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    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 ...

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      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.


      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....

      Report Card Grades States On Reporting Outbreaks of FoodborneIllness

      Center for Science in the Public Interest awards ‘A’s to seven states, while 14 get ‘F’s

      A nationwide report card grading the 50 states and the District of Columbia on how well they detect, investigate, and report outbreaks of foodborne illness finds great variability -- indicating that many states are only reporting a small fraction of the number of outbreaks as states with better detection and reporting systems.

      Using 10 years of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s (CSPI) Outbreak Alert! Database, CSPI assigned a letter grade and created an outbreak profile for each state.

      The best and the worst

      The non-profit advocacy group used two states that are widely recognized for having strong investigating and reporting systems as benchmarks.

      Those states -- Oregon and Minnesota -- have excellent laboratory facilities and public health departments that are quick to interview individuals who are suspected to have been outbreak “cases.” They report nine and eight outbreaks per million people per year, respectively. Those two states, and five states that reported equally high reporting rates for outbreaks -- Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Washington, and Wyoming -- received ‘A’s.

      In contrast, 14 states reported only one outbreak of foodborne illness per million people: Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia. They received 'F's.

      Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, and Vermont received ‘B’s, with each state reporting six or seven outbreaks per million people.

      Alabama, Alaska, California, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Wisconsin received ‘C’s, with each state reporting four or five outbreaks per million people.

      Delaware, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia received ‘D’s. Those states and D.C. each only reported two or three outbreaks per million people.

      “States that aggressively investigate outbreaks and report them to CDC can help nail down the foods that are responsible for making people sick,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “But when states aren’t detecting outbreaks, interviewing victims, identifying suspect food sources, or connecting with federal officials, outbreaks can grow larger and more frequent, putting more people at risk.”


      In its report, All Over the Map, CSPI acknowledges that it may seem counter-intuitive to give higher grades to states with more outbreaks. But, in fact, those states are the most likely to have robust detection and reporting systems, according to the group. The report card suggests states that received ‘D’s or ‘F’s may lack adequate funding for public health services, leading to health departments that are understaffed and overburdened.

      CSPI also identified what it sees as "a troubling trend." The percentage of solved outbreaks -- those with both an identified food and an identified pathogen -- has declined over the 10-year period, from 1998 through 2007. The peak reporting year was 2001 when 44 percent of outbreaks reported to CDC were solved; the lowest year, when only 34 percent were reported, was 2007.

      But CSPI says that the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Obama earlier this month, requires the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC to enhance coordination between federal, state, and local surveillance systems and improve epidemiological tools available to the states.

      And within a year, the law directs the federal government to name five state health departments as regional Centers of Excellence to serve as resources for public health officials in response to outbreaks.

      “Hopefully, this report will stimulate discussions among public health officials, food safety policy makers, legislators and the public about the value of surveillance,” said Craig Hedberg, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “Ensuring that all states benefit from effective foodborne disease surveillance is a long range goal. A network of Regional Centers of Excellence can develop and demonstrate the best practices that have helped Minnesota and Oregon maintain their excellent records of foodborne disease surveillance and outbreak investigation.”

      Consumer awareness

      CSPI recommends that consumers and doctors do their parts, too. Consumers should notify their local health department when they suspect they have suffered a foodborne illness, and should seek medical treatment when needed, the group says. Physicians should likewise report suspected cases to health departments, and be more assertive about pursuing laboratory testing to detect and confirm foodborne illnesses.

      In developing this report, CSPI used CDC data from OutbreakNet Foodborne Outbreak Online Database, which became available on September 17, 2009.

      According to CDC, data available via the database originate from a dynamic outbreak surveillance database. Reporting agencies (state, local, territorial, and tribal health departments, and CDC) can modify their NORS reports at any time, even months or years after an outbreak. Therefore, specific results from Foodborne Outbreak Online Database are subject to change.

      Report Card Grades States on Reporting Outbreaks of Foodborne IllnessCenter for Science in the Public Interest awards ‘A’s to seven states, while 1...

      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...