growth quarter over quarter -- almost triple their mailings from the first quarter, according to the report.

    With the economy showing signs of improvement, the lenders want your business again. They're even going after the subprime market again, through industry analysts say subprime customers will likely pay higher fees for carrying a credit card again.

    Higher rates

    They'll also pay higher interest rates. In its weekly report on current credit card rates, CreditCards.com says the average prime credit card rate is 14.72 percent. The average rate for a "bad credit" card is 24.95 percent, with some subprime cards charging double that rate.

    At least one member of Congress wants to pass a law that would cap credit card interest rates. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) has introduced legislation that would cap interest rates on credit cards and all other loans at 15 percent.

    Hinchey says the Interest Rate Reduction Act would rein in the skyrocketing rates that banks and financial institutions are charging customers with little or no warning and without any justification.

    Using cards to make ends meet

    "Many hardworking Americans are using credit cards to make ends meet in this recovering economy, but credit card companies are finding new ways to squeeze the middle class despite significant reforms in the last Congress," said Hinchey. "Credit card companies are charging interest rates as high as 50 percent, trapping millions of Americans in a spiral of debt, forcing bankruptcies, and ruining peoples financial futures. We need to put an end to this legalized loan sharking. A fair and healthy lending system is critical to the success of hardworking Americans and the recovery of the economy. This bill helps limit credit card and general lending abuse by placing a reasonable cap on the rates that can be charged to Americans."

    Hinchey says the limits in his bill are the same rules that currently apply to credit unions, which have been forbidden from charging usurious interest rates on credit cards and other loans to their members for nearly 30 years. The interest rate cap that has protected consumers at credit unions from being charged usurious interest rates has not harmed the safety and soundness of these institutions, he says, and has not negatively affected the access to credit of credit union members. Furthermore, he points out, credit unions have been able to stay afloat throughout the credit crunch and have not received one dime of taxpayer assistance.

    Hinchey says credit card debt in the U.S. still totals nearly $800 billion, despite significant reforms passed by Congress. The average American household that has credit card debt carries a balance of nearly $15,000.

     

    With the economy improving, credit card companies want your business again....

    Getting Married? Maybe You'd Better Talk About Money

    Couples would rather talk about anything but money

    Before young couples decide to get married, they may discuss lots of things: children, politics, dreams and aspirations. But chances are they haven't talked about money.

    In fact, one out of five respondents in a recent survey revealed that they avoided the subject altogether before walking down the aisle. The Zogby survey commissioned by zendough.com, part of the TransUnion credit bureau, found that nearly one in five respondents either didn't think of discussing finances before getting married or thought about having "the talk" -- but avoided the conversation.

    Only one-fourth -- 24.2 percent -- talked about finances and took the important step to create a budget before tying the knot. One-third said they did not know their spouse's credit score, even though one spouse's poor credit score could affect a couple's access to credit in the future.

    Approaching the discussion

    "Discussing finances with your significant other can be scary and awkward, but being open and honest about your individual financial situation can help you avoid issues or stress down the road," said Heather Schneider, education director for zendough.com.

    The experts at zendough.com offer the following pre-marital discussion tips:

    • Be honest with your future spouse and discuss your financial goals and dreams.
    • Make a list of creative ways to manage wedding expenses. For example, using potted flowers and making the invitations yourself can help shrink your costs without reducing your style.
    • Discuss whether to establish joint checking and savings accounts.
    • Develop a money management plan that meets both your needs.
    • Allocate part of your monthly budget to saving for a down payment on a home or other large purchase. For example, if you'll jointly earn $100,000 per year, saving 5-10 percent of that could help cover a portion of a down payment on a home.
    • Regularly review your credit and debt information to help each of you better understand your collective financial situation.

     

    Before starting a family, couples should make a list of the essentials and the "nice to haves" for the baby and focus on the essentials. For instance, it's important to evaluate your medical insurance policy to see what expenses will be covered during pregnancy and infancy.

    Be practical

    You probably don't really need that top-of-the-line, high-priced stroller or crib with all the bells and whistles. Consider purchasing a highly recommended, reputable and safe stroller or crib that still fits within your budget and you'll have money left over for diapers and formula.

    While it may seem early, couples can open a tax-advantaged or other college fund for their newborn by setting aside a specific amount each month. This can help alleviate stress when it's time to send kids off to school.

    And while you're in the plan-ahead mode, research the cost of childcare and discuss which options are right for your family. Do your best to be sure your financial house is in order before baby arrives. You can get started on this by working together to reduce debts and making sure both of you have credit that's in good standing.

    But first, you have to have that conversation about money.

     

     

    A survey show couples thinking about marriage are unlikely to share their views on money....

    Hospital Watchdog Group Wants An End To Elective Early Births

    Group urges hospitals, health officials to warn women of preterm birth health risks

    Hospital quality watchdog The Leapfrog Group issued a Call to Action in response to its new findings that thousands of babies are electively scheduled for delivery too early, resulting in a higher likelihood of death, being admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), and various life-long health problems.

    Despite the importance of this issue to women and babies, Leapfrog said is the first national organization to make this information public by hospital.

    No set standards

    The findings from 773 hospitals in Leapfrog's 2010 annual hospital survey reveal significant variation among hospitals in their rates of early elective cesarean section and elective inductions, with some hospitals having ten times the rate of others.

    Leapfrog CEO Leah Binder said hospitals, health plans, providers, and communities need to do more to protect women and babies from this harmful practice. "And women need to protect themselves by refusing to schedule their deliveries before 39 weeks without a sound medical reason, and by knowing the facts about the hospitals they plan to deliver in," she added.

    Binder noted that currently only hospitals that report to Leapfrog's annual hospital survey are making their rates of early elective deliveries public.  "Every hospital should publicly report on their rate and actively prevent the practice, and every woman planning to give birth should demand the information."  

    Caution urged

    Experts, including those from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), Childbirth Connection and the March of Dimes, caution that the amount of time a baby needs to develop fully -- which includes having a fully developed brain and other organs --is at least 39 completed weeks.

    Sometimes there is a medical reason to schedule a newborn delivery before the 39th week -- for example, if the mother has high blood pressure at the end of pregnancy or broken membranes before labor begins.

    However, Leapfrog finds many newborns are being "electively" scheduled for delivery before the 39th week, meaning without a medical reason, at alarming rates.

    According to the group, hospital rates of early elective deliveries range from less than five percent to more than 40 percent.

    The 773 hospitals from around the country that voluntarily provided Leapfrog with information on this measure reported over 57,000 early elective deliveries by cesarean section or induction during the reporting period.

    Variations

    The variation in hospital rates has long been talked about in the health care community, but Leapfrog's release of 2010 data is the first real evidence that the practice of scheduling newborn deliveries before 39 weeks without a medical reason is common and varied among hospitals even in the same state or community.

    For example, in the city of Los Angeles, hospitals reported rates as low as 4 percent and as high as 29 percent. In Boston, Leapfrog saw similar variation with some hospitals reporting near 0 and others as high as 27 percent.

    In light of these findings, Leapfrog, Childbirth Connection, and the March of Dimes are working together to provide information about the importance of every week of pregnancy with women, purchasers, and others.

    Awareness campaign

    Leapfrog also announced a Call to Action to other leaders in the health care community to prevent elective deliveries before 39 weeks.  

    So far, health insurance companies Aetna, CIGNA, UnitedHealthcare, and WellPoint have all responded to the call and are collaborating on an awareness campaign that includes three key messages:

    • The last weeks of pregnancy are important
    • There are risks for mothers and babies if births are scheduled before 39 weeks for nonmedical reasons
    • Expectant mothers should investigate the rates of elective deliveries for hospitals in their community  

    Leapfrog's membership of employers and regional business coalitions plans to help raise awareness by providing Leapfrog data along with resources from Childbirth Connection and the March of Dimes with their employee populations.

    Leapfrog also plans to host two national Webinars for health care professionals, focusing on the new 39-week toolkit developed by the March of Dimes and its partners.  

    Critical period

    Alan R. Fleischman, MD, senior vice president and medical director of the March of Dimes said the last few weeks of pregnancy are critical to a baby's health because important organs, including the brain and lungs, are not completely developed until then.

    "We thank Leapfrog for making this data available. A baby's birth should not be scheduled before 39 weeks of pregnancy, unless their health care provider says it's medically necessary. The 39-week toolkit can help ensure that inductions and c-sections are done at the right time and for the right reasons," said Fleischman.

    Maureen Corry, executive director for Childbirth Connection, a national advocacy organization that works to improve the quality of maternity care, salutes Leapfrog for making hospital rates of elective delivery accessible so women can make an informed decision about where to give birth.

    "Now we need to make the data available for all hospitals and individual physicians and midwives. We are pleased to join Leapfrog's Call to Action by providing women with evidence-based resources on benefits, harms, and appropriate use of labor induction, including tips and tools for avoiding an unnecessary induction,” said Corry.

    Setting goals

    In 2010, Leapfrog's target for hospitals was a cesarean section and/or induction rate of less than 12 percent of the total number of non-medically indicated deliveries occurring between the 37th and 39th week of gestation.  

    In 2011, Leapfrog will lower the target to five percent. This change was made in part because 50 percent of reporting hospitals were able to meet Leapfrog's 12 percent target in 2010 and 29 percent of reporting hospitals exceeded Leapfrog's target by reporting rates of five percent or less.

    Additionally, Leapfrog has identified several hospitals and health systems, such as Hospital Corporation of America, which have promoted and supported implementation of policies to deter doctors from scheduling cesarean sections and elective inductions for nonmedical reasons.

    The group said this example suggests all hospitals can help implement policies that improve adherence to evidence-based care.

    Hospital Watchdog Group Wants An End To Elective Early BirthsGroup urges hospitals, health officials to warn women of preterm birth health risks...

    Wait, That Can Cause Pain?

    Pain specialists reveal some surprising pain triggers and how to stop the pain

    We all feel pain at some point. And while we can often pinpoint the source of our discomfort, the answer may not always be so obvious.

    If you’re suffering from pain and you aren’t sure why, consider some everyday items and activities. From our choice of shoes to what we do on the weekends, sometimes our simple daily decisions may be the culprit. Charles Friedman, D.O. pain specialist at Pain Relief Centers in Pinellas Park, knows of some surprising pain triggers and ways to avoid them.  

    Wardrobe malfunction

    When we wake up in the morning, it’s not very likely we’re thinking about how painful our shoes or accessories are going to be when we’re getting ready for the day ahead. However, it’s possible that paying attention to what we put on our body or carry around with us could prevent problems a few hours later.

    Take our shoes for example. “It’s well-known that high heels can cause pain,” says Friedman, “but few people realize that flip-flops may just be worse. They offer almost no arch support, which can lead to pain not only in all areas of the foot, but the ankles and knees as well.” Friedman suggests reserving the flip-flops for the beach or pool and wearing shoes with better arch support for everyday use.

    While they’re meant for our convenience, our everyday accessories can often lead to inconvenient pain. Sure, that wallet may prevent you from misplacing your credit card, but it can also hurt your back. “Placing your wallet in your back pocket, especially while sitting, can place unnecessary pressure on the sciatic nerve, causing pain in both the back and legs,” says Friedman. “The easiest way to prevent this is by removing your wallet before getting in your car or taking a seat.”

    A day at the office

    While many of us may say it in a joking manner, sometimes our jobs can literally be “a pain.” For example, if your desk chair is positioned poorly, it may cause you to slouch, straining your back and neck. A computer monitor placed anywhere but eye level pulls on the muscles in the neck, creating neck pain. The best way to alleviate this workstation discomfort is by making a few minor adjustments.

    “Adjust your chair so you can sit upright while placing your feet comfortably on the floor, and place your computer screen at eye level,” says Friedman. “Rearranging your office space can make a big difference if you often suffer from pain in your back or neck.”

    The computer keyboard is another workplace culprit. Without proper positioning, it cannot only cause everyday finger and wrist pain, it can lead to a more serious problem. “Repetitive motion, such as typing on a keyboard, can cause a nerve problem called carpal tunnel,” says Friedman. “To avoid this, adjust your keyboard by tilting it to keep your wrists and arms in alignment.”  

    Weekend plans

    You’ve worked all week and now it’s time for some relaxation. But even your leisure time can cause pain if you don’t do it properly. If you slouch or lounge on the sofa with your neck turned toward the television, your back and neck may not be as relaxed as the rest of you. Try to maintain proper posture even during your R&R.

    For many people, the weekends are less about lounging and more about enjoying those things you can’t while in the office eight hours a day. If you like to engage in more physical activities on the weekends, be careful if you’ve been sedentary in the office all week.

    “If your muscles aren’t prepared for the level of activity, they are more likely to suffer strains,” says Friedman. “Make sure to stretch your muscles and start with a lighter activity to warm-up. Also, by exercising regularly, your muscles will be better prepared for more strenuous activity on the weekends.”

    So before you slip on those flip-flops or start entering data on that keyboard, remember that they may cause more discomfort than you would like. But with a few minor adjustments, these surprising pain triggers won’t have to be a pain in your life.

    Wait, That Can Cause Pain? Pain specialists reveal some surprising pain triggers and how to stop the pain ...

    Which Comes First: Jobs Or People?

    A new study says there doesn't seem to be a 'one size fits all' approach to job creation

    When it comes to economic development in American cities, that line from the movie Field of Dreams -- “If you build it, they will come” -- may not work.

    Conventional wisdom holds that job growth attracts people to urban areas. But according to a study in the Journal of Urban Affairs, sociologist Zachary Neal found the opposite to be true. Bringing the people in first -- specifically, airline passengers traveling on business -- leads to a fairly significant increase in jobs, he says.

    “The findings indicate that people come first, then the jobs,” says Neal, assistant professor at Michigan State University. “It’s just the opposite of an ‘If you build it, they will come’ sort of an approach.”

    However, this job growth tactic may not work for all cities.

    People places

    According to the study, municipalities with the greatest potential to convert business passengers into new jobs were largely “sunbelt” cities such as Phoenix, Miami, Dallas, Houston, and Riverside, Calif. Those with the least potential were mostly East Coast or Midwestern cities such as Boston, Pittsburgh, and Detroit.

    For the study, Neal examined the number of business air-travel passengers in major U.S. cities during a 15-year period (1993-2008). Business passengers destined for a city and not just passing through are a key to job growth, he says.

    Attracting business travelers to the host city for meetings and other business activities by offering an easily accessible airport and other amenities such as hotels and conference centers is one of the best ways to create new jobs, Neal says.

    Climate for growth

    These business travelers bring with them new ideas and potential investment, which creates a positive climate for innovation and job growth. In the study, Neal analyzed all permanent nonfarm jobs.

    He says the finding does not contradict more direct job-creation strategies, including the construction of office and retail spaces, which can often lead to new jobs in the area. However, such approaches are unlikely to attract business travelers and others to the area.

    The study helps clarify the relationship between the two main ways cities can grow: by attracting new people and by attracting new jobs. Attracting new people to a city leads to job growth, but job growth does not attract new people, he says.

    Neal adds that business airline traffic is far more important for a city’s economic vitality than population size -- a finding he established in an earlier study and reaffirmed with the current research.

    “One might expect to see a bump up in jobs first, and then a year or two later an increase in business passenger traffic,” Neal says. “But we saw just the opposite. There was a bump up in business traffic and then about a year later a bump up in jobs. The business passengers were coming before the jobs did, rather than after.”

    Which Comes First: Jobs Or People? A new study says there doesn't seem to be a 'one size fits all' approach to job creation ...

    Judge Refuses to Dismiss Suits Against Toyota, Charging Brake Defects

    Toyota Prius, Lexus HS 250h models says Toyota knew of defect as early as 2004

    A federal judge in Santa Ana, Calif., has refused to dismiss about a dozen cases charging that Toyota failed to inform consumers about a defect in the antilock braking systems of certain Prius and Lexus models.

    U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney ruled that the plaintiffs had established enough evidence to proceed under California's Unfair Competition Law and Consumers Legal Remedies Act as well as the implied warranty laws of various states.

    The case was filed last February after Toyota recalled 150,000 Priuses and Lexus HS-250h models from the 2010 model year because of a defect in their antilock braking systems.

    The suits claim that Toyota refused to repair the alleged defect. Furthermore, they say, Toyota knew about the alleged defect as early as 2004.

    The claims were brought on behalf of consumers who bought or leased a 2004 to 2009 Prius, 2006 to 2010 Highland Hybrid, 2006 through 2008 Lexus RX 400h, or 2010 Lexus RX 450h. The suits allege that the antilock braking systems do not engage properly, causing drivers to take longer to stop.

    The results included accidents that cost plaintiffs "several thousand dollars worth of damage to their cars and other's cars," according to Carney's order.

    At the time of the Feb. 9, 2010, recall, ConsumerAffairs.com reported that, although the recall was limited to 2010 models, owners of Priuses from other model years had reported similar problems.

    “From day one I have noticed the brakes do not work properly,” Lisa of South Salt lake, Utah, said. “At first I thought it was just a terrible car for rain or snow but it was having problems in the slightest rain shower.

    “Now that I'm aware of the brakes slipping I've noticed it's every day, the roads will be perfectly dry, I have brand new tires, the brake pads just barely checked at the dealer, but if I hit a bump I have no brakes,” she said.

    Toyota said it would update software in the vehicles' anti-lock brake system. The ABS, in normal operation, engages and disengages rapidly as the control system senses and reacts to tire slippage.

    The brake problem recall came on top of the highly-publicized “sudden acceleration” recall that prompted Toyota to not only recall eight popular models of its cars, but to temporarily suspend their sale in the U.S.

    Responding to Judge Carney's ruling, Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said: "We are confident Plaintiffs will be unable to introduce evidence that actually proves the allegations in their complaint that the Court relied on in denying Toyota's motion."
    Sudden acceleration

    Another case in the Santa Ana court involves more than 200 claims associated with unintended acceleration. On Nov. 19, U.S. District Judge James Selna refused to dismiss economic damages claims brought by consumers against Toyota and, on Dec. 8, refused to dismiss claims that the alleged defect caused injuries or death.

     

     

    Judge Refuses to Dismiss Suits Against Toyota, Charging Brake Defects. Toyota Prius, Lexus HS 250h models says Toyota knew of defect as early as 2004....

    Obama Administration Backtracks on Musculoskeletal Disorders

    OSHA says it wants "greater input from small business"

    The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is backing down from its plan to resume measurement of work-related musculoskeletal injuries on employer injury and illness logs.

    OSHA said it wants to "seek greater input from small businesses on the impact of the proposal" before finalizing it,a decision Public Citizen said it found mystifying.

    Critics noted thatOSHA administrator David Michaels conceded that “work-related musculoskeletal disorders remain the leading cause of workplace injury and illness in this country, and this proposal is an effort to assist employers and OSHA in better identifying problems in workplaces.”

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, MSDs accounted for 28 percent of all reported workplace injuries and illnesses requiring time away from work in 2009.

    "In fact, repetitive motion injuries do silent violence to workers across the nation. It is hardly asking too much to require employers to check a box indicating that a work-related injury is a musculoskeletal disorder," saidAlex Chasick, Policy Counsel, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division.

    The Small Business Administration applauded the action.

    "When it comes to crafting federal regulations, the input of small business is invaluable," said Winslow Sargeant, the SBA's Chief Counsel for Advocacy. "This Advocacy-OSHA meeting on MSD reporting will provide the opportunity for small businesses to voice their concerns on this critical issue.”

    Chasick said the costs of the proposed rule are "miniscule."

    "OSHA’s proposed rule determined that the costs per business of becoming familiar with the change and recording musculoskeletal disorders as such would be approximately four dollars for the first year and 67 cents for subsequent years."

    "This rule has been held up by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which should not have reviewed the rule in the first place, and has missed deadlines for completing review." Chasick said. "Now this rule is being improperly subjected to a small business review panel. Neither of these additional review procedures is appropriate for a rule with such a small economic impact."

    Chasick said it is the second rule that OSHA has withdrawn since President Obama issued an op-ed, memorandum and executive order criticizing regulations and calling for more business influence in the rulemaking process.

    "Last week, the administration backed off a proposed workplace noise rule in response to complaints from major business groups. We are troubled by the implications of these actions, and urge OSHA to resume its efforts to protect workers from injuries and illnesses," Chasick said.

    The proposed rule would not change existing requirements about when and under what circumstances employers must record musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) on their injury and illness logs.

    While many employers are currently required to keep a record of workplace injuries and illnesses, including work-related MSDs, on the OSHA Form 300 (Log of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses), the vast majority of small businesses are not required to keep such records. The proposed rule would require those employers already mandated to keep injury and illness records, and to record MSDs, to place a check mark in the new column for all MSDs.

     

    Obama Administration Backtracks on Musculoskeletal Disorders. OSHA says it wants "greater input from small business" ...

    Your Webcam Could Be Spying On You

    Hackers have learned how to take control

    Webcams connected to your computer allow you to communicate more directly with family and friends and set up an inexpensive security monitoring function. But they also have a dark side, security experts warn.

    Hackers have developed malware and worms that can infect your computer and take control of your webcam. When you least expect it, your webcam could be watching you.

    In 2004 hackers unleashed the W32/Rbot-GR worm, better known as the "Peeping Tom" virus, which exploited a number of Microsoft security vulnerabilities -- installing a backdoor Trojan horse. The security flaws have long been patched, but other versions of the bug are being turned out all the time.

    "More and more hackers are interested in spying on the people they manage to infect with their worms and Trojan horses," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos security software.

    Why spy?

    Why do hackers want to spy? In the workplace, the motivation might be industrial espionage. When they invade your home computer, the motivation is downright creepy.

    "At home it is equivalent to a Peeping Tom who invades your privacy by peering through your curtains," Cluley said. "If your computer is infected and you have a webcam plugged in, then everything you do in front of the computer can be seen, and everything you say can be recorded."

    After hackers infect a computer, they can gain access to the information on the PC's hard drive and steal passwords, which is what hackers typically do. But as more computers, especially laptops, come equipped with webcams, hackers have begun to take control of those as well, and use them to spy on unsuspecting victims.

    Once in control of the camera, your every move could be under surveilance. The hacker can turn the camera on and off, take pictures and basically watch everything you do in front of your PC.

    Instant messaging risk

    Hijacking has become increasingly common among the people who use online instant messaging. If you don't have up to date security software, you could be especially vulnerable.

    Also, unplug the camera or cover the lens when you aren't using the camera. Some of the newer webcams actually have a privacy shield that slides across the lens. If the camera is build into your computer, but you never use it, you can go into the computer set-up and disable it.

    In early 2005, Spanish authorities fined a student who captured movie footage from unsuspecting users, and arrested a 37-year-old man who spied on victims via a webcam while stealing banking information. Last year a Rutgers University student committed suicide as his gay encounter with another student was secretly captured and broadcast using a webcam on a PC in the dorm room.

    Since 2004, the webcam hijacking trend appears to be gaining ground.

    "With many home users keeping poorly-defended PCs in their bedroom, there is considerable potential for abuse," Cluley said. "The message is simple: keep your PC protected against the latest threats with anti-virus software and firewalls, and if in any doubt unplug your webcam when you're not using it."

    If your computer is connected to a webcam, make sure you have safeguards in place to prevent hackers from taking control....

    Male Sexual Enhancers Recalled

    Nite Rider and STUD Capsules contained unapproved new drugs

    Kanec USA Inc., is recalling all lots of its Nite Rider Maximum Sexual Enhancer For Men and STUD Capsule for Men.

    The products were found adulterated with Sildenafil, a Food and Drug Administration- (FDA) approved drug used in the treatment of Erectile Dysfunction (ED), making the products unapproved new drugs.

    Possible dangers

    Use of herbal supplement capsule products could pose a threat to consumers because the drug may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs (such as Nitroglycerin) and may lower blood pressure to dangerous levels.

    Consumers with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or heart disease often take nitrates. ED is a common problem in men with these conditions and many seek these types of products to enhance sexual performance.

    Nite Rider Maximum Sexual Enhancer For Men and STUD Capsules for Men are currently being distributed to wholesalers in Florida. The products are sold in a blister pack of one capsule per unit of use, 24 packets in a display box. Consumers who have either of these products in their possession should stop use immediately.

    Consumer action

    In the event of any adverse side effects due to the use of this product, consumers are urged to contact a physician immediately. Any adverse events that may be related to the use of this product should be reported to the FDA’s Medwatch program either online, by regular mail, using postage-paid, pre-addressed Form FDA 3500 available here and sending it to the address on the pre-addressed form or by fax at 1-800-FDA-0178.

    The company is advising consumers to discard any unused Nite Rider Maximum Sexual Enhancer For Men and STUD Capsule For Men products or return them to the retail location from which it was purchased.

    Consumers wishing to return unused capsules directly to the company may send it to Kanec USA, Inc. 5061 South State Road 7, Ste 602, Davie Fla. 33314.

    Kanec says it conducts stringent quality testing of its raw materials and finished products, but notes that previous testing protocols did not include a test for the presence of Sildenafil or its analogues.

    The company says this deficiency is being rectified, that it regrets any inconvenience to consumers and that it is working closely with the FDA in the recall process.

    Male Sexual Enhancers Recalled Nite Rider and STUD Capsules contained unapproved new drugs ...

    Amazon Plans Grocery Delivery Service

    Web retailer also launches business-oriented email service

    Very few of us are old enough to remember when the milkman clattered up and down the street, delivering milk, eggs and cheese. But it won't be long, we're told, before we'll order up our weekly groceries from the same place we get books, e-books and just about everything else – Amazon.com.

    And just to be certain it hasn't missed any bets, Amazon today announced it's launching a new business-oriented email service, Amazon Simple Email Service (SES).

    It's being widely reported today that Amazon is nearing completion of its internal testing of a new service dubbed Amazon Tote. Amazon employees in Seattle have reportedly been testing the new program for the last six months or so.

    Reports say that Tote won't be just about groceries but will instead offer regular weekly delivery of just about anything on the Amazon site, which sells just about anything you can think of including electronics gear, clothing, children's products, household goods and automotive accessories.

    In the Seattle test, items are placed on customers' doorsteps in reusable, weatherproof tote bags. Company promotional material lists "minimal packaging" and "regular delivery days" as among Tote's benefits.

    Sears has been testing a similar service, called MyGofer, in the Chicago area.  It also makes home deliveries and allows customers to pick up orders at its brick-and-mortar stores.

    Press reports said a notice on the Amazon Web site said the service would be "expanding soon" but the notice was abruptly removed and the company has declined further comment.

    Amazon SES

    Amazon said Amazon SES will be "a highly scalable and cost-effective bulk and transactional email-sending service for businesses and developers.

    "Amazon SES eliminates the complexity and expense of building an in-house email solution or licensing, installing, and operating a third-party email service," the company said in a press release. "There is no long-term commitment, minimum spend or negotiation required - businesses can utilize a free usage tier, and after that, enjoy low fees for the number of emails sent plus data transfer."

    Amazon Plans Grocery Delivery Service. Web retailer also launches business-oriented email service....

    Finding a Moderate Level of "Extreme Couponing"

    You don't have to buy 200 boxes of pasta to get big savings

    Back in December, The Learning Channel (TLC) aired a special about "extreme couponers" -- consumers who are so savvy in the ways of using coupons, they are able to get multiple carts of groceries for just a few bucks.

    If you’re anything like me, you sat and watched agog as Nathan Engels of Villa Hills, Kentucky bought 1,100 boxes of cereal, 300 toothbrushes and 60 bottles of hand soap -- retailed at $5,743.00 -- for $241.00.

    How did he do it with just coupons? I was determined to figure it out.

    Not that I needed 1,100 boxes of cereal or 60 bottles of hand soap. In fact, at first, I figured it would take a combination of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and latent hoarding tendencies to go through the amount of work it appeared to take to be an extreme couponer.

    The TLC special followed Engels, as well as the other extreme couponers profiled -- Joanie Demer of McKinleyville, California, Joyce House of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Amanda Ostrowski of Cincinnati, OH -- on their quest for bargains.

    The cameras followed them as they devoted dozens of hours every week collecting and clipping coupons, poring over stores’ weekly sales inserts, planning their shopping trips, methodically price comparing in the store, an hour or more in the checkout line, then more time restocking their "stockpiles" -- rooms of their homes dedicated to holding all the stuff they got for so cheap.

    On one hand, I assumed I was too sane to undertake such an activity.

    On the other hand, I thought about how nice it would be to get name brand toothpaste and coffee for a couple bucks. Or even free. If those four couponers could get hundreds of one item for cheap, surely I could get two or four for cheap, right? And I could probably find some space in the closet to house a small stockpile, as long as I bought items I know I’ll use.

    I threw caution to the wind and dove in, determined to become what I’m calling, a "moderate couponer."

    A quick Google search led me to the message board Engles runs with other like-minded couponers, WeUseCoupons.com. There I read some of the standard tricks of the trade. While some tricks involve pretty "extreme" behaviors, I discovered the basic foundation for saving the most money with coupons:

    The store’s weekly sale + Manufacturer coupon + Store coupon + Competitor’s coupon = Big Savings.

    What never occurred to me was that most major chain stores will allow a manufacturer’s coupon to be combined with a store coupon. And those can be used on sale or even clearance items.

    Extreme couponers never buy anything unless it’s on sale. And if they have enough coupons for the items to be free, or a few dollars, or even “money-makers” (more on that later), they stock up. Hence, the “stockpiles.”

    Also, multiple coupons can be used per item, as long as the coupon states it’s for one item.  

    Confused? Allow me to explain with a hypothetical situation:  

    Huffman’s Grocery Store is having a sale on Cereal X. Normally it’s $4.99 a box, but this week it’s two boxes for $5.00.

    You have two manufacturer’s coupons that are “$1.00 off one box of Cereal X” and two store-issued coupons that are also “$1.00 off one box of Cereal X.”  

    Using those four coupons, you get the two boxes of cereal for $1.00. That’s a savings of $8.89.

    Imagine if Huffman’s Grocery Store took competitors’ coupons and you had one for “$1.00 off two boxes of Cereal X.”  Both boxes would be free.

    Now it made sense to me why Joyce House apparently walks seven miles around her Philly neighborhood every week to pick through recycling bins and ask her neighbors for their unwanted coupons. The more high-value coupons you have, the more likely you are to save money.

    Of course, getting these high-value coupons is where couponers can get a little loony.

    There are coupon clipping services that will sell you coupons from the Sunday paper, as well as people on eBay who will do the same.  

    Some couponing sites recommend buying, at the very least, as many Sunday papers as there are people in your home.

    Other sites give you not-so-kosher hints on how to get online coupons to print multiple times (they’re only supposed to print once). Again, this seems excessive to me.

    I have, however, gotten into the habit of buying two papers every Sunday. I also drop in to my nearest coffee shop and nose around the piles of left behind newspapers, plucking out any orphaned coupon inserts.

    While I have amassed a huge pile of coupons for items I will probably never use, I have also found some really good ones that have already saved me a decent amount of money.

    I’ve gotten two bottles of face soap for $5.00 (retailed at $12.00), two bottles of soy sauce for $0.57 (retailed at $3.14), and two packages of dental floss for free.

    Actually, the dental floss was, as couponers say, a "money-maker."

    Money-makers are items that end up costing less than the amount the coinciding coupons are worth. In the case of the dental floss, each was $0.97, and I used two “$1.00 off one” coupons when I bought them. The floss ending up shaving six cents off my bill. While that’s not much, imagine if I had 200 “$1.00 off one” coupons. Or 1,000.

    That’s the ultimate piece of the puzzle for extreme couponers: figuring out what items are money-makers and getting enough coupons for them, so that buying them essentially pays for the other items they’re buying. Engell said he uses money-makers to pay for things that almost never have a coupon, like meat or produce.

    I can’t seem to bring myself to that level of couponing yet, but during these tough economic times, it’s a tempting idea.

    The other thing moderate couponing has encouraged me to do is keep an eye out for big sales and to shamelessly stock up while I can.

    Last week, World’s Best Cat Litter went on sale at Target for $7.49, cheaper than any other place I had ever seen it (normally, it’s about $9.00 at most grocery and pet supply stores).  A great deal in and of itself, but on top of that, multiple bags offered “$3.00 off one bag” coupons (nicknamed “peelies” because you peel them off the package), making those bags $4.49.

    I bought eleven bags.

    Sure, I had to lay down a big chunk of change now, but the almost $50 I saved can be put toward anything else over the next few months.

    Serious couponing does take time and organizational skills, especially in the beginning, which put me off at first.

    I felt like I didn’t have time to check all the sales at all the stores and plan my trips accordingly. I got mad when I couldn’t find a coupon for the brand of coffee I like to drink and had to pay full price for it because I was running dangerously low. And I felt like a failure after one of my early shopping trips where I only saved $5.60 using coupons.

    But I know I have to be patient. Collecting coupons takes time. Learning about which stores have the best sales when takes time. I’m not ready to give up.

    I may never get to the point where I’m able to purchase $200 worth of groceries for $3, but I can keep trying. As long as I only buy what I need, I won’t lose money, I‘ll save it.

    In fact, the only thing I stand to lose is a little time.

    And maybe some closet space.

    Finding a Moderate Level of "Extreme Couponing"You don't have to buy 200 boxes of pasta to get big savings...

    Study: By Three Years Old, Kids Know They Like Fat, Salt, Sugar

    Researchers urge parents to not wait to introduce their toddlers to healthy foods

    Most kids love junk food, be it salty, fatty, or sweet. This should come as a surprise to no one since nearly everyone likes junk food.

    But what may surprise parents of little ones is how early in life these flavor preferences are cemented in and how quickly they recognize different brands.

    In a study of preschoolers ages 3 to 5, involving two separate experiments, researchers found salt, sugar and fat are what kids most prefer -- and that these children already could equate their taste preferences to brand-name fast-food and soda products.

    In a world where salt, sugar and fat have been repeatedly linked to obesity, waiting for children to begin elementary school to teach them about making wise food choices is a poor decision, says T. Bettina Cornwell, a professor of marketing in the University of Oregon Lundquist College of Business.

    Children even are turning to condiments to add these flavors -- and with them calories -- to be sure that the foods they eat match their taste preferences.

    "Our findings present a public policy message," Cornwell said. "If we want to pursue intervention, we probably need to start earlier."

    Parents, she said, need to seriously consider the types of foods they expose their young children to at home and in restaurants because “repeated exposure builds taste preferences."

    Cornwell and study co-author Anna R. McAlister, a consumer science researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, involved both developmental psychology and marketing for the two-part study. It appeared online in January ahead of regular publication in the journal Appetite.

    In the first experiment, 67 children (31 boys, 36 girls) and their mothers were recruited from pre-school classes in a large city.

    The mothers completed a 21-item survey to report on their taste preferences of their children. The children responded to their perceived tastiness of 11 natural and 11 flavor-added foods. The photos of the foods were presented without labeling or packaging.

    Researchers found strong agreement in that both parental and children's perceptions matched: Parents noted the desire for foods high in sugar, fat and salt, while their children showed preference for flavor-added foods, which contained these ingredients.

    Foods well within the preschoolers' experience were presented in the experiment, both healthy and not-so-healthy.

    Natural foods included apples, bananas, plain milk, fruit salad, water, green beans and tomatoes.

    Flavor-added foods included products like cheese puffs, corn chips, watermelon hard candy, jellybeans, banana soft candy, ketchup, colas and chocolate milk.

    Strawberries, watermelons

    Of the healthy foods, strawberries and watermelon were the top picks. Of the junk food, strawberry ice cream and jellybeans were the most favored.

    In the second experiment, researchers explored the association of preschoolers' palate preferences to their emerging awareness of brands of fast foods and sugar-sweetened beverages.

    The study participants included 108 children (54 boys, 54 girls) from five urban pre-schools.

    Each child was shown 36 randomly sorted cards -- 12 related to each of two popular fast-food chains, six to each of the two leading cola companies and six depicting irrelevant products.

    All children were able to correctly place some of the product cards with the correct companies, indicating their differing levels of brand recognition.

    The results, the study noted, "suggest that fast food and soda brand knowledge is linked to the development of a preference for sugar, fat and salt in food."

    The relationships, the researchers added, appeared to reflect the children's emotional experiences in a way that says the brand-named products deliver their developed taste preferences.

    It may well be, said Cornwall, that when parents repeatedly serve certain foods, their children acquire a taste for them and soon recognized what brands deliver that taste.

    Earlier research has shown children given red peppers on 10 different occasions will acquire a taste for red peppers and that logic extends to other foods. Children served French fries will, in turn, develop a preference for French fries.

    According to Cornwell, fighting childhood obesity should begin at home. The first step can be as easy as reducing the amount of low-nutrient "junk" foods and replacing them with increased servings of healthy foods.

    Such an approach, the researchers noted in their conclusion, moves away from issues of weight and dieting and instead targets the development of tastes preferences.

    In a previous paper in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Cornwell and McAlister found children begin to understand persuasion as early as age three and most develop this sense by age six. They argued that advertising targeting children should be monitored and regulated.

    Study: By Three Years Old, Kids Know They Like Fat, Salt, Sugar Researchers urge parents to not wait to introduce their toddlers to healthy foods...

    Consumer Sues Taco Bell Over Beef Claims

    Suit asks "where's the beef?"

     A California woman has sued Taco Bell, in effect reprising a question from a classic 1980s Wendy's commercial - "where's the beef?"

    Amanda Obney retained an Alabama law firm to sue the fast food chain, challenging Taco Bell's advertised claim that its restaurants serve "seasoned ground beef" or "seasoned beef" filling in its products. The suit maintains that, in fact, a substantial amount of the Taco Bell filling contains substances other than beef.

    The lawsuit seeks to require Taco Bell to properly advertise and label food items, and to engage in a corrective advertising campaign to educate the public about the true content of its food products.

    According to standards established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the meat filling in Taco Bell's products does not meet the minimum standard requirement to be labeled and advertised as "beef," seasoned or otherwise, the complaint alleges.

    Taco meat filling

    The suit maintains that a substantial majority of the filling is comprised of substances other than beef, and is required to be labeled and advertised as "taco meat filing." Taco meat filling includes ingredients added to increase the volume of the product, such as binders and extenders like "isolated oat product."

    "Our government, through the USDA and FDA, provides definitions, standards and labeling guidelines for 'ground beef.' What Taco Bell is representing on their restaurant menu as 'ground beef' does not meet any of those definitions, standards and labeling guidelines," said Dee Miles, an attorney with the firm Beasley Allen, which is representing Obney. "This product does not qualify to be considered 'ground beef' and many of the 'seasoning' ingredients are in fact binders, fillers and coloring."

    Miles said the ingredients increase the overall volume of this product, reducing the actual 'beef' content per serving.

    "It is against the law in this country to take someone's money for a product that is misrepresented," Miles said. "This lawsuit seeks to put a stop to that type of conduct and practice."

    Company responds

    Taco Bell issued a statement to WSFA-TV in Montgomery, Ala., saying, "Taco Bell prides itself on serving high quality Mexican inspired food with great value. We're happy that the millions of customers we serve every week agree. We deny our advertising is misleading in any way and we intend to vigorously defend the suit."

    A California consumer has sued Taco Bell, claiming it's taco filling isn't really beef, as ads claim....

    Food Industry Launches Its Own Nutrition Label

    Critics say industry should have waited for the Food and Drug Administration

    Without waiting for the U.S. government to draw up regulations, food and beverage manufacturers have come up with their own system to inform consumers about nutritional content.

    The new label, which will appear on the front of products instead of the back, is designed by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). It will list calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars contained in each product.

    "We share First Lady Michelle Obama's goal of solving childhood obesity within a generation," said Pamela G. Bailey, president and Chief Executive Officer of GMA.  "Food and beverage companies have a strong track record of providing consumers with the products, tools and information they need to achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle, and this program represents a significant milestone in our ongoing effort to help consumers construct a healthy diet."

    Will promote some nutrients

    In addition to the key nutrition information, the Nutrition Keys icon on some products will also display information about "nutrients to encourage" that are important for a healthy diet, but are under-consumed by the general population.  Nutrients to encourage that may appear on some products as part of the Nutrition Keys icon are: potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and also protein.

    The Board of Directors of GMA and FMI adopted a joint resolution in support of the Nutrition Keys initiative at their January 23 joint board meeting.  Those companies represent the vast majority of food and beverage products sold in local stores.

    Critics pan

    Some food industry critics are not impressed. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the food industry has tried voluntary efforts before, including 2009's Smart Choices labeling program that he says lost all credibility when it put its logo on what he called junk foods.

    "It's unfortunate the industry wouldn't adopt a more effective system or simply wait until the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) developed a system that would be as useful to consumers as possible," Jacobson said.

    Jacobson said the point of a front-label nutrition information or symbols should be to convey quickly and simply how healthful a food is. A system with green, yellow, and red dots to indicate whether a food has a good, middling, or poor nutritional quality would probably be a lot more effective than industry's system, he said.

    Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) was also a critic of the previous Smart Choices campaign. She doesn't appear to be impressed with this latest effort either.

    "The industry's unveiling today of its front-of-package labeling system is troubling and confirms that this effort should not circumvent or influence FDA's effort to develop strong guidelines for FOP labels," she said.

    DeLauro said she urges the FDA to continue developing a "useful and simple" labeling system that would help consumers avoid foods that promote obesity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports two-thirds of U.S. adults and 15 percent of children are overweight or obese. In some states, the childhood obesity rate is above 30 percent.

    The food industry has unveiled its own front of package labeling system, with critics calling for stronger measures....

    Football Fans Cautioned About Possible Super Bowl Scams

    Officials in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are warning Packers and Steelers fans to be wary of 'great deals'

    The teams are set: The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers will meet for the NFL championship in Dallas next month. That's bringing warnings from Acting Pennsylvania Attorney General Bill Ryan and Michelle Reinen, director of the Wisconsin Bureau of Consumer Protection, about potential scams surrounding the upcoming Super Bowl -- including bogus sweepstakes offers, "too good to be true" travel packages or game-day ticket offers. 

    Be alert 

    “It is important for football fans to carefully review the details of any ticket offer or travel promotion before handing over cash or credit card information,” Ryan said. “Scam artists are counting on the fact that enthusiastic fans will get caught up in the excitement of the Super Bowl and will not be as attentive as they should be." 

    Ryan said that in past years, Pennsylvania residents have been targeted by scam emails and bogus contests linked to the Super Bowl and other major sporting events.  Typically, potential victims are told that they have won tickets to the game and are asked to wire transfer money to a “claims agent” in order to pay for taxes and other fees. 

    “Consumers need to be especially cautious when purchasing tickets from an online third-party,” said Reinen. “Fraudulent ticket offers often appear on websites like Craigslist and in other classified advertisements.” 

    According to the NFL, in recent years, between 100 and 250 football fans have shown up at Super Bowl games with bogus tickets. While these fans experienced the disappointment of missing the game -- they also took a big hit to their pocketbooks when you consider the price they paid for their tickets, lodging and travel. 

    Various scams 

    In other scams, consumers may receive an authentic looking check -- intended to cover some of their expenses -- along with instructions to deposit the check and transfer a portion of that money to cover airfare, lodging or other expenses.  In reality, criminals have sent a counterfeit check and are counting on the fact that victims will act quickly and send money before their bank notifies them that the check is worthless. 

    “Before hopping on a plane for Texas, make sure you have the official game tickets in your procession,” Reinen advises. “Legitimate Super Bowl tickets are printed on thick, heavy paper with barcodes, holograms and raised ink. In addition, the NFL says the tickets include heat sensitive logos that disappear with the touch of a thumb.” 

    Fan tips 

    Ryan and Reinen offer the following tips for Steelers and Packers fans considering a trip to Texas for the game: 

    • Make sure you are dealing with a reputable travel agent and do not assume ads offering travel deals are being offered by travel agencies.
    • Pay particular attention to what the travel package does and does NOT offer. Do not assume that every package includes airfare, hotel accommodations and tickets to get into the game.
    • If the package includes airfare and a ticket to the game, federal rules apply. The travel agent must either have the game tickets in hand, or have a written contract to obtain the tickets before the agent can make the offer. If a ticket is offered, but never provided, you may be entitled to a full refund of the entire package price. 
    • Do not be pressured into making an immediate decision about a particular package.
    • Research the hotel and its location. In some instances, consumers have been told that their hotel is within walking distance of the venue, when in reality it was too far to walk and required additional expenses to either rent a car or pay for other ground transportation.
    • Do not give out your credit card number online or over the phone unless you are sure the seller is legitimate.
    • Use a credit card rather than cash, check or debit card to purchase tickets since it may provide some protection if you do not receive the tickets.

     

    "In past years, our office has received complaints from consumers who have fallen victim to phony travel agents and ticket sellers," Ryan said. "In some of those cases, consumers learned at the gate that their tickets were counterfeit and they were denied entry." 

    “These days, with all the scams out there, we find ourselves repeating a common phrase when it comes to consumer protection,” concluded Reinen. “If an offer seems too good to be true -- it probably is.”

    Football Fans Cautioned About Possible Super Bowl Scams Officials in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are warning Packers and Steelers fans to be wary of 'gre...

    What Social Media Give, They Take Away, Too

    Survey reveals social network users find benefits and consequences from online activities

    Social networking has made it easier for more people to keep in touch with other -- and kill time at work. But but the results from a new survey reveal more and more, social media are helping people, too.

    Two in five of those asked said they have received a good suggestion for something to try as a result of their use of social media (40 percent), 15 percent said social media helped them make a connection regarding a job opportunity, and one in ten said they have found a new apartment or house through their social media use (nine percent).

    These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 2,331 adults surveyed online between December 6 and 13, 2010 by Harris Interactive.

    The poll found a majority of U.S. adults are currently using social media (65 percent), and also, a similar number said they have received a positive benefit from its use.

    Skews young

    However, younger users tended to cite more positive outcomes resulting from their social media use than older adults.

    For example, 59 percent of Echo Boomers (adults ages 18-to-33) say they have received a positive suggestion for something to try from their activity on social media, versus 44 percent of Gen Xers (those 34-45), 34 percent of Baby Boomers (those 46-64), and just 19 percent of Matures (those 65 and older).

    Similarly, 24 percent of Echo Boomers have found a job opportunity through social media while only 11 percent of Baby Boomers said the same.

    Despite all of the benefits people are receiving, similar numbers said they have also suffered negative consequences from social networking.

    The downside

    Forty-three percent of social media users said they have been offended by posts, comments or pictures they've seen and 26 percent said that unintended persons have viewed links or comments they've posted.

    Fewer social media users say they have suffered the more serious consequences of getting in trouble with school or work, or losing a potential job opportunity because of comments or pictures they posted online (seven percent for both).

    Despite younger users receiving benefits from social media use more often than older adults, those who are younger are more likely to suffer the consequences of social media use at a greater rate.

    This may be due, in part, to the fact younger people spent more time on social networks overall, which could expose them to both the benefits and consequences of what's currently available.

    As more people use social media and the services continue to expand, the potential benefits of use grow, as do the possible consequences.

    Privacy otions

    And as a result, social media networks are offering more options for privacy in an effort to combat the negative experiences some users have already experienced, and to prevent others from taking place.

    When social media users were asked if potentially negative experiences can be prevented through the use of these privacy settings, 78 percent agreed they can be -- with 28 percent strongly agreeing.

    In addition, 71 percent of social media users said they are confident their own privacy settings operate the way they‘re supposed to, but only 18 percent said they are very confident (18 percent).

    While a quarter of social media users are not confident in their privacy settings (25 percent), it seems almost all of them are at least using them; only five percent say they do not use any privacy settings at all.

    Similar to the other areas of social media explored, younger adults users feel more strongly both that privacy settings can prevent negative consequences (82 percent of Echo Boomers vs. 70 percent of Matures) and that they are confident in their own privacy settings (78 percent of Echo Boomers vs. 61 percent of Baby Boomers).

    User familiarity

    Whether social networking will start to bring more good than bad in the future, or vice versa, is anyone’s guess.

    As social media users become more adept at understanding the nuances of how things work online and using privacy settings, there’s a chance the benefits will eclipse the consequences.

    However, there is also a possibility that as more people use social media, and do so casually, that they will become more careless with their privacy settings and the seven percent who have suffered more serious consequences will grow.

    As The Harris Poll said, summing up their findings, “It's up to each and every user.”

    What Social Media Give, They Take Away, Too Survey reveals social network users find benefits and consequences from online activities...

    McDonald's To Raise Prices This Year

    Announcement made on earnings conference call

    Another sign of inflation reared its ugly head today. The cost of eating at McDonald's may soon go up, though company officials haven't said by much.

    Raising prices isn't something a company announces in a press release. Instead, analysts listening in on the company's quarterly conference call say company officials disclosed that it would raise prices on some menu items in the coming months to cover rising costs.

    It was news the analysts wanted to hear, since it reassures investors that the company is committed to remaining profitable, and feels confident enough in this economy to boost prices. In fact, the fast-food chain, and most of its competitors, held off on prices increases in 2010 for competitive reasons.

    But consumers may take the news a bit differently, since it will be just one more thing going up in price, at a time when inflation isn't supposed to be a problem. Gasoline is already 30 cents or more a gallon higher than it was at this time last year.

    Higher overhead

    The company's chief financial officer, Pete Bensen, said McDonald's has locked in as many costs as possible but faces higher food costs in the coming year, just like consumers. He said commodities costs could rise as much as 2.5 percent this year in the U.S.

    Beef, in particular, has been a wild card among the food costs. For a company that made its name selling hamburgers, it's an important cost.

    None of the McDonald's executives on the call mentioned which menu items might become more expensive this year and how much they would go up in price.

    The cost of eating at McDonald's is likely to rise in 2011....

    Trenta-Sized Drinks Could Lead To Major Weight Gain

    Health officials warn consumers to avoid calorie-dense biggie drinks

    Last week, Starbucks announced they soon will offer the “Trenta” sized cup, which holds 911 milliliters of liquid. According to the National Post (and their handy info-graphic), that’s about 11 ml more than the average human stomach holds.

    With big cups comes the risk of big calories -- consumers could potentially drink 600 more calories with a Trenta-sized coffee confection than with a smaller size. And that could lead to packing on a whopping 60 pounds in a year.

    Health officials are warning consumers to proceed with caution when it comes to these mega-sized drinks. While they may seem like a good deal for your wallet, they’re bad news for your body.

    “An extra 200 calories per day will lead to a weight gain of about 2 pounds per month, or 21 pounds per year, so an extra 600 calories could mean an increase in weight of upwards of 63 pounds in a year,” said Jessica Bartfield, MD, internal medicine and medical weight-loss specialist at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, part of the Loyola University Health System.

    A normal cup of coffee is considered to be 6 to 8 ounces, and studies have suggested that one to two cups of caffeinated coffee daily can have health benefits.

    “The new Trenta will offer four to five cups of coffee in one serving, and unfortunately the additional caffeine will not ‘burn off’ the excess calories,” said Bartfield.

    Bartfield said people need to recognize that sugary drinks are not necessarily the best way to quench their thirst, boost their energy, or satisfy a craving, but rather are usually sneaky sources for empty calories.

    Bucket-sized

    And while introducing a bucket-sized beverage option during our nation’s current obesity crisis may not be the most health-conscious move, Starbucks is not alone in offering up mega-sized portions.

    Currently, at most fast food restaurants, a “medium” soda holds about 20 ounces. Considering a serving of soda is 8 ounces, that’s almost three full servings, or roughly 240 calories the average consumer is drinking before they even eat anything.

    As portion sizes at restaurants and cafes grow, so does concern about how this changes Americans’ perception of how much is “enough” and how much is “too much.”

    “Increasing sizes of food or beverages potentially distorts our perception of portion size and makes it difficult to respond to our body’s natural cues of being hungry or thirsty or full,” said Courtney Burtscher, clinical psychologist.

    Burtscher also runs the monthly behavior management group as part of Loyola’s weight loss program.

    She said people sometimes use external cues to decide when to eat and when to stop:

    • when others are eating

    • when the television show they’re watching goes to commercial or is over
    • when their portion is gone

    She also said how much we eat is determined by any number of contributing factors:

    • generational: “My parents taught me to clean my plate and not waste food.”
    • relational:  “Feelings will be hurt if I don’t finish what they made/gave me.”
    • economical:  “This is such a good deal -- more bang for my buck.”
    • convenience:  “I’m in a rush and need it now.”
    • emotional:  “I had a bad day at work -- ice cream will make me feel better.”

    Perhaps because of this, and because so many Americans are overweight, Bartfield thinks “massive amounts of food and drink” should not be promoted to consumers.

    Both doctors believe people taking personal responsibility for their health is important.

    “Knowing our own body and our own nutritional needs is an important part of eating healthily and of taking care of ourselves,” said Burtscher. “Self awareness decreases the possibility of using external cues such as price, size or others’ behaviors, and can lead to behavior change and successful eating habits.”

    Trenta-Sized Drinks Could Lead To Major Weight Gain Health officials warn consumers to avoid calorie-dense biggie drinks...

    Is Digital Credit Going to Make Credit Cards Obsolete

    Or will it simply make us all more vulnerable to theft?

    Does the term “mobile wallet” mean anything to you? Just as most everything else is going mobile these days it was only a matter of time before the phenomenon replaced our wallets, along with all those bulging credit cards that we pack in them.

    According to a report on CNNMoney.com, credit cards may soon be as outdated as vinyl records as more and more people use their iPhones, Droids or BlackBerrys to pay at the cash register or to loan a friend a few bucks just by “bumping phones.”

    Michael Abbott, CEO of Isis, a new mobile payment network, was quoted by CNNMoney as saying, "This is the chance to bring payments forward from the plastic age and the vinyl records age to the digital age."

    As smart phones get smarter, more people are expected to use them as swiping devices similar to credit cards to pay their bills in restaurants, movies, or wherever. CNNMoney says companies have been experimenting with contactless mobile payments for years and that 2011 is expected to be the year the technology really takes off because millions of new phones, capable of making contactless payments, are expected to be shipped out this year.

    According to research firm Aite Group, pay-by-phone is forecast to make up $22 billion in transactions by 2015, up from "practically none" last year.

    George Peabody, director of emerging technologies at Mercator Advisory Group, told CNNMoney that mobile payment is going to see a lot of activity in 2011 and that we're going to start seeing more and more people leaving their homes without their wallets.

    On the other hand, Jane Cloninger, director at Edgar Dunn & Company, a consulting firm specializing in financial services and payments, doesn’t believe this shift is going to happen overnight. She told CNNMoney that she believes the mobile wallet will eventually replace the plastic card, but that it's going to take some time because consumer habits take a long time to change.

    Mobile wallets

    Still, according to CNNMoney, companies like Visa, MasterCard, Google, Bank of America, Citi and U.S. Bank are all testing contactless mobile payments, and many expect to roll out mobile wallets this year.

    The senior vice president of online and mobile banking at Bank of America, Michael Upton, says, "2011 is going to be a very exciting, very dynamic year when it comes to mobile payments because it's the Wild West again, with all these players positioning in various different ways to redefine the digital payments landscape."  Bank of American plans to release its own mobile wallet later this year.

    Meanwhile, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon joined forces with Discover and Barclays in November to form Isis and provide a rival to Visa and MasterCard.  The Isis mobile wallet will let consumers store multiple cards, make payments with the wave of their phone, check balances, receive coupons and use rewards points at the point of sale.

    But it may stretch beyond just the money in your wallet. Abbott sees the potential to include your insurance cards, driver's licenses, and other information typically found in a wallet.

    Just think of all the things you no longer have to wear or carry as long as you have your smart phone. You no longer need a watch, a GPS device, a computer, a camera, and eventually your wallet.

    God help you if you ever forget to charge your cell phone or worse lose it. The other downside is identity theft. Hackers are notorious for breaking into data bases and stealing account numbers. Will this digital world be a safer place than your purse or hip pocket or will cyber thieves and internet pick-pockets be able to hack and download all that digital data? Or will thieves do what they usually do and take the path of least resistance, and simply steal or clone your smart phone?

    A Nashville-based Kroll Fraud Solutions, a division of risk management company Kroll Incorporated recently released a list highlighting the top ten data security trends it expects for 2011 and guess what? One of them is that more and more organizations rely on portable devices such as mobile phones stolen devices will continue to be a major source of data breaches.

     

     

    Similar to what happened to the vinyl record could credit cards become outdated as we use digital devices to pay at the register and how safe is that...

    Companies' Hiring Plans At Their Highest Level In 12 Years

    A new survey of companies says hiring plans at a level not seen since 1998

    Here’s some possibly positive news for you job seekers out there.

    A new survey by the National Association for Business Economics (NABE) says hiring plans by companies are at their high levels in over 12 years. Now, if those firms actually followed through on those plans we could be in for a better employment environment.

    Industry economists say the primary driver behind this upswing in hiring plans is that economic recovery is gaining strength.

    Shawn DuBravac, an economist with the Consumer Electronics Association, explains that a number of factors suggest business decisions are being driven by the fundamentals of an improving economy along with an increase in demand and expanded profit margins.

    Survey highlights

    Some highlights of the survey, which was conducted between December 17, 2010, and January 5, 2011, include:

    • Industry demand increased for a sixth consecutive quarter during the final three months of 2010, with about 55 percent of survey panelists reporting rising demand versus 12 percent reporting falling demand. All four major industry sectors experienced demand growth.
    • Expectations for economic growth have improved significantly, with a 62 percent percent assuming real GDP growth of two-to-three percent in 2011. One in five panelists is building business plans based on an outlook of three-to-four percent economic growth.
    • Profit margins expanded for a sixth quarter in a row as 38 percent of panelists reported that margins rose at their firm, versus 18 percent who reported declining profitability. The nearly 21-point spread between the two responses was the highest since the fourth quarter of 2005.
    • Employment continues to improve, with 34 percent of firms reporting larger workforces compared with only 13 percent a year ago. And the hiring outlook for the next six months also looks more robust, with 42 percent indicating their firms will be increasing employment, the highest employment outlook since 1998.  

    The quarterly survey takes the pulse of some 84 economists for private companies and trade groups. As stated, the plans for more hiring appear to be dependent on the economy continuing to recover. We can only assume that if there is another economic slowdown, those plans could once again be put on hold.

    Previous reports have revealed that corporate America has been sitting on $2 trillion waiting until the economic picture brightened.

    The NABE survey found  the share of firms increasing their capital spending from the previous quarter rose only slightly from the prior survey to 38 percent. Expectations for future capital spending, however, improved significantly with 62 percent reporting higher planned expenditures, up from 48 percent last quarter.

    Tax impact

    As for the expected effects of the proposed 2011 tax package, more than half (53 percent) of the panelists -- especially those from the goods-producing sector -- anticipate a favorable impact on their firm’s sales. Overall, 60 percent said they do not anticipate any increase or decrease in investment spending or employment in response to new tax policies.

    More than half of the respondents indicated that some portion of their firms’ sales came from foreign-based operations, with 14 percent reporting that more than half of their sales were from foreign sources. Of those with sales from foreign operations, 44 percent indicated their share of sales from foreign sources increased in the last quarter.

    A new survey of companies says hiring plans at a level not seen since 1998 ...

    College Students Reminded About Education Tax Credit

    Opportunity credit has been expanded

    As you may know, a tax credit is much better than a tax deduction, and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithener is reminding college students to take advantage of a significant tax credit for tuition expenses.

    The tax benefit is provided under the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), which allows parents and students to receive a tax credit of up to $2,500 for college expenses. Geithener says it can help make postsecondary education a reality for many students and families.

    A recent Treasury Department analysis shows that 9.4 million families with college students are expected to benefit from the credit in 2011.  The AOTC is expected to provide $18.2 billion in tax relief to make college more affordable next year, and families are expected to benefit from an average credit of $1,900.

    "America's prosperity depends on the economic policies we pursue to strengthen our nation's competitiveness," Geithener said.  "And the strength and competitiveness of our nation will depend largely on continuing to have the best educated students in the world."

    Tax credit is expanded

    The Obama Administration extended the AOTC, which was initially created under the Recovery Act, for an additional two years as part of the year-end tax cut package the President signed last month.  The AOTC replaced the Hope credit for 2009 and 2010 and with this extension will continue to do so for 2011 and 2012.

    While the AOTC will provide greater benefits in the future, it's also helping students who have qualified education expenses in 2009 and 2010. Taxpayers will receive a tax credit based on 100 percent of the first $2,000 of tuition, fees and course materials paid during the taxable year, plus 25 percent of the next $2,000 of tuition, fees and course materials paid during the taxable year, according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

    For students claiming the maximum credit for these four years, the AOTC will provide up to $10,000 to help pay for the cost of college. The maximum available credit this year would cover about 80 percent of tuition and fees at the average two-year public institution, or about a third of tuition and fees at the average four-year public institution in 2011, according to a new Treasury analysis.

    Improving on Hope

    Geithener says The AOTC improves on its predecessor, the Hope credit, by providing larger tax cut for almost all students, applying to the first four rather than two years of college, and covering text books, a substantial cost to the typical college student, while the Hope credit did not. 

    In addition, the AOTC is partially refundable, meaning that families with no federal income tax liability can receive the credit. These families are expected to receive more than $4 billion in refunds from the AOTC in 2011.  In addition, more families are eligible for larger credits because the income limits were expanded compared to the Hope credit.

    Along with the tax credit, Secretaries Geithner and Duncan highlighted several other initiatives the Administration has undertaken to make college more affordable and accessible, including simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and increasing Pell grants, which are the main source of federal aid for low-income students enrolled in institutions of higher education.

    A taxpayer who pays qualified tuition and related expenses and whose federal income tax return has a modified adjusted gross income of $80,000 or less ($160,000 or less for joint filers) is eligible for the credit. The credit is reduced ratably if a taxpayer's modified adjusted gross income exceeds those amounts. A taxpayer whose modified adjusted gross income is greater than $90,000 ($180,000 for joint filers) cannot benefit from this credit.

     

    The Treasury Department is reminding college students and their families to take advantage of the Opportunity Tax Credit....

    Inmate Ran Identity Theft Ring From Inside Prison

    Judge sentences him to 14.5 more years behind bars

    The man who led an identity-theft ring that ran up a quarter-million dollars worth of charges from inside a federal prison has been sentenced to more than 14 years in prison.

    The defendant thought he found a way to occupy his time in prison,” , Steven M. Dettelbach, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio,. said. “With this prosecution and this sentence, he’ll have lots more time to learn to follow the rules.”

    Dimorio McDowell, age 34, of Atlanta, Georgia, previously pled guilty to aggravated identity theft and conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud. McDowell was an inmate at Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution at the time of the scheme, which took place between August 2009 and April 2010. U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent ordered McDowell’s 174-month sentence on this case begin in 2014, when he completes the current sentence that resulted in his incarceration at Fort Dix.

    McDowell was the ringleader who obtained personal information on people who had credit card accounts at various retailers, including Best Buy, Home Depot, J.C. Penney, Lowe’s, Macy’s, Nordstrom’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Sears and Staples, according to court documents.

    Ran up consumers' accounts

    McDowell contacted the retailers and impersonated the true account holders, store employees, or corporate fraud investigators. He used information about the account holders, such as name, address, or Social Security number during those calls to obtain additional information about them and adding co-conspirators names as authorized users of the accounts, thus taking over the accounts, according to court documents.

    After taking over the accounts, adding additional users to the accounts and opening new accounts, McDowell communicated with his co-conspirators, all of whom lived in the Cleveland area.

    McDowell continued to run his scheme from prison even after he was charged and after he pled guilty. He also posed as a deputy U.S. Marshal over the telephone and attempted to have prisoners moved, according to information presented during the sentencing hearing.

    Overall, the ring purchased more than $254,000 worth of merchandise as part of their scheme, according to court documents.

    Also charged in the case are: Andre Reese, 37; Jeffery McClain, 39; Kevin McBride, 34; Michael Sailes, 51; Edwin Peavy, 52; Daniel Ashford, 37; James L. Wiggins, 47, and Jay Williams, 27, all of Cleveland, Ohio. All have entered guilty plea to charges against them.

    This case is a stark reminder about the need to protect yourself from identity theft and fraud,” Dettelbach said. “I want to thank the FBI, the Bureau of Prisons and all our partners who made prosecuting this case possible.”

     

    Inmate Ran Identity Theft Ring From Inside Prison. Judge sentences him to 14.5 more years behind bars....

    Safety Experts Clash Over Texting Bans

    Transportation Secretary LaHood vows he won't be distracted from his campaign

    Is distracted driving really as bad as federal regulators say it is?

    To U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the answer is obvious. He says about 5,500 people died and 500,000 people were injured in 2009 because of distracted driving and he has no intention of being distracted from his campaign to stamp out texting and cell phone use while driving.

    LaHood's focus on distracted driving has been generating lots of pushback lately from those who say there are plenty of bigger issues worthy of LaHood's attention.

    One such critic is Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), who says texting bans haven't been effective in reducing distracted-driving crashes.

    "Texting bans haven't reduced crashes at all. In a perverse twist, crashes increased in three of the four states we studied after bans were enacted," said Lund. "It's an indication that texting bans might even increase the risk of texting for drivers who continue to do so despite the laws."

    A study by the Highway Loss Data Institute last year found no reduction in crashes after states banned texting by drivers. LaHood called that study "completely misleading."

    But Lund said LaHood is ignoring "the endless sources of distraction and relies on banning one source or another to solve the whole problem."

    The former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Jeffrey Runge, also weighed in on the issue recently, telling USA Today last week that LaHood should focus on bigger causes of traffic deaths and injuries.

    But LaHood is not being moved by his critics.

    We will not be deterred by false choices about addressing distracted driving on the one hand and alternative critical safety issues on the other,” LaHood said today in Washington.

    LaHood said his department remains focused on addressing drunken driving, putting babies in car seats and wearing seat belts. But in a follow-up letter to USA Today he said, "the fact remains that from 2005 to 2008, distraction-related fatalities jumped from 10% to 16% of all traffic fatalities on American roads. And that jump could only be the tip of a very deadly iceberg as the number of text messages spiked from 7 billion per month in 2005 to about 173 billion per month in 2010."

    LaHood is concerned about not only mobile phones but also hands-free calls made using vehicle information and entertainment systems such as Ford Motor Co.'s Sync and General Motors Co.'s OnStar.

    LaHood said he will meet with the chairmen of Ford and Chrysler Group LLC in Detroit next week about curbing distracted driving. He said he has already spoken with executives of General Motors, Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co., Honda Motor Co. and BMW..

    He has also been encouraging corporations to ban mobile phone use and texting by fleet drivers.

    Safeway last year banned drivers of its 797 tractor-trailer trucks and 403 home-delivery trucks from talking or texting, including hands-free devices, while operating its trucks, a company spokesman said.

     

    Safety Experts Clash Over Texting Bans. Transportation Secretary LaHood vows he won't be distracted from his campaign....

    Duane Reade Hid Camera in Employee Bathroom, Suit Says

    Case points out increasing prevalence of security cameras

    Security cameras have become a part of life. Consumers think nothing of being monitored while they walk down the street, browse through a store, or even try on clothes in a retail dressing room.

    But a group of New Yorkers is saying in a lawsuit that one pharmacy chain went too far when it installed security cameras in its bathrooms.

    The plaintiffs, who all work for New York-based Duane Reade, say that the chain secretly installed the cameras in its warehouse bathrooms in Queens. In January 2008, an employee noticed the equipment, which was hidden in an air vent, according to the suit.

    When the employee complained to management, they called a meeting at which employees were warned that they should “let it go” or be fired.

    Beyond all decency”

    "To be watched in the bathroom -- this really goes beyond all decency,” lawyer Adam Thompson, who is representing the plaintiffs, told the New York Daily News.

    “Basically, you had an employer abridging their rights as citizens to file a complaint,” Thompson said. “Who knows how far this went?”

    In a statement, Duane Reade said it “[doesn't] believe the suit has merit.”

    Thompson: Cameras “absolutely working”

    Aldo Chumpitaz, one of the plaintiffs, told the Daily News that he thought the cameras were probably installed to prevent employees from stealing or tampering with merchandise.

    “I saw the camera and told a supervisor, 'How is it possible?'” Chumpitaz said. “He told me, 'It wasn't working.'” But Thompson, the plaintiffs' attorney, says the cameras “were absolutely working.”

    It's not the first time that an employer has been accused of illegally spying on its employees in a private situation. In late 2009, Wal-Mart was hit with a suit alleging that one of its Pennsylvania stores contained a camera hidden in a unisex bathroom.

    The “off-the-shelf” camera was discovered in March 2008 in a bathroom served both employees and customers.

    In that case, Wal-Mart said the camera had been placed there by two associates, who were “immediately terminated” once the store learned of the incident.

    “When store management learned of the camera, it was immediately removed,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told ABC.

    A fact of life

    The suit raises questions as to how many cameras there really are out there -- and where they're hidden.

    “I'm completely disturbed by Duane Reade's actions,” said Carol Sthilaire, who works in midtown Manhattan. “It's a complete invasion of privacy!”

    Duane Reade Hid Camera in Employee Bathroom, Suit Says Case points out increasing prevalence of security cameras...

    Woman Who Fell in Fountain While Texting Sues Mall

    Says security guards should have come to her rescue

    ConsumerAffairs.com recently reported on a lawsuit filed by Michael Dion, who fell between a subway train and a moving station platform, a mishap that broke his pelvis and lacerated his internal organs. Unsurprisingly, Dion, who was trapped for half an hour before workers were able to get him out, was angry enough to file a $15 million lawsuit against New York City.

    Now a Pennsylvania woman is considering legal action for a different kind of fall -- and one that didn't cause nearly the injuries that Dion's did.

    It all started innocently enough. Cathy Cruz Marrero was texting while walking through the Berkshire Mall in Reading, Pennsylvania when, apparently distracted, she tripped and fell into a fountain.

    It was a harrowing scene.

    “I saw the water coming at me, I could see the pennies and nickels at the bottom of the fountain and then I was in it,” Marrero told The Reading Eagle in an interview.

    Mall security not “professional”

    Rather than pick herself up, dry herself off, and perhaps chuckle at the ridiculousness of the situation, Marrero has hired a lawyer to investigate what she says is the mall's negligence for not coming to her aid. She says that the mall's security guards stood around laughing at her, rather than coming to her aid and making sure she wasn't injured.

    “My issue is I don't think security was professional because they didn't send anyone to check on me until 20 minutes later and I had already left,” Cathy told the Eagle. “Instead of laughing, they should have said, 'Is she OK?' and been down there right away to check on me,” she said.

    In a separate interview with ABC News, Marrero said she was “dumbfounded” by the guards' behavior.

    “And all I kept saying was, 'I fell. I fell. I fell in the fountain. I fell in the fountain,'” she said.

    A YouTube sensation

    Adding to Marrero's outrage, video footage of the incident was leaked by a still-unknown person and has gone viral on YouTube, gathering over 1.5 million views so far. Merroro is signaling that she will pursue legal action against whoever took the video.

    “We are troubled by the fact that anyone at the Berkshire Mall responsible for releasing this video would find humor in an employee injured on the premises,” Marrero's attorney, James Polyak, told MSNBC. “We intend to hold the appropriate persons responsible.”

    But Marrero may have bigger fish to fry. According to CBS's The Early Show, Marrero is in the middle of a criminal case in which she is charged with five counts of felony theft. She allegedly charged $5,000 worth of purchases to a co-worker's credit card.

    Poylak said that Marrero's criminal record, which also includes a hit-and-run conviction, has no connection to the incident at the Berkshire Mall.

    “Her prior personal affairs have nothing to do with what happened to her at the Berkshire Mall and the video that has been posted,” Polyak told the Eagle.

    Good advice

    Meanwhile, Marrero has some plum advice for all you kids out there.

    “Do not text and walk,” she helpfully instructed on Thursday's Good Morning America.

    Woman Who Fell in Fountain While Walking Sues MallSays security guards should have come to her rescue...

    Indiana Moves Toward Expanding Do Not Call Law

    Pending measure would expanded protections to cell phones, VoIP lines

    There's a national Do Not Call law, allowing consumers to prevent calls from telemarketers, and many states have adopted their own versions. Now, the State of Indiana is poised to take it one step farther.

    When the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) established the national Do Not Call list, it was designed to help consumers prevent intrusive telemarketing calls to their residential phone lines. Mobile phones were less of a factor because there is no central directory of cell phone numbers and, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), placing telemarketing calls to a wireless phone is, and always has been, illegal in most cases.

    But in recent years, an increasing number of consumers use only a cell phone, prompting some unscrupulous telemarketers to undertake the effort to build databases of mobile numbers in an effort to pitch to this untapped market.

    Expanded protection

    In the Indiana legislature, the Judiciary Committee has approved a measure to expand the state's Do Not Call protections to specifically cover both cell phones and VoIP lines, such as the ones provided by companies like Vonnage.

    Attorney General Greg Zoeller sought the update to the current law by clearly defining a "residential phone number" to include any Indiana cell phone number used by an Indiana resident at home. Indiana Representative Eric Koch was among the lawmakers providing sponsorship for the measure.

    "Cell phone users deserve the same level of privacy protection afforded to landlines," Koch said. "This bill aligns the law with technology."

    Reaching out to college students

    Over the next several days, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said he will visit college campuses to talk with students about the importance of the Do Not Call list and why they will want to register their Indiana cell phone numbers should the measure be passed into law.

    College students, most of whom opt out of paying for an additional landline in their apartments or dorms, are no strangers to loans and credit card debt and may be accustomed to receiving interest rate reduction calls or credit repair offers, many of which are scams or illegal in Indiana. Having the ability to register an Indiana cell phone number on the Do Not Call list will make it easier for students to identify a legitimate call from a fraud.

    "The Do Not Call list has the added benefit of acting as a warning sign to Hoosiers who are on the list," he said. "If you get a sales call on a number you know is registered, that's a red flag the person on the other end is ignoring Indiana laws and it's probably a scam. And the same goes for text message solicitations."

    Being placed on the Do Not Call list will eliminate most telemarketing calls, but not all. Under Indiana law, certain groups may still make calls to those on the list including insurance agents, realtors, newspapers and most charities.

     

    The Indiana legislature is considering a bill to expand Do Not Call protections to cell phone and VoIP lines....

    Marketers Banned From Debt Relief Business

    Defendants must pay $500,000 to settle charges

    Three companies and their owner, who allegedly falsely claimed they could help consumers quickly eliminate their credit card debts and stop calls from debt collectors, have been banned from the debt relief business under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

    According to the FTC’s complaint, The Hermosa Group and Financial Future Network deceptively advertised debt relief services, in English and Spanish radio and television ads, claiming that consumers could pay thousands less than what they owe on credit cards.

    The defendants themselves did not provide any debt relief services. Instead, the advertising was meant only to generate sales leads -- the names and phone numbers of consumers who called the defendants’ toll-free number -- which the defendants sold to debt relief providers or other sales lead generators.

    Bogus pitches

    The defendants’ ads included sales pitches such as:

    •  “With one simple call you can eliminate your debt in a fraction of the time and for less than you owe.”
    •  “Find out today how quickly and easily you can eliminate your debt.”
    • “Stop the harassing calls!”

     

    The FTC contends the defendants’ claims that they could reduce debts substantially, settle debts quickly, and stop calls from debt collectors, were false or unsubstantiated, and that the defendants did not obtain adequate evidence from sales lead buyers that they could achieve the promised results. The complaint also alleges that the defendants falsely claimed they provided the debt relief services they advertised.

    Settlement terms

    The defendants are Jonathan Greenberg, Hermosa Group LLC, Media Innovations LLC, and Financial Future Network LLC. The settlement order imposes an $8.5 million judgment that will be suspended when the defendants pay $500,000. The full judgment will be imposed immediately if they have misrepresented their financial condition.

    In addition to banning the defendants from the debt relief business, the settlement order prohibits them from making unsubstantiated claims about financial related products or services, or misrepresenting material facts about any product or service.

    The order also prohibits them from disclosing or otherwise benefiting from customers’ personal information, and failing to dispose of this information properly.

    The FTC recently amended its Telemarketing Sales Rule to require debt relief companies to make certain disclosures and prohibit them from making false claims or collecting fees before delivering the services they promise.

    Because the defendants’ ads predated these amendments, the FTC did not allege any violations of the Rule in this case.

    Marketers Banned From Debt Relief Business Defendants must pay $500,000 to settle charges ...

    Interest Rates On Car Loans On the Decline

    Car dealers are again offering incentives to kick-start a lagging market

    If you’re in the market for a new car, 2011 may be the best year to finance one.

    Dealers are bending over backwards to move cars by offering low to no interest loans, praying they don’t have another year like 2010 when car sales were 28 percent below pre-recession levels.

    I know -- what about all this talk about a turnaround in the auto industry? The reality is that despite some improvement in car sales in the U.S., the overall market is still hurting.

    According to SmartMoney magazine, automakers keep churning out vehicles, dealers stock up so they can offer a wide selection to customers and then at the end of the year -- if they don’t sell -- they’re stuck with them. Sales are growing but they’re growing slowly and dealerships have been overstocked, which means more cars are sitting on lots for longer periods of time.

    Toyota rates

    SmartMoney says Toyota has been among the more aggressive with dealership financing, offering zero percent APR on the Camry, Corolla, Tundra and Yaris in select locations. A Toyota spokesman said “we want our customers back,” and added that “it’s no secret that we’ve had a rough year at Toyota” with its massive recalls and bad press over cars that killed their owners. Toyota reported a 24 percent percent increase in sales in 2010, following a dismal year brought on by the fatalities and recalls.

    On the 2011 Toyota Camry sedan, with a base model price of about $20,000, consumers can get zero percent financing for up to 60 months at some dealers.

    Put $2,000 down on a five-year loan (the average length of most auto loans) at 5.9 percent (the average APR on a car loan) and you'll pay $840 more in interest over the duration of the loan than a dealer-financed borrower who locks in 4.2 percent, and around $2,820 more than a buyer who scores a zero percent interest rate.

    Low-risk proposition

    Although it sounds like a losing proposition, SmartMoney says dealers actually assume little risk with these low and zero interest loans. The loss automakers incur is still less than they'd face from both the stockpiles of unsold inventory and the resulting investor angst. What's more, says SmartMoney, not all loans are offered at a loss to automakers. And, unlike homes, cars are easy to repossess and can be resold relatively quickly.

    Paul Taylor, chief economist at the National Automobile Dealers Association, says that typically, cars are repossessed three to four months after a missed payment. Home foreclosures, on the other hand, can take a year to process. What's more, fewer borrowers are missing payments; year-over-year delinquency rate on car loans is down 28.4 percent and is expected to drop further this year, according to TransUnion.

    SmartMoney says that limited risk profile on auto lending has also contributed to an increased appetite among investors for these loans. Last month, Canada's TD Bank announced a $6.3 billion acquisition of Chrysler Financial and in October, General Motors completed its $3.5 billion purchase of lender AmeriCredit Corp.

    Proceed with caution

    Still, dealers are proceeding cautiously. SmartMoney says they're lending mostly to prime borrowers with a FICO credit score of at least 700, saving their lowest interest rates of zero percent to two percent for borrowers with minimum credit scores of 730 to 750 (depending on the dealer).

    Jack Nerad, executive market analyst at Kelley Blue Book, says buyers should read the fine print to make sure the dealer hasn't slipped in any add-ons, like an extended warranty or a fabric treatment, that add to the cost of your loan. It's one of the few ways dealers make money from low-interest lending.

    On the plus side, zero percent offers are being offered for loans of up to five years. In the past, the best rates usually applied for up to three-year loans. And while some of the zero percent deals expire at the end of this month, experts say consumers can expect more of the same throughout 2011 since car sales aren't expected to return to pre-recession levels this year either.

    Despite improvements in car sales, dealers are offering easy financing one again to help generate sales in an otherwise anemic auto market...

    Here are the Top Five Companies to Work For

    Fortune magazine rates the best of the best

    Just because you’re out of work and looking for a job doesn’t mean you have to settle for whatever comes along.

    In fact, according to Fortune magazine, the top 26 best companies to work for have at least 700 openings each, totaling nearly 137,000 available jobs.

    While we don’t have the time or the room to list all 26 here, we do have space for the top five.

    SAS

    The best company in the country to work for -- and this is the second year in a row it holds that title -- is SAS, a leader in business analytics software and services and the largest independent vendor in the business intelligence market.

    Based in Cary, North Carolina, SAS has been on the Fortune best 100 companies for 14 years. What makes it so great? Its perks are incredible. Here are a few:

    • On-site healthcare
    • High quality childcare at $410 per month
    • Summer camp for children of employees
    • Car cleaning
    • Beauty salon
    • State-of-the-art, 66,000-square-foot gym

    According to one SAS manager, people stay at SAS in large part because they are happy, but to dig a little deeper, I would argue that people don’t leave SAS because ‘they feel regarded -- seen, attended to and cared for.”

    Boston Consulting Group

    Company number two is the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which rose in the ranks from number eight last year. It scored points this year by avoiding job cuts during the downturn and hiring its largest class of recruits ever in 2010. They were attracted by the firm’s generous pay and a commitment to social work.

    For example, its Social Impact Practice Network (SIPN) offers a chance to work with the U.N. World Food Program and Save the Children. BCG even pulled its consultants off client projects to provide on-the-ground support in Haiti following the earthquake.

    Wegmans

    If you don’t mind harsh winters, you might enjoy working at the number three company, Wegmans Food Markets, headquartered in Rochester, New York. Wegmans was number three last year as well. This is a customer-friendly supermarket chain that cares about the well-being of its employees.  This year, 11,000 employees took part in a challenge to eat five cups of fruit and vegetables a day and walk up to 10,000 steps a day for eight weeks. Another 8,000 took advantage of health screenings that included a flu shot and H1N1 vaccine -- all covered by Wegmans. You can fill out an application at www.wegmans.com

    Google

    Number four is a perennial favorite, Google, which was number four last year too. The search giant is famous for its perky perks including free food at any of its cafeterias, a climbing wall and free laundry. Last year, with revenue up more than 20 percent, Google gave every employee a 10 percent pay increase. Employees can also award each other $175 peer spot bonuses, which more than two-thirds of them did last year. The company is headquartered in Mountain View, California.

    NetApp

    Rounding out the top five is NetApp, a data storage firm that just hired hundreds of new employees after revenues jumped 33 percent. Last year this Sunnyvale, California, company was ranked number seven but the year before in 2009 it ranked number one.

    One reason is the high wages employees earn. An hourly executive assistant makes $76,450 a year, supplemented by a bonus of $21,917. Employees also enjoy perks like free fruit on Tuesdays, free bagels and cream cheese on Fridays, and free espresso all the time.

    You can find the complete list of the 100 Best Companies To Work For here.

    If you’re looking for work, here are the top five companies to work for according to Fortune magazine, which rates the best of the best every year ...

    Walmart Plans Major Healthy Changes For Stores, Consumers

    The mega-chain hopes to make healthy foods cheaper, easier to find by 2015

    In what could potentially be the first major step in battling the obesity epidemic, Walmart, the nation’s largest grocer, has announced a comprehensive plan to provide its customers with healthier and more affordable food choices.

    Joined by First Lady Michelle Obama at an event held in Washington, D.C., Bill Simon, president and CEO of Walmart U.S. and other company execs outlined the five key elements of the new program:

    • Reducing sodium by 25 percent, sugar by 10 percent, and removing all industrially produced trans fats from various everyday packaged foods -- produced by national brands and their own Great Value private brand -- by 2015.
    • Making healthier foods more affordable by altering a variety of transportation and logistics, sourcing, and pricing initiatives and dramatically reducing or eliminating the price premium for healthier food options (like whole wheat items or foods with reduced sodium, sugar, and fat). Walmart says this will save customers approximately $1 billion per year.
    • Developing strong criteria for a simple front-of-package seal that will help consumers instantly identify truly healthier food options such as whole grain cereal, whole wheat pasta or unsweetened canned fruit.
    • Providing solutions to address food deserts by building stores in underserved communities that are in need of fresh and affordable groceries.
    • Increasing charitable support for nutrition programs that help educate consumers about healthier food solutions and choices.

    Simon said no family should have to choose between food that is healthier for them and food they can afford and that Walmart is “uniquely positioned to make a difference by making food healthier and more affordable to everyone.”

    First lady's leadership

    Walmart’s new program plans to build on the first lady's "Let's Move" campaign to make healthy choices more convenient and affordable for families.

    "We applaud First Lady Michelle Obama's leadership and commitment to this important cause," said Leslie Dach, executive vice president of corporate affairs at Walmart.  "Few individuals have done more to raise awareness of the importance of healthier habits, especially among children, than she has.”

    Dach said the first lady, shown here at a Dec. 13, 2010 reception following reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Bill, was a catalyst that helped make Wal-Mart’s announcement a reality. (White House photo).

    “Her spirit of collaboration made our commitment to bring better nutrition to kitchen tables across this country even stronger."

    Product reformulation

    Walmart says it plans to reformulate key product categories of its Great Value private brand and collaborate with suppliers to reformulate national brands within the same categories by 2015.

    The effort is designed to help reduce the consumption of sodium, sugar and trans fats, which are major contributors to the epidemic of obesity and chronic diseases in America today, including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.  

    The reformulation initiative includes three components:

    • Reduce sodium by 25 percent in a broad category of grocery items, including grain products, luncheon meats, salad dressings and frozen entrees;
    • Reduce added sugars by 10 percent in dairy items, sauces and fruit drinks; and
    • Remove all remaining industrially produced trans fats (partially hydrogenated fats and oils) in all packaged food products. 

     

    Walmart said reformulating these products could benefit millions of consumers, whether they shop at the mega-chain or not.  

    "Our customers tell us they want a variety of food choices and need help feeding their families healthier foods.  At Walmart, we are committed to doing both," said Andrea Thomas, senior vice president of sustainability at Walmart.

    Price reductions

    Walmart also plans to bring down the cost of produce by establishing more cost-effective ways to find, price, and transport it. One way to do this, said Walmart, is to establish more direct relationships with farmers.

    When it comes to pastas, crackers, cereals, and other boxed or bagged foods, Walmart said it plans dramatic reductions or eliminattion of price differences between “regular” versions and their healthier counterparts.

    "Our customers often ask us why whole wheat pasta sometimes costs more than regular pasta made by the same manufacturer," said Thomas. "We will use our size and scale to reduce the price premium on these types of products whenever possible because customers shouldn't have to pay more to eat healthier.”

    'Food deserts'

    The company also says it is a a business priority to find innovative ways to provide fresh and affordable groceries to people in urban and rural communities across America that are living in food deserts.

    "As we continue to expand in the U.S., we are focused on developing new formats and new approaches that will offer underserved communities fresh and affordable food options where they are needed most," said Simon.

    With all these changes ready to begin, Thomas said Walmart is not planning to tell consumers what and what not to eat.

    "Our customers understand that products like cookies and ice cream are meant to be an indulgent treat. This effort is aimed at eliminating sodium, sugar and trans fat in products where they are not really needed."

    The reaction

    The news of a Democratic first lady giving the stamp of approval to a huge corporation like Walmart has sent many Internet bloggers into a tizzy of speculation: will Walmart actually do anything or could this be an easy way for them to expand into major cities?

    That, of course, has yet to be seen. For now, focus seems to be on the possibility of major, positive change in America’s current food industry.

    Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest said he applauds Walmart for “moving the food industry in a healthier direction.”

    "Walmart's action should virtually eliminate artificial trans fat and significantly reduce salt in packaged foods, and, most importantly, prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks and strokes each year," said Jacobson.

    James R. Gavin III, M.D., Ph.D., Chairman of the Partnership for a Healthier America, commends for taking "an important step forward" in addressing America’s obesity epidemic.  

    "In order to successfully make our children and families healthier, we need the private, public and non-profit sectors to come together in meaningful and measureable ways," said Gavin. "This initiative is a positive example of what companies can do to help American families tackle the serious problem of childhood obesity.”

    Walmart Plans Major Healthy Changes For Stores, Consumers The mega-chain hopes to make healthy foods cheaper, easier to find by 2015...

    Poulan Pro Generators Recalled

    Gas can leak, creating a fire hazard

    Husqvarna is realling about 600Poulan Pro generators. The carburetor can fail allowing gasoline to leak, posing a fire hazard to consumers.

    The firm has received four reports of fuel leakage. No injuries have been reported.

    This recall involves gas-powered Poulan Pro Generators designed for residential use. Models included in the recall are: PP4300, PP6600, PP6600E and PP7600E, all serial numbers. The generator's model number can be found on the front of the fuel tank on the Serial Number Plate. The generators are black and marigold color, measure 21.5" H x 26.6" L x 21.3" range from 4.4 to 7.6 KW with two handles and two wheels.

    Poulan Pro and Husqvarna authorized dealers sold the generators nationwide from July 2010 through September 2010 for between $600 and $1,000. They were made in China.

    Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled generators and contact Husqvarna to arrange a free repair.

    For more information or to schedule a free repair, contact Husqvarna toll-free at (877) 257-6921 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday. Consumers can also visit the firm's website at www.husqvarna.us/december2010Alert

     

    Poulan Pro Generators Recalled. Gas can leak, creating a fire hazard....

    Man Crushed By Subway Platform Sues NYC

    Michael Dion was trapped for 30 minutes between train and moving platform grate

    A man crushed by a moving subway platform in Manhattan has announced plans to launch a $15 million lawsuit against the city.

    On December 10, 41-year-old Michael Dion was waiting for the 4 train, which runs along Lexington Avenue, at the 14th Street-Union Square station.  

    That station features a sharply curved track that creates an unusually wide gap between the platform and the train. To compensate for the gap, the platform features several moving metal grates, which jut forward to connect the platform to the subway cars after a train has pulled in. Once the train leaves the station, the grates retract back into the platform.

    Incident a “nightmare”

    Dion apparently fell into the gap after the train pulled up, but before the platform fully extended. As a result, he was crushed between the platform and the train, which his lawyer says caused “virtually all of his internal abdominal organs [to become] either lacerated or severely injured.” Both sides of Dion’s pelvis were also fractured.

    Dion remained stuck for half an hour as Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) workers struggled to get the platform to retract. None of the workers who initially responded to the incident were trained in how to disengage the platform’s hydraulics.

    “It's a nightmare, plain and simple,” Dion’s lawyer, Jay Dankner, told The New York Post. “It is such a horrifying experience that is going to last him forever.

    “What really makes him break down is how close to death he really was,” Dankner added.

    Dion wants changes to system

    Dion has filed a notice of claim against the MTA and NYC Transit, an arm of the MTA that oversees the subway, which is the first step toward filing a lawsuit, according to the Daily Mail.

    Dion says that his suit is about more than money; it’s about preventing similar injuries in the future.

    “Something must be done to fix this dangerous condition before someone else is seriously injured or killed,” Dion told the Post. “The people who ride their subways and trains deserve to be protected from these unnecessary and dangerous hazards.”

    Dankner pointed out that a similarly-shaped platform, at the South Ferry station, has a chain to prevent riders from falling into the gap, and said that the Union Square station needs a similar mechanism.

    Train gaps require close attention

    How Dion fell into the gap is not entirely clear. Police initially said they thought he had been drinking, but Dankner denied that claim. Photos of the ordeal show Dion wearing earbud headphones, suggesting that he may not have heard automated announcements warning passengers to “stand clear of the moving platform as trains enter and leave the station.”

    Train and subway gaps are notoriously dangerous and require passengers to pay close attention, especially when boarding and exiting trains. In 2006, teenager Natalie Smead was killed after she slipped through the gap at the Woodside station on the Long Island Railroad (LIRR). Smead tried to crawl to the platform on the opposite side of the station and was struck by an oncoming train.

    The accident spurred the LIRR to launch a campaign warning passengers of the gap, and to reduce gaps measuring more than 10 inches wide.

    And last year, a jury awarded $247,500 to Judith Cohen, after the 72-year-old New Yorker fell into an LIRR gap at the Huntington station.

    Man Crushed by Subway Platform Sues NYC Michael Dion trapped for 30 minutes between train and moving platform grate...

    Don't Fall for Tax Season Scams

    Tax scams increase this time of year

    This time of year consumers spend more time thinking about taxes and tax-related issues. That's why they may be more vulnerable to scams masquerading as Internal Revenue Service (IRS) communications.

    These scams are around all year round, but they seem more prevalent this time of year. They may appropriate the name, logo or other appurtenances of the IRS or U.S. Department of the Treasury to mislead taxpayers into believing that the scam is legitimate.

    Scams involving the impersonation of the IRS usually take the form of e-mails, tweets or other online messages to consumers. Scammers may also use phones and faxes to reach intended victims. Some scammers set up phony Websites.

    (Read consumer complaints about tax companies).

    The IRS and e-mail

    Generally, the IRS does not send unsolicited e-mails to taxpayers. Further, it does not discuss tax account information with taxpayers via e-mail or use e-mail to solicit sensitive financial and personal information from taxpayers. The IRS does not request financial account security information, such as PIN numbers, from taxpayers.

    So if you get an email from the IRS covering any of the above subjects, you should assume it is a scam and not act on it until you independently verify the email is -- in fact -- from the tax agency.

    Object of scams

    Most scams impersonating the IRS are identity theft schemes. The scammer poses as a legitimate institution to trick consumers into revealing personal and financial information, such as passwords and Social Security, PIN, bank account and credit card numbers that can be used to gain access to and steal their bank, credit card or other financial accounts.

    Attempted identity theft scams that take place via e-mail are known as phishing. Other scams may try to persuade a victim to advance sums of money in the hope of realizing a larger gain. These are known as advance fee scams.

    Who is targeted

    Anyone with a computer, phone or fax machine could receive a scam message or unknowingly visit a phony or misleading Web site. Individuals, businesses, educators, charities and others have been targeted by e-mails that claim to come from the IRS or Treasury Department. Scam e-mails are generally sent out in bulk, based on e-mail addresses (urls), similar to spam.

    How an identity theft scam works

    Typically, a consumer will receive an e-mail that claims to come from the IRS or Treasury Department. The message will contain an enticing or intimidating subject line, such as tax refund, inherited funds or IRS notice.

    Usually, the message will state that the recipient needs to provide the IRS with information to obtain the refund or avoid some penalty. The message will instruct the consumer to open an attachment or click on a link in the e-mail.

    This may lead to an official-looking form to be filled out online or send the taxpayer to a seemingly genuine but bogus IRS Website. The look-alike site will then contain a phony but genuine-looking online form or interactive application that requires the personal and financial information the scammer can use to commit identity theft.

    Also, the clicked link may secretly download malware to the consumer's computer. Malware is malicious code that can take over the computer's hard drive, giving the scammer remote access to the computer, or it could look for passwords and other information and send them to the scammer.

    Phony Web or commercial sites

    In many IRS-impersonation scams, the scammer sends the consumer to a phony Website that mimics the appearance of the genuine IRS Website. This allows the scammer to steer victims to phony interactive forms or applications that appear genuine and require the targeted victim to enter personal and financial information that will be used to commit identity theft.

    In addition to Websites established by scammers, there are commercial Internet sites that often resemble the authentic IRS site or contain some form of the IRS name in the address but end with a .com, .net, .org or other designation instead of .gov. These sites have no connection to the IRS. Consumers may unknowingly visit these sites when searching the Internet to retrieve tax forms, publications and other information from the IRS.

    The official Website for the Internal Revenue Service is IRS.gov and it contains a lot of helpful information and advice for taxpayers. The best way to make sure you are at the right site is to type in www.irs.gov in your browser.

     

     

    The IRS warns taxpayers not to respond to emails that appear to be from the tax collection agency....

    Ally-GMAC Plans To Drop 250 Maryland Foreclosures

    Company says it will re-file without robo-signed affidavits

    The GMAC mortgage unit of Ally Financial, Inc. is planning to drop 250 foreclosures in Maryland due to defective affidavits, the company announced on Wednesday.

    The decision encompasses every Maryland foreclosure “robo-signed” by Ally employee Jeffrey Stephan, who has already admitted that he signed off on thousands of foreclosures every month without conducting any meaningful review.

    Ally’s announcement came after Civil Justice, Inc., a Maryland nonprofit group, agreed to abandon a class action brought on behalf of homeowners whose foreclosure papers were signed by Stephan.

    Robo-signing defined

    “Robo-signing” occurs when an individual is assigned to sign off on a large number of foreclosures without first checking to ensure that all the documentation is correct. The practice, which came to light after a Washington Post report last fall, potentially poses serious threats to the mortgage industry. In November, the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP) warned that robo-signing could put some large banks at risk.

    “The risk stems from the possibility that the rapid growth of mortgage securitization in recent years may have outpaced the ability of the legal and financial system to track mortgage loan ownership,” the panel wrote. “In essence, banks may be unable to prove that they own the mortgage loans they claim to own.”

    Buyers and sellers could potentially be thrown into limbo as well, with no one reasonably sure of whether they could validly buy or sell a home.

    Jeffrey Stephan, the best-known robo-signer, estimated during a deposition that he signed around 10,000 documents per month.

    Company plans to re-file

    In an e-mailed statement to Bloomberg, Ally spokeswoman Gina Proia said the company’s “intention is to re-file the cases to go through the new foreclosure procedures in Maryland.”

    But that will likely be a lengthy process, and one that could inject additional uncertainty into Maryland’s already-shaky real estate market.

    Action may have “ripple effect”

    Although Ally’s action is ostensibly confined to Maryland, one consumer activist told The Washington Post that other mortgage companies who used robo-signers are likely to follow suit.

    “What they're doing is triage,” Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, told the Post. “They're thinking: We've got a problem in Maryland. Let's get in front of it. But they're naive if they think that what they're doing in Maryland is going to shut the door on their troubles elsewhere.”

    Indeed, that is the hope of Civil Justice, the group that filed the lawsuit.

    “Hopefully GMAC’s actions will set a precedent with other lenders where robo-signing has occurred,” Civil Justice attorney Anthony DePastina told Bloomberg. “I think there will be a ripple effect throughout the country.”

    Ally-GMAC Plans to Drop 250 Maryland ForeclosuresCompany says it will re-file without robo-signed affidavits...

    New Jersey Steps Up Warnings About Credit Repair Claims

    State using variety of media to get the word out to consumers

    While credit repair companies make lots of promises about restoring your credit rating and removing negative items from your credit report, most are just empty claims.

    In New Jersey, consumer officials have launched a multi-media outreach campaign that educates consumers about how to avoid credit repair scams that may actually worsen their situation.

    “Your credit history is critically important when financing a major purchase, obtaining a loan and even when applying for a job,” said Thomas R. Calcagni, Acting Director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs. “Through this outreach campaign, we want consumers to learn that everything that a credit repair company will claim to do for you legally, you can do for yourself at little or no cost. We’ve seen these so-called credit repair companies scam consumers out of hundreds of dollars while essentially doing nothing and we want consumers to be alert to these frauds.”

    The outreach campaign is primarily funded by a grant from the Sears Consumer Protection and Education Fund.

    Multi-media approach

    The campaign includes radio ads that began airing this week and newspaper ads that will appear this Sunday. Both the radio and print ads refer consumers to the division's Website, where detailed information has been posted.

    The posted information includes how to obtain a free annual credit report and how to notify the credit reporting companies of incorrect or missing information on your credit report.

    “Consumers can report incorrect or missing information themselves, without the cost of hiring a company that promises to repair your credit,” Calcagni said. “Be dubious of any company that claims it can erase bad credit information from your history.”

    Cracking down

    The Division of Consumer Affairs filed suit against a Lakewood-based credit repair and credit counseling firm, United Credit Adjusters in October 2008, alleging that it failed to provide the promised services after clients made required payments in advance. The division also claimed that contrary to the company’s representations and advertisements, consumers’ credit scores were not raised nor was negative information eliminated from credit reports.

    The two officers of United Credit Adjusters were permanently barred from doing credit counseling, credit repair, debt adjuster and bankruptcy work in New Jersey, under the terms of the Final Consent Judgment entered in 2009.

    “We will investigate any and all complaints about alleged fraud committed by companies that promise to repair consumers’ credit ratings,” Calcagni said.

    The State of New Jersey has launched a campaign to warn consumers against wasting money on credit repair firms....

    Exercise May Curb Eating Disorders

    Researchers say the psychological effects of exercise could help prevent and treat eating disorders

    Although it may seem counterintuitive, exercise could be used as an intervention for -- or even a way to prevent -- eating disorders.

    “When it comes to eating disorders, exercise has always been seen as a negative because people use it as a way to control their weight," says Heather Hausenblas, an exercise psychologist at the University of Florida. " But for most people, exercise is a very positive thing.”

    Hausenblas says results of her research show it's not necessarily bad for people with disordered eating to engage in exercise. In fact, she says, "The effects on self-esteem, depression, mood and body image can reduce the risk of eating pathologies.”

    Psychology of exercise

    Researchers surveyed 539 normal-weight college students, most of whom were not at risk for eating disorders. They evaluated the students’ drive to be thin, along with their exercise habits and risk for exercise dependence and used statistical models to find potential relationships.

    They found that, more than its physical benefits, the psychological effects of exercise could help prevent and treat eating disorders. The findings are reported in European Eating Disorders Review.

    Intervention assistance

    “The public health implications of this study are important,” says Danielle Symons Downs, director of the Exercise Psychology Laboratory at Penn State. “This research is important for understanding the complex interactions between exercise behavior and eating pathology, and it can assist clinicians with better understanding how to intervene with and treat eating pathology.”

    Beyond offering an affordable treatment to address the needs of people with eating disorders, exercise therapies also could help relieve the burden of such diseases on the health-care system, Hausenblas says.

    “If a patient is extremely underweight, you’re not going to have them exercising two or three hours a day. But once they’re at a stable level, exercise could have a big positive effect,” she says.

    Hausenblas hopes to launch another study that would follow at-risk individuals over a period of several months to see if exercise impacts their symptoms. “We’d like to assess them over time, and we hope to see their risk factors go down.”

    Researchers at the University of Kentucky and University of Arizona collaborated on the study.

    Exercise May Curb Eating Disorders Researchers say the psychological effects of exercise could help prevent and treat eating disorders ...

    Bed Bug Suit Creeps Toward Trial

    Motion for class certification suggests a settlement is not imminent

    A bed bug class action marches on in Des Moines, Iowa, with residents of two apartment complexes for the elderly and disabled alleging in court papers that the buildings’ management ignored the problem until confronted with litigation.

    The plaintiffs are asking that the suit, originally filed in March, be certified as a class action so that it can inch closer to trial. The implications for the plaintiffs are real, with many seeking refunds of rental payments and compensation for property lost to the infestation.

    Elsie Mason Manor and Ligutti Towers, the buildings at issue, are home to many residents on fixed and limited incomes, who don’t have the necessary means to fully address the problem themselves. As a result, those residents are essentially at the mercy of the buildings’ managers.

    Variety of hardships

    In addition to the often-crippling financial burden -- victims of bed bug infestations often have to throw out all their furniture and sometimes their clothes as well -- the incident has caused residents physical and emotional hardship.

    The complaint says that at least 250 tenants have experienced substandard and unconscionable living conditions as a result of the epidemic.

    “Everybody sleeps on the floor,” Robert Hobbs, a resident of Elsie Mason, told The Des Moines Register. “You have to.”

    Management targeted

    Despite its pious-sounding name, American Baptist Homes of the Midwest -- which manages the two buildings -- is depicted as downright Scrooge-esque in the complaint. The company allegedly dismissed reports of bed bugs at first, and then blamed the problem on residents’ hygiene, a belief that is unfounded and scientifically inaccurate. (As bed bug expert Harold Harlan explained to MSNBC, “the cleanest living area can have a very large infestation, and improving sanitation alone will not eliminate an established bed bug population.”)

    After the suit was filed, things seemed to be looking up for the plaintiffs. American Baptist CEO Dave Zwickey declared that his was “a faith-based, values-driven organization” that would mount “a real-time response to the problem.”

    But the spirit of cooperation has apparently broken down somewhat, with Zwickey telling the Register that he thinks at least some of the plaintiffs’ claims “are both inaccurate and exaggerated.” Zwickey stressed, however, that after the complaint was filed, his company made use of “thermal radiation,” a process that involves heating apartments to 140 degrees for six to eight hours. American Baptist has also sent bedbug-sniffing dogs into the apartments on several occasions. Zwickey says the treatments have helped, leading to “a much different situation than we had last March.”

    “Necessary to take this next step”

    Meanwhile, plaintiffs’ attorney Jeff Lipman is turning his attention toward pushing the case through the courts. “Although we never foreclosed the possibility of settlement, we now find it necessary to take this next step,” he told the Register.

    The plaintiffs want the entire building fumigated as soon as possible -- since bed bugs can easily migrate from one apartment to the next -- and ask that potential residents be informed of the problem ahead of time.

    The case highlights the fact that bed bugs aren’t going away any time soon -- and that homeowners should take action to prevent an infestation in the first place.

    Consumers should steer clear of second-hand furniture or close whenever possible, as bed bugs can hop a ride on those items while remaining out of sight.

    Those who live in high-density areas, especially New York City and the surrounding areas, should also consider investing in a bed bug-proof mattress cover.

    Bed Bug Suit Creeps Toward TrialMotion for class certification suggests settlement not imminent...

    66 Vehicles Win 2011 Top Safety Pick Award

    Hyundai/Kia, Volkswagen/Audi lead the pack with 9 winners each

    ALL 66 WINNERS

    Large cars
    Buick LaCrosse
    Buick Regal
    BMW 5 series (except 4-wheel drive and V8)
    Cadillac CTS sedan
    Ford Taurus
    Hyundai Genesis
    Infiniti M37/M56 (except M56x 4-wheel drive)
    Lincoln MKS
    Mercedes E class coupe
    Mercedes E class sedan
    Toyota Avalon Volvo S80

    Midsize cars
    Audi A3
    Audi A4 sedan
    Chevrolet Malibu
    Chrysler 200 4-door
    Dodge Avenger
    Ford Fusion
    Hyundai Sonata
    Kia Optima
    Lincoln MKZ
    Mercedes C class
    Subaru Legacy
    Subaru Outback
    Volkswagen Jetta sedan
    Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen
    Volvo C30

    Small cars
    Chevrolet Cruze
    Honda Civic 4-door models (except Si) with optional electronic stability control
    Kia Forte sedan
    Kia Soul
    Mitsubishi Lancer sedan (except 4-wheel drive)
    Nissan Cube
    Scion tC
    Scion xB
    Subaru Impreza sedan and hatchback (except WRX)
    Toyota Corolla
    Volkswagen Golf 4-door
    Volkswagen GTI
    4-door Minicar Ford Fiesta sedan and hatchback built after July 2010
    Minivan
    Toyota Sienna

    Large SUV
    Volkswagen Touareg

    Midsize SUVs
    Audi Q5
    Cadillac SRX
    Chevrolet Equinox
    Dodge Journey
    Ford Explorer
    Ford Flex
    GMC Terrain
    Hyundai Santa Fe
    Jeep Grand Cherokee
    Kia Sorento built after March
    2010 Lexus RX
    Lincoln MKT
    Mercedes GLK
    Subaru Tribeca
    Toyota Highlander
    Toyota Venza
    Volvo XC60
    Volvo XC90

    Small SUVs
    Honda Element
    Hyundai Tucson
    Jeep Patriot with optional side torso airbags
    Kia Sportage
    Subaru Forester
    Volkswagen Tiguan

    Sixty-six vehicles earn the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Top Safety Pick award for 2011, including 40 cars, 25 SUVs, and a minivan, with Hyundai/Kia and Volkswagen/Audi leading the pack with nine winners each.

    Top Safety Pick recognizes vehicles that do the best job of protecting people in front, side, rollover, and rear crashes based on good ratings in Institute tests. Winners also must have available electronic stability control, a crash avoidance feature that significantly reduces crash risk. The ratings help consumers pick vehicles that offer a higher level of protection than federal safety standards require.

    Last year the Institute toughened criteria for Top Safety Pick by adding a requirement that all qualifiers must earn a good rating for performance in a roof strength test to assess protection in a rollover crash. The move sharply narrowed the initial field of 2010 winners.

    At the beginning of the 2010 model year, only 27 vehicles qualified for the award, but the number grew to 58 as auto manufacturers reworked existing designs and introduced new models. Now another 10 vehicles join the winners' list for 2011. Two discontinued models drop off.

    "In just a year, automakers have more than doubled the number of vehicles that meet the criteria for Top Safety Pick," says Adrian Lund, the Institute's president. "That gives consumers shopping for a safer new car or SUV — from economy to luxury models — plenty of choices to consider in most dealer showrooms. In fact, every major automaker has at least one winning model this year."

    Front-runners

    Hyundai/Kia and Volkswagen/Audi each have 9 winners for 2011. Next in line with 8 awards apiece are General Motors, Ford/Lincoln, and Toyota/Lexus/Scion. Subaru is the only manufacturer with a winner in all the vehicle classes in which it competes. Subaru earns 5 awards for 2011.

    "Safety is a priority among this crop of winners," Lund says. "From the start these manufacturers set out to design vehicles that would earn Top Safety Pick, even though we've made it harder to win."

    One of them is Ford. For 2011, the automaker is rolling out a new design for its popular Explorer midsize SUV, which until now had never earned Top Safety Pick. Ford also upgraded the roofs of 2 other midsize SUVs, the Ford Flex and Lincoln MKT, along with the Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ, 2 midsize cars that missed the initial round of 2010 winners because they lacked the required roof strength. The all-new Ford Fiesta rounds out Ford's winners and is the only minicar to earn Top Safety Pick this year.

    General Motors' new Chevrolet Cruze broadens the number of award-winning options for consumers looking to buy a fuel-efficient small car. GM built the Cruze, which has 10 standard airbags, including ones for the knees, to outperform the government's minimum roof strength requirements and touts the achievement as a selling point.

    The redesigned Volkswagen Touareg is the only large SUV to earn Top Safety Pick for 2011. The Institute doesn't normally evaluate SUVs this large, but Volkswagen requested crash tests to demonstrate the Touareg's crashworthiness.

    None of the small pickups the Institute has evaluated qualified for this year's award, and large pickups haven't yet been tested.

    The Institute awarded the first Top Safety Pick to 2006 models and then raised the bar the next year by requiring good rear test results and electronic stability control as either standard or optional equipment. With last year's addition of new criteria for roof crush the Institute's crash test ratings now cover all 4 of the most common kinds of crashes.

    More than 12,000 people died in frontal crashes of passenger vehicles in 2009 in the United States, more than 6,000 died in side impacts, and more than 8,000 died in rollovers, many of which also involved a front or side impact. Rear-end crashes usually aren't fatal but result in a large proportion of injuries. Neck sprain or strain is the most commonly reported injury in two-thirds of insurance claims for injuries in all kinds of crashes.

    Vehicles rated good for rollover crash protection have roofs more than twice as strong as the current federal standard requires. The Institute estimates that such roofs reduce the risk of serious and fatal injury in single-vehicle rollovers by about 50 percent compared with roofs meeting the minimum requirement.

    Quick strides in occupant protection

    When the first roof crush results were released in March 2009, only a third of the SUVs tested had good roofs. Since then about 113 vehicles have been tested, and the majority are rated good for roof strength.

    Hyundai is a case in point. The Tucson and the small SUV's twin, the Kia Sportage, earned a poor rating for roof strength in 2009, with the weakest roof among all of the small SUVs evaluated that year. A redesign helped the 2011 models secure a good rating and Top Safety Pick. Hyundai also improved the roof on another SUV, the midsize Santa Fe, and redesigned the Sonata, a midsize car that had earned a marginal roof rating the first time around.

    The outlook for side-impact protection has brightened, too, Lund notes. Many cars failed the side test the Institute began conducting in 2003, but now most vehicles ace the test thanks to stronger side structures and standard side airbags that protect the head and torso. It's an important improvement because new Institute research shows that the risk of dying in a crash is sharply lower for people in vehicles that earn good ratings in the Institute's side test.

    Chrysler added torso airbags to the redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee to bolster side crash protection and earn a good side rating. The previous design relied on head curtain airbags to cushion occupants in side crashes and only rated marginal for side protection.

    Safety equipment is increasingly standard. Ninety-two percent of 2011 model cars, 94 percent of SUVs, and 56 percent of pickups have standard head and torso side airbags. Electronic stability control is standard on 92 percent of cars, 100 percent of SUVs, and 72 percent of pickups.

    "Automakers deserve credit for quickly rising to meet the more-challenging criteria for Top Safety Pick," Lund says. "Several already have requested tests for new models due to ship early next year, so we expect to add even more winners to the 2011 list."

    The Institute groups Top Safety Pick winners according to vehicle type and size. Lund advises consumers to keep in mind that size and weight influence crashworthiness. Larger, heavier vehicles generally afford better occupant protection in serious crashes than smaller, lighter ones. Even with a Top Safety Pick, a small car isn't as crashworthy as a bigger one.

    How vehicles are evaluated

    The Institute's frontal crashworthiness evaluations are based on results of 40 mph frontal offset crash tests. Each vehicle's overall evaluation is based on measurements of intrusion into the occupant compartment, injury measures recorded on a 50th percentile male Hybrid III dummy in the driver seat, and analysis of slow-motion film to assess how well the restraint system controlled dummy movement during the test.

    Side evaluations are based on performance in a crash test in which the side of a vehicle is struck by a barrier moving at 31 mph. The barrier represents the front end of a pickup or SUV. Ratings reflect injury measures recorded on 2 instrumented SID-IIs dummies representing a 5th percentile woman, assessment of head protection countermeasures, and the vehicle's structural performance during the impact.

    In the roof strength test, a metal plate is pushed against 1 side of a roof at a displacement rate of 0.2 inch per second. To earn a good rating for rollover protection, the roof must withstand a force of 4 times the vehicle's weight before reaching 5 inches of crush. This is called a strength-to-weight ratio.

    Rear crash protection is rated according to a two-step procedure. Starting points for the ratings are measurements of head restraint geometry — the height of a restraint and its horizontal distance behind the back of the head of an average-size man.

    Seat/head restraints with good or acceptable geometry are tested dynamically using a dummy that measures forces on the neck. This test simulates a collision in which a stationary vehicle is struck in the rear at 20 mph. Seats without good or acceptable geometry are rated poor overall because they can't be positioned to protect many people.

     

    66 Vehicles Win 2011 Top Safety Pick Award. Hyundai/Kia, Volkswagen/Audi lead the pack with 9 winners each....

    Supreme Court Won't Block Pella Windows Lawsuit

    Class action charges windows rot more quickly than they should

    The Supreme Court has refused to intervene in a lawsuit alleging that Pella windows are defective, allowing the case to proceed as a class action in federal court in Chicago.

    The suit, currently working its way through the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, alleges that Pella’s “ProLine” casement windows are defectively designed, in that they allow water to seep behind their aluminum cladding, thereby causing the interior wood to rot more quickly than it otherwise would. The plaintiffs allege that Pella failed to inform consumers of the defect, and of a modification to its “Pella ProLine Customer Service Enhancement Program” intended to compensate affected owners.

    According to the plaintiffs, Pella used the customer service enhancement program to modify the warranties of consumers who owned ProLine windows, but failed to tell consumers about the modification, or the defect that spurred it. The original warranty covers defects for the first 10 years only.

    Fraud allegations at issue

    Two distinct groups of consumers are represented in the case. The first consists of all consumers who own a home containing ProLine windows manufactured between 1991 and the present, and who haven’t yet experienced problems with the windows. The second group consists of consumers in six states -- California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York -- who have already experienced problems with their ProLine windows, and who had those windows replaced.

    Both classes of plaintiffs are alleging fraud, predicated on Pella’s alleged failure to disclose the defect. Pella contends that consumer fraud cases are inappropriate for class treatment, due to the difficulty of proving causation, reliance, and the amount of damages due.

    The Seventh Circuit, in rejecting Pella’s argument, wrote that “[w]hile consumer fraud class actions present problems that courts must carefully consider before granting certification, there is not and should not be a rule that they never can be certified.”

    Quoting Thorogood v. Sears, the court concluded that class certification in the Pella case was “a sensible and legally permissible alternative to remitting all the buyers to individual suits each of which would cost orders of magnitude more to litigate than the claims would be worth to the plaintiffs,” and agreed with the district court’s determination that “individual issues that necessarily arise in a consumer fraud action [do] not prevent class treatment of the narrow liability issues here.”

    Pella took an interlocutory (or mid-case) appeal to the Supreme Court, which refused to intervene.

    Reports from the field

    ConsumerAffairs.com has received a number of complaints from consumers with rotting Pella windows. Nancie of Oxford, PA writes:

    “I purchased a 9 year old home with Pella windows. They leak, rot and fall apart. Water leaks into walls, floor, ceilings. When my husband and I contacted a local Pella supplier they said NOTHING about the windows being JUNK or not being made correctly. Many homes in my development have the SAME problem.”

    Melanie of Williston, TN is having trouble getting Pella to help her address the problem:

    “I purchased Pella windows for my home when it was built in 2001, now all of the windows are rotting and need to be replace. Pella wants me to pay 300 for them to look at the window and even if they decide it is under warranty I will have to pay the cost to have them installed. These were expensive windows that leak because of a manufacturing problem.”

    Contractors on edge

    The litigation has contractors who installed the windows concerned about their own potential liability. An entry on the Builders Counsel Blog, which describes itself as focused on “progressive construction law topics,” warned that “contractors who have installed Pella “ProLine” windows should be on their toes about potential breach of contract and/or warranty claims that might be raised by their customers.”

    Supreme Court Won’t Hear Pella Windows Lawsuit. Allows case to proceed as class action...

    Maybe You Shouldn't be in a Hurry to Pay off Your Mortgage

    Put that money into the stock market instead

    With housing prices still coming down in many regions and analysts predicting a long housing recovery period, you might do better investing your money in the stock market rather than paying off your mortgage. Still, many homeowners I know have taken advantage of the low interest rates to refinance their mortgages and move into a 15-year mortgage from a 30-year so they can pay off their home faster.

    Like many people, they feel that the more equity they have in their home, the better. And in most cases, they’d be right. But, as Adam Bold, founder of the Mutual Fund Store, says in an article he wrote for Yahoo Finance, people shouldn’t rush to pay off their mortgage because it doesn't make financial sense.

    Bold, who also has his own radio show, used the example of a man who planned on using half of his $100,000 mutual fund investment to pay off the remaining $50,000 on his home mortgage. Rather than pay off the mortgage, Bold recommended he keep his money invested and here’s why.

    The man has a 5 percent interest rate on his mortgage, and the interest he pays can be deducted when he does his tax return. Depending on his tax bracket, his interest cost leaves him with a net mortgage cost of roughly 3.6 percent (or $1,800) per year after taxes. If he keeps the $50,000 invested in the stock market rather than paying off his mortgage and earns the stock market's long-term average return of 10 percent or more, he would have an annual gain of $5,000. Subtract the $1,800 mortgage interest cost from $5,000 earned by staying invested, and he could end up $3,200 ahead. If he continues to invest $3,200 per year over the next five years, he can accumulate $16,000 or more, money he wouldn't have by paying off his mortgage.

    Bold says that the other reason people shouldn't pay off their mortgage is more emotional in nature. Many people believe they'll attain peace of mind when they pay off their mortgage. They might share the Depression-era belief that the government can't take their house away if they pay off their loan. But Bold believes that any peace of mind is outweighed by the potential benefits of keeping the money and investing it.

    Costly mistake?

    According to Bold, if a person uses investment money to pay off that loan, it may leave that person with much less money when it's really needed in future years. That could be a costly mistake because it may not offer the person the luxury of time to replenish his nest egg.

    Besides, with mortgage rates on the rise recently, this is not the time to be in a hurry to pay off a mortgage. Bold says he’s hopeful that many homeowners were able to benefit in recent years by refinancing their loans as 30-year fixed mortgage rates fell, including a period of time in 2010 when rates were below 4.5 percent. Their interest costs should be very low going forward.

    Bold says mortgage debt is okay to have, because equity in the home is being built as the loan is paid down. For most people, their home will always be a part of their net worth, even if they don't pay off the mortgage. And low-interest mortgages allow them to expand their wealth by investing money they have because they didn't pay off their mortgage.

    So, Bold encourages people to keep their mortgage and instead, enjoy the fruits of investing their extra money. When considering net worth, whether it's increased home equity or a larger investment account, it's still net worth. With investments, they have a chance to grow. With home equity, the interest savings are the only upside.

    Adam Bold is not only the founder of The Mutual Fund Store, which provides fee-only investment advice, he’s also the author of The Bold Truth about Investing and the Chief Investment Officer of The Mutual Fund Research Center, an SEC registered investment adviser.

    .

    Low interest rates have encouraged many homeowners to refinance and get a 15 year rather than a 30 year mortgage but what’s the rush? ...

    Recruiters Reconsider How They Use Websites to Find Job Candidates

    Revisions make on-line searches even more difficult for job seekers

    It was bound to happen sooner or later. The massive number of candidate applications has simply overwhelmed those who are tasked with going through those applications to find a reasonable number of candidates to actually interview for a particular position.

    According to The Wall Street Journal, recruiters say that while they are beginning to hire again, they’re going about it differently by no longer screening piles of online applications and instead seeking out potential candidates themselves. Many of them say they’re going to focus on sites like Linkedin even before the post an opening to find those candidates that have the expertise a particular position requires.

    The decision to scale back their use of online job boards came because the sites generated mostly unqualified leads. Even recruiting agencies are following their own lead. The Journal quotes the vice president of Science Applications International, Kara Yarnot as saying the McLean, Virginia based government contractor says it has been inundated with online applicants and plans to cut the number of job boards it uses this year to six from 15.

    She says her firm has asked its 125 recruiters to find candidates for analyst, engineering, and other jobs on professional social networks instead of plowing through piles of submissions to jobsites. She says the goal is to reach candidates earlier, before they're being pursued by the competition.

    According to a recent survey from the Corporate Executive Board, a business consulting firm, about one in four (24%) of companies plan to decrease their usage of third-party employment websites and job boards this year. Meanwhile, nearly 80% said they plan to increase their use of job-board alternative methods this year, such as employee referrals and other websites like Facebook or LinkedIn.

    The Journal article reports that food services company Sodexo USA, which is owned by Paris-based Sodexo SA, slashed the number of jobs it posts to third-party job boards by more than half since the recession started. The vice president of talent acquisition, Arie Ball, said the number of applications to some executive openings at Sodexo rose more than 300 since the downturn started, but many were unqualified candidates.

    'All this extra time'

    Ms. Ball told the Journal that recruiters had to “put in all this extra time to read applications but we didn't get benefit from it." She says that now, the company is hiring different types of recruiters who specialize in headhunting, including finding candidates to poach from competitors, rather than those who are good at processing and filtering applications.

    The Labor Department says that companies are adapting their plans as they start hiring again after the downturn. Between November 2009 and November 2010, the total number of job openings rose 32 percent.

    According to the Corporate Executive Board, job seekers who were reluctant to leave their existing jobs—as well as unemployed workers sitting on the sidelines—have begun casting about for opportunities, too. Between December 2009 and December 2010, recruiters saw a 17 percent increase in applications per opening. This trend has been a boost for job boards, which say they haven't noticed any impact from some companies pulling back. Some of the largest sites do admit that in this new environment, they have to do more to keep customers happy, such as giving job seeking advice.

    In the coming months, Monster.com plans to roll out technology that ranks candidates based on how well their applications fit requirements set by the recruiter. Chief global marketing officer Ted Gilvar says the product has been available to some customers since late last year.

    Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group told the Journal that it remains concerned that relying too much on job boards could be bad for business. Melissa Mounce, the company's senior vice president of corporate talent acquisition, says the company became concerned that its slow response time to applications was hurting its retail bank's brand. She says that someone who applies for a bank-teller position might also be a customer or potential customer, and they were letting those applications “fall into a black hole."

    Ms. Mounce says that PNC has reduced its overall spending on general job boards, such as Monster and CareerBuilder, but still uses niche boards, like Dice.com for tech professionals, when the need arises.

    Additionally, the company is currently reorganizing its recruiting staff to better handle the tens of thousands of applications it receives in a given month. She says that Instead of using senior recruiters to filter through the company's applicants, lower-level screeners process them first and only hand off the most-qualified. She adds that a separate set of recruiters actively searches for more experienced candidates who aren't likely to come in through a job board.

    Using career jobsites to find work has always been difficult but now it’s going to be even harder as recruiters change the way they look for candidates...

    Tired of Paying for All Those TV Channels You Never Watch?

    There could be another way -- or, for that matter, several other ways

    Television history was made this week on two opposing sides of the television viewing spectrum. First, Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company won government approval to buy NBC Universal from GE, making it the first cable company to purchase a major television network. Second, with slightly less fanfare, comes word of another first. A full-blown 24/7 cable channel is now available directly to consumers without having to be part of a larger package.

    What this means, according to All Things Digital writer Jim Louderback, is that cable and satellite television no longer have a duopoly on how we can watch television. The channel used in this milestone is WealthTV, while not one of the more popular channels, it is nonetheless seen as major break-through that has the potential to change of the current television business model.

    As Louderback describes it, for $3 a month, you can watch WealthTV via a Roku set-top box and get exactly what any other cable or satellite customer receives in their multi-channel packages that they pay ten to 20 to 30 times more for. Granted, Louderback admits that not that many people are going to run out and sign up for WealthTV, especially at $3 a month. The point he’s trying to make is that it doesn’t matter if the channel is any good or not, the takeaway here is that you can and he believes all of us soon will watch television this way.

    He may have a point here. I don’t know about you, but out of the 1,000 plus channels I pay over $100 for each month in a gold package that includes premium channels, I watch maybe 10. That’s 10 channels for $100. If I could pay $30 a month for those ten, I’d be a happy camper.

    Louderback predicts that once this catches on, other, more popular networks, will transition to the direct to customer model and bypass those middlemen that take a disproportionate part of every TV dollar. One stumbling block here is that we may have to buy one of those Roku boxes. That or televisions and Blu-ray players that have an internet connection will give us the same capability.

    Right now Louderback claims you need a Roku box but then admits his company, Revision3, is the No. 1 video channel on Roku. So this could also work on other devices as well similar to the Roku box that supports both 24/7 streamed channels and the payment and authorization mechanism to allow other paid services into the system.

    Garden wall

    Louderback calls this “the first crack in the walled garden” and says it's not going to be the last. He points out that for the last five years the internet video industry has focused on the on-demand world. But why not create linear, continuous channels? Netflix, Hulu, and Crackle are already doing this, to name a few. Louderback says he expects to see the more marginal cable channels move to this model first, and when it attracts a large enough audience, the popular channels will follow.

    He and I both would like to see a Chinese menu-style package on Roku, Boxee or some of the other device that charges you $20 or $30 a month and lets you build your own lineup of channels and shows. Afterall, isn’t that really what we want. The idea of having access to 1,000 channels is not as satisfying as the reality. We tried that, it cost us a bundle, and now let’s get back to the low cost, easy to choose, method of watching the channels we love. If something new comes along, you can always add it.

    It’s interesting that when the federal regulators approved Comcast's $30 billion acquisition of NBC Universal, they also imposed a number of conditions on everything from competition with rivals to the price of Internet service for poor families out of concern that the firm's vast sweep could harm consumers. This marks the first time the government has gotten involved with online video, and imposing conditions to ensure that Comcast provide some Internet versions of NBC shows and movies to Web services such as YouTube, Hulu and Apple TV is a huge step.

    Christine Varney, head of antitrust at the Justice Department, said the settlement “will not chill the nascent competition posed by online competitors - competitors that have the potential to reshape the marketplace by offering innovative online services.”

    Amen.

     

    Just as the nation’s largest cable company becomes the first to own a major television network a new model could change the way we watch television forev...

    Two 'Trolls' Charged With Stealing iPad Users' Data

    Hackers broke into AT&T servers to get iPad owners' personal info

    Two self-described Internet “trolls” have been arrested for allegedly hacking AT&T’s servers and stealing e-mail addresses and other personal information belonging to approximately 120,000 Apple iPad users who accessed the Internet via AT&T’s 3G network, United States Attorney Paul J. Fishman announced.

    Andrew Auernheimer, 25, of Fayetteville, Ark., and Daniel Spitler, 26, of San Francisco, Calif., were taken into custody this morning by special agents of the FBI—each charged with an alleged conspiracy to hack AT&T’s servers and for possession of personal subscriber information obtained from the servers. Auernheimer was arrested in Fayetteville while appearing in Arkansas state court on unrelated drug charges, and is expected to appear this afternoon before United States Magistrate Judge Erin L. Setser in Fayetteville federal court. Spitler surrendered to FBI agents in Newark and is expected to appear in Newark federal court before United States Magistrate Judge Claire C. Cecchi.

    According to the Complaint unsealed today:

    The iPad is a touch-screen tablet computer, developed and marketed by Apple Computers, Inc., which allows users to, among other things, access the Internet and send and receive electronic mail. Since the introduction of the iPad in January 2010, AT&T has provided iPad users with Internet connectivity via AT&T’s 3G wireless network. During the registration process for subscribing to the network, a user is required to provide an e-mail address, billing address, and password.

    Prior to mid-June 2010, AT&T automatically linked an iPad 3G user’s e-mail address to the Integrated Circuit Card Identifier (“ICC-ID”), a number unique to the user’s iPad, when he registered. As a result, every time a user accessed the AT&T website, his ICC-ID was recognized and his e-mail address was automatically populated for faster, user-friendly access to the site. AT&T kept the ICC-IDs and associated e-mail addresses confidential.

    At that time, when an iPad 3G communicated with AT&T’s website, its ICC-ID was automatically displayed in the Universal Resource Locator, or “URL,” of the AT&T website in plain text. Seeing this, and discovering that each ICC-ID was connected to an iPad 3G user e-mail address, hackers wrote a script termed the “iPad 3G Account Slurper”and deployed it against AT&T’s servers.

    Account slurper

    The Account Slurper attacked AT&T’s servers for several days in early June 2010, and was designed to harvest as many ICC-ID/e-mail address pairings as possible. It worked by mimicking the behavior of an iPad 3G so that AT&T’s servers would be fooled into granting the Account Slurper access. Once deployed, the Account Slurper used a process known as a “brute force” attack—an iterative process used to obtain information from a computer system—against the servers, randomly guessing at ranges of ICC-IDs. An incorrect guess was met with no additional information, while a correct guess was rewarded with an ICC-ID/e-mail pairing for a specific, identifiable iPad 3G user.

    From June 5 through June 9, 2010, the Account Slurper stole for its hacker-authors approximately 120,000 ICC-ID/e-mail address pairings for iPad 3G customers. Immediately following the theft, the hacker-authors of the Account Slurper provided the stolen e-mail addresses and ICC-IDs to the website Gawker, which published the stolen information in redacted form, along with an article concerning the breach. The article indicated that the breach “exposed the most exclusive e-mail list on the planet,”and named a number of famous individuals whose e-mails had been compromised, including Diane Sawyer, Harvey Weinstein, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Rahm Emanuel. The article also stated that iPad users could be vulnerable to spam marketing and malicious hacking. A group calling itself “Goatse Security” was identified as obtaining the subscriber data.

    According to its website, Goatse Security is a loose association of Internet hackers and self-professed Internet “trolls”—people who intentionally, and without authorization, disrupt services and content on the Internet—to which both Spitler and Auernheimer belong.

    Auernheimer previously has been outspoken about his trolling activities, bragging to The New York Times in August 2008: “I hack, I ruin, I make piles of money.” Auernheimer has also made Internet video postings taking credit for trolling Amazon.com and causing a “one billion dollar change in their market capitalization.”

    Competitive sport

    During the data breach, Spitler and Auernheimer communicated with one another using Internet Relay Chat, an Internet instant messaging program. Those chats not only demonstrate that Spitler and Auernheimer were responsible for the data breach, but also that they conducted the breach to simultaneously damage AT&T and promote themselves and Goatse Security. As the data breach continued, so too did the discussions between Spitler, Auernheimer, and other Goatse Security members about the best way to take advantage of the breach and associated theft. On June 10, 2010, immediately after going public with the breach, Spitler and Auernheimer discussed destroying evidence of their crime.

    U.S. Attorney Fishman stated: “Hacking is not a competitive sport, and security breaches are not a game. Companies that are hacked can suffer significant losses, and their customers made vulnerable to other crimes, privacy violations, and unwanted contact. Computer intrusions and the spread of malicious code are a threat to national security, corporate security, and personal security. Those who use technological expertise for malicious purposes take note: your activities in cyberspace can have serious consequences for you in the real world.”

    “One primary principle of our society is confidence in a reasonable expectation of personal privacy, which includes expectations of financial privacy, medical privacy, and privacy in our communications,” said Michael B. Ward, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Newark field office. “Unauthorized intrusions into personal privacy adversely affect individual citizens, businesses, and even national security. Such intrusion cases, regardless if the motive is criminal gain or prestige among peers in the cyber-hacking world, must and will be aggressively pursued to ensure these rights are protected to the highest degree.”

    Each defendant is charged with one count of conspiracy to access a computer without authorization and one count of fraud in connection with personal information. Each count with which the defendants are charged carries a maximum potential penalty of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

    Two 'Trolls' Charged With Stealing iPad Users' Data...

    How To Fight Telemarketing Fraud Against Older Consumers

    Seniors are attractive targets, but there are ways for them to fight back

    During a visit with your mother, you notice a stack of wire transfer receipts totaling thousands of dollars. When you ask what they’re for, she says she’s paying taxes on a prize she’s won. After you investigate further, you think she’s being scammed by fraudulent telemarketers. What can you do?

    Consumers lose more than $40 billion a year to telemarketing fraud. People over 50 years of age are especially vulnerable and account for about 56 percent of all victims, according to a study by AARP. Scam artists often target older people, knowing they tend to be trusting and polite toward strangers and are likely to be home and have time to talk with callers.

    You can help your parents and others who may be targets of fraudulent telemarketers by describing some tip-offs to rip-offs, letting them know their rights and suggesting ways they can protect themselves.

    If the calls come from Canada, be very suspicious. More American consumers are being ripped-off from Toronto (area codes 416 and 547) than any other city in the world.

    “Money these criminals solicit from you – in the name of charity, for example - could end up being funneled to terrorists,” reports the Ontario, Canada, Provincial Police.

    Tip-offs to phone fraud

    Many scams involve bogus prize offers, phony travel packages, get-rich-quick investments and fake charities. Con artists are skilled liars who spend a lot of time polishing their sales pitches. As a result, it can be difficult to see through their scams. Alert those you care about to be on their guard if they hear the buzzwords for fraud.

    Among the tip-offs are:

    • You must act “now” or the offer will expire.
    • You’ve won a “free” gift, vacation or prize-but you must pay taxes or some other charge.
    • You must send money by Western Union, give a credit card or bank account number or have your check picked up by courier -- before you’ve had a chance to consider the offer carefully.
    • It’s not necessary to check out the company with anyone-including your family lawyer, accountant or local Better Business Bureau.
    • You don’t need written information about the company or its references.
    • You can’t afford to miss this “high-profit, no-risk” offer.

    It’s the law

    It also is helpful for people who are the targets of fraudulent telemarketers to know their rights. Anyone who is troubled by calls -- whether abusive, deceptive or simply annoying -- should know that, under federal law:

    • It’s illegal for a telemarketer to call you if you have asked not to be called.
    • Calling times are restricted to the hours between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.
    • Telemarketers must tell you it’s a sales call, the name of the seller, and what they are selling -- before they make their pitch. If it’s a prize promotion, they must tell you that you don’t have to pay or buy anything to enter or win.
    • Telemarketers may not lie about any information, including any facts about their goods or services, the earnings potential, profitability, risk or liquidity of an investment, or the nature of a prize in a prize promotion scheme.
    • Before you pay, telemarketers must tell you the total cost of the goods and any restrictions on getting or using them, or that a sale is final or non-refundable.
    • In a prize promotion, they must tell you the odds of winning, that no purchase or payment is necessary to win and any restrictions or conditions of receiving the prize.
    • Telemarketers may not withdraw money from your checking account without your express, verifiable authorization.
    • Telemarketers cannot lie to get you to pay.
    • You do not have to pay for credit repair, recovery room or advance fee loan/credit services until these services have been delivered.

    How to protect fraud targets

    You also can help people you care about develop responses that will end an unwanted sales call. Possible responses to unwanted callers include:

    • “I don’t do business with people I don’t know,”
    • “Please put me on your ‘Do-Not-Call List,’”
    • “I’ll need to see written information on your offer before I consider giving you money,”
    • “You can send that information to my attorney’s office at…”

     

    Perhaps the easiest response is, “I’m not interested. Thank you and goodbye.” Hang up with no further discussion.

    Urge your parents or anyone else troubled by calls to resist high-pressure sales tactics. Legitimate businesses respect the fact that a person is not interested. Remind older people to:

    • Say so if they don’t want the seller to call back. If they do call back, they’re breaking the law. That’s the signal to hang up.
    • Take their time, and ask for written information about the product, service, investment opportunity or charity that’s the subject of the call.
    • Talk to a friend, relative or financial advisor before responding to a solicitation. Their financial investments may have consequences for the family or close friends.
    • Hang up if they’re asked to pay for a prize. Free is free.
    • Keep information about their bank accounts and credit cards private unless they know whom they’re dealing with.
    • Hang up if a telemarketer calls before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.
    • Check out any company with the Bureau of Consumer Protection before they buy any product or service or donate any money as a result of an unsolicited phone call.
    • Finally, remind an older person not to send money -- cash, check or money order -- by courier, overnight delivery or wire transfer to anyone who insists on immediate payment.

     

     

    How To Fight Telemarketing Fraud Against Older Consumers Seniors are attractive targets, but there are ways for them to fight back ...

    Lawsuit Challenges Unwritten Medicare Policy

    Widespread practice cuts funding to chronic patients who don't show improvement

    A group of consumers has filed suit against the federal government, claiming that Medicare benefits are being improperly cut for many recipients with chronic conditions.

    The suit, filed in federal court in Vermont, is challenging a Medicare requirement that chronic patients must achieve objective improvements in their functioning in order to qualify for services such as speech and occupational therapy, according to an account in The Chicago Tribune. If a patient can't demonstrate improvement, Medicare will often refuse to pay for such services, and the patient's medical provider will stop offering them.

    Denial of such services can in turn cause the cancellation of other Medicare benefits, leading to a slippery slope where patients lose many of the services on which they have long relied.

    Making matters worse, the vast majority of Medicare recipients are at least potentially affected by the regulation; the suit says that 78 percent of Medicare's 46 million recipients suffer from at least one chronic illness.

    Health care advocacy groups join in

    The suit was filed on behalf of five Medicare recipients, all of whom hail from New England. Five health care advocacy groups joined the recipients as plaintiffs.

    Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, one of the five groups involved, told the Tribune that the policy “has been and is creating major harm.”

    Stein called the policy “illegal and unfair and an inappropriate application of the Medicare law,” and “a major barrier to access to medical care and access to necessary care. This is not just a theoretic problem but one that affects patients every day.”

    Covert rule of thumb”

    According to the suit, the policy is a “covert rule of thumb” that isn't explicitly spelled out in Medicare law. Additionally, the suit alleges that the policy has never gone through a federal rule-making process, which would allow comment from the public.

    Many of those affected by the policy have serious chronic illnesses, such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and multiple sclerosis (MS).

    Indeed, Dr. Nicholas LaRocca, of the National MS Society -- another of the plaintiff organizations -- told the Naples News that the policy prevented many MS sufferers from using physical therapy to improve their prognosis.

    “Maintenance therapy can help hold the line and manage those and other effects of chronic MS,” LaRocca said. “Maintenance therapy can really help them lead more productive lives and maintain quality of life.”

    The policy has long been a source of controversy. The Naples News, citing statistics from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, said that administrative law judges have heard 36,000 appeals from denials of coverage.

    Suit follows Congressional probe

    The suit, which seeks a permanent injunction stopping the practice, points out that the policy leads to higher costs down the road, since recipients are unable to seek therapy that could improve their condition, or at least prevent it from deteriorating.

    The suit follows a letter sent last May, signed by Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT) and several other lawmakers, declaring the policy illegal.

    “Medicare coverage determinations should not be based on whether the patient's underlying condition is likely to improve,” that letter said, as reported in The Hill. “In fact, federal regulation actually states the opposite.”

    Ellen Griffith, a Medicare spokeswoman, said the government would wait to comment until it has reviewed the suit.

     

     

     

    Lawsuit Challenges Unwritten Medicare Policy Widespread practice cuts funding to chronic patients who don't show improvement...

    Younger Boomers Have Been Squeezed Most By the Recession

    Mintel reports the effects of the economic meltdown have not been felt equally

    The economic climate of the past few years has been difficult on many consumers, but it seems not everyone is coming out of the recent recession on equal footing.

    Research conducted by the market research firm Mintel shows that 45-54-year-olds (younger Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers) will definitely be taking longer to recover. For instance, 47 percent of that group (vs. 33 percent overall) say they “have only been spending money on necessities” for at least a year. 

    Further, 51 percent of this age demographic, compared with 44 percent overall, said they intend to permanently decrease the amount of unnecessary “stuff” they will buy in the future. This group is also greatly concerned about retirement, with 39 percent saying they worry more about retirement now than they ever have.

    Unequal impact

    “This last recession has definitely not treated everyone equally,” said Susan Menke, vice president and behavioral economist at Mintel. “One reason could be that the younger Boomers are the age group that was just getting started when the severe double dip recessions of the 1980s hit, and they have never fully recovered.

    Another reason may be that this is the ‘sandwich’ generation, burdened with educational expenses for their kids and, for some, healthcare costs for aging parents.”

    Bright spots

    There is some good news in the data, however. A full 44 percent of those aged 18-24 and 34 percent of those in the 35-44 age range say that they intend to make a permanent increase in the amount of money they save (vs. 28 percent overall).

    More importantly, they are backing it up with actions -- about 10 percent of 18-44-year-olds have actually increased the amount they are saving in their retirement accounts in the last year.

    “We continue to see numbers indicating that the recession was a wake-up call across age groups, just in different ways,” Menke says. “Everyone is more concerned about having adequate funds to retire after this recession. Unlike the Baby Boomers, however, younger age groups are able to do something about it, which offers a potential opportunity for financial services firms.”

    Younger Boomers Have Been Squeezed Most By the Recession Mintel reports the effects of the economic meltdown have not been felt equally ...

    Woman Says Friskies Killed Her Cat

    Similar accounts found online

    A Florida woman is blaming Friskies cat food for the death of her beloved Smokey.

    Kim Herget, of New Port Richey, told local news affiliate WTSP that after feeding her five-year-old cat, Smokey, Friskies  for several days, the animal fell ill. When Herget took him to the vet, he was diagnosed with acute kidney failure and put to sleep.

    Cause and effect?

    Herget had switched to Friskies from a different cat food. Her vet was unable to determine whether the food had caused Smokey's illness, and the cat was so sick that he couldn't draw enough blood to run additional tests. A medical chart prepared by the vet said the only difference before and after the kidney failure was the cat's change in diet.

    Friskies was the subject of a class-action lawsuit several years ago. While Herget says she was aware of the suit, she assumed that the litigation had spurred parent company Purina to fix any remaining problems with the food.

    But Herget started looking around on the Internet and soon found accounts of similar experiences from other cat owners. Many of those accounts included a switch to Friskies followed by throwing up, hair loss, and, in some cases, death -- all symptoms that Herget says Smokey experienced.

    Pet food woes

    While the cause of Smokey's death is still unclear -- and probably will remain so -- it raises old questions about the safety of pet food in general. In March 2007, Menu Foods recalled 53 brands of dog food and 42 brands of cat food after tests showed  the foods caused kidney failure. Many of the brands were found to be infected with rodent poisoning, a revelation that then-CEO Paul Henderson was unable to explain.

    A number of lawsuits concerning that recall, which were eventually consolidated in a New Jersey federal court, were settled in late 2008.

    A separate lawsuit targeted Canidae, after a number of consumers said their pets became sick after eating that brand of food. Canidae dismissed a lab report from 2007 showing that the food contained acetaminophen, a type of painkiller.

    Importance of due diligence

    Herget's experience also highlights the need for thorough research before making the decision to switch your cat or dog food. Consumer websites like ConsumerAffairs.com have both good and bad reviews of many brands of pet food, and let you know which behaviors following a switch are normal and which ones are not.

    None of this is much comfort to Herget, who told WTSP that she cries herself to sleep on a regular basis. WTSP said that for Herget, as for many pet owners, “pets are not just animals, they are part of the family.”

    Woman Says Friskies Killed Her CatFinds similar accounts online...

    How To Overcome Embarrassing Moments At Work

    New study reveals most embarrassing moments at work and offers tips on how to overcome them

    How To Overcome Embarrassing Moments At Work New study reveals most embarrassing moments at work and offers tips on how to overcome them ..

    Why You Still Need to be Wary of Penny stocks

    There’s usually a reason they’re so cheap

    Penny stocks, often the target of securities investigations, continue to lure the unsuspecting investor by offering the unstated promise that a stock this cheap can only go in one direction, up. Don’t believe it. Investors looking for that “next big thing” are often lured into the Pennystock market only to learn the Googles, Microsofts and Apples of the world didn’t start as penny stocks.

    One reason penny stocks are under the microscope of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is because there is often a lack of legitimate information which makes them easy targets for fraud. There have been cases of some penny stock companies paying people to recommend them in the media, including financial television and in newsletters.

    I get spam e-mails all the time trying to get me to put money into a particular stock that’s allegedly on the verge of taking off. There will language like “Could this be the next GE, or Microsoft?”

    Earlier this month, the SEC charged Gendarme Capital Corporation and two executives with violating securities-law registration requirements in an alleged illegal stock distribution involving penny stocks that netted profits of more than $1.6 million.

    For those of you who aren’t even sure what a penny stock is, it’s not a stock that sells for a penny, although some are probably worth less than a penny. Penny stocks are what are known as micro-cap stocks in that they have a relatively low market capitalization, generally between $50 and $300 million, or nano-cap stocks which are those companies with than $50 million. They often trade for less than one dollar a share and on the Pink Sheets or the OTCBB (Over the counter market). Others say defining the amount is any stock under $3.

    Under $5

    It’s interesting that the SEC considers any stock under $5 as a penny stock, but no one else does. Following the SEC standard, Citigroup would be a penny stock, as would have Ford when it hit its bottom. So for this article, we’ll stick with the under a dollar rule.  

    The key thing for investors to know is that penny stocks are much riskier than regular stocks, for a number of reasons:

    • Lack of information real information since they are not required to file with the SEC and a good deal of the information available is just as likely to come from a less than credible source.
    • There are no minimum standards, which is why these stocks are no longer listed on one of the major exchanges.
    • A lack of history because they are either newly formed or approaching bankruptcy which means they will have a poor track record or none at all.
    • They lack liquidity which means there’s a good chance the stock you purchased can’t be sold or its price is easily manipulated.

    Then you have all those off-shore brokers who buy the penny stocks at a discount and then they’re sold back to U.S. investors at profit, without having to register anything with the SEC.

    Biggest lie

    The biggest lie being perpetrated about penny stocks is that many of today's successful stocks were once penny stocks. That is simply untrue.  In fact, most of these stocks do not succeed, and there is a very high likelihood that you will lose your entire investment if you put money into them.

    Does that mean all companies that are trading at their all-time lows won’t recover?  Of course not. And several companies trading on Pink Sheets and over the counter are good quality companies that may one day qualify for either Nasdaq or the NYSE. You just need to know those companies are in the minority and that you know what you’re getting into before investing in a company whether it’s a penny stock, small cap,mid cap or large cap. They all have the ability to rise, fall or stay the same no matter where they are today.

    Investors are still being inundated with direct emails and come-ons for the next hot penny stock but you can often do better with higher priced investments...

    Too Little Weight Gain During Pregnancy Affects Fetus Brain Development

    Study finds when Mom doesn't eat enough, Baby's brain development suffers

    While it’s not necessary to "eat for two" while pregnant, women are encouraged to gain about 25 to 35 pounds during those 40 weeks, depending on her pre-pregnant weight.

    Focus on weight gain during pregnancy tends to be on the "too much" side -- women who gain more than 35 pounds can possibly do harm to both their health and the health of the growing fetus -- but a new study focuses on what happens when a women gains too little weight.

    Researchers from The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio reported Monday that eating less during early pregnancy impaired fetal brain development in a nonhuman primate model.

    While primates were used for the study, the researchers said primate model's brain developmental stages are very close to those of human fetuses.

    The researchers found decreased formation of cell-to-cell connections, cell division and amounts of growth factors in the fetuses of mothers fed a reduced diet during the first half of pregnancy.

    "This is a critical time window when many of the neurons as well as the supporting cells in the brain are born," said Peter Nathanielsz, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Research in the Health Science Center School of Medicine.

    The study included collaborators at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research (SFBR) in San Antonio and Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany.

    Baboon mothers

    The team compared two groups of baboon mothers located at SFBR's Southwest National Primate Research Center. One group ate as much as they wanted during the first half of pregnancy while the other group was fed 30 percent less, a level of nutrition similar to what many prospective mothers in the U.S. experience.

    SFBR's Laura Cox, Ph.D., said their collaboration allowed them to determine that the nutritional environment impacts the fetal brain at both the cellular and molecular levels.

    "That is, we found dysregulation of hundreds of genes, many of which are known to be key regulators in cell growth and development, indicating that nutrition plays a major role during fetal development by regulating the basic cellular machinery," said Cox.

    Marked nutrient restriction, such as in famine conditions, is known to adversely affect fetal brain development.

    Senior author Thomas McDonald, Ph.D., also of the Health Science Center, said the study "is the first demonstration of major effects caused by the levels of food insecurity that occur in sections of U.S. society and demonstrates the vulnerability of the fetus to moderate reduction in nutrients."

    Poverty can be a cause of food insecurity, but the study also raises other ways fetuses may not get the nutrition they need.  

    Nathanielsz noted in teenage pregnancy, the developing fetus is deprived of nutrients by the needs of the growing mother; in pregnancies late in reproductive life, a woman's arteries are stiffer and the blood supply to the uterus decreases, inevitably affecting nutrient delivery to the fetus; and diseases such as preeclampsia or high blood pressure in pregnancy can lead to decreased function of the placenta with decreased delivery of nutrients to the fetus.

    Maternal health

    "This study is a further demonstration of the importance of good maternal health and diet," McDonald said. "It supports the view that poor diets in pregnancy can alter development of fetal organs, in this case the brain, in ways that will have lifetime effects on offspring, potentially lowering IQ and predisposing to behavioral problems."

    Developmental programming of lifetime health has been shown to play a role in later development of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

    In light of this new finding, the researchers said research should focus on effects of developmental programming in the context of autism, depression, schizophrenia and other brain disorders.

    According to McDonald, the study also forces researchers to review the commonly held notion that during pregnancy the mother is able to protect the fetus from dietary challenges such as poor nutrition.

    The study was published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Too Little Weight Gain During Pregnancy Effects Fetus Brain Development Study finds when Mom doesn't eat enough, Baby's brain development suffers ...

    Many Pet Owners Don't Consider Pets' Age When Buying Food

    Survey reveals many pet owners may not be giving their pets the most nutritious food

    Results from an Ipsos national survey commissioned by pet food maker Iams and released today reveal only 11 percent of U.S. pet owners consider the age of their cat or dog as the most important factor when determining which formula to feed their pet.

    Propelled by this statistic, Iams is reminding Americans to keep their resolutions to start 2011 off on the right paw by feeding their four-legged friends a life stage-specific diet.

    "The new year is a time when we make resolutions to get healthier and improve ourselves, so why not extend that approach to our cat or dog's overall well-being?" said Dr. Katy Nelson, DVM.

    Nelson is an emergency veterinarian from Alexandria, VA and also a member of the Iams Pet Wellness Council.

    She said it’s important for pet owners to choose pet food that has the right ingredients for their pet’s current age and stage of life.

    Requirements vary

    "Diet requirements, including protein levels, calories and vitamins and minerals, vary over the life of a pet and, in turn, an animal's needs change as he grows from a puppy or kitten, to an adult into a senior," said Nelson.

    Oftentimes pet owners are not sure which life stage their cat or dog falls into. As a result, pets might not be receiving the nutrients or nutrients at the right levels critical for optimal health for their age.

    While life stage can vary between species and breeds, there are general guidelines owners can look to for help:

    • One to 12 months: Kitten and Puppy formula includes DHA for brain and vision development;
    • One to seven years: Adult formula includes HMP to keep teeth clean during and after meals, as well as balanced omega 6:3 ratio for healthy skin and coat;
    • Seven years and older: Senior formula with L-carnitine helps burn fat and keep muscles lean.

    The survey of pet parents also revealed the other factors they consider (or don’t) when purchasing food for their dog or cat:

    • Read Labels -- Only one of out of three respondents (30 percent) rank ingredients as the most important criteria for which food to feed their cat or dog. Reading pet food labels is essential to ensure cats and dogs receive optimal nutrition. Look for foods with meat or fish listed as the first ingredient.
    • Listen to the Experts -- Nearly four out of ten (36 percent) pet owners cite personal recommendations from trusted resources such as veterinarians, as the most important factor of diet selection. Pet parents should consider looking to their veterinarian for nutrition recommendations.
    • Invest in Your Pet -- Nearly one in four surveyed rank price as a deciding factor when choosing their pet's food. It may be tempting to choose the cheapest food, but consider this: it may be cheap for a reason. Feeding pets a proper diet based on age is a lifelong investment in a cat and dog's health.

    This year, Iams introduces Iams Premium Protection, a food they say contains the "most advanced nutrition ever" and one they hope will make it easier for pet owners to feed their pets an age-appropriate, balanced diet.

    "I always tell my patients that healthy checkups start on the inside. Feeding a high-quality diet specific to an animal's age, like Iams Premium Protection, which offers specially formulated life-stage specific diets, is one of the most important ways to ensure four-legged family members lead healthy, happy lives," said Nelson.

    Many Pet Owners Don't Consider Pets' Age When Buying Food Survey reveals many pet owners may not be giving their pets the most nutritious food...

    Feds Green Light NBC-Comcast Merger

    Deal approved, with conditions after "thorough review"

    Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has granted, with some conditions and enforceable commitments, approval of the ownership of NBC/Universial and its affiliated networks from General Electric (GE) to Comcast.

    Approval of the deal, pending for more than a year, had been expected, though it remains controversial in some quarters.

    At the same time, the U.S. Justice Department announced a settlement with Comcast Corp. and GE clearing the way for their joint venture to proceed conditioned on the parties' agreement to license programming to online competitors to Comcast's cable TV services, subject themselves to anti-retaliation provisions and adhere to Open Internet requirements.  The department said that the proposed settlement will preserve new content distribution models that offer more products and greater innovation, and the potential to provide consumers access to their favorite programming on a variety of devices in a wide selection of packages.

    'Thorough review'

    The FCC said its decision was based on "a thorough review of the record," which includes extensive data and voluntary commitments from the applicants, as well as thousands of comments from interested parties and public input received at a public forum held in Chicago. 

    "Based on this review, the Commission has determined that granting the application, with certain conditions and contingent upon enforceable commitments, is in the public interest," the FCC said.

    As part of the merger, Comcast-NBCU will be required to take affirmative steps to foster competition in the video marketplace.  In addition, Comcast-NBCU will increase local news coverage to viewers; expand children's programming; enhance the diversity of programming available to Spanish-speaking viewers; offer broadband services to low-income Americans at reduced monthly prices; and provide high-speed broadband to schools, libraries and underserved communities, among other public benefits.

    More specifically, the conditions imposed by the Commission address potential harms posed by the combination of Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator and Internet service provider, and NBCU, which owns and develops some of the most valuable television and film content. These targeted conditions and commitments, which generally will remain in effect for seven years, include:

    • Ensuring Reasonable Access to Comcast-NBCU Programming for Multichannel Distribution. 
    • Access to Comcast's Distribution Systems.
    • Broadband Adoption and Deployment. 
    • Children's Programming. 
    • Public, Educational, and Governmental ("PEG") Programming. 

    Thirteen months ago Free Press and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) jointly released a report claiming  that the Comcast-NBC merger posed a "major threat to video competition that antitrust authorities cannot ignore."

    According to CFA's Mark Cooper, "This merger's potential to foreclose competition and stifle innovation is significant and real."

    Following Tuesday's announcement, Free Press reiterated its opposition to the merger, saying thanks to the merger, NBC-Comcast will now control one of every five television viewing hours in the U.S.

     

    As expected, two federal agencies have given their blessing to the union of Comcast and NBC....

    Time Constraints and Embarrassment Lead to Fewer Skin CancerScreenings

    Study finds both doctors and patients guilty of not checking for common cancer

    When was the last time you got a full-body exam for skin cancer?  If you can’t remember, you’re not alone. Many primary care doctors are too busy and many patients are too embarrassed to get checked.

    A report in the January issue of Archives of Dermatology, one of the JAMA/Archives journals lists time constraints, other illnesses and patient embarrassment as the top reasons preventing dermatologists, internists and family practitioners from conducting full-body skin cancer screenings.

    However, dermatologists are significantly more likely than internists and family practitioners to conduct such screenings.

    According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most common of all cancers. It accounts for nearly half of all cancers in the United States.

    Melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, will account for about 68,130 cases of skin cancer in 2010. Additionally, more than 2 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are found in this country each year.

    The study authors said it’s critical for patients to get screened regularly and for doctors to adopt secondary prevention strategies aimed at early detection in an effort to reduce its associated morbidity and mortality.

    "Previous studies have suggested that many individuals, particularly those with established risk factors for melanoma, would benefit from active skin cancer screening and surveillance, and screening by dermatologists in particular may also be cost-effective," the authors wrote.

    Susan A. Oliveria, Sc.D., M.P.H., of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, and colleagues surveyed 2,999 physicians randomly selected from the American Medical Association's Medical Marketing Services database in 2005.

    Of those, 1,669 (59.2 percent) returned surveys, including 559 family practitioners, 431 internists and 679 dermatologists.

    More dermatologists (81.3 percent) than family practitioners (59.6 percent) or internists (56.4 percent) report regularly performing full-body skin examinations on their patients.

    Among all the responding physicians, the top three barriers to performing these examinations were time constraints, competing illnesses and patient embarrassment or reluctance.

    More family practitioners (54.4 percent) and internists (54.5 percent) reported time constraints as a moderate or major barrier than did dermatologists (30.6 percent),

    Dermatologists were more likely to cite patient embarrassment or reluctance as a moderate or major barrier (44.2 percent, vs. 31.3 percent of family practitioners and 32.7 percent of internists).

    This may be because patients visit the dermatologist with more stigmatizing skin conditions, because they don't have an established relationship with a specialist or because they do not expect to undress, the authors note.

    "Patients may see a dermatologist for an isolated skin condition, such as a wart, and the dermatologist may feel awkward asking this person to undress for a full-body skin examination."  

    Since internists and primary care doctors routinely ask for patients to undress for physical examinations, undressing for a skin cancer screening is a little less embarrassing.

    Recognizing such barriers could help to overcome them in both primary and secondary care settings.

    The authors said skin cancer is an ideal cancer for encouraging screening because many risk factors are well known, including family history, the presence of atypical nevi, skin type and history and pattern of sun exposure; because the disease is highly prevalent; and because there are opportunities for early detection.

    "Understanding the determinants of patient skin cancer screening could help promote interventions based on physician characteristics that are amenable to change, potentially improve physicians' prevention practices and help promote early detection," the authors concluded.

    Time Constraints and Embarrassment Lead to Fewer Skin Cancer ScreeningsStudy finds both doctors and patients guilty of not checking for common cancer...

    Sprint Raising Data Fees for Smartphones

    All smartphone data plans get hit with new $10 fee

    Faced with rising traffic on its network, Sprint Nextel is adding a $10 fee to its smartphoto data-service plans. Customers on existing contracts won't be affected.

    "The charge will assist Sprint in offering simple and affordable unlimited plans for its customers while maintaining a wireless network able to meet the growing appetite for a richer mobile experience. Subscribers with smartphones will still receive the best value in wireless, including the Any Mobile, Anytime feature offered nationwide only by Sprint," the company said.

    Sprint already charges a $10 fee for its 4G smartphones and will expand the fee to all of its smartphones at the end of January.

    The new fee marks a change for Sprint, which has been trying to undercut its rivals to stem customer losses. Sprint's current "Everything Data" plan costs $79.99 a month, compared to $119.98 for a similar Verizon plan and T-Mobile's $99.99. AT&T no longer offers unlimited data plans.

    Sprint says the price increase is needed to deal with increased traffic demands from smartphone users. A company spokesman said smartphone customers use 10 times the data of regular cellphone users.

    Verizon Wireless may be next to impose new data fees, now that it will be selling its version of the Apple iPhone. The company says it is looking at its pricing options.

    Sprint argued in a statement on its Web site that, even with the extra $10, its plans are simple and easy to understand.

    While some of our competitors impose overage charges and complex plans, Sprint continues to provide a worry-free, unlimited data experience while on the Sprint network. This is responsible, sustainable and reflects our commitment to simplicity and value,”said Bob H. Johnson, president of Sprint’s consumer business. 

    Read more about Sprint.

    Sprint Raising Data Fees for Smartphones. All smartphone data plans get hit with new $10 fee....

    Feds: Repeal of Health Reform Law Could Leave Millions In the Lurch

    Health and Human Services says 129 million people with a pre-existing condition could be denied coverage

    The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) says without the Affordable Care Act, up to 129 million non-elderly people who have some type of pre-existing health condition could be denied health care.

    According to an analysis released HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius those with conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis or cancer, would be at risk of losing health insurance when they need it most, or be denied coverage altogether.  The report was released just hours before the House was to begin debate on a Republican effort to repeal the law.

    Providing protection

    Under the full range of policies in the law, to be enacted by 2014, people living with pre-existing conditions are free from discrimination and can get the health coverage they need.  Repealing the law, according to HHS, would once again leave millions worrying about whether coverage will be there when they need it.

    “The Affordable Care Act is stopping insurance companies from discriminating against Americans with pre-existing conditions and is giving us all more freedom and control over our health care decisions,” said Secretary Sebelius.  “The new law is already helping to free Americans from the fear that an insurer will drop, limit or cap their coverage when they need it most.  And Americans living with pre-existing conditions are being freed from discrimination in order to get the health coverage they need.”

    The analysis found:

    • Anywhere from 50 to 129 million (19 to 50 percent) of people under age 65 have some type of pre-existing condition.  Examples of what may be considered a pre-existing condition include:

              o Heart disease

              o Cancer

              o Asthma

              o High blood pressure

              o Arthritis  

    • Older individuals between ages 55 and 64 are at particular risk; 48 to 86 percent of people in that age bracket live with a pre-existing condition.
    • 15 to 30 percent of people under age 65 in perfectly good health today are likely to develop a pre-existing condition over the next eight years.
    • Up to one in five people under age 65 with a pre-existing condition – 25 million individuals -- is uninsured.

    Safety net

    Prior to the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies in the individual market in most states could deny coverage, charge higher premiums, and/or limit benefits based on pre-existing conditions.  Surveys have found that 36 percent of those who tried to purchase health insurance directly from an insurance company in the individual insurance market encountered challenges purchasing health insurance for these reasons.

    In an interview with The Washington Post, Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's main lobbying group, said the report "exaggerates the number of people who are impacted."

    He says most of those included in the figure currently have insurance and would be at risk only if they needed to change coverage and buy it on their own. Zirkelbach stressed that people who get insurance through their jobs are guaranteed coverage.

    Feds: Repeal of Health Reform Law Could Leave Millions In the Lurch Health and Human Services says 129 million people with a pre-existing condition coul...

    ConsumerAffairs.com Launches Reputation Management Program

    New initiative creates new customer service channel, recovers lost sales

    ConsumerAffairs.com today launched an expanded and re-branded version of Isertive, its reputation management service for businesses and institutions, the most advanced and far-reaching program of its kind on the Web.

    “Most businesses know us as a review or complaint site, but in fact we are an invaluable source of customer feedback and outreach, enabling businesses to spot issues in their customer service and quality control processes while publicly displaying their commitment to customer satisfaction,” said Zac Carman, CEO of ConsumerAffairs.com.

    “Consumers use peer review sites like ours to research products; what other consumers have to say is part of that equation, but equally important is how companies engage with those customers,” Carman said. “The new ConsumerAffairs.com Reputation Management program provides a public platform in which companies can demonstrate their brand promise and commitment to customers.”

    First launched in late 2009, the ConsumerAffairs.com Reputation Management product alerts businesses as soon as consumer comments are received and processed by ConsumerAffairs.com. Companies receive a copy of the complaint or review and are able to respond directly to the consumer to gather additional information and, if needed, to resolve an issue on the spot.

    Companies' responses are published to ConsumerAffairs.com along-side each consumer comment, providing timely and highly-visible evidence of their efforts to resolve the problem or explain the circumstances surrounding it.

    Upscale appliance manufacturer Fisher & Paykel has used ConsumerAffairs.com Reputation Manager as an effective way to reach out to unhappy customers and respond to their complaints – publicly, so that everyone can see the company's attempt to right whatever wrong is alleged.

    “With digital mediums increasing exponentially as a form of communication it is vital that we engage with our customers in this forum. Fisher & Paykel Appliances has been active in this arena for some time and the ConsumerAffairs.com website provides another means by which we can be in touch with our consumers and resolve their issue,”: saidNick Capener,VP – Customer Service & Logistics. “At the same time this enables us to improve our processes to prevent other consumers facing the same challenge.”

    “Businesses sometimes feel that not every review or complaint is valid. A reasoned explanation of the company's side of the story – while it may not satisfy the consumer – demonstrates to readers who are researching products that there are two sides to the story,” Carman said.

    Consumer researchers (When Customer Love Turns Into Lasting Hatred: Grégoire et al, Journal of Marketing, Vol. 73, November 2009) ) have found that consumers who complain on the Internet are, in most cases, already so angry that it is too late for businesses to repair the damage that has been done to their relationship. However, for every consumer who submits a complaint to a Web site, there are tens of thousands of others reading those comments as they make crucial buying decisions, Carman said.

    “Consumer review and complaint sites are a fact of life,” Carman said. “When ConsumerAffairs.com was launched in 1998, it helped to pioneer the right of consumers to speak up, to compare notes, and to offer complaints and commendations to a wide audience. And, based on the feedback we’ve gotten, companies have realized this is an interactive process –each comment represents an opportunity for brands to demonstrate their commitment to customers.”

    More information is available at https://www.consumeraffairs.com/brands/

     

    ConsumerAffairs.com Launches Reputation Management ProgramNew initiative creates new customer service channel, recovers lost sales ...

    Cell Phones and Winter Weather Don't Mix

    Extreme cold can disable cell phones, or possibly make them 'explode'

    Last week, readers of the tech blog MobileCrunch argued over a bizarre story of a Norwegian woman who claims her iPhone “exploded” when temperatures there dipped to -14 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit).

    According to Swedish blog Feber, the unnamed woman claimed to be in her car, about to use her phone, when she discovered the entire device was cracked and broken. (Read the article with the help of Google Translate here.)

    When she attempted to have the phone replaced under warranty, she was told by the employees at the Apple store she was ineligible for a free phone, since the warranty states the phone should not be used outside when the temperatures are below freezing or over 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit).

    Fact or fiction?

    So did it happen? It's hard to say.

    Multiple tech blogs picked up on the story, but with varying details. MobileCrunch readers argued the story was bunk and the woman must have dropped her phone and lied about how it broke in an effort to get a free phone.

    And while Apple’s iPhone warranty states repairs are not covered in the event of “damage caused by accident, abuse, misuse, liquid spill or submersion, flood, fire, earthquake or other external causes,” -- negative temperatures could possibly be included in that list -- there’s no specifications of just how hot or cold is "too hot" and "too cold."

    Still, while the case of the exploding iPhone could simply be a new urban legend, the fact remains that extremely cold weather can effect the functionality of any electronic device. And with temperatures still frosty cold in much of the country, it’s important to keep cell phones from, ahem, freezing up this winter.

    Consumer tips

    Verizon Wireless, the soon-to-be additional carrier for the iPhone, has provided some handy cold-weather tips to for all cell phone users:

    • Keep your phone fully charged.  

    Cold temperatures can run down the phone's battery charge more quickly.  Use a car charger to keep the phone's charge if you get stranded or stuck in traffic on icy or snowy roads.  Think about an extra battery as backup.

    • Handle your phone with care.  

    The display screen can become brittle when exposed to cold temperatures for long periods of time.

    • Keep your phone in a warm place.

    Avoid leaving it in an outside pocket or backpack or in the car overnight.  When outside in the cold weather, carry your phone in an inside jacket pocket, keeping it close to your body for warmth.

    • Accessorize.

    Remember you can't dial or access the keyboard on a touch screen with gloves, so consider investing in a pair of finger flip gloves.

    Cell Phones and Winter Weather Don't Mix Extreme cold can disable cell phones, or possibly make them "explode"...

    Bill Me Later Facing Another Class Action

    Suit charges company with surreptitiously charging interest, late fees

    Bill Me Later is facing a second class action lawsuit accusing the service of charging excessive interest and late fees.

    The latest suit, filed by plaintiff April Colombu, says Bill Me Later is tricking consumers into using its services, thereby subjecting them to heavy finance charges and other headaches.

    Columbu booked tickets through JetBlue and clicked a button reading “bill me later,” thinking that it was part of JetBlue's internal site. What she didn't know, according to the suit, was that the button created a contract with Bill Me Later, exposing Columbu to high interest and late fees.

    “Work wouldn't let [my husband] off, so I canceled [the flight], printed out my cancellation, [and] thought nothing more of it,” Columbu told ABC News.

    Three months later, Columbu got a bill for the canceled flight in the mail. Despite Columbu's call to Bill Me Later -- in which she told the service that she “canceled the flight within 24 hours and that I never flew” -- she was hit with monthly late fees of $39, along with 19.99 percent interest. A year and a half later, Columbu was $649 in the hole.

    Second of its kind

    The suit, like a similar action filed last January, accuses Bill Me Later of violating California usury laws, which prohibit non-bank entities from charging interest rates above 10 percent. Last year's suit claimed that Bill Me Later tried to skirt the “non-bank entity” requirement by enlisting CIT Bank to provide banking services for the company's transactions. This arrangement essentially meant that Bill Me Later was “renting” CIT's name, according to that suit.

    Attorney Jeff Friedman, who filed both actions, said almost all of Bill Me Later's loans have an interest rate exceeding 10 percent, with many exceeding 100 percent. One of the plaintiffs said he was charged an astronomical 116.67 percent.

    eBay's influence

    Bill Me Later was purchased by eBay for $945 million in 2008. Since then, the auction supersite has been working to integrate Bill Me Later into other websites, causing the type of confusion and misunderstanding that led to Columbu's suit.

    In a statement, eBay said  “the allegations in the lawsuit are baseless.

    “Many consumers choose Bill Me Later because there is no annual fee,” eBay said, insisting that consumers face “no fee and no charge as long as the bill is paid on time.”

    Following last year's suit, eBay suggested in a shareholder report that a settlement could force changes in how Bill Me Later does business.

    “We intend to vigorously defend against these lawsuits,” the filing said. “However, this and other ... claims could result in costly litigation and, if successful, could require us to change the way we or our users do business in ways that increase costs or reduce revenues (for example, by forcing us to prohibit listings of certain items for some locations). We could also be subject to fines or other penalties, and any of these outcomes could harm our business.”

    Consumer complaints

    ConsumerAffairs.com has received its fair share of complaints describing issues similar to those alleged in Columbu's suit. Laurie of West Hollywood, CA, provides a typical account:

    "Buyer Beware when using Bill Me Later. I made a purchase through adorama.com for the 500 required to qualify for no payments to 6 months. BML put the charge through as a standard purchase at an obscenely inflated interest rate of %25.99! Phone calls to their call center produce no results except the run around by employees and a different response each time you call to complain. BML also refuses you to speak to a supervisor, contending their 'managers' are unavailable and one will call you back in about 'two hours.'"

     

    Bill Me Later Facing Another Class ActionSuit charges company with surreptitiously charging interest, late fees...

    Final Year of Recovery Act May Hold Tax Benefits for You

    2009 law contains some 2010 tax provisions you can use

    The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 was passed by Congress to try and stimulate the economy. Among its provisions are tax breaks, many of which apply to individuals.

    The tax benefits were approved for tax years 2009 and 2010, though a few have been extended in the tax package Congress approved last month. But taxpayers should make sure they take advantage of all the provisions of the earlier legislation.

    Perhaps the best known is the Homebuyer Tax Credit, which was originally scheduled to expire in November 2009 but was extended through the first half of last year. As we've discussed in previous articles, if you bought a house last year you may qualify.

    Education

    Some of the lesser-known tax benefits include those for education. Under ARRA, more parents and students will qualify for a tax credit, the American Opportunity Credit, to pay for college expenses. The new credit modifies the existing Hope Credit for tax years 2009 and 2010, making the Hope Credit available to a broader range of taxpayers, including many with higher incomes and those who owe no tax.

    It also adds required course materials to the list of qualifying expenses and allows the credit to be claimed for four post-secondary education years instead of two. Many of those eligible will qualify for the maximum annual credit of $2,500 per student.

    The full credit is available to individuals whose modified adjusted gross income is $80,000 or less, or $160,000 or less for married couples filing a joint return. The credit is phased out for taxpayers with incomes above these levels. These income limits are higher than under the existing Hope and Lifetime Learning Credits.

    Energy

    The new law increases the energy tax credit for homeowners who make energy efficient improvements to their existing homes. The new law increases the credit rate to 30 percent of the cost of all qualifying improvements and raises the maximum credit limit to $1,500 for improvements placed in service in 2009 and 2010.

    The credit applies to improvements such as adding insulation, energy efficient exterior windows and energy-efficient heating and air conditioning systems.

    A similar credit was available for 2007, but was not available in 2008. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says homeowners should be aware that the standards in the new law are higher than the standards for the credit that was available in 2007 for products that qualify as "energy efficient" for purposes of this tax credit.

    For property purchased before June 1, 2009, homeowners generally can rely on the manufacturers' certifications and Energy Star labels that were available at the time for those products. Manufacturers have been advised that they should not continue to provide certifications for property that fails to meet the new standards.

    Earned Income Tax Credit

    ARRA provides a temporary increase in the earned income tax credit (EITC) for taxpayers with three or more qualifying children. The maximum EITC for this new category is $5,657.

    ARRA also increases the beginning point of the phaseout range for the credit for all married couples filing a joint return, regardless of the number of children. These changes apply to 2009 and 2010 tax returns.

    The EITC is a refundable credit intended to help people who work but earn modest incomes. The credit begins to phase out at $21,420 for married taxpayers filing a joint return with children and completely phases out at $40,463 for one child, $45,295 for two children and $48,279 for three or more children. For married taxpayers filing a joint return with no children, the credit begins to phase out at $12,470 and completely phases out at $18,440.

     

    Don't forget the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act when you start looking for tax deductions....

    Travelocity Plans to Make Site Accessible to the Blind in July

    Travel site plans to have entire site accessible by March 2012

    The National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the nation's leading advocate for Internet access by blind Americans, today announced an agreement with Travelocity, one of the largest and most popular online travel agencies, to make travelocity.com more accessible to the blind.  

    Under today's agreement, Travelocity agrees to make its home page and each initial Web page used on the site accessible by July 1, 2011. This includes searching for flights, hotels, rental cars, vacation packages, and more.

    Travelocity says the pages needed to complete the bookings will become accessible to the blind soon after July 1 and plans to have the entire site fully accessible by March 30, 2012.  

    "The Internet is a critical means of access to business, education, information, and entertainment in the twenty-first century, and the blind must have equal access if we are to be equal participants in society.  By making its popular online travel agency fully accessible to the blind, Travelocity is setting an example that should be followed by the entire online travel industry,” said Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the NFB.

    Maurer said the NFB is pleased to have reached this agreement with Travelocity, and that they will continue to work until the blind have equal access to the full range of products and services available to the public through the Internet and other information technologies.

    Nejib Ben-Khedher, CEO of Travelocity, said the company is committed to providing their customers the best service possible, so making the site accessible to everyone, including the blind is “of critical importance.”

    “We thank the National Federation of the Blind for their assistance and look forward to continuing to work together to ensure that rapid progress is made in making the Travelocity Web site usable by everyone," said Ben-Khedher.

    This development could mean some new job opportunities at travelocity.com.

    According to the agreement, the site plans to hire an "accessibility coordinator" and an "accessibility committee" as it begins work on creating a program to enhance usability for blind customers.

    Additionally, they said they will continue to work with officials of the National Federation of the Blind to ensure that their services remain accessible to the blind.

    Travelocity will submit its Web site to the NFB Nonvisual Accessibility (NFB-NVA) Web Certification program, a rigorous procedure by which Web sites and applications that have made efforts to be accessible to the blind can be identified and recognized.  

    The NFB-NVA Web Certification program continuously monitors participating sites to ensure that they remain compliant with certification criteria.  

    If a site remains accessible, its certification is renewed on an annual or a version basis.  If accessibility issues arise, the National Federation of the Blind will work with the site developers to remedy them.

    Travelocity Plans to Make Site Accessible to the Blind in July Travel site plans to have entire site accessible by March 2012...

    Need a Job? Learn a Language

    An increase in global communications is driving the demand for linguists and interpreters

    There are many reasons a job seeker should learn a foreign language. It immediately makes you more attractive to those industries that rely on bilingual capabilities as well as opening up employment possibilities in another country. Now there’s an even greater reason. There is a growing need world-wide for linguists and interpreters.

    The multinational interpreting and translation company, Thebigword.com, plans to create up to 3,000 more jobs for linguists this year to meet a growing need.

    In a press release, the translation company said governments use interpreters to save lives in healthcare, deliver justice, and police borders, among other vital services, so quality can’t be compromised.

    The company’s expansion within the Interpreting industry is currently running at 20 percent per month in the U.S.  It is in part driven by American businesses limiting the effects of the recession by selling goods and services on a global market, and government organizations looking to work with companies that can help them lower costs without compromising service.

    Worldwide, thebigword’s interpreting business, which provides interpreting from one language to another either face-to-face or over the telephone, is expected to grow by 150 percent during 2011. The fastest growing areas of business are in U.S. and the UK where increasingly cosmopolitan populations are driving the need for regional and national Governments to communicate in a range of languages.

    As the number of non-English speakers seeking healthcare in the United States continues to grow, so does the need for medical interpreters who can serve as a liaison between patients and their doctors. The demand for medical interpreters increased even more when new standards went into effect this year requiring healthcare organizations to provide an interpreter to patients who speak limited English.

    Federal laws have been on the books for years requiring medical institutions to provide interpreters to non-native speakers, but there has been little enforcement of the provisions until recently. Now the Joint Commission, which accredits and certifies more than 18,000 healthcare organizations and programs in the United States, has established new standards effective this year requiring hospitals to provide language interpreting and translation services.

    Medical interpreters

    The new provisions have further fueled the demand for medical interpreters, which were already in short supply. Even before the new standards were introduced, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted jobs for interpreters and translators would grow by 22 percent over the next decade, faster than the average for all other occupations.

    Meanwhile a nationwide survey of 4,700 doctors, conducted by the nonprofit Center for Studying Health System Change, found that only 55.8 percent of practices with non-English speaking patients provide interpreting services, and 40 percent offer patient-education materials in languages other than English.

    Medicaid currently reimburses the medical provider for the services of an interpreter. Depending on the state, a medical interpreter can make $25 to $50 an hour. In the private sector, they can command upwards of $100 an hour.

    U.S. News and World Report named Interpreter as one of its top 50 careers for 2011. From pharmaceutical inserts and instruction manuals to textbook, translators are needed to rework documents in English or other languages. At courthouses around the country and conferences throughout the world, interpreters help people of different tongues communicate. While both interpreters and translators convert one language into another, interpreters work with the spoken word and translators the written word.

    But U.S. News says that choosing this occupation means learning more than a foreign language. You also must thoroughly understand the subject you're communicating about. You'll relay not only words, but complicated concepts and ideas, as well as the cultural subtleties that accompany them.

    Although prospects vary by language and topical specialty, employment of interpreters and translators is projected to increase 22 percent between 2008 and 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Labor Department. Demand is being driven by an increasingly global economy, as well as an increasingly large population of non-English speakers in the United States.

    An increase in global communications is driving the demand for linguists and interpreters...

    Feds Unveil Upgrades To Nutritional Standards for School Meals

    Proposed Changes designed to improve the health and well-being of kids nationwide

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has published a proposed rule to update the nutrition standards for meals served through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

    The new proposed meal requirements will raise standards for the first time in fifteen years and will make "critical changes" to school meals and help improve the health and nutrition of nearly 32 million kids that participate in school meal programs every school day.

    "The United States is facing an obesity epidemic and the crisis of poor diets threatens the future of our children and our nation," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "With many children consuming as many as half their daily calories at school, strengthening nutritional standards is an important step in the Obama administration's effort to combat childhood obesity and improve the health and well-being of all our kids."

    More nutritious

    The proposed changes to school meal standards, which would add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk to school meals, are based on recommendations released in October 2009 by the National Academies' Institute of Medicine (IOM) and presented in the report, School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children. Schools would also be required to limit the levels of saturated fat, sodium, calories, and trans fats in meals. A comparison of the proposed nutrition standards can be viewed here.

    The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act gives schools and communities new tools to meet the challenge of providing more nutritious food including increasing school lunch reimbursements by six cents per meal, and increasing technical assistance.

    Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says the new standards "represent an enormous improvement over the status quo." In a statement on the CSPI Website, Wootan says "capping calories, limiting french fries, and reducing salt will all help America’s school children avoid unnecessary weight gain and diet-related diseases." And, she says, "Requiring school lunches to provide more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables will teach kids healthy eating habits that may last a lifetime."

    Partnership

    School meal programs are a partnership between USDA, State agencies and local schools, and USDA says it will work with schools and communities to help improve meals so that they are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

    "Raising a healthier generation of kids will require hard work and commitment of a host of partners," said Vilsack. "We understand that these improved meal standards may present challenges for some school districts, but the new law provides important new resources, technical assistance and flexibility to help schools raise the bar for our kids."

    According to government data, almost 32 percent of children 6 to 19 years of age are overweight or obese; the number of obese children in this age range has trebled in the last few decades. These children are more likely to have risk factors associated with chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Type 2 diabetes.

    Feds Unveil Upgrades To Nutritional Standards for School Meals Proposed Changes designed to improve the health and well-being of kids nationwide ...

    Resolved: To Save More Money In the Year Ahead

    Consumer Reports offers five unexpected ways to save more in 2011

    Some 55 percent of Consumer Reports readers say they were likely to include saving more money on their list of New Year’s resolutions.

    To help them do just that, the experts at Consumer Reports Money Adviser’s (CRMA) January issue offer the following tips:

    Watch out for extra surcharges on rental cars

    If you have a lead foot or aren’t careful about feeding parking meters, you might find unexpected surcharges on your next rental-car bill. Advantage, Avis, Budget, and Hertz bill rental-car customers’ credit cards a $30 administrative fee for violations including parking tickets, toll transgressions, and no-nos picked up by traffic cameras like running a red light.

    Check if your product repair is free

    Before you toss a broken item or call a local repair shop, contact the manufacturer. The item could be covered by a recall, technical service bulletin, or goodwill policy (which means a company decides to voluntarily help a customer). This could make you eligible for a free fix, replacement, or a discount on a part or new product.

    When it comes time to call a repairman, weigh the pros and cons of using a manufacturer-authorized shop -- the shop might charge more than other places. If you purchased the item with a credit card, see if it automatically extends the manufacturer’s warranty.

    Consider energy use when buying a TV

    If you’re thinking of getting a new TV in the next couple of months, you might want to wait a bit. By law, all TVs manufactured after May 10, 2011, will have to display the familiar black and yellow Energy Guide labels found on refrigerators, air conditioners, and other appliances.

    The labels will give shoppers an estimate of how much energy the TV uses and how it compares with sets of similar screen size, so you can factor electricity-bill savings into your price comparison. By July, websites that sell TVs will have to display the labels too.

    Online travel deal bargains might be buried

    Major travel sites sometimes make it difficult to find the lowest prices. If you search for a car rental on Expedia, for example, the initial sorting tool won’t allow you to see all the lowest-priced rentals first. You have to decide if you want to get quotes from the site’s “preferred vendors” or get them from other companies as well.

    When you reach the second booking page, you can sort the list by the “car view price” to see all the offers. When CRMA searched Expedia for cars on several dates in 10 cities, the best deals were omitted from the initial listings most of the time.

    Travel bundles can cost more

    When you book a flight online you’re asked whether you’d like to add a hotel room or rental car for a package discount. But those deals aren’t always bargains. Take the time to price each component. Also check out DealBase.com, which does the math and lists good and bad bundled deals.

    Resolved: To Save More Money In the Year Ahead Consumer Reports offers five unexpected ways to save more in 2011 ...

    eBay Motors Settles Fee Lawsuit

    Suit alleged consistent overcharging, disclosure failure

    eBay has settled a class action lawsuit alleging that it overcharged consumers who sold items in the "parts and accessories" section of the eBay Motors website.

    According to the suit, filed in April 2009, the site charges "two basic fees" -- one for listing an item, and one in the event of a "successful first bid." The suit, filed in federal court in California, where eBay is headquartered, alleged that eBay "consistently and uniformly" failed to inform consumers of a third fee, charged once the item is actually sold.

    "Final value fee" According to the complaint, once a consumer successfully sells an item, he must pay eBay both a "final value fee" and a "transaction services fee." Unlike the transaction service fees and the "insertion fee" -- which is automatically charged when a consumer first lists an item for sale -- the final value fee is not listed anywhere on the eBay Motors fee schedule.

    Adding insult to injury, the suit alleges that the final value fee adds up quickly, since it "is based upon a percentage of the closing value, if the item sells." Thus, as the sale price goes up, the fees "are expressly 'stacked' or 'layered' upon each other such that the total fee is cumulative of each layer of fees," according to the complaint.

    The plaintiffs alleged that eBay's failure to mention the final value fee on its fee schedule was "deliberate and intentional," citing as evidence the fact that the schedule was regularly updated but the final value fee was never mentioned until October 2008.

    Differing calculations

    The plaintiffs alleged that, once eBay finally did publish the final value fee, it began calculating it "based upon a flat percentage rate applied to the entire sales price, rather than layered as in eBay.com Final Value Fees."

    Additionally, according to the suit, "even after October 2008, eBay incorrectly ... calculated" the fees. An October 19, 2008 invoice charged lead plaintiff Alamo Autosports a "final value fee" of $19.41 on an item that sold for its fixed price of $199. According to the suit, "the successful listing fee should have been nine percent ... of $199.00, which is $17.91, meaning that eBay Motors overcharged Alamo by $1.50."

    The plaintiffs said this discrepancy resulted from the fact that "eBay [used] a layered fee structure ... rather than the correct flat nine percent ... fee on the entire bid price."

    According to the suit, while eBay's user agreement does state that "the eBay Motors Fee Schedule is subject to change," the website promises to first provide at least 14 days notice.

    The settlement provides that eBay will pay out a total of $30 million to settle the suit. Class members will be paid an amount proportional to the total amount of final value fees they paid.

    eBay Motors Settles Fee Lawsuit. Suit alleged consistent overcharging, disclosure failure...

    Study Finds Pregnant Women's Bodies Full of Chemicals

    The chemicals, some banned since the 70's, could pose health risks for baby

    Many expectant mothers take so many precautions to not consume anything that could harm the babies they’re carrying.

    They avoid alcohol and cigarette smoke, they talk to their doctor before taking any medication, and even cut back on the kinds of food they eat while pregnant, all in the hopes their newborns won’t be exposed to anything harmful while in the womb.

    But a new University of California, San Francisco study reveals the bodies of virtually all pregnant women in the United States carry multiple chemicals, including some banned since the 1970s and others used in common products like non-stick cookware, processed foods and personal care products.

    The study marks the first time that the number of chemicals to which pregnant women are exposed has been counted.

    The researchers analyzed data for 268 pregnant women from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES) 2003-2004, a nationally representative sample of the U.S. population.

    They then analyzed data for 163 chemicals and detected, in 99 to 100 percent of pregnant women, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides, perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), phenols, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), phthalates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and perchlorate.

    If those chemicals sound scary, it’s because they are.

    PBDEs are compounds used as flame retardants now banned in many states including California. Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane ( DDT) is an organochlorine pesticide banned in the United States in 1972.

    Bisphenol A (BPA), which makes plastic hard and clear, and is found in epoxy resins that are used to line the inside of metal food and beverage cans, was identified in 96 percent of the women surveyed.

    Prenatal exposure to BPA has been linked to adverse health outcomes, affecting brain development and increasing susceptibility to cancer later in life.

    The study was not designed to identify direct connections to adverse health outcomes, but the findings do have the researchers worried.

    "It was surprising and concerning to find so many chemicals in pregnant women without fully knowing the implications for pregnancy," said lead author Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH, director of the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment.

    "Several of these chemicals in pregnant women were at the same concentrations that have been associated with negative effects in children from other studies. In addition, exposure to multiple chemicals that can increase the risk of the same adverse health outcome can have a greater impact than exposure to just one chemical," said Woodruff, who is also an associate professor in the UCSF Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences.

    Exposure to chemicals during fetal development has been shown to increase the risk of adverse health consequences, including preterm birth and birth defects, childhood morbidity, and adult disease and mortality according to the research team.

    In addition, chemicals can cross the placenta and enter the fetus, and in other studies, a number of chemicals measured in maternal urine and serum have been found in amniotic fluid, cord blood and meconium, they state.

    So what can women do? Not much, except try to avoid coming into contact with the items known to contain unsafe chemicals.

    Woodruff said their findings indicate several courses of action.

    “First, additional research is needed to identify dominant sources of exposure to chemicals and how they influence our health, especially in reproduction. Second, while individuals can take actions in their everyday lives to protect themselves from toxins, significant, long-lasting change only will result from a systemic approach that includes proactive government policies," she said.

    Co-authors of the study are Ami R. Zota and Jackie M. Schwartz of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, UCSF Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences.

    The study findings were published in Environmental Health Perspectives on Jan. 14.

    Study Finds Pregnant Women's Bodies Full of ChemicalsThe chemicals, some banned since the 70's, could pose health risks for baby...

    Women With PCOS Have Higher BPA Levels

    Women with the ovarian dysfunction urged to avoid food and drinks from plastic containers

    Women With PCOS Have Higher BPA LevelsWomen with the ovarian dysfunction urged to avoid food and drinks from plastic containers..

    Put Down The Sports Drink and Pick Up The Milk

    Food scientists say drinks like tea, coffee, and milk are superior to popular "sports drinks"

    If you’re looking for a drink that can deliver good health, energy, or workout recovery, your first instinct might be to pick up a bottle of a popular sports drink or some “vitamin water.”  But you’re better off leaving those on the shelf.

    A growing body of evidence points to old-school beverages -- tea, coffee and low-fat or even chocolate milk -- as the best elixirs for nutrition, health and workout recovery.

    The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), a nonprofit scientific society, recommends these “retro” drinks for their long list of health benefits.

    TEA

    For hundreds of years, ancient cultures have relied on tea for medicinal purposes. Now modern science is figuring out why.

    Tea is an antioxidant-rich beverage containing more polyphenols than many fruits and vegetables. Besides being rich in compounds that combat cell-damaging oxidative stress, tea has a chemical makeup that includes enzymes, carbohydrates, protein, and lipids.

    Oxidative stress is a molecular imbalance that interferes with the body’s ability to detoxify harmful compounds leading to cellular damage and is associated with chronic health problems such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, dementia, and even cancer.

    Packed with compounds that protect cells from oxidative stress, tea has emerged as a natural dietary aid to lower the risk of these ailments.

    Research indicates that tea strengthens the body’s immune system, reduces buildup of plaque on arterial walls, and aids in the control and prevention of diabetes.

    COFFEE

    Like tea, coffee is packed with polyphenols, and it actually has a higher content of antioxidants than green or black tea and other beverages such as fruit and vegetables juices.

    New research has suggested that coffee consumption can lower cardiovascular risks as well as lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by up to 50 percent.

    Coffee also appears to have a positive effect on neurological diseases with coffee consumption possibly reducing the risk of both Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

    MILK

    It is widely known that milk is an excellent source of protein, calcium, and vitamin D and it helps build teeth and bone mass during childhood and adolescence.

    Recent research findings detail the benefits of whole, low-fat, and chocolate milk when it comes to overall nutrition, bone density, weight loss, muscle-building and more.

    Other research indicates that when consumed after resistance training, both unflavored and chocolate-flavored versions of reduced-fat milk, improve muscle development, enhance strength, and increase fat loss.

    Food Technology magazine is published by the Institute of Food Technologists. Read the full article here.

    Put Down The Sports Drink and Pick Up The Milk Food scientists say drinks like tea, coffee, and milk are superior to popular "sports drinks"...

    How to Teach Your Children the Value of Money

    As well as the right way to pay them an allowance

    How do you teach your children about the value of money? Do you give them an allowance if they do all their chores or do well in school? My best friend in grade school used to get a quarter every time he got an “A” on his report card. He graduated as a valedictorian but he doesn’t have a clue about how to manage money.

    This can be a touchy subject among parents who all seem to have their own answer. Meanwhile, our children are growing up and going to college and then coming home and moving back in because they can’t afford their own apartments.

    So if it turns out we’re all wrong, what’s a parent to do? Fortunately, Kimberly Palmer, writing for U.S. News and World Report tracked down Lewis Mandell, a professor of finance for the University of Washington who recently studied more than 50 years of research into the subject of “allowance.”

    And guess what he found out? Paying children an allowance can do more harm than good when it comes to their future financial literacy skills. According to Palmer Mandell discovered that kids who receive a regular, unconditional allowance tend to think far less about money in general. In fact, she adds, he learned that those children appear more likely to grow up to be "slackers," since they aren't learning to associate work with money.

    Alisa T. Weinstein, author of Earn It, Learn It: Teach Your Child the Value of Money, Work, and Time Well Spent, says paying children for chores around the house can also lead to problems, because it teaches them that working for money isn't fun. She also warns that paying for good grades creates a similar problem: Instead of being driven by self-motivation, children learn to work hard just to earn the extra cash.

    Palmer says that Mandell's review of decades of research revealed that children who have to ask their parents for money each time they need it, whether it's for clothes or lunch, tend to fare better with money later in life. She says perhaps that’s because they are forced to think about what money is being used for. And she quotes Mandell as saying "The kids who have to ask for the money have higher financial literacy than those who get allowances." .

    According to Palmer, Mandell says parents should talk about family finances with their children when they pay an allowance. She quotes him as saying an "allowance can be used very constructively, but to use it constructively requires time, effort, and a degree of honesty on the part of the parent.  Most parents don't want to do it because they don't have much time."

    Dan Henderson, founder of the financial education toy line Zillionz, is quoted by Palmer as saying, “consistency is one of the most important aspects of an allowance. Sticking with a regular schedule, whether it's weekly or monthly, lets children plan for and anticipate their ‘income,’ and also sends the message that it's important to uphold financial commitments.”

    She says Henderson also recommends helping children learn what to do with their allowance by teaching them to dedicate a portion (30 percent) to spending, 30 percent to short-term savings for bigger purchases such as a bike, 30 percent to long-term savings such as college, and 10 percent to giving.

    According to Palmer, that's a similar concept to the one promoted by Money Savvy Generation, a company co-founded by former financial services professional Susan Beacham. Palmer says she invented a piggy bank with four compartments: save, spend, donate, and invest—to teach kids how to budget. She quotes Beacham as saying, "You're teaching them to stop, pause, and reflect, and this is the first step toward teaching them to delay gratification."

    As for how much to pay children and when to begin, Palmer says it depends on each family, as long as they agree on some general guidelines. She quotes Henderson as saying most three-year-olds will be interested in learning about money, and that interest deepens as they get older, so starting conversations and even a regular allowance early can be helpful.

    Weinstein says that as soon as a child is past the toddler stage, they recognize that it costs money to pay for things, which can be as early as four. That probably a good time to start. According to Palmer, Weinstein and Henderson along with many other financial experts recommend paying $1 for every year old the child is and pay them on a monthly or weekly basis.

     

    Research suggests that traditional methods of paying children an allowance might do more harm than good...

    Could Nutritional Information In Restaurants Be Worthless?

    Study finds despite having the info available, consumers still buy high-cal foods

    Countless fast food chains have started posting the nutritional information for the items they sell in an effort to keep consumers aware of how many calories or fat is in their Biggie Fries or their Nachos Bell Grande.

    But surprising (or perhaps not-so-surprising) findings from the purchasing habits of King County, Washington taco fans found the posted nutritional information had almost no effect on how many calories they bought and consumed.

    As part of a comprehensive effort to curb the rise in obesity, King County, Washington, (which includes Seattle), imposed a mandatory menu labeling regulation on all restaurant chains with 15 or more locations beginning in January, 2009.

    Restaurants had to disclose calorie information at the point of purchase.

    Researchers from Duke-National University of Singapore (NUS) Graduate Medical School and the public health department of Seattle & King County found, in the 13 months after the legislation went into effect, food-purchasing behavior at the Taco Time locations in King County was identical to that in Taco Time locations where menu boards remained unchanged.

    The total number of sales and average calories per transaction were unaffected by the menu labeling.

    "Given the results of prior studies, we had expected the results to be small, but we were surprised that we could not detect even the slightest hint of changes in purchasing behavior as a result of the legislation," said lead author Eric Finkelstein, Ph.D., associate professor of health services at Duke-NUS.

    Finkelstein said the results of the study suggest mandatory menu labeling may be unlikely to significantly influence the obesity epidemic, unless it‘s combined with other interventions.

    As part of health care reform, the federal government has plans for a nationwide launch of mandatory nutrition information at the point of purchase for fast-food chains with 20 or more outlets.

    "However, it may be that detailed nutritional information is not the best way to convey the health content of fast foods," said study co-author Kiersten Strombotne of Duke-NUS.

    "For example, if you know a store offers diet and regular soda, does showing how many calories are in regular soda really offer any relevant information? Those who want a lower calorie drink already know to drink the diet soda."

    Finkelstein said that the lack of effects at Taco Time may be because the restaurant was already identifying the healthier options via "Healthy Highlights" logos on the menu board before the legislation went into effect.

    "A simple logo identifying which foods are healthiest may be all it takes to convey that information to those consumers who wish to choose a healthier alternative," Finkelstein said. "The additional information appears not to have made a difference."

    Finkelstein pointed out the obesity epidemic continued to increase after the Nutrition Facts Panel was required nationally for pre-packaged foods. He suggested that further studies should be done to quantify which sources of information are most likely to encourage consumers to switch to healthier options.

    However, Finkelstein points out such information would be too late for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to use because its regulations on fast-food menu labeling are due out by March 23, 2011.

    Could Nutritional Information In Restaurants Be Worthless?Study finds despite having the info available, consumers still buy high-cal foods...

    Childhood Obesity Shortens Life Expectancy

    This could be the first generation to not outlive, or even live as long as their parents

    Obesity is plaguing America’s children with a multitude of health problems -- now there’s a new risk to be added to the list: shorter life expectancy. For the first time in history, the next generation will not live longer, or even as long, as their parents.

    “Diseases such as Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, heart conditions and joint deterioration - what were once considered ‘adult’ diseases - are regularly being diagnosed in children, due to the prevalence of obesity,” said Jessica Bartfield, MD, internal medicine and medical weight-loss specialist at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, part of the Loyola University Health System.

    Bartfield is also part of Gottlieb’s medically supervised weight-loss program involving physicians, nutritionists, exercise physiologists and behavioralists.

    “What is particularly tragic is that studies have suggested that obesity in children today may contribute to a 2-5 year decline in their life expectancy, shorter than that of their parents, due to obesity related diseases that are largely preventable,” said Bartfield.

    The causes for childhood obesity, she said, are “multifactorial, including environment and culture.”  Genetics and parental weight status also plays a role.

    “If one parent is obese, a child has a 50 percent likelihood of being obese, and if both parents are obese, that skyrockets to 80 percent likelihood,” said Bartfield.

    Research by the Center for Disease Control found that 80 percent of obese children between the ages of 10 to 15 continue to be obese at age 25. Furthermore, the earlier obesity develops in children, the more severe it tends to be as an adult.

    In addition to health implications, there are psychological and social damages as well.

    “In addition to decreasing years of life, obesity decreases the quality of life through social ostracism, bullying, social isolation, and poor self-esteem which can lead to poor performance in school, in jobs and in life,” said Bartfield.


    What to do

    Here are the top five ways we can reverse the obesity trend among children:

    1.  Parents take charge. “Focus on getting the family healthy, not putting someone on a diet,” said Bartfield. “Monitor and take accountability for what the family is eating. Plan meals, set limits and take the team approach.”

    2.  Involve the Kids. “As a family, create a weekly meal plan, look up calorie counts, make a grocery list, read product labels, choose fresh rather than packaged and get everyone’s participation,” said Bartfield. “Everyone has to get on board to be successful.”

    3.  Add fresh fruits and vegetables. Bartfield recommends replacing applesauce for oil in baked goods, adding carrots, broccoli and kale to soups and omelets, and cutting up fresh fruit as a side dish -- even if it means including moderate amounts of low-calorie whipped topping or low-calorie salad dressing to make the fruit or vegetable more appealing.

    4.  Cut liquid calories. “Soda, flavored and full fat milk, fruit punches and fruit-flavored beverages are loaded in sugar and empty calories,” Bartfield said. “Substitute 2 percent for whole milk, or skim for 2 percent, and try adding water, seltzer or club soda to juices to cut calories.”

    5.  Prioritize breakfast and keep meals consistent. According to Bartfield, eating within the first hour of waking up powers the brain and jump-starts the metabolism for the rest of the day and choosing protein and fiber in breakfast foods boosts endurance. Establish set meal times, and calories per meal, and stick to them, with defined healthy options for snacking.

    Another key to helping children lose weight is to have healthy expectations.

    “In overweight children with medical complications or obese children, strive for a one-pound individual weight loss per month,” said Bartfield, who uses guidelines by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

    Bartfield also encourages parents to focus on weight maintenance for overweight kids without medical complications since, as they grow in height, their Body Mass Index (BMI) will decrease on its own.

    Bartfield practices medicine in Chicago, a city whose youth population has increased in obesity.

    “Most recently, data from 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health found Illinois to have the 4th highest rate of child obesity in the nation -- 1 out of every 5 children is obese. In particular, our children entering schools in Chicago (age 3-7) have about double the rate of obesity as the national average of similar aged kids,” said Bartfield.

    Childhood Obesity Shortens Life Expectancy This could be the first generation to not outlive, or even live as long as their parents...

    As Smartphone Ownership Increases, So Does Risk of ID Theft

    Even public Wi-Fi can make your bank or personal info vulnerable to scammers

    As smartphones get cheaper and more cell phone carriers begin to offer highly-coveted versions, Experian is warning all smartphone owners to practice safety and common sense when it comes to protecting their identity online.

    According to Experian, smartphone users may be risking the security of their identity if they store sensitive information on their phones and use unsecure Wi-Fi networks to get online. This is according to new research by ProtectMyID, Experian's identity-protection service.  

    According to this latest research:

    • Nearly two thirds (65%) of smartphone users send and store e-mails on their phones -- even if these include sensitive information such as receipts and credit card details from shopping online.
    • More than half (53%) of smartphone users access social networking sites from their phones. This could easily reveal key pieces of information like names, dates of birth and other details commonly used as passwords for online banking and other accounts, such as first school or place of birth.
    • Nearly one third (29%) of smartphone users take advantage of public Wi-Fi hotspots, which are popping up more and more in coffee shops, airports, libraries and other places people gather. These hotspots are insecure and highly vulnerable to electronic eavesdroppers.
    • Of these, one in five (19%) say they conduct online banking while using public Wi-Fi, risking their accounts, PINs and passwords.

    According to CIFAS, the UK’s fraud prevention service, mobile phone identity fraud rose by three quarters (74%) in the first half of 2010, but more than half of the smartphone users who took part in the Protect My ID survey were completely unaware of the problem.

    "The personal information on an average smartphone is like gold dust to an ID thief and many of us could be putting this on a plate by using public Wi-Fi networks," said Peter Turner, Managing Director of Experian Interactive.

    Turner said criminals can use this information to masquerade as the phone's owner, drain his or her accounts, run up debts in their victim's name and even open new accounts.

    "Often, the first people know about it is when they receive a demand for payment for services they haven't used or for an account they have never heard of. We've certainly seen cases where criminals have changed the address of the smartphone, ordered new handsets and run up huge bills," said Turner.
    And while the survey was conducted in the UK, that doesn’t mean the US is any safer for smartphone users.

    The Washington. D.C.-area news blog TDBreported last month on the rise in iPhone robberies in our nation's capital -- some phones being snatched right out of their owners' hands in broad daylight -- and how users have almost no recourse except to buy a new phone.

    Similar stories have been cropping up all over the US and the world, making it crucial to keep sensitive information off smartphones as much as possible.

    As Smartphone Ownership Increases, So Does Risk of ID Theft Even public Wi-Fi can make your bank or personal info vulnerable to scammers...

    The Envelope Please: Best and Worst Credit Cards of 2010

    PenFed takes first place, First Premier last, Kardashian Kard most-hated

    If there was an Oscar for best credit card of the year, the PenFed Platinum Visa Card would be among the nominees, according to CardRatings.com.

    The credit card rating website recently released what it considers to be the worst and best credit cards of 2010.

    The editors of the credit card comparison site said that among the worst were those cards with high rates, high fees and little disclosure while those rated the best “bucked a trend toward fewer rewards and higher fees” while offering “ value, service, and convenience.”

    Among the cards cited for the editors’ worst credit Cards of 2010 were a new First Premier MasterCard that had a whopping 79.99 percent A.P.R. It was cited for having the highest interest rate. Also among the worst was that short-lived pre-paid debit card endorsed by the Kardashians which they said was also the most hated card.

    As for the best in the cash-back category editors said the PenFed Visa Platinum Cashback Rewards Card and the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express Card were at the top. In the airline and travel credit card category, the PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express Card and Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card were rated the best.

    The Simmons Visa Platinum and the PenFed Promise Visa Card, meanwhile, were cited as the best low-interest rate cards and the Citi Platinum Select MasterCard and the Discover More Card were cited for being the best low-introductory rate credit cards. CardRatings.com, meanwhile, cited the Chase Sapphire Card and Zync from American Express for being the best reward point credit cards.

    Every year, CardRatings.com publishes its Editor’s Choice Awards for best and worst credit cards. This year, the Consumer’s Choice Awards make their debut.

    Best cards

    The best credit cards of 2010 by category, as rated by consumers, are:

    Best Cash Back Credit Card: Blue Cash from American Express

    Best Airline Credit Card: Blue Sky from American Express

    Best Reward Points Credit Card: Chase Sapphire Card

    Best Value Credit Card: USAA World MasterCard

    Best Customer Service: American Express   

    Worst cards

    Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com said that despite the fact that most credit cards have become much more attractive in the past several months, there have been a few credit card offers that have not followed suit and are in fact what some consumer advocates would label as downright rip-offs. Avoid these cards like the plague and, if you do, you will be glad you did in 2011.

    The worst credit cards of 2010, as rated by CardRatings.com, are:

    Highest Interest Rate: First Premier MasterCard

    Most Hated: Kardashian Kard

    Least Disclosure: Best Buy Reward Zone MasterCard

    Most Expensive Way to Rebuild Credit: Applied Bank Unsecured Visa Gold Card

    From the failed Kardashian Kard to the top-rated PenFed Platinum Visa, here are the best and worst credit cards of 2010...

    IRS' Free File Service Is Now Open

    Most taxpayers qualify for this free tax preparation aid

    Haven't done your taxes yet? You're in luck. The Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) Free File tax preparation service became operational today.

    If your adjusted gross income (AGI) is $58,000 or less, you're eligible to use this free, online service. The IRS says 70 percent of taxpayers have an AGI of $58,000 or less.

    The Free File Alliance, a coalition of industry-leading tax software companies that partnered with the IRS, has announced the launch of the 2011 IRS Free File program. Since its inception in 2003, IRS Free File has offered low-to-moderate income taxpayers free access to leading commercial tax preparation software. There is no charge for using this service.

    "IRS Free File returns this year to proudly give 98 million Americans free access to the industry's best tax preparation software," said Tim Hugo, executive director of the Free File Alliance. "We are committed to making taxes simple, fast and free by offering step-by-step help that takes guesswork out of the process. More than 30 million people have already taken advantage of IRS Free File, and our goal this year is to serve each and every taxpayer making $58,000 or less."

    Choose a software

    To begin, taxpayers may visit the IRS website, and click on the "Free File" icon. Users will find a list of Free File Alliance member companies and may either choose the one that fits their needs or utilize the "help me find a company" tool.

    After selecting a company, taxpayers will be transferred to the company's website to prepare, complete and electronically file their federal income tax returns. Three of the 19 participating software companies also offer services in Spanish.

    VITA

    This year, the Free File Alliance has also partnered with the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA), a service for low-to-moderate income taxpayers. Thanks to the new partnership, Free File Alliance member software will be available on self-assist kiosks at VITA sites in 29 states across the country.

    VITA's partnership with the Free File Alliance will extend its reach and help the IRS provide expanded free tax prep services to more taxpayers who need additional assistance.

    "Free File Alliance member companies have continually worked with the IRS to strengthen IRS Free File and ensure that it remains both accurate and secure," said Hugo. "Through the new VITA partnership, the Free File Alliance will be able to help the IRS serve more taxpayers than ever before."

    Tracking your refund

    Once you've filed your return using Free File, you can track the status of your refund online.

    According to the IRS, you can generally get information about your refund 72 hours after IRS acknowledges receipt of your e-filed return, or three to four weeks after mailing a paper return. As you can see, it pays to file electronically.

    You'll need to provide the following information from your tax return:

    • Your Social Security Number (or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number)
    • Your Filing Status
    • The exact whole dollar amount of your refund

     

     

     

     

    The software companies partnering with the IRS on its Free File system say they are ready to start receiving your returns....

    More Foreclosures Headed To Market In 2011

    Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have a huge inventory

    The recent report that foreclosure filings hit a record high 2.9 million last year might lead you to believe that the worst is over. Especially since the monthly foreclosure totals began to fall late in the year.

    But that might be a misreading of the data, analysts say. Foreclosure actions fell late in the year, in large part, because banks slammed on the brakes in the wake of the robo-signing scandal. The pace could pick up again in 2011 -- with a vengeance.

    RealtyTrac, the private firm that tracks and markets foreclosures, predicts buyers will have plenty of opportunities to snap up bargain-priced foreclosures in the coming year. The reason?

    A large number of foreclosed homes, owned by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and HUD, are headed to market. Not only are the prices low, but the owners are also throwing in incentives, like preferred financing.

    Where the action is

    "The cherished account right now is Fannie and Freddie," said Tom Moon, a Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac approved broker with Pacific Moon Real Estate in Orange County, Calif. "Any broker would like to have Fannie and Freddie because they seem to have the most properties right now."

    Fannie and Freddie properties tend to be lower-priced, entry-level housing that, when it goes up for sale in a foreclosure, is priced even lower. RealtyTrac notes that, in the hard-hit housing market of Orange County, Calif., that's what is attracting the bulk of active buyers.

    Second quarter reports from Fannie and Freddie show the two government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) are acquiring real estate owned (REO) properties through foreclosure at a significantly faster pace than overall growth in REO activity based on RealtyTrac data.

    114 percent increase

    Fannie Mae took ownership of 68,838 REO properties in the second quarter of 2010 -- an increase of 114 percent from the second quarter of 2009 -- and Freddie Mac took ownership of 34,662 -- a 58 percent increase from the previous year.

    That compares with a 38 percent in REO activity during the same timeframe, according to RealtyTrac.

    Then there's HUD, which acquired more than 23,000 foreclosed properties through sour FHA loans. The result, analysts say, is a large inventory of homes with a very motivated seller -- the U.S. Government or a GSE.

    If the foreclosure tsunami hasn't yet peaked, it could mean another tough year for those trying to sell a home, but even better selection of bargains for buyers.

     

     

     

    Though 2010 saw a record number of foreclosure actions, 2011 might actually see more....

    Immigrant Workers In Canada Sue Denny's

    They claim the franchise reneged on several promises

    A group of Filipino workers in British Columbia, Canada, is suing Denny’s, claiming the restaurant has cut their hours, ignored contractual overtime requirements and reversed its promise to pay for their airfare home.

    The suit is being brought on behalf of over 50 immigrant workers who began working for Denny’s in December 2006, under Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).

    Under the TFWP, Canada hires “thousands of foreign workers to fill immediate skills and labour shortages,” according to the Website for the country’s Human Resources and Skills Development department. The site describes the program’s goal as “ensur[ing] that the employment of foreign workers supports economic growth and helps create more opportunities for all Canadians.”

    Herminia Vergara Dominguez, one of the plaintiffs, was promised at least 40 hours of work per week, with time-and-a-half for any additional hours worked, according to the suit. But, Dominguez says, Denny’s reneged on those promises once she began working.

    Dominguez also claims Denny’s promised to pay her airfare between Canada and the Phillipines, but failed to live up to that promise as well.

    Attorney: Denny’s didn’t honor its “end of the deal”

    In a press release, Christopher Foy, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said, “These workers were encouraged to come to Canada with a set of promises that have never been met -- they have done their part but the Defendants have not lived up to their end of the deal.”

    “[The plaintiffs are] put in a highly vulnerable position vis-a-vis their employers,” attorney Charles Gordon told newspaper, The Province. “Many hope to become permanent residents but are afraid of making any waves that may jeopardize that.”

    Reached by Straight, a Vancouver newspaper, Denny’s Canada marketing director Brent Armstrong said that the plaintiffs’ “claims have no merit. That is the extent of our quote.”

    “We have always adhered to the employment standards guidelines and continue to be strong supporters of workplace ethics,” Armstrong told the Province.

    The suit requests compensatory damages, as well as $9 million in punitive damages for the restaurant chain’s ““outrageous and malicious conduct.”

    Danger to a brittle reputation

    The suit, dealing with immigrant workers, threatens to dredge up memories of Denny’s unsavory past. In 1994, the restaurant settled a $54 million brought by thousands of African-Americans who said the chain had refused them service or otherwise discriminated against them.

    In the wake of the settlement, Denny’s created a racial sensitivity program and implemented a program to attract minority managers and franchisees. In a stunning turnaround, in 2001 Fortun Magazine named Denny’s the “Best Company for Minorities.”

    Immigrant Workers in Canada Sue Denny’sClaim franchise reneged on several promises...

    Treasury Launches Pilot Program for Convenient Tax Refunds

    Program using prepaid debit and payroll cards would also make refunds fast and safe

    Just in time for tax season, the U.S. Department of the Treasury is launching a pilot program to offer taxpayers a safe, convenient and low-cost financial account for the electronic delivery of their federal tax refunds. 

    The new account card option provides everyday money-saving conveniences and consumer protection features for taxpayers with limited or no access to traditional banking services.

    “This pilot program will provide low- and moderate-income Americans with a low-cost option for faster delivery of their federal tax refund,” said Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Neal Wolin. “This innovative card can be used for everyday financial transactions, such as receiving wages by direct deposit, withdrawing cash, making purchases, paying bills and building savings safely and conveniently, giving users more control over their financial futures.”

    Prepaid debit cards

    As the next step in this pilot, originally announced in September, Treasury is mailing letters to 600,000 low- and moderate-income individuals nationwide.  The letters will invite these taxpayers to consider activating a MyAccountCard Visa® Prepaid Debit Card in time to have their 2010 federal tax refund direct deposited to the card. 

    Compared with paper checks, direct deposit provides a safer, faster and more convenient way to receive a federal tax refund as well as other regular income.

    Payroll cards

    Treasury also is beginning a companion pilot to encourage tens of thousands of current and potential payroll card users to direct deposit their 2010 federal tax refund onto existing payroll cards.  Nationwide, more than 1.7 million workers use payroll cards to receive and access their wages, often because they do not have bank accounts. 

    Working with ADP, a provider of payroll services, Treasury will highlight the safety, ease and convenience of direct deposit onto payroll cards through tax season communications, including materials distributed with pay statements.

    Card advantages

    The letters mailed to taxpayers about MyAccountCard contain information about the card’s features, including free services and the fee structure for optional services.  Many of the features, including free point-of-sale transactions, free online bill pay, free ATM cash withdrawals at more than 15,000 ATMs nationwide, and free cash back at participating retail stores, will help cardholders limit the costs of using the card. 

    The information also explains how to sign up, and how to use the card to receive a federal tax refund and conduct everyday financial transactions.

    As part of the pilot, Treasury will randomly offer several different variations of MyAccountCard in order to evaluate which product features, fee structures and marketing messages generate the greatest positive response from taxpayers.  The results of the pilot will help determine the benefits and feasibility of a card account as an integrated part of the tax filing and refund process.

    Treasury Launches Pilot Program for Convenient Tax Refunds Program using prepaid debit and payroll cards would also make refunds fast and safe ...

    Remodeling your Kitchen on a Fast Food Budget

    Raise the value of your home without spending a fortune

    One of the best ways to increase the value of your home is to remodel and upgrade your kitchen. But depending on what you do, this can get pricey. If you’re on a tight budget, but still want to remodel your kitchen there are ways to you can get a luxury upgrade while living on a fast-food budget.

    Here are six tips that will help you get more than your money’s worth:

    1. One of the most dramatic ways to update the kitchen is to add new cabinets. However, if you’ve been blessed with solid wood boxes, frames and doors, you should reface rather than replace them. This option allows the original cabinets to stay in the home but adds a fresh new look.

    2. Granite countertops will give your kitchen a look of luxury. When kitchen remodeling on a budget, this look can be achieved by purchasing a granite overlay. These are stone shells that are placed over the existing countertop. People can also look into alternative, more creative options, such as recycled glass tile countertops.

    3. One of the finest flooring choices for a kitchen remodeling is marble, but who can afford that? A less expensive option is to install ceramic tile. There is a wide variety of choices available to complement any design ideas. In the past laminate was easy to look down upon, but today there are higher-quality options available that should not be ignored. 

    4. While stainless steel appliances are beautiful, they tend to be expensive. A more cost-effective alternative is stainless steel finish appliances. These offer the same look, level of quality and protection but are much cheaper.

    5. Lighting is often overlooked by people remodeling their kitchen but is always admired by guests when a beautiful choice is installed. There are countless lighting options available. Remodelers should not be afraid to be bold and creative when choosing their light fixtures. These can be the centerpiece of the room. With all the options available, it is hard not to find a stunning piece at a low-cost price by shopping around.

    6. And finally, add a backsplash. This may seem like a simple item, but it really completes a kitchen. These not only protect the walls but they also can add a lot of pizzazz to a room. There are many choices available, such as colorful ceramic or glass tiles that can be placed in creative patterns.

    These budget-minded suggestions come from KitchenRemodeling.net, which is a website that connects homeowners with professional contractors who are ready to complete their kitchen remodeling projects. Or, to really save money, you can do it yourself.

    Here are six tips to remodel and upgrade your kitchen on a budget...

    Kellogg Settles Rice Krispies Immunity Claim for $5 Million

    Mirrors earlier Mini Wheats agreement; Cheerios faces similar challenge

    Kellogg has agreed to pay $5 million to settle a claim that it made false and misleading claims about the immunity provided to children by its Rice Krispies cereal.

    The agreement puts to rest a six-month saga that began when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) took issue with a claim, stamped on Rice Krispies boxes, that the cereal “helps support your child’s immunity” with “25 percent Daily Value of Antioxidants and Nutrients -- Vitamins A, B, C, and E.” The packaging also bragged that the cereal “has been improved to include antioxidants and nutrients that your family needs to help them stay healthy.”

    “We expect more from a great American company than making dubious claims -- not once, but twice -- that its cereals improve children's health,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said at the time. “Next time, Kellogg needs to stop and think twice about the claims it's making before rolling out a new ad campaign, so parents can make the best choices for their children.”

    Among other things, the company claimed that vitamins A, B, C, and E, all found in Rice Krispies, are proven to help fortify the immune system.

    Settlement follows earlier agreement

    After the FTC’s warning, Kellogg agreed to change its advertising for Rice Krispies. Specifically, the company agreed to expand a previous settlement reached after the FTC scolded Kellogg for claiming that Frosted Mini Wheats cereal is “clinically shown to improve kids' attentiveness by nearly 20 percent.”

    Under the order, Kellogg was prohibited from making claims about the benefits to cognitive health, process, or function provided by any cereal or other morning or snack food, unless the claims were true and could be substantiated.

    Under the latest agreement, Kellogg has agreed to pay between $5 and $15 to affected consumers, with a maximum total of $2.5 million. The company will also donate $2.5 million worth of Kellogg products to a charity. The settlement follows a similar one concerning the Mini Wheats snafu. In that agreement, reached in November, Kellogg agreed to pay up to $2.75 million to affected consumers, with an additional $5.5 million to charity.

    Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at NYU, told USA Today that while “these nutrients are involved in immunity ... I can't think of a nutrient that isn't involved in the immune system.”

    Cheerios targeted as well

    Kellogg isn’t the only cereal manufacturer facing scrutiny over dubious health-related claims. A 2009 class action took issue with competitor General Mills’s claim that Cheerios can help lower cholesterol. That suit followed a statement from the FDA finding that General Mills’s statement constituted a “serious violation[] of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.”

    Kellogg Settles Rice Krispies Immunity ClaimMirrors earlier Mini Wheats agreement...

    Limits Put On Acetaminophen In Prescription Combination Products

    Warnings about the risk of liver toxicity are to be added to product packages

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is asking manufacturers of prescription combination products that contain acetaminophen, the ingredient found in Tylenol, to limit the amount of it to no more than 325 milligrams (mg) in each tablet or capsule.

    The agency also is requiring manufacturers to update labels of all prescription combination acetaminophen products to warn of the potential risk for severe liver injury.

    Acetaminophen, also called APAP, is a drug that relieves pain and fever and can be found in both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) products. It is combined in many prescription products with other ingredients, usually opioids such as codeine (Tylenol with Codeine), oxycodone (Percocet), and hydrocodone (Vicodin).

    Matter of safety

    “FDA is taking this action to make prescription combination pain medications containing acetaminophen safer for patients to use,” said Sandra Kweder, M.D., deputy director of the Office of New Drugs in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER). “Overdose from prescription combination products containing acetaminophen account for nearly half of all cases of acetaminophen-related liver failure in the United States; many of which result in liver transplant or death.”

    The elimination of higher-dose prescription combination acetaminophen products will be phased in over three years and should not create a shortage of pain medication. Patients and health care professionals are being notified of the new limitation on acetaminophen content, and of the labeling change, in a drug safety communication issued by CDER.

    The FDA says it believes prescription combination products containing no more than 325 mg of acetaminophen per tablet are effective for treating pain.

    “There is no immediate danger to patients who take these combination pain medications and they should continue to take them as directed by their health care provider,” said Kweder. "The risk of liver injury primarily occurs when patients take multiple products containing acetaminophen at one time and exceed the current maximum dose of 4,000 milligrams within a 24-hour period.”

    Acetaminophen is also widely used as an over-the-counter pain and fever medication, and is combined with other OTC ingredients, such as cough and cold ingredients. The actions FDA is taking for prescription acetaminophen products do not affect OTC acetaminophen products.

    New warnings

    Because of continued reports of liver injury, FDA proposes that boxed warnings, the agency’s strongest warning for prescription drugs, be added to all acetaminophen prescription products.

    Most of the cases of severe liver injury occurred in patients who took more than the prescribed dose of an acetaminophen-containing product in a 24-hour period, took more than one acetaminophen-containing product at the same time, or drank alcohol while taking acetaminophen products.

    An FDA advisory committee discussed the issue at a meeting in June 2009, and recommended strengthening the warning about severe liver injury on the drug labels of prescription products containing acetaminophen.

    Limits Put On Acetaminophen In Prescription Combination Products Warnings about the risk of liver toxicity are to be added to product packages...

    Rating Agencies Warn US Faces Lower Credit Ratings

    S&P and Moody's say rising debt could hurt U.S. credit ratings

    Think of it as the country’s FICO score. Just like anyone who carries more debt than he can handle, the U.S. has received a warning from the nation’s top two credit rating agencies that its credit rating could go down if it doesn’t do something to correct a deteriorating financial situation.

    If and when that happens it will cost the country more to borrow the same as it does with anyone who's FICO score goes down. 

    Ratings warnings

    In a report issued this week, Moody's Investors Service says the U.S. will need to reverse an upward trajectory in its debt ratios in order to keep its triple “A” rating (AAA).

    At the same time, Standard and Poor’s, which also gives the U.S. a AAA rating, said it would not rule out changing the outlook for its U.S. sovereign debt rating because of the recent deterioration of the country's fiscal situation.

    Sarah Carlson, senior analyst at Moody's, in an interview with Dow Jones Newswires, said “We have become increasingly clear about the fact that if there are not offsetting measures to reverse the deterioration in negative fundamentals in the U.S., the likelihood of a negative outlook over the next two years will increase."  

    Carol Sirou, who heads S&P France, told a Paris conference, that the view of markets is that the U.S. will continue to “benefit from the exorbitant privilege linked to the U.S. dollar" to fund its deficits. She added that may change. According to Sirou, the jobless nature of the U.S. recovery was one of the biggest threats to the U.S. economy and that no AAA rating is forever.

    Cost Containment

    Moody's said the U.S., Germany, France and the U.K. still have debt metrics, including debt affordability -- the ratio of interest payments to revenue -- compatible with their AAA ratings at the agency. But all four countries must bring the future costs arising from pension and healthcare subsidies under control if they are to maintain long-term stability in their debt burden credit metrics.

    In its regular AAA Sovereign Monitor report, Moody’s noted that measures were recommended by the U.S. National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, appointed by President Obama, to achieve a balanced primary budget by 2015, but that there was insufficient support to trigger consideration of those recommendations by the full Congress.

    Moody’s said those recommendations included a wide variety of measures, including Social Security reform, cutbacks in the growth of Medicare outlays, elimination or modification of the mortgage interest tax deduction, a gasoline tax and other measures. But in Moody's view, it is unlikely that the Commission's recommendations will be adopted.

    The most recent official figures show the ratio of federal debt to revenue averaging 397 percent of gross domestic product in the period to 2020, while the ratio of interest to revenue will rise to 17.6 percent by 2020, from 8.6 percent in the last fiscal year. Moody’s said these figures are quite high for a AAA rated country.

    The country’s top two rating agencies say that if the U.S. doesn’t get it’s rising debt under control they will lower its triple “A” credit ratin...

    New Investigation Into Alleged Foreign Exchange Cheats

    Probe into whether Forex brokers are cheating their clients comes as market heats up

    The foreign exchange or Forex Market has been under the regulators’ microscope for some time now following reports last fall of alleged scams involving some brokers.

    Now comes word that a new investigation is about to be launched into whether some foreign exchange firms are still using unfair trading practices to take advantage of retail investors.

    New probe

    The National Futures Association (NFA), a self-regulatory body that polices the futures industry, says it plans to begin analyzing trades executed by its 16 member Forex firms. It plans to search for signs these firms are designing computer systems to take advantage of what's known in the industry as "slippage."

    These are small price movements that happen between the time when a customer orders a trade and when that trade is actually executed.

    For individual investors, slippage is almost impossible to detect. For example, if a retail investor places an order for euros at $1.335; he may find that by the time the brokerage firm executes the order, the rate has changed to $1.332. Does the customer get that new, lower price, or does the firm reject the order? Is the firm only executing an order when the price moves up in its favor, to say $1.338, and it can pocket the spread?

    Small movements, big profits

    The individual price movements in question are tiny but they can quickly add up.  A trader using 50-to-1 leverage could buy $100,000 worth of euros with just $2,000 in his account. If he placed an order to buy at $1.335, but instead paid $1.337, those euros cost him an extra $20. Within months, such spreads can mean millions of extra dollars for forex firms.

    The new probe comes just as currency trading is becoming more popular for small investors looking for bigger returns. Average daily volume in retail forex trading grew 25 percent from 2008 to 2009, to $125 billion -- up more than ten-fold from eight years ago according to consultancy Aite Group.

    Expanded investigation

    Both the NFA and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) are also keeping mum about any additional investigations that may be underway. But when another forex trading firm, FXCM it  went public in December, its SEC filings disclosed the firm had been contacted by both regulatory agencies  for information about trade execution practices involving Ikon Global Markets and GAIN Capital. An FXCM spokeswoman declined to comment by press time.

    Regardless of whether regulators find cases of unfair trading, retail investors are still at a disadvantage when trading currency because forex is far from transparent.

    Charles Rotblut, the vice president of the American Association of Individual Investors says if a forex firm is acting as a market-maker -- taking the other side of a client's trades -- it's doubtful the investor is getting the best possible price.

    While some slippage is normal, the NFA will be looking to see if trades are being executed only when the currency price moves in the firm's favor. This would indicate a firm may be violating NFA rules mandating fair business practices.

    NFA spokesman Larry Dykeman says the group can then assess fines, and in some cases may suspend or expel a firm from membership in the organization.

    The new investigation follows last October’s probe into Ikon and GAIN. Both firms were accused of taking advantage of slippage at their clients' expense and both firms settled without admitting or denying the allegations.

    According to the NFA, Ikon paid a $320,000 fine and has ceased offering retail FX trading to U.S. clients. Meanwhile, GAIN, paid a $459,000 penalty and went public in December. A spokeswoman for GAIN said the trades in question accounted for only .05 percent of its transactions, and that the company will continue to review its operations to ensure that "the interests of our clients and partners are fully protected."

    With interest growing in the foreign currency markets, a new investigation is about to be launched into whether Forex brokers are cheating clients...

    How to Save on Costs You Thought Were Fixed

    You can negotiate almost anything

    There are certain expenses in life like property taxes, healthcare, medical costs and groceries that seem fixed, but they’re not. According to Elisabeth Leamy, author of the book Save Big, all of these so-called “fixed expenses“ are negotiable. In fact, she’s helped people save thousands by applying a few negotiating techniques.

    Basically says Leamy, this is a tricky economy and you need to adjust your attitude. Practically everyone needs to save money these days so it’s time to re-think certain expenses you once considered fixed and unchangeable. Leamy says most supposedly "fixed" costs can be negotiated, refinanced or shopped around.

    Rent

    For example, if you rent, try negotiating for a better rate. It costs landlords a lot of money to leave properties empty, so if you're a good tenant, that’s has a certain value to them. Research the incentives your landlord and other nearby buildings are offering new tenants, and use that as leverage to negotiate a lower rent.  

    Mortgage Refinancing

    If you own a home, interest rates are at near record lows. Are you in a position to refinance? It's worth refinancing if you can get half a point off your rate, if you’ll add no more than five years to the length of your mortgage and can still pay your closing costs off in five years or less -- preferably much less. If you can’t get approved at a big bank, try a credit union. Credit unions pay attention to your situation, not just your credit score.  

    Property Taxes

    If you’re a homeowner you pay property taxes. Have you ever tried to appeal your assessment? Many local jurisdictions haven’t caught up with current home prices and are still using market values from early 2008 to assess homes. This is the time of year that assessments get mailed out. Appeals take about the same amount of work as fighting a traffic ticket -- with a much bigger payout. Leamy says she knows of a New Jersey man who stood to save $5,000 a year if he won his appeal.

    Car Payments

    How about car payments? Did you know you can refinance your car loan? If your vehicle isn’t too old and you’re not underwater on the value, you should consider it. Once again, credit unions are the place to turn. They do more of these auto loan refinances than anybody else.

    Insurance

    You probably already know how various insurance costs range considerably from one company to another. Leamy says one New York family saved more than $2,000 a year on car insurance just by shopping around. Approach an independent agent who represents many different companies. She adds that a Virginia family of seven saved nearly $7,000 on health insurance by shopping around through an independent agent. There are savings to be had on homeowner's insurance too.

    Groceries

    You probably budget the same amount every week for groceries. Now you know grocery prices aren’t fixed but did you also know that there are some people who manage to save as much as 80 percent on their food and household supplies?  Leamy says one simple way to start saving like that is to follow what the supersavers are doing to get huge discounts. They’ll post their best finds online on their blogs. Just buy what they buy. A good site to check is www.becentsable.net, which has compiled a list of these grocery supersavers by state and store. You can also try the site's inexpensive grocery workshops, which take you through the savings process step by step.

    Medical Costs

    Like grocery costs, medical costs aren't fixed either. The key is to behave like a consumer rather than a patient when you interact with a medical professional. A Harris Interactive Poll found that 70 percent of people who asked a hospital for a price break got one. Most doctors are also open to negotiating, especially if you're willing to pay upfront, because they spend thousands chasing after patients and insurance companies to pay their bills. Even the cost of medication is flexible. Look up the meds you take on a website such as www.rxaminer.com or www.destinationrx.com,  and you’ll find that some stores offer them for far less than others do. These sites also list less-expensive alternative and generic drugs that you might be able to take instead.

    Here are a few tips on how to save money on what most people consider fixed costs...

    New Balance Toning Shoes Face Lawsuit

    Complaint cites study concluding that shoes provide no real benefit

    It sounds too good to be true: a sneaker that “uses hidden balance board technology that encourages muscle activation in the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves, which in turn burns calories.”

    That's New Balance's description of its so-called “toning shoe,” which sports a rounded shape that makes it harder to keep one's balance, which in turn supposedly makes the muscles work harder and thus burn more calories.

    But a lawsuit filed last week says that New Balance's claims really are nothing more than hype.

    The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Boston, where the shoe company is based, says that New Balance's claims about the shoe are “false, misleading, and reasonably likely to deceive the public.”

    Study: Shoes provide little benefit

    According to the suit, lead plaintiff Bistra Pashamova “was exposed to and saw New Balance's advertising claims, purchased New Balance toning shoes in reliance on these claims, and suffered injury in fact and lost money as a result.”

    The complaint cites several studies concluding that the sneakers simply do not live up to their promises. One by the American Council on Exercise found that wearing the sneakers does not produce any “statistically significant increases in either exercise response or muscle activation.”

    New Balance's sneakers are the latest “toning shoes” to hit the market, following Reebok's EasyTone shoes and Skechers's Shape-Up line, both of which are facing their own lawsuits.

    Diet and exercise still reign supreme

    Based on the glut of litigation concerning this latest fads, consumers might do well to heed advice dished out last July by the Boston Globe: “Fads in dieting, equipment, and footwear come and go, but the old standby of moderate exercise, a few times a week, seldom fails.”

    “Get-fit-quick schemes are a lot like get-rich-quick schemes: They’re usually too good to be true, especially when they’re making money for someone else,” the Globe wrote in that editorial. “That seems a decent analysis of the current footwear trend known as the 'toning shoe,' which is helping to boost sneaker sales for New Balance and other companies. But scientists and podiatrists are already raising questions about whether toning shoes do all they promise, and whether they cause unnecessary pain.”

    Mayo Clinic doctor dismisses shoes

    Indeed, in response to a consumer's question, Dr. Edward R. Laskowski of the Mayo Clinic wrote that “there is no convincing evidence that wearing toning shoes will make your legs more toned or cause you to burn extra calories.”

    “Manufacturers say the unstable design of the shoes forces wearers to use their leg muscles more -- which burns more calories and tones the muscles,” Laskowski wrote. “However, an independent study by a nonprofit fitness organization found no evidence that wearing toning shoes leads to improved muscle tone or greater energy expenditure. In addition, there are no studies that prove that they improve balance or stability to a great degree.”

    It remains to be seen whether the increased skepticism will slow consumers' infatuation with toning shoes. The subset produced sales of $1.5 billion last year alone, and decades of experience have shown that Americans are always willing to take the easy route to a better body.

    New Balance Toning Shoes Face Lawsuit Complaint cites study concluding that shoes provide no real benefit...

    Take Advantage Of Six Over-Looked Tax Breaks

    These deductions and credits might save you money

    There is no need to cheat on your income taxes because the U.S. tax code offers very generous tax deductions and credits. By taking advantage of each one for which you qualify will save money.

    Here is a list of tax breaks that you may have overlooked. If you aren’t sure you qualify, be sure to discuss it with a tax professional.

    1. Job hunting

    If you were one of the millions of people out of work last year, don’t forget that you can deduct the costs of looking for a new job. For example, you can write off food, lodging and transportation if your search took you out of town. Cab fares, employment agency fees, even the cost of printing and mailing resumes are deductible when looking for a new job. Just make sure you have receipts for everything.

    2. Moving expenses

    Did you move last year to start a new job? If so, moving expenses are deductible. To qualify, the job just be at least 50 miles from your previous place of residence. If you qualify, you can deduct the cost of getting your and your stuff to your new home, including 16.5 cents a mile for driving your own vehicle. You can also deduct parking expenses and tolls.

    3. Other taxes

    Don’t forget to deduct the other taxes you paid last year. The biggest chunk will probably be state income taxes and there, you have to remember that any state tax refund you received will count as income, somewhat diluting that deduction.

    However, don’t forget real estate taxes or personal property taxes on cars, trucks, boats and other vehicles. If your state doesn’t have an income tax, you are allowed to deduct state sales tax you paid during the year, just as long as you can document it.

    4. Child care expenses

    A tax credit, which is better than a deduction, might be available if you paid for child care last year. The cost of the qualifying child care can be subtracted from the amount of tax owed, instead of subtracted from your gross income, like a deduction.

    5. Points

    If you purchased a home last year, you might be eligible for the homebuyers’ tax credit. Even if you aren’t, you can deduct any points paid to your mortgage company. However, if you refinanced an existing mortgage, the points deduction is taken over the life of the loan, providing a much smaller tax break.

    6. Making work pay

    For younger taxpayers especially, the Making Work Pay Tax Credit is often overlooked. By claiming the credit on your 2010 return, qualifying taxpayers can get a credit equal to 6.2 percent of their earned income, capped at $400 for individuals and $800 for couples. The credit starts to phase out for singles at $75,000 of adjusted gross income and disappears at $95,000. For couples, the range is $150,000 to $190,000.

     

    The tax code offers hundreds of deductions and credits, so make sure you take advantage of them if you qualify....

    Verizon Ditches "New Every 2" Upgrade Perk Sunday

    If you're switching to Verizon for the iPhone, it might be the last new phone you can afford

    Verizon's announcement Tuesday that it would soon be offering the new iPhone whipped many current iPhone owners into a froth of excitement and preparation.

    Until this week, the only cell phone company that carried the iPhone was AT&T. Many customers grew weary of the constant dropped calls and slow data service that AT&T has become known for.

    Now, many of those customers are eager to give their business to Verizon, who has long been known for their large coverage areas and reliable service.

    Seems like a no-brainer, right?

    Maybe not. Consumers who plan to jump ship to Verizon -- especially those who like to buy a brand new phone every two years at a discount -- should be warned exactly what they’re getting into.

    Contract changes

    Smartmoney.com reported Wednesday that Verizon has quietly made some changes to the terms of its upgrade policy. Most notably, as of January 16, 2011, new customers will not be enrolled in Verizon’s “New Every 2” incentive program at the end of their two-year contract.

    The New Every 2 program offers Verizon subscribers a credit of $30 to $100 toward a new phone every two years if they agree to sign a new, two-year contract.

    The NE2 program has been a perk many customers have enjoyed, considering cell phone technology evolves exponentially every year.

    Higher price

    But starting Sunday, that perk is gone -- unless new customers choose the pricier option of a one-year contract.

    (And we do mean "pricier." For example, as a new customer, choosing the HTC Droid Incredible with a two-year contract saves $200 right off the bat.)

    Existing Verizon customers are allowed to get one more “NE2” upgrade if they’re currently eligible for it this year. (Whether they’ll be able to use their last NE2 upgrade towards the new iPhone is yet to be seen, however Verizon’s Support Twitter account recently tweeted they could.)

    That’s all well and good for existing customers, but what about customers who are only a few months into their new, two-year contracts? Or those who haven’t even signed up yet? They’re apparently out of luck.

    Interestingly, Verizon appears to have been planning this since before Tuesday‘s big iPhone announcement.

    The tech blog AndroidCentral.com posted a screen cap of training material sent out to Verizon employees, announcing the policy change back on January 4, 2011.

    Consumer quandry

    So, what does this mean for consumers signing up with Verizon for the new iPhone?

    Once their two-year contract is up, and the newest iPhone undoubtedly hits the market, customers will most likely have to pay full retail price for it -- or any other phone, for that matter -- even if they agree to stay with Verizon for another two years.

    For people who like to stay current with new phone technology, it could be a wallet-draining move.

    Verizon Ditches "New Every 2" Upgrade Perk SundayIf you're switching to Verizon for the iPhone, it might be the last new phone you can afford...

    Warning: Extraterrestrials May Be Like Us

    Scientists warn that Darwinian evolution probably operates on other worlds, if any

    For just about as long as anyone can remember, we've been gazing into the sky, wondering if there is life on other planets and, if so, when we might hear from our intergalatic brothers and sisters. In particular, we've wondered if extraterrestrials will be like us.

    We'd better hope not, researchers warn in a new study.

    Evolution on alien worlds most likely will have followed the Darwinian model, meaning that the species that rise to the top will be the ones that are best at violence, exploitation and generally thuggish behavior.

    They'll be like us, in other words.

    The cautionary note is sounded as part of an extraterrestrial-themed edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A published today. The scientists urge that a branch of the United Nations must be given responsibility for "supra-Earth affairs" and formulate a plan for how to deal with extraterrestrials.

    The UN branch would be expected to establish structures similar to those proposed for dealing with threats from near-Earth objects, such as asteroids, that might be on a collision course with our planet.

    In other words, said Simon Conway Morris, a professor of evolutionary palaeobiology at Cambridge University, those planning for alien contact should prepare for the worst.

    “If intelligent aliens exist, they will look just like us, and given our far from glorious history, this should give us pause for thought," wrote Morris.

    Effect on religion

    Others writing in the special edition of the journal said the sudden appearance of extraterrestrial life would have major implications for the world's religions. Might they collapse?

    “Are religious believers Earth-centric, so that contact with ET would de-centre and marginalise our sense of self-importance?” asked Ted Peters, a professor of systematic theology at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in California.

    After working the problem for awhile, though, Peters concludes that theologians would probably not be out of a job, and in fact might be busier than ever.

    "Traditional theologians must then become astrotheologians ... What I forecast is this: contact with extraterrestrial intelligence will expand the existing religious vision that all of creation … is the gift of a loving and gracious God," he speculated.

     

     

    Warning: Extraterrestrials May Be Like Us. Scientists warn that Darwinian evolution probably operates on other worlds, if any....

    January Is A Critical Month For Identity Theft

    Keep an eye on your mailbox

    More than 11 million people each year become victims of identity theft. Often, that theft occurs at the beginning of the year -- in January.

    While media attention focuses on cybercrime, consumers need to remember that identity thieves are still taking advantage of one of the oldest ways to hijack your identity: stealing from your mailbox.

    Because of the extensive use of the mail to commit identity theft and credit fraud, the Postal Inspection Service has become a leading agency in investigating these crimes, according to a 2009 USPIS publication.

    Why January?

    Why is January so dangerous? Because this is the month that employers, banks and credit card companies mail out all of their year-end documents, including W-2s, 1099 forms, credit card summaries, and brokerage statements.  Additionally, on any given day, there are more than one million credit cards in the mail stream, part of the 700 million pieces of mail delivered daily.

    People don’t understand that “walkers” follow mail carriers and look through your mail for any bonanza they can find.  Mail thieves know the prime time is between 9 am and 3 pm.  

    Others take advantage of the dark of night and/or consumers’ tendencies of not checking mailboxes each day.  Some thieves even go so far as to open the envelopes, copy the documents, then reseal your mail and place it in your box again a day later. 

    Precautions

    The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) recommends the following precautions:

    • Get a P.O. Box at a US Post Office and use this for sensitive mail. The Post Office does background checks on employees and uses surveillance equipment.  Note:  If you use a service at a store with mail boxes, it is considered delivered once it enters the store. 
    • During this critical month, have your mail held at the post office, with photo identification required for pick up.  This is similar to a “vacation” hold.
    • Don’t use the excuse that you always get the mail when it arrives.  Postal deliveries are not always at the same time and you can’t make sure you are standing next to your box at the right moment.  That 30-second window is all a thief needs.
    • Keep a monthly calendar of when items arrive and if they seem delayed, call the sender to find out why.  If you suspect mail theft, call the Postal Inspector’s Office immediately.  Do not report mail theft to your local Postmaster.
    • Consider installing a strong locked mailbox. 
    Identity theft is a growing threat, especially at the beginning of the year....

    Despite Law, College Students Still Targets of Credit Card Offers

    The CARD Act was designed to protect students from credit card debt

    As if college students didn’t have enough debt from student loans, it appears credit card companies are still targeting them even though the CARD Act prohibits such offers to anyone under 21.

    A recent survey of 300 undergraduates done by University of Houston Law Center finds that most of them have received credit card offers. Houston University Professor Jim Hawkins, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal said “there are some things that haven't changed."

    Student Solicitation Ban

    The CARD Act took effect in February, 2009 and was designed to stop solicitations that lured in students and then left them buried under heavy credit-card debt when they left school. Under the rules, banks and card issuers were banned from offering credit cards to anyone under the age of 21, unless they have a qualified co-signer or proof of sufficient income to repay the debt.

    According to the survey, 76 percent of those surveyed under the age of 21 said they had received a credit-card offer since the beginning of 2010 and 73 percent of freshmen say they saw credit card issuers marketing to students off campus. As for the income requirement, 29 percent claimed their student loans as part of the income they reported to the credit card companies in order to get the cards.

    Also, 47 percent of freshman reported seeing credit card companies offering tangible gifts on and around campus, another violation of the CARD Act.

    Loopholes

    Hawkins said the CARD Act should have made it much less likely for freshmen to have seen advertising because the law has been in effect the entire time the freshmen have been in college. However, with so many loopholes in CARD, credit card companies still have easy access to young consumers.

    "It concerns me that the marketing hasn't abated," Hawkins said in an interview with the Washington Post.  "I think one answer would be to ban marketing to college students completely. If we really think it's important not to market to students, why not make it easier by imposing an absolute prohibition on marketing rather than imposing certain rules?"

    Moreover, college students will be paying back more debt from their loans than ever before.  For the first time ever, total student loan debt has outpaced total credit card debt.  Student loan debt is said to be increasing at a rate of $2,800 per second and is now around $880 billion. 

    Students are still targets of credit card companies despite the CARD Act’s ruling that prohibits offers by mail to anyone under 21....

    Illinois Attorney General Steps Up Fight Against Crib Bumpers

    Madigan urges manufacturers to halt production of potentially harmful crib padding

    Last month, Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a warning to parents and caregivers of infants and small children about crib bumpers. The pillow-like lining used to keep baby’s head away from the sides of the crib can pose serious risks of injury and death due to suffocation or strangulation.

    On Wednesday, Madigan called on the national industry trade group overseeing manufacturers of crib bumpers, the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA), to push for a halt to the production and sale of bumper pads across the country.

    Danger posed

    Madigan said babies could be hurt or killed by their crib bumpers in any number of ways: rolling against it, pressing their faces against it, wedging their heads between the pad and the mattress or crib side, or getting the tie that secures the bumper to the crib wrapped around their necks.

    “The JPMA and its manufacturers cannot sit by and wait for regulators to decide how, and if, crib bumpers should be used,” Madigan said. “Their disregard for the danger posed by these products creates a very real danger.”

    Back in December, the Attorney General alerted parents and caregivers to the hazards bumpers pose and urged them to remove these products from their homes to prevent tragedy.

    She also sent a letter to the JPMA urging the group to take immediate action to address bumper hazards with its manufacturer members.

    Madigan demanded then that the JPMA release results of a study it commissioned to investigate the dangers of crib bumpers.

    The study has yet to be published as the JPMA internally reviews the report.

    Production halt demanded

    As a result of JPMA’s inaction, the AG is calling on the group to halt production and sale of bumpers while the Consumer Product Safety Commission analyzes the products’ appropriate use, if any at all.

    According to Madigan, the JPMA has failed to appropriately respond in light of these deaths.

    “One infant death due to bumper pad use is too many. We must act now to remove bumpers from store shelves, stop production and work to educate caregivers to this threat,” Madigan said.

    Since 2008, the National Center for Child Death Review has received reports of 14 infants who have died from suffocation caused by crib bumpers.

    Mobilizing

    Last month, Madigan partnered with the Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Kids in Danger, the American SIDS Institute, SIDS of Illinois and the Canadian Health Department to alert caregivers to this danger.


    Madigan urged parents and caregivers to take the time to review her Rest Assured Guide to determine whether they have other dangerous children’s items that have been recalled in their homes.

    The  guide provides information to consumers about cribs or other sleep-related items for children from 2007 to date. To obtain a copy of the guide, call the Attorney General’s Product Recall Hotline at 1-888-414-7678 (TTY: 1-800-964-3013).

    Illinois Attorney General Steps Up Fight Against Crib BumpersMadigan urges manufacturers to halt production of potentially harmful crib padding...

    Hybrid-Style Start-Stop Systems Are Big Fuel Savers

    Automakers under pressure to hit 35.5 mpg standard by 2016

    It may seem like a long time until 2016, but not if you're an auto manufacturer. In just five short years, new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations will require automakers to achieve a fleetwide 35.5 miles per gallon standard.

    To the average consumer, getting better fuel mileage usually means getting a smaller, less powerful car or even spending big bucks to get a hybrid or all-electric vehicle.

    But big leaps in fuel economy don't happen all at once. There are lots of baby steps that, taken together, can achieve big results.

    One that's capturing a lot of attention in Detroit these days is what's called “start-stop” accelerating. Very simply, it means that when you come to a full stop and keep your foot on the brake, the engine shuts down. Take your foot off the brake and it starts again.

    That's what hybrids do, you say? Yes it is but there's no reason stop-start has to be restricted to hybrids, assuming you have enough faith in your car to trust it to start each time it's asked to do so.

    Ford said late last month that it will start adding stop-start to nonhybrid U.S. cars and SUVs in 2012. And General Motors is introducing stop-start for the 2012-modelBuick LaCrosse. GM is calling it “e-Assist” and it's expected to spread quickly to other GM models.

    As is often the case with fuel-saving techniques, stop-start is already fairly common in Europe, where gasoline is much more expensive than it is here. Even such high-end models as the Porsche Cayenne SUV and Panamera sedan feature stop-start in their European models, as do the Volkswagen Passat and Golf.

    Ford also uses stop-start in its hybrid-powered Escape and Fusion.

    Jeff Jowett, manager of North American powertrain forecasting for IHS Automotive, a consulting firm in a Detroit suburb, told trade magazine Automotive News this week that he expects the stop-start installation rate to hit 13 percent in the U.S. By 2015 – and he predicts the European rate will leap from today's 18 percent to 65 percent in five years.

    Like all fuel-saving technologies, stop-start is not cheap to build. It requires a heavy-duty battery and starter, an electric auxiliary water pump and various software and sensor upgrades. But it definitely produces results.

    Ford estimates its stop-start system generates fuel savings of 4 to 10 percent, depending on driving conditions, all without affecting driving performance.

     

    Hybrid-Style Start-Stop Systems Are Big Fuel Savers. Automakers under pressure to hit 35.5 mpg standard by 2016. ...

    Oregon Sues Johnson & Johnson Over 'Phantom Recall' of Defective Motrin

    Company allegedly tried to secretly buy supplies off shelves to avoid negative publicity

    Oregon Attorney General John Kroger today announced a lawsuit alleging that Johnson & Johnson and two subsidiaries exposed consumers to defective supplies of Motrin by delaying public disclosure of the problem for more than a year before finally conducting a public recall in 2010.

    Instead of an immediate public recall, Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries allegedly attempted to quietly remove Motrin containers from store shelves. The “phantom recall” failed to notify consumers who had already purchased the defective product and exposed additional consumers by delaying public disclosure for more than a year.

    Companies that break the rules and put consumers at risk will be held accountable,” said Kroger.

    McNeil-PPC and McNeil Healthcare, subsidiaries of Johnson & Johnson, discovered in late 2008 that supplies of Motrin sold in 8- and 24-caplet containers were defective, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in Multnomah County Circuit Court.  The containers were sold at gas stations, truck stops and convenience stores. In Oregon, the stores were scattered from the Portland area to Medford.

    Company tests indicated that certain Motrin supplies failed to dissolve properly. As a result, consumers might not receive the expected dose of ibuprofen, which could lead to “a worsening of pain, fever or inflammation,” according to company documents submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

    McNeil notified the FDA. But instead of disclosing the existence of the defective Motrin to the public and conducting a recall, McNeil allegedly hired contractors to go into stores in early 2009 to secretly buy the product without telling wholesalers, retailers or the public.

    Buyers were instructed not to tell retailers the purpose of their purchases, according to company documents:

    You should simply ‘act’ like a regular customer while making these purchases. THERE MUST BE NO MENTION OF THIS BEING A RECALL OF THE PRODUCT! If asked, simply state that your employer is checking the distribution chain of this product and needs to have some of it purchased for the project.”

    In July 2009, one of the buyers in Oregon became concerned about the secrecy of the recall and reported the phantom recall to the Oregon Board of Pharmacy.  The Oregon Board of Pharmacy notified the FDA.

    Although the phantom recall came to light in mid-2009, McNeil did not announce an official recall until February 2010.

    Despite the efforts of the phantom recall, a total of 787 eight-count containers of Motrin sold byOregon retailers remain unaccounted for. 

    The lawsuit alleges multiple violations of Oregons Unlawful Trade Practices Act (UTPA). Among other things, the UTPA prohibits employing unconscionable tactics, making certain false or misleading representations, or failing to disclose certain information. Each violation of the UTPA carries a maximum penalty of $25,000.

     

     

    Oregon Sues Johnson & Johnson Over 'Phantom Recall' of Defective Motrin. Company allegedly tried to secretly buy supplies off shelves....

    Subprime Has Slithered Back into Credit Cards

    Subprime credit-card offers are on the rise again

    Do banks have short-term memory problems or has greed once again taken control? The dust has barely settled on what’s left of a devastated housing market, its demise caused in no small part by a flood of sub-prime mortgages to people who simply couldn’t make their mortgage payments. And now, the same thing could happen again with credit cards.

    For the past two years, ever since the sub-prime mortgage debacle, banks have been acting somewhat responsibly by making it impossible or at least difficult for people with poor credit scores, those considered to be sub-prime borrowers, to borrow money.

    But now, according to CardHub.com, the sub-prime category is no longer taboo. In fact, it says the number of credit card solicitations being sent to people with FICO scores of between 620 and 660 is up 300% in the last six months.

    The credit card comparison website says Capital One and HSBC are among the most prevalent lenders going after subprime borrowers because they can charge them higher fees and interest rates.

    Wasn’t this the first phase of what got us into trouble three or four years ago? What’s that famous saying, “history repeats itself because people forget?” Is it possible the banks have forgotten the recent past? Or do they believe that this time it will be different?

    Subprime has always been an important market segment for banks because it generates more revenue than from more credit-worthy customers. They get to charge late fees and annual fees along with higher interest rates. It’s estimated that on average, lenders received 70% of their revenue from subprime borrowers.

    The financial crisis and credit freeze triggered by the implosion in the sub-prime mortgage market forced banks to write off billions in losses of bad debt. But now that they’ve been bailed out and delinquency rates are on the decline, credit card issuers aren’t as worried and once again see these risky borrowers as a way to make more money. At least until they start to default again. 

    It wasn’t that long ago when banks would only offer 0% APRs on credit cards to people who had credit scores of 720 or higher. But now banks say credit conditions are improving. Why would that be? The job market hasn’t recovered. The housing market hasn’t recovered. The economy is still limping along and yet the banks say credit conditions have improved.

    Are they deluding themselves, or do they know something we don’t? Perhaps, if they make credit available to more people, this will in itself improve the credit market. Could that possibly be the answer?

    According to direct-marketing data tracker Mintel Comperemedia.com, one in four mail solicitations sent from issuers for new credit cards are sent to subprime and near-prime borrowers.  Andrew Davidson, a senior vice president at Mintel, was quoted by SmartMoney magazine as saying “the pitch often offers solace, assuring such borrowers that they're entitled to a new beginning or that their blemished credit history doesn't mean they can't get a credit card.”

    Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of CardHub.com, says banks are hedging their risk with card terms that aren't all that favorable. The average interest rate for subprime accountholders is about 20%, up from 17.6% a year ago and nearly all of these cards come with an annual fee of $39 on average. He says the exception is Capital One's Standard Platinum card that is free the first year and $19 per year after that. The one saving grace is that the average credit lines for subprime borrowers are often very low, sometimes just $300 to $500.

    But then how many sub-prime mortgages had to be sold and then defaulted on before that market caved in? 

     

    It’s back to the future with sub-prime borrowing, which helped create the financial crisis, only instead of mortgages this time it’s with credit cards...

    Consumer Credit Delinquency Rate Improvements Lose Steam

    But after a third quarter slowdown, momentum is likely to pick up in the fourth quarter

    The labor market hit the pause button in the third quarter of 2010, temporarily halting the momentum that had consumer credit delinquency rates improving in previous quarters, according to the American Bankers Association's (ABA) Consumer Credit Delinquency Bulletin

    The results were largely unchanged from the second quarter and the composite ratio -- which tracks delinquencies in eight closed-end installment loan categories -- was virtually flat, rising just one basis point from the second quarter to 3.01 percent of all accounts in the third quarter.

    Bank card delinquencies were stable, after dropping significantly over the last year -- rising a mere two basis points to 3.64 percent of all accounts, which remains well below the 15-year average (3.92 percent).  The ABA report defines a delinquency as a late payment that is 30 days or more overdue.

    No surprises

    ABA Chief Economist James Chessen said he isn't surprised that delinquency rate improvements slowed as the job market stumbled in the third quarter, with public sector job cuts (463,000) overwhelming private sector job gains (372,000).   "The economy just skipped a beat in the third quarter," Chessen said.  "It doesn't move in a straight line and neither do consumer credit delinquencies."

    Delinquency rates showed slight upward and downward movement depending on the loan category. RV, marine, property improvement, home equity lines of credit, and non-card revolving loan delinquency rates showed improvement.  Auto indirect, bank card and mobile home loans were virtually unchanged.  Only personal, auto direct, and home equity loans delinquency rates rose.

    Better days ahead

    "I think we'll see momentum return and delinquencies improve over the next six months," Chessen said.  "There's less uncertainty about the economy now, and consumers and businesses feel more confident.  Improvements hinge on a consistent increase in new jobs.  We are also encouraged by lower consumer debt levels and higher personal savings rates.  This will help rebuild a sense of financial stability."

    The second quarter 2010 composite ratio is made up of the following eight closed-end loans.  All figures are seasonally adjusted based upon the number of accounts.

    CLOSED-END LOANS

    Decreased delinquencies:

    • Marine loan delinquencies fell from 2.20 percent to 2.04 percent.
    • Property improvement loan delinquencies fell from 1.35 percent to 1.23 percent.
    • RV loan delinquencies fell from 1.63 to 1.53 percent.

     

    Increased delinquencies:

    • Direct auto loan delinquencies rose from 1.67 percent to 1.74 percent.
    • Indirect auto loan delinquencies rose from 3.01 percent to 3.02 percent.
    • Home equity loan delinquencies rose from 3.97 percent to 4.05 percent.
    • Personal loan delinquencies rose from 3.55 percent to 3.68 percent.

     

    Unchanged delinquencies:

    • Mobile home loan delinquencies remained steady at 4.01 percent.

     

    In addition, ABA tracks three open-end loan categories:

    OPEN-END LOANS

    Decreased delinquencies:

    • Home equity lines of credit delinquencies fell from 1.81 percent to 1.74 percent.
    • Non-card revolving loan delinquencies fell from 1.21 percent to 1.09 percent.

     

    Increased delinquencies:

    • Bank card delinquencies rose from 3.62 percent to 3.64 percent.

     

    Consumer Tips

    For borrowers having trouble paying down debts, ABA advises taking action -- sooner rather than later -- to solve debt problems with the following tips:

    • Talk with creditors – the sooner you talk to them, the more options you have;
    • Don't charge more purchases until your problems are solved;
    • Avoid bankruptcy – it's a short-term solution with long-term consequences; and
    • Contact Consumer Credit Counseling Services at 1-800-388-2227.
    Consumer Credit Delinquency Rate Improvements Lose Steam But after a third quarter slowdown, momentum is likely to pick up in the fourth quarter ...

    National City Bank Customers Could See Overdraft Refunds

    Class action settlement would refund up to two months of overdraft charges

    National City Bank customers who were wrongfully charged for overdrafts would be eligible for refunds under a class action settlement tentatively approved by a Washington, D.C., judge.

    Judge John Bates gave preliminary approval to a $12 million settlement in a class action that allegedNational City improperly charged overdraft fees on debit card transactions and provided false information about account balances.

    The plaintiffs charged that National City, now owned by PNC, reordered debit transactions in a manner that depleted available funds as quickly as possible to increase overdraft fees.

    Settlement class members will receive $36 for each an eligible overdraft charge incurred on debit transactions between July 2004 and August 2010.

    The allegations in the lawsuit mirror the experiences of Veronica of Sauget, IL, who complained to ConsumerAffairs.com last January.

    “They get a little crazy with the overdraft fees meaning I can't pay my bills this month because I just paid enough in overdraft fees to pay someone's salary for the week,” she said.

    Kim of Milwuakee, WI, said the bank“charged me overdraft charges on my savings and checking, 3 times, for a $59 debit they put through twice … Now I'm out $75 for something they didn't even pay with overdraft protection that does not exist.”

    Under the terms of the agreement, class members can be compensated for an unlimited number of overdraft charges incurred in any two calendar months during the class period. The months do not have to be consecutive.

    Judge Bates said he restricted compensation to two months to prevent “chronic overdrafters … from being unjustly rewarded for their behavior.”

    The next hearing in the case, to determine the fairness of the settlement, is set for June 13.

    The full text of Bates' ruling is available online.

    National City Bank Customers Could See Overdraft Refunds...

    December's Online Retail Sales Up 12 Percent

    Consumers express preference for buying online

    Consumers increased their spending with online retailers in December by 12 percent over December 2009 levels, according to a new report from IBM. The findings expand on the company's earlier report that both Black Friday 2010 and Cyber Monday 2010 delivered strong double-digit growth over 2009.

    The report also bolsters the belief, suggested in previous reports, that consumer spending continues to migrate to the Internet.

    Online sales were up 12 percent, with consumers pushing the average order value up from $171.06 to $190.42 for an increase of 11.3 percent.

    Department stores and health and beauty

    Both department stores and health and beauty retailers continue to show growth in online sales that far outpace the online retail sector overall. Both sectors reported sales increases of approximately 23 percent, with department stores reporting an increase of 22.6 percent and healthy and beauty retailers reporting 23.3 percent.

    Jewelry retailers also reported a significant jump of 18.5 percent in sales, further evidence that upper income consumers are back to their free-spending ways.

    Consumers also continue to use mobile technology as a shopping tool. Throughout December, 5.6 percent of all site visits were initiated from a mobile device, a 19 percent increase over November 2010. Further, 5.5 percent of all online retail sales came from mobile devices, a seven percent increase over November 2010.

    Enticing consumers

    "Retailers did a tremendous job of enticing consumers to shop online with a variety of special promotions, guaranteed delivery dates, free or deeply discounted shipping, and up-to-date inventory information," said John Squire, chief strategy officer, IBM Coremetrics. "Consumers have come to value the ease and convenience of shopping whenever and wherever they please, and are increasingly turning to online sites to research and purchase a variety of products."

    While consumers shopping in brick and mortar stores decreased their use of credit cards to pay for purchases, online shoppers, of course, used credit cards almost exclusively, perhaps saving credit card companies from a dismal December.

    In a separate report, ComScore reported earlier this month that during the 49 days of the holiday shopping season, from Nov. 1 through Dec. 19, e-commerce spending on gift items increased to over $28 billion. That, it turns out, is also a 12 percent increase over 2009 levels.

     

    Online holiday spending rose 12 percent in December, according to a report by IBM....

    U.S. Is World's Biggest Source Of Spam

    Those annoying emails are coming from right here

    As any computer-user is aware, Spam is not just meat in a can, but the name given to all those emails cluttering your in-box, with enticements to grow body parts or get rich quick in the stock market.

    Most are merely annoying but some carry dangerous malware and computer viruses. Where do they come from?

    If you answered "Nigeria," because of that country's well-known 419 email scams, you would be wildly off the mark, according to the security experts at Sophos Software, who have compiled a "dirty dozen" list of countries that contribute more than their fare share of Spam email to the world. Nigeria isn't even on the list.

    "What many people haven't learnt is that the spammers don't use their own computers to send spam - instead they create botnets of compromised PCs around the world (also known as "zombies"), which they can remotely command to spew out unwanted marketing messages, malicious links and even launch distributed denial-of-service attacks," Graham Cluley, a Sophos Security experts, writes in his blog.

    That means Spam originates where there are the most infected computers, and according to Sophos, that's the United States. Here is the complete ranking:

    1. USA (18.83%)

    2. India (6.88%)

    3. Brazil (5.04%)

    4. Russia (4.64%)

    5. UK (4.54%)

    6. France (3.34%)

    7. Italy (3.17%)

    8. S. Korea (3.01%)

    9. Germany (2.99%)

    10. Vietnam (2.79%)

    11. Romania (2.25%)

    12. Spain (2.24%)

    Rest of the world (40.17%)

    "In all, we counted Spam being sent from an astonishing 232 countries around the world during the last quarter of 2010," Cluley writes. "So everyone, no matter where they are on the planet, should be taking more care of their personal computer's protection."

    Cluley also reports what appears to have been a drop in Spam levels since Christmas. He said some botnets that had been pumping out Spam have suddenly stopped. That's not necessarily good news, he says, since they may be using the botnets for other, more sinister, activities.

     

     

    The U.S. tops the list of Sophos Software's "dirty dozen" when it comes to Spam generators....

    Don't Forget the Homebuyers' Tax Credit

    Millions may be eligible for a credit of up to $6,500

    If you bought a home in the first part of 2010, you may be eligible for a hefty tax credit that should not be overlooked when you prepare your 2010 tax return.

    The original homebuyers' tax credit, which expired in 2009, covered only first-time buyers. When the law was extended, it was expanded to include not just first-time buyers, but also long-time residents who buy a new principal residence.

    If you fall into that category, you may be eligible for a credit of 10 percent of the purchase price up to a maximum credit of $6,500. A long-time resident is an individual who, with his or her spouse if married, has owned and used the same home as a principal residence for any period of five consecutive years during the 8-year period ending on the date of purchase of the new principal residence for which the credit is being claimed.

    Income Limitation

    The full credit will be available to taxpayers with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) up to $125,000, or $225,000 for joint filers. MAGI is your adjusted gross income plus the total of certain foreign earned income.

    Those with MAGI between $125,000 and $145,000, or $225,000 and $245,000 for joint filers, are eligible for a reduced credit. Those with higher incomes do not qualify.

    No credit is available if the purchase price of a home is more than $800,000; and a purchaser must be at least 18 years of age on the date of purchase. To claim the tax credit, the taxpayer must used Form 5405.

    Taxpayers who bought homes in 2009 or 2010 and sold them within a 36 month period that begins on the purchase date, must repay the credit. They also must repay the credit if they convert the home to a business or rental property or the lender forecloses on the home.

    The taxpayer repays the credit by including the amount of the credit as additional tax on the tax return for the year in which the repayment event occurs.

    However, taxpayers do not have to repay all or a portion of the credit under the following circumstances:

    • Taxpayers sell the home to someone who is not related to them, the repayment in the year of sale is limited to the amount of gain on the sale;
    • If the home is destroyed, condemned, or disposed of under threat of condemnation and the taxpayer acquires a new principal residence within 2 years of the event, the taxpayer does not have to repay the credit; and
    • If, as part of a divorce settlement, the home is transferred to a spouse or former spouse, the spouse who receives the home is responsible for repaying the credit if required.

     

     

    For those who bought a house in the first half of the year, there may be a big break on this year's taxes....

    How To Keep Your Kids Safe Online

    The FBI is offering an online safety program in schools

    Recent studies show that one in seven youngsters has experienced unwanted sexual solicitations online. One in three has been exposed to unwanted sexual material online. One in 11 has been harassed or bullied online.

    And as we all know, these are only some of the dangers that our kids face while surfing the Internet. How can we simultaneously protect them from these threats and enable them to take advantage of the positive things the web has to offer?

    Education program

    In addition to investigating online crimes targeting children, the FBI works to educate kids and their parents about the Internet -- sometimes sending cyber agents to visit schools as well as posting useful resources on our public website. The bureau also offers its Safe Online Surfing (SOS) program to schools to help students understand how to recognize, report, and avoid online dangers.

    The SOS program began in the bureau's Miami office six years ago, when Special Agent Jim Lewis -- who saw first-hand how easily kids could be victimized online -- approached Community Outreach Specialist Jeff Green, about his desire to share information about Internet safety with school students.

    The Miami office turned to nearby Nova Southeastern University for assistance with creating an online Internet safety program that that also tested students on what they learned. About 400 South Florida students took part initially, and according to Green, feedback from students and teachers was positive. “Kids are surfing the Internet anyway," he said, "so we were just using a vehicle they were comfortable with.” 

    Spreading the word

    Over the years, other FBI field offices began offering the SOS program with the help of their community outreach specialists. By October 2010, the Cyber Division at FBI Headquarters -- which manages the Innocent Images National Initiative, focused on online child predators -- took the SOS program under its wing and made it a national one. Today, more than 90,000 children in 41 states have completed it.

    Innocent Images is an FBI intelligence-driven, proactive, multiagency investigative operation focused on combating the proliferation of child pornography/child sexual exploitation facilitated by computers. It also includes an international task force representing more than 40 countries that helps address the problem globally.

    The program has grown tremendously between fiscal years 1996 and 2009:

    • 2,435 percent increase in cases opened (113 to 2,865)
    • 1,171 percent increase in informations/indictments (99 to 1,159)
    • 3,421 increase in arrests, locates, & summons (68 to 2,326)
    • 1,832 percent increase in convictions/pretrial diversions (68 to 1,246)

     

    From fiscal year 1996 to 2009, Innocent Images has recorded a total of:

    • 25,727 opened cases
    • 8,958 informations/indictments
    • 14,537 arrests, locates, and summons
    • 9,054 convictions/pretrial diversion

     

    How it works

    At each grade level -- third through eighth -- students begin by taking pre-quizzes to test their overall knowledge. Then, a scavenger hunt takes them to pre-screened websites where they get Internet safety and cyber citizenship information. And finally, they take timed post-quizzes to demonstrate what they’ve learned.

    The program also promotes a fun competition between schools: every month – from September through May -- schools with the highest scoring students in the nation are awarded the FBI-SOS Trophy.

    Topics covered in the program run the cyber gamut: depending on the age of the students, they might learn about password security, cyberbullying, virus protection, copyright issues, online predators, e-mail, chat rooms, social networking sites, when to talk to parents or teachers about a threat, and appropriate uses of cell phones and gaming devices.

    Of the SOS program, Cyber Division Assistant Director Gordon Snow said, “The Internet is a powerful resource for our youth, but it also presents opportunities for those who would attempt to do them harm…the Safe Online Surfing program is designed to teach young people what they need to know to avoid falling victim to individuals who want to take advantage of their youth and innocence.”

    Schools interested in signing up for the Safe Online Surfing program should contact the community outreach specialist in their local FBI office.

    How To Keep Your Kids Safe OnlineThe FBI is offering an online safety program in schools...

    Nevada Issues Alert On Property Deed Service

    Consumers aggressively marketed service they can do themselves almost for free

    It's not exactly illegal to charge consumers a fee for a service they really don't need and can do for themselves for much less, but it can certainly be argued that it's taking advantage of people.

    Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto says consumers shouldn't fall for it. In this instance she's referring to a "service" offered by Title Compliance, a company using a Las Vegas post office box.

    The company is mailing notices to Nevada residents regarding their property deeds. The company says it will acquire a copy of the homeowner's deed for a payment of $157.00. It also states that, due to the large number of transactions, this would be the only notice of their service.

    Unneeded service

    For starters, most property owners most likely have a copy of their deed, which they received when they purchased the property. If not, the document is readily available at the county courthouse.

    Masto says Nevada homeowners should be aware that property deeds and supporting documents can be obtained from the local county recorder's office where these documents where originally filed for much less than the service being advertised, usually just a small copying fee.

    "Consumers must be aware that official documents can be obtained from federal, state or local sources for little or no cost by applying directly to the agency involved," Masto said.

    She says the scheme is not exactly new and has been tried over and over again in nearly all areas of the country.

    "Many companies offer to supply documents and papers for a fee, taking advantage of unsuspecting or uninformed consumers."    

    Do your homework

    Before sending money to a company offering services dealing with government agencies, consumers should always contact the government agency named first. Consumers will often find the services can be obtained directly from that agency with little or no cost. 

    Masto says it pays to do a little research before doing business with a firm that is new to you. By entering the company's name in a Google, Bing or Yahoo search, or by searching on ConsumerAffairs.com. you'll often find information that the company is operating in a fraudulent or dishonest manner, she says. When dealing with a non-local company, it is wise to do your internet search homework first.

    While no determination has been made regarding the legitimacy of Title Compliance, any advertisement that urges quick action should raise red flags, she says.

    Nevada's Attorney General is cautioning consumers about paying a company for a copy of their deed....

    How To Eat Healthy On A Budget

    And get the most nutrition for your money

    There’s a common misperception that it cost more money to eat healthy. And that is often given as an excuse by those on a limited budget who turn to fast food and other relatively inexpensive snack foods as to why their diets lack key nutrients.

    In reality, eating healthy doesn't mean you have to spend more money at the supermarket.  In fact, a new guide in the March 2011 issue of ShopSmart magazine has found a variety of food and drinks that are nutritious even for those on strict food budget.

    Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief of ShopSmart, says “all it takes is a few tweaks to your shopping list. For example, just grabbing black beans over white ones or canned tomatoes instead of fresh can make a difference."

    ShopSmart's "Get the Most Nutrition for Your Money" includes healthful food bargains grouped by nutrient -- antioxidants, fiber, protein, and more -- to make meal planning easier, prep tips for making tasty dishes with 25 healthful food bargains, six super seasonings to fire up the flavor of your dishes, and storage advice so you can stretch your dollars even more. Here’s a sample:

    1. ANTIOXIDANTS

    Cheap ways to get a super nutrient fix

    • Cabbage  (16  cents  per  serving;  $2.50  for  one  medium  head): Cabbage is loaded with Vitamins A  and C. Try an Asian-inspired  slaw of shredded cabbage, cashews, and a lime juice and sesame oil vinaigrette. Wrap in a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator to store for about two weeks.
    • Canned unsweetened pumpkin  (38 cents per serving;  $1.32 per 15-ounce can):  The bright orange hue is a tip-off to high levels of beta carotene, which might help protect vision. Substitute it for sugar in muffins and blend it with Greek yogurt for a pudding-like treat. Stock up when it's on sale; cans will keep for about two years.

    2. CALCIUM

    Feed your bones for less than $1 per serving

    • Nonfat dry milk powder (17 cents per reconstituted cup; $5.99 per 26-ounce container): This is just milk that has had the water removed, so it equals the calcium and protein of regular milk for about 10  cents less a serving. Stir spoonfuls  of  milk powder  into casseroles and mashed potatoes. Like regular milk, reconstituted milk must be refrigerated.
    • Plain yogurt (70 cents per serving; $8.39 per case of 12): It's a quick and handy way to get calcium, and is also brimming with protein and good bacteria that aid digestion. For flavored yogurt at a fraction of the calories, stir in vanilla extract or an all-fruit spread. Yogurt also makes an excellent swap for cream in soups and desserts or sour cream on potatoes. Keep refrigerated for two to three weeks.

    3. FIBER

    Stay regular for less than 50 cents a serving

    • Quinoa  (50  cents per serving; $3.99 per 12-ounce package):  Quick-cooking quinoa has almost 50 percent more fiber than brown rice, plus a dose of protein. Simmer with milk and honey for a comforting hot breakfast,  or use quinoa in place of rice. Keep in a cool, dark place in an airtight container for about one year.
    • Popcorn  (12 cents per serving; $1.89 per 28-ounce bag): Popcorn eaters get about 22 percent  more fiber than non-popcorn eaters. Don't pile on calories with butter: spritz air- popped corn with cooking spray and toss with chili powder or oregano. To keep kernels from drying, store in an airtight container.

    4. PROTEIN

    Fuel up for as little as 18 cents

    • Dried black beans  (24 cents per  serving; $1.45 for 16-ounce bag):  All beans are  stellar sources of protein, fiber, and blood-pressure-friendly potassium, but dark beans pack more nutrients. For a more healthful taco filling, use less lean ground beef and mix in mashed-up beans. Keep dried beans airtight to have them last for years.
    • Peanuts in the shell (12 cents per serving; $1.99 for 16 ounces): They're a cheap protein fix, and they shell out more than 30 essential nutrients, including a phytochemical linked to a reduction in heart disease and cancer risk. Coat fish fillets with finely-chopped nuts before baking, or keep some in your office or car for a terrific pick-me-up. Refrigerate nuts in the shell for up to nine months.

    OMEGA-3

    Heart-healthy bargains

    • Frozen  shrimp  ($1.36;  $14.99  per  2-pound  bag):  Frozen  shrimp  is  a  low-calorie  and relatively cheap source of omega-3s. For a quick meal, sauté shrimp with garlic and finely diced sun-dried tomatoes and serve on salad greens. Stash in the freezer as soon as you get home, and use within a year.
    • Flaxseed (11 cents per serving; $1.79 per 16-ounce bag): This mighty seed has omega-3s and other fatty acids linked to immune-system strength, cardiovascular health, and cancer prevention. Whole flaxseeds pass through the body undigested, so grind them in the coffee grinder first, and mix the seeds with spices to sprinkle on beans, grains, and salads. Store flaxseed in a dark, dry, and cool place for two to three months.

    Launched in 2006 by Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, ShopSmart features product reviews, shopping tips on how to get the most out of products and "best of the best" lists.

    You don’t have to be rich to eat a diet wealthy in nutrients...

    Getting Help From State and Local Governments With Your Mortgage Down Payment

    More programs being offered for low- and middle-income home buyers

    The National Association of Independent Housing Professionals says a growing number of state and local governments are now offering what are called "down payment assistance programs" which are grants or low- and no-interest loans to first-time buyers or those who haven't owned a house in a few years.

    The president of the advocacy group, Marc Savitt, estimates the number of programs to be somewhere around 1,000 nationally, and has increased 3% to 5% in the last six months.

    At the same time, more banks are now willing to work with borrowers who need down payment assistance, even though these buyers were considered too risky just 18 months ago.

    State housing agencies say they're seeing the biggest spike in lender interest since before the housing downturn. Florida's down payment assistance agency now works with 65 lenders, up 12% from a year ago and the number of participating lenders in North Carolina has grown 22%.

    To qualify, you have to be considered a low- and middle-income buyers who has either never owned a home, or hasn't owned one in a few years . The income limits vary from state to state as well as locality. But once you qualify, the benefits can be substantial.

    The programs offer up to $80,000 in loans with interest rates from 0% to 2% to people with little or no money to put down. And then, because participants often have to get their mortgage through the programs' preferred lenders, the primary mortgage rates are also low, often 0.75% to 1% lower than average rates. That can be a better deal than Federal Housing Administration-insured mortgages, which require annual mortgage insurance and an upfront fee, and may have higher interest rates.

    Good idea?

    Even for cash-strapped states like California, these programs are apparently worth the cost. This is a way to boost homeownership, which some economists say leads to more jobs and higher home prices. Not everyone agrees.

    Keith Gumbinger, a vice president at HSH.com, which tracks mortgage data, says that borrowers who “don't put any of their skin in the game – or very little of it – are more risky." He points out that such borrowers tend to have higher incidents of default—even if they have prime credit.

    Scott Stern, CEO of Lenders One, has a different view. The mortgage banker argues that assisted buyers are a lower-risk proposition these days, mostly because banks are still lending to borrowers with high credit scores and detailed income documentation.

    There is no official database of all the programs in the country, but SmartMoney magazine asked mortgage lenders and realtors for help in compiling a list of programs. It found seven that were relatively generous.

    1. California Housing Finance Agency's School Facility Fee Down Payment Assistance Program

    What You Get : First-time home buyers or buyers who haven't owned a property for at least three years purchasing a newly-constructed single-family home or condo receive a grant for $5,180 on average for down payment, closing costs or to pay for mortgage costs. The income restrictions vary by county; most generous in Santa Clara at up to $124,200 for family of four and there’s no limit on the purchase price.  The payback terms are exceptional. The grant is forgiven for buyers who stay in the home for at least three years.

    2. California's State Teachers' Retirement System -- the 80/17 Program

    What You Get : Members of CalSTRS, public school and community college teachers and employees, can get two mortgages -one for 80% of the purchase price and a second for 17%; borrowers put down 3% of their own money. There is no income restriction and combined mortgages can total up to $650,000. Payback terms see interest rates fluctuating and are currently 5.375% and 6.375% and payments on the second mortgage are deferred for the first five years

    3. Florida's Housing Finance Corporation Down Payment Assistance Program

    What You Get : First-time home buyers can get up to $7,500 in down payment assistance. The income restrictions vary by county; in Palm Beach, that's up to $75,400 for a family of four. The purchase price caps at $466,125 and repayment is deferred for up to 30 years at 0% interest or in some cases until the house is sold.

    4. New York City's Department of Housing Preservation and Development's HomeFirst

    What You Get : First-time home buyers can get up to $25,000 for down payment or closing costs for a one- to four-family home, condo or coop. There are strict income restrictions with a cap at 63,450 for a family of four. The purchase price is up to $729,750. As for payback terms, a zero-interest loan; borrowers who live in their home for at least 10 years don't need to pay back.

    5. North Carolina Housing Finance Agency's Down Payment Assistance

    What You Get : First-time home buyers are those who haven't owned a home in three years can get up to $8,000 for down payment or closing costs. Income restrictions vary by county; in Mecklenburg where Charlotte is located, it's $53,750 for a family of four. Purchase price is capped at $220,000. Repayment is deferred for up to 30 years at 0% interest or until house is sold, refinanced, turned into a rental property, or the mortgage goes into default at which time full payment is owed.

    6. Mayor's Office of Housing of the City and County of San Francisco Down Payment Assistance Loan Program

    What You Get : First-time home buyers who've never owned a property can get up to $100,000 or 20% of the purchase price, whichever is less, for a single-family house, condo or co-op. Income is capped at $119,300 for a family of four and the top purchase price is up to $637,645. The loan is deferred for 40 years at 0% interest from the date of purchase or until the property is sold or rented; the amount due is the size of the loan plus the appreciation of the property.

    7. West Virginia Housing Development Fund's Homeowner's Assistance Program

    What You Get : Buyers who haven't owned a home in three years can get up to $15,000 for down payment or closing costs in Jefferson County, a popular hub for Washington D.C. commuters. Income is restricted to $102,900 for three or more person household and the purchase price is capped at $656,775. A 15-year loan that's deferred for the first five years at 0% interest and shifts to 2% amortized during the last 10 years; if the home is sold or turned into a rental property before this period, borrowers repay the balance in full.

    State and local governments are offering more assistance programs for low and middle income home buyers who need help with their down payment...

    Delaware Sues Serenity Travel, Destination Vacations

    State says travel clubs defrauded consumers

    The Delaware Attorney General’s Office says it is moving forward with lawsuits against two travel companies that allegedly defrauded dozens of Delawareans.  According to complaints from consumers, Serenity Travel and Destination Vacation International failed to provide promised discounts and incentives to consumers who joined their travel clubs, and failed to pay refunds to consumers and change their business practices under a binding May 2010 agreement with the office.

    “Delawareans deserve to be treated with fairness by the companies they do business with,” said Timothy Mullaney, Sr., Director of the Attorney General’s Fraud and Consumer Protection Division. “We’re taking action in court to ensure that customers receive the refunds they deserve and to protect all consumers from deceptive and misleading marketing practices.”

    The Attorney General’s Office received more than 70 consumer complaints between June 2009 and May 2010 alleging the travel companies offered discounts on cruises, lodging and other travel products if they attended the companies’ marketing presentations, but then either failed to provide promised incentives or required customers to pay previously undisclosed fees.  

    Customers also complained they were pressured to pay to join the travel clubs before they could research the companies, were not provided price quotes at marketing presentations, and that the companies opened credit cards in their names without permission. Serenity, customers said, claimed to have a strong rating from the Better Business Bureau when, in fact, the company had lost its accreditation. Customers also complained of difficulty acquiring the services the clubs advertised.

    In May, 2010 the companies agreed to reimburse within 30 days the consumers who had filed complaints for the fees they paid to join their travel club.  The companies also agreed to provide additional customers with discounts that were promised but never delivered, change their marketing practices by clearly disclosing all of the terms and conditions for receiving incentives through written promotions, oral presentations, and the companies’ websites, provide fixed pricing; and make only truthful statements regarding their Better Business Bureau status. 

    After the companies failed to provide the promised refunds to a number of consumers, the Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against the companies in August, 2010 seeking customer refunds they had not yet paid along with additional penalties for violating the Delaware Consumer Protection Act.  Moreover, since the May, 2010 settlement agreement, additional consumers have complained that Serenity has failed to change its marketing practices, as required, by continuing to:

    • advertise "gifts" and free travel incentives that were never provided and in fact carried fees
    • engage in high pressure sales techniques such as substantial "one day only" price drops
    • misrepresent their accreditation with the Better Business Bureau
    • opened credit cards without the consumers' full knowledge and consent, and
    • fail to fulfill the type and price of travel available to Serenity members

     

    Ongoing attempts to secure the unpaid refunds have failed and the Department will be moving forward with this lawsuit as well as a new lawsuit alleging continued deceptive trade practices, including purporting to buy consumers' timeshares in exchange for the consumer joining Serenity's club, requiring additional fees to transfer the timeshare, and using major travel brands on advertising and marketing when Serenity was not in fact affiliated with those brands. 

    Delaware Sues Serenity Travel, Destination Vacations. State says travel clubs defrauded consumers....

    GE, Professional Series Brand Dehumidifiers Recalled

    Short circuit creates a fire hazard

    About 198,000 GE and Professional Series brand dehumidifiers are being recalled. A component in the dehumidifier's compressor can short circuit, posing a fire hazard to consumers.

    Midea and GE have received a total of 14 reports of incidents involving smoke and fumes emitting from the unit and eight reports of fires. In six of the reported fire incidents, property damage extended beyond the unit. No injuries have been reported.

    This recall involves 30-pint and 40-pint portable dehumidifiers manufactured between November 2006 and August 2007, and during April 2008. The dehumidifiers are white with a front-loading water bucket. "GE" or "Professional Series" and digital controls are located on top of the dehumidifier. Model and serial numbers are located on the back of the dehumidifiers. Model and serial numbers included in the recall are:

    Brand

    Model Number Begins With:

    Serial Number Begins With:

    GE

    AHK30LK, AHW30LK, AHM30LK,
    AHK40LK, AHH40LK, and AHM40LK

    VL1, ZL1, AM1, DM1, FM1,
    GM1, HM1, LM1, MM1, RM1

    CEM "Professional Series"

    PS78303

    from C10102336010841 4100001
    to C10102336010841 5103037

     

    Walmart, Sam's Club, Home Depot, Menards and other retail stores sold the dehumidifers nationwide from February 2007 through June 2009 for between $140 and $180. They were made in China.

    Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled dehumidifiers and contact Midea to determine if their product is included in the recall. Consumers with recalled dehumidifiers will return their product to an authorized service center for a free repair. Consumers should not return the recalled dehumidifiers to the place of purchase.

    For additional information, contact Midea toll-free at (877) 593-8721 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's website at www.recallverification.com

     

    GE, Professional Series Brand Dehumidifiers Recalled Short circuit creates a fire hazard...

    Ten Signs that You're Dating a Sociopath

    Who will exploit your relationship and often for money

    With Valentine's Day just around the corner, single men and women tend to become vulnerable as their thoughts turn to finding love if they don’t already have it. Unfortunately, according to Donna Andersen, author of Love Fraud, there are people who don’t care about love, may not even know what love is, and get into relationships for other reasons such as power, control, sex and quite often money.

    These people, Andersen says, are called sociopaths. Many of us, due primarily to television, movies and novels, think of sociopaths as deranged killers, but most of them never kill anyone. Andersen says they are however social predators who exploit just about everyone they meet. They have no heart, no conscience and no remorse and they will scam and not love you.

    Experts estimate that up to 4% of the population may be sociopaths, depending upon whom you ask. That means there may be as many as 12 million sociopaths in the U.S. alone. What's worse, as adults, it’s believed that sociopathic men and women cannot be rehabilitated.

    Andersen learned about sociopaths the hard way -- by marrying one. She says her sociopath husband took $250,000 from her, cheated with at least six women during a two-year marriage, had a child with one of them, and 10 days after Andersen left him, married the mother of the child.

    Based on her experience, and the experiences of thousands of others, Andersen has compiled the following list of warning signs that a romantic interest may, in fact, be a sociopath. Here’s what to watch out for:

       1. Charisma and charm. They're smooth talkers, always have an answer, never miss a beat. They seem to be very exciting.

       2. Enormous ego. They act like the smartest, richest or most successful people around. They may actually come out and tell you that.

       3. Overly attentive. They call, text and e-mail constantly. They want to be with you every moment. They resent time you spend with your family and friends.

       4. Jekyll and Hyde personality. One minute they love you; the next minute they hate you. Their personality changes like flipping a switch.

       5. Blame others. Nothing is ever their fault. They always have an excuse. Someone else causes their problems.

       6. Lies and gaps in the story. You ask questions, and the answers are vague. They tell stupid lies. They tell outrageous lies. They lie when they'd make out better telling the truth.

       7. Intense eye contact. Call it the predatory stare. If you get a chill down your spine when they look at you, pay attention.

       8. Move fast. They quickly proclaim that you're their true love and soul mate. They want to move in together or get married quickly.

       9. Pity play. They appeal to your sympathy. They want you to feel sorry for their abusive childhood, psychotic ex, incurable disease or financial setbacks.

      10. Sexual magnetism. If you feel intense attraction, if your physical relationship is unbelievable, it may be their excess testosterone.

    Now we’re not saying everyone who displays all or some of these traits is a sociopath, but according to Andersen, they could be. It’s up to you to follow your gut now that you have some knowledge about what to look for. 

    For more information, you can visit: www.Lovefraud.com.

     

    With Valentine’s Day a month away, here’s what you need to know to weed out the sociopaths preying on lonely singles...

    Another Foreclosure 'Rescuer' Shut Down In North Carolina

    12th such case in five years

    North Carolina officials are claiming victory over a foreclosure rescue firm for the 12th time in the last five years.

    North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper says his office has obtained a court order barring Reginald Keith Turner, who did business as Hazelton Management and The Carley Group, from ever offering foreclosure assistance services in the state.

    The firms previously operated in Charlotte and Colfax, N.C.

    "Taking people's money and then failing to help them just pushes homeowners even closer to foreclosure," Cooper said. "We'll keep going after these foreclosure rescue schemes that prey on fear and promise false hope."

    Illegal advance fees

    Under North Carolina law, it's illegal to charge an advance fee for help with foreclosure or loan modifications, a change Cooper fought for in 2005 after his office began to hear complaints from consumers.

    Foreclosure assistance and loan modification scams typically operate by getting struggling homeowners to pay upfront for help saving their homes. In most cases, the scammers rarely do anything to help the homeowners, instead keeping their money and leaving them even deeper in trouble.

    In 2010, 251 consumers filed complaints with the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division about foreclosure and loan modification scams, down from 2009, when 448 consumers filed similar complaints. To fight the scammers, Cooper's office has taken 12 foreclosure rescue operations to court, winning judgments of more than $1 million including refunds for consumers.

    Number 1 scam

    Several other states have also been active in fighting foreclosure fraud. In fact, foreclosure rescue topped ConsumerAffairs.com's list of the Top 10 Scams of 2010.

    In this latest case, Wake County Superior Court Judge Lucy Inman agreed last week with Cooper's request for a default judgment against the defendants. Turner is now permanently prohibited from foreclosure assistance, loan modification and debt relief work in the state. The judgment also orders Turner to pay $32,804 in refunds to 24 consumers and $50,000 in civil penalties to local public schools.

    The Attorney General's Office first warned Turner to stop violating the law in late 2008. Instead, Cooper said he reopened his business under a new name, The Carley Group, and proceeded to keep taking consumers' money.

    Cooper then filed suit against Turner, alleging that he charged homeowners an advance fee of as much as $2,500 but did little or nothing to help save their homes. Turner shut down his operations and left North Carolina after Cooper won a temporary court order against his foreclosure rescue work in June 2010.  

     

    North Carolina officials are claiming victory over another foreclosure rescue firm....

    How To Protect Your Identity On Vacation

    Don't let privacy thieves ruin your fun in the sun

    With a lot of the nation caught in the grips of winter, our thoughts turn to getting away -- preferably somewhere warm -- for a little R&R.

    And while vacation should be a time of rest and relaxation, it’s also a prime opportunity for identity thieves who might take advantage of changed routines and more informal settings. 

    To guard your identity while vacationing, here are some tips from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse:

    • Clean out your wallet.  Remove unnecessary credit cards, your Social Security card, and other unneeded documents that could compromise your identity if lost or stolen while on vacation.
    • Photocopy or make a list of the remaining contents of your wallet.  Keep it in a secure and locked location or with a trusted individual at home whom you can contact in case your wallet is lost or stolen.
    • Do not leave your wallet or any documents containing personal information in your hotel room unattended.  Use a hotel safe when available.
    • Use traveler's checks or credit cards for payment and leave your checkbook in a secure locked place at home.
    • Use credit cards instead of debit cards.  This reduces your vulnerability to having your checking account emptied while you are on vacation.
    • Guard your credit card receipts and car rental agreements, particularly if they contain your full credit card number.
    • If you plan on using an ATM card during your vacation, use one that does not have debit card privileges (for example one that requires a PIN and does not contain a Visa or MasterCard logo).  You can ask your bank to change an ATM/debit card to one that is "ATM only." It's best to use ATMs found at banks or credit unions and that are in well-lit areas.
    • Ask your post office or a trusted neighbor to hold your mail for you.  Mail that is left in an unlocked mailbox is a goldmine for identity thieves.
    • If you are bringing your laptop with you, be very careful when using it to access online banking or other password-protected services from wi-fi networks. Be sure to use wi-fi “hotspots” that are secure.
    • If you are using cyber-cafés or other public access Internet facilities rather than bringing your laptop with you, be aware that keyloggers (software that can track your keystrokes) may be tracking you.
    How To Protect Your Identity On Vacation Don't let privacy thieves ruin your fun in the sun ...

    Possible Delinquency Disaster in Reverse Mortgage Market

    Federal government moving in to head off problem

    Since reverse mortgages are set up to pay the home occupant each month, it’s rare to find homeowners faced with foreclosure and eviction. But that appears to be the case with some seniors -- potentially thousands -- who have reverse mortgages but have fallen behind on their property taxes or homeowners insurance.

    According to the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) which provides insured protection for most reverse mortgages through its Home Equity Conversion Mortgage Program (HECM),  lenders in the HECM program are responsible for keeping all tax and insurance payments current. But if homeowners stop making payments, lenders are allowed to access any remaining home equity to pay taxes and insurance premiums. Once homeowner funds are exhausted, lenders are legally required to advance their own funds for such payments and seek reimbursement from homeowners.

    Fund at risk

    FHA, part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), said in arecent press release “these unpaid debts and lender advances have resulted in an untenable situation that could put the FHA Insurance Fund at risk and result in foreclosure proceedings against delinquent seniors.”

    While the volume of HECM loans has averaged about 100,000 a year, that number dropped last year as growing loan losses prompted the FHA to tighten its loan underwriting standards. Currently, FHA says there are nearly 520,000 still-active reverse mortgages on its books.

    In a letter to reverse mortgage lenders, HUD has ordered them to provide the agency with detailed delinquency reports by February 7. According to CNN-Money, which referred to unconfirmed industry reports, up to 20 percent of HECM loans may be in some stage of non-compliance. A HUD spokesman refused to provide any number.

    Senior owners on notice

    Meanwhile, HUD rules issued recently to formalize the foreclosure process direct lenders to notify all delinquent customers by April 29 of their need to take steps to solve their problem or face foreclosure. The agency also said it's providing nearly $3 million to several consumer groups to offer stepped-up counseling to troubled borrowers.

    "We understand that some senior citizens have not paid their taxes or insurance for some time and may be at risk of losing their home," FHA Commissioner David H. Stevens said in a press release explaining the new policy. “While the guidance is intended to help elderly homeowners avoid foreclosure, lenders may have no choice if these defaults are not cured."

    To avoid problems with unpaid property charges in the future, FHA recently enhanced the HECM program's pre-closing counseling requirements. "Counselors must now place a greater focus on educating borrowers on how important it is that they fulfill the terms of the mortgage, including the requirement that borrowers make timely tax and insurance payments. In addition, counselors can now employ a new financial tool which helps identify potential budget shortfalls," the press release said.

    According to the HUD letter to lenders, some consumers may have up to two years to repay tax and insurance funds to their lenders. The agency is urging lenders to foreclose on loans only as a last resort, but noted that foreclosure decisions rest with the lenders, not the agency.

    Federal Housing Administration says some seniors with reverse mortgages could lose their homes because they’ve stopped paying property tax and home insur...

    How To Use the IRS' Free E-Filing System

    Step-by-step directions to speed up your refund

    For those in a hurry to get their hands on their federal tax refund, but who don't want to incur the expense of a refund anticipation loan (RAL), the Internal Revenue Services' (IRS) e-file system offers a free alternative. And it's just about as fast.

    But how exactly do you use the e-file system, you ask? If you have a computer with an Internet connection, it's simple. If you don't, ask your tax preparer to e-file. It might end up saving you money.

    First, before going to the IRS website, take the time to get all your tax information together -- you'll save time and won't have to stop in the middle of preparing your current year tax return to find a missing document.

    What you need

    Here's what you'll need:

    • Social Security numbers for yourself, your spouse, and any dependents.
    • Forms W-2 from all employers are required for yourself and your spouse.
    • Forms 1099 for Dividends, Retirement, or other income, or any Forms 1099 with Income Tax Withholding.
    • Receipts for expenses for Itemized Deductions (Schedule A).
    • Receipts and records for other income or expenses.
    • Bank Account numbers (for a fast refund, or to pay electronically).
    • Prior year Adjusted Gross Income amount or prior year PIN if using a Self-Select PIN as your signature.

    Three options

    You have three options for using e-file. You can use a computer connected to the Internet, use the IRS's Free File service, or have a tax professional e-file the return for you.

    If using a tax preparer, be sure to take all your information with you, and don't forget to ask for IRS e-file. That way you'll get your refund faster and the tax preparer is less likely to make mistakes.

    If you're filing the return yourself online, just answer the simple questions in your tax preparation software, and the software will do the rest for you. For faster refunds, or to pay when you want to, have your bank account number handy.

    If you're using the Free File service, visit the IRS web page by clicking here.

    State returns?

    Okay, now that your federal return is filed, what about your state return? Depending on where you live, the IRS e-file system might work for that too.

    Federal/State e-file allows the electronic filing of both Federal and state income tax returns at the same time. The electronic filing software places your Federal and state return data in separate packets. These packets are transmitted to the IRS in one taxpayer "envelope." The IRS functions as an electronic post office for the participant state, which receives and processes the state electronic return.

    Which states participate? According to the IRS, 38 of the 50 states are taking part this year. You'll find a complete list here.

    Using e-file to file both federal and state returns is not just easier, it puts money in your hands faster. Your tax return is processed quickly which means at the IRS, and in most states, you can have your refund direct deposited into your checking or savings account. Your refund is received twice as fast. The IRS and participating states can process your e-file returns much more quickly than those that are filed on paper.

    Tax preparation software eliminates errors you may make, and e-file processing of the Federal and state return eliminates most errors. You can meet your Federal and state tax obligation at the same time. The IRS and state agency will let you know that your return has been received and accepted.

    If you've ever wondered how to go about using the IRS' free e-file system for your taxes, here are step-by-step directions....

    Unemployment Rates Up for Young Veterans

    While national numbers drop, the current rate for vets is 11.7%

    While America's overall unemployment rate has dropped to a 19-month low, the jobless rate among young military veterans continues to rise.

    Bureau of Labor Statistics figures released January 7, 2011, showed a national unemployment rate of 9.4 percent in December -- a drop of 0.4 percent from the previous month.

    Conversely, unemployment among those who have served in the Armed Forces since September 2001 rose from 10 percent in November to 11.7 percent in December.

    Disheartening trend

    "This disheartening trend demonstrates the continuing difficulty that veterans, especially young ones, are having in finding work in a job market composed primarily of non-veterans," said Jimmie Foster, national commander of The American Legion.

    Foster said young veterans face job-seeking hardships for a number of reasons.

    "Primarily, employers resist hiring people, such as veterans, who have been out of the domestic workforce for an extended period of time," he said. "Besides that, some potential employers have difficulty understanding how specialized skills and expertise gained in the service translate into their own needs."

    Despite having specialized skills, it seems many young vets are just as qualified to work as civilian job-seekers.

    Comparable skills

    Most Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are men, 25 to 34 years old. Forty-six percent have some college education or an associate's degree, compared with 28 percent of their non-veteran counterparts.

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that "veterans from Gulf War-era II were much less likely to be high school dropouts (2 percent) than were non-veterans (14 percent)."

    "Clearly, young veterans are very attractive job candidates," Foster said.  "And part of what The American Legion does is to communicate that fact to potential employers at job fairs, small business workshops, and other events we sponsor that help veterans get back into the civilian work force."

    Job fairs

    The American Legion, in partnership with RecruitMilitary.com, conducts a number of veterans job fairs nationwide throughout the year.  

    Events are scheduled this month in Ft. Walton Beach, Fla. (13th), Tampa (20th) and Nashville (25th).  A Legion-sponsored small business development workshop for veteran entrepreneurs who wish to do business with the federal government is set for March 22 in Washington.

    Unemployment Rates Up For Young VeteransWhile national numbers drop, the current rate for veterans is 11.7%...

    Might We All May Be Cloud Computing Soon?

    Do you even know what that means?

     

    Every time I read about the “new” technology known as cloud computing I hear in my mind that old Rolling Stones song, “Hey You, Get Off Of My Cloud.”

    It also brings back memories of working on a computer that stored its files somewhere else in a giant data storage unit, similar to what cloud computing is today.

    The bad old days

    Every now and then I would try to retrieve an unfinished article only to find it was no longer there because someone had decided to kill it in order to make room for other files. I once threatened to toss someone out the window, my version of “get off my cloud” if he ever killed another file of mine again.  Once the personal computer came along and we got control over our own files that issue disappeared.

    Now, I’m afraid, it’s all about to come back with cloud computing.  Fortunately, this time there maybe enough room on these clouds to contain all the data anyone would ever want to store.

    Back to the future

    Cloud computing has actually been around for a number of years. But now it’s being promoted to consumers as one of the next big things in computer innovations. It is the technology behind web-based services that store your digital files -- whether they’re videos and songs, books and personal photos or back-up data to protect what’s on your hard drive.

    It stores everything remotely and offers you access from multiple devices through a browser or downloadable app. A well-known example would be iTunes, which stores all of your music.

    Cloud computing was one of the innovations attracting crowds at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It showed music files available anywhere, anytime, movie-sharing among friends, and never again losing hundreds of downloaded television shows along with a lost laptop.

    For consumers, the advances could also save money. Those who use on-demand or streaming media services like TiVo, Amazon On-Demand and iTunes could soon be able to buy a movie, a song or an album and store it in the cloud instead of on a hard drive. In fact, hard-drives could go the way of the cassette, floppy disk or eight track tape.

    Saving data in the cloud is already cheap -- in small batches. Gmail, for example offers users more than 7.5GB free, or more than 355,000 emails. An extra 20GB per year costs $5. And, once you store that video or song there, you could access it from multiple Internet-connected devices, which eliminates the need to buy multiple copies to cover several devices. Eventually this will eliminate the need to buy DVD or Blu-ray players, or even those external hard-drives.

    Advantages

    Proponents of cloud computing say remote storage also makes it less devastating to have a device stolen, lost or damaged. Your media won't be lost along with your stolen laptop or iPad.

    The advantage of backing up to the cloud, rather than to an external hard drive, for example, is that you can access your data immediately, say, from a loaner laptop.

    According to the FBI's National Crime Information Center, laptop computers are the most-stolen device. In 2008, the latest available statistics, more than 109,000 were stolen. And a study conducted the same year by the Urban Institute said incidents of stolen iPods were so high that they actually skewed crime statistics.

    People storing data in the cloud might also save money on their actual gadgets, because they might be able to get by with a smaller hard drive and a less powerful processor.  You also won’t have to worry about how much space the latest movie you downloaded will take up on your MP3 player because it won’t be stored there. All this could encourage consumers to buy less expensive netbooks for about $300 instead of more than twice that much for 4GB laptop with 320 GB of storage.

    Downside

    The downsides are that remote storage in the cloud raises privacy and security concerns. Once again, we will no longer be controlling our data or the measures that protect that data. Amber Yoo, a spokeswoman for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse urges people to read the fine print to find out who can access your content, and what will happen to it if the company storing it goes under.

    She says that if you use such a service, consider retaining any sensitive material on a computer or other hard drive at home, where you can provide virtual padlocks including a firewall and password protection.

    As cloud computing goes mainstream, security measures will grow even more important.  Analysts have repeatedly speculated that Apple and Google could both soon announce cloud-based music storage services. Other cloud services will be ready for consumers by this spring. Wireless provider Cricket just rolled out a plan that includes music downloads stored on the cloud.

    Vizio is putting video game system OnLive's content on its Web-connected TVs, computers and phones -- letting gamers play from anywhere. And backup service SugarSync is talking up its 5GB free cloud storage, which includes music storage with unlimited streaming of your collection to a phone or browser without downloading.

    Then there’s the issue I worry about. Someone thinking there’s not enough space left so they have to kill something. Gartner analyst David Smith says content providers will place limits on capacity and bandwidth and that could hamper the experience initially.

    I think I’ll continue to keep a few thumb-drives around just in case. Maybe even a hard drive just to be safe.

    Cloud computing sounds so futuristic but isn’t it really going back to what computing used to be before there were personal computers?...

    Feds Preview New Product Safety Complaint Site

    Manufacturers unhappy with government making public data available to the public

    Somewhat late to the party, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is preparing to launch a Web site consisting of complaints filed with the commission by consumers. The new site, www.saferproducts.gov, is scheduled to launch March 11.

    Critics have noted that sites like ConsumerAffairs.com and Ripoffreport.com have been doing that very thing for more than a decade, and that online reviews of products and services are now so commonplace as to be almost ubiquitous.

    Nevertheless, it literally took an act of Congress to get the agency to at long last take the wraps off the information it collects and stores at public expense. Congress voted overwhelmingly in August 2008 to beef up the CPSC, giving it a bigger budget and more authority to take action against unsafe products.

    President Bush signed the measure just a few days later, quelling consumer advocates' fears that he would capitulate to industry objections.

    But that doesn't mean that industry groups aren't keeping up their campaign against the public release of consumer complaints.

    "We're not opposed to a database," Rosario Palmieri, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), told The Washington Post. "We're opposed to a database that's full of inaccurate information."

    In a statement on its Web site, the organization says: "The NAM is leading the fight to improve the law’s implementation and move forward with reasonable improvements to the law."

    But consumer advocates say making public information public is only logical.

    "This is all about transparency," said Ami Gadhia, policy counsel with Consumers Union. "Commission staffers have worked very hard to ensure that the database is fair to everyone."

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has operated a similar site – www.safercar.gov – for years. Information submitted by the public has frequently led to investigations and recalls, including the massive Toyota recall to fix alleged unintended acceleration problems.

    Preview scheduled

    The agency will provide a preview of the new database tomorrow (Tuesday, Jan. 11) at 10:30 am, Eastern time. The conference will demonstrate the process for filing a complaint and using the site's search function.

    The CPSC will have a second preview for industry representatives on Jan. 20. Besides getting a look at the consumer complaint site, manufacturers and importers will be able to sign up for accounts on the site's business portal.

    Currently, consumers and others who want to view safety complaints about products must file a public-records request with the CPSC, which then is required to seek permission from the manufacturer or importer before releasing the information. The company can protest the release and sue to stop it.

    Even when the CPSC decides that a product is dangerous enough to be recalled, it must negotiate the terms of the recall with the manufacturer, a tedious process that can take years, all while shoppers continue to buy the dangerous items.

    Under the new system, consumer complaints will be published 15 days after they are received. Companies that have registered to receive complaints will have 10 days to submit a response, which will be published alongside the complaint.

    However, if companies claim a complaint is false or discloses confidential business information, the agency may decide to withhold it.

    Consumers who file complaints must provide their identity but the information will not be published and will be available to manufacturers only if the consumer agrees.

    The agency will publish only complaints concerning safety – not complaints about reliability, price or quality.

    Feds Preview New Product Safety Complaint Site. Manufacturers unhappy with government making public data available to the public....

    Growing Up Poor Can Zap Child's Genetic Potential

    Study finds family's income level plays large role in child's cognitive development

    According to research from psychologists at The University of Texas at Austin, growing up poor can suppress a child’s genetic potential to excel cognitively even before the age of two.

    While the study found the gains wealthier children show on tests of mental ability between 10 months and 2 years of age can be attributed to their genes, children from poorer families, who already lag behind their peers by that age, show almost no improvements that are driven by their genetic makeup.

    However, that doesn’t mean wealthier children are genetically superior to poorer children, it just means they have more opportunities to reach their potential.

    These findings go to the heart of the age-old debate over which is more important to a child’s development: “nature” or “nurture.”  They suggest the two work together and that the right environment can help children begin to reach their genetic potentials at a much earlier age than previously thought.

    According to Assistant Professor Elliot Tucker-Drob, lead author of the study, socioeconomic disadvantages suppress children’s genetic potentials.

    “You can’t have environmental contributions to a child’s development without genetics. And you can’t have genetic contributions without environment,” said Tucker-Drob, who is also a research associate in the university’s Population Research Center.

    The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, was co-authored by K. Paige Harden of The University of Texas at Austin, Mijke Rhemtulla of the University of Texas at Austin and the University of British Columbia, and Eric Turkheimer and David Fask of the University of Virginia.

    The researchers looked at test results from 750 sets of twins who had taken a version of the Bayley Scales of Infant Development at about 10 months old, and again at about two years of age.

    The test, which is widely used to measure early cognitive ability, asks children to perform tasks like pulling a string to ring a bell, putting three cubes in a cup, and matching pictures.

    At 10 months old, there was no difference in how the children from different socioeconomic backgrounds performed.

    But by two years old, children from high socioeconomic background scored significantly higher than those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

    In general, the two-year-olds from poorer families performed very similarly to one another. That was true among both fraternal and identical twins, suggesting genetic similarity was unrelated to similarities in cognitive ability. Instead, their environments determine their cognitive success.

    Among two-year-olds from wealthier families, identical twins (who share identical genetic makeups) performed very similarly to one another. But wealthy fraternal twins were not as similar -- suggesting their different genetic makeups and potentials were already driving their cognitive abilities.

    “Our findings suggest that socioeconomic disparities in cognitive development start early,” says Tucker-Drob.

    “For children from poorer homes, genetic influences on changes in cognitive ability were close to zero. For children from wealthier homes, genes accounted for about half of the variation in cognitive changes.”

    The study notes that wealthier parents are often able to provide better educational resources and spend more time with their children but does not examine what factors, in particular, help their children reach their genetic potentials. Tucker-Drob is planning follow-up studies to examine that question.

    Growing Up Poor Can Zap Child's Genetic Potential Study finds family's income level plays large role in child's cognitive development...

    Minnesota Accuses Firm Of 'Cramming' Consumers' Phone Bills

    Consumers complain about mysterious $15 charge

    When Minnesota consumers opened their telephone bills to find over $15 a month in long distance calling minutes they didn't recall using, they called their attorney general.

    As a result, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson has sued a Pennsylvania-based company that she accuses of "cramming" customers' phone bills.

    "Cramming" is the practice by which third party vendors put unauthorized charges on a person's phone bill.

    "The company slipped unauthorized charges onto people's phone bills," Swanson said.  "Cramming works because most people don't realize that their phone bill can be used like a credit card. Because phone bills are long and hard to read, people don't always catch unauthorized charges."

    On the rise

    Cramming complaints are on the rise nationwide. The Federal Trade Commission recently called cramming "a significant area of recent consumer complaint," and the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) recently said, "It's a problem that's on the increase right now."

    The FCC reported receiving 6,714 cramming complaints in 2009, up from 1,761 in 2005.

    Cramming scams were common in the 1990s but eventually receded following a wave of federal and state crackdowns. They are now on the uptick again due to several factors, including the hard-to-read nature of consumer phone bills; the rise of so-called "billing aggregators" that facilitate the posting of charges; and phone companies themselves, which make money by allowing third parties to put charges on customers' phone bills.

    In October, 2009 Swanson asked the FCC to promulgate new rules to curb cramming practices, and today she shared the results of her investigation with the FCC. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who joined Swanson at her announcement of the lawsuit, said that the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee is actively investigating phone companies for their role in telephone cramming. In November, Klobuchar called on the FCC to take steps to crack down on the practice.

    Taking advantage of technology

    "New technology offers more convenience for consumers, but it also offers crooks new opportunities, such as cramming," said Klobuchar. "We need to do more to crack down on this fraudulent practice and prosecute those who engage in it. I commend Attorney General Swanson's work in this area and I will continue to work with her and other federal and state enforcement officials to protect consumers from these scams."

    Swanson's lawsuit against Cheap2Dial Telephone, LLC alleges that the company placed charges of over $15 for "dial around" long distance calling minutes on the phone bills of Minnesota residents without their authorization. "Dial around" long distance calling minutes are similar to using a calling card to make long distance calls, minus the actual calling card.

    Of the 2,567 Minnesota customers who Cheap2Dial billed since 2008, only nine people  actually used the company's services to make a long distance call, Swanson said.

    When the Attorney General's Office asked Cheap2Dial to produce verification that consumers knowingly signed up for the company's services, she said the company supplied the wrong information for many consumers, including incorrect names, emails, and birthdates.

    Cheap2Dial's monthly fees ranged from $13.97 per month (for 358 calling minutes) to $14.97 per month (for 383 calling minutes), plus fees and taxes that push the total monthly charges to over $17.

    Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson says one of the 1990s' biggest scams is cropping up again....

    Top Financial Products for Young Adults

    Focus on what you need when you’re just starting out

    The kind of financial products you need when you’re just starting out as a young adult differ from what you’ll need later in life..

    How To Get Help Paying For College

    Department of Education offers free aid website

    January is not just the month in which you gather your tax records together for tax-filing season. If you plan to attend college in the fall, this is the time to start your search for financial aid.

    That search should start with the Free Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This government-maintained website will walk you step by step through the process, allowing you to apply for Pell Grants, work-study programs and other sources of student financial aid.

    An important thing to note at the beginning of the process: the official website address for FAFSA is farsa.ed.gov, not ".com." And as the name implies, this application is free. There is no reason to pay anyone any type of fee for access to this information.

    If you go to a ".com" site, you will probably be asked to pay to submit the FAFSA. Remember, this is a free service, so use the official government site to submit your application.

    Create an account

    When you go to the official FAFSA site, the first step is to create an account using MyFSA. MyFSA is your personal portfolio. When you create your account, the site will provide you with a MyFSA account in which to store all your information.

    Completing the application is the first step to be considered for nine federal student aid programs and 605 other state and private institutional aid that is available to college students. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) begins accepting applications on January 1 each year for the upcoming fall semester.

    The application period is up to 18 months long. Most of the aid packages and grants are provided on a first come, first-served basis, so it's wise to submit an application as early as possible.

    Federal Student Aid

    The aid all eligible individuals can benefit from federally funded financial assistance for education beyond high school. According to DOE, Federal Student Aid plays a central and essential role in supporting postsecondary education by providing money for college to eligible students and families. The government partners with postsecondary schools, financial institutions and others to deliver services that help students and families who are paying for college.

    Federal Student Aid performs the following roles:

    • Educating students and families on the process of obtaining aid;
    • Processing millions of student financial aid applications each year;
    • Disbursing billions of dollars in aid funds to students through schools;
    • Enforcing financial aid rules and regulations;
    • Servicing millions of student loan accounts, and securing repayment from borrowers who have defaulted on their loans; and
    • Operating information technology systems and tools that manage billions in student aid dollars.

    Three ways to apply

    Applicants can use any one of three methods to apply. DOE recommends using the online application, but you can also download and print an application to fill out and send by mail. You may also request a paper FAFSA by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 319-337-5665. If you are hearing impaired, please contact the TTY line at 1-800-730-8913.

    When applying, select the school year for which you are applying for financial aid. For example, if you plan to attend college between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012, click The 2011-2012 School Year (July 1, 2011 - June 30, 2012). If you plan to attend college between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011, click the other link. If you are applying for a summer session, check with your college to verify which application you should complete.

    The application consists of more than 100 questions regarding a student, and their family's assets, income and dependency. This information is used to determine what is called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

    Factors comprising the EFC include household size, income, number of students of the household in college and assets.

    On the FAFSA website you'll find a tool for discovering the deadlines for each college in the country. Make sure you know the deadlines for the schools you are applying to and file well in advance.

    How much?

    How much aid can you receive? It will vary, depending on the grant and your circumstances. Students with low EFCs may receive a Pell Grant of up to $5.500. If you qualify for a work-study program, you can get part-time work and the federal government will reimburse your employer up to 75 percent of your pay.

    If you qualify for a Stafford Loan, the government will pay the interest while you are enrolled. The student, of course, must repay the principal. A Perkins Loan is much like a Stafford Loan, but is lent by the school directly.

     

    For students planning to attend college in the fall, the search for financial aid should start in January....

    Extortion Scam By Food and Drug Administration ImpersonatorsContinues

    Victims are told they have broken the law and will be prosecuted unless they pay up

    Criminals posing as Food and Drug Administration (FDA) special agents and other law enforcement personnel are running an international extortion scam.

    The criminals call the victims -- who in most cases previously purchased drugs over the Internet or via "telepharmacies" -- and identify themselves as FDA special agents or other law enforcement officials. They inform the victims that buying drugs over the Internet or the telephone is illegal, and that law enforcement action will be pursued unless a fine or fee ranging from $100 to $250,000 is paid.

    Victims often also have fraudulent transactions placed against their credit cards.

    Victims threatened

    The criminals always request the money be sent by wire transfer to a designated location -- usually in the Dominican Republic. If victims refuse to send money, they are often threatened with a search of their property, arrest, deportation, physical harm and/or incarceration.

    "Impersonating an FDA official is a violation of federal law," said Dara Corrigan, the FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. “FDA special agents and other law enforcement officials are not authorized to impose or collect criminal fines. Only a court can take such action.”

    Double whammy

    In most instances, victims of extortion-related calls have also received telephone solicitations for additional pharmaceutical purchases from other possibly related, illegal entities located overseas.

    The extortionists use customer lists complete with extensive personal information provided through previous purchase transactions. These include names, addresses, telephone numbers, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, purchase histories and credit card account numbers.

    Typically, these criminals use telephone numbers that change constantly and make it appear as though their calls originate in the United States.

    No known victim has been approached in person by a law enforcement impersonator associated with this scheme.

    On the case

    The FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations, with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations, with the support of various U.S. Attorneys, are pursuing multiple national and international criminal investigations.

    Arrests have been made and additional prosecutions are pending; however, the scheme is likely to continue. The FDA has issued similar warnings in the past:

     

     

    What you can do

    Victims of this scheme who have suffered monetary loss through the payment of funds in response to an extortion call, or anyone receiving a telephone call from a person purporting to be an FDA or other law enforcement official who is seeking money to settle a law enforcement action for the illegal purchase of drugs over the Internet may obtain a victim questionnaire by contacting the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations  and clicking “Report Suspected Criminal Activity.”

    Anyone receiving a purported official document on agency letterhead may verify its authenticity by contacting that organization directly via a publicly available phone number. Additionally, all federal agencies use email addresses with a “gov” email extension.

    The FDA also reminds consumers that pharmaceutical products offered online and by telephone by sources of unknown origin can pose a substantial health risk. Products recovered during this investigation that were purchased from online or telephone sources have been found to contain trace amounts of heroin, other undisclosed and potentially harmful active pharmaceutical ingredients, or no active ingredient at all.

    Purchases should only be made from licensed pharmacies located in the United States. In addition to the increased risk of purchasing unsafe and ineffective drugs from Websites operating outside the law, personal data may be compromised.

    For more on unlawful drug sales on the Internet, see Protecting Yourself.

    Extortion Scam By Food And Drug Administration Impersonators ContinuesVictims are told they have broken the law and will be prosecuted unless they pay ...

    Only 2% of American Workers Are Satisfied With Their Jobs

    A new survey finds the other 98% are ready to pursue new opportunities this year

    For the past couple of years, it was enough just to have a job. But now a new survey shows an overwhelming 98 percent American workers who are employed are actually dissatisfied with their  jobs and plan to seek new opportunities this year.

    The job site Monster.com recently asked job seekers about their plans for 2011 and found that an only 2 percent of American workers polled indicated they are completely satisfied with their current positions and salaries.

    Charles Purdy, Monster.com career-advice expert, says that as the economy starts to get back on its feet, workers are looking for positions that inspire them and challenge them to rise to the occasion. At the same time,  employers are increasingly looking to hire the best people and not just someone who is good enough.

    What they're thinking

    The new Monster-HotJobs survey also shed additional insight into the mindset of job seekers who -- by and large -- are optimistic about the economic conditions for job opportunities and growth. They also appear to be infused with a newfound passion for their career instead of just sticking with the status quo.

    Here’s what the survey found:

    • 61 percent said work would be more of a priority in 2011 than in 2010
    • Topping 66 percent of job seekers’ career wish lists for 2011 was a new job with a new employer
    • 15 percent were hoping for a raise or promotion at their current employer
    • 17 percent were hoping to become self-employed
    • only 2 percent were happy with the status quo
    • 42 percent were hopeful and expected job or employment conditions to improve
    A new poll shows an overwhelming low number of American workers are satisfied with their jobs and most plan to explore new opportunities this year...

    How To Get A Fast Tax Refund Without a Refund Anticipation Loan

    Take advantage of low cost and free options

    This tax season there will be fewer options for a refund anticipation loan (RAL), but that doesn't mean taxpayers who need their refund quickly can't get it. In fact, most consumer advocates say the shortage of pricey RALs will turn out to be a positive for consumers.

    While getting an RAL might seem easy, it comes at a pretty steep price. Especially when you consider there are lower cost, and even free alternatives.

    For example, Taxpayers with a bank account can get their tax refunds in 8-15 days with e-filing from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and direct deposit. Taxpayers without a bank account can get a fast refund by e-filing and having their refund deposited to a prepaid card, including any existing payroll or prepaid card that the taxpayer already has. 

    Plenty of options

    "There are plenty of options for taxpayers to get quick refunds without paying for a costly RAL," ssaid Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center.  "Of course, taxpayers should compare costs and consumer protections when choosing among these options."

    Taxpayers without a bank account should also consider opening an account to receive their refund. 

    "Getting a big refund is the perfect time to open a savings account and start a nest egg," said Jean Ann Fox, Director of Financial Services for Consumer Federation of America.  

    Prepaid card options specifically targeted for tax time will be offered by some tax preparers or tax software companies in 2011, such as the Get It Card from Advent Financial Services or the H&R Block Emerald Card.  A few even permit taxpayers to have the costs of tax preparation deducted from their refunds.

    Free assistance

    Low-income taxpayers have a number of options for free tax preparation, including Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and AARP Tax-Aide sites. Choosing a VITA or AARP Tax-Aide site saves taxpayers both the cost of a RAL and the cost of a tax preparation fee.  Many VITA sites also offer services to help open a bank account or get a low-cost prepaid card.

    For taxpayers willing to do it themselves online, there are a number of websites that allow taxpayers to prepare and file their taxes for free, such as the IRS Free File program and the I-CAN! E-file site.

    Fewer RALs

    These options provide for a speedy refund and don't carry the costs of an RAL. Using the most recent data  available from the IRS, NCLC and CFA calculate that about 7.2 million taxpayers received RALs in the 2009 tax filing season, for tax year 2008.  This represented a 14 percent drop from the 8.4 million taxpayers who took out a RAL in the 2008 filing season.

    It also means more taxpayers are saving money. NCLC cites Republic Bank's posted charges of $61.22 for a RAL of $1,500, which translates into an APR of 149 percent.  If the refund exceeds $1561.22, the taxpayer will be charged another $29.95 when the remainder of the refund arrives in the form of a refund anticipation check (RAC), for a total of $91.17 in fees. 

    On the other hand, taxpayers who qualify for free tax-preparation assistance can file electronically using the IRS's e-file and have their refund direct deposited to a bank account in eight to 15 days. If you file as soon as you receive your W-2 form from your employer, you'll have your refund that much faster.

     

    Taxpayers don't need an expensive refund anticipation loan to get their tax refund quickly....

    Could Better Classroom Interventions Curb Childhood Obesity?

    Study finds current programs work, but could be better

    As childhood obesity rates soar, initiatives in the classroom aimed at teaching nutrition and physical activity, like the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign, become more prevalent. But are they working?

    A new study of 26 school-based nutrition interventions in the United States and found while many of these programs are on the right track, there are some crucial pieces missing.

    Investigators performed a content analysis of Kindergarten-through-12th grade school-based nutrition interventions which fit into the study's ten components proposed for developing future effective school-based nutrition interventions.

    Findings from this study reveal that classroom nutrition education (85%) followed by parental involvement at home (62%) were the two intervention components used most often.

    Less frequent components included establishment of foodservice guidelines (15%), community involvement (15%), inclusion of ethnic/cultural groups (15%), inclusion of incentives for schools (12%), and involvement of parents at school (8%).

    This study documents that although many components of nutrition education have been successfully included in our children's school-based interventions, there are still some missing links.

    "Schools continue to be an important location for childhood obesity prevention interventions. However, it is imperative that school-based interventions be developed and implemented to achieve maximum results,” said lead author Dr. Mary Roseman, who conducted this work while at the University of Kentucky and The University of Mississippi.

    Limited research

    According to Roseman, a periodic review of research on school-based nutrition interventions provides the opportunity to examine previous research and identify successful strategies and tactics for future studies that will lead to improved health outcomes in children.

    Currently, there is limited research about the effectiveness of nutrition education interventions.

    Roseman, along with co-authors Dr. Martha Riddell, Registered Dietitian and Professor of Public Health at University of Kentucky, and Jessica Niblock, Registered Dietitian with the Cincinnati Health Department feel this is an area of research that has to be investigated to ensure children are educated on how to be healthy, productive adults.

    "With increased awareness, urgency, and funding to support nutrition interventions and research focusing on reversing the rising trend of overweight and obese children in the US, synthesizing findings from previous studies to inform research and program development, and identifying potentially high-impact strategies and tactics are warranted,” write the authors.

    The researchers think the article emphasizes the importance of providing funding support so more researchers can access the effectiveness of nutrition education in the classroom, along with other links like cafeterias, homes, and communities.

    The study appears in the January/February 2011 issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education.

    Could Better Classroom Interventions Curb Childhood Obesity?Study finds current programs work, but could be better...

    Boomers Will Quickly Drain Medicare, Analyst Warns

    Seniors are taking out much more than they put in

    Now that the first Baby Boomers are turning 65 Medicare, the health benefit program for seniors, is set to feel a mighty strain, according to an analysis by a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

    Eugene Steuerle, an Institute fellow and the Richard B. Fisher Chair at the nonpartisan institute, is also a former deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury. He says, while Social Security's woes get the most attention, Medicare is actually in much worse shape.

    The problem, he says, is that past and current retirees, and most working-age adults, will never pay for all their Medicare benefits. The government's Medicare costs now top three percentage points of GDP and are headed to above six percentage points of GDP by 2055.

    But Medicare taxes and escalating premiums cover ranges from about 51 to 58 percent over time.

    Borrowing from China

    "To pay for the rest, we borrow from China and elsewhere, and use up ever-larger shares of income tax revenues, leaving ever-smaller shares for other government functions," Steuerle said. "Bottom line: without reform, current workers would continue to shunt many of their future Medicare costs onto younger generations, just as their parents did with Social Security."

    Both Medicare and Social Security are threatened by a rather positive development; people are living longer. But with that extended lifespan, come medical needs that simply haven't been paid for.

    But Medicare has an additional problem. Health care costs are exploding, must faster than the overall rate of inflation.

    Structured like much other health insurance, Medicare essentially lets us consumers deal with doctors over what someone else in our government or private insurance system will pay.

    "For years, numbers that Medicare actuaries and many others have been crunching have pointed to the system's unsustainability," Steuerle said. "Sadly, the lack of agreement on an altern