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    Checks Going Out to Victims of Foreclosure 'Rescue' Scam

    America's Law Group, The Financial Group, Inc., others ordered to pay redress

    An administrator working for the Federal Trade Commission is mailing 1,455 refund checks to consumers defrauded by a mortgage loan modification and foreclosure rescue scam.

    The FTC alleged, and the court found, that operators of the scam falsely told consumers they would prevent their homes from being foreclosed and negotiate lower mortgage interest rates, monthly payments, and principal balances. The court also found that homeowners got few, if any, loan modifications, and many people lost their homes to foreclosure after paying up to $5,500.

    At the request of the FTC, in April 2010, a federal court issued an $11.4 million contempt order against the defendants, Bryan D’Antonio, The Rodis Law Group, Inc., America’s Law Group, and The Financial Group, Inc., for operating the scam, which violated a 2001 order that banned D’Antonio from telemarketing and misleading consumers about goods or services.

    The FTC obtained the 2001 order against D’Antonio and his former company, Data Medical Capital, Inc., for operating a work-at-home medical billing opportunity scheme.

    Consumers who receive the checks should cash them, and they will have 60 days to do so before the checks become void. Those who submitted a valid claim form will receive about 24 percent of their total claim loss. The FTC never requires consumers to pay money or provide information before redress checks can be cashed. Consumers with questions should call the administrator at 1-888-398-8205 or visit www.ftc.gov/refunds.

    Checks Going Out to Victims of Foreclosure 'Rescue' Scam. America's Law Group, The Financial Group, Inc., others ordered to pay redress...

    Internet Crime Report Details Biggest Complaints of 2010

    Federal Internet crime-busters list the most common infractions, offer advice

    Non-delivery of payment or merchandise. Scams impersonating the FBI. Identity theft. 

    These were the top three most common complaints made to the joint FBI/National White Collar Crime Center’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) last year, according to its 2010 Internet Crime Report. The report also includes a state-by-state breakdown of complaints. 

    In May 2010, the IC3 marked its 10th anniversary, and by November, it had received its two millionth complaint since opening for business. 

    Complaints pour in

    Last year, the IC3 received more than 300,000 complaints, averaging just over 25,000 a month. About 170,000 complaints that met specific investigative criteria -- such as certain financial thresholds -- were referred to the appropriate local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies. 

    But even the complaints not referred to law enforcement, including those where no financial losses had occurred, were valuable pieces of information analyzed and used for intelligence reports and to help identify emerging fraud trends. 

    So even if you think an Internet scammer was targeting you and you didn’t fall for it, you are urged to file a complaint with the IC3. Even if it’s not referred to law enforcement, IC3 considers your information vital in helping it paint a fuller picture of Internet crime. 

    Report highlights

    • Most victims filing complaints were from the U.S., male, between 40 and 59 years old, and residents of California, Florida, Texas, or New York. Most international complainants were from Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia or India.
    • In cases where perpetrator information was available, nearly 75 percent were men and more than half resided in California, Florida, New York, Texas, the District of Columbia or Washington state. The highest numbers of perpetrators outside this country were from the United Kingdom, Nigeria and Canada.
    • After non-delivery of payment/merchandise, scams impersonating the FBI, and identity theft, rounding out the top 10 crime types were: computer crimes, miscellaneous fraud, advance fee fraud, spam, auction fraud, credit card fraud, and overpayment fraud. 

    2010 alerts

    The report also contained information on some of the alerts sent out by the IC3 during 2010 in response to new scams or to an increase in established scams, including those involving: 

    • Telephone calls claiming victims are delinquent on payday loans. 
    • Online apartment and house rental and real estate scams used to swindle consumers out of thousands of dollars. More
    • Denial-of-service attacks on cell phones and landlines used as a ruse to access victims’ bank accounts. More
    • Fake e-mails seeking donations to disaster relief efforts after last year’s earthquake in Haiti. 

    Because there are so many variations of Internet scams out there, the IC3 says it can’t possibly warn against every single one. But it does recommend that consumers practice good security: make sure computers are outfitted with the latest security software, protect personal identification information and be highly suspicious if someone offers an online deal that’s too good to be true.

    Internet Crime Report Details Biggest Complaints of 2010 Federal Internet crime-busters list the most common infractions, offer advice ...

    Do You Quality For the Earned Income Tax Credit?

    You must meet certain requirements to get the low-income tax benefit

    The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is one of the largest tax benefits available to moderate and low-income taxpayers, so it pays to investigate, to see if you qualify.

    Last year more than 26 million eligible taxpayers received nearly $59 billion total in EITC. The economic stimulus law created a new category of families with three or more children and increased the maximum benefit of EITC for tax years 2009 and 2010. The Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2010 extended these changes through 2012.

    To qualify, taxpayers must meet certain requirements and file a tax return, even if they did not earn enough money to be obligated to file a tax return. Even if you paid no tax, you could receive money from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

    Do you qualify?

    To qualify, you must meet certain requirements and file a U.S. Individual Income Tax Return. Individuals and families must meet certain general requirements:

    • You must have earned income.
    • You must have a valid Social Security number for yourself, your spouse (if married filing jointly) and your qualifying child.
    • Investment income is limited to $3,100.
    • Your filing status cannot be "married filing separately."
    • Generally, you must be a U.S. citizen or resident alien all year.
    • You cannot be a qualifying child of another person.
    • You cannot file Form 2555 or Form 2555-EZ (related to foreign earned income).

    Your income cannot exceed certain limitations. For Tax Year 2010, your earned income and adjusted grow income (AGI) must each be less than:

    • $43,352 ($48,362 married filing jointly) with three or more qualifying children
    • $40,363 ($45,373 married filing jointly) with two qualifying children
    • $35,535 ($40,545 married filing jointly) with one qualifying child
    • $13,460 ($18,470 married filing jointly) with no qualifying children

    If you claim a child, he or she must have lived with you in the United States for more than half of 2010. The child must be your son, daughter, stepchild, foster child, brother, sister, stepbrother, stepsister, or a descendant of any of them. At the end of 2010, the child must have been under age 19, a full-time student under age 24, younger than the EITC-claiming taxpayer or any age if permanently and totally disabled at anytime during 2010.

    Your qualifying child cannot be used by more than one person to claim EITC. If a child meets the rules to be a qualifying child of more than one person, only one person can treat that child as a qualifying child and claim EITC.

    No kids

    If you don't have a child, you must meet three additional tests:

    • At the end of 2010, you must have been at least age 25, but under age 65.
    • You cannot qualify as the dependent of another person.
    • You must have lived in the United States for more than half of 2010.

    Credit Limits for 2010 Tax Year

    Income and family size determine the amount of the EITC. For tax year 2010, the maximum credit amounts are:

    • $5,666 with three or more qualifying children
    • $5,036 with two qualifying children
    • $3,050 with one qualifying child
    • $457 with no qualifying children

    The Earned Income Tax Credit Provides low income tax payers the biggest tax benefit....

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      Car Rental Companies Slow to Respond to Safety Recalls

      Federal survey finds only half respond to recalls within a year

      Any conscientious car owner would respond to a recall notice and have his vehicle fixed right away, right? Well, yes, unless that car owner was a rental fleet.

      According to a survey commissioned by federal safety regulators, the big three in the rental car business -- Hertz, Enterprise which owns National and Alamo, and Avis/Budget – since 2006 have let tens of thousands of drivers go on the road without repairing defects.

      Automakers told federal regulators that rental companies typically repair fewer than one-third of recalled cars in the first month after the recall is issued. Even after a full year, the figure is only 50 percent.

      The bottom line shows that none of the rental car companies are doing a good job," Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said in an ABC News broadcast.

      Perhaps even more surprising, there's nothing illegal about renting out recalled cars without bothering to fix them or tell customers about the risk they're taking. There's no law, after all, that says a car owner has to respond to recalls.

      The alarming figures came from General Motors and Chrysler and were provided to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is looking into the issue. Ford, which has a long history of delaying recalls even in such life-threatening instances as unattended engine fires, refused to share its statistics with the feds.

      No industry standard

      If all this sounds pretty surprising to you, it sounds like business as usual to the American Car Rental Association (ACRA).

      Although ACRA does not maintain an industry standard for recalls, and each member company follows its own pre-established operating guidelines, in most cases, members place a 'hold' on recalled vehicles so they are not rented until the recall work is completed,” said ACRA president Bob Barton in a recent posting on the association's website.

      Besides, said Barton, “Most recalls issued by manufacturers do not require the owner of the vehicle (whether it be a rental company, leasing company or a private individual) to ground a vehicle and cease operation.

      Barton, however, said that if given earlier notice of recalls, rental companies might be able to respond more quickly.

      Ditlow has noted that there can be “months of delay between the time a manufacturer notifies NHTSA about a defect and when vehicle owners are informed of a recall” and has suggested that NHTSA could require car makers to notify rental companies sooner.”

      That would be “a positive step towards helping our members in their commitment to  providing customers with vehicles that are safe to drive,” Barton said.

      Enterprise has best record

      The best overall performance in the NHTSA survey came from Enterprise. In a study of 10 General Motors and Chrysler recalls between 2006 and 2010, after 90 days, Enterprise had fixed an average of 65 percent of the cars subject to the recall.

      For Avis/Budget, 53 percent of the cars were fixed . At Hertz, only 34 percent of the cars rented 90 days after a recall had been fixed.

      The NHTSA study was launched after a widely-publicized accident in which two California sisters were killed when their Enterprise rental car caught fire and hit an oncoming semi-trailer truck on Highway 101 in Northern California. The car, a Chrysler PT Cruiser, had been recalled a month earlier because a possible power steering fluid leak could cause a fire.

      The family sued Enterprise and won a $15 million award. The girls' mother is now lobbying the California legislature to require rental car companies to ground all recalled cars until they are fixed. The Center for Auto Safety has petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to require Enterprise to fix recalled vehicles before renting them out.

      Car Rental Companies Slow to Respond to Safety Recalls. Federal survey finds only half respond to recalls within a year....

      Network Shortcomings Plague T-Mobile

      Too much speed, too little spectrum stymie growth

      T-Mobile, firmly stuck in fourth place among U.S. wireless carriers, reported anemic financial results Friday, with analysts blaming the company's spotty network coverage and a growing scarcity of spectrum needed to handle streaming video and bandwidth-hungry smartphone apps.

      The company said it lost 318,000 contract customers during the last quarter, replacing them with 295,000 less profitable prepaid customers.

      The lack of an iPhone partnership has also stymied T-Mobile's efforts to regain momentum. It had a brief moment in the sun as the chosen carrier for Google's ill-fated Nexus One, a barely discernible blip on the cellosphere.

      But the more pressing problem at the moment is what engineers sometimes call a lack of headroom: the carrier is bumping into the ceiling as it tries to provide enough bandwidth to satisfy the growing number of smartphone users.

      It's not just a matter of adding more towers, not that there's anything very simple or inexpensive about that. T-Mobile, like other carriers, has only so many frequencies in its spectrum space. When all those frequencies are full, calls start being dropped, video snaps to a halt and web surfing stalls.

      Like land, spectrum is a limited commodity. They're not making it anymore. So it T-Mobile is going to get more spectrum space, it's going to have to buy it from someone or team up with another carrier that has some excess capacity.

      The most obvious answer would be a merger with Sprint, firmly stuck in third place. Put the two carriers together – along with the spectrum owned by wireless broadband provider Clearwire, which is 54% owned by Sprint – and you have overnight created a company that would be about the size of AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

      There would be many technical, regulatory and business headaches associated with merging the two and neither company shows much desire to try it.

      Ironically, T-Mobile's current 4G network, called HSPA+, runs at blazing speed when you can get a signal. But as it attracts more speed-hungry customers, HSPA+ contributes to the company's overall spectrum space problem by eating up precious bandwidth more quickly than ever.

      It's sort of like opening up a two-lane country road to hordes of lead-footed supercar drivers. You quickly run out of asphalt.

      What does all this mean to the consumer? It means it's more important than ever to remember that the gleaming smartphone you see at the cell phone store is only as good as the network it's on. Before signing a long-term contract, make sure there is a 30-day cancellation clause and be sure you understand its terms and conditions.   

      Network Shortcomings Plague T-MobilToo much speed, too little spectrum stymie growth...

      Can You Lose Your Home With A Reverse Mortgage?

      Critics say reverse mortgages may be the new subprime trap

      Reverse mortgages have gained popularity since the economic downturn, with seniors 62 years old and older opting for this unique financial instrument.

      Instead of making monthly mortgage payments, those with a reverse mortgage tap their equity, receiving monthly payments as long as they remain in the house. For many seniors in these uncertain times, it seems safe and secure.

      But Lyn R. Link, who calls himself "the reverse mortgage critic," says people with reverse mortgages are in fact losing their homes to foreclosure. It's not that they're missing mortgage payments -- there are none.

      But Link says the U.S. government has grown concerned recently that a large number of reverse mortgage holders have stopped paying property taxes, stopped their insurance payments, and have not maintained their properties. All are required under the terms of a reverse mortgage.

      Unknown number of defaults

      The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says it can't give an exact number of reverse mortgages currently in default.  However, a recent article in U.S. News and World Report quotes a source putting defaults at 20 percent. 

      "With 525,000 active reverse mortgages, that would put those loans in noncompliance at 105,000," Link wrote on his blog. " I don't believe it's that high based on other sources, but until HUD can provide exact numbers we just won't know."

      In any case, he says, that's too many senior homeowners with a reverse mortgage facing the prospect of losing their home. Even with plans to help borrowers catch up on their taxes and insurance, he says lenders may have no choice but to proceed with foreclosure to cure the loan default.

      Link says he isn't a critic of all reverse mortgages, but says he's worried some lenders are steering seniors into reverse mortgages that aren't suitable for their needs. On the other hand, he says, the loans are very profitable for the lenders.

      Déjà vu

      If that has a familiar ring to it, it sound eerily similar to the way millions of borrowers were steered into subprime loans in the early part of the last decade, helping to bring on the housing collapse.

      While a fixed rate is most desirable with a conventional mortgage, Link maintains the opposite is true in reverse mortgages. He says a senior is much better off with an adjustable rate, which he says is more flexible and help preserve equity.

      "Despite the disadvantages with the fixed rate, in nine short months it went from 2.7 percent of the total reverse mortgages made monthly to 68.9 percent: a staggering 2,452 percent increase," Link said.

      How it works

      A reverse mortgage enables homeowners 62 and older to convert the equity in their home into cash for any purpose. The best part is that there is no repayment for as long as the homeowners live in their home.  Credit and income are not used to qualify, and Social Security and Medicare benefits are not affected.

      When the homeowners no longer live in their home, the reverse mortgage is typically repaid from the sale of the home. There is no debt left to heirs since the lender can only look to the property for repayment. Reverse mortgages are growing in popularity as public awareness increases and associated costs continue to decrease.

      The Department of HUD recently approved a single national loan limit of $625,500 from the previous limits ranging by county from $200,160 to $362,790. This new higher loan limit is expected to increase the number of retirees who qualify for a reverse mortgage, and to enable existing reverse mortgage borrowers to refinance their reverse mortgage to receive more money from their home.

      Seniors are cautioned to get all the facts before getting a reverse mortgage....

      Main Street Hurting But Wall Street Has Second Best Year Eve

      Public Citizen: 'Disparity is painful'

      Cash bonuses paid to New York City securities industry employees declined by nearly 8 percent to $20.8 billion in 2010, about one third less than paid out in 2007 before the financial crisis, according to an estimate released today by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

      The decline in the cash bonus pool reflects changes adopted by the industry in response to regulatory reforms, such as a shift toward deferred compensation and higher base salaries. Wall Street profits totaled $27.6 billion in 2010, which would be second only to 2009 when the industry benefited from federal bailouts and low interest rates.

      (Read consumer complaints about securities and investment companies).

      "Cash bonuses are down, but that's not an indicator of a weakness on Wall Street," DiNapoli said. "Wall Street is changing its compensation practices in response to regulatory reforms adopted in the aftermath of the greatest financial meltdown since the Great Depression. Past practices rewarded short-term gains at the expense of long-term profitability."

      "The industry's greater emphasis on deferred compensation will hold down tax collections this year, but the state and the city will benefit in future years when taxes are paid on this deferred compensation. A more stable and less volatile securities industry is in the best interests of Wall Street, the City and the State."

      Others didn't see it quite that way.

      “The Wall Street titans who crashed the economy are largely responsible for today’s state budget problems,” said Bartlett Naylor, Financial Policy Advocate, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division.

      “Today, the New York Comptroller’s office released numbers showing that these same executives rewarded themselves with obscene compensation in 2010, even as corporate-backed governors demand a major sacrifice from already modestly compensated public employees.”

      Naylor said that while Wall Street bonuses declined 8 percent, overall compensation increase 6 percent.

      “Contrasting with this compensation, Republican governors are seeking pay cuts from school teachers, highway maintenance crews and other public servants vital to the real American economy. The disparity is painful.”

      DiNapoli's office annually releases an estimate of bonuses paid to securities industry employees who work in New York City. Bonuses paid by New York City-based firms to their employees located outside of the City (whether in domestic or international locations) are not included. DiNapoli's estimate is based on personal income tax trends and reflects cash bonuses and deferred compensation for which taxes have been prepaid. The estimate does not include stock options that have not been realized or other forms of deferred compensation.

      Last year, bonus payments extended into March and even April, well beyond the traditional bonus season. As a result, the Comptroller has revised his estimate of the growth in the 2009 bonus pool from 17 percent to 27 percent.

      DiNapoli also reported that:

      • The profits of the broker/dealer operations of New York Stock Exchange member firms, the traditional measure of Wall Street profitability, totaled $27.6 billion in 2010, making 2010 the second most profitable year on record after the $61.4 billion record set in 2009, which was fueled by federal bailouts, low interest rates, and proprietary trading.

      • Strong Wall Street profits combined with a profitable banking sector helped drive New York City's tax collections higher in City fiscal year 2011.

      • Before the start of the financial crisis, business and personal income tax collections from Wall Street related activities accounted for up to 20 percent of New York State tax revenues, but that contribution has declined to about 13 percent in the current year. Wall Street's contribution to the City's budget has declined from 13 percent of City tax revenues to 7 percent.

      • The member firms of the New York Stock Exchange devoted nearly 47 percent of their net revenue to compensation (e.g., salary and bonuses) in 2010, which is in line with historical shares before the financial crisis but much higher than the 2009 share.

      • Although the size of the cash bonus pool has declined, overall compensation has grown. An examination of the financial statements for selected securities firms indicates that overall compensation was higher by 6 percent in 2010.

      • Wages paid to workers in the securities industry in New York City during the first half of 2010 were 21.9 percent higher compared with the prior year, reflecting cash bonuses paid during the first quarter of 2010 for 2009 activities, higher base salaries, and deferred compensation that was realized during that period.

      • The securities industry in New York City lost 30,700 jobs during the recession, a decline of 16 percent, or 3.5 times the rate of total job loss in New York City.

      • The securities industry in New York City added 3,600 jobs between August 2010 and December 2010, and an examination of trends in employment covered by New York State unemployment insurance suggest job gains may have been even stronger during this period. The New York State Department of Labor is scheduled to release revised employment data in March 2011.

      • The average cash bonus declined by 9 percent to $128,530 in 2010. The average bonus declined slightly faster than the total bonus pool because the pool was shared among slightly more workers than in 2009.

      Main Street Hurting But Wall Street Has Second Best Year Eve. Public Citizen: 'Disparity is painful'....

      Credit Unions Have Problems Too

      Yes, they're small and neighborly but some are more stable than others

      Now that big banks have become the symbols of corporate greed, credit unions are being lionized as the answer to consumers' dreams of an efficient, friendly and economical banking solution.

      But while credit unions do indeed offer lots of services at little or no cost, they are not without their problems. Small is often regarded as beautiful and perhaps it is, but small institutions are not immune to greed, dishonesty and plain old incompetence, as a review of recent actions by the National Credit Union Administration shows.

      Earlier this week, the NCUA – the FDIC of the credit union business – liquidated the New York City-based OTB Federal Credit Union. Perhaps not surprising for a credit union whose members are associated with Off-Track Betting parlors, the OTB FCU had a delinquent loan ratio of 7.02% and declining investment income.

      Earlier this month, the Greensburg Community Federal Credit Union of Greensburg, Pa., was placed under conservatorship. It had assets of $2.2 million and 983 members.

      Credit union members enjoy the same protections as bank customers. Credit union accounts are insured up to at least $250,000 by the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund (NCUSIF), a federal fund managed by NCUA and backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. Government.

      Hard times

      Small and neighborly though they may be, many credit unions are having a difficult time making ends meet simply because their members are going through difficult times. And unfortunately, employees of credit unions can also fall prey to financial pressures and simple greed, often leading to embezzlement and other forms of fraud.

      Bernie Metz, 57, former CEO of Center Valley Federal Credit Union, will have to repay NCUA over $4.65 million and pay $200,000 to a local organization in Ohio as part of her sentence for embezzlement.

      U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld announced yesterday that Metz received 108 months imprisonment in addition to the financial parts of the sentence. She also had to surrender properties she purchased during her decade-long embezzlement, along with several vehicles and over $14,000.

      As a result of the embezzlement, NCUA closed and liquidated the CU in 2009.

      Ihnlenfeld said many former members of the CU are still suffering the effects of the embezzlement and closure, Credit Union Times reported..

      “While a number of former credit union members chose to meet with me and my staff in person to discuss their issues, I know that there are many more similarly situated people who still are having problems with their credit union accounts, whether they are upside-down on their automobile loans or they feel they are being unfairly harassed by collection calls,” said Ihlenfeld. “My message to those people is to make sure that they fully explore all of their rights under state and federal law, and to make sure that their legal rights are not being violated in any way.”

      14 years

      Yesterday, the former CEO of CU National Mortgage, Michael McGrath, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for his part in a scheme which saw some credit union mortgages fraudulently sold on the secondary market, according to the office of the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.

      According to an FBI release, McGrath admitted in court he “conspired with several others” over a five-year period to fraudulently sell credit union loans, using the proceeds to address cash flow problems created by losses on investments in mortgage-backed securities.

      At first, McGrath began pilfering funds from credit union mortgages authorized to be sold to Fannie Mae. However, as U.S. Mortgage’s financial condition continued to deteriorate, McGrath admitted to selling hundreds of mortgage loans to Fannie Mae without the knowledge and consent of owning credit unions.

      Credit Unions Have Problems Too. Yes, they're small and neighborly but some are more stable than others...

      How to Tell If a Cosmetic is Safe

      Cosmetics aren't as extensively tested as drugs

      By Fred Cicetti

      Q. Are cosmetics safe?

      Cosmetics include makeup, hair dyes, perfumes, skin creams, lotions, nail polishes,  toothpastes and deodorants. Unlike drugs, which are used to treat or prevent disease, cosmetics do not affect the body's structure or functions. (Read consumer complaints about cosmetics).

      In 1938, Congress passed the U.S. Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act to protect consumers. Under the law, cosmetics must be made and packaged in clean factories; cannot contain poison, rotten, or harmful ingredients; may only use color additives that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and must have a clear, truthful label.

      The FDA does not test cosmetics before they are sold in stores. The FDA can take action against companies who break the law.

      Some products are both cosmetics and drugs. For example, an antidandruff shampoo is a cosmetic because it cleans hair, but it is also a drug because it treats dandruff. These products must meet the standards for both cosmetics and drugs.

      Some cosmetic makers use the term “cosmeceutical” to refer to products that have drug-like benefits. The term has no meaning under the law.

      You can tell if you're buying a cosmeceutical by checking the container to see if the first ingredient listed is an “active ingredient.” The active ingredient is the chemical that makes the product effective, and the manufacturer must have proof that it's safe for its intended use.

      Hypoallergenic cosmetics are products that manufacturers claim cause fewer allergic reactions than other products. There are no federal standards for using the term hypoallergenic; it can mean whatever a company wants it to mean. Cosmetic makers do not have to prove their claims to the FDA.

      Some products that have “natural” ingredients can cause allergic reactions. If you have an allergy to certain plants or animals, you could have an allergic reaction to cosmetics with those things in them.

      Some cosmetics can cause acne. Choose “non-comedogenic” make-up and hair care products. This means they don't close the pores in your skin.

      Serious problems from cosmetics are rare.

      The most common injury from cosmetics is from scratching the eye with a mascara wand. Never apply mascara while in a moving vehicle.

      Sharing make-up is a no-no. Cosmetic brushes and sponges pick up bacteria from the skin. And if you moisten brushes with saliva, the problem can be worse.

      If mascara flakes into your eyes while you sleep, you might wake up with itching, bloodshot eyes, infections, or eye scratches. Remove all make-up before going to bed.

      It is dangerous to use aerosol hairspray near heat. Until hairspray is fully dry, it is flammable. Aerosol sprays or powders also can cause lung damage if they are inhaled deeply into the lungs.

      Here are some more tips for the use of cosmetics:

      * Keep makeup containers clean and closed tight when not in use.
      * Wash your hands before you put on makeup.
      * Do not add saliva or water to makeup.
      * Throw away makeup if the color or smell changes.
      * Don’t store your make-up above 85 degrees Fahrenheit
      * Stop using a product if you get a rash, itching, redness, sneezing or wheezing.
      * Do not keep mascara too long. Some companies say three months is long enough.
      * Do not use eye makeup if you have an eye infection. Throw away eye makeup you were using.
      * Do not use cosmetics near your eyes unless they are meant for your eyes. For example, don’t use a lip liner as an eyeliner. You may spread germs from your mouth to your eyes.
      * Kohl—also known as al-kahl, kajal, or surma—is used in some parts of the world for enhancing eyes. Kohl is unapproved in the United States. Kohl has been linked to lead poisoning in children.
      * Don't dye eyelashes and eyebrows. No color additives are approved by FDA for permanent dyeing or tinting of eyelashes and eyebrows. Permanent eyelash and eyebrow tints and dyes have been known to cause serious eye injuries.

      If you have a question, please write to fred@healthygeezer.com


      All Rights Reserved © 2011 by Fred Cicetti

      How to Tell If a Cosmetic is Safe. Cosmetics aren't as extensively tested as drugs....

      Suzuki Recalling Motorcycles

      Electrical problem can cause stalling, increasing the risk of a crash

      American Suzuki Motor Corp. is recalling 73,426 motorcycles from the model years 2008-1010. 

           Vehicle Make / Model:                Model Year(s):

           SUZUKI / AN400                           2008-2009

           SUZUKI / DL1000                          2008-2009

           SUZUKI / GSF1250                        2008-2009

           SUZUKI / GSX-R600                      2008-2009

           SUZUKI / GSX-R750                      2008-2009

           SUZUKI / GSX1300B                      2008

           SUZUKI / GSX1300R                      2008-2010

           SUZUKI / GSX650F                        2008-2009

           SUZUKI / SFV650                          2009-2010

           SUZUKI / VL800                            2008-2010

           SUZUKI / VLR1800                        2008-2009

           SUZUKI / VZ1500                          2009-2010 

      The vehicles are equipped with regulator/rectifier assemblies, Suzuki part numbers 32800-41f11, 32800-15h10, 32800-05h11, 32800-41g10, 32800-15h00, 32800-18h00, 32800-05g10, 32800-10g10, 32800-05h20, or 32800-06g01. 

      Some regulator/rectifier assemblies were produced with insufficient adhesion between the power module (circuit board) and the rectifier case that contains a heat sink to dissipate heat. Due to insufficient adhesion, heat generated on the power module circuit board can cause the circuit board to deform, and lift of the case. 

      This condition causes excessive heat on the circuit board and uncontrolled electric current output, which can result in insufficient charging current being provided to the motorcycle battery. This can cause discharge of the battery and can lead to engine stalling and/or a no-start condition. Engine stalling while riding can increase the risk of a crash. 

      Suzuki will notify owners and Suzuki distributors will replace the regulator/rectifier with an improved part free of charge. The safety recall is expected to begin on or about March 2, 2011. Owners may contact Suzuki at 1-714-996-7040. 

      Owners may also contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's vehicle safety hotline at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY 1-800-424-9153), or go online.

      Suzuki Recalling Motorcycles Electrical problem can cause stalling, increasing the risk of a crash ...

      U.S. Marshals Seize Food Products At Tennessee Company

      FDA acts to prevent distribution of food from rodent-infested facility

      U.S. Marshals have seized about $200,000 worth of food products from Bedford Cheese Store Inc. in Shelbyville, Tenn., after U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigators found evidence of rodents throughout the company’s facility. 

      The inspection found rodent feces, rodent hair, rodent nesting material and building defects that could allow rodents and other pests to enter food storage areas and other areas that apparently contributed to the infestation. 

      Seizure of products 

      Products seized at Bedford Cheese included cheese, frozen foods, pastas, salad dressings, prepared salads, soups, and various bulk ingredients. The products are adulterated under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act because they have been held under unsanitary conditions and may have become contaminated with filth. 

      “The violations at Bedford Cheese are widespread and significant,” said Dara A. Corrigan, the FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. “This enforcement action was taken because the company failed to provide adequate safeguards to ensure that products they produce or hold for sale remain free of contamination.” 

      In a written response to the FDA following the inspection, Bedford Cheese committed to cleaning up its facility. However, the company failed to complete all corrective actions, including the development and implementation of a pest control plan to rid the facility of the active rodent infestation.

      U.S. Marshals Seize Food Products At Tennessee Company FDA acts to prevent distribution of food from rodent-infested facility ...

      Best Drugs for What Ails You

      Consumer Reports lists the drugs -- plus where to buy them for $4 a month

      Many common generic drugs beat brand names when it comes to safety, efficacy, and cost.  Yet a new report in the March issue of Consumer Reports (CR) finds many consumers aren’t taking advantage of the discount drug programs offering these drugs at prices as low as $4 a month. 

      “Retailers like Kmart, Target, Walgreens and Walmart have been steadily expanding their discount programs, offering $4 a month prescriptions for drugs that our evidence based program deems ‘best buys,’ said Lisa Gill, editor, Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs (BBD).  “We suspect that consumers aren’t taking full advantage of these programs because of the constant din of drug advertising which is steering consumers toward overpriced brand name drugs.” 

      CR BBD identifies “best buys” based on a review of the medical evidence in partnership with the Drug Effectiveness Review Project (DERP), based at Oregon Health & Science University. For each class of drugs to treat a given condition, Consumer Reports BBD uses an analysis of hundreds of studies -- and sometimes thousands -- by DERP to derive its “best buy” designations.   

      Hard sell

      Drugmakers shell out billions of dollars each year to target consumers with their ads. In 2009, they spent $4.3 billion to reach consumers and $6.6 billion on promotions aimed at doctors, according to IMS Health, which tracks drug sales and marketing.  

      Drug ads aimed at persuading consumers to ask for a drug by name are working: In a recent poll by Consumer Reports Health, one in five people said they’d asked for a drug they’d seen on TV and most (59 percent) of them said their doctor agreed to write the prescription. 

      Best buys

      The Best Buy Drugs report explains that generic drug makers must prove that their product contains the identical active ingredients as their brand name counterpart and that the drug is “bioequivalent,” meaning that as much active ingredient enters and leaves the bloodstream at the same speed.  

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates generics just as it does brand-name drugs and monitors them once they’re on the market.  To date, the FDA has found no difference in the rate of adverse reactions between generic and brand-name drugs. 

      “Generics look different from brands because of trademark issues but they’re equivalent in efficacy and consumers can save up to 80 percent off the retail price,” said John Santa, M.D., M.P.H., director, Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center.

      Brand names vs. generics: 

      • High Cholesterol.  Not all cholesterol-lowering drugs are the same. Inexpensive generics are the best option unless an individual has had a heart attack or has another heart problem.   Consumer Reports BBD identifies lovastatin (generic) as a “best buy” at $4 a month versus Lipitor at $112 a month.
      • Pain.  For treating moderate pain such as muscle aches or headaches, the best bet may already be in your medicine cabinet. BBD recommends ibuprofen (generic) for $4 a month versus riskier Celebrex at $139 a month.
      • Depression.  For individuals who need an antidepressant, CR BBD recommends five inexpensive generics with which to start treatment.  Compare the recommended fluoxetine (generic) at $4 a month versus heavily advertised Cymbalta for an estimated $181 a month.  BBD notes that up to 40 percent of people will find no relief with the first antidepressant they try and may need to try a second, different medication or even a third before they find a drug that works for them.

      Tips for purchasing $4 generics: 

      • Consumers can purchase a 30-day supply for $4 at Target or Walmart without paying a fee.  It’s worth considering a 90-day supply for even greater savings per dose.
      • The following programs require a fee: CVS ($15/year), Kmart ($10/year for one of their programs; another is free), and Walgreens ($20/year for individuals and $35 for the family).  The Costco program is free to Costco members and membership costs $50/year. 
      • Ask about restrictions. Some programs are offered only to people without insurance or are not for medications that are covered by insurance.  And some are not available in certain states or their prices might be higher.
      • Check with your independent pharmacy.  Some will match those deals when possible.
      • Review the discount lists frequently for updates and new additions.  Lipitor and Plavix, two major heart drugs, are likely to become available as a generic over the next 36 months.
      Best Drugs for What Ails You Consumer Reports lists the drugs -- plus where to buy them for $4 a month ...

      IRS Offers Help for Struggling Taxpayers

      Lenient policies extended to individuals and small businesses.

      For some Americans, tax season is a season of dread. Instead of looking forward to receiving a refund from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), these taxpayers owe the government money and are wondering how they're going to pay it.

      The IRS says it wants to lend a hand to these people, and has outlined a series of new steps to help people get a fresh start with their tax liabilities. The goal is to help individuals and small businesses meet their tax obligations without adding unnecessary burden to taxpayers.

      Specifically, the IRS is announcing new policies and programs to help taxpayers pay back taxes and avoid tax liens.

      "We are making fundamental changes to our lien system and other collection tools that will help taxpayers and give them a fresh start," IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman said. "These steps are good for people facing tough times, and they reflect a responsible approach for the tax system."

      The announcement  centers on the IRS making significant changes to its lien filing practices that will lessen the negative impact on taxpayers. The changes include:

      • Significantly increasing the dollar threshold when liens are generally issued, resulting in fewer tax liens.
      • Making it easier for taxpayers to obtain lien withdrawals after paying a tax bill.
      • Withdrawing liens in most cases where a taxpayer enters into a Direct Debit Installment Agreement.
      • Creating easier access to Installment Agreements for more struggling small businesses.
      • Expanding a streamlined Offer in Compromise program to cover more taxpayers.

      Win-win

      "These steps are in the best interest of both taxpayers and the tax system," Shulman said. "People will have a better chance to stay current on their taxes and keep their financial house in order. We all benefit if that happens."

      In 2008, the IRS announced lien relief for people trying to refinance or sell a home. In 2009, the agency added new flexibility for taxpayers facing payment or collection problems. And last year, it held about 1,000 special open houses to help small businesses and individuals resolve tax issues with the Agency.

      This latest announcement comes after a review of collection operations which Shulman launched last year, as well as input from the Internal Revenue Service Advisory Council and the National Taxpayer Advocate.

      Tax lien thresholds

      The IRS will significantly increase the dollar thresholds when liens are generally filed. The new dollar amount is in keeping with inflationary changes since the number was last revised. Currently, liens are automatically filed at certain dollar levels for people with past-due balances.

      The IRS plans to review the results and impact of the lien threshold change in about a year.

      A federal tax lien gives the IRS a legal claim to a taxpayer's property for the amount of an unpaid tax debt. Filing a Notice of Federal Tax Lien is necessary to establish priority rights against certain other creditors. Usually the government is not the only creditor to whom the taxpayer owes money.

      A lien informs the public that the U.S. government has a claim against all property, and any rights to property, of the taxpayer. This includes property owned at the time the notice of lien is filed and any acquired thereafter. A lien can affect a taxpayer's credit rating, so it is critical to arrange the payment of taxes as quickly as possible.

      "Raising the lien threshold keeps pace with inflation and makes sense for the tax system," Shulman said. "These changes mean tens of thousands of people won't be burdened by liens, and this step will take place without significantly increasing the financial risk to the government."

      Tax lien withdrawals

      The IRS will also modify procedures that will make it easier for taxpayers to obtain lien withdrawals.

      Liens will now be withdrawn once full payment of taxes is made if the taxpayer requests it. The IRS has determined that this approach is in the best interest of the government.

      In order to speed the withdrawal process, the IRS will also streamline its internal procedures to allow collection personnel to withdraw the liens.

      Direct debit installment agreements and liens

      The IRS is making other fundamental changes to liens in cases where taxpayers enter into a Direct Debit Installment Agreement (DDIA). For taxpayers with unpaid assessments of $25,000 or less, the IRS will now allow lien withdrawals under several scenarios:

      • Lien withdrawals for taxpayers entering into a Direct Debit Installment Agreement.
      • The IRS will withdraw a lien if a taxpayer on a regular Installment Agreement converts to a Direct Debit Installment Agreement.
      • The IRS will also withdraw liens on existing Direct Debit Installment greements upon taxpayer request.
      • Liens will be withdrawn after a probationary period demonstrating that direct debit payments will be honored.

      In addition, this lowers user fees and saves the government money from mailing monthly payment notices. Taxpayers can use the Online Payment Agreement application on IRS.gov to set-up with Direct Debit Installment Agreements.

      "We are trying to minimize burden on taxpayers while collecting the proper amount of tax," Shulman said. "We believe taking away taxpayer burden makes sense when a taxpayer has taken the proactive step of entering a direct debit agreement."

      Installment agreements and small businesses

      The IRS will also make streamlined Installment Agreements available to more small businesses. The payment program will raise the dollar limit to allow additional small businesses to participate.

      Small businesses with $25,000 or less in unpaid tax can participate. Currently, only small businesses with under $10,000 in liabilities can participate. Small businesses will have 24 months to pay.

      The streamlined Installment Agreements will be available for small businesses that file either as an individual or as a business. Small businesses with an unpaid assessment balance greater than $25,000 would qualify for the streamlined Installment Agreement if they pay down the balance to $25,000 or less.

      Small businesses will need to enroll in a Direct Debit Installment Agreement to participate.

      "Small businesses are an important part of the nation's economy, and the IRS should help them when we can," Shulman said. "By expanding payment options, we can help small businesses pay their tax bill while freeing up cash flow to keep funding their operations."

      Offers in compromise

      The IRS said it is also expanding a new streamlined Offer in Compromise (OIC) program to cover a larger group of struggling taxpayers.

      This streamlined OIC is being expanded to allow taxpayers with annual incomes up to $100,000 to participate. In addition, participants must have tax liability of less than $50,000, doubling the current limit of $25,000 or less.

      OICs are subject to acceptance based on legal requirements. An offer-in-compromise is an agreement between a taxpayer and the IRS that settles the taxpayer's tax liabilities for less than the full amount owed. Generally, an offer will not be accepted if the IRS believes that the liability can be paid in full as a lump sum or through a payment agreement. The IRS looks at the taxpayer's income and assets to make a determination regarding the taxpayer's ability to pay.

      The IRS is taking steps to help taxpayers struggling to meet their tax obligations....

      Consumers Warned About Undeclared Peanuts In Dry Fruit "Kachori"

      Could cause serious or life-threatening reactions to those with a peanut allergy

      New York State Acting Agriculture Commissioner Darrel J. Aubertine is alerting consumers to undeclared peanuts in Dry Fruit “Kachori”, packaged and distributed by Maya Overseas Food Inc., located in Maspeth, New York.  

      People who have severe sensitivity to peanuts may run the risk of serious or life-threatening reactions if they consume this product. 

      The recalled Dry Fruit “Kachori” are packaged in an 8.75-ounce, cardboard box.  There is no apparent production code on the package. 

      Product distribution includes 13 states (NY, FL, NJ, CT, MA, VA, NH, NC, VT, DE, MD, GA, PA) and Puerto Rico. 

      Routine sampling by New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ food inspectors and subsequent analysis of the product by the New York State Food Laboratory revealed the product contained peanut allergens, which were not declared on the label. 

      No illnesses have been reported to date to the department in connection with this product.  

      Consumers who have purchased Dry Fruit “Kachori” may return to place of purchase or discard the product.   Questions about the recalled product should be directed to the distributor at (718) 894-5145.

      Consumers Warned About Undeclared Peanuts In Dry Fruit "Kachori" Could cause serious or life-threatening reactions to those with a peanut allergy ...

      Continued Use of Osteoporosis Drugs Can Cause Unusual Fractures

      Hips are safe, but thigh bones could break say researchers

      Women who take commonly prescribed drugs for osteoporosis such as Fosamax, Actonel or Didrocal (known as bisphosphonates) for five years or more lower their risk for hip fracture, but they may be at higher risk of certain kinds of fractures of their thigh bone.

      A new study by researchers at St. Michael's Hospital and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found, however, women at high risk for hip and other osteoporosis-related fractures should not stop taking bisphosphonates since the risk for thigh bone fracture caused by drugs is low.

      Typical hip fractures caused by osteoporosis occur in the upper part of the femur close to the hip joint and are an important cause of disability, need for long-term care and even death in the elderly.

      The risk of these kinds of fractures is reduced by bisphosphonate treatment, which was confirmed by this study.

      Femur at risk

      But the study also found that less common fractures lower down from the hip and closer to the middle of the femur -- sometimes called "atypical" or "unusual" fractures -- occurred more than 2.5 times as often in women who had taken bisphosphonates for more than five years than short-term users of the drug.

      Study lead author, Laura Park-Wyllie, a pharmaceutical safety and outcomes researcher at St. Michael's, said prolonged use of bisphosphonates is associated with rare and unusual fractures of the femur but the proven benefits of the drugs for the much more common fractures due to osteoporosis usually outweigh the harm, especially in the initial years of treatment for osteoporosis.

      “Women with osteoporosis, at high risk for osteoporotic fractures, should not stop taking bisphosphonate therapy because of the small risk of these thigh fractures," said Park-Wyllie.

      She said the study was prompted by an increasing number of reports of thigh bone fractures among older women who have taken bisphosphonates for five years or more and by conflicting findings from small, observational studies.

      Risk not significant

      The St. Michael's-ICES study is the largest assessment of the issue to date. The researchers identified 205,466 women over age 68 who had been prescribed bisphosphonates between 2002 and 2008.

      Of those, 716 women (0.35 per cent) had a fracture of the femur. These women were compared to other women of similar ages who had also been prescribed the drugs but who did not have femur fractures.

      "Our study estimated that the risk of fractures to the femur was 0.13 per cent for women entering their sixth year on the drug -- or just over one in 1,000," Park-Wyllie said. "Use of bisphosphonates for less than five years was not associated with a significant risk of thigh fractures."

      About 50 percent of women over 50 will suffer an osteoporosis-related fracture. The most common involve the wrist and the spine, but hip fractures can have some of the most severe consequences, with one in five of those women expected to die within 12 months of injury.

      Continued Use of Osteoporosis Drugs Can Cause Unusual Fractures Hips are safe, but thigh bones could break say researchers...

      Svelte 30 Nutritional Consultants Recalls Weight Loss Pills

      Pills Found to Contain an Undeclared Drug Ingredient

      Svelte 30 Nutritional Consultants has been informed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that a sample of Svelte 30 orange & gray capsule was collected and tested by FDA in January 2011. The capsules tested positive for Sibutramine, an FDA-approved drug used as an appetite suppressant for weight loss. The FDA has not approved Svelte 30 orange & gray capsules as drugs; therefore the safety and effectiveness of this product is unknown.

      FDA advises that these products may pose a threat to consumers because sibutramine is known to substantially increase blood pressure and/or pulse rate in some patients and may present a significant risk for patients with a history of coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, arrhythmias or stroke.

      Svelte 30 orange & gray capsules are marketed as a Natural Herb for Weight Loss. Svelte 30 Herb Supplement is packaged in plastic bottles containing 30 capsules per bottle and bears UPC #’s from 04-3000 to 04-5999. Were MFD: 10/22/2010 with EXP: 10/21/2012. This lot would have been available for sale on January 03, 2011.

      The lots from 04-3000 to 04-5999 is the only one subject to recall and it was not distributed through www.svelte.com.

      The company discontinued total distribution. It sincerely regrets any inconvenience to our customers.

      The product was sold directly to individual customers in our Kissimmee, Florida sales office.

      No illnesses or injuries have been reported to the company to date in connection with this product. This recall is being conducted with the knowledge of the FDA.

      Svelte 30 Nutritional Consultants is taking this voluntary action because we are committed to the health and safety of our customers and to the quality of our select brand. We are working diligently to make available an appropriate Natural Herbal replacement product manufactured in the USA for all of our affected customers. We are moving forward with new suppliers for our NEW custom formula.

      Consumers should not consume Svelte 30 orange & gray capsules Herb Supplement and should return it immediately to the place of purchase for a refund. Consumers with questions should contact Pedro A Lopez at 407-350-5940, Monday - Friday, 10:00 am - 5:00 pm, EDT.

      We value our relationship with you and will continue to provide you with the best possible service. Thank you for your continued business and allowing us to be a trusted partner.

      Any adverse reactions experienced with the use of this product should be reported to the FDA’s MedWatch Program by phone at 1-800-FDA-1088, by fax at 1-800-FDA-0178, by mail at MedWatch, FDA, 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, MD 20852-9787, or on the MedWatch website atwww.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/default.htm.

      Svelte 30 Nutritional Consultants Recalls Weight Loss Pills. Pills Found to Contain an Undeclared Drug Ingredient....

      Urgent Recall on Asian Gourmet Cheese Rice Crackers

      May Contain Undeclared Milk and Undeclared Food Coloring Additives

      Haddon House of Medford, New Jersey is recalling Asian Gourmet Cheese Rice Crackers (UPC 076606-710889), because it may contain undeclared milk and food coloring additives used to create the cheese powder listed on the label. People who have an allergy or severe sensitivity to milk run the risk of serious or life-threatening allergic reaction if they consume these products.

      The Asian Gourmet Cheese Rice Crackers was distributed in the following states and was distributed by Haddon House Food Products to numerous retailers: AL, CT, DE, FL, GA, IL, IN, KY, ME, MD, MA, MI, MS, NH, NJ, NY, NC, OH, PA, RI, SC, TN, VT, VA, Washington, DC, WV, WI.

      Specific information on how the product can be identified is as follows. This recall includes all lot numbers. Product is packed in a semi transparent cellophane package red in color with a black and white logo ASIAN Gourmet – Rice Crackers – Cheese. The UPC number of 076606-710889 can be found on the back of the package next to the Nutritional Panel.

      As of this date, no illnesses have been reported due to this recall. This recall was initiated when it was discovered the following ingredients had not been included on the products’ ingredient statement: the ingredients of the cheese powder (Cheese Solids, Milk Solids, Salt, Disodium Phosphate, Calcium Chloride, FD & C Yellow 5, FD & C Yellow 6, Silicon Dioxide). The packaging does not declare the milk allergen.

      This is a voluntary recall. Anyone possessing this product may return it to their place of purchase for a full refund. Please address any questions or concerns you have pertaining to the recall of Asian Gourmet Cheese Rice Crackers to Steve Spatzier, Haddon House Food Products, Inc., telephone 1-800-257-6174 between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday eastern standard time.

      Urgent Recall on Asian Gourmet Cheese Rice Crackers. May Contain Undeclared Milk and Undeclared Food Coloring Additives...

      New Federal Rule Protects Social Security, VA Benefits

      The rule limits creditors' ability to freeze and take funds from certain bank accounts

      A new federal rule that strengthens protections for bank accounts used to collect federal benefits is welcome news for retirees, veterans and disabled persons, according to a lawyer for the National Consumer Law Center.

      The “interim final” rule was issued yesterday and will take effect on May 1. It will limit creditors’ ability to freeze and take funds from accounts that contain Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), VA and other federal benefits. These benefits, which are legally protected from court-issued garnishment orders, are critical to the survival of many ecipients.

      We applaud the work of the Treasury Department and the other agencies to safeguard these essential benefits, and the leadership of Sen. Max Baucus on this issue,” said Margot Saunders, an attorney with the Center. “All too often, elders, veterans, and disability benefit recipients who rely on these benefits for their basic needs have been unable to access them for extended periods because of creditor-imposed garnishment freezes.”

      Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), VA, and similar federal benefits are intended to meet beneficiaries’ daily needs. Federal law makes these funds immune from seizure by creditors.

      But in practice, creditors frequently obtain court garnishment orders so that banks then freeze bank accounts containing protected funds. A beneficiary may be unable to access urgently needed funds for weeks or months.

      Often, the paperwork and procedures needed to end an illegal freeze prove too daunting for a recipient, so that a bank turns over supposedly “untouchable” funds to a creditor.

      The new rule prohibits the practice of denying beneficiaries access to these essential funds in bank accounts. It requires all banks to determine whether an account contains protected funds. If an account contains protected funds, the bank is required to protect two months of benefit payments from garnishment. Protection of more than two months of benefit payments requires additional court filings by the beneficiary.

      In announcing the rule, the agencies stated that its framework could be expanded in future years to protect other federal payments such as military retirement.

      There are still many other steps that need to be taken to make bank accounts safe,” Saunders said. “But this new rule will give peace of mind to many elders, veterans, and disability benefit recipients.” 

      New Federal Rule Protects Social Security, VA Benefits. The rule limits creditors' ability to freeze and take funds from certain bank accounts....

      FDA Traces Sources of Foodborne Illness Outbreak

      Next-generation sequencing provides important clues to traceback investigation

      Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientists have successfully used a new genome sequencing test to examine a 2009-10 foodborne illness outbreak to help trace the source of the infection. 

      A Salmonella Montevideo  outbreak that began early in 2010 was linked to spice rubs on certain salamis and sickened nearly 300 people in 44 states and the District of Columbia. 

      Field investigators collected samples of the suspect product to find the source of the contamination. However, conventional laboratory testing methods could not distinguish between the outbreak involving spiced meat and certain previous Salmonella contamination events. 

      New method

      FDA analysts then turned to next-generation sequencing (NGS) to test 35 samples suspected of being contaminated with the Salmonella strain. The samples came from suppliers, consumers who became ill and a variety of food sources from a broad range of places and times. 

      Test results showed a recent common origin of the outbreak strain -- a single food facility. The results also indicated a single source: a spiced meat rub. 

      The findings supported the information gathered in the field phase of the investigation and suggest an important role for this new tool in augmenting future outbreak investigations.

      FDA Traces Sources of Foodborne Illness OutbreakNext-generation sequencing provides important clues to traceback investigation...

      More Toyota, Lexus Models Recalled

      Accelerator pedal may become trapped by carpet or floor mat

      Toyota is recalling 2.17 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles in the United States to inspect and, if necessary, replace accelerator pedals that may get trapped in floor mats or carpeting. Toyota conducted a massive recall in 2009 to address the same problem.

      Toyota said 20,000 2006 and early 2007 Lexus GS 300 and GS 350 all-wheel-drive sedans will be recalled to modify the shape of the plastic pad embedded in the driver's side floor carpet. Owners of the affected vehicles will be notified in early March.

      If the floor carpet around the accelerator pedal is not properly replaced after service, Toyota said there is a possibility that the plastic pad embedded into the floor carpet may interfere with operation of the accelerator pedal.

      If this occurs, the accelerator pedal may become temporarily stuck in a partially depressed position rather than returning to the idle position. Toyota said it recently received two complaints about the problem.

      In addition, Toyota is recalling 372,000 2004 through 2006 and early 2007 Lexus RX 330, RX 350, and RX 400h units, and about 397,000 Toyota Highlander and Highlander HV vehicles sold from the 2004 through 2006 model years to replace the driver's side floor carpet cover and its two retention clips.

      The Japanese automaker has now recalled a total of 19.2 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles worldwide and more than 13.7 million in the United States to address safety problems since the fall of 2009.

      More Toyota, Lexus Models Recalled. Accelerator pedal may become trapped by carpet or floor mat....

      Credit Unions Keep Free Checking Alive

      Free checking is still around -- you just have to look for it

      It may seem like free checking  is nearing extinction. However, Bankrate's 2nd annual Credit Union Checking Study reveals that free checking accounts are alive and well at many of the nation's top credit unions. 

      Of the 50 credit unions surveyed, 38 of them -- or 76 percent -- offer free checking accounts with no strings attached. When you include credit unions that waive fees if members agree to meet certain conditions, the number jumps even higher. (Read consumer complaints about credit unions and banks).

      "An additional 20 percent of credit unions will waive the fee, usually with direct deposit and/or e-statement," says Greg McBride, CFA, senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com. "Together, that's 96 percent of the credit unions offering checking that is free or can become free with pretty minimal effort." 

      The difference

      In contrast, Bankrate.com's 2010 Checking Study found only 65 percent of banks offered free checking with no strings attached. Why the discrepancy? 

      "It's a derivative of credit unions' structure, as they're not-for-profit," says Lydia Cole, industry analyst for Callahan & Associates, a credit union industry research firm in Washington, D.C. 

      "They certainly need to make profit to build capital and make future investments. But the members are really the owners of the different credit union cooperatives, and so they're not focused on individual product profitability," Cole says. "They don't need to make sure that checking is a profitable product for them or a break-even product." 

      Cole says credit unions often see checking accounts as only a small element of a larger relationship with members. 

      "(Credit unions) can really focus on member relationships and make sure that checking is integrated into an auto loan and a mortgage and a credit card, and altogether the member is profitable and contributes to the credit union's success. But they don't have to make sure that an individual product is profitable," she says. 

      Some fees

      However, credit unions aren't excluded from having to hike the incremental fee and the minimum balance to open an account that nearly all financial institutions deal with every year, says Fred Becker, president of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions in Arlington, Va. 

      "Although inflation's been relatively flat, the cost of basic services is going up -- your utility bills, your taxes -- just like for any other business operation," Becker says. 

      Those annual increases in operating costs are paid for in part by raising credit union fees, he says. 

      Up they go

      And raise fees, they did. To withdraw money from the ATM of a top-50 credit union where you're not a member, you'll pay an average of $2.10 per withdrawal this year – ten cents more than in 2010. Credit union members will also pay a little more to bounce a check this year. Nonsufficient funds (NSF) fees climbed about five percent -- from an average of $24.88 to $26.05. 

      The average minimum balance needed to open a credit union checking account also increased. Last year, the average amount of money you needed to start banking at a credit union was at least $124.94. This year, you'll need to deposit $134.56, an increase of 7.5 percent. 

      If that seems high, you can get a checking account at one of the credit unions that have no minimum opening balance. In the Bankrate survey, 46 percent of the credit unions say they don't require a minimum. 

      "Bankrate.com found that 96 percent of the nation's largest credit unions offer a checking account that is free, or can become free with minimal effort," McBride concludes. "Even with continued declines in the prevalence of free checking, it remains within the grasp of most Americans and credit unions are a viable option."

      Credit Unions Keep Free Checking AliveFree checking is still around -- you just have to look for it...

      Toyota Recalls 2.17 Million More Cars to Fix Acceleration Problems

      Accelerator pedal can be trapped by carpeting or floor mat

      It was just a few weeks ago that federal safety regulators found that Toyota's unintended acceleration incidents were not caused by the automaker's electronic system. But that doesn't mean there haven't been any incidents.

      Now Toyota is recalling 2.17 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles in the United States to inspect and, if necessary, replace accelerator pedals that may get trapped in floor mats or carpeting. Toyota conducted a massive recall in 2009 to address the same problem.

      A 10-month investigation by NASA engineers determined that electronic flaws were not to blame for widespread consumer complaints of unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus models, the U.S. Department of Transportation said this month.

      The Japanese automaker has now recalled a total of 19.2 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles worldwide and more than 13.7 million in the United States to address safety problems since the fall of 2009.

      Toyota said 20,000 2006 and early 2007 Lexus GS 300 and GS 350 all-wheel-drive sedans will be recalled to modify the shape of the plastic pad embedded in the driver's side floor carpet. Owners of the affected vehicles will be notified in early March.

      If the floor carpet around the accelerator pedal is not properly replaced after service, Toyota said there is a possibility that the plastic pad embedded into the floor carpet may interfere with operation of the accelerator pedal.

      If this occurs, the accelerator pedal may become temporarily stuck in a partially depressed position rather than returning to the idle position. Toyota said it recently received two complaints about the problem.

      In addition, Toyota is recalling 372,000 2004 through 2006 and early 2007 Lexus RX 330, RX 350, and RX 400h units, and about 397,000 Toyota Highlander and Highlander HV vehicles sold from the 2004 through 2006 model years to replace the driver's side floor carpet cover and its two retention clips.

      Not electronic

      U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Feb. 8 that federal investigators had found no evidence the automaker's electronic throttle system played a part in incidents of unintended acceleration.

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched the study ten months ago and called on NASA engineers to help determine whether cases of unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus models were caused by any cause other than sticky gas pedals and floor mats that trapped the gas pedals.

      “We enlisted the best and brightest engineers to study Toyota’s electronics system, and the verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended, high-speed acceleration in Toyotas.” LaHood said.

      Toyota Recalls 2.17 Million More Cars to Fix Acceleration Problems. Accelerator pedal can be trapped by carpeting or floor mat....

      Texas Takes Action Against New York Electronics Retailers

      Two firms accused of bait and switch in offering rock bottom prices

      Consumers looking for the best deals on electronics gear sometimes turn to New York-based retailers who offer rock-bottom prices, but Texas officials say some caution may be in order. The low prices aren’t always what they seem.

      The Lone Star State has ratified judgments against Starlight Camera & Video Inc. and Broadway Photo, LLC, both based in New York City. The judgments require both firms to make restitution to Texas consumers.

      In addition, Starlight agreed to cease doing business in Texas and will dissolve as a corporation. The two agreements resolve the Texas Attorney General's investigation into allegations that the defendants misled customers about the descriptions and quality of their electronics products.

      Broadway Photo and its owner Albert Houllou may continue doing business in Texas, but must conduct business in a straightforward manner that does not violate Texas law, said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. In settlement of that lawsuit, the defendants agreed to pay $35,000 in civil penalties and $65,000 in attorneys' fees to the State.

      Tougher penalty for Starlight

      The judgment against Starlight Camera & Video is a $255,000 civil penalty, with $5,000 to be paid up front and the balance to be paid if they violate the judgment or fail to dissolve as a corporation.

      In both cases, the restitution is available to dissatisfied customers who previously filed complaints against the companies, or who file complaints within 90 days of the filing of today's agreed judgments. After providing restitution to their customers, the defendants must provide the attorney general's office a list of all customers to whom it made refunds and the amount of each refund.

      In November 2008, the AG's office charged the two online digital camera and electronics retailers with relying upon unlawful bait-and-switch sales schemes to market their products online.

      According to state investigators, Broadway Photo and Starlight Camera & Video -- both of Brooklyn -- attempted to attract customers by offering the lowest retail prices on price-comparison Websites such as Everyprice.com and Shopcartuse.com. Both of these entities were cited in enforcement actions that Abbott's office filed in 2009.

      According to state investigators, customers who selected merchandise and made credit card purchases via the defendants' Websites were notified that their orders had been processed. Despite the defendants' confirmation notice, customers were subsequently asked to call a specified telephone number to reconfirm their orders.

      Hard upsell

      However, customers who made the requested confirmation call were confronted with aggressive, high-pressure sales pitches that the defendants used to promote overpriced accessories, including memory cards and batteries. The defendants' telemarketers claimed these upgraded accessories were required for the customers' confirmed merchandise to function normally.

      When customers refused the defendants' offers, they were told their purchase was used, refurbished, or a foreign "gray market" model that would be inoperable in the United States. The defendants' telemarketers used this tactic to encourage customers to purchase a new, higher-priced U.S. version, Abbott said.

      If customers refused to upgrade their purchase, the defendants canceled the customers' orders, claiming the products were indefinitely back-ordered. When the defendants actually did ship orders, customers who intended to purchase new merchandise often received used or refurbished products.

      Texas officials caution consumers to be cautious when mail order retailers offer rock bottom prices....

      FTC Asks Court to Shut Down Text Messaging Spammer

      Operation blasted out text message spam at a “mind-boggling” rate, agency alleges

      The Federal Trade Commission asked a federal judge to shut down an operation that allegedly blasted consumers with millions of illegal spam text messages, including many messages that deceptively advertised a mortgage modification website called “Loanmod-gov.net.” The FTC is asking the court to freeze the defendant’s assets.

      According to the FTC complaint, the defendant behind the operation, Phillip A. Flora, sent millions of text messages, pitching loan modification assistance, debt relief, and other services.

      In one 40-day period, Flora sent more than 5.5 million spam text messages, a “mind boggling” rate of about 85 per minute, every minute of every day, according to additional court documents filed by the agency. The FTC alleges that consumers lose money as a result of Flora’s spam text messaging because many of them get stuck paying fees to their mobile carriers to receive the unwanted text messages.

      The text messages told consumers to respond to the message or visit one of the operation’s websites. One of the sites, loanmod-gov.net, used a web address that appeared to be a government web address, claimed to provide “Official Home Loan Modification and Audit Assistance Information,” and displayed a photo of an American flag.

      According to the FTC’s complaint, Flora collects information from consumers who respond to the text messages – even those asking him to stop sending messages. He then sells their contact information to marketers claiming they are “debt settlement leads.”

      The FTC charges that Flora violated the FTC Act by sending unsolicited commercial text messages to consumers, and by misrepresenting that he was affiliated with a government agency. In addition, the FTC charges that he advertised his text message blasting services by sending consumers e-mail spam that violated the CAN-SPAM Act – a law that sets the rules for commercial email. The FTC alleges that his e-mail spam failed to include a way for consumers to “opt-out” of future messages and failed to include the physical mailing address of the sender, as required by the law.

      FTC Asks Court to Shut Down Text Messaging Spammer. Operation blasted out text message spam at a “mind-boggling” rate, agency alleges....

      Supreme Court Revives Lap Belt Suit Against Mazda

      Woman wearing lap belt was killed; others wearing lap-and-shoulder belts survived

      The U.S. Supreme Court has reinstated a wrongful death lawsuit that claims Mazda was negligent in not equipment all vehicle seats with lap-and-shoulder belts instead of simple lap belts.

      The case involves the death of Thanh Williamson, who was killed when her family's 1993 Mazda minivan was struck head-on by a Jeep that broke loose from a motor home that was towing it.

      Ms. Williamson had been sitting in a middle-row seat that was equipped with only a lap belt. Other members of her family were sitting in seats that had lap-and-shoulder belts. She was killed; they survived.

      Federal regulations at the time gave vehicle manufacturers the option to use lap belts in certain inner seats in middle and rear rows.

      A California state court had dismissed the lawsuit, finding that federal regulations superseded state laws.

      The Supreme Court justices were unanimous in their decision that the Williamsons' lawsuit was not pre-empted since "providing manufacturers with this seatbelt choice is not a significant objective of the federal regulation."

      Writing for the court, Justice Stephen Breyer noted that the Transportation Department's (DOT) goal in giving automakers a choice about rear seat belts was based only on the concern that lap-and-shoulder rear belts would not be cost-effective.

      "But that fact - the fact that DOT made a negative judgment about cost effectiveness - cannot by itself show that DOT sought to forbid commonlaw tort suits in which a judge or jury might reach a different conclusion," Breyer wrote, noting that DOT expected costs to drop with innovation.

      Supreme Court Revives Lap Belt Suit Against Mazda. Woman wearing lap belt was killed; others wearing lap-and-shoulder belts survived....

      Rainy Day Accounts Run Dry

      New Bankrate poll reveals that only 52 percent of Americans have more money in emergency savings than in credit card debt

      With unemployment rates still high, analysts believe emergency savings accounts are more important than ever. However, a new Bankrate study shows little more than half of American consumers have more money in savings than credit card debt. 

      Among the findings: 

      • Nearly one out of four Americans, or 23 percent, has more credit card debt than savings;
      • Among people over 65, 26 percent had neither debt nor savings -- the most among age groups;
      • One out of three people from ages 30 to 49 had higher debt than savings -- the highest proportion;
      • At 59 percent, adults under 30 were most likely to report their emergency fund was larger;
      • Only 15 percent of people are more comfortable with their savings now than compared to 12 months ago.

      "Nothing helps you sleep better at night than knowing you have money tucked away for a rainy day," said Greg McBride, CFA, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com. "Yet only 52 percent of Americans have more in their rainy day funds than in credit card debt, and 19 percent have neither debt nor savings, which puts them one unplanned expense away from trouble." 

      Bankrate's Financial Security Index results are based on telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,018 adults, ages 18 and older. The interviews were conducted from Feb. 3 to Feb. 6, 2011, by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. 

      The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is ± 3.6 percentage points.

      Rainy Day Accounts Run DryNew Bankrate poll reveals that only 52 percent of Americans have more money in emergency savings than in credit card debt...

      Don't Fall for Precious Metals Scams

      Surging gold and silver prices can carry dangers for investors

      With gold and silver prices moving higher in the wake of Middle East tensions, investors need to tread cautiously. Not only do they have to carefully pick their entry point, they have to make sure they don't fall for scam artists who -- in the words of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) -- are "putting a new twist on an old scam."

      The FTC has warned that scam artists are touting coins and precious metals as low-risk, high-yield investments to hedge against the economic downturn and fears of a declining U.S. dollar. 

      (Read more about scams).

      Since the 1980s, the commission has brought dozens of cases against fraudulent marketers that hawked gold or silver bullion, rare coins, precious and semi-precious metals, gemstones, oil and gas leases, and fine art as a safe alternative to traditional investments such as stocks and bonds.

      Over the past three decades, the FTC has brought 17 cases against companies that sold overpriced and/or misgraded historic coins for investment purposes. While the companies allegedly falsely marketed their coins as good, safe investments, in reality, these dealers sold them with significant mark-ups, often as high as three-times the prevailing market price.

      In testimony before Congress last year, the FTC said it has identified three main types of recent complaints related to the sale of coins and precious metals - those involving deceptive sales pitches for investments in historic coins, reports of unscrupulous marketers pitching highly leveraged precious metal purchases with the promise that the investments are "safe" or "low-risk," and those regarding "cash for gold" offers where marketers fail to provide consumers with a quote of the value of their precious metal and jewelry before melting it down.

      Investigate Before You Invest

      Investing in bullion or bullion coins is a big decision. If you're thinking about it, the FTC offers this advice:

      • Ask for the coin's melt value. The melt value for virtually all bullion coins and collectible coins is widely available.
      • Consult with a reputable financial advisor you trust who has specialized investment knowledge. You may want to talk to other investors, too.
      • Shop around. Most banks offer gold bullion -- often at a lower markup than dealers. You also can enter the name of the coin into an online search engine to compare prices from other dealers.
      • Get an independent appraisal of the specific asset you're considering. The seller's appraisal might be inflated.
      • Consider additional costs associated with the investment. You may need to buy insurance or a safe deposit box, or you may need to rent offsite storage to safeguard your bullion. These costs will cut into the investment potential of bullion.
      • Walk away from sales pitches that minimize risk and sales representatives who claim that written risk disclosures are just formalities required by the government, and therefore not necessary. Reputable sales reps are upfront about the risk of particular investments.
      • Refuse to "act now," regardless of the consequences. Any sales pitch that urges you to buy immediately is a signal to walk away and keep your money in your pocket.
      • Check out the company by entering its name in a search engine online. Read whether other people have something to say about their experiences with the company. Try to communicate offline if possible to clarify any details. In addition, contact your state Attorney General and local consumer protection agency. Checking with these organizations in the communities where promoters are located is a good idea, but realize that it isn't fool-proof: it just may be too soon for someone to realize they've been defrauded or to have lodged a complaint with the authorities.
      • Ask for a guarantee or certificate of authenticity for the bullion's precious metal content. Research the company behind the guarantee or certificate because certificates of 'authenticity' can be faked.

      Tip-offs to Rip-offs

      Bullion scams often involve false claim about content, rarity or value. Unscrupulous sellers often overprice their coins, lie about the bullion content, or try to pass off ordinary bullion coins as rare collectible coins.

      Some fraudulent dealers may even try to sell coins that aren't bullion coins at all. Others may try to sell bullion pieces with the same design as coins from the U.S. Mint, but in different sizes. Indeed, private mints issue coins that look like bullion coins minted by foreign governments, but may have little or no gold content. Your best defense is to study the market and choose your dealer carefully.

      Unscrupulous dealers may also urge you to invest in precious metals with the false claim that the value of a particular precious metal is about to skyrocket, or that current political and economic conditions indicate that the value of "hard assets" like gold or silver are poised for dramatic increases.

      These sellers may say that you need to act fast or miss out on a low-risk, high-yield investment. What they don't mention is that you're about to enter into a leveraged purchase, which works like this: you pay a fraction of the purchase price of the bullion, say 20 percent, and a lender pays the balance. The lender holds the precious metals you "bought" as collateral for the loan.

      An unscrupulous seller also may charge big fees and commissions that could wipe out your initial investment. If the value of the precious metal you "bought" drops below a margin set by the lender, you may be subject to an equity call because the value of your metal is no longer enough to secure the loan.

      At that point, you have to decide whether to put more money into the investment or tell the lender to sell the metal to pay off the loan. Either way, it's very likely you'll lose some or all of your investment.

      The Federal Trade Commission urges investors to watch out for gold and silver scams....

      'Free Tickets on Southwest' Scam Hits Facebook

      Realistic looking design might dupe more people into clicking malicious link

      Everyone knows the old saying: if it sounds too good to be true, it is. But what many Facebook users may not realize is: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is also.

      Facecrooks, a website that monitors Facebook scams, discovered Sunday that cyber-ne’re-do-wells were posing as Southwest Airlines and conning unsuspecting users into downloading their rogue application by promising free plane tickets.

      This scam is, in many ways, like the others that have come before it: the malicious link is posted by friends or family (all victims of the hoax), the link leads to a screen where the user is asked to download the app in exchange for access to his or her profile information, the scammers then take over the user’s profile to spread the malicious link further.

      However, there are two ways the Southwest scam is different than similar scams from the past.

      The first is the malicious link appears to be spread via the comments function, not status updates.

      So, instead of spamming the user’s dashboard, he or she might see a seemingly random comment from Aunt Helen under a picture the user posted. If the user thinks Aunt Helen is so excited about this deal, she just had to share it as quickly as possible, even in a picture comment, the user might be more tempted to click on the link.

      The second difference is how legitimate the application looks. The scammers appeared to done their homework.

      Naked Security, the IT security blog on Sophos.com, posted a step-by-step look at the application downloading process, revealing the first thing unsuspecting victims see after clicking the malicious link is a website that looks very much like the actual Southwest Airlines homepage.

      Now that more companies are offering special perks to their Facebook friends, users may have a hard time telling the difference between real and fake, especially when the graphics look so similar.

      Using plane tickets to bait potential scam victims is not new. In the past, scammers have posed as JetBlue and Delta Air Lines, offering tempting deals to ensnare their victims.

      And as airline ticket prices continue to soar, Graham Cluley of Sophos.com thinks this is a trend that’s here to stay.

      “Will we see more of these air ticket-related scams in the future on Facebook? I would bet money on it. After all, everyone dreams of the idea of flying off somewhere without having to pay for the privilege,” said Cluley.

      What could be changing, though, is how similar these scam applications look to the real, legitimate sites they’re pretending to be affiliated with. This could make differentiating between real perks offered by companies on Facebook and the scams that much more difficult.

      If you fell victim to the Southwest hoax, Cluley offers some help on how to remove the rogue application from your profile and blocking their access to your information.

      Free Tickets on Southwest Scam Hits Facebook Realistic looking design might dupe more people into clicking malicious link...

      REI Recalls Novara Fusion Bicycles

      Steerer tube can separate from the fork

      REI is recalling about 160 Novara Fusion bicycles. The alloy steerer tube could separate from the fork causing the rider to lose control, posing a fall hazard to consumers.

      The firm has received one report of a steerer tube detaching. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves Novara Fusion bicycles with serial numbers U95Y07321, U96Y28393, or in the sequential range of the last four digits U96Y28876 through U96Y29128. Serial numbers are located on the underside of the bike. The espresso-colored bicycles were sold in two styles, the Step Through and the Fusion. The Step Through was sold in extra small/small, while the Fusion was available in medium, large, and extra large.

      The bicycles were sold by REI stores nationwide and at REI.com from November 2009 to November 2010 for between $600 and $900. They were made in Taiwan.

      Consumers should immediately stop riding the bicycles and contact their local REI store or the REI customer service center to arrange for a replacement fork to be installed free of charge.

      For more information, contact REI at (800) 426-4840 anytime or go to REI's website at http://www.rei.com/help/recall/index.html

      REI Recalls Novara Fusion Bicycles, Steerer tube can separate from the fork....

      Verizon Will Subsidize Motorola XOOM Tablet

      But customers must sign two-year service agreement

      Since Motorola rolled out its XOOM tablet computer at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the technology press has given it generally favorable reviews. Except for one thing.

      At $800, critics expressed strong doubts the device could compete with Apple's iPad, which has more cache and a lower price tag. Now, Verizon Wireless hopes to have dampened that criticism.

      As it announced today that it would begin selling the XOOM February 24, the wireless carrier also announced that it would subsidize the price as well. That is, it will for customers who sign a two-year service agreement.

      Two-year data agreement

      With a two-year service agreement, the XOOM will sell for $600. Without a service agreement, consumers will pay full price, $800.

      Wireless 3G data service for the Motorola XOOM will begin at $20 monthly access for 1GB.  The device will be upgradeable to 4G LTE service at no additional charge in the second quarter of 2011, Verizon said.

      The XOOM is the first device to run Google's new Android 3.0 Honeycomb operating system.  

      Verizon says the Motorola XOOM incorporates the innovations of the Honeycomb user experience that improves on Android favorites such as widgets, multi-tasking, browsing, notifications and customization, as well as featuring the latest Google Mobile services.

      The Motorola XOOM also features full support for tabbed browsing and support for the Adobe Flash Player, available soon as a free download, and setting it apart from its Apple counterpart.

      The Motorola XOOM is built around a 1GHz dual-core processor and 10.1-inch widescreen HD display.  The sleek design features a front-facing 2-megapixel camera for video chats, as well as a rear-facing 5-megapixel camera that captures video in 720p HD.

      Verizon Wireless customers who sign a two-year service agreement may purchase a Motorola XOOM for $600 instead of $800....

      FDA Warns Antipsychotic Drugs Pose Risks in Pregnancy

      Entire class of drugs can cause abnormal muscle movements and withdrawal symptoms in newborns

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is informing healthcare professionals that it has updated the Pregnancy section of drug labels for the entire class of antipsychotic drugs.

      The new drug labels now contain more and consistent information about the potential risk for abnormal muscle movements (extrapyramidal signs or EPS) and withdrawal symptoms in newborns whose mothers were treated with these drugs during the third trimester of pregnancy. 

      Antipsychotic drugs are used to treat symptoms of psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and have been shown to improve daily functioning in individuals with these disorders. Common brand names for antipsychotic drugs include Haldol, Clozaril, Risperdal, Zyprexa, Seroquel, Abilify, Geodon, and Invega (see List of Antipsychotic Drugs below). 

      Healthcare professionals should be aware of the effects of antipsychotic medications on newborns when the medications are used during pregnancy. Patients should not stop taking these medications if they become pregnant without talking to their healthcare professional, as abruptly stopping antipsychotic medications can cause significant complications for treatment. 

      The symptoms of EPS and withdrawal in newborns may include agitation, abnormally increased or decreased muscle tone, tremor, sleepiness, severe difficulty breathing, and difficulty in feeding. In some newborns, the symptoms subside within hours or days and do not require specific treatment; other newborns may require longer hospital stays.

      Additional Information for Patients

      • Notify your healthcare professional if you become pregnant or intend to become pregnant while taking an antipsychotic medication.

      • Do not stop taking your antipsychotic medication if you become pregnant without first talking to your healthcare professional. Abruptly stopping antipsychotic medication can cause significant complications in your treatment.

      • Talk to your healthcare professional if you have concerns about any treatment you are receiving during pregnancy.

      • Report serious side effects from the use of antipsychotic drugs to the FDA MedWatch program.

      List of Antipsychotic Drugs

      Brand Name

      Generic Name

      Abilify

      aripiprazole

      Clozaril

      clozapine

      FazaClo ODT

      clozapine

      Fanapt

      iloperidone

      Geodon

      ziprasidone

      Haldol

      haloperidol

      Invega

      paliperidone

      Invega Sustenna

      paliperidone

      Loxitane

      loxapine

      Moban

      molindone

      Navane

      thiothixene

      Orap

      pimozide

      Risperdal

      risperidone

      Risperdal Consta

      risperidone

      Saphris

      asenapine

      Seroquel

      quetiapine

      Seroquel XR

      quetiapine

      Stelazine

      trifluoperazine

      Thorazine

      chlorpromazine

      Zyprexa

      olanzapine

      Zyprexa Relprevv

      olanzapine

      Zyprexa Zydis

      olanzapine

      Symbyax

      olanzapine and fluoxetine

      No Current Brand Name

      fluphenazine

      No Current Brand Name

      perphenazine

      No Current Brand Name

      perphenazine and amitriptyline

      No Current Brand Name

      prochlorperazine

      No Current Brand Name

      thioridazine

      FDA Warns Antipsychotic Drugs Pose Risks in Pregnancy. Entire class of drugs can cause abnormal muscle movements and withdrawal symptoms in newborns....

      Borders Closings Creating a Bargain Bonanza - But It Still Pays tobe Careful

      It's easy to get carried away at close-out sales. Here are a few tips for the crafty consumer

      As hundreds of Borders bookstores prepare to close forever, bookworms and bargain-hunters are flocking to snap up close-out bargains on books, CDs, DVDs, stationery and gift items. Check-out lines are snaking onto sidewalks at some stores around the country, according to press reports.

      But consumers need to be careful. Close-out sales are often not what they seem and prices are not always as heavily discounted as the price tags would have you believe.

      When Consumer Reports monitored the 2009 liquidation sale at Circuit City, it found that the “original” prices had been inflated by 100 percent or more. That's obviously not a problem with books, which have the publisher's price printed on the cover, but pricing on other items can be a bit mysterious.

      How to be sure you're getting a good deal?

      The simplest is to keep your smart phone handy and compare the Borders close-out price with the prices its victorious competitor, Amazon, is offering. To make it even easier, Amazon offers a free smart phone app, Amazon Mobile, that makes it easy to compare prices, read reviews and shop on the go.

      Web sites like PriceGrabber.com and NextTag.com can also provide easy price comparisons.

      Remember too that bargains are great but that most purchases at close-out sales are final. That means no returns, no exchanges, no refunds. It's possible you might – just might – be able to return a defective item if you save your receipt. Some states are stricter about this than others, so don't count on it.

      Borders says that gift cards, Borders Rewards discounts and other credits will be accepted at stores that are closing as well as those that are staying open, at least for now. But as always, it's a good idea to use rewards sooner rather than later.

      It's also a good idea to make your purchase with a credit card, so that if there's a problem you have a little more recourse than you do with a cash sale.

      And last but not least, remember that bargains are great but a purchase isn't a bargain if it's something you don't really need.

      Borders Closings Creating a Bargain Bonanze - But It Still Pays to be Careful. It's easy to get carried away at close-out sales....

      Illegal Online Cigarette Sales Drop Sharply

      Ban on credit card payments and commercial shipping help, study says

      If people can't use credit cards to purchase cigarettes online, then a lot fewer cigarettes will be sold this way. That's the finding of a new study by researchers at the University of North Carolina.

      The study, published in the journal PLoS One, found that banning credit card payments and the use of commercial shippers to deliver to deliver the smokes lowered the number of vendors offering cigarettes online and reduced consumer traffic to the most popular cigarette-selling websites.

      "Most Internet vendors offer tax-free cigarettes, making them cheaper than those sold at stores," said Kurt Ribisl, Ph.D., lead author of the study and associate professor of health behavior and health education in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. "This undermines the impact that higher prices have on reducing smoking."

      Selling to minors

      Ribisl said that aside from violating tax laws, most online cigarette vendors have weak age verification and sell to minors. This led to landmark voluntary agreements in 2005 with major credit card companies and private shippers to ban payment transactions and bar commercial shippers from transporting all Internet cigarette sales.

      The study is believed to be the first such research examining the impact of those agreements.

      Ribisl and a team of UNC researchers studied the bans' effectiveness by examining the sales practices of hundreds of websites one year before and two years after the agreements went into effect. They also compared the number of unique monthly visitors to the 50 most popular cigarette vendor sites to determine whether the bans altered web traffic.

      Death knell for websites

      The study found that following the bans, many websites closed down. There also was a 3.5-fold decline in traffic to the 50 most popular vendor sites, resulting in an estimated 1.25 million fewer visits per month before the end of the 2005. And although an influx of new vendors initially saw a net increase in the number of sites, their numbers fell markedly over the following year, resulting in an overall drop in the total number of vendors.

      Researchers also found that the proportion of vendors accepting credit cards and PayPal dropped from 99.2 percent to 37.4 percent after the bans, and the proportion offering to ship via UPS, FedEx and other commercial shippers dropped from 32.2 percent to 5.6 percent.

      However, there was a corresponding increase in vendors offering non-banned payment options, such as personal checks, and shipping options, including the U.S. Postal Service, which did not ban cigarettes.

      This indicated that the Internet vendors actively exploited loopholes in the voluntary agreements, the study noted, although a new federal law signed by President Obama last year has strengthened the provisions of the voluntary agreements and made tobacco nonmailable matter through the U.S. Postal Service.

      Researchers say online sales of cigarettes are down sharply, thanks to bans on using credit cards for payments and commercial shipping firms for delivery....

      Couple Says Adoption Lawyer Failed to Warn of Son's Medical Problems

      Parents say they would never have adopted their son had they known of neurological issues

      This could make for awkward dinner conversation a few years down the road. 

      A New York couple is suing their adoption lawyers, claiming  they failed to warn them about their adopted son's serious medical problems. Lynell and Victor Jeffrey say they would never have adopted Ellington had they known of his “serious neurological deficits.” 

      The suit names adoption attorneys Aaron Britvan and Alyssa Seinden, who advised the couple when they adopted Ellington in 2006. Three months after the adoption, a CAT scan revealed Ellington's neurological problems. 

      The Jeffreys first sued Britvan and Seinden in Indiana -- where Ellington was born -- but that court threw the suit out, ruling that it didn't have jurisdiction. 

      Under New York law, adoption attorneys are required to inform prospective parents of any medical problems that the child has. 

      Lawyer: Suit “an abomination”

      Scott Agulnick, who is representing Seinden in the suit, told the Daily Mail, “I hate to say it, but it almost seems like [the Jeffreys] have Buyers’ Remorse.” 

      “Alyssa has dedicated her career to helping people adopt and this is how she was repaid,” Agulnick said, adding that the suit was “an abomination.” 

      Britvan's lawyer, Caryn Lilling, echoed Agulnick's disgust, and predicted that her client will prevail. “This case was thrown out in Indiana, and it will be thrown out [in New York] as well,” she said. 

      The Jeffreys insist that they love their son, but that they want justice for the four years of pain they have suffered. 

      “Ellington is a wonderful little boy, but this has been hard,” Lynell told the New York Post

      At least they didn't send him back

      As Gothamist pointed out, it could be worse: the Jeffreys could have opted to ship Ellington back to Indiana. That's what happened last April to Justin Artyem Hansen (born Artyem Saviliev), whose mother sent him back to his native Russia with a note citing psychological problems. 

      The Tennessee mother's return of seven-year-old Justin set off an international feud, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev calling the act “a monstrous deed,” and citing his “special concern” for the way that Russian adoptees were being treated by their new families in the U.S. 

      About a week after the incident, Russia halted all adoptions into the U.S., with a Russian official contending that it was “big business” for U.S. adoption agencies to find foreign parents, since it is often much more profitable to offer children to foreigners than to Russian parents. 

      “We must, as much as possible, keep our children in our country, and keep them safe here,” the official, Pavel A. Astakhov, toldThe New York Times.  

      Couple Says Adoption Lawyer Failed to Warn of Son's Medical Problems Parent say they would never have adopted their son had they known of neurological iss...

      Judge Scolds Obama Administration for Drilling Permit Delays

      Judge who struck down administration's drilling ban calls delays 'increasingly unreasonable'

      The same Louisiana federal judge who overturned the Obama administration's Gulf drilling ban recently took the Administration to task for what he called “increasingly unreasonable” delays in making decisions regarding permit applications for drilling in the Gulf. 

      After the Deepwater Horizon disaster last April, the Interior Department imposed two consecutive blanket moratoriums on drilling in the Gulf, which were in effect until October 12. According to the court, however, “even after [Interior Secretary Ken Salazar] formally lifted the second moratorium ... permits for deepwater drilling activities have not been processed; little to no deepwater drilling has resumed.” 

      This is due in large part to new standards imposed by the Interior Department that serve as prerequisites to a drilling permit being granted. In other words, in order for its drilling permit to even be processed, a company must show that it is in compliance with the new standards. 

      Backlogged drilling applications

      At issue in the action, brought by Ensco Offshore Co. against Salazar, was what Ensco contended were “intentional” delays by the Interior Department in processing its application. Ensco says that its drilling permits have been on hold -- neither approved nor denied by the government -- for at least four months. 

      “The government responds,” the court wrote, “that its strained resources and the demands of regulatory compliance necessarily produce the delays at issue.” 

      “It is undisputed,” the court said, “that before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, permits were processed, on average, in two weeks' time. In stark contrast, the five permits at issue have been pending from four to some nine months.” 

      The court wrote that the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) -- a 60-year-old piece of legislation establishing federal control over seabeds outside state boundaries -- “establishes a non-discretionary duty on the Department of Interior to act, favorably or unfavorably, on drilling permit applications. Although OSCLA grants the Secretary discretion to decide whether to review permit applications ... the Court holds that once the Secretary exercises that discretion, the government is under a duty to act by either granting or denying a permit application within a reasonable time.” 

      Judicial impatience? 

      The court's order signals a potentially decreasing amount of patience -- at least in the judiciary -- with regulatory delays stemming from the ten-month-old spill. The court wrote that “in the wake of the disastrous BP spill, some delays are of course understandable.” 

      “But now, nearly a year after the spill occurred,” the court wrote, “delays, particularly those of the length at issue here, become increasingly unreasonable … The permitting backlog becomes increasingly inexcusable. Perhaps it is reasonable for permit applications to wait more than two weeks in a necessarily more regulated environment. Delays of four months and more in the permitting process, however, are unreasonable, unacceptable, and unjustified by the evidence before the Court.” 

      Controversial judge 

      The judge who wrote the order -- Martin L.C. Feldman -- is controversial, especially with regard to oil-related litigation. He is the same judge who, last June, overturned the Obama administration's moratorium on oil drilling in the Gulf, which had been imposed in the weeks following the Deepwater Horizon spill. 

      Shortly after that order was issued, it was reported that Judge Feldman has “extensive investments in the energy industry,” as the New York Daily Newsput it. The paper reported that Judge Feldman held around $15,000 in Transocean stock in 2008. Transocean owned the Deepwater Horizon rig, which caused the environmental calamity that consumed the world last April and May. 

      The court ordered the Interior Department to act on Ensco's permit application within thirty days of the order, “and simultaneously report to the Court its compliance.”

      Judge Scolds Obama Administration for Drilling Permit Delays Same judge who struck down administration's drilling ban calls delays 'increasingly unreasona...

      Florida Tax Preparer Banned

      Feds say tax preparer overstated deductions

      The U.S. Justice Department reports a Florida woman has been permanently barred from preparing federal income tax returns for others, and her former customers can expect a close examination by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

      The injunction order, to which Milagros Espinal consented, requires her to provide a copy of the order to her customers, publish a copy of the order in The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, and turn over to the government information identifying her customers.

      According to the complaint, since at least 2004, Espinal, of Hialeah, Fla., has routinely prepared tax returns containing fabricated or overstated deductions and improper or false claims for tax credits, such as the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit.  

      The government estimates that her return preparation resulted in an understatement of her customers' federal income tax liabilities of $10 million or more between 2004 and 2007.   She allegedly prepared at least 2,000 returns during that period.

      In the past 10 years, the Justice Department's Tax Division said it has obtained hundreds of injunctions to stop the promotion of tax fraud schemes and the preparation of fraudulent returns.  

      The Justice Department has announced another tax preparer has been "banned for life" from preparing taxes....

      Dividend Stocks Can Give Your Investments A Boost

      But get sound advice before investing

      Where does one find a decent return on an investment these days? For millions of Baby Boomers contemplating retirement, it's more than a rhetorical question.

      A report by the Wall Street Journal shows the soon-to-retire generation, by and large, has not saved enough in their retirement accounts and has some catching up to do. Others who have put their money in certificates of deposit (CDs) are earning a paltry return.

      Those whose investment has been wrapped up in their homes have seen values decline 30 percent or more. For Americans who have accumulated savings, the million-dollar question is where to invest it.

      (Read consumer complaints about investment companies).

      Get good advice

      Before investing in anything, it is wise to consult a financial advisor who is completely objective. In other words, an advisor who does not sell an investment product but only offers financial advice for a fee. One question to ask them is about dividend-producing blue chip stocks.

      Not all stocks pay a dividend, but many do. Paying a dividend is one way a company returns a portion of its profits directly to its shareholders. So, before a company can pay a dividend, it needs to be profitable.

      Blue-chip dividends

      While banks are paying a little more than one percent on CDs, blue chip companies like Johnson & Johnson, Campbell Soup, General Mills, Chevron, and Kimberly Clark, pay dividends of more than three percent. Altria, Eli Lilly, Bristol-Myers Squibb, AT&T and Verizon, pay dividends in excess of five percent.

      That means if you invested $100,000 in a balanced, diversified portfolio of these high-yield stocks that yielded on average four percent, your money would earn $4000 a year in dividends, as long as the companies continued to pay those dividends. You would receive the dividends, usually paid quarterly, whether the price of the stock went up or down.

      For funds in a tax-deferred retirement account, you might ask your financial advisor about master limited partnerships (MLP) that have issued common stock. MLP dividends tend to be even higher, and while the tax reporting requirements can make them a nuisance for small investors, there are no tax reporting requirements if the shares are owned by a retirement account.

      Too high can be a turn off

      That said, stocks that pay a very high dividend are often a red flag and should be avoided. It all depends on why the yield is high.

      The dividend is based on the price of the stock. If a $10 stock pays a dividend of $1 per share, for example, that's a yield of 10 percent. But the question to pose is, can the company really afford to pay the dividend?

      Let's assume the company set the dividend at $1 per share when the stock was trading at $50, a conservative yield of two percent. But if the stock price plunged from $50 to $10, the yield would shoot up to 10 percent.

      The question you would have to ask, however, is why did the stock price plunge, and how much longer will the company be able to pay $1 per share.

      Bye-bye dividend

      Last year, before the Gulf oil spill, British Petroleum (BP) paid a dividend close to eight percent. However, in the wake of the oil spill, it eliminated its dividend entirely, since it was required to pay billions for the clean up.

      And therein lies the risk with any kind of equity, including dividend-producing stocks. There is no guarantee that the dividend will continue, though most blue-chip companies have a long, stable history of paying out to shareholders. Still, it is a risk that must be carefully considered. The BP example shows that bad things can happen to the most rock-solid companies.

      When looking at a company's dividend, compare it to the company's earnings per share. If the dividend is only half the earnings, that's a pretty good sign. If it isn't, you should ask yourself how the company can sustain that dividend.

      However, before deciding where to invest your money, seek sound financial advice and do plenty of homework.

      Investors looking for a better return have turned to dividend-producing stocks....

      Alibaba CEO Resigns Amid e-Fraud Scandal

      Probe finds widespread fraud on the business-to-business site

      Two top managers are leaving the business-to-business site Alibaba.com after an investigation found widespread fraud on the site, some of it allegedly involving Alibaba staff.

      Alibaba is a global exchange site, where businesses and suppliers can connect. It has experienced rapid growth but lately has been plagued by complaints of fraud and theft. Alibaba's parent company also operates China's largest domestic retail site, Taobao, where businesses and individuals sell to consumers.

      The company said today that CEO David Wei and COO Elvis Lee were both resigning after an internal investigation found that at least 2,300 sellers on the site had committed fraud, sometimes with the help of the Alibaba sales staff.

      The company said the senior managers weren't involved in the fraud but felt that they should take responsibility for it.

      The controversy revolves around the “Gold Supplier” credentials that sellers can display on the site after they go through a verification process. But Alibaba said that about 100 employees were “directly responsible” for allowing some scam artists to circumvent the verification process.

      As a result, some buyers ordered parts or finished goods from what they thought were verified, reputable businesses. Some never receive the orders and others complained their orders were incomplete or otherwise unsatisfactory.

      Most of the fraud victims lost less than $1,200, Alibaba said.

      Alibaba CEO Resigns Amid e-Fraud Scandal. Probe finds widespread fraud on the business-to-business site....

      FTC Asked to Intervene in 'Natural' Food Fight

      Organic watchdog says Peace Cereal misrepresents itself

      The Cornucopia Institute, an organization that calls itself a watchdog of the organic food industry hasfiled a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that Hearthside Food Solutions, which manufactures Peace Cereal, is misleading consumers by suggesting that its “natural” breakfast cereals are grown and processed without pesticides.

      The Peace Cereal website states that “natural foods are foods without pesticides or artificial additives, as well as being minimally processed and preservative-free,” Cornucopia said.

      But Cornucopia said that unlike organics, there is no federally regulated standard for the term “natural” on foods, which may contain conventional, non-organic ingredients.

      Natural foods are essentially conventional foods with a higher price tag, whereas organic foods are grown without the use of toxic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers,”saidCharlotte Vallaeys, Farm and Food Policy Analyst with Cornucopia. “Stating that ‘natural foods’ are ‘without pesticides’ is completely without basis, and highly misleading to consumers.”

      Peace Cereal, whose products were formerly certified organic, has been using conventional ingredients since 2008, Cornucopia said. Conventional ingredients are routinely sprayed with toxic pesticides and herbicides. Without organic certification, consumers cannot be assured that ingredients used in conventional products like Peace Cereal are truly “without pesticides.”

      The Cornucopia Institute is a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group. The group recently conducted an investigation which found numerous stores in several states that carried “organic” signs on shelves of the non-organic Peace Cereal, as well as mislabeled bulk bins with non-organic granola made by the same company as Peace Cereal.

      We view this company as a’ bad actor,’” states Mark A. Kastel, Codirector of Cornucopia. “This company is clearly trying to profit from the good name and reputation of organics, and exploiting consumer trust.”

      Cornucopia noted, that, “adding insult to injury,” non-organic Peace Cereal is often priced higher than name brand certified organic breakfast cereals on supermarket shelves.

      Consumers confused

      Recent polls show that consumers are already confused about the difference between the terms “natural” and “organic.” The “organic” term carries real meaning and legal weight, since organic producers must, by law, adhere to a congressionally-mandated uniform set of federal standards. Meanwhile, the term “natural” is unregulated.

      Despite this difference, a survey of 1006 consumers by The Shelton Group, a Tennessee-based research firm, found that 31 percent of respondents said “100 percent natural” is the most desirable eco-friendly product label claim.

      This misinformation has been a key component of corporate agribusinesses’'natural'marketing blitz for years. Companies like Hearthside, which makes Peace Cereal, are contributing to this consumer confusion by pretending that ‘natural’ is equivalent to ‘organic,’” saidVallaeys.

      Cornucopia says that Hearthside has “stepped over a line,” doing more than engaging in marketing hyperbole, by disseminating factually inaccurate statements that economically disadvantage organic competitors.

      FTC Asked to Intervene in 'Natural' Food Fight. Organic watchdog says Peace Cereal misrepresents itself....

      Securities Attorney, Five Others Indicted In Stock Manipulation Scheme

      Pump and dump scheme left investors holding virtually worthless stock, feds allege

      Six individuals, including a securities attorney, have been charged in an indictment with defrauding investors in a stock manipulation scheme from 2003 to 2008.

      According to the indictment, Jonathan Randall Curshen, 46, of Sarasota, Florida was the principal behind Red Sea Management and Sentry Global Securities, two companies located in San Jose, Costa Rica, that provided offshore accounts and facilitated trading in penny stocks.

      (Read more consumer complaints about investment companies).

      The indictment alleges that Eric Ariav Weinbaum, 37, and Izhack Zigdon, 47, of Israel took control of the outstanding shares of a company called CO2 Tech, which traded in the over-the-counter market through listings on Pink Sheets, an inter-dealer electronic quotation and trading system.

      Weinbaum and Zigdon allegedly obtained the shares by retaining Krome who allegedly employed a method to evade federal securities registration requirements in order to provide co-conspirators with millions of unregistered and "free-trading" shares of CO2 Tech that the co-conspirators could not have otherwise legally obtained.

      "The indictment unsealed today alleges that the defendants used their access and training to illegally manipulate stock prices for their own advantage," said Lanny A. Breuer. "Pump-and-dump schemes like the one alleged in this case leave legitimate investors holding worthless stocks.”

      The indictment alleges that the shares were subsequently sold to the general investing public through Sentry Global's stock trading floor in Costa Rica. According to the indictment, the co-conspirators were able to hide from the investing public the actual financial condition and business operations of the company by evading the registration requirements.

      The indictment also alleges that Robert Lloyd Weidenbaum, 44, of Miami was paid approximately $1 million by Weinbaum and Zigdon to participate in sham stock trades of CO2 Tech to make it appear that there were genuine investors in the market that were buying the shares.

      As alleged in the indictment, coordinated trades were often made between the co-conspirators in conjunction with the issuance of false and misleading press releases that were designed to make CO2 Tech appear that it had significant business prospects. According to these press releases, CO2 Tech purported to have a business relationship with Boeing to reduce polluting gases emitted from airplanes. The indictment alleges that these relationships never existed.

      After fraudulently "pumping" the market price and demand for CO2 Tech stock through these press releases and coordinated trades, the defendants "dumped" shares by selling them for large profits to the general investing public in the over-the-counter market through listings on Pink Sheets. These shares were allegedly purchased by unsuspecting investors, including in the Southern District of Florida, and were often rendered virtually worthless.

      Securities Attorney, Five Others Indicted In Stock Manipulation Scheme. Pump and dump scheme left investors holding virtually worthless stock, feds allege....

      Why Waking Up Is Hard To Do

      Study suggests it may not be your fault when you oversleep -- really

      If “five more minutes” is part of your normal morning routine, you can blame it on the absence of the “24” gene -- one of the core genes of the circadian clock. 

      The circadian clock drives -- among other things -- when an organism wakes up and when it sleeps. According to new research, the absence of the gene confuses the rhythm of the common fruit fly’s sleep-wake cycle, making it harder for the flies to wake up. 

      The research, published in the journal Nature, has implications for humans. 

      The 24 gene

      “The function of a clock is to tell your system to be prepared, that the sun is rising, and it’s time to get up,” says Ravi Allada, professor of neurobiology and physiology at Northwestern University. “The flies without the 24 gene did not become much more active before dawn. The equivalent in humans would be someone who has trouble getting out of bed in the morning.” 

      Period (per) is a gene in fruit flies that encodes a protein, called PER, which regulates circadian rhythm. Twenty-four is critically important to producing this key clock protein -- when it isn’t present, very little PER protein is found in the neurons of the brain, and the fly’s sleep-wake rhythm is disturbed. 

      It seems it was fate that the gene would be important in regulating the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. The gene’s generic name is CG4857, and the numbers add up to 24, earning it the 24 nickname. (The fruit fly’s genome was sequenced in 2000, but until now the function of this gene was unknown.) 

      The known core mechanisms of the circadian clock -- both in flies and humans -- involve the process of transcription, where RNA is produced from DNA. A portion of the control system called a transcriptional feedback loop also is important. 

      Clock components

      In trying to identify new clock components, a new player in the system was identified --  the gene 24. But instead of operating in the process of transcription, it operates in the process of translation: translating proteins from RNA. 

      Twenty-four appears to be a protein that promotes translation of period RNA to protein.

      “This really defines a new mechanism by which circadian clocks are functioning,” Allada says. “We found that 24 has a really strong and critical role in translating a key clock protein. Translation really wasn’t appreciated before as having such an important role in the process.” 

      The researchers believe it is likely that a mechanism similar to that described for the fly gene 24 will be evolutionarily conserved and found in humans. 

      Disturbed sleep cycles

      Working with scientists at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Allada used a Drosophila library at KAIST to screen the behavior of 4,000 different flies looking for flies whose sleep-wake cycles were awry. 

      Each fly had a different overexpressed gene and thus different behavior. The fly with the most dramatic change was one with a longer cycle than normal, 26 hours instead of 24.

      The overexpressed gene in this fly was CG4857, which was then removed, or knocked out in the flies. These flies had poor sleep-wake rhythm and would sleep and wake at all times of day. 

      The researchers found very little of the critical PER protein in the brain neurons despite the fact that per RNA is likely produced in the neurons. Without 24 the RNA was not translated into the PER protein, leading to dysfunction. 

      The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Research Foundation of Korea.

      Why Waking Up Is Hard To DoStudy suggests it may not be your fault when you oversleep -- really...

      New Rules for Mortage Brokers Take Effect April 1

      Regulatory change is designed to protect borrowers

      There were many fingers of blame when the housing market collapsed, but one was pointed squarely at the mortgage industry -- mortgage brokers in particular.

      As part of it attempt to reform the industry, the U.S. Federal Reserve drafted new compensation rules for mortgage brokers, and those new rules go into effect April 1. The basic aspect of the new rule requires consumers getting a mortgage through a broker must be offered the lowest possible rate and fees for which they qualify.

      The Fed's new rules is known as the Loan Originator Compensation amendment to Regulation Z. Regulation Z prohibits certain practices relating to payments made to compensate mortgage brokers and other loan originators. The goal of the amendments is to protect consumers in the mortgage market from unfair practices involving compensation paid to loan originators, according to the Fed.

      In the middle of the transaction

      Mortgage brokers are loan originators who market their lending services directly to consumers, except they have no money to actually pay the loans. They arrange with a bank or mortgage lender to actually provide the funds. They are in the middle of the transaction, earning commissions and fees from the entity that actually makes the loan.

      During the housing boom, some mortgage brokers steered customers to loans that were the most lucrative for them, and might not have been in the best interests of the consumer.

      The new prohibitions related to mortgage originator compensation and steering apply to closed-end consumer loans secured by a home or real property that includes a dwelling. The rule does not apply to open-end home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) or time-share transactions. It also does not apply to loans secured by real property if the property does not include a dwelling.

      Definition of loan originator

      "For purposes of these rules, loan originators are defined to include mortgage brokers, who may be natural persons or mortgage broker companies," the Fed said in an explanation of the new rule. "This includes companies that close loans in their own names but use table-funding from a third party.  The term loan originator also includes employees of creditors and employees of mortgage brokers that originate loans."

      Creditors are excluded from the definition of a loan originator when they do not use table funding, whether they are a depository institution or a non-depository mortgage company, but employees of such entities are loan originators.

      Table funding is an option that allows brokers approved for Wholesale Traditional Lending to originate, process and close loans in their name. But at the time of settlement, the loan is transferred to the lender. And the lender simultaneously advances funds for the loan.

      Regulates compensation

      The new rule prohibits a creditor or any other person from paying, directly or indirectly, compensation to a mortgage broker or any other loan originator that is based on a mortgage transaction's terms or conditions, except the amount of credit extended. The rule also prohibits any person from paying compensation to a loan originator for a particular transaction if the consumer pays the loan originator's compensation directly.

      The rule also prohibits a loan originator from steering a consumer to consummate a loan that provides the loan originator with greater compensation, as compared to other transactions the loan originator offered or could have offered to the consumer, unless the loan is in the consumer's interest. The rule provides a safe harbor to facilitate compliance with the prohibition on steering.

      Creditors who compensate loan originators must retain records to evidence compliance with Regulation Z for at least two years after a mortgage transaction is consummated.

      Compliance with these rules is mandatory beginning on April 1, 2011. the House Financial Services Committee has said that it will examine how these rules will be implemented, and what effect they will have on consumers. Mike Anderson, a spokesman for the National Association of Mortgage Brokers, says the effect of the new rule will be higher costs for consumers and lower compensation for independent mortgage brokers.

      The Federal Reserve's new rule covering mortgage brokers takes effect April 1....

      How To Protect Yourself From Common Scams

      Consumer Reports Money Adviser looks at schemes and solutions

      Whether it’s fake checks, bogus products and services or identity theft, it seems there’s always someone out there trying to make suckers out of us. Scams can cost consumers hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. 

      It’s not easy to spot a scam, even for savvy consumers. The editors of Consumer Reports Money Adviser point out some common schemes and the precautions you can take: 

      Merchandise fraud

      Say you find a really great deal on a digital camera at an online retailer. But shortly after placing your order, you get a phone call from a company representative trying to sell you extra lenses, a fancy case, and other pricey add-ons. You refuse the high-pressure sales pitch, and later you’re notified that the camera is no longer in stock. Or it never arrives.     

      What to do. Check out sellers you’re unfamiliar with before buying anything from them. To start, find out whether a company has a report and rating with the Better Business Bureau (BBB). If you’re victimized after paying with cash or by check, you could be out of luck. So use a credit card, especially when buying online or over the phone. 

      If the order doesn’t arrive, you can challenge the purchase under federal credit-card rules. Debit-card purchases offer less protection, although some banks voluntarily provide additional safeguards. 

      Phishing, spoofing, and identity theft

      Scammers use e-mail messages, phone calls, and other ways to trick people into revealing their passwords, credit-card and Social Security numbers, and other personal information they can use to steal identities, open credit lines, and the like. 

      What to do. Don’t respond to e-mail messages or phone calls asking for your passwords or other personal information, no matter how urgent the appeal. Instead, contact your bank or other party to see if it made the request. Don’t click on hyperlinks you receive in e-mail messages, and carefully type Web addresses into your browser to avoid typos. 

      Scammers sometimes set up bogus sites using common misspellings of legitimate web addresses, a practice known as “typosquatting.” Keep your computer’s antivirus and antiphishing software up-to-date. 

      Phony charities 

      It could come as e-mail or a phone call urging you to help some cause that might be in the news or tugs at your heartstrings. Some charities are outright frauds; others do little, if anything, to help a cause. 

      What to do. Don’t respond immediately to a solicitation. Instead, check out the group with the major charity watchdogs: the American Institute of Philanthropy; the BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance; and the Charity Navigator. And make sure you’re dealing with the right group. Many con artists use names similar to legitimate charities. 

      For local groups that don’t appear on watchdog reports, ask the charity for further information, or donate through a local fundraising federation, such as the United Way, that screens groups. 

      Sweepstakes scams

      Who doesn’t want to win a big prize? But if you respond to mail declaring that you’re a finalist, or even a winner, the only ones who’ll be stuffing their pockets will be the scammers who sent it to you. Many of these mailings or prize-related phone calls imply that buying something increases your chances of winning. 

      In another variation, you might be told that you have to mail an advance payment to cover taxes, shipping and handling, or other incidental costs of processing or delivering your fabulous prize. Of course, you’ll get nothing in return. 

      What to do. By law, buying services or merchandise can’t increase your odds of winning a sweepstakes. Just saying no if you’re asked to respond to a prize or sweepstakes promotion will increase your odds -- of not getting ripped off. 

      Advance-fee loans

      This one involves companies promising to get you a loan or credit card even if you have bad credit. But after paying the required fee, you might not hear from the company again, or you might be offered a debit or stored-value card. 

      Such offers appear in ads or on Websites run by companies that engage in this type of “service.” It’s illegal for a company doing business by phone to promise a loan and require a fee before it’s delivered. 

      What to do. Avoid companies that promise to get you a loan but don’t seem interested in your credit history, the FTC warns. And never pay an advance fee for a loan, even if it’s for “insurance,” “processing,” or “paperwork.”

      How To Protect Yourself From Common Scams Consumer Reports Money Adviser looks at schemes and solutions ...

      Senate Passes Airline Passengers Bill of Rights

      Amendment attached to FAA Reauthorization Bill

      The Transportation Department (DOT)already has toughened rules for airlines regarding tarmac delays. Now the U.S. Senate is seeking to codify those changes into law, enacting the Airline Passengers Bill of Rights.

      The measure, authored by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME), was included as an amendment to the Senate Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization bill.

      Three-hour rule

      The protections include the so-called  "three-hour rule," which requires airlines to give passengers the option of returning to the terminal if they have been stuck on a plane for longer than three hours.

      The FAA bill also would require airlines to develop contingency plans -- approved by the FAA -- to ensure that passengers are provided with adequate food, water and restrooms, and allowed to deplane in the event of a lengthy tarmac delay.

      In addition, the Boxer and Snowe added an amendment that would require air carriers to post up front the dimensions of a child safety seat that can be used on each aircraft operated by the air carrier to enable passengers to determine which child safety seats can be used on those aircraft.

      Consumer victory

      "The Senate's vote is a huge victory for job creation, for the safety of air travel and for protecting the rights of airline passengers nationwide," said Kate Hanni, president of FlyersRights.org, a consumer group. "The new Boxer-Snowe amendment for protecting our most vulnerable infants in FAA approved CRS restraints, is a giant step forward in protecting those who cannot advocate for themselves."

      The FAA Reauthorization Act will support 280,000 jobs nationwide, according to the U.S. Travel Association, while helping airports modernize their facilities and  improve safety.

      FlyersRights.org, and other airline passenger advocacy groups, were founded after a series of highly publicized tarmac delays in which passengers were kept on board planes for hours, while sitting on airport tarmacs.

      The U.S. Senate has voted to give last year's airline passenger reforms the force of law....

      IRS Raises Interest Rate On Underpayments

      Penalties also apply if you pay too little or too late

      If you estimate your taxes and estimate low, or pay a lower of higher amount than you are required to pay, you'll now pay more in interest rates.

      The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has announced that interest rates for the calendar quarter beginning April 1, 2011, will increase by one percentage point.  The rates will be:

      • four (4) percent for overpayments (three (3) percent in the case of a corporation);
      • four (4) percent for underpayments;
      • six (6) percent for large corporate underpayments; and
      • one and one-half (1.5) percent for the portion of a corporate overpayment exceeding $10,000.

      Under the Internal Revenue Code, the rate of interest is determined on a quarterly basis.  For taxpayers other than corporations, the overpayment and underpayment rate is the federal short-term rate plus three percentage points. (Read consumer complaints about tax preparation companies).

      Generally, in the case of a corporation, the underpayment rate is the federal short-term rate plus three percentage points and the overpayment rate is the federal short-term rate plus two percentage points.  The rate for large corporate underpayments is the federal short-term rate plus three percentage points.

      The rate on the portion of a corporate overpayment of tax exceeding $10,000 for a taxable period is the federal short-term rate plus one-half (0.5) of a percentage point.  Additionally, the rate for determining the addition to tax for failure to pay estimated tax for the first 15 days in April 2011 is the four percent rate that applied to underpayments of tax during the first calendar quarter in 2011.

      The interest rates are computed from the federal short-term rate during January 2011 to take effect February 1, 2011, based on daily compounding.

      In addition to paying interest, you usually will face a financial penalty for underpaying, or not paying your taxes on file. If fraud is involved, the penalties are more than financial and involve criminal prosecution. Penalties are generally payable upon notice and demand and are generally assessed, collected and paid in the same manner as taxes.

      Estimated Tax-Related Penalties

      Employees have taxes withheld from their paychecks by their employer. When you have income that is not subject to withholding you may have to make estimated tax payments during the year. 

      This includes income from self-employment, interest, dividends, alimony, rent, gains from the sale of assets, prizes and awards. You also may have to pay estimated tax if the amount being withheld from your salary, pension, or other income is not enough to pay your tax liability.

      Estimated tax payments are used to pay income tax and self-employment tax, as well as other taxes and amounts reported on your tax return. If you do not pay enough through withholding or estimated tax payments, you may have to pay a penalty. If you do not pay enough by the due date of each payment period you may be charged a penalty even if you are due a refund when you file your tax return.

      Penalties for filing or paying taxes late

      The most common penalties are for filing late or paying taxes late. If you do not file your return by the due date (including extensions), you may have to pay a failure-to-file penalty. The penalty is usually five percent for each month or part of a month that a return is late --but not more than 25 percent. The penalty is based on the tax not paid by the due date (without regard to extensions).

      If you file your return more than 60 days after the due date, the minimum penalty is $100 or, if less, 100 percent of the tax on your return.

      You will have to pay a failure-to-pay penalty of one-half of one percent (0.5 percent) of your unpaid taxes for each month, or part of a month, after the due date that the tax is not paid. This penalty does not apply during the automatic six-month extension of time to file period if you paid at least 90 percent of your actual tax liability on or before the original due date of your return and pay the balance when you file the return.

      The failure-to-pay penalty rate increases to a full one percent per month for any tax that remains unpaid the day after a demand for immediate payment is issued, or 10 days after notice of intent to levy certain assets is issued.

      For taxpayers who filed on time, the failure-to-pay penalty rate is reduced to one-quarter of one percent (0.25 percent) per month during any month in which the taxpayer has a valid installment agreement in force.

      For any month both the penalty for filing late and the penalty for paying late apply, the penalty for filing late is reduced by the penalty for paying late for that month, unless the minimum penalty for filing late is charged.

      Accuracy related penalties

      The two most common accuracy related penalties are the "substantial understatement" penalty and the "negligence or disregard of the rules or regulations" penalty. These penalties are calculated as a flat 20 percent of the net understatement of tax.

      Understatement of tax means the tax shown on your return is less than the correct tax. The understatement is substantial if it is more than the larger of 10 percent of the correct tax or $5,000 for individuals. For corporations, the understatement is considered substantial if the tax shown on your return exceeds the lesser of 10 percent (or if greater, $10,000) or $10,000,000.

      Penalty for negligence and disregard of the rules and regulations

      "Negligence" includes (but is not limited to) any failure to:

      • make a reasonable attempt to comply with the internal revenue laws
      • exercise ordinary and reasonable care in preparation of a tax return or
      • keep adequate books and records or to substantiate items properly

      This penalty may be asserted if you carelessly, recklessly or intentionally disregard IRS rules and regulations -- by taking a position on your return with little or no effort to determine whether the position is correct or knowingly taking a position that is incorrect. You will not have to pay a negligence penalty if there was a reasonable cause for a position you took and you acted in good faith.

      Civil fraud penalty

      If there is any underpayment of tax on your return due to fraud, a penalty of 75 percent of the underpayment due to fraud will be added to your tax. The fraud penalty on a joint return does not apply to a spouse unless some part of the underpayment is due to the fraud of that spouse. Negligence or ignorance of the law does not constitute fraud.

      Typically, IRS examiners who find strong evidence of fraud will refer the case to the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division for possible criminal prosecution. Keep in mind that both civil sanctions and criminal prosecution may be imposed.

      Frivolous tax return penalty

      You may have to pay a penalty of $5,000 if you file a frivolous tax return or other frivolous submissions. If you jointly file a frivolous tax return with your spouse, both you and your spouse each may have to pay a penalty of $5,000. A frivolous tax return is one that does not include enough information to figure the correct tax or that contains information clearly showing that the tax you reported is substantially incorrect.

      You will have to pay the penalty if you filed this kind of return or submission based on a frivolous position or a desire to delay or interfere with the administration of federal tax laws. This includes altering or striking out the preprinted language above the space provided for your signature, This penalty is added to any other penalty provided by law.

      Penalty for bounced checks

      If you write a check to pay your taxes, make sure there are funds available to cover it. This is a check you don't want to bounce. If the check bounces, the IRS may impose a penalty. The penalty is either two percent of the amount of the check unless the check is under $1,250, in which case the penalty is the amount of the check or $25, whichever is less.

      "The bottom line is that you must report all your income, file your return and pay your tax by the due date to avoid interest and penalty charges," the IRS says.

      It pays to make sure the bottom line on your tax form is correct, and that you pay on time....

      Lawsuit Says Military Needs to Overhaul Sex Assault Complaint Process

      Service members, veterans say their complaints went basically unaddressed

      A class action lawsuit filed by service members and veterans says that the Pentagon needs to change the way it addresses complaint of rape and sexual assault.

      The suit, filed by two men and 15 women, wants an objective third party to oversee complaints of rape and sexual abuse, contending that military commanders are unable to do a competent job. The complaint asserts that “servicemen get away with rape and other sexual abuse,” and that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “ran institutions in which perpetrators were promoted and where military personnel openly mocked and flouted the modest Congressionally mandated institutional reforms.”

      The suit spells out in gruesome detail 16 incidents of alleged sexual assault, spanning nearly every branch of the military. According to the complaint, in many instances the victims of such abuse -- serving in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and the Reserves -- had to continue working alongside their attackers even after they formally reported the incident to their commanders.

      According to ABC, last year the military reported a staggering 3,292 instances of alleged sexual assault. Victims can either file a “restricted” complaint -- one that remains confidential and doesn't spur an investigation -- or an unrestricted report, which allows officials to investigate but doesn't ensure that the victim will remain anonymous.

      Rape is an obviously devastating experience in and of itself, but the plaintiffs say that the military's handling of the situation makes an already terrible problem much worse.

      “The problem of rape in the military is not only service members getting raped, but it’s the entire way that the military as a whole is dealing with it,” Panayiota Bertzikis, who says she was raped in 2006, and who is a plaintiff in the suit, told The Boston Globe. “The entire culture needs to be changed.”

      Sarah Albertson, another plaintiff, says she was raped in 2006 by a Marine who held a higher rank than she did. When a friend finally reported the incident to commanders, they forbade her from discussing it with anyone else and ordered her to “respect” her attacker, since he was also her superior.

      “I had friends, even people who were supposed to have my back telling me, 'It sucks, and it's wrong what they're doing to you, but at the same time you need to suck it up and not tell anybody because it'll make the Marine Corps look bad and it'll hurt recruitment efforts,'” Albertson told ABC.

      The suit, filed in federal court in Virginia, seeks monetary damages in addition to a structural overhaul.

      Lawsuit Says Military Needs to Overhaul Sex Assault Complaint Process Service members, veterans say their complaints went basically unaddressed...

      Woman Sues 'The Help' Author, Claiming Lead Character is Based on Her

      African-American maid says book humiliated her

      When “The Help” was released in early 2009, the novel caused an immediate stir, with one reviewer calling it “cringeworthy” but going on to heap praise on the book.

      Now the book has attracted some less positive attention, in the form of a lawsuit by an angry woman who says the book's main character is based on her.

      Ablene Cooper, a 60-year-old African American who lives in Jackson, Mississippi, says that she has babysat for author Kathryn Stockett's brother. Cooper says that when she heard of Stockett's plans to write “The Help” -- featuring a main character named “Aibileen” -- she begged her to reconsider, but Stockett refused.

      Cooper takes particular issue with passages detailing Aibileen's thick, hard-to-understand dialect; and describing her skin as the color of a cockroach, according to The Wall Street Journal.

      Cooper's suit says that the experience has been “emotionally upsetting and is highly offensive.”

      The suit, filed in Hinds County Circuit Court, seeks damages in the relatively low amount of $75,000.

      Book about racial tensions

      “The Help,” which sat on the bestseller list of The Los Angeles Times for more than a year, tells the tale of a white southern family in the early 1960s who hire two African-American maids despite the thick racial tension in their small Mississippi town.

      In an interview several months after the book was released, author Kathryn Stockett said the main character was based in part on a woman named Demetrie, a maid who her family hired but who died in the mid-1980s.

      “I'm so embarrassed to admit this,” Stockett told MSNBC, but “it took me 20 years to really realize the irony of the situation that we would tell anybody, 'Oh, she's just like a part of our family,' and that we loved the domestics that worked for our family so dearly, and yet they had to use the bathroom on the outside of the house.”

      Blood is thicker than water?

      Thickening the plot, as it were, is Cooper's assertion that Stockett's brother Robert, and his wife Carroll -- for whom she has worked for years -- support her in the suit.

      “Ain’t too many Ablenes,” Cooper told The New York Times. “What she did, they [Robert and Carroll] said it was wrong. They came to me and said, ‘Ms. Aibee, we love you, we support you,’ and they told me to do what I got to do.”

      The book achieved a sort of cult status due in part to its author's persistence -- Stockett was turned down by 45 literary agents before she finally persuaded Penguin Books to publish the book.

      Woman Sues “The Help” Author, Claiming Lead Character is Based on Her African-American maid says book humiliated her...

      A Year Without Our Bosworth

      Oh, the things he might have said, the things he might have done ...

      Sometimes what's not said can echo as loudly as what is. That's how it's been around ConsumerAffairs.com for the last year, since the death last Feb. 18 of Martin H. Bosworth, our managing editor, resident idealist and dedicated champion of bombast.

      Despite, or perhaps because of, being an alumnus of an elite private university, former aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy and onetime staffer at such establishment institutions as the Department of the Army, Walter Reed Army Medical Center and District of Columbia municipal (or, if you prefer, state) government, Martin had little use for accepting the accepted wisdom or bowing in whatever direction the powers-that-be decreed. He was a perennial and unwavering champion of the little guy; the workaday workers of the world never had a stronger ally.

      No matter the issue – lending abuses, privacy invasions, consumer rip-offs – Martin could be counted on to have not only the strongest and most vociferous (though never personally abusive) opinions but also to argue them most convincingly and to have more facts at his disposal than anyone ever dreamed existed.

      He could then turn around and, without taking a breath, write a story that was not only stunningly accurate but completely fair and balanced, though always seen through the prism of the consumer.

      Martin was one of those people who had to be chased out of the office at night. In a world where everyone talks about working 24/7, Martin actually did it. His desk, home and car were all buried beneath piles of documents, reports, theses, notes and soon-to-be-finished stories, books and articles.

      So the world lost a lot when Martin died at the tender age of 35, the victim perhaps of too much time sitting in front of keyboards and not enough time pursuing life's other pleasures.

      Editors usually have to prod their charges to spur them into action and then, all too often, must nag them to clean up the loose ends. All it took with Martin was a brief hint that this story needed to be pursued, that wrong needed to be righted. There were never any loose ends. Martin is the only journalist I have ever worked with who footnoted everything.

      The last year has been difficult, not only because we lost our friend but because all of us lost the energy, wit and wisdom Martin would have brought to all that has transpired in the last year. We do our best every day but not a day goes by that I don't look at one pending story or another and say, “If only Martin were here to write this.”

      That's probably the best tribute one can pay a journalist, so I'll leave it at that. Thanks for listening.

      ---

      James R. Hood is the founder and editor in chief of ConsumerAffairs.com.

      A Year Without Our Bosworth. Oh, the things he might have said, the things he might have done ......

      Cribs, Playpens, Bassinets Cause 9,500 ER Visits Every Year

      19-year study finds thousands of babies are injured or killed by their beds annually

      When the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced a ban drop-side cribs in December 2010, after millions of these products had been recalled, many parents and caregivers of small children began to question the safety of cribs, playpens and bassinets.

      A new study conducted by researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital examined injuries associated with cribs, playpens and bassinets among children younger than two years of age from 1990 through 2008.

      What the found might upset even the most experienced parents.

      During the 19-year study period, an average of 9,500 injuries and more than 100 deaths related to these products were seen in U.S. emergency departments each year.

      According to the study, the majority of injuries – 83 percent -- involved cribs. The most common injury diagnosis was soft-tissue injury (34 percent), followed by concussion or head injury (21 percent).

      The head or neck was the most frequently injured body region (40 percent), followed by the face (28 percent).

      Two-thirds of the injuries were the result of a fall, and the percentage of injuries attributed to falls increased with age.

      “Despite the attention given to crib safety over the past two decades, the number of injuries and deaths associated with these products remains unacceptably high,” said Dr. Gary Smith, MD, senior author of the study and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy.

      Smith, also a Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, said cribs, playpens and bassinets must be held to a higher standard than most baby products, which require parental supervision to maintain safety, because parents are expected to leave their child unattended in them and walk away with peace of mind.

      “Educating caregivers about the proper use and potential dangers of these products is an important part of making cribs safer for children, but education alone is not enough,” said Smith. “Innovations in product design and manufacture can provide automatic protection that does not rely on actions of caregivers to keep children safe.”

      In recent years, organizations such as the CPSC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have amplified their efforts to increase crib safety.

      11 million recalls

      The CPSC has issued recalls of more than 11 million cribs and has prohibited the manufacture, sale or lease of drop-side cribs starting in June 2011.

      Continued strengthening and enforcement of crib safety standards will protect more young children from harm.

      Despite the potential risks, cribs are still considered to be the safest location where parents can place infants to sleep. There are several steps parents and caregivers should take when selecting a crib for their child:

      Pay close attention to the crib you select.

      • Select a crib that meets all current safety standards, does not have a drop side and is not old, broken or modified.
      • Avoid cribs with cutouts or decorative corner posts or knobs that stick up more than 1/16th of an inch
      • Measure the slats to make sure they are not more than 2 and 3/8 inches apart
      • Visit Recalls.gov to make sure the crib has not been recalled
      • Make sure the mattress fits tightly into the crib. If you can fit more than two fingers between the mattress and the crib, you need a bigger mattress
      • Frequently examine the crib to make sure it is in good repair and that there are no loose parts
      • Carefully read and follow all assembly instructions

      When putting your child in a crib to sleep, consider the following:

      • Always place your baby on his or her back to sleep
      • Remember that a bare crib is best. Do not add pillows, blankets, sleep positioners, stuffed animals or bumpers to the crib
      • Crib tents and mesh canopies are not safe to use over cribs. Children can become trapped or strangle in them if they try to get out
      • Avoid placing the crib near a window to prevent falls and possible strangulation from cords from window blinds or shades

      Monitor your child's developmental milestones and make changes to the crib as needed.

      • Once your child can push up on his hands and knees or is 5 months old (whichever occurs first), remove all mobiles and hanging toys
      • When your child can pull herself up or stand, adjust the mattress to the lowest position. Having the crib sides at least 26 inches above the mattress can help prevent falls
      • Check the manufacturer's instructions to know when your child will outgrow the crib. This generally occurs when your child reaches 35 inches in height

      If using a bassinet or playpen, make sure they have a sturdy, wide base and that your child meets all height and weight limits.

      Smith’s study will be released online on February 21 will appear in the March 2011 print issue of Pediatrics.

      Cribs, Playpens, Bassinets Cause 9,500 ER Visits Every Year 19 year study finds thousands of babies are injured or killed by their beds annually...

      Delta Sending Its Agents Back to Charm School

      Airline finally notices it has a problem relating to its customers

      It hasn't been a very good year for Delta Air Lines or its passengers. Hoping for a better year in 2011, the airline is sending all 11,000 of its customer service agents back to school, hoping to retrain them to be at least civil if not downright polite.

      Cynics would say it's about time. Delta had the highest rate of customer complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in the first nine months of 2010 and was second-to-last in on-time arrivals and baggage handling through last November.

      Delta is also the unquestioned leader in complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com, with more than 1,400 complaints, roughly twice as many as second-place American.

      Cristina of San Diego is one of those disgruntled passengers. Cristina and her one-year-old baby showed up at the Minneapolis airport to board a 7:10 pm flight to Toronto. The flight was delayed and finally canceled. Cristina was stuck at the airport until 10:00 pm.

      I expressed to the gate agents that my baby was out of food and out of diapers and she was getting a cold. The gate agents showed absolutely no regard and actually ignored my concerns completely,” Cristina said in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com. “My flight was rescheduled for the next morning at 6:35 AM but it was delayed by 2 hours again

      My child caught a fever the next day, I also spent about $180 out of pocket for a hotel + cab + food. I submitted a complaint form to Delta over 1 month ago and never received a response,” she said.

      Mistreating the disabled

      Just yesterday, Delta was assessed a $2 million civil penalty for violating rules protecting air travelers with disabilities, the largest non-safety-related penalty ever assessed against a U.S. airline.

      Delta not only produced a planeload of complaints from disabled passengers, it also failed to provide an adequate written response to many of them, DOT said.

      The employee retraining may not be very long – just one day – but Delta promises it will be intensive. Employees will be reminded that their job is to assist passengers, not just get rid of them, a Delta official said.

      Whether one day will be enough may be open to question. Delta has ruffled a lot of feathers among its customers.

      Delta obviously does not care about it's customers and actually went out of their way to screw me and many other travelers,” complained Ashley of Lakewood Ranch, Fla., after her flight was canceled and she was stranded in Atlanta with no assistance from Delta.

      Whether they were clueless or apathetic, either way it looks bad for Delta,”she said of the Delta workers who ignored her requests for information and assistance.

      And then there are the “elite” passengers – the relative handful of frequent flyers who contribute more than a quarter of the airline's revenue. Employees will be reminded to treat road warriors like the professional travelers they are.

      Other issues

      Of course, not all of Delta's problems can be blamed on its employees. The airline has been trying to integrate the operations and staff of Northwest Airlines after their merger and it's been a year of bad weather, high fuel costs and so forth.

      Delta admits it has sometimes been slow to repair airplanes because of a lack of parts, leading to flight cancellations. Also, airports have been under-staffed and Delta says it is hiring an additional 1,000 workers to bolster front-line customer service.

      Delta Sending Its Agents Back to Charm School. Airline finally notices it has a problem relating to its customers....

      Groupon-Style Lawsuit Hits LivingSocial

      Daily deal sites violate consumer laws by selling gift certificates with short expiration dates, suits charge

      The No. 2 daily deal site on the Web, LivingSocial, has been hit with a class-action lawsuit similar to one recently filed against its much larger competitor, Groupon.

      The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, charges that LivingSocial is violating consumer protection laws by selling gift certificates with short expiration dates, knowing full well that many consumers won't use them in time.

      Like Groupon, LivingSocial sells discounted gift cars for local businesses, so that a consumer might pay $20 for a $40 restaurant meal, or $40 for an $80 spa visit.

      The suits revolve around state and federal consumer protection laws that restrict and, in some cases, prohibit expiration dates on gift certificates. Federal law requires gift certificates to be valid for at least five years.

      "LivingSocial just doesn't do enough to make sure that consumers are aware of what their rights are, and they're not doing enough to communicate with their merchants," attorney Christopher Carney said, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

      The plaintiffs in both the Groupon and LivingSocial suits are arguing that the daily deal sites are selling gift certificates at a discount and that laws governing gift certificates apply to them regardless of whatever expiration date may appear on the certificates.

      In addition, the LivingSocial suit argues that there is no cash-back provision on the certificates, which would be a violation of Washington state consumer laws under certain circumstances.

      Not really

      Both Groupon and LivingSocial are expected to argue that the certificates consumers buy on their sites are not actually gift certificates, but rather are vouchers that give the consumer the right to buy a gift certificate at a discount and that the business issuing the certificate – the Silver Diner, for example – is responsible for meeting legal requirements covering gift certificates.

      Also, both sites try to address the issue in their terms of service, by saying that the expiration dates and other restrictions printed on the vouchers may be superseded by local and federal laws and that the merchant is “obligated to honor the voucher in compliance with law.”

      But attorneys involved in the suit say that such legal mumbo-jumbo is doing consumers a disservice. They say that most consumers as well as merchants think the expiration dates are valid. Dropping a disclaimer in the fine print isn't enough, these attorneys argue.

      The LivingSocial class action seeks to include all Washington residents who weren't able to claim the full value of their gift certificates. Consumers anywhere in the United States could joint the suit if their gift certificates expired before the five-year limit set by federal law.

      Groupon-Style Lawsuit Hits LivingSocial...

      Malware Threat To Smartphones Rising

      There's a new Trojan targeting Android users

      If you have a smartphone, you may be more vulnerable to viruses and malware than you think. After all, these devices are connecting to the Internet all day long, with little or no protection.

      Malware attacks directed at mobile devices rose 46 percent in 2010, according to McAfee, a security software maker, who predicts the threat will grow as millions of consumers begin using smartphones and tablet computers.

      Phones using the Android operating system are among the fastest growing segment of smartphones, so it's no surprise that much of the new malware is targeting that segment of the market. This week, the security software firm Sophos noted that a variant of the Geinimi bug is attacking Android phones with abandon.

      Poses as app

      The Trojan horse, known as Hong TouTou and ADRD, poses in Chinese third-party stores as legitimate programs. When users download the apps, they are really loading the Trojan.

      "The official Android Market, run by Google, does not appear to be carrying the malicious apps -- but if you go 'off-road' and choose to install software on your smartphone from elsewhere on the net, then you could be putting your device at risk," writes Graham Cluley, one of Sophos's security bloggers.

      Cluley says Android users who steer clear of third-party apps probably have less to fear, but those who don't could be endangering data and, potentially finances if they use their phone for banking.

      Emulates clicks

      The bug doesn't just collect information about you. It can also emulate clicks on certain search results. A hacker whose malware gets downloaded on thousands of phones can earn hefty commissions by creating the impression that mobile phone users are visiting particular Websites.

      Lookout Mobile Security, which first reported the new variant this week, said it has already delivered an over-the-air update for its Android users to protect them against known instances of HongTouTou.

      How to stay safe:

      • Only download apps from trusted sources, such as reputable app markets. Remember to look at the developer name, reviews and star ratings.
      • Always check the permissions an app requests. Use common sense to ensure that the permissions an app requests match the features the app provides.
      • Be alert for unusual behavior on your phone. This behavior could be a sign that your phone is infected. These behaviors may include unusual SMS or network activity.
      • Download a mobile security app for your phone that scans every app you download to ensure it's safe. Lookout users automatically receive protection against this Trojan.
      • As the number of malware exploits on smartphones increase, it is more important than ever to pay attention to what you're downloading, say the security experts at Lookout. Their advice? Stay alert and carefully review every app you

      As more people use smartphones, more online threats emerge....

      Group Therapy As Effective (and Cheaper) Than One-on-One Therapy

      Study finds group therapy could fight depression when meds fail

      Peer support offers promise as an effective, low-cost tool for fighting depression, a new study by the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System and University of Michigan Health System finds.

      Researchers analyzed 10 randomized trials of peer support interventions for depression dating from 1987 to 2009 and found programs in which patients and volunteers share information were found to reduce symptoms of depression better than traditional care alone and were about as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy.

      Groundbreaking study

      According to lead author Paul Pfeiffer, M.D., M.S., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School and researcher at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, the study was the first of its kind to look at peer support specifically for depression, which is much less likely to be incorporated into the treatment of depression than for other conditions like alcohol or substance abuse.

      "Our study combined data from small randomized trials and found peer support seems to be as effective for treating depression as some of the more established treatments," said Pfeiffer.

      Peer support has been found to decrease isolation, reduce stress, increase the sharing of health information and provide role models, the study points out.

      It can be cost effective, too. Pfeiffer said because peer support programs often use volunteers and nonprofessionals -- and can be done over the phone or Internet as well as in person -- they have the potential to be widely available at relatively low cost.

      More assitance needed

      Pfeiffer said the need for additional coping options is important, considering one third of patients taking anti-depressants for depression still experience significant symptoms after trying four medicines, and more than half of people who achieve remission of their symptoms relapse within a year.

      "As a field, we should be looking at how to integrate peer support components into primary care and specialty treatment of depression," Pfeiffer said, noting that additional, larger studies could also provide more insight.

      The study findings were recently published online ahead of print publication in General Hospital Psychiatry.

      Group Therapy As Effective (and Cheaper) Than One-on-One Therapy Study finds group therapy could fight depression when meds fail...

      CastleRock Security Named in Consumer Fraud Lawsuit

      Consumers were fraudulently billed by the company, lawsuit charges

      A national home security company has been accused in a consumer fraud lawsuit of ripping off customers by providing false and misleading information about the company’s cancellation policies, Cook County,Illinois,State’s Attorney Anita Alvarezsaid

      CastleRock Security Inc., of Arlington Heights, Ill., is accused of violating the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act as well as the Automatic Contract Renewal Act.  Also named in the lawsuit is Brian Johnson, president of the company. 

      The suit was filed on behalf of four former customers who were fraudulently billed by the company despite having cancelled their service contract.   

      These individuals all believed they took the appropriate steps to cancel a service they no longer wanted,” said Alvarez. “Consumers should be aware that there are protections under the law that prevents them from being taken advantage of by unscrupulous practices.”

      According to the lawsuit, CastleRockemployees are alleged to have routinely omitted or provided inaccurate information to consumers who called to cancel their service contracts causing them to incur thousands of dollars in unwanted charges and harassment from collection agencies.

      Although automatic consumer contract renewals are allowed under Illinois law, a company is required to notify customers at least 60 days prior to expiration of the contract in order to provide the consumer with the opportunity to cancel the contract in writing or by telephone. 

      In the last three years, the Better Business Bureau has logged over 750 complaints from consumers nationwide in relation to the business practices of CastleRock Security.

      According to the lawsuit filed by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, one of the victims was assured by a representative of the company that her service would be cancelled when her contract expired.

      A few months later she received a bill from CastleRock and when she inquired was told that proper procedure to cancel her contract had not been followed and thus it had been automatically renewed for another year. When the victim refused to pay, the company sent her past due bills to a collection agency that continues to contact her to this day.

      In another instance, a customer attempting to cancel her service was told that in order to cancel she was required to fax a letter to the company prior to the contract’s renewal date.  A few months later the victim discovered that the company had deducted money from her checking account despiteherhaving faxed the proper cancellation letter. 

      When she called the company, another representative told her that the letter had to be received at least 30 days before the expiration of the contract and that her contract had been renewed for another year. 

      All of the victims represented in the lawsuit had their bills referred to collection agencies that continue to contact them to this day. The disputed charges were also referred to credit reporting agencies.

      In addition to seeking restitution for the victims, the lawsuit seeks to enjoin CastleRock Security from engaging in deceptive practices in the future.  Consumers who believe that they may have been victimized by this company can contact the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Consumer Fraud Unit for assistance at (312) 603-8700.

      CastleRock Security Named in Consumer Fraud Lawsuit. Consumers were fraudulently billed by the company, lawsuit charges....

      Booming Online Economy Tempting to Taxing Authorities

      Local jurisdictions losing sales tax receipts as e-commerce grows

      There's a lot of talk about the “underground economy” draining tax revenues from city, state and federal coffers. But the online economy may be an even bigger bonanza just waiting to be tapped.

      The U.S. Commerce Department reported today that online retail sales totaled $44 billion in the fourth quarter last year, up from $38 billion a year earlier. E-commerce sales totaled $165 billion for all of 2010.

      Perhaps even more startling, e-commerce now accounts for 4.3% of total retail sales, up from a scant 1% just a decade ago.

      While this may be good news for online retailers and for consumers, who generally can find a wider selection at competitive prices online than they can in the “real” world, it's a growing source of angst for local governments, which rely heavily on sales taxes to fund their operations.

      This is hardly a secret. In fact, numerous surveys have found that one of the things consumers like about shopping online is that they don't have to pay sales tax, which can be quite significant. Los Angeles, for example, imposes a 9.75% sales tax on most purchases, New York City charges 8.875% and some purchases in Chicago can go as high as 11.50%.

      One recent study found that online shopping was growing faster in states and cities with a high sales tax rate than in states with lower rates or no sales tax. (Yes, there are such places. Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampsire and Oregon have no statewide sales tax).

      In theory, citizens of most states are supposed to report their purchases and pay the taxes on them if they're not collected by the merchant. This is about as widely observed as the speed limit and, except for New York and a few other states, no attempt is made to compel online retailers to collect the sales tax on purchases shipped into the state.

      One reason for this is that, in a libertarian moment back in the infancy of the Internet, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not force retailers to collect sales tax unless they had a physical presence in the state where the order was being shipped.

      This has led to some interesting stand-offs and some rapid decisions to move facilities around the country. Perhaps most notable is the recent dust-up between Texas and Amazon.com. Last fall, Texas decided that an Amazon.com distribution center in Dallas amount to a physical presence and sent Amazon a bill for $269.

      Amazon responded by saying it will shut down the center and move its operations out of Texas.

      As local governments become more desperate for money, it's likely there'll be more stand-offs like that between Amazon and Texas. It may be that the no-sales-tax states corner the market on e-commerce distribution centers.

      Booming Online Economy Tempting to Taxing Authorities...

      FDA Warns Against Use of Asthma Drug in Pregnant Women

      Terbutaline should not be used to prevent or treat preterm labor.

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning the public that injectable terbutaline should not be used in pregnant women for prevention or prolonged treatment (beyond 48-72 hours) of preterm labor in either the hospital or outpatient setting because of the potential for serious maternal heart problems and death.

      The agency is requiring the addition of a “Boxed Warning and Contraindication” to the terbutaline injection label to warn against this use.

      In addition, oral terbutaline should not be used for prevention or any treatment of preterm labor because it has not been shown to be effective and has similar safety concerns. The agency is requiring the addition of a Boxed Warning and Contraindication to the terbutaline tablet label to warn against this use.

      Terbutaline is approved to prevent and treat bronchospasm (narrowing of airways) associated with asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema.

      The drug is sometimes used off-label (an unapproved use) for acute obstetric uses, including treating preterm labor and treating uterine hyperstimulation. Terbutaline has also been used off-label over longer periods of time in an attempt to prevent recurrent preterm labor.

      Although it may be clinically deemed appropriate based on the healthcare professional's judgment to administer terbutaline by injection in urgent and individual obstetrical situations in a hospital setting, the prolonged use of this drug to prevent recurrent preterm labor can result in maternal heart problems and death.

      Terbutaline should not be used in the outpatient or home setting, the FDA said.

      FDA Warns Against Use of Asthma Drug in Pregnant Women. Terbutaline should not be used to prevent or treat preterm labor....

      Medicare Fraud Strike Force Takes Down 111 Suspects

      Doctors, nurses, health care companies among those nabbed

      The Medicare Fraud Strike Force today charged 111 defendants in nine cities, including doctors, nurses, health care company owners and executives, and others, for their alleged participation in Medicare fraud schemes involving more than $225 million in false billing.

      Also today, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and HHS announced the expansion of Medicare Fraud Strike Force operations to two additional cities—Dallas and Chicago. Today’s operation is the largest-ever federal health care fraud takedown.

      With this takedown, we have identified and shut down large-scale fraud schemes operating throughout the country. We have safeguarded precious taxpayer dollars. And we have helped to protect our nation’s most essential health care programs, Medicare and Medicaid,” said Attorney GeneralEricHolder. “As today’s arrests prove, we are waging an aggressive fight against health care fraud.”

      The defendants charged today are accused of various health care fraud-related crimes, including conspiracy to defraud the Medicare program, criminal false claims, violations of the anti-kickback statutes, money laundering, and aggravated identity theft.

      The charges are based on a variety of alleged fraud schemes involving various medical treatments and services such as home health care, physical and occupational therapy, nerve conduction tests, and durable medical equipment.

      According to court documents, the defendants charged today participated in schemes to submit claims to Medicare for treatments that were medically unnecessary and oftentimes never provided. In many cases, indictments and complaints allege that patient recruiters, Medicare beneficiaries, and other co-conspirators were paid cash kickbacks in return for supplying beneficiary information to providers so that the providers could submit fraudulent billing to Medicare for services that were medically unnecessary or never provided.

      Collectively, the doctors, nurses, health care company owners, executives, and others charged in the indictments and complaints are accused of conspiring to submit a total of more than $225 million in fraudulent billing.

      Every American bears the burden of health care fraud, and the FBI, in conjunction with our inter-agency partners, will continue to dismantle criminal networks that bilk the system,” said Shawn Henry, Executive Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch. “Our agents and analysts use task forces and undercover operations to identify individuals who treat the health care system as a vehicle to line their pockets.”

      • In Miami, 32 defendants, including two doctors and eight nurses, were charged for their participation in various fraud schemes involving a total of $55 million in false billings for home health care, durable medical equipment, and prescription drugs.

      • Twenty-one defendants, including three doctors, three physical therapists, and one occupational therapist, were charged in Detroit for schemes to defraud Medicare of more than $23 million. The Detroit cases involve false claims for home health care, nerve conduction tests, psychotherapy, physical therapy, and podiatry.

      • In Brooklyn, New York, 10 individuals, including three doctors and one physical therapist, were charged with fraud schemes involving $90 million in false billings for physical therapy, proctology services, and nerve conduction tests.

      • Ten defendants were charged in Tampa for participating in schemes involving more than $5 million related to false claims for physical therapy, durable medical equipment, and pharmaceuticals.

      • Nine individuals were charged in Houston for schemes involving $8 million in fraudulent Medicare claims for physical therapy, durable medical equipment, home health care, and chiropractor services.

      • In Dallas, seven defendants were indicted for conspiring to submit $2.8 million in false billing to Medicare related to durable medical equipment and home health care.

      • Five defendants were charged in Los Angeles for their roles in schemes to defraud Medicare of more than $28 million. The cases in Los Angeles involve false claims for durable medical equipment and home health care.

      • In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, six individuals were charged for a durable medical equipment fraud scheme involving more than $9 million in false claims.

      • In Chicago, charges were filed against 11 individuals associated with businesses that have billed Medicare more than $6 million for home health, diagnostic testing, and prescription drugs.

      The joint DOJ-HHS Medicare Fraud Strike Force is a multi-agency team of federal, state, and local investigators designed to combat Medicare fraud through the use of Medicare data analysis techniques and an increased focus on community policing.

      More than 700 law enforcement agents from the FBI, HHS-Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), multiple Medicaid Fraud Control Units, and other state and local law enforcement agencies participated in today’s operation. In addition to making arrests, agents also executed 16 search warrants across the country in connection with ongoing strike force investigations.

      Over the last two years our joint efforts have more than quadrupled the number of anti-fraud strike force teams operating in fraud hot spots around the country from two to nine—with the latest additions in Chicago and Dallas—bringing hundreds of charges against criminals who had billed Medicare for hundreds of millions of dollars. Last year alone, our partnership recovered a record $4 billion on behalf of taxpayers. From 2008-2010, every dollar the federal government spent under its health care fraud and abuse control programs averaged a return on investment of $6.80,” said HHS SecretaryKathleenSebelius.

      Medicare Fraud Strike Force Takes Down 111 Suspects. Doctors, nurses, health care companies among those nabbed....

      Got Speed? National Broadband Map Tells You

      Federal effort to promote broadband Internet growth

      How fast is your Internet connection? Really? Now you can find out, thanks to something called the National Broadband Map, a creation of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

      The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), part of the Commerce Department, says the National Broadband Map is the first public, searchable nationwide map of broadband Internet availability.

      The idea behind the map is to highlight areas that need to expand broadband access and adoption.

      "A state-of-the-art communications infrastructure is essential to America's competitiveness in the global digital economy," said Acting Commerce Deputy Secretary Rebecca Blank. "But as Congress recognized, we need better data on America's broadband Internet capabilities in order to improve them. The National Broadband Map, along with today's broadband Internet usage study, will inform efforts to enhance broadband Internet access and adoption -- spurring greater innovation, economic opportunities, and advancements in health care, education, and public safety."

      Searchable records

      The website includes more than 25 million searchable records showing where broadband Internet service is available, the technology used to provide the service, the maximum advertised speeds of the service, and the names of the service providers.

      Users can search by address to find the broadband providers and services available in the corresponding census block or road segment, view the data on a map, or use other interactive tools to compare broadband across various geographies, such as states, counties or congressional districts. The map also allows visitors to enter information about their current Internet provider.

      "The release of the National Broadband Map, the first of its kind in the nation, is a significant milestone," said Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski. "This cutting-edge tool will continue to evolve with the help of new data and user feedback. It will provide consumers, companies and policymakers with a wealth of information about broadband availability, speeds, competition and technology, and help Americans make better informed choices about their broadband services."

      Underserved

      The map shows that between 5 - 10 percent of Americans lack access to broadband at speeds that support a basic set of applications, including downloading Web pages, photos and video, and using simple video conferencing. The FCC last July set a benchmark of 4 Mbps actual speed downstream and 1 Mbps upstream to support these applications.

      NTIA collected data in ranges between 3 - 6 Mbps and 6 - 10 Mbps maximum advertised download speeds, which are the closest measurements to the speed benchmark for broadband that the FCC set.

      The data show that community anchor institutions are largely underserved. For example, based on studies by state education technology directors, most schools need a connection of 50 to 100 Mbps per 1,000 students. The data show that two-thirds of surveyed schools subscribe to speeds lower than 25 Mbps, however. In addition, only four percent of libraries reported subscribing to speeds greater than 25 Mbps.

      Approximately 36 percent of Americans have access to wireless (fixed, mobile, licensed, and unlicensed) Internet service at maximum advertised download speeds of 6 Mbps or greater, which some consider the minimum speed associated with "4G" wireless broadband service. Ninety-five percent of Americans have access to wireless Internet service speeds of at least 768 kbps, which corresponds roughly to "3G" wireless service.

      Reason for the map

      Why create the map? NTIA says the map will serve a variety of uses. For example, Federal, state, and local policymakers can compare broadband availability among geographic areas and across demographic groups, which can inform policies to support private sector investments in deploying broadband.

      The data can assist broadband providers in assessing new business opportunities and economic developers as they work to attract businesses to, or address barriers to investment in, their communities. The map is also designed to help consumers and small businesses learn about the broadband service options in their neighborhood or where they may relocate.

      The government has launched the National Broadband Map, an interactive tool to find high-speed providers....

      Redbox Thinks Outside the Box, Plans Streaming Video Service

      Single monthly fee will get you movies via DVD and online

      Redbox, the DVD rental kiosk company, says it's preparing to challenge Netflix in the streaming video arena. Redbox subscribers will pay a single monthly fee to get access to movies, both as streaming video and on DVDs through kiosks.

      Netflix took the early lead in the online streaming business and now has more than 20 million subscribers who get DVDs by mail and movies and TV shows via streaming Internet video.

      Amazon.com also offers movies and TV shows but charges a per-show price, although there are reports that Amazon will soon off streaming video through a partnership with a so-far undisclosed company, possibly Redbox.

      Consumers are steadily shifting away from pay-per-view videos in favor of subscription plans, just as they previously began shifting away from DVDs when Internet streaming became reliable and inexpensive.

      The biggest problem all of the new competitors have is getting their hands on the product. Movie studios and the television networks and syndicators are reluctant to let new releases go to streaming video before they're confident they've milked DVD sales for all they're worth.

      Redbox Thinks Outside the Box, Plans Streaming Video Service. Single monthly fee will get you movies via DVD and online....

      Mortgage Delinquencies Fall At End Of 2010

      Those who still have homes have an easier time paying for them

      There was some good news today about consumers' economic situation, in a report showing the number of homeowners who have fallen behind of mortgage payments actually declined in the last month of 2010.

      The Mortgage Bankers Association released its report for the fourth quarter, showing the delinquency rate for mortgage loans on one-to-four-unit residential properties decreased to a seasonally adjusted rate of 8.22 percent of all loans outstanding as of the end of the fourth quarter of 2010. That's a decline of 91 basis points from the third quarter of 2010, and a decrease of 125 basis points from one year ago.

      The non-seasonally adjusted delinquency rate decreased 46 basis points to 8.93 percent this quarter from 9.39 percent last quarter.

      Across the board decrease

      "These latest delinquency numbers represent significant, across the board decreases in mortgage delinquency rates in the U.S.," said Jay Brinkmann, MBA's chief economist.  "Total delinquencies, which exclude loans in the process of foreclosure, are now at their lowest level since the end of 2008."

      Mortgages only one payment past due are now at the lowest level since the end of 2007, the very beginning of the recession.  Perhaps most importantly, loans three payments (90 days) or more past due have fallen from an all-time high delinquency rate of 5.02 percent at the end of the first quarter of 2010 to 3.63 percent at the end of the fourth quarter of 2010, a drop of 139 basis points or almost 28 percent over the course of the year.  Every state but two saw a drop in the 90-plus day delinquency rate and the two increases were negligible.

      Foreclosures still working through the system

      The percentage of loans on which foreclosure actions were started during the fourth quarter was 1.27 percent, down seven basis points from last quarter and up seven basis points from one year ago. The delinquency rate includes loans that are at least one payment past due but does not include loans in the process of foreclosure. 

      The percentage of loans in the foreclosure process at the end of the fourth quarter was 4.63 percent, up 24 basis points from the third quarter of 2010 and up five basis points from one year ago. The serious delinquency rate, the percentage of loans that are 90 days or more past due or in the process of foreclosure, was 8.57 percent, a decrease of 13 basis points from last quarter, and a decrease of 110 basis points from the fourth quarter of last year.

      The report suggests, at the very least, that current homeowners, those who haven't already lost their homes due to foreclosure, are better able to make their payments, despite stubbornly high unemployment .

      "While delinquency and foreclosure rates are still well above historical norms, we have clearly turned the corner," Brinkman said.  "Despite continued high levels of unemployment, the economy did add over 1.2 million private sector jobs during 2010 and, after remaining stubbornly high during the first half of 2010, first time claims for unemployment insurance fell during the second half of the year.  Absent a significant economic reversal, the delinquency picture should continue to improve during 2011."

      The mortgage payment delinquency rate fell in the fourth quarter of 2010....

      Complete List of Borders Bookstores to be Closed

      Company plans to close one third of its stores as part of bankruptcy filing

      Alaska

      Anchorage, AK Kmart Shopping Center #7569 1100 E Dimond Blvd

      Arkansas

      Rogers, AR Pinnacle Hills Promenade 2203 South 45th St, Ste 12100

      Arizona

      Avondale, AZ Gateway Pavilions 10100 W. McDowell Road

      Chandler, AZ Chandler Pavilions 870 N. 54th Street

      Mesa, AZ Mesa Fiesta Shopping Center 1361 S Alma School Road

      Phoenix, AZ Biltmore Fashion Park 2402 E Camelback Road, Suite 200

      Phoenix, AZ Paradise Village Shopping Center 4555 East Cactus Rd

      Scottsdale, AZ Scottsdale/101 7000 E. Mayo Blvd. Suite 1050

      Scottsdale, AZ Scottsdale Waterfront 7135 East Camelback Rd, Space 140

      Tucson, AZ Tucson Fiesta 4235 N Oracle Rd.

      California

      Alameda, CA Alameda Towne Centre 2245 South Shore Center

      Cerritos, CA Cerritos Towne Center 12741 Towne Center Drive

      Chino, CA Chino Spectrum Town Center 3833 Grand Avenue

      El Cajon, CA Parkway Plaza East 159 Fletcher Parkway

      Fremont, CA The Fremont Hub 39210 Fremont Hub, Suite 211

      Glendale, CA Glendale Marketplace 100 S Brand Blvd

      La Habra, CA Lahabra Westridge Plaza 1310 S. Beach Blvd.

      Long Beach, CA Los Altos Market Center 2110 Bellflower Blvd

      Long Beach, CA The Pike At Rainbow Harbor 101 South Pine Avenue

      Los Angeles, CA Westfield Century City 10250 Santa Monica Blvd.

      Los Angeles, CA Howard Hughes Center 6081 Center Dr, Suite 118

      Los Gatos, CA Old Town Center 50 University Avenue, Ste 280

      Mira Loma, CA Eastvale Gateway 12423 Limonite Ave.

      Modesto, CA Vintage Commons 3900 Sisk Rd

      Montclair, CA Perimeter Plaza 5055 S Plaza Lane

      Orange, CA The Block At Orange 20 City Boulevard, W.

      Oxnard, CA Esplanade Shopping Center 241 W. Esplanade Drive

      Pasadena, CA South Lake Avenue 475 S. Lake Avenue

      Pico Rivera, CA Pico Rivera Town Center 8852 Washington Blvd.

      Pleasanton, CA Metro 580 Shopping Center 4575 Rosewood Drive

      Rolling Hills Estates, CA The Promenade on the Peninsula 550 Deep Valley Drive, Suite 261

      San Diego, CA Gaslamp District 668 6th Avenue

      San Francisco, CA San Francisco Centre 845 Market St.

      San Francisco, CA Union Square 400 Post Street

      City Shopping Center/Mall (if applicable) Address

      San Jose, CA Santana Row 356 Santana Row, Suite 1030

      San Jose, CA Westfield Shoppingtown Oakridge 925 Blossom Hill Road, Suite 1741

      San Mateo, CA El Camino Real 2925 El Camino Real

      San Ramon, CA The Shops At Bishop Ranch 120 Sunset Dr

      Santa Cruz, CA 1200 Pacific Ave 1200 Pacific Ave, Suite 100

      Sherman Oaks, CA Ventura Boulevard 14651 Ventura Blvd.

      Stockton, CA Park West Place 10776 Trinity Parkway

      Tustin, CA The District at Tustin Legacy 2493 Park Ave

      Union City, CA Union Landing 32111 Union Landing Blvd

      Valencia, CA Valencia Town Center 24445 Town Center Dr.

      Yorba Linda, CA Yorba Linda, Ca 22401 Old Canal Rd

      Colorado

      Aurora, CO Arapahoe Crossings 6606 South Parker Road

      Boulder, CO Twenty Ninth Street Mall 1750 Twenty Ninth Street, Suite 1052

      Dillon, CO Dillon Ridge Marketplace 264 Dillion Ridge Way

      Grand Junction, CO Grand Mesa Center 2464 U.S. Highway 6 & 50 , Suite 132

      Greeley, CO The Elk Lakes 2863 35th Ave

      Littleton, CO Southwest Plaza 8501 West Bowles Ave

      Connecticut

      Danbury, CT 110 Federal Road

      Manchester, CT The Crossroads At Buckland Hills 59 Pavilions Drive

      Milford, CT Westfield Shoppingtown Connecticut Post 1201 Boston Post Rd.

      Simsbury, CT Farmington Valley Mall 500 Bushy Hill Road

      Southbury, CT Southbury Plaza 100 Main Street North, Spc 17

      Wilton, CT Gateway Plaza 14 Danbury Road (Gateway Center)

      District of Columbia

      Washington, DC 1801 K Street NW

      Washington, DC Friendship Centre Shopping Center 5333 Wisconsin Avenue NW

      Florida

      Altamonte Springs, FL Altamonte Crossing 880 W. State Road 436

      Brandon, FL Brandon Crossroads 2020 Town Center Blvd.

      Clearwater, FL Clearwater Mall 2683 Gulf to Bay Blvd.

      Fort Myers, FL Gulf Coast Town Center 10037 Gulf Center Drive

      Ft Lauderdale, FL Sunrise Center 2240 E Sunrise Blvd

      Gainesville, FL Oak Square 6837 Newberry Road

      Jacksonville, FL Timberlin Village 8801 Southside Blvd., Ste. 10

      Jensen Beach, FL Treasure Coast Square Mall 3066 NW Federal Hwy

      Naples, FL Granada Shoppes 10600 Tamiami Trail North, Suite 600

      Ocoee, FL West Oaks Mall 9441 W. Colonial Drive

      Orlando, FL Sand Lake 1051 W. Sand Lake Road

      Oviedo, FL Oviedo Crossing 8285 Red Bug Lake Road

      Plantation, FL Sunrise Boulevard 12171 W. Sunrise Blvd.

      Sarasota, FL Paradise Plaza 3800 S. Tamiami Trail

      Tampa, FL 909 Dale Mabry

      Tampa, FL 12500 N Dale Mabry

      Georgia

      Atlanta, GA Parkway Pointe Center 3101 Cobb Parkway

      Austell, GA East West Commons Shopping Center 1605 East-West Connector Road

      Buford, GA The Market Place At Mill Creek 1705 Mall of Georgia Blvd - Suite 200

      Kennesaw, GA Ernest W. Barrett Parkway 605 Ernest W Barrett Parkway, Bldg 400

      Suwanee, GA Johns Creek Towne Center 3630 Peachtree Parkway, Suite 100

      Hawaii

      City Shopping Center/Mall (if applicable) Address

      Kailua-Kona, HI Crossroads Center 75-1000 Henry Street

      Lihue, HI Kmart Kukui Center 4303 Nawiliwili

      Illinois

      Bolingbrook, IL Bolingbrook Retail Center 161 N. Webber

      Chicago, IL 2817 North Clark Street

      Chicago, IL 2210 W. 95th Street

      Chicago, IL Lincoln Village 6103 N. Lincoln Avenue

      Chicago, IL Uptown Chicago 4718 N. Broadway Ave

      Chicago, IL Lincoln Park Centre 755 W. North Avenue

      Crystal Lake, IL Crystal Point Shopping Center 6000 Northwestern Highway

      Deerfield, IL 49 S Waukegan Road

      DeKalb, IL Northland Plaza 2520 Sycamore Road

      Evanston, IL 1700 Maple Avenue

      Matteson, IL Matteson Plaza 4824 West 211th Street

      McHenry, IL Village of McHenry 2221 Richmond Road

      Mt Prospect, IL Randhurst Mall 909 North Elmhurst Rd

      Normal, IL 200 A North Greenbriar Drive

      Norridge, IL Norridge Commons 7100 W. Forest Preserve Drive

      St. Charles, IL Main Street Commons 3539 E Main

      Indiana

      Carmel, IN 2381 Pointe Parkway

      Evansville, IN Evansville Pavilion 6401 E. Lloyds Expressway, Suite 1

      Indianapolis, IN South Meridian 11 S. Meridian Street, Suite 110

      Merrillville, IN Westfield Southlake 2074 Southlake Mall

      Mishawaka, IN Princess City Shopping Center 4230 Grape Road

      West Lafayette, IN Wabash Landing 348 E. State Street

      Kansas

      Lawrence, KS 700 New Hampshire Street

      Wichita, KS 1715 Rock Rd & 13th Street

      Kentucky

      Louisville, KY Fourth Street Live 400 S. 4th Street

      Louisville, KY 2520 S. Hurstborne Gem Lane

      Louisiana

      Metarie, LA Veterans Memorial Boulevard 3131 Veterans Memorial Blvd.

      New Orleans, LA St. Charles Avenue 3338 St. Charles Ave

      Massachusetts

      Boston, MA The 501 Boylston Street Condominiums 511 Boylston Street

      Burlington, MA Wayside Commons 6 Wayside Road, Space U

      Holyoke, MA Holyoke Mall 50 Holyoke St., Space J312

      Hyannis, MA 990 Iyannough Road

      Peabody, MA 151 Andover Street

      Wareham, MA Wareham Crossing 2421 Cranberry Highway, Ste 460

      Maryland

      Bowie, MD Bowie Gateway Center 4420 Mitchellville Rd.

      Kensington, MD White Flint Mall 11301 Rockville Pike

      Largo, MD Capital Centre 931 Capital Centre Blvd.

      Michigan

      Ann Arbor, MI Arborland Mall 3527 Washtenaw Ave.

      Dearborn, MI Fairlane Town Center 5601 Mercury Drive

      Grosse Point, MI 17141 Kercheval Avenue

      Utica, MI Utica Park Place 45290 Utica Park Boulevard

      Minnesota

      Maple Grove, MN The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes Phase II 12059 Elm Creek Blvd.

      City Shopping Center/Mall (if applicable) Address

      Minnetonka, MN Bonaventure Shopping Center 1501 Plymouth Road

      Richfield, MN Shops at Lyndale 800 W. 78th Street

      St. Paul, MN Midway Marketplace 1390 W. University Avenue

      Missouri

      Ballwin, MO Central Plaza 15355-A Manchester Road

      Chesterfield, MO Chesterfield Mall 2040 Chesterfield Mall

      Kansas City, MO Shops at Boardwalk 8628 North Boardwalk Avenue

      Springfield, MO Primrose Marketplace 3300 S. Glenstone Avenue

      St. Peters, MO Mid Rivers Mall 1320 Mid Rivers Mall

      St. Joseph, MO The Shoppes At North Village 5201 North Belt Highway, Suite 127

      Montana

      Bozeman, MT Gallatin Center 2855 North 19th Avenue, Suite C

      North Carolina

      Apex, NC Beaver Creek Crossings South S/C 1541 Beaver Creek Commons Dr., Ste 220

      Cary, NC 1751 Walnut Street

      Chapel Hill, NC 1807 Fordham Blvd.

      Greensboro, NC Oakwood Plaza 3605 High Point Rd

      Raleigh, NC Creekside Crossing Shopping Center 404-101 East Six Forks Rd

      New Hampshire

      Nashua, NH Daniel Webster Highway 281 Daniel Webster Hwy.

      New Jersey

      Freehold, NJ Raceway Mall 3710 Route 9, Ste 2318

      Ft. Lee, NJ Fort Lee Town Centre 1642 Schlosser Street

      Paramus, NJ Westfield Garden State Plaza Garden State Plaza Suite 2200

      Watchung, NJ Watchung Square 1515 Route 22 West, Suite 02

      New Mexico

      Albuquerque, NM Cottonwood Corners Phase III 10420 Coors Bypass NW, Suite B

      Santa Fe, NM 500 Montezuma, Suite 108

      Nevada

      Las Vegas, NV Sahara Pavilion 2323 S Decatur Boulevard

      New York

      Commack, NY King Kullen Plaza 68 Veterans Memorial Highway

      Ithaca, NY Pyramid Mall 40 Catherwood Road

      Manhattan, NY Kips Bay Plaza 576 Second Avenue

      New York, NY Park Avenue 461 Park Ave.

      New York, NY 100 Broadway 100 Broadway

      Saratoga Springs, NY Saratoga Springs 395 Broadway

      Scarsdale, NY Vernon Hills Shopping Center 680 White Plains Road

      Wappingers Falls, NY Nine Mall Plaza 1820 South Road, Suite 110

      Westbury, NY Price Club Plaza 1260 Old Country Road

      Ohio

      Cincinnati, OH Northgate Mall 9459 Colerain Avenue

      Columbus, OH Kenny Road 4545 Kenny Road

      Columbus, OH Northwest Square 6670 Sawmill Road

      Dayton, OH Dayton Mall 2700 Miamisburg Centerville Rd, Ste 870

      Mason, OH Deerfield Towne Center 5105 Deerfield Blvd

      Medina, OH Medina Grande Shops 4927 Grande Shops Ave.

      Mentor, OH Creekside Commons 9565 Mentor Avenue

      Oklahoma

      Oklahoma City, OK 3209 Northwest Expressway

      Tulsa, OK South Yale 8015 S. Yale

      Pennsylvania

      City Shopping Center/Mall (if applicable) Address

      Camp Hill, PA Capital City Commons 3515 Gettysburg Road

      Erie, PA Millcreek Pavilion 2088A Interchange Rd

      King of Prussia, PA The Pavilion at King of Prussia 650 Mall Blvd.

      Langhome, PA Marketplace at Oxford Valley 2343 E. Lincoln Highway

      Monroeville, PA 200 Mall Blvd

      Pittsburgh, PA Crossgates Shopping Center 1775 North Highland Road

      Pittsburgh, PA Eastside Shopping Center 5986 Penn Circles South, Ste 101

      Reading, PA Woodmill Commons 1075 Woodland Rd

      Whitehall, PA Whitehall Mall 1937 Whitehall Mall

      Puerto Rico

      Carolina, PR Plaza Escorial 5891 Plaza Escorial

      Mayaguez, PR Mayaguez Mall Shopping Center Avenida Hostos 975, Suite 765

      Tennessee

      Franklin, TN Thoroughbred Village at Cool Springs 545 Cool Springs Blvd, Suite 190

      Texas

      Austin, TX The Domain 3309 Esperanza Crossing

      Austin, TX Southpark Meadows Shopping Center Southpark Meadows, Suite F

      Austin, TX Westgate Marketplace 4477 S. Lamar

      Burleson, TX Gateway Station 1131 N. Burleson Blvd.

      Colleyville, TX Colleyville Town Center 5615 Colleyville Blvd, Ste 100

      Dallas, TX Preston Oaks Shopping Center 10720 Preston Road, Suite 1018

      Dallas, TX 3600 McKinney Avenue

      Lewisville, TX Vista Ridge Center 2403 S Stemmons, Suite 100

      Mesquite, TX Town Centre Plaza 2709 N.Mesquite Drive

      Plano, TX Preston Shepard Place 1601 Preston Road, Suite J

      Utah

      Logan, UT Cache Valley Plaza 1050 North Main Street

      Murray, UT West Winchester 132 E. Winchester

      Virginia

      Glen Allen, VA 9750 W Broad St

      Newport News, VA Patrick Henry Mall 12300 Jefferson Ave, Suite 100

      Stafford, VA Stafford Market Place Shopping Center 1240 Stafford Market Place

      Vienna, VA Tyson's Corner 8027 Leesburg Pike, Ste 100

      Winchester, VA Winchester Station 2420 S. Pleasant Valley Road

      Washington

      Gig Harbor, WA Uptown Gig Harbor 4601 Point Fosdick Dr. NW

      Lynnwood, WA Alderwood Mall 3000 184th St. SW, Suite 910

      Wisconsin

      Fox Point, WI Riverpoint Village Shopping Center 8705 N. Port Washington

      Greendale, WI Southridge Mall 5250 S. 76th Street

      Madison, WI Village of Shorewood Hills 3750 University Ave

      Milwaukee, WI ASQ Center 101 West Wisconsin Avenue

      Complete List of Borders Bookstores to be Closed. Company plans to close one third of its stores as part of bankruptcy filing....

      FDIC Updates Financial Literacy Program

      Money Smart helps young people learn about finance

      Surveys consistently suggest consumers, especially young consumers, could benefit from enhanced financial literacy. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has stepped into that void with the release of an updated and enhanced version of its instructor-led Money Smart financial education curriculum for young adults.

      The enhanced curriculum incorporates changes in the law and industry practices that have occurred since Money Smart for Young Adults was launched in 2008. The updated curriculum reflects recent amendments to the rules pertaining to credit cards, the overdraft opt-in rule, and information on financing higher education.

      New quizzes

      The revised curriculum also includes other instructional enhancements, many suggested by instructors who use Money Smart, such as expanded pre- and post-tests that teachers can use to measure changes in student knowledge or use as quiz questions.

      "We are pleased with the public's response to Money Smart for Young Adults in the last two years since its release," said FDIC Chairman Sheila C. Bair. "In November, FDIC began a partnership with the U.S. Department of Education and the National Credit Union Administration, as part of a broad national effort to promote financial education for low- and moderate-income students. Our enhanced Money Smart for Young Adults curriculum is an excellent tool not just for educators but also to facilitate collaborations between banks and schools."

      Money Smart for Young Adults is the FDIC's financial education curriculum designed to help young consumers understand basic financial services, develop money-management skills and learn how to use banking services effectively. To learn more about the program, review success stories, and to obtain free copies, visit the Money Smart page on the FDIC's Websites listed above.

      For those with little or no banking experience

      The program aims to promote financial education, particularly for those with little or no banking experience. The FDIC said it has reached over 2.5 million consumers since 2001.

      Financial education fosters financial stability for individuals, families, and entire communities. The more people know about credit and banking services, the more likely they are to increase savings, buy homes, and improve their financial health and well being, the agency said.

      The Money Smart curriculum is available free of charge in four primary formats:

      • An instructor-led curriculum for adults on CD-ROM available in seven languages and print versions for the visually impaired
      • An instructor-led curriculum for young adults between the ages of 12-20 on CD-ROM, Money Smart for Young Adults
      • A self-paced Computer-Based Instruction (CBI) format online for ages 13 and over in English and Spanish
      • A portable audio (MP3) version, Money Smart Podcast Network

       The Money Smart program may be used by financial institutions and other organizations interested in sponsoring financial education workshops.  Collaboration is important to the success of any education effort. The FDIC encourages banks to work with others in their communities to deliver financial education and appropriate financial services, including to individuals who may not have a relationship with an insured depository institution.

      The FDIC has updated its popular Money Smart financial literacy program....

      Ohio Attorney General Sues BP

      Blames pension losses on company's misleading statements

      Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has filed a class action lawsuit against BP on behalf of his state’s public pension fund, alleging that the oil giant was unprepared for the massive Deepwater Horizon spill last April. DeWine says the company misled investors with statements suggesting that it was vigilantly monitoring possible safety issues. 

      According to the suit, BP made several statements assuring investors that strict safety standards had been put in place following other incidents prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill on April 20, 2010. The suit says that those statements provided false comfort to investors, inflating the company’s stock price and lowering its so-called “risk profile.” 

      The suit also claims that BP was overly optimistic after the spill occurred, misleading investors as to its ability to contain the spill. (For those that have forgotten, the well was finally sealed in late September -- five months after the initial explosion -- after several false starts.) 

      Plummeting stock 

      The suit says that BP’s allegedly misleading statements failed to warn investors of the risks that the company faced. In the wake of the spill, the value of BP stock fell by up to 48 percent. 

      “In the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, in addition to the tragic loss of life and environmental damage, pension systems providing retirement benefits for current and future retirees who invested in BP in good faith were adversely affected when stock prices plummeted,” DeWine said in a statement announcing the suit. 

      The suit is brought on behalf of the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System, State Teachers Retirement System, School Employees Retirement System, and Ohio Police & Fire Pension Fund. 

      Similar suit in NY 

      Last June, New York State comptroller Thomas DiNapoli brought a lawsuit in his role as trustee of the state’s $132.8 billion pension fund. 

      “It's my duty to protect the interests of the fund and the retirees and employees who rely on it,” DiNapoli said at the time. “BP misled investors about its safety procedures and its ability to respond to events like the ongoing oil spill and we're going to hold it accountable.” 

      Mississippi action 

      DeWine’s suit comes several weeks after Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood announced that he is asking the federal judge in charge of the multi-district class action against BP to take over his state’s Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) claims process. 

      Hood said that costs associated with the spill have been “improperly shifted to the State as a result of BP's failure to fulfill its obligations to compensate the individual and business claimants injured as a result of the oil spill.”

      Ohio Attorney General Sues BPBlames pension losses on company's misleading statements...

      FDA Urged To Prohibit 'Carcinogenic' Caramel Coloring

      Consumer group says artificial caramel coloring is quite different from real caramel

      The caramel coloring used in Coke, Pepsi and other foods is contaminated with two cancer-causing chemicals and should be banned, according to a regulatory petition filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). 

      In contrast to the caramel one might make at home by melting sugar in a saucepan, the artificial brown coloring in colas and some other products is made by reacting sugars with ammonia and sulfites under high pressure and temperatures. 

      Cancer-causer

      Chemical reactions result in the formation of 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole, which in government-conducted studies caused lung, liver, or thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory mice or rats. 

      The National Toxicology Program, a division of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that conducted the animal studies, said there is “clear evidence” that both 2-MI and 4-MI are animal carcinogens. Chemicals that cause cancer in animals are considered to pose cancer threats to humans. 

      Researchers at the University of California, Davis found significant levels of 4-MI in five brands of cola. 

      “Carcinogenic colorings have no place in the food supply, especially considering that their only function is a cosmetic one,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “The FDA should act quickly to revoke its approval of caramel colorings made with ammonia.” 

      Federal regulations distinguish among four types of caramel coloring, two of which are produced with ammonia and two without it. CSPI wants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prohibit the two made with ammonia. 

      The type used in colas and other dark soft drinks is known as Caramel IV, or ammonia sulfite process caramel. Caramel III, which is produced with ammonia but not sulfites, is sometimes used in beer, soy sauce, and other foods. 

      Experts join in

      Five prominent experts on animal carcinogenesis, including several who have worked at the National Toxicology Program, joined CSPI in calling on FDA to bar the use of caramel colorings made with an ammonia process. 

      “The American public should not be exposed to any cancer risk whatsoever as a result of consuming such chemicals, especially when they serve a non-essential, cosmetic purpose,” the scientists wrote in a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. 

      Confusion

      CSPI also says the phrase “caramel coloring” is misleading when used to describe colorings made with ammonia or sulfite. The terms “ammonia process caramel” or “ammonia sulfite process caramel” would be more accurate, and companies should not be allowed to label any products that contain such colorings as “natural,” according to the group. 

      “Most people would interpret ‘caramel coloring’ to mean ‘colored with caramel,’ but this particular ingredient has little in common with ordinary caramel or caramel candy,” Jacobson said. “It’s a concentrated dark brown mixture of chemicals that simply does not occur in nature. Regular caramel isn’t healthful, but at least it is not tainted with carcinogens.” 

      California acts

      In a little-noticed regulatory proceeding in California, state health officials have added 4-MI to the state’s list of “chemicals known to the state to cause cancer.” Under that state’s Proposition 65, foods or other products containing more than certain levels of cancer-causing chemicals must carry warning labels. 

      For 4-MI, that level is 16 micrograms per person per day from an individual product. Popular brands of cola contain about 200 micrograms of 4-MI per 20-ounce bottle—and many people, especially teenaged boys, consume more than that each day. If California’s regulation is finalized, Coke, Pepsi and other soft drinks would be required to bear a cancer warning label. 

      Coloring vs. sugar

      To put the risk from caramel coloring in context, CSPI says the ten teaspoons of obesity-causing sugars in a non-diet can of soda presents a greater health risk than the ammonia sulfite process caramel. But the levels of 4-MI in the tested colas still may be causing thousands of cancers in the U.S. population. 

      Separate from the risk due to caramel coloring, CSPI has been urging the FDA to ban synthetic food colorings, such as Yellow 5 and Red 40. Those dyes cause hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in children, and Red 3 and Yellows 5 and 6 pose cancer risks, according to CSPI. The FDA is holding a Food Advisory Committee review of that issue on March 30–31.

      FDA Urged To Prohibit 'Carcinogenic' Caramel ColoringConsumer group says artificial caramel coloring is quite different from real caramel...

      Mothers' Jobs May Be Affecting Their Children's Health

      Study finds kids whose moms work are more likely to suffer from asthma, accidents

      Children of working mothers are significantly more likely to experience health problems -- including asthma and accidents -- than children of mothers who don’t work, according to new research from North Carolina State University.

      But Dr. Melinda Morrill, research assistant professor of economics at NC State and author of the study, said these findings should not prompt a mass exodus of moms from the workforce.

      “I don’t think anyone should make sweeping value judgments based on a mother’s decision to work or not work,” said Morrill. “But, it is important that we are aware of the costs and benefits associated with a mother’s decision to work.”

      The study examined 20 years’ worth of data covering approximately 89,000 children from the CDC’s National Health Interview Survey collected between 1985 and 2004. The children studied were all school-aged and had at least one younger sibling.

      Greater risk found

      The researchers found when a mother works, it leads to a 200 percent increase in the child’s risk of having each of three different adverse health events: overnight hospitalizations, asthma episodes, and injuries or poisonings.

      Previous studies have shown, on average, children have better health outcomes when the mother works. But those findings have been attributed to factors such as increased income for the family, availability of health insurance and an increase in the mother’s self-esteem.

      However, Morrill found these positives didn’t have an impact on many kids’ physical health. She used advanced statistical techniques to focus specifically on the causal relationship between mothers working and children’s health.

      Confounding factors

      Her approach accounts for a number of confounding factors, such as how a child’s health affects the mother’s ability to work. For example, if a child is very sick, the mother may be more likely to stay at home.

      “I wanted to look at mothers whose decision to work was not based on their children’s health,” Morrill says, explaining that a woman’s youngest child’s eligibility for kindergarten can influence her ability to return to the workforce.

      In assessing health outcomes, Morrill looked solely at older children already enrolled in school, between the ages of seven and 17, whose youngest sibling was around kindergarten age.

      This study is not the first to find negative outcomes to moms working outside the home. In January, a study revealed the more years mothers worked over their children’s lifetimes, the more their children’s body mass index (BMI) rose.

      Morrill’s paper is forthcoming from the Journal of Health Economics.

      Mothers' Jobs May Be Affecting Their Children's HealthStudy finds kids whose moms work are more likely to suffer from asthma, accidents...

      Verizon Wireless 'Get It Now' Plan Challenged in Class Action

      Suit charges that consumers are slapped with $9.99 monthly charge without documentation

      A class action lawsuit against Verizon Wireless charges the company improperly charges consumers $9.99 per month for its “Get It Now' download service. The suit, filed by Sarah Groggin of Brooklyn, NY, alleges the charges are “unidentified, unwarranted and recurring” and seeks refunds and damages for all affected consumers in the United States.

      It charges that Verizon imposes the charges, which appear on monthly bills under headings including “Get It Now,” “Get It Now Downloads” and “Data Usage Charges” without explanation and without reference to any particular subscription and no identification of the purported download.

      “Verizon Wireless is no stranger to improper billing practices,” the suit alleges. It notes that on Oct. 28, 2010, the company agreed to pay $25 million to settle a federal investigation of “mystery fees” it charges millions of customers for data sessions they never intended to launch.

      As part of that settlement, Verizon Wireless agreed to establish a “Data Charge Task Force” that would resolve data charge complaints and ensure that customer service employees were aware of any widespread data billing issues.

      It also agreed to provide its customers with plain-language information about data charges through bill inserts, welcome letters, online bill messages and an online bill tutorial.

      Nevertheless, the suit charges, Verizon Wireless improperly charges many of its customers for the “Get It Now” downloads, including those who have repeatedly asked to cancel the purported service and demanded refunds.

      But instead, the suit alleges, Verizon Wireless “intentionally instituted billing and customer service practices designed to prevent customers from understanding what they are being charged for and avoiding such charges.”

      $9.99 x 2

      Groggin said she subscribes to Verizon's “Nationwide Talk 450” plan for $39.99 per month. In addition, she subscribers to a data plan entitled her to 25 megabytes of data download per billing cycle for $9.99 per month.

      Groggin said she is also charged $9.99 per month for “Get It Now” downloads even though she has twice contacted Verizon Wireless and complained about the billing. On each occasion, she said she was refunded the $9.99, only to have it appear on subsequent bills.

      So just what is “Get It Now?”

      According to the company's website, “Get It Now is a technology and service that allows you to download and use applications on your Verizon Wireless Get It Now-enabled phone. For example, you can quickly and easily download ringtones, games, emails, directions, instant messages and more to your phone and use them right on your handset. It is a new enhancement to wireless technology.”

      To download the various applications, Verizon Wireless customers use either airtime or megabyte usage charges. Most applications take about a minute or .24 megabytes to download.

      The company says there is no monthly fee to use Get It Now. Instead, customers pay per application when they download it.

      But the suit charges that it is exceedingly difficult for consumers to identity Get It Now charges. Downloads are billed as a data call to the number 777-000-0000. The only way to differentiate between a Get It Now session and a mobile web session, the company's website says, it to match the date of the airtime charge to the date of the download.

      The suit charges that Groggin and others are routinely charged $9.99 per month without any explanation and without reference to any particular subscription or application purchase. It alleges that complaints about the practice appear on numerous consumer websites and social media and even on Verizon Wireless' own website.

      “I just got the bill and charged $9.99 since last month. What's this?” said one complaint on the Verizon site. “I paid last month for no reason and it keeps charging me. What is that for? I never downloaded something.”

      The suit charges that Verizon's action violates several laws and regulations, including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Truth-in-Billing Act, which provides that “charges contained on phone bills must be accompanies by a brief, clear, non-misleading description of the service or services rendered.”

      The suit was filed by attorney Mark C. Rifkin of the New York City law firm Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP.

      Verizon Wireless 'Get It Now' Plan Challenged in Class Action. Suit charges that consumers are slapped with $9.99 monthly charge without documentation....

      Violent Video Games May Not Be That Harmful

      New study reveals young adults may not get desensitized to violent game images

      Parents worried their kids may get desensitized to negative situations or events due to playing games like “Grand Theft Auto” and “Call of Duty” can rest a little easier based on results from a new study by psychology researchers from Ryerson University.

      Lead study author Holly Bowen, a PhD candidate in psychology, and co-author Julia Spaniol, a psychology professor, looked at chronic exposure to violent video games (VVG) and its impact on emotional long-term memory.

      They found exposure was not associated with differences in players’ emotional memory or their responses to negative stimuli.

      Their findings refute previous research showing the opposite: playing violent video games in lab settings cause people to exhibit more aggressive behavior, or become less emotionally responsive to violent images.

      “Emotional long-term memory helps us avoid negative situations,” Bowen said. “This has significant implications for public health. For example, if you remember the negative experience of being involved in a bar fight, you will avoid future situations that may lead to an altercation.”

      The study involved 122 male and female undergraduate students who fell into two categories: 45 participants who had some video game experience within the last six months and 77 students who reported no video game exposure.

      Among both male and female video game players, “Grand Theft Auto,” “Final Fantasy” and “NHL” were the most commonly listed video games.

      Male video game players also listed “Call of Duty” and “Tekken” among their top five game preferences, while female video game players preferred “Mario Kart,” “Guitar Hero,” and “Rock Band.”

      150 images

      Participants were shown 150 images representing negative, positive and neutral scenes. One hour later, the students viewed those same images again along with a new set of 150 “distractor” images, shown in random order.

      With each image, participants had to respond whether or not they had seen it before. Finally, at the end of the experiment, the students completed a self-assessment test regarding their state of emotional arousal.

      The researchers hypothesized that video game players would be less sensitive to the negative images and therefore show reduced memory for these materials.

      The results, however, showed no difference in the memory of video game players and non-players. Moreover, exposure to video games was not associated with differences in self-reported arousal to emotional stimuli.

      “The findings indicate that long-term emotional memory is not affected by chronic exposure violent video games,” said Bowen.

      The researchers caution, however, that further study is needed to see if these results would apply to all age groups, specifically children, and not just young adults.

      “While we are working with young adults, there may be still differences among kids who play VVGs,” said Spaniol.

      Looking to the future, the researchers are undertaking a new study that looks at the brain activity of VVG players while they view emotional images. They will also explore what impact chronic exposure to violent video games has on players outside of a lab setting.

      The research paper, "Chronic Exposure to Violent Video Games is Not Associated with Alterations of Emotional Memory," was published online in January 2010 in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

      Violent Video Games May Not Be That HarmfulNew study reveals young adults may not get desensitized to violent game images...

      Financial Confusion May Indicate Dementia

      Caregivers should be ready to step in

      Many adult children have struggled with the thorny issue of taking the car keys from an aging parent or grandparent. But how do you know when to take away the checkbook?

      When an older person begins to show confusion in managing their financial affairs, it can be a warning that the person is suffering from Alzheimer's disease and its pre-cursor, mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

      Physicians need to help patients and families recognize when an older patient is losing the ability to manage their own financial affairs, say researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of California at San Francisco. Their study appears in the  Journal of the American Medical Association.

      Financial abilities decline

      "Financial capacity is essential for an individual to function independently in our society," said study co-author Daniel Marson, J.D., Ph.D., professor of neurology and director of the UAB Alzheimer's Disease Center. "Diagnosis of cognitive impairment generally, and MCI and Alzheimer's disease specifically, should signal likely financial impairment and prompt physicians to encourage patients and families to seek financial and legal advance planning."

      The commentary from Marson and colleagues is part of JAMA's "Care of the Aging Patient: From Evidence to Action" series that provides evidence-based clinical guidance to physicians. Patients with MCI typically still are functioning in the community with focal memory or other cognitive impairments but are beginning to show initial signs of functional decline.

      New tool

      In 2009, Marson and his group published a major paper on declining financial capacity in MCI and progression to Alzheimer's, which involved a tool developed at UAB called the Financial Capacity Instrument. The FCI measures capacity across 20 tasks, including understanding a bank statement, balancing a checkbook, paying bills, preparing bills for mailing and counting coins and currency.

      "Declining financial capacity is a good barometer for progression of both MCI and Alzheimer's disease," said Marson, "Our previous research has shown that a decline in checkbook-management skills can be a harbinger of a patient's progression from MCI to early Alzheimer's dementia. Emerging impairments in financial skills and judgment often are the first functional changes demonstrated by patients with incipient dementia."

      Researchers say one of the earliest signs of dementia is the loss of the ability to handle money....

      New Law Brings Credit Card Clarity

      CARD Act makes pricing clearer, more competitive, study finds

      New credit card rules mandated by the Credit CARD Act of  2009 have resulted in significantly greater price transparency for consumers, according to a study by the Center for Responsible Lending CRL). 

      This reverses a trend of increasingly unclear pricing that for years misled consumers into believing they would pay less for credit card debt than was true. Inaccurate pricing information likely caused many borrowers to take on more credit card debt than they otherwise would have. 

      Rate Clarity

      The difference between the stated rate on credit card solicitations and the rate consumers actually paid widened to unprecedented levels by 2004 and stayed at those levels through 2008. This difference narrowed markedly in the wake of reform, with stated prices on solicitations moving much closer to actual prices. 

      The study also finds that, in the year since the CARD Act’s implementation, actual prices have remained stable and available credit has not tightened beyond what would be expected from the economic downturn. Because price transparency fosters competition, the long-term effect of the CARD Act is likely to be lower costs for consumers. 

      Key Findings

      • New rules have reduced the difference between stated rates and actual rates paid on credit cards, resulting in more transparent pricing. An estimated $12.1 billion in previously obscure yearly charges are now stated more clearly in credit card offers.
      • Once the economic downturn is taken into account, the actual rate consumers have paid on credit card debt has remained level.
      • Direct-mail offers have been extended at a volume and pace consistent with economic conditions.

      The report’s findings dispute negative claims by the credit card industry that new credit card rules have restricted access to consumer credit and raised its cost. These claims rely on limited data that do not accurately capture the cost or availability of credit extended to consumers, CRL maintains. 

      The study used multiple data sets and methods and -- according to CRL -- consistently found that the CARD Act has not caused prices to rise or credit to constrict. 

      Critics of reform often argue that rules and oversight inevitably lead to significant and negative “unintended consequences” for consumers. The continuing turmoil in the mortgage market "is an example of the harm the absence of common-sense rules brings," CRL says. "This report shows that, prior to the CARD act, the credit card industry was another." 

      Earlier CRL research has shown that, in the absence of basic rules, credit card issuers relied on confusing, complex pricing to charge more than consumers expected or understood. New rules have reduced the difference between stated rates and actual rates paid on credit cards, resulting in more transparent pricing. 

      The analysis

      CRL examined five sets of data for this study. The first two, from the Federal Reserve Board , track credit card rates, both as stated on solicitations and as actually paid by consumers. The discrepancy between the two measurements narrowed after the CARD Act passed, with stated rates moving closer to actual rates paid. 

      The third source of information came from “Call Reports,” which are statements of income and financial condition that commercial banks file quarterly with bank regulators. Analysis of these data provided further evidence that prices have become more transparent. 

      The fourth set, a private database from Mintel Comperemedia, tracked the number of mail solicitations over time. It showed that, once adjusted for the downturn, the number of solicitations has held steady or even risen. 

      The fifth, from the website CreditCards.com, compared rates offered on all credit cards to those offered on business credit cards, which are not subject to the CARD Act. The effective rate on business cards increased relative to consumer cards, further evidence that reform did not cause price increases. 

      Contrary to credit card industry claims, CRL says, the new rules have not caused prices to increase or access to credit to fall. "Instead," it says, "they have benefited the public by making credit card pricing significantly more transparent. Price transparency is likely to lower costs long term by spurring competition and making it harder for issuers to manipulate or arbitrarily raise prices."

      New Law Brings Credit Card ClarityCARD Act makes pricing clearer, more competitive, study finds...

      Could Mental Health and Childhood Obesity Be Linked?

      Health official says focus on kids' mental health could be more productive

      In the past 40 years, the number of obese children has increased four-fold, according to the National Institutes of Health -- now reaching 17 percent of children and adolescents two through 19 years old.

      Much of the current research done by health officials has focused on why kids are gaining so much weight. Is it TV? Lack of sleep? Something in their genes?

      Depression considered

      Christine Calamaro, PhD, CRNP, assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing thinks the problem could be depression.

       “My interest in this is not just about the weight of our kids anymore. It is about all the problems associated with obesity. When you start talking about adolescents [emerging] into adulthood, you have to consider co-morbidities, such as depression and diabetes,” said Calamaro.

      Recent research on obese children has focused on a link between lack of sleep duration or quality of sleep. Calamaro agrees sleep quality plays a role in weight gain.

      “It only makes sense to me that if they are not sleeping well, or have fragmented sleep, then their endocrine balance is screwed up, all their hormones are screw up, their cortisone levels are higher because they are tired and stressed, they are hungry, they eat more, they get carbohydrate-rich foods to get the instant glucose increase, they can get insulin resistance because of weight gain, then eat more carbs to stay awake. It’s a vicious cycle.”

      Yet lack of sleep is not the lone culprit. Calamaro led a recent study of 13,568 adolescents from 12 to 18 years old. Those sleeping six or fewer hours a day were no more obese than adolescents sleeping longer.

      The finding, part of a study published in the Journal of Sleep Research runs counter to a hypothesis common in adolescent health research, according to Calamaro.

      The researchers at first were disappointed, having expected “a slam dunk” relationship between lack of sleep and obesity, she said.

      Other factors

      But the study did reveal other negative factors were at work.

      “In light of other recent analyses that demonstrated a consistent increase in obesity among short sleepers in children and adults, the results of this study raise more questions about the causal pathways that may lead to increased adiposity in adolescents.”

      The study showed an association between sleep duration and depression.

      Depressed adolescents tended to sleep less than non-depressed adolescents, both in a 12-to-14 age group and in a 15-to-18 age group. Depressed adolescents were almost twice as likely to be obese whereas adolescents who watched television excessively were 37 percent more likely to be obese.

      Calamaro and the study coauthors also found that early adolescents who watched more than two hours of TV were 36 percent fatter in later adolescence than those watching less TV.

      “Television viewing may lead to increased risk of obesity because watching television has been associated with increased dietary intake, leading to an imbalance in energy expenditure,” the authors said.

      Television watching for about two hours per day at the younger age of 12 to 14 was predictive of obesity when they were 15 to 18.

      “Childhood obesity is a very complex problem we must address,” says Jay A. Perman, MD, pediatrician and president of the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

      According to Perman, fixing the problem will take more than healthcare providers to fix; doctors, nurses, social workers, attorneys, pharmacists and others need to help, too.

      Fighting the epidemic

      Last year, NIH launched a major effort of $72.5 million in new research funding to examine ways to curtail the nation’s growing childhood obesity epidemic.

      According to the NIH Website: “Factors behind this increase are believed to include increased consumption of high-calorie food and drinks and less physical activity during and after school. Overweight and obese children are at higher risk of chronic diseases during childhood and adulthood, including heart disease, stroke, asthma, type 2 diabetes, and several cancers.”

      Despite more funding, experts are not catching up with the problem, says Calamaro.

      “Preventative care is just not reimbursable (from insurance providers) as much as it should be. In health care we need to focus more on children. By 2043, half the adult population will be obese in the United States” if trends continue and changes are not made, she says.

      Change in attitude

      Calamaro said preventative care may have to start in infancy now since it could be too late for the current generation.

      But getting parents to realize a chubby baby is not a healthy baby is “difficult.”

      “We in the primary care setting need to be reinforcing this message about healthy eating/healthy sleep every time parents and children come into the doctor’s office. The hardest thing with obesity is to start the minute that baby first comes into your office and to talk about what healthy eating is for that child: Are you feeding that baby properly with that bottle? When does it look like they are finished drinking from the bottle? Are they warm? Are they dry? Are they crying because they are hungry, or are they crying because babies cry? Basic baby knowledge reinforced over and over again.”

      Could Mental Health and Childhood Obesity Be Linked? Health official says focus on kids' mental health could be more productive...

      Domestic Abuse Happens In Teen Relationships, Too

      Illinois Attorney General hopes to raise awareness about teen dating violence

      Valentine’s Day is normally a time to celebrate happy couples, but Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan used the holiday to remind young couples in Chicago, and nationwide, about the importance of healthy relationships in recognition of Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month.

      In a statement released Monday, Madigan pointed to reports showing an increase in dating violence in the Chicago area and its prevalence around Illinois.

      “When people think of domestic violence, they usually think of it as a crime between adults. But in reality, domestic violence doesn’t have a minimum age requirement. It affects people of all ages, including teenagers,” said Madigan. “We need to educate young men and women that abusive behavior in a dating relationship is always wrong.”

      High rate

      An estimated 19 percent of Chicago area high school students reported being hit, slapped or physically hurt by their significant other, according to a 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

      That rate is more than double the national average (9.8%) and an increase since 2007 from 13 percent of Chicago students reporting violence in their relationship.

      Statewide, almost 14 percent of teens reported violent dating behavior, according to the CDC.

      Interestingly, there was little in the way of a double standard -- boys and girls reported experiencing teen dating violence in similar numbers to girls.

      Warning signs

      For parents unsure if their teen is the currently the victim of dating violence, Madigan provides these warning signs:

      • Does your teen exhibit unusual or extreme moodiness or withdraw from the family?
      • Has your teen stopped seeing friends or given up favorite activities?
      • Is your teen spending all her time with her boyfriend or girlfriend?
      • Does your teen’s boyfriend or girlfriend call very often?
      • Is your teen falling behind in school?
      • Is your teen afraid to break up with her boyfriend or girlfriend?
      • Does your teen have unexplained injuries?

      Madigan also provides helpful questions for teens who are worried their friend might be in an abusive relationship:

      Does your friend’s significant other

      • call them names or put them down?
      • act extremely jealous when they talk to other people?
      • always check up on them, calling or paging all the time?
      • lose their temper, throw or break things when they’re mad?

      Does your friend

      • always apologize for their behavior?
      • always worry about making their significant other angry?
      • cancel plans at the last minute?
      • give up things that used to be important to them, like friends or activities?
      • have injuries they can’t explain?

      Madigan encourages teens, parents and educators who witness or experience teen dating violence to reach out for help, starting with resources available on the Attorney General’s Website. The site includes warning signs, strategies and tips, as well as links to Websites created to work with youth to end the culture of violence and encourage activism to stop teen dating violence.

      Domestic Abuse Happens In Teen Relationships, Too Illinois Attorney General hopes to raise awareness about teen dating violence...

      Despite Knowing Calories In Fast Food, Teens Still Eat Too Many

      Study finds teens and young parents notice calories, but it doesn't sway choices

      Any hope teens will self-police their fast food eating habits might be dashed with the results of a new study led by an NYU School of Medicine investigator that found labeling foods with their calorie content has little effect on the purchasing behavior of young people.

      The study also revealed calorie labeling has little effect on what parents purchase for their children.

      That’s not to say teens don’t notice calorie labeling on their favorite foods; they do. They just respond at a lower rate than adults.

      Analyzing receipts

      Brian Elbel, Ph.D., MPH, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Health Policy at the NYU School of Medicine and the NYU Wagner School of Public Service, along with his colleagues, gathered receipts and surveys from 427 parents and teenagers at fast-food restaurants both before and after mandatory labeling began in New York City in July 2008.

      New York became the first city in the nation to enforce mandatory calorie labeling in fast-food restaurants throughout the five boroughs.

      Elbel and his team focused on lower income communities in New York City and used Newark, New Jersey, (which did not have mandatory labeling) as a comparison city. Data were collected before labeling began, and one month after labels were present in restaurants.

      As parents and teens were leaving fast-food restaurants, their receipts were collected and the foods they purchased were confirmed, along with a brief survey.

      Do labels matter?

      Before mandatory labeling began, none of the teens in the study said they noticed calorie information in the restaurant. After labeling began, 57 percent in New York and 18 percent in Newark said they noticed the calorie information.

      A total of nine percent said the information influenced their choices, and all of the teens said they used the information to purchase fewer calories.

      This number is considerably smaller than the percentage of adults who said the information influenced their choice (28 percent).

      "While the same percentage of adolescents and adults noticed calorie information, fewer adolescents report actually using the information in their food choice," said Elbel.

      However, noticing the posted calories didn’t sway patrons from purchasing high-calorie foods. Teens purchased about 725 calories and parents purchased about 600 calories for their children.

      Additional findings

      The study results revealed other significant findings.

      The way food tastes was considered the most important reason why teens bought it, while price was a consideration for slightly over 50 percent.

      Just over a quarter of the group said that they often or always limited the amount of food they ate in an effort to control their weight. The study also reported that most teenagers underestimated the amount of calories they had purchased, some by up to 466 calories.

      These conclusions are similar to a previous study about adult eating behavior by Elbel and his colleagues, which showed that although labels did increase awareness of calories, they did not alter food choices.

      Parental influence in food choice and childhood obesity is not well understood.

      Almost 60 percent of parents said they decided what food their child ate. However, even with greater involvement from parents there was no evidence of less consumption of fast-food calories.

      Obesity in the United States is an enormous public health problem and children and teenagers are increasingly becoming overweight or obese.

      The case for labeling

      Calorie labeling is the first significant policy effort to address obesity that has been implemented. Calorie menu labeling is now mandated to begin soon across the nation by the new health reform law called the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010" (ACA).

      Among the claims supporting this policy is that menu labeling will help people make better informed and healthier food choices.

      New York enforcing mandatory calorie labeling in fast-food restaurants throughout the five boroughs is the first attempt of its kind to influence the obesity epidemic by altering the environment in which individuals are actually making their food choices.

      The goal is to encourage consumers to think twice before purchasing high calorie foods from restaurants, and to increase awareness of the calorie contents of the food they were purchasing.

      In much the same way that adults responded in the few studies that have been conducted regarding this issue to date, the eating habits of children and teens in this study, a group of racial and ethnic minorities from low income areas, were barely influenced by the presence of calorie labeling.

      Easy access and the convenience of restaurant locations were the greatest drivers for teens and then taste influenced where they chose to eat.

      "It is important to further examine the influence of labeling, as it rolls out across the country as a result of the new federal law," said Elbel. "At the same time, it is important to understand that labeling is not likely to be enough to influence obesity in a large scale way. Other public policy approaches, as well as the efforts of food companies as other actors, will be needed."

      The study was published in the February 15, 2011, Advance Online Publication, International Journal of Obesity. Additional investigators were Rogan Kersh, Ph.D., NYU Wagner School of Public Service and Joyce Gyamfi, MA, Program Manager at the NYU School of Medicine.

      Despite Knowing Calories In Fast Food, Teens Still Eat Too ManyStudy finds teens and young parents notice calories, but it doesn't sway choices...

      HTC Builds Two New Smartphones Around Facebook

      It's a phone for people who are really into Facebook

      If Facebook was at the center of the Egyptian Revolution, it should be no surprise that a leading smartphone manufacturer has decided to build a couple of new devices around the social network site.

      HTC Corporation has unveiled two new phones built entirely around social networking. Part of a portfolio of six new HTC Sense-based devices being unveiled at Mobile World Congress,  the two phones, the HTC ChaCha and HTC Salsa, feature a dedicated Facebook button for one-touch access to the key functions of the Facebook site and are integrated throughout the HTC Sense system.

      "HTC has always understood that different people want different things and the new HTC ChaCha and Salsa offer special new ways to experience Facebook on a mobile device," said Peter Chou, CEO of HTC Corporation. "With more than 500 million active users worldwide, Facebook has become synonymous with the social web and we wanted to create the ultimate socially connected phones with mass market appeal." 

      "We have worked closely with HTC for several years on bringing Facebook to their devices and HTC ChaCha and HTC Salsa are the next stage," said Henri Moissinac, Head of Mobile Business for Facebook. "HTC has brought Facebook to these two new devices in an innovative way enabling people to connect and share easily whenever they want, wherever they are."

      Built-in Facebook button

      The Facebook button on HTC ChaCha and HTC Salsa is context-aware, gently pulsing with light whenever there is an opportunity to share content or updates through Facebook. With a single press of the button, you can update your status, upload a photo, share a Website, post what song you are listening to, 'check in' to a location and more.

      For example, you can take a photograph of friends on your phone and upload it instantly to Facebook by simply pressing the button. Or let your friends know what song you're listening to by pressing the button while listening to music on the phone. The track is automatically identified and shared on Facebook.

      The new devices feature Android Gingerbread 2.3.3, and use the latest iteration of HTC Sense to integrate Facebook throughout the HTC Sense experience, HTC says. When you make a phone call, the dialer screen displays your friend's latest status and photos, and even tells you if their birthday is approaching.

      The same updates are also displayed when you receive a call from a Facebook friend. You can also use your phone's existing contacts to help you connect with them on Facebook or personalize your handset further with a number of new, Facebook-branded widgets.

      Video calling

      The HTC ChaCha features a QWERTY keyboard and video chat capability. It includes a 5-megapixel color camera with auto focus and LED flash and a VGA front-facing camera. For Web browsing, it has  a 2.6-inch, 480 x 320 resolution landscape touch screen.

      The HTC Salsa also has a 5-megapixel camera for capturing stills, video or for face to face conversations. For face-to-face conversations on the move, the company says the VGA forward-facing camera enables high-quality video calling.

      The HTC ChaCha and HTC Salsa smartphones will be available to customers across major European and Asian markets during the second quarter of 2011. In the United States, HTC says it plans to release both phones later this year exclusively with AT&T.

      HTC has taken the wraps off two phones built around Facebook....

      Oregon Sues Veterans 'Charity,' Says Founder Diverted Funds

      Oregon War Veterans Association also made illegal political contributions, suit charges

      Oregon Attorney General John Kroger has filed a lawsuit alleging that the founder of two charities personally kept at least $690,000 of funds raised to help Oregonveterans and improperly used charitable donations to make unreported political contributions.

       “The Department of Justice is committed to cracking down on charities that misuse donations raised to benefit veterans, law enforcement and other worthy causes,” said Keith Dubanevich, Chief of Staff and Special Counsel to Attorney General Kroger. “Oregonians deserve absolute assurances that their generous charitable contributions are spent properly.”

      The lawsuit was filed today in Marion County Circuit Court against Gregory Warnock and corporations he founded: the Oregon War Veterans Association (OWVA) and Military Family Support Foundation.

      The suit alleges that Warnock falsely claimed that Military Family Support had been granted charitable status by the IRSand that donations to it were tax-deductible. In fact, the suit alleges, Military Family Support was little more than a corporate shell that Warnock used to solicit donations that he transferred to himself or entities under his control. 

      Warnock also allegedly allowed OWVA to make unreported political contributions and represented that donors could claim a charitable tax deduction for contributions intended to be used for political purposes, which is contrary toOregons campaign finance laws, Internal Revenue Service regulations and OWVA’s status as a charitable, public-benefit corporation. 

      The lawsuit seeks, among other things, an order shutting down OWVA and preventing Warnock from operating charities in the future.  Attorney General Kroger also is demanding that Warnock repay amounts he impropertly diverted so the funds can be distributed to charitable organizations that provide assistance to veterans.

      The lawsuit is part of Attorney General Kroger’s ongoing initiative to crack down on non-profits and fundraisers that fraudulentlyclaim to help U.S.veterans.

      Oregon Sues Veterans 'Charity,' Says Founder Diverted Funds. Oregon War Veterans Association also made illegal political contributions, suit charges....

      'Free' Poster Costs $29.99 Per Month, Lawsuit Charges

      Wozo, Tatto, Adknowledge named in class action suit

      A class action suit filed in Boston accuses Wozo, LLC, Tatto, Inc., and Adknowledge, Inc., of promising consumers a free poster and then enrolling them in a monthly club at a cost of $29.99 per month.

      The suit charges that the companies are “selling a completely different product than the one displayed on the web pages” promising the “free” poster and says there is no mention of the monthly fee anywhere on the web pages.

      Instead, consumers who expect to pay a one-time shipping fee of 99 cents find themselves enrolled in a “useless 'poster club,'” the suit alleges.

      Few consumers, if any, would ever elect to buy a $29.99 monthly membership to receive only two posters per month, particularly when those posters are arbitrarily selected by someone else,” said the named plaintiff, Suk Jae Chang, of Arcadia, Calif.

      The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Boston, says the companies' practices violate Massachusetts laws that prohibit using misleading and deceptive advertise and failing to adequately disclose the true terms of an offer.

      The suit also charges that the web sites contain a pre-checked box indicating that the customer agrees to all terms and conditions but does not contain a hyperlink to any such terms and conditions.

      Congress recently passed a measure called Restore Online Shoppers Confidence which specifically prohibits opt-out membership programs, the suit notes.

      The case was filed by Boston attorneys Todd Heyman and Robert Ditzion.

      'Free' Poster Costs $29.99 Per Month, Lawsuit Charges. Wozo, Tatto, Adknowledge named in class action suit....

      Shoppers Sound Off About Supermarkets

      Lack of cashiers, hard-to-reach shelves top gripe list

      What's most annoying about your supermarket? If you're like respondents to a recent poll, your leading complaints might be: too few cashiers (44%), top shelves too high to reach (35%), and too many promotional displays in the aisles (28%).

      The survey was conducted by SupermarketGuru.com and allowed multiple responses, so numbers don't add up to 100%.

      When it comes to sales, shoppers say they're most annoyed when the store runs out of the sale item (62%), requiries companion purchases to get the sale price (46%) and issues coupons at checkout with short expiration times (32%).

      In departments like produce and meat, shoppers say their supermarkets are most often guilty of high prices (38%), inconsistent freshness (34%), out of stock (28%) and short dates (25%).

      Shoppers Sound Off About Supermarkets. Lack of cashiers, hard-to-reach shelves top gripe list....

      Connecticut Questions Facebook Security Procedures

      State legislator's profile was hacked, her friends solicited for money

      Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen is asking Facebook for information about its procedures for detecting and disabling fraudulent accounts following a complaint by a Milford legislator that her identity was misused in a scam that solicited her friends for money.

      Rep. Kim Rose said the social media site did not respond quickly to take the posting down after repeated complaints that her name and photograph were being used without her permission in solicitation of money.

      Jepsen wrote a letter to Facebook Monday saying his office would investigate “because of the real and immediate danger of financial fraud and identity theft associated with this scam.”

      Jepsen asked the company for information about the number of complaints it had received in the last 18 months about fraudulent or “hacked” accounts; its policies and procedures for responding to complaints and how long it took them to do so and information about any safeguards in place to detect and disable fake or “hacked” Facebook accounts.

      “My hope is to work cooperatively with Facebook to ensure that is users in Connecticut and elsewhere are provided adequate security and receive quick and effective responses when security breaches occur,” Jepsen said.

      Facebook was asked to provide the information to Jepsen's office by Feb. 22.

      Jepsen said Rep. Rose’s complaint followed other public reports of security lapses resulting in the hacking of private Facebook pages, including the pages of Facebook’s own chief executive.

      “I’m pleased that the Attorney General has recognized the significance of this matter for consumers and has worked so quickly to get some answers,” said Rep. Rose. “I’m hopeful this action will help to protect other consumers from identity theft in the future.”

      Connecticut Questions Facebook Security Procedures. State legislator's profile was hacked, her friends solicited for money....

      Social Media Sites Growing As Consumer Comment Centers

      Study finds twice as many consumers are posting comments compared with a year ago

      The percentage of consumers who posted a negative or positive comment about their interaction with a Consumer Affairs Department has doubled in just one year, according to a study sponsored by The Center For Client Retention (TCFCR). 

      In the Second Annual Social Media Benchmarking Study, 20 companies (a combination of Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies) provided information on their social media policies to see how it compared with their consumers’ expectations and behaviors. 

      The study included feedback from 28,000 consumers about their use and impressions of social media platforms. 

      “This is a significant finding for the 20 companies and reinforces the value of investing more heavily in customer service", said Richard Shapiro, president of TCFCR and author of the soon-to-be-published book, The Service Genie: Getting The Service You Wish For.

      "Fifty-four percent of the postings were positive, compared to 23% being negative, with the primary driver of negative postings being related to the product itself and not the service delivery by the representative.” 

      Study Highlights 

      • While the percentage of consumers using social media remained consistent at 60%, 54% of the respondents said their social media usage had increased in the past year, compared with 11% who said it decreased;
      • Overall, 36% of the respondents said they are following companies/brands on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. or have them on their friends list. There was a variance by age demographic, with 53% of consumers who were 40 years old or younger following companies/brands versus 18% for respondents who were 55 years of age or older; and
      • When consumers were asked how social media has influenced their purchasing decisions, 24% said they will consider purchasing a product after seeing a positive post, and 15% said they will stop buying a product after reading a negative comment on a social media site.

      “The data collected from this study clearly demonstrates the power and influence of social media on consumer purchasing habits," says Shapiro. "Companies have an opportunity to significantly increase their revenues by providing excellent service with more and more consumers posting positive comments about their interactions. Conversely, companies can easily damage their brands by not providing good service that demonstrates to the consumer that their business is welcomed, appreciated and important.” 

      Shapiro says with such significant increases in the percentages in just one year, he's looking forward to the findings from the Third Annual Social Media Benchmarking Study, which is scheduled for this coming September.

      Social Media Sites Growing As Consumer Comment Centers Study finds twice as many consumers are posting comments compared with a year ago ...

      Can You Use A 'Short' Tax Form?

      If so, filing your taxes just got easier

      If you are just sitting down to work on your taxes, chances are you have lots of questions. One question might be "which form do I use?"

      For example, some taxpayers are able to use the shorter 1040EZ, or 1040A forms rather than the longer, more complicated standard Form1040. The job of filing your taxes will be much easier if you can use one of the shorter forms.

      According to the IRS, you can use the 1040EZ if:

      • Your filing status is single or married, filing jointly
      • You were under age 65 and not blind at the end of 2010
      • You do not claim any dependents
      • Your taxable income is less than $100,000
      • Your income is only from wages, salaries, unemployment compensation, Alaska Permanent Fund dividends, taxable scholarship and fellowship grants, and taxable interest of $1,500 or less.
      • You did not receive any advance Earned Income Credit payments
      • You did not claim any adjustment to income, such as a deduction for IRA contribution or student loan interest
      • You do not claim any credits such as the earned income tax credit or the making work pay credit
      • You do not owe any household employment taxes on wages you paid to a household employee
      • You are not claiming the additional standard deduction

      If you don't qualify for the 1040EZ, perhaps you can use the 1040A. To qualify, your income must be limited to wages, salaries, tips, IRA distributions, pensions and annui- ties, taxable social security and railroad retirement benefits, taxable scholarship and fellowship grants, interest, ordinary dividends (including Alaska Permanent Fund dividends), capital gain distributions, and unemployment compensation.

      Other requirements include:

      • Your taxable income is less than $100,000
      • Your deductions are limited to IRA contributions and student loan interest
      • You do not itemize
      • Your taxes are from the tax table, alternative minimum tax, advance earned income credit, recapture of education credit, Form 8615, or Qualified Dividend and Capital Gain Tax Worksheet
      • Your tax credits are limited to child care, making work pay, earned income credit, education credits, additional child tax credit, elderly or disable tax credit, the child tax credit

      If you are doing your taxes yourself, using a 1040EZ or 1040A will save time. If you are paying someone to prepare your taxes, using these short forms will probably save money.

      If you meet certain conditions, you can use a 'short' form to file your taxes....

      Fight Death With Fiber

      Study finds regular consumption of dietary fiber reduces risk of death

      Regular consumption of dietary fiber can bring a wealth of health benefits like reduced blood cholesterol levels, improved blood glucose levels, lower blood pressure, but a new report found it may help you live longer, too.

      The study, by Yikyung Park, Sc.D., of the National Cancer Institute, Rockville, Md., and colleagues, found fiber may be associated with a reduced risk of death from cardiovascular, infectious and respiratory diseases, as well as a reduced risk of death from any cause over a nine-year period.

      Fiber, the edible part of plants that resist digestion, has been hypothesized to lower risks of heart disease, some cancers, diabetes and obesity, according to background information in the article.

      It is known to assist with bowel movements, promote weight loss, reduce inflammation, and bind to potential cancer-causing agents to increase the likelihood they will be excreted by the body.

      For the study, the researchers analyzed data from 219,123 men and 168,999 women in the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study. Participants completed a food frequency questionnaire at the beginning of the study in 1995 and 1996. Causes of death were determined by linking study records to national registries.

      Participants' fiber intake ranged from 13 to 29 grams per day in men and from 11 to 26 grams per day in women.

      More is better

      Over an average of nine years of follow-up, 20,126 men and 11,330 women died. Fiber intake was associated with a significantly decreased risk of total death in both men and women -- the one-fifth of men and women consuming the most fiber (29.4 grams per day for men and 25.8 grams for women) were 22 percent less likely to die than those consuming the least (12.6 grams per day for men and 10.8 grams for women).

      The risk of cardiovascular, infectious and respiratory diseases was reduced by 24 percent to 56 percent in men and 34 percent to 59 percent in women with high fiber intakes.

      Dietary fiber from grains, but not from other sources such as fruits, was associated with reduced risks of total, cardiovascular, cancer and respiratory disease deaths in men and women.

      "The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend choosing fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains frequently and consuming 14 grams per 1,000 calories of dietary fiber," the authors write. "A diet rich in dietary fiber from whole plant foods may provide significant health benefits."

      The study will be published in the June 14 print issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

      Fight Death With Fiber Study finds regular consumption of dietary fiber reduces risk of death...

      Daimler AG Folds Smart ForTwo Into Mercedes-Benz

      The move will help Mercedes meet strict new fuel standards in 2016

      The Smart ForTwo car seemed like a smart idea at the time but corporate parent Daimler AG has decided it's time to make some even smarter moves.

      It's taking back Smart car distribution in the United States from the Penske Automotive Group and turning it over to its Mercedes-Benz division. It has also scrapped plans for the Quattro – no, not a four-wheel drive Smart, just a four-door one.

      Penske launched the Smart ForTwo in the U.S. In 2008 and it shot off the line, selling 24,622 cars in 2008, but quickly fell behind the pack and sales fell 59 percent to 5,927 in 2010.

      Mercedes-Benz USA CEO Ernst Lieb said bringing the Smart under the Mercedes banner will give the company more leverage in meeting the tough new U.S. fuel economy standards that take effect in the 2016 model year. Automotive News reported.

      The little fuel-sipper will help compensate for some of the dreadnoughts in the Benz fleet, pulling down the overall corporate fuel economy.

      Smart dealers who are not also Mercedes-Benz dealers will be terminated as part of the deal, and Smart cars will be sold exclusively by Mercedes-Benz dealers.

      Daimler AG Folds Smart ForTwo Into Mercedes-Benz. The move will help Mercedes meet strict new fuel standards in 2016....

      Bogus White House Greeting Contains Dangerous Malware

      Other recent threats include social network misspelling scam, fake receipt generator

      Malicious code in a bogus White House email, a misspelling scam and a fake online receipt top the recent cyber crime trends as determined by the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a joint project of several federal law enforcement agencies.

      White House greetings

      A  recent malware campaign, disguised as a holiday greeting from the White House, targeted government employees. The recipient received the e-mail with links to what masqueraded as a greeting card, but when they clicked on the link, it attempted to download a file named "card.exe."

      The executable program proved to be an information-stealing Trojan, which would disable the recipient’s computer security notifications, software updates, and firewall settings. The malware also installed itself into the computer’s registry, enabling the code to be executed every time the computer was rebooted.


      At the time of review, this particular malicious code sample had a low antivirus detection rate of 20%, with only 9 out of 43 antivirus companies reporting detection.

      Social network

      During December 2010, the IC3 discovered misspellings of a social network site being used as a social engineering ploy. Misspelling the domain name of this site would redirect users to websites coded to look similar to the actual website.

      The website users were redirected to answer three or four simple survey questions. Upon answering those questions, users were offered a choice of three free gifts. Multiple brands were observed as being offered as gifts, including gift cards to retail stores and various brands of laptops.

      After clicking on one of the gifts, users were further redirected to other websites claiming to give free gifts for completing surveys. The surveys typically asked for name, address, phone number, and e-mail address. A user could spend hours filling out multiple surveys and never receive any of the gifts advertised.

      Fake receipt generator

      A new scam aims to swindle online marketplace sellers by generating fake receipts. This Receipt Generator is an executable file that has been circulating on hacking forums recently.

      The IC3 investigators say it's a particularly interesting scam - because it does not target regular PC users, it targets the sellers on online marketplace websites.

      The program produces what appears to be a genuine marketplace receipt and a copy of the "Printable Order Summary," similar to the documents resulting from legitimate marketplace purchases. Small details such as "Total before tax," "Sales tax," and other particulars make the receipt convincing

      Many sellers on these markets will ask the buyer to send them a copy of the receipt should the buyer run into trouble, have orders go missing, lose the license key for a piece of software, and so on. The scammer relies on the seller to accept the printout at face value without checking the details. After all, how many sellers would be aware someone went to the trouble of creating a fake receipt generator?

      Sellers must remain ever vigilant about this scam, which has been a popular topic in recent hacker forums.


      Bogus White House Greeting Contains Dangerous Malware. Other recent threats include social network misspelling scam, fake receipt generator....

      Pennsylvania Sues Online Electronics Store

      Charges company failed to deliver products, used deception to evade complaints

      A consumer protection lawsuit was filed today against a Philadelphia based Internet electronics store that allegedly failed to deliver products to consumers and created new websites and company names to confuse consumers or to avoid negative feedback.

      Acting Attorney General Bill Ryan said the lawsuit was filed against Zoommania, LLC, Pro Digital Cameras, Inc., and owners Andrew Schwartz and Paul Nimerozky. The company storefront was located 21 South 12th St, 2nd Floor, Philadelphia. However, a majority of the business was conducted from the owners’ homes in Merion Station and Huntingdon Valley, Montgomery County.

      According to the lawsuit, the defendants operated numerous websites under different names, locations, telephone numbers and fax numbers, but all were actually the same company.

      Ryan said the stores allegedly created new websites with different names and locations after receiving negative feedback from consumers. By creating seemingly new companies, the defendants were allegedly able to trick consumers into thinking they were dealing with a different company.

      Some of the business names included Zoommania, Pro Digital Cameras, Fotospirit, Iprodigital, Ewaydigital and Digiemporio. None of these names were registered with the Pennsylvania Department of State as corporations or fictitious names, as required by law.

      The lawsuit alleges that the stores listed all inventory as being “in-stock” or “available,” but within 48 hours of purchasing a product, consumers would receive a phone call or email stating that the item was out-of-stock.

      Ryan said the stores then informed consumers that they could purchase an additional “kit” that would make them eligible to receive their goods in a timely manner, but if they refused, there would be no definite time when the goods would be delivered, if at all.

      The lawsuit seeks restitution for consumers and $1,000 for each violation of the Consumer Protection Law, $3,000 for violations when involving a consumer aged 60 or older.  The lawsuit also seeks litigation and investigation costs.

      Consumers who believe they may have purchased items from any of these companies is encouraged to filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection by calling 1-800-441-2555 or filing an online complaint at www.attorneygeneral.gov.

      Pennsylvania Sues Online Electronics Store. Charges company failed to deliver products, used deception to evade complaints....

      EchoStar Buying Hughes Communictions

      Satellite TV and Internet providers teaming up

      EchoStar Corporation, which owns the Dish Network satellite television system, is purchasing Hughes Communications, Inc., which operates a satellite broadband Internet service, HughesNet.

      The transaction is valued at approximately $2 billion, including Hughes debt expected to be refinanced in connection with the transaction. EchoStar said the deal will greatly enhance its capabilities for broadband transport of video and data.

      Under the terms of the transaction, which has been approved by the Boards of Directors of both companies, Hughes' shareholders will receive $60.70 per share without interest, which represents a premium of 31 percent over Hughes' unaffected closing share price of $46.43 on January 19, 2011.

      Regulatory approval required

      The transaction is expected to close later this year, subject to certain closing conditions including receipt of federal regulatory approvals. Investment funds affiliated with Apollo Management IV, L.P., who own a majority of Hughes' outstanding stock, have approved the transaction by entering into a written shareholder consent.

      "We are very pleased to announce this transaction as it brings together the two premier providers of satellite communications services and delivers substantial value to our shareholders," said Pradman Kaul, President and Chief Executive Officer of Hughes. "By combining Hughes' operational strength and proven record of customer satisfaction with EchoStar's expertise in cutting edge satellite video technology, customers will benefit significantly from our shared institutional excellence."

      "There is a unique and compelling fit between Hughes and EchoStar," said Michael Dugan, President and Chief Executive Officer of EchoStar. "With a rich engineering culture, an extensive fleet of owned and leased satellites, and experienced personnel in communications centers around the world, the combination of EchoStar and Hughes will create a powerful leader in video and data transport."

      Rural service area

      HughesNet offers broadband Internet services to customers in mostly rural areas, who do not have access to traditional wired or wireless broadband. Consumers often complain about bandwidth allotments and slow speeds.

      "I have run numerous speed tests that point out that I am running at six percent of my hosts average speed," Kevin, of Moran, Kan., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I call and complain and they tell me it will be fixed in two hours and to call back if the problem continues. I can't run very many speed tests because of their dismal download allowance."

      Dish Network started as a mostly rural television provider but, in recent years, has begun competing in urban and suburban areas with cable TV providers.

      EchoStar has announced it is buying Hughes Communications....

      Eating Berries May Reduce Risk of Parkinson's Disease

      Men especially most likely to benefit from regular flavonoid consumption

      Berries.  They’re sweet, they’re natural, and they may even fight off Parkinson’s disease.

      In a study released today, researchers have found men and women who regularly eat berries may have a lower risk of developing the disorder of the central nervous system.

      Men may further lower their risk for the disease by regularly eating apples, oranges and other sources rich in dietary components called flavonoids.

      Flavonoids are found in plants and fruits, known collectively as vitamin P and citrin. They can also be found in berry fruits, chocolate, and citrus fruits like grapefruit.

      The study will be presented this week at the American Academy of Neurology's 63rd Annual Meeting.

      Researchers gave the study participants -- 49,281 men and 80,336 women -- questionnaires, calculated how many flavonoids they ate regularly, then analyzed the association between flavonoid intakes and risk of developing Parkinson's disease.

      They also analyzed consumption of five major sources of foods rich in flavonoids: tea, berries, apples, red wine, and oranges or orange juice.

      The participants were followed for 20 to 22 years. During that time, 805 people developed Parkinson's disease.

      In men, the top 20 percent who consumed the most flavonoids were about 40 percent less likely to develop Parkinson's disease than the bottom 20 percent of male participants who consumed the least amount of flavonoids.

      In women, there was no relationship between overall flavonoid consumption and developing Parkinson's disease, but women who regularly ate berries, which contain a sub-class of flavonoids called anthocyanins, did receive added health benefits like the men in the study.

      Study author Xiang Gao, MD, PhD, with the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston said this is the first study in humans to examine the association between flavonoids and risk of developing Parkinson's disease.

      "Our findings suggest that flavonoids, specifically a group called anthocyanins, may have neuroprotective effects. If confirmed, flavonoids may be a natural and healthy way to reduce your risk of developing Parkinson's disease."

      Eating Berries May Reduce Risk of Parkinson's Disease Men especially most likely to benefit from regular flavonoid consumption...

      IRS: Breast Pumps Now Deductible as Medical Expense

      Ruling was long sought by pediatricians

      The Internal Revenue Service has a Valentine's Day gift for nursing mothers: breast pumps and lactation supplies may now be taken as a medical deduction on your tax return, or can be reimbursed under flexible-spending accounts or health-savings accounts.

      The ruling is effective immediately and documented expenses can be taken on 2010 returns.

      (Read consumer complaints about tax preparation companies.)

      Previously, the IRS had ruled that breast-feeding wasn't a health benefit. But now the agency has decided that, like obstetric care, breast pumps and related nursing supplies may be eligible.

      In a classic bit of bureaucratic hair-splitting, the IRS cautions taxpayers that before claiming a deduction, taxpayers should be certain the item in question is used “primary for extracting milk or for other purposes.” What other purposes might those be? Good question.

      Keep in mind that medical expenses are not deductible until they exceed 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income.

      The American Academy of Pediatrics praised the ruling, saying it makes breast-feeding “a more practical option for new and working mothers.”

      Consumers should consult their tax advisor for more information.

      IRS: Breast Pumps Now Deductible as Medical Expense. Ruling was long sought by pediatricians...

      Buying a Home vs. Renting: Which is Better in Today's Economy?

      Housing collapse changed the landscape

      You need a place to live, but should your buy or rent? Prices have crashed from their peak and mortgage rates are low. It seems like an ideal time to buy.

      Maybe it is, but it's going to depend on a number of factors. For starters, you must think about how long you plan to live in one place before moving.

      Even though home prices are down 30 percent or more in most area, that doesn't mean they have stopped going down. Many housing analysts think home prices could go down another 10 percent this year.

      So a house you buy today might be worth a bit less next year. Not only that, it's value may stay stagnant for a few years. At the height of the housing market, you could expect a home to gain 10 to 15 percent in value each year. Those days are long gone.

      Costs of owning a home

      When deciding whether to buy or rent, it isn't enough to compare the monthly mortgage payment to the rent payment. You have to factor in other costs associated with owning a home, beginning with the closing costs when you buy it.

      When it comes time to sell the home, there are also costs associated with that, including a brokerage fee for the real estate company that handles the sale. In between there are taxes, repairs and insurance. On the plus side, however, mortgage interest is tax deductible.

      There are fewer costs associated with renting, except that you can count on your rent going up around five percent every year. So if you start off paying the same amount in rent as you would pay for a mortgage, within a few years you will be paying substantially more.

      Economists have developed a formula to sort out the financial pros and cons of home ownership and renting.

      Non-financial factors

      Besides dollars and cents, there may also be some psychological benefits to owning your home. Owning your home may provide a greater sense of community and stability. You are also free to redecorate a home that your own, or make changes to the landscaping. If something needs repair, you don't have to wait for the landlord to get around to it.

      But if freedom and less responsibility are more important to you, then there are benefits from renting. You aren't responsible for maintenance and, if you feel like moving in a year, there is nothing holding your back.

      Also, the money that would be tied up in a down payment remains in your bank or investment account instead, available when you need it.

      It was one thing when home values were going up every year and homes sold almost as soon as they were listed. Owning a home was profitable and much less confining. Today, you should plan on owning a home for several years if you make a purchase.

      Perhaps for that reason, homeownership appears to be on the decline, whether voluntarily or because consumers can't get a mortgage. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 66.5 percent of  U.S. households owned their home at the end of 2010. That's down from 69 percent at the end of 2005.

      Whether you should buy a home or rent is not the cut-and-dried question it used to be....

      Apple Said To Be Making Smaller, Cheaper iPhone

      Electronics firm hasn't commented

      Now that the buzz about Apple's Verizon iPhone has run its course, the electronics firm is at the center of a new round of speculation concerning its iconic smartphone.

      Various media reports over the weekend said Apple is getting ready to release a new iPhone model that will be both smaller and cheaper. Bloomberg News was the first to report the news, but the Wall Street Journal, quoting unnamed sources, put forward more details today, saying the new iPhone could be ready for release this summer.

      The Journal quotes a source who viewed the prototype and described it as lighter than the iPhone4 -- the current model -- and having an edge-to-edge screen. The Journal says the codename for the new iPhone is N97.

      Half the price

      According to media reports, Apple plans to make the phone available to carriers at about half the price of the current model. That would allow cell phone providers to subsidize the entire cost of the phone, making it free to subscribers who sign a two year service agreement.

      Currently, AT&T and Verizon pay over $600 for the iPhone4, making it available to customers at the subsidized cost of $199, if they sign a two year contract.

      Apple generally introduces new iPhone products at the end of June, and most industry analysts expect a new release this June as well. However, it is not yet clear just what that will be.

      In its report today, the Journal referred to the anticipated release as an "upgrade," suggesting the new product might not actually be a new model, just the iPhone4 re-engineered to run on 4G networks.

      Persistent rumor

      Interestingly, this isn't the first time that Apple has been rumored to be contemplating a cheaper, "Nano" version of its iPhone. The first time the rumor surfaced was September 2007, just a couple of months after the original iPhone hit the market.

      Kevin Chang, an analyst for JPMorgan Chase, based in Taipei, reported three and a half years ago that Apple had filed a patent for such a smaller, cheaper iPhone. He also said unnamed parts manufacturers confirmed his hunch.

      At the time, the smartphone market was largely non-existent and Apple was still not sure that consumers would pay $400 (less with a carrier subsidy) for an iPhone. Little did they know.

      The first Apple iPhone went on sale June 29, 2007, commanding prices of $499 and $599, depending on memory size. Sales estimates for the first two days ranged from 250,000 units to 525,000.

      There were early complaints over activation issues, as many consumers who stood in line to buy one of Apples new iPhones had difficulty in getting it to work. With the introduction of the iPhone4, consumers complained that if they held the phone a certain way, the number of bars dropped off and sometimes, so did calls.

      Apple eventually addressed the problem by making plastic cases available, that seemed to solve the problem. Though the antennae design was changed in the version of the iPhone made for Verizon, reports suggest some consumers are still having the problem.

      Apple is reportedly preparing to launch a smaller, cheaper version of the iPhone, according to various media reports....

      Wells Fargo Accused of 'Reverse Redlining' in Ohio

      “Abusive and grossly unfavorable terms” alleged

      The Ohio Civil Rights Commission is accusing Wells Fargo of discriminating against African-Americans seeking home loans by practicing what it called “reverse redlining.”

      In a lawsuit filed by Ohio Attorney General Michael DeWine, the commission charges that Wells-Fargo offered African-Americans loans that had “abusive and grossly unfavorable terms” that it said were likely “to have a detrimental effect on African-American neighborhoods.”

      The term “redlining” has historically been used to describe banks refusing to make home loans in minority neighborhoods. “Reverse redlining,” the Ohio commission said, amounts to selling African-Americans “abusive and detrimental loans.”

      The suit charges that the terms of the loans were so unfavorable that there was almost no likelihood the borrowers would be able to repay them.

      Wells-Fargo has “taken advantage of” minority borrowers by its willingness to make, purchase and service mortgages containing abusive and detrimental terms and that are in excess of the market value of residential properties that secure them.”

      The named plaintiff in the suit is Latonya Sykes-Jackson, who lives in a section of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, that is defined by the U.S. Census as 96.6% black.

      The suit says that Sykes-Jackson refinanced her home, replacing two existing mortgages that totaled $111,642 with a new mortgage, later bought by Wells-Fargo, that totaled $122,700. The new note called for 359 monthly payments of $1,009 and a final balloon payment of $87,292 on February 1, 2037.

      Just four months later, Wells Fargo offered to issue an FHA-insured mortgage on much more favorable terms, but with additional closing costs of $5,963. The proposed new mortgage was based on an appraised value of $130,000 for Sykes-Jackson's house, far higher than the $95,000 figure found in the loan file.

      “Requiring Complainant to pay the premium of additional closing costs of $5,963.13 in order to unburden herself of the abusive, determinal, and grossly unfavorable terms, further exploited Complainant based on her race by unjustifiably imposing inflated fees for services for which she had paid four months earlier, such as new appraisal fees, new insurance costs, new credit report, and new title work,” the suit charges.

       In default

      Less than a year later, Wells-Fargo claimed Sykes-Jackson's loan was in default despite her having made timely payments, the suit charges, and assessing a $100 late charge.

      The bank's policies “arbitrarily inflated appraisals in order to artificially support mortgages in amounts that greatly exceeded the market value,” leaving the homeowners subject to bankruptcy and foreclosure if their economic circumstances changed.

      It charged that the bank also “negligently or intentionally misapplied mortgage payments” and then issued a default notice on Sykes-Jackson's property.

      The suit asks that Sykes-Jackson receive damages of up to $25,000 and be granted a mortgage on more favorable terms with no additional closing costs.

      Wells Fargo Accused of 'Reverse Redlining' in Ohio. “Abusive and grossly unfavorable terms” alleged....

      Suit: Glass Lodged in McChicken Sandwich

      This glass wasn't the kind you drink from, plaintiff says

      McDonald's has faced plenty of litigation regarding its cuisine, and last year recalled 12 million “Shrek Forever After 3D” glasses after finding that the design's paint contained cadmium, a carcinogen.

      But here's a new one: now the franchise is facing a suit complaining about both food and glass. Vjollca Lecaj, of suburban Chicago, claims that on August 5, 2010, she was eating a spicy McChicken sandwich at a McDonald's in Oak Lawn, Illinois. Lecaj bit into the sandwich and was surprised to find a large piece of glass waiting for her inside.

      Complaint speculates coffee pot responsible

      The complaint, filed in Cook County court on Friday, speculates that the “sandwich may have been contaminated after an overheated glass coffee pot exploded, causing glass shards to scatter,” according to a report in Chicago Breaking Business. Lecaj says the franchise “fail[ed] to properly inspect its cooking equipment and ensure that her sandwich could be eaten safely,” according to that report.

      Lecaj claims that she sustained “severe and permanent oral injuries as well as great pain and anguish,” as reported by CBS's local Chicago affiliate.

      Bona fide complaint, or Wendy's finger redux?

      Whether the suit is meritorious or not remains to be seen. Several commenters on various websites are already drawing comparisons to another notorious fast-food lawsuit: that alleging that a woman found a finger in a bowl of chili she ordered at Wendy's.

      The suit, brought by Anna Ayala in March 2005, claimed that the finger was well-cooked and concealed in the chili.

      The suit forced Wendy's to absurdly insist that “all of our employees have 10 digits,” the defense offered by company spokesman Denny Lynch shortly after Ayala's suit was filed. Lynch added that he wasn't aware of any “finger-related” accidents suffered by the franchise.

      But it didn't take long for police to uncover Ayala's litigious history, which included a suit against another fast-food restaurant several years earlier.

      Ayala ended up serving four years of a nine-year prison sentence for her role in the scam. Released last year, one of the terms of her probation is that she never set foot inside a Wendy's again.

      In an interview with a local CBS affiliate, Ayala admitted that she cooked the ostensibly tainted chili -- inserting a finger belonging to her husband's coworker -- and then froze it for months, eventually driving to the San Jose Wendy's and feigning shock when she “found” the finger in her meal. Wendy's estimated that it lost around $21 million in business due to the highly-publicized suit.

      Similar complaints

      Whether Lecaj's suit is genuine or a repeat of the Wendy's incident remains to be seen. But one Illinois consumer who wrote to ConsumerAffairs.com in February 2009 claims to have had a nearly identical experience.

       “I went through the drive thru and ordered a McChicken with cheese and got a McChicken with GLASS!,” says Tonya of Peoria, Ill. “I drove off and ate about 1/2 of it before I bit into a large piece of glass. When I bit into it I pulled the [sandwich] away from my mouth and realized there was glass in the chicken patty.”

      “At first I [had] a hell of a toothache,” Tonya continues. “Then about 24-36 hours later I started becoming feverish, serious abdominal cramps and [diarrhea]. I went to the [ER] to discover I had a serious infection [of] the entire intestine, and with no med[ical] history to show why, it is believed I actually digested glass.”

      And another consumer -- this one in Maryland -- says she found a glass-like substance in a McFlurry she ordered for her son.

      "W]hile my son was eating his McFlurry, he was chewing something that he thought was ice,” Manuelita of Oxon Hill, MD wrote in May 2009. “It turned out to be something clear that looks like glass, with sharp edges no less. I am highly disappointed because this object hurt his mouth. Lucky for McDonald's and fortunately for my son, there was no blood. I AM LIVID to say the least.”

      McDonald's has yet to comment on the suit.

      Lecaj's suit alleges negligence and product liability, and seeks upwards of $600,000 in damages. The suit names both McDonald's and the Oak Lawn franchise as defendants.

      Suit: Glass Lodged in McChicken SandwichThis glass wasn't the kind you drink from, plaintiff says...

      How To Deduct Medical Expenses On Your Tax Return

      It all depends on how much money you made

      If you have a high-deductible health plan, or no plan at all, it's possible you spent money on health care in 2010. Keep in mind the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) allows you to deduct some of those expenses, if you meet certain criteria.

      Qualifying expenses include those spent on yourself, your spouse and your dependents, and include both medical and dental expenses. The test by which you can determine whether you have a medical expense tax deduction has to do with the total amount of your expenses and how much you earned last year.

      You may deduct only the amount by which your total medical care expenses for the year exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). You do this calculation on Form 1040, Schedule A in computing the amount deductible.

      For example, let's assume your AGI is $40,000. If you mulltiply that amount by 7.5% you get $3,000. If you paid $5,000 in medical expenses in 2010, which get to write off the amount that exceeds $3,000, which is $2,000. However, if you paid medical expenses totalled $2,500, you may not deduct any of your medical expenses because they are not more than 7.5% of your AGI.

      What counts as medical expense?

      A deduction is allowed only for expenses primarily paid for the prevention or alleviation of a physical or mental defect or illness. Medical care expenses include payments for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, or treatment affecting any structure or function of the body.

      These expenses include payments for legal medical services rendered by any medical practitioner and the cost of equipment, supplies, and diagnostic devices used for medical care purposes.

      Medical expenses include insurance premiums paid for medical care or qualified long-term care insurance. The deduction for a qualified long-term care insurance policy's premium is limited. If you are self-employed and have a net profit for the year, you may be able to deduct (as an adjustment to income) amounts paid for medical insurance for yourself and your spouse and dependents.

      You cannot take this deduction for any month in which you were eligible to participate in any subsidized health plan maintained by your employer or your spouse's employer. If you do not claim 100 percent of you self-employed health insurance deduction, you can include the remaining premiums with your other medical expenses as an itemized deduction on Form 1040, Schedule A. You may not deduct insurance premiums paid by an employer-sponsored health insurance plan (cafeteria plan) unless the premiums are included in Box 1 of your Form W-2.

      Medical expenses may include:

      • Fees paid to doctors, dentists, surgeons, chiropractors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and Christian Science practitioners for medical care expenses
      • Payments for hospital services, qualified long-term care services, nursing services, and laboratory fees including the incidental cost of meals and lodging charged by a hospital or similar institution if your principal reason for being there is to receive medical care
      • Payments for acupuncture treatments or inpatient treatment at a center for alcohol or drug addiction are also deductible medical expenses. You may include amounts you paid for participating in a smoking-cessation program and for drugs prescribed to alleviate nicotine withdrawal
      • The cost of participating in a weight-loss program for a specific disease or diseases, including obesity, diagnosed by a physician. In general, you may not deduct the cost of purchasing diet food items or the cost of health club dues
      • The cost of drugs is deductible only for drugs that require a prescription, except for insulin
      • Admission and transportation to a medical conference relating to the chronic disease of yourself, your spouse, or your dependent (if the costs are primarily for and essential to the medical care). However, you may not deduct the costs for meals and lodging while attending the medical conference
      • The cost of items such as false teeth, prescription eyeglasses or contact lenses, laser eye surgery, hearing aids, crutches, wheelchairs, and guide dogs for the blind or deaf, and
      • Transportation costs primarily for and essential to medical care that qualify as medical expenses. The actual fare for a taxi, bus, train, or ambulance can be deducted. If you use your car for medical transportation, you can deduct actual out-of-pocket expenses such as gas and oil, or you can deduct the standard mileage rate for medical expenses. With either method you may include tolls and parking fees

       The medical care deduction is fully explained in IRS Publication 502.

      You can deduct medical expenses if you meet certain criteria....

      Super Bowl Attendees Make Good on Lawsuit Threat

      NFL issues mea culpa, takes swipe at lawyers

      ConsumerAffairs.com reported on Wednesday that football fans displaced from their Super Bowl seats were planning to file a class action lawsuit, despite repeated groveling and an offer of a triple refund from the NFL.

      Those consumers have made good on their threat, filing suit in a federal court in Dallas. The suit demands compensatory and punitive damages, along with treble (or triple) damages under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

      The complaint, a copy of which was made available by USAToday, places much of the blame on Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who it says “made it a goal for Super Bowl XLV to break attendance records and conducted himself accordingly.”

      As a result, according to the suit, many fans “discover[ed] that Jones and the Cowboys ... assigned them to seats with obstructed views and temporary metal fold out chairs, which had been installed in an effort to meet Jones’ goal of breaking the attendance record.”

      Pre-suit offer

      The NFL, no doubt aware that litigation was at least a possibility, quickly issued a mea culpa and offered fans steep concessions. Commissioner Roger Goodell said there were “no excuses” for the mix-up, and the league quickly announced that displaced fans would be given triple the value of their ticket, along with a free seat to next year’s game.

      Shortly afterwards, with the suit looming, the NFL expanded that offer to cover not only the 400 fans who were unable to sit for the game, but also an additional 2000 fans who were moved to different seats after their original area was deemed unsafe.

      “We screwed it up”

      NFL officials continued to express remorse after the suit was filed this week.

      “We made the best of it. We screwed it up. I can't change that,” NFL executive vice president Eric Grubman said. “I'm a football fan and before I worked at the Super Bowl I took my young sons and my father ... to see the New York Giants and if that would have happened to me, I would be furious.”

      But in an interview with NBC’s ProFootballTalk Live, Grubman had a few choice words for the lawyers that filed the suit.

      “I wish they'd go off and work on something like world peace because I think we have to keep this in perspective,” Grubman said, as reported by USA Today. “We didn't provide a great experience to 100% of the fans. But keeping a little perspective is probably what I wish the lawyers would do.”

      Lawyer cites out-of-pocket expenses

      Michael J. Avenatti, a Los-Angeles based lawyer who is handling the suit, is himself a Cowboys season ticket holder. He said he filed the suit after the NFL expanded its offer to inconvenienced fans.

      “A number of people approached me expressing disgust with the seating situation,” Avenatti told USA Today . He said the NFL's offer is “wholly insufficient,” but that the plaintiffs aren't looking to improperly gain from the mishap.

      “Nobody is looking to get rich from this, nor should they be,” he said. “This is really simply all about the NFL and Jerry Jones being required to step up and do the right thing.”

      Super Bowl Attendees Make Good on Lawsuit Threat NFL issues mea culpa, takes swipe at lawyers...

      California Deaths After Lap Band Surgery Lead to Lawsuits

      Four patients died after responding to 1-800-GET-THIN commercials, suit charges

      A lawsuit seeks damages in the death of a 50-year-old California woman who died last July, five days after Lap Band surgery. Laura Faitro of Simi Valley died after undergoing surgery at Valley Surgical Center in West Hills, Calif.

      Her husband, John, said Ms. Faitro became interested in the surgery after seeing television commercials for 1-800-GET-THIN. But a few days after the surgery, she was hospitalized with an infection and later died. (Read consumer complaints about weight loss companies).

      She is the fourth Southern California patient to die following surgery related to the 1-800-GET-THIN advertising campaign, according to The Los Angeles Times.

      Faitro's suit charges that there were three lacerations on her liver and her abdominal cavity was filled with bloody fluid, KABC-TV reported.  His suit claims that in 2009, California accused one of the surgeons who operated on his wife of "gross negligence arising from surgeries performed on three patients, two of whom died as a result of his gross negligence." 

      Faitro claims surgeons discharged his wife despite her complaints of severe abdominal pain, and that the pain was so intense it forced her to seek help at the Simi Valley Hospital emergency room. She died on July 26 of "multi-organ failure and infarction due to shock, secondary to bleeding and sepsis in the abdominal cavity," according to the complaint.

      But attorneys for 1-800-GET-THIN say the woman's death was caused by a heart attack, not by the surgery.

      "Obesity leads to heart attacks so what you have here is the complication of the heart attack had little or nothing to do with the surgery," Oxman told KABC-TV.

      The death certificate lists the primary cause of death as a cardiopulmonary arrest but also mentions the liver laceration as a significant condition contributing to death, KABC said.

      The Lap-Band is a ring that is placed on the upper part of the stomach forming a small pouch. It is supposed to cause patients to experience a full feeling and restrict their dietary intake.

      The suit names Valley Surgical Center, 1-800-GET-THIN LLC, Simi Valley Hospital and all the doctors who performed the surgery.

      California Deaths After Lap Band Surgery Lead to Lawsuits. Four patients died after responding to 1-800-GET-THIN commercials, suit charges....

      Never Pay A Fee To Collect A Prize

      Maryland Charges Synchronicity with deception

      If you were to receive a notice in the mail informing you that you had won a prize, or were due some money in a class action settlement, you might be willing to pay $20 or more to get your money.

      Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler says doing so would be a big mistake. He has filed charges against a Florida company called Synchronicity LLC and its owner, accusing them of deceptive trade practices in connection with their mailings to Maryland consumers.

      According to the complaint, the company mailed tens of thousands of solicitations offering large cash prizes and other valuable items; however, consumers who responded to the mailings received little or nothing in return.

      A company of many names

      Synchronicity reportedly used various names, including Office of Financial Services Administration, Lynch Galbraith & Branley, Class Action Watchdog, and Prize Payment Administration Service, as if it were a government agency, a firm handling class actions, or a prize company, and represented that consumers were eligible to receive cash grants, awards, or prizes valued at millions of dollars.

      A California attorney alerted ConsumerAffairs.com (an Accredited Partner) to this scheme 18 months ago.

      Consumers receiving the letters were told that to collect the prize or money they were due, they must send what was called an "entitlement," "procurement," or "allocation" fee, usually of $20, but sometimes more, to a post office box in Hagerstown, Md.

      Those $20 payments quickly added up. By the time the state stepped in, the Attorney General's Office alleges that consumers sent more than $2 million to the Hagerstown post office box. And what did the consumers get in return? Sometimes a check for $1, sometimes nothing of any value, Gansler says.

      Deceptive mailings

      The state contends that the mailings were deceptive and is seeking an order requiring the company and its owner to cease sending deceptive offers to Marylanders or using a Maryland address, to return the fees collected, and to pay penalties and costs.

      "Consumers should always be wary of any offer that seems too good to be true," said Attorney General Gansler.  "You should not believe these types of promises of large awards, and never pay a fee to receive a prize." 

      If you are told you must pay a fee to collect a prize, watch out!...

      FDA Announces Approval of 3-D Mammogram Imaging

      3-D images could help make detecting and diagnosing cancer easier for doctors

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today approved the Selenia Dimensions System, the first X-ray mammography device that provides three-dimensional (3-D) images of the breast for breast cancer screening and diagnosis.

      The 3-D images may help physicians more accurately detect and diagnose breast cancer.

      Currently, mammograms take safe, low-dose, two dimensional (2-D) X-ray images of the breast and is the best tool for early detection of breast cancer because it can reveal tumors even when the patient has no symptoms.

      However, with the limitations of conventional 2-D imaging, about 10 percent of women undergo additional testing after the initial screening exam for abnormalities that are later determined to be noncancerous.

      The Selenia Dimensions System, an upgrade to Hologic’s existing FDA-approved 2-D system, can provide both 2-D and 3-D X-ray images of the breasts.

      “Physicians can now access this unique and innovative 3-D technology that could significantly enhance existing diagnosis and treatment approaches,” said Jeffrey Shuren, M.D., J.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health.

      40 million  

      The National Cancer Institute recommends women ages 40 and older have a mammogram every one to two years. Nearly 40 million mammograms are performed each year in the United States.

      As part of the approval process, the FDA reviewed results from two studies where board-certified radiologists were asked to review 2-D and 3-D images from more than 300 mammography exams.

      In both studies, radiologists viewing both the 2-D and 3-D images obtained a 7 percent improvement in their ability to distinguish between cancerous and non-cancerous cases as compared to viewing 2-D images alone.

      While the combination of the Selenia’s 2-D and 3-D images approximately doubled the radiation dose the patient received, it improved the accuracy with which radiologists detected cancers, decreasing the number of women recalled for a diagnostic workup.

      There is uncertainty for radiation risk estimates; however, the increase in cancer risk from having both a 2-D and 3-D exam is expected to be less than 1.5 percent compared to the natural cancer incidence, and less than 1 percent compared to the risk from conventional 2-D mammography.

      According to the NCI, nearly 200,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. And 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime.

      There is a 98 percent survival rate when breast cancer is detected early and still localized to the breast.

      FDA Announces Approval of 3-D Mammogram Imaging 3-D images could help make detecting and diagnosing cancer easier for doctors...

      Nokia And Microsoft Team Up

      Duo hope to create new 'global mobile ecosystem'

      Nokia and Microsoft say they are forming a broad strategic partnership that would use their combined expertise to create what they called a new "global mobile ecosystem."

      Nokia is the world's top provider of mobile phones, which has seen its market share shrink lately amid the growth in smartphone competition from Apple, HTC and Research In Motion (RIM). Microsoft is the software giant that has been seeking traction for its mobile OS platform, Windows Phone 7.

      The two companies say they intend to jointly create market-leading mobile products and services designed to offer consumers, operators and developers unrivalled choice and opportunity. 

      The two companies believe their dominance in their relative markets give them a distinct advantage. The partnership, they say, would create the opportunity for rapid time to market execution.  Additionally, Nokia and Microsoft say they plan to work together to integrate key assets and create completely new service offerings, while extending established products and services to new markets.

      Under the proposed partnership:

      • Nokia would adopt Windows Phone as its principal smartphone strategy, innovating on top of the platform in areas such as imaging, where Nokia is a market leader.
      • Nokia would help drive the future of Windows Phone.  Nokia would contribute its expertise on hardware design, language support, and help bring Windows Phone to a larger range of price points, market segments and geographies.
      • Nokia and Microsoft would closely collaborate on joint marketing initiatives and a shared development roadmap to align on the future evolution of mobile products.
      • Bing would power Nokia's search services across Nokia devices and services, giving customers access to Bing's next generation search capabilities.  Microsoft adCenter would provide search advertising services on Nokia's line of devices and services.
      • Nokia Maps would be a core part of Microsoft's mapping services.   For example, Maps would be integrated with Microsoft's Bing search engine and adCenter advertising platform to form a unique local search and advertising experience
      • Nokia's extensive operator billing agreements would make it easier for consumers to purchase Nokia Windows Phone services in countries where credit-card use is low.
      • Microsoft development tools would be used to create applications to run on Nokia Windows Phones, allowing developers to easily leverage the ecosystem's global reach.
      • Nokia's content and application store would be integrated with Microsoft Marketplace for a more compelling consumer experience.

       Three-horse race

      "Today, developers, operators and consumers want  compelling mobile products, which include not only the device, but the software, services, applications and customer support that make a great  experience," Stephen Elop, Nokia President and CEO, said at a joint news conference in London. "Nokia and Microsoft will combine our strengths to deliver an ecosystem with unrivalled global reach and scale. It's now a three-horse race."

      "I am excited about this partnership with Nokia," said Steven A. Ballmer, Microsoft CEO. "Ecosystems thrive when fueled by speed, innovation and scale. The partnership announced today provides incredible scale, vast expertise in hardware and software innovation and a proven ability to execute."

      PC Magazine calls the move a big win for Microsoft, pointing out that Windows Phone 7 has gone from afterthought to the number one platform for the number one mobile device manufacturer. The big loser, it says, is Nokia.

      "This is a humiliating climbdown for Nokia, which basically admitted that it's been wasting a huge software R&D budget and that its OS engineers are incompetent," the magazine said in an online posting.

      The largest mobile phone maker and largest software company are joining forces....

      Home Repair Fraud A Scam For All Seasons

      Fraudulent contractors always on the prowl

      Scams come and go, but home repair fraud remains a problem nationwide, in just about any season of the year. A fly-by-night contractor knocks on your door, makes all kinds of promises, collects a check, and then disappears.

      Some actually make an attempt at the work but do a shoddy job, the quality of which isn't readily apparent until they've made a safe getaway. While consumer officials deal with all sorts of new, emerging consumer threats, they find home repair fraud always seems to be around.

      Just recently, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit against two Chicago area home repair contractors who solicited thousands of dollars in work under the false promise that repair service was guaranteed for a lifetime.

      Guaranteed for life...not

      Madigan's lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, alleges Frank E. Edelmann and Lee Sobczak, both of La Grange Park, solicited consumers through deceptive advertisements in newspapers and on company websites that mislead consumers into believing they guaranteed certain repairs for life.

      The lawsuit alleges the defendants operated Concrete Charlie Inc., Concrete Repair Center, Inc., and Ostarr Corporation of America, based in LaGrange, and lured consumers into contracts under this false premise violating the state's Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act and the Home Repair and Remodeling Act. Lifetime guarantees were made verbally or included in written work orders signed by the defendants and consumers.

      Edelmann and Sobczak reportedly even gave consumers certificates to give the appearance their work was guaranteed, but the defendants never honored them and regularly avoided consumers who requested repairs through the lifetime guarantee.

      Katrina fallout

      In Mississippi, meanwhile, Attorney General Jim Hood this week reported a state court had sentenced a Gulf Coast contractor on felony home repair fraud charges. The contractor, Willian Wesley Mohr of Picayune, Miss., was arrested last year by investigators with the Mississippi Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General's Office. He came to the Mississippi Gulf Coast from New York, after Hurricane Katrina, doing business under the name Mohr Construction, Hood said.

      To avoid home repair scams:

      • Get all estimates, guarantees and work dates in writing.
      • Get a second opinion whenever possible.
      • Avoid large payments up front.
      • Be suspicious of door-to-door solicitors, especially those offering free inspections.
      • Check ID before letting any worker into your home.
      • Check the credentials of companies: check their references; verify their number and address in the phone book; check for county or other local permits; check for complaints with the Attorney General or the Better Business Bureau; check for business registration with the Secretary of State.
      • Walk away from offers that are good "now or never."
      • Make payment only when the work meets the terms of your contract.

      Home repair fraud seems to be a constant problem, according to consumer officials....

      Don't Let Tax Preparer Talk You Into Anything Shady

      Taxpayer ultimately responsible for return

      Most professional tax preparers are honest and conscientious, trying to get the best results for their clients. If you have used the same preparer for several years, you probably have a degree of confidence in their ability and integrity.

      Unfortunately, some tax preparers commit fraud, getting themselves and their clients in trouble. Even though you have paid a tax professional to prepare your return, you are ultimately responsible for its contents.

      Possible penalties and prosecution

      "In some situations, the client (taxpayer) may not have knowledge of the false expenses, deductions, exemptions and/or credits shown on their tax returns," the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says on its website. "However, when the IRS detects the false return, the taxpayer must pay the additional taxes and interest and may be subject to penalties and criminal prosecution."

      The point was made recently when the U.S. Justice Department filed six lawsuits against tax preparers in five states, charging them with fraudulently claim the first-time homebuyer tax credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit on returns. At the same time, a federal grand jury indicted a Philadelphia man on criminal charges for fraudulently claiming the first time homebuyer credit.

      "We are working hard to ensure that those who try to cheat our country by filing phony claims for tax credits do not get away with it," said John A. DiCicco, Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department's Tax Division. "Honest taxpayers will be pleased to see the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department continuing to investigate, prevent, and prosecute these types of schemes during the 2011 tax filing season. False claim cases are certainly a nationwide priority for the Tax Division. This kind of tax fraud is an insult to hard-working Americans who legitimately qualify for these tax credits."

      Clients get close scrutiny

      A federal court in North Carolina, meanwhile, has permanently barred Jody S. Ball of Bryson City, N.C., from preparing federal income tax returns for others. And Ball's former clients may come under close scrutiny as a result. The order requires Ball to provide the government with a list of all persons for whom she prepared federal tax returns since January 2007 and to send each person a copy of the court's order.

      According to the government's complaint, Ball, doing business as The Tax Lady Inc. and Jody Ball Accounting, included false claims for charitable donation deductions, business expense deductions and earned income tax credits on tax returns that she and her businesses prepared.

      Even after the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) imposed penalties on Ball in 2004, she allegedly prepared more than 1,600 federal income tax returns during and after 2006. According to the complaint, of those returns that the IRS audited, approximately 80 percent understated customers' tax liabilities. 

      All the more reason to check references, and maybe do a Google search, when using a tax preparer for the first time. How do you avoid a tax preparer who may not be on the up and up? The IRS offers these tips:

      Advice

      • Avoid tax preparers who claim they can obtain larger refunds than other preparers
      • Avoid preparers who base their fee on a percentage of the amount of the refund.
      • Use a reputable tax professional who signs your tax return and provides you with a copy for your records.
      • Consider whether the individual or firm will be around to answer questions about the preparation of your tax return months, or even years, after the return has been filed.
      • Review your return before you sign it and ask questions on entries you don't understand.
      • No matter who prepares your tax return, you (the taxpayer) are ultimately responsible for all of the information on your tax return. Therefore, never sign a blank tax form.
      • Find out the person's credentials. Only attorneys, CPAs and enrolled agents can represent taxpayers before the IRS in all matters including audits, collection and appeals. Other return preparers may only represent taxpayers for audits of returns they actually prepared. (Additional text in italics added Feb. 4, 2005.)
      • Find out if the preparer is affiliated with a professional organization that provides its members with continuing education and resources and holds them to a code of ethics.
      • Ask questions. Do you know anyone who has used the tax professional? Were they satisfied with the service they received?

      The IRS cautions taxpayers to be wary of claims by preparers offering larger refunds than other preparers. Check it out with a trusted tax professional or the IRS before getting involved.

      When selecting a tax preparer, make sure it's someone who won't get you in trouble....

      Feds Hope To Reduce Fannie, Freddie Roles In Mortgages

      Administration seeks return of private capital to mortgage market

      The U.S. Treasury Department has laid out a plan it says will repair "fundamental flaws" in the nation's mortgage market by reducing the role of government sponsored enterprises (GSE) like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

      The two agencies purchase home mortgages and convert them into assets for sale to investors. The two GSEs had to be bailed out by the government after the housing collapse and the two firms suffered huge losses on bad loans.

      The plan, advanced by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, is designed to increase consumer protection, improve transparency for investors, improve underwriting standards, and other critical measures.  Additionally, the government says it will help make it easier for people to buy homes.

      Winding down Fannie and Freddie

      "This is a plan for fundamental reform; to wind down the GSEs, strengthen consumer protection, and preserve access to affordable housing for people who need it," said Geithner. "We are going to start the process of reform now, but we are going to do it responsibly and carefully so that we support the recovery and the process of repair of the housing market."

      Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan says the plan will also make renting a home more affordable. While home prices have fallen or remained stagnant, rents have risen sharply in some parts of the country.

      The Obama administration says its reform plan will wind down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and help bring private capital back to the market.  In the wake of the financial meltdown, private capital retreated from the housing market and has not yet returned, leaving the government to guarantee more than nine out of every 10 new mortgages. 

      That assistance has been essential to stabilizing the housing market.  However, the Obama administration believes that, under normal market conditions, the private sector -- subject to stronger oversight and standards for consumer and investor protection -- should be the primary source of mortgage credit and bear the burden for losses.

      Unfair advantage

      The administration recommends ending unfair capital advantages that Fannie and Freddie previously enjoyed by requiring them to price their guarantees as though they were held to the same capital standards as private banks or financial institutions.  This, the government says, will help level the playing field for the private sector to take back market share. 

      Although the pace of these increases will depend significantly on market conditions, the administration recommends bringing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to a level even with the private market over the next several years.

      As for private lenders, the initial reaction was positive.

      "We are gratified to see that one of the concepts they articulate closely tracks MBA's proposal, released eighteen months ago, that visualizes a workable, commonsense system driven by private capital," said Michael D. Berman, Chairman of the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA). "We look forward to working with legislators, the administration and other stakeholders to evaluate the different proposals on restructuring the market without dramatically increasing the cost of credit."

      The Obama administration has released a plan to reduce the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the mortgage market....

      Gas Prices Remain Stable But Show No Sign of Retreat

      Supplies remain plentiful

      The good news is gasoline prices seem to have stopped going up. The bad news is, they are still at fairly lofty heights.

      The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.127 a gallon, virtually unchanged from the $3.123 recorded last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. The average price of diesel fuel is $3.516 a gallon, up from $3.471 last week.

      International concerns

      Analysts say uncertainty over events in Egypt have kept oil prices high in recent weeks, so gas prices are reflecting that.

      "As the price of crude looked to Egypt for much of its direction last week, gasoline prices focused more fully on fundamental data here at home," said Andrew Delmege, AAA's manager of regulatory affairs. "While an early-week SpendingPulse report showed a third consecutive week of increasing demand in the U.S. and suggested stronger year-on-year growth in the market, supply data proved to be the market mover on the week."

      The latest figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show supplies of crude oil and refined gasoline remain plentiful. Crude stockpiles total 345.1 million barrels, more than four percent higher than at this time last year. Supplies of gasoline rose for the sixth straight week, to 240.9 million barrels.

      The states with the most expensive gasoline today are:

      • Hawaii ($3.753)
      • Alaska ($3.599)
      • California ($3.426)
      • New York ($3.381)
      • Connecticut ($3.342)
      • Washington ($3.276)
      • Illinois ($3.257)
      • Oregon ($3.256)
      • Vermont ($3.238)
      • Maine ($3.213)

      The states with the least expensive gasoline today are:

      • Wyoming ($2.913)
      • Missouri ($2.947)
      • South Carolina ($2.961)
      • Texas ($2.979)
      • Tennessee ($2.986)
      • Mississippi ($2.988)
      • Arkansas ($2.993)
      • Colorado ($2.993)
      • Oklahoma ($2.995)
      • Alabama ($3.012)

      The price of gasoline went up again this week, but not by much....

      Consumer Reports Index: Stress Is On the Rise

      Consumers face more financial troubles as economy loses more jobs than it creates

      Consumers have a guarded outlook of the coming months as stress levels rise, employment remains flat and financial difficulties increase according to the Consumer Reports (CR) Index for February. 

      The CR Trouble Tracker Index is up for the third straight month (58.7), revealing increasing financial difficulty for consumers. The index, which tracks the depth and breadth of financial difficulties among households, has climbed from 54.2 last month and from 53.4 one year ago. 

      The gains in retail activity coupled with increased financial difficulty may lead to a credit crunch for some consumers, especially as missing payments on major bills (9.7 percent) or missing a mortgage payment (3.2 percent) are up from a year ago. Also, compared with last month, the number of consumers facing negative changes to their credit card terms (e.g., interest rates, penalty fees, credit limit) was up. 

      The Consumer Reports Employment Index shows no sign of improvement, as it was unchanged from the prior month at 49.2 and on par with a year prior (49.0). In the past 30 days, 6.7 percent of those surveyed have lost their jobs, but only 5.2 percent have found new positions. 

      “February’s Employment Index is indicative of an economy shedding more jobs than it is creating and this kept sentiment in negative territory, despite other measures that have shown gains,” said Ed Farrell, a director of the Consumer Reports National Research Center.  “While the share of those starting a new job was up nominally from January, growth is insufficient to seriously address the expanding pool of unemployed or fresh job seekers.” 

      Stress rising

      The compounding of these various negative factors may be reason for the rise in the magazine's Stress Index -- a measure of the stress consumers feel in their everyday lives versus a year ago.  Despite a significant drop in January, in February the index is up to 59.3 from 55.4 the prior month and is on par with one year ago (59.9). 

      Despite the negative factors, some green shoots remain particularly when it comes to retail. The retail outlook is improving as the CR Past 30-Day Retail Index is up to 11.6 from last year (10.9).  Similar signs of improvement are revealed in the Next 30-Day Retail Index, which rose to 8.3, from 6.9 a year ago. Major home electronics and personal electronics are helping to fuel the retail gains for both indexes. 

      After reaching its highest level in two years at 48.7 in January, the Sentiment Index held steady, matching the highest level recorded since October 2008.  An index below 50 represents negative consumer sentiment. 

      The Consumer Reports Index report is made up of five key indices: the Sentiment Index, the Trouble Tracker Index, the Stress Index, the Retail Index, and the Employment Index. Here are the key findings: 

      Sentiment Index

      Consumer sentiment held steady, maintaining its gain from last month and stands at 48.7 -- its highest level in two years.

      The most optimistic consumers: Age 18-34 at 55.5 (versus 57.2 the prior month), and households with income of $100K or more at 61.5 (compared with 57.4 a month earlier). The most pessimistic consumers: Households with income less than $50,000 at 44.2 (it was 42.7 the prior month), and those age 65 and older at 41.9 (versus 44.1 a month earlier). 

      The index captures respondents’ attitudes regarding their financial situation, asking them if they are feeling better or worse off than a year ago. When the index is greater than 50, more consumers are feeling positive about their situation. When it is below 50, more consumers are feeling worse. It can vary from a high of 100 to a low of 0. 

      Trouble Tracker Index

      Consumers faced more troubles this month than the month before. The index increased to 58.7 in February from January’s 54.2 as well as one year ago (53.4).

      Negative developments were led by an increase in consumers that were unable to afford medical bills or medications in the past 30 days to 17.0 percent, from 15.6 percent in January and 14.7 percent one year ago; and an increase in those that have lost or face reduced health-care coverage (9.3 percent), compared with 8.6 percent last month and 7.5 percent the prior year.

      Overall, the most prevalent consumer troubles include: Unable to afford medical bills or medications (17 percent); Missed payment on a major bill -- not mortgage (9.7 percent); Lost or reduced health-care coverage (9.3 percent).

      Lower-income households, earning less than $50,000 a year, have been disproportionately affected. In the past 30 days: 26 percent unable to afford medical bills or medications; 14.1 percent missed payment on a major bill (not a mortgage); 12.9 percent Lost or reduced health-care coverage; and 11.7 percent lost job, versus 6.7 percent among all consumers. 

      The Trouble Tracker focuses on both the proportion of consumers that have faced difficulties as well as the number of negative events they have encountered. The negative events include: the inability to pay medical bills or afford medication, missed mortgage payments, home foreclosure, interest-rate increase, penalty fees, reduced lines of credit or other changes in credit card terms, job loss or layoffs, reduced health-care coverage or the denial of personal loans. The index is then calculated as the proportion of consumers that have experienced at least one of the negative events comprising the index multiplied by the average number of events encountered. 

      Retail Index

      Retail continues its recovery. The Past 30-Day Retail Index (reflective of January activity) is 11.6, up from 10.9 last year. Similarly the Next 30-Day Retail Index, reflecting planned purchasing for February, is 8.3, up from 6.9 one year ago. 

      Looking in detail at the categories in the Past 30-Day Retail Index (major appliances, small appliances, major home electronics, personal electronics, major yard/garden equipment), gains are attributable to several categories, including major appliances (7.1 percent, versus 6.3 percent a year ago), major home electronics (15.0 percent, compared with 13.9 percent last year), and personal electronics (25.5 percent as opposed to 23.6 percent last year).

      The Next 30-Day Retail Index for February -- reflecting February activity -- is 8.3, compared with one year ago (6.9), with personal electronics (17.5 percent, versus 13.2 percent) and major home electronics (9.8 percent, compared with 6.8 percent) accounting for the gains. Planned purchasing for personal electronics is anticipated to be up in February versus the prior month as well (15.9 percent).

      Among the non-index categories (new car, used car, home), past 30-day purchasing -- reflecting January activity -- was soft versus one year ago. Past 30-day purchasing for new cars was 1.8 percent, for used cars 4.3 percent, and 1.9 percent for homes. Planned purchasing in February reflects increasing confidence among consumers, with small gains versus one year ago for new cars 3.0 percent, up from 2.7 percent; used cars 5.1 percent, up from 3.7 percent; homes 2.2 percent, up from 1.7 percent. 

      The Retail Index looks at consumer purchases in the past 30 days as well as the outlook for planned purchases in the next 30 days across several categories. It represents the proportion of respondents that made a purchase in the following categories: major home appliances, small home appliances, major home electronics, personal electronics, and major yard and garden equipment. The Retail Index is a weighted calculation. For example, a major appliance is of greater value than a small appliance. Because of their size and frequency, car and home purchases are tracked separately. 

      Employment Index

      The Consumer Reports Employment Index remains weak in February (49.2) and is unchanged from January. In the past 30 days, the proportion of consumers that have lost their job is 6.7 percent, virtually unchanged from a month earlier (6.5 percent). The share of those that have started a job in the past 30 days (5.2 percent) is comparable to a month earlier (4.9 percent), but is much improved from one year ago (3.8 percent). The Index points to two groups that have fared worst this month: adults 35 to 64 years of age (47.8), and those in households earning less than $50,000 (46.6). 

      The Employment Index examines the change in employment of those that reported starting a new job versus those that have lost their job or were laid off in the past 30 days. An index below 50 indicates more jobs were lost than gained, while a score more than 50 indicates more jobs were gained than lost in the past 30 days. 

      Stress Index

      The level of stress consumers feel they are under is up to 59.3 from the prior month (55.4), but is on par with one year ago (59.9). 

      The Stress Index captures attitudes regarding the amount of stress consumers feel compared to a year ago. It asks whether they are feeling more stressed or less stressed. When the index is more than 50, consumers are feeling more stress and when it is below 50 they are feeling less stress compared to a year ago. It can vary from 100 (Total Stress) to a low of 0 (No Stress).

      Consumer Reports Index: Stress Is On the Rise Consumers face more financial troubles as economy loses more jobs than it creates ...

      The Diet Soda-Stroke Risk: More Health Officials Weigh In

      Representatives of low-cal food industry claim research is "critically flawed"

      This week, research findings between diet soda consumption and the risk of stroke were presented at the American Stroke Association’s annual International Stroke conference.

      The researchers, using data from the Northern Manhattan Study (NOMAS) found the risk of stroke and other vascular issues rose to 61% for people who reported drinking more than one serving of diet soda every day.

      The cause? Sodium, which many diet sodas contain.

      Today, The Calorie Control Council, a non-profit association representing the low-calorie food and beverage industry, said claiming an associating between diet soda consumption and increased risk of stoke and heart attack is “critically flawed.”

      "The findings are so speculative and preliminary at this point that they should be considered with extreme caution. In fact, the study has not been peer reviewed by any independent scientists and has not been published in a scientific journal," stated Beth Hubrich, a registered dietitian with the Council.

      The research, as well as the publicity regarding the study abstract, is drawing a growing body of criticism and skepticism from experts in the field of nutrition and science.

      'One of the worst'  

      Dr. Richard Besser, Chief Health and Medical Editor at ABC News, said during a segment on "Good Morning America" on February 10 that the study was “one of the worst” he had seen in the headlines in a long time.

      "It's bad because of the science, but it's also bad because of the behavior that it can induce and the fear that people have. I don't think people should change behavior based on this study," said Besser.

      Pointing out some of the flaws in the study, Besser added, "They didn't look at how much salt they took in, they didn't look at what other foods they ate. Those things we know are associated with stroke and heart attack. They didn't even look at obesity over time. And so to conclude from this, that it's all from the diet soda, just makes no sense whatsoever."

      Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, echoed this criticism in comments presented on ABCnews.com: "It's important to keep in mind that this was really a preliminary report. It's not even published yet, and the study was fairly small. I think we have to interpret the findings about diet soda very carefully, in almost any first report, we shouldn't really change our behavior, because it could easily have occurred by chance."

      The poster presentation is also at odds with statements on the website of the American Heart Association, sponsor of the conference where this poster was presented.

      Regarding the low-calorie sweeteners used in diet soft drinks, AHA states: "Try non-nutritive sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose or saccharin in moderation. Non-nutritive sweeteners may be a way to satisfy your sweet tooth without adding more calories to your diet. The FDA has determined that non-nutritive sweeteners are safe."

      Among the weaknesses and criticisms of the poster:

      • The poster is not a published study and has not been peer-reviewed for a scientific journal. As a result, it has not been examined by experts as to design, reasonableness of conclusions, and other methodological issues. The academic standards for poster presentations are lower than for peer-reviewed scientific journals, calling the conclusions into greater question.
      • The soda intake data used for this presentation are of questionable reliability. They are based on self-reported consumption figures, which are grouped into general categories, such as "moderate diet only" soda consumers. This imprecision makes it very difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from the study.
      • This study is observational and does not show cause and effect. As a result, the presenters' conclusion that diet soda "may be associated with a greater risk of stroke, MI or vascular death than regular soda" is not well founded. For example, the authors do not appear to have controlled for such critical factors as family history of heart disease or stroke, or for weight gain. Also, stroke is more common in men 55 years of age and older and women 65 years or older. The average age of those in the study was 69.
      • The sample size of those who claimed they drank diet soda daily was small – only 4.5 percent of the total study sample.
      • The overall study population was not representative of the U.S. population, either in age (average age was 69), or race (only 20 percent non-Hispanic white).
      • Cardiovascular events are very complex statistically. Many people who have had a cardiovascular event (and therefore are a much higher risk for a second, statistically) are switched to a low calorie diet which will often include diet drinks as opposed to high calorie drinks.
      • The authors offer no explanation or theories for why diet soft drinks might be related to an increased risk of vascular events.

      According to The Calorie Control Council, low-calorie sweeteners are some of the most thoroughly studied food ingredients in the food supply and their safety has been reaffirmed time and again by leading health and regulatory groups worldwide.

      The Diet Soda-Stroke Risk: More Health Officials Weigh InRepresentatives of low-cal food industry claim research is "critically flawed"...

      Blockbuster Rolls the Final Credits, Puts Itself Up For Sale

      Moribund movie rental chain hopes a Daddy Starbucks appears … fast

      Blockbuster, whose movie rental business is now rolling the final credits, has been in bankruptcy since September, hoping to work things out with its many creditors. But things haven't gone well, so now the chain is preparing to put itself up for sale, The Wall Street Journal reports.

      Please, no jokes about renting "Blockbuster: The Business" for two nights.

      The Journal said leading candidates to buy the chain out of bankruptcy are billionaire investor Carl Icahn and a consortium of creditors led by hedge fund Monarch Alternative Capital LP.

      The creditors are said to fear the chain is drifting while it's in bankruptcy. Developing a new business plan and reaching agreement with its hordes of creditors could take many months, during which time Netflix, Amazon, Redbox and other red-hot rivals would be even more laps in the lead.

      A sale could occur quickly and new management could make an aggressive effort to get back into the race.

      Whatever happens, Blockbuster's future will likely not be in the bricks-and-mortar realm. The company, currently with about 5,000 outlets, has closed more than 1,000 stores over the last two years and has discussed closing another 1,000 or so as it tries to shift its operations online and into vending machines and mail.

      Blockbuster managers might like to think that loyal customers are standing on the sidelines cheering them on, but that seems unlikely. Blockbuster made many enemies through its imposition of hefty late fees and other less-than-charitable practices, building an impressive collection of about 750 customer complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com.

      “We were loyal and frequent customers of our local Blockbuster for years, and never had a problem until now,” said Ashley of Rio Rancho, NM. “My husband and I rented two movies and were almost two weeks late returning them. It was a very hectic time for us and it just slipped my mind. I understand that we deserved late fees for that. “

      But instead of a late fee, Blockbuster turned the debt, a whopping $12.86, over to a collection agency, tarnishing Ashley's credit rating.

      “Interestingly enough, the Blockbuster in question shut its doors for good two weeks ago, and I guess if that is how this company wants to treat its customers, then it's no surprise that they had to close. Good riddance.”

      Nor did Blockbuster's new mail service satisfy Steven of Union, NJ.

      “We joined Blockbuster By Mail to rent games and movies through the mail but soon found out the games rarely came unless we were willing to wait an extra week or more. … It took longer and longer for a dvd to arrive though they were being sent out immediately but seemingly from farther away hubs and the last two never arrived at all.”

      Blockbuster Rolls the Final Credits, Puts Itself Up For Sale. Moribund movie rental chain hopes a Daddy Starbucks appears … fast....

      Google Adds Two-Step Sign-In Option

      Users will need their password and a separate code sent to their mobile device

      Google has unveiled a new, two-step Google Account sign-in process intended to provide an extra, optional layer of security.

      Users who enable it will have to enter their passwords as well as a separate code that will be sent to mobile devices before gaining access to products like Gmail or Google Docs.

      Google added this for Google Apps customers several months ago, but is now extending it to all users.

      "There are plenty of examples (like the classic 'Mugged in London' scam) that demonstrate why it's important to take steps to help secure your activities online," Nishit Shah, product manager for Google Security, wrote in a blog post.

      "Your Gmail account, your photos, your private documents—if you reuse the same password on multiple sites and one of those sites gets hacked, or your password is conned out of you directly through a phishing scam, it can be used to access some of your most closely-held information."

      Google users will shortly see a new link on the Account Settings page that includes the new option, “Using 2-step verification.” Shah said it will probably take about 15 minutes to complete the set-up process.

      It's an extra step, but it's one that significantly improves the security of your Google Account because it requires the powerful combination of both something you know—your username and password—and something that only you should have — your phone. A hacker would need access to both of these factors to gain access to your account,” Shah said.

      If you like, you can always choose a "Remember verification for this computer for 30 days" option, and you won't need to re-enter a code for another 30 days. You can also set up one-time application-specific passwords to sign in to your account from non-browser based applications that are designed to only ask for a password, and cannot prompt for the code.

      Google Adds Two-Step Sign-In Option. Users will need their password and a separate code sent to their mobile device....

      Upfront Fees for Mortgage Assistance Are Now Illegal

      Wave of foreclosures has been a bonanza for mortgage relief scams

      Homeowners facing foreclosure take note: It is now illegal for mortgage “rescue” companies to charge upfront fees for their services. The Federal Trade Commission's new Mortgage Assistant Relief Services (MARS) rule took effect Jan. 31.

      Banning the collection of up-front fees will protect homeowners from being victimized,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. “This is especially important at a time when so many people are behind on their mortgages or facing foreclosure.”

      Under the rule, a mortgage assistance relief company may not collect a fee until the consumer has signed a written agreement with the lender that includes the relief obtained by the company.

      When the company presents the consumer with that relief, it must inform the consumer, in writing, that the consumer can reject the offer without obligation and, if the consumer accepts, the total fee due.

      Before the consumer agrees to accept the mortgage relief, the company must also provide a written notice from the lender or servicer showing how the relief will change the terms of the consumer’s loan (including any limitations on a trial loan modification).

      During the past three years, the FTC has filed 32 lawsuits against mortgage assistance relief companies for deception and abuse, and state law enforcers have filed hundreds of additional cases. The MARS Rule issued in November gives the FTC and the states an additional tool for combating deceptive and unfair acts or practices by these entities.

      Attorney exemption

      Attorneys are generally exempt from the rule if they provide mortgage assistance relief services as part of the practice of law, are licensed in the state where the consumer or dwelling is located, and comply with state laws and regulations governing attorney conduct related to the rule.

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

      Upfront Fees for Mortgage Assistance Are Now Illegal. Wave of foreclosures has been a bonanza for mortgage relief scams....

      Business Opportunity Con Artist Surrenders Home, Abandons Appeal

      Richard Neiswonger was twice held in contempt of court

      After trying for years to keep assets he acquired while deceiving consumers with false promotions and bogus business opportunity pitches, a repeat offender has agreed to turn over his Las Vegas home, valued at over $1 million, and give up his appeal of the Federal Trade Commission’s case against him.

      The settlement announced today wraps up the FTC’s case against Richard C. Neiswonger, who twice has been held in contempt of court at the FTC’s request – first, for deceptively marketing business opportunities in violation of an earlier court order, and second, for failing to turn over assets to pay a multi-million-dollar judgment against him.

      In April 2007, a federal district court held Neiswonger, his business partner William S. Reed, and their firm, Asset Protection Group, Inc., in civil contempt for violating a 1997 court order that prohibited them from deceptively promoting business opportunities and failing to disclose material facts to consumers.

      The court banned Neiswonger from selling business opportunities to consumers and telemarketing. The court also entered a $3.2 million judgment against him – the amount of his ill-gotten gains – and required him to transfer the title of his Las Vegas home to a court-appointed receiver within 20 days if he failed to pay the judgment in full.

      Neiswonger never made the payment, and in September 2009, at the FTC’s request, the district court held him in contempt for a second time and ordered him to turn over the title to the house or face jail time. The court found that he had failed to deliver a marketable title to his home.

      Under the final settlement order, Neiswonger will surrender the house in Las Vegas, valued at more than $1 million. The order requires his wife, Shannon Neiswonger, and any other people living in the house to move out and turn it over for sale by a court-appointed receiver.

      It also requires the Neiswongers to dismiss all related appeals and release any claims they may have against the receiver or the FTC, and it directs the receiver to sell the house to help pay the judgment.

      The FTC previously obtained Neiswonger’s $379,000 retirement account to help pay the judgment as well. As part of the settlement, Shannon Neiswonger, who was not a defendant in the FTC action, will be paid $100,000 from the proceeds of the sale of the house, which she owned jointly with Richard Neiswonger.

      Business Opportunity Con Artist Surrenders Home, Abandons Appeal. Richard Neiswonger was twice held in contempt of court....

      Indian Tribes Expand Into Payday Loans

      Sovereign tribes build on their success in casinos, tobacco sales

      American Indian tribes are tapping into a new revenue stream – payday loans, frustrating state efforts to curtail and even eradicate an industry widely seen as predatory and usurious, The Wall Street Journal reported today.

      Because they are sovereign nations under their treaties with the U.S., Indian tribes are immune to state interest-rate caps and regulations imposed on the payday loan industry. They can even operate in the 12 states that have banned payday lenders outright.

      It's not, of course, the Indian tribes themselves who are opening storefront and Internet loan operations. Instead, existing lenders “move” their headquarters to an Indian reservation,usually in name only,and share their revenue with tribal leaders.

      The Journal reported that at least 35 of the 300 companies making payday loans via the Internet are owned by American Indian tribes.

      Some observers think the number of tribes in the payday loan business will approach the 400 that now own casinos.

      States are largely powerless to interfere. Colorado has sued lenders owned by the Miami Nation of Oklahoma and the Santee Sioux Nation in South Dakota but the Colorado Supreme Court ruled last year that the lenders were protected by their association with the sovereign tribes.

      Congress has regulator power over Indian tribes but the likelihood of meaningful legislation in the near future is slim.

      Last year's creation of theConsumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) had been viewed as a deathblow against the industry and Wall Street analysts expected the agency would quickly regulate payday lenders out of business.

      But that was while the Indian Connection was not yet on lenders' radar. Lawmakers leading the charge against payday loans may find that they have inadvertently followed General Custer's strategy. 

      Indian Tribes Expand Into Payday Loans. Sovereign tribes build on their success in casinos, tobacco sales....

      Fish Story: Catfish Impersonating Pricier Catches

      Vietnamese catfish passing as sole, grouper and just about everything else

      There's nothing wrong with catfish but it's not the most prized marine specimen around and is actively disliked by many seafood fanciers. Unfortunately, those with an untrained palate may be eating a lot more catfish than they realize.

      The fishing industry trades are full of stories lately about Vietnamese catfish turning up with all kinds of inaccurate labels.

      Among the most outrageous was a case in Mobile, Ala., recently. Two Arizona business executives pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud consumers by selling more than 283,000 pounds of Vietnamese catfish as sole.

      Karen L Blyth faces two years and nine months in prison and David H.M. Phelps two years, under the terms of a plea bargain that must still be approved by U.S. District Judge Ginny Granade.

      “These prosecutions should send a clear message that instances of consumer fraud will be vigorously prosecuted and that this U.S. Attorney's office will continue to protect local seafood consumers and all components of the local seafood and industry,” said Kenyen Brown, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.

      Prosecutors said that some of that fish had been found to contain malachite green, a chemical banned in the United States, plus a banned antibiotic called Enrofloxin. Authorities say another case involved 101,078 pounds of catfish being sold as grouper in Alabama, Florida and beyond.

      British courts have also heard their share of whoppers lately. In one case, a fish-and-chips shop owner was heavily fined for selling catfish as cod, which is twice as expensive. He claimed he had forgotten to change his sign.

      Bill Crook of England's National Federation Fish Friers, said fish from the Mekong River in Vietnam should be avoided: “We don’t like the fish and have said so. A lot of pub chains have started selling it as fish and chips without advertising what it really is,” according to FishUpdate, a trade publication.

      Fish Story: Catfish Impersonating Pricier Catches. Vietnamese catfish passing as sole, grouper and just about everything else....

      Egyptian Crisis Gives New Life to Travel Emergency Scam

      Friend in trouble overseas? Don't be too sure

      The email describes a travel nightmare: "Help! I've been robbed at gunpoint while visiting Cairo and desperately need your assistance!" 

      No money, no credit cards, no passport or cell phone - your friend is scared and stranded.  What they need you to do is wire them some money quickly. Your instinct is to help your friend. But don't because it's probably a scam.

      Fake emergency emails are being sent by scammers posing as a friend or family member. The messages come from cyber-thieves who gather contact information by either hijacking someone's email or social networking account, or by collecting the names of people who are cc:'d on mass emails. The scam message may come from an email address that looks a lot like your friend's real one.

      Protect yourself from the fake emergency email scam by taking the following precautions:

      • Always be skeptical of emails that describe an urgent need for you to wire money no matter who it appears to be coming from. More often than not, if someone is requesting a money wire, it's a scam.

      • If you're suspicious, try to contact your friend to verify the emergency. If it is a scam, encourage them to warn their contacts about the phony email.

      • When sending group emails always "bcc:" (blind carbon copy) your recipients. That way their names and email addresses are not visible after the email is sent.

      • Protect your email and social networking accounts by using unique passwords that include numbers and capital letters, advises Oregon Attorney General John Kroger.

      Egyptian Crisis Gives New Life to Travel Emergency Scam. Friend in trouble overseas? Don't be too sure....

      Report Suggests Falling Foreclosure Trend

      But the numbers could be deceiving

      There were more foreclosure actions in January than in December, but when compared with January 2010, the pace is sharply lower. While it’s good news, it might not be as good as it seems.

      The monthly report from RealtyTrac, an online marketplace for foreclosed properties, shows there were foreclosure actions of some type on 261,333 U.S. properties in January -- a one percent increase from the previous month but a 17 percent decrease from January 2010. The report also shows one in every 497 housing units received a foreclosure filing during the month.

      While the long-term trend looks promising, RealtyTrac says the reason for the drop needs to be considered.

      "We've now seen three straight months with fewer than 300,000 properties receiving foreclosure filings, following 20 straight months where the total exceeded 300,000," said James J. Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac. "Unfortunately this is less a sign of a robust housing recovery and more a sign that lenders have become bogged down in reviewing procedures, resubmitting paperwork and formulating legal arguments  related to accusations of improper foreclosure processing."

      Foreclosure activity by type

      A total of 75,198 U.S. properties received default notices (NOD, LIS) in January, a one percent decrease from the previous month  and a 27 percent decrease from January 2010, the 12th straight  month where default notices decreased on a year-over-year basis.

      January was also the fourth straight month where default notices decreased on a  month-over-month basis, giving it the lowest monthly total for default notices  since July 2007.

      Foreclosure auctions (NTS, NFS) were scheduled for the first time on a total of 108,002 U.S. properties in January, a four percent decrease from the previous month and a 13  percent decrease from January 2010. It was the lowest monthly total for scheduled  foreclosure auctions since February 2009.

      Lenders foreclosed on 78,133 U.S. properties in January, up 12 percent from the previous month but still down 11 percent from January 2010. Bank repossessions (REO) in non-judicial foreclosure states increased 23 percent from December but were still down nine percent from January 2010, while bank repossessions in judicial foreclosure states decreased seven percent from the previous month and were down 16 percent from January 2010.

      Nevada, Arizona, California remain the leaders

      The states hit hardest by foreclosure continue to struggle. Nevada bank repossessions increased 16 percent from the previous month, helping the state maintain the nation's highest state foreclosure rate for the 49th straight month, despite month-over-month decreases in default notices and scheduled auctions. One in every 93 Nevada housing units received a foreclosure filing in January -- more than five times the national average.

      One in every 175 Arizona housing units received a foreclosure filing in January, the nation's second highest  state foreclosure rate. Arizona foreclosure activity increased 16 percent from the previous month, driven by a  54 percent month-over-month increase in REOs -- but was still down 25 percent  from January 2010.

      California REO activity increased 32 percent from the previous month, and the state posted the nation's third highest state foreclosure rate, with one in every 200 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing.

      Idaho posted the nation's fourth highest state foreclosure rate, with one in every 241 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing, while Utah posted the nation's fifth highest state foreclosure rate, with one in every 265 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing during the month.

      Other states with foreclosure rates ranking among the top 10 in January were Michigan, Georgia, Illinois, Florida and Colorado.

      Five states account for more than 50 percent of national total

      With 67,072 properties receiving a foreclosure filing, California accounted for more than 25 percent of the national total in January. After hitting a 25-month low in November, California foreclosure activity has increased on a month-over-month basis for two straight months.

      Florida foreclosure activity decreased on a month-over-month basis for the fourth straight month,  but the state's 21,671 properties receiving a foreclosure filing in January -- a 42-month low -- was still the second highest in the nation.

      Michigan foreclosure activity increased for the second straight month, and the state posted the nation's third highest total, with 16,716 properties receiving a foreclosure filing in January.

      Arizona posted the nation's fourth highest total, with 15,757 properties receiving a foreclosure filing, while Texas posted the nation's fifth highest total, with 14,897 properties receiving a foreclosure filing during the month.

      With one in every 82 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing in January, the Las Vegas-Paradise, Nev., metro area maintained the nation's highest  foreclosure rate among metropolitan areas with a population of 200,000 or more.  Las Vegas foreclosure activity dropped nearly 13 percent from the previous month and increased less than one percent from January 2010.

      The other Nevada metro area in the top 10 was Reno-Sparks, at No. 5 with one in every 132 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing.

      Seven California metro areas posted foreclosure rates in the top 10, led by Modesto, at No. 2 with one in every 111 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing; Stockton, at No. 3 with one in every 114 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing; and Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, at No. 4 with one in every 120 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing. Other California metro areas with foreclosure rates in the top 10 were Vallejo-Fairfield at No. 6 (one in 135 housing units); Bakersfield at No. 7 (one in 143); Merced at No. 9 (one in 149); and Sacramento-Arden-Arcade-Roseville at No. 10 (one in 151). Sacramento was the only California  metro area in the top 10 to report increasing foreclosure activity on a month-over-month  and year-over year basis.

      With one in every 143 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing in January, the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale metro area posted the nation's eighth highest metro  foreclosure rate.

      No Florida cities showed up in the top 20 metro foreclosure rates in January. In contrast the state accounted for nine of the top 20 metro foreclosure rates in 2010.

      RealtyTrac reports foreclosure actions rose one percent from December to January, but are down sharply year-over-year....

      Eating for A Healthy Heart

      Simple changes in your diet can make a big difference

      Making healthy food choices is one important thing you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease -- the leading cause of death of men and women in the United States. 

      According to the American Heart Association, about 80 million adults in the U.S. have at least one form of heart disease -- disorders that prevent the heart from functioning normally -- including coronary artery disease, heart rhythm problems, heart defects, infections, and cardiomyopathy (thickening or enlargement of the heart muscle). 

      Experts say you can reduce the risk of developing these problems with lifestyle changes that include eating a healthy diet. But with racks full of books and magazines about food and recipes, what is the best diet for a healthy heart? 

      Guidelines

      Food and Drug Administration (FDA)nutrition expert Barbara Schneeman says to follow these simple guidelines when preparing meals: 

      • Balance calories to manage body weight
      • Eat at least 4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables a day, including a variety of dark-green, red, and orange vegetables, beans, and peas.
      • Eat seafood (including oily fish) in place of some meat and poultry
      • Eat whole grains—the equivalent of at least three 1-ounce servings a day
      • Use oils to replace solid fats.
      • Use fat-free or low-fat versions of dairy products.

      The government’s newly released Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 also says we should reduce our sodium (salt) intake. The general recommendation is to eat less than 2,300 mg. of sodium a day. But people 51 or older, blacks of any age and people with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease should restrict their intake to 1,500 mg. The government estimates that about half the U.S. population is in one of those three categories. 

      Packaged and restaurant food

      Schneeman, who heads FDA's Office of Nutrition, Labeling, and Dietary Supplements, says one way to make sure you’re adhering to healthy guidelines is by using the nutrition labels on the packaged foods you buy. 

      “Product labels give consumers the power to compare foods quickly and easily so they can judge which products best fit into a heart healthy diet or meet other dietary needs,” Schneeman says. “Remember, when you see a percent DV (daily value of key nutrients) on the label, five percent or less is low and 20 percent or more is high.”

      Follow these guidelines when using processed foods or eating in restaurants: 

      • Choose lean meats and poultry. Bake it, broil it, or grill it.
      • In a restaurant, opt for steamed, grilled, or broiled dishes instead of those that are fried or sautéed.
      • Look on product labels for foods low in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol. Most of the fats you eat should come from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, such as those found in some types of fish, nuts, and vegetable oils.
      • Check product labels for foods high in potassium (unless you’ve been advised to restrict the amount of potassium you eat). Potassium counteracts some of the effects of salt on blood pressure.
      • Choose foods and beverages low in added sugars. Read the ingredient list to make sure that added sugars are not among the first ingredients. Ingredients in the largest amounts are listed first. Some names for added sugars include sucrose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, maple syrup, and fructose. The nutrition facts on the product label give the total sugar content.
      • Pick foods that provide dietary fiber, like fruits, beans, vegetables, and whole grains.

      Feel like getting creative in the kitchen? The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has come up with dozens of delicious heart-healthy recipes—many in Spanish. You can get a free cookbook or download recipes here

      Eating for A Healthy HeartSimple changes in your diet can make a big difference...

      Kids Who 'Over-Snack' Get the Worst of Both Worlds

      Dietitian urges parents to help their kids snack smarter

      America loves to snack. We have proof, too -- aisle after aisle in every grocery store is filled with all types of snacks: sweet, salty, crunchy, chewy, fatty, savory. Some of these snacks are low-cal, low-fat, or even natural (fruit, raw nuts), but for most of us, the "naughtier" the snack, the better.

      Do we live in an oversnacked society? Could this fixation on eating between meals be adding to the dangerous level of childhood obesity? And be playing a role in the growing number of poorly-nourished kids in our country?

      Nutrient gaps

      “Despite the increase in weight of our children, there are still critical nutrient gaps,” said Gina Bucciferro, registered dietician and pediatric nutrition expert at Loyola University Medical Center. “Snacks can either make or break the nutritional quality of a kid’s daily intake.”

      Research has shown that 88 percent of U.S. children do not meet the recommended daily intake for fruit and 92 percent do not meet the same for vegetables.

      Though obesity is a major concern for kids with poor nutrition, there are other health risks as well. These include heart disease, depression, high blood pressure, tooth decay, anemia, osteoporosis and diabetes.

      According to Bucciferro, snacks are a great way to bridge the nutritional gap. Parents need to be aware of what is being served and when it takes place to help keep snack time a good time.

      Snack time

      There are times of the day when it’s beneficial for children to have healthy snacks.

      When kids participate in any sort of physical activity, a nutritious snack afterward is important. In addition to needing high-quality energy for growth and development, children involved in sports and other physical activities need to replace the extra energy they are burning.

      Whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy can provide the carbohydrates needed to replenish little athletes without added sugar and fat. Fluids also are important in making sure active kids stay hydrated.

      According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), school-age children need to drink six 8-ounce cups of water per day and another eight ounces for every half-hour of strenuous activity.

      And stick to water -- a sports drink is necessary only for activities lasting longer than 60 minutes.

      Another time when snacking is okay is when it’s scheduled between meal times.

      Increased needs

      Children do have increased nutrition needs, so providing snacks between meals can help them stay focused and healthy. The goal should be to offer as much nutrition as possible without providing excessive sugar, fat and calories.

      Fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy are an easy way to meet this goal. These types of foods, eaten two to three hours before a meal will not spoil an appetite, whereas high-fat foods might.

      However, the times when kids shouldn’t be encouraged to snack are sometimes when it’s most tempting. Snacking as a reward is one of those times.

      Food fixation

      Our relationship with food is formed at a very young age. When food is provided as a reward, an unhealthy relationship with food can be formed.

      Rewarding children with playtime or fun, educational activities can form much better habits than indulging in high-fat, high-sugar fare. Also, providing these types of foods after an accomplishment can lead the child to place a higher value on low-nutrition food items.

      At the same time, don’t treat high-fat, high-sugar, or high-salt snack foods as forbidden. Encourage everything in moderation.

      Snacking to cure boredom is another no-no.

      Starting a habit of eating when bored can become a slippery slope. If you notice your child requesting snacks at off-times, make sure to assess the situation. If your child’s normal meal times have been thrown off due to a hectic schedule or if they’ve had increased activity, provide them with a small, low-calorie snack such as fruit and low-fat yogurt or veggies and light ranch dip.

      However, if it’s been a typical day and you notice your child is just antsy, provide a fun activity instead. Depending on your child’s age, coloring and other activity books can be a good option for minimal supervision while not encouraging increased television time.

      “Snack time can be beneficial for kids. Just make sure kids are snacking at the right time and that snack items are closing the nutrient gaps, not worsening a child’s nutrient deficit which be detrimental to a child’s health,” said Bucciferro.

      Kids Who 'Over-Snack' Get the Worst of Both Worlds Dietitian urges parents to help their kids snack smarter...

      Chipotle Faces Immigration Dragnet, Class Action Lawsuit

      Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency woes add up for the popular chain

      No one has ever accused Chipotle of carrying “authentic” Mexican food, but some of its employees may fit that description to a tee, judging by the company’s recent travails. 

      The popular burrito chain is in the midst of a government crackdown on its alleged employment of illegal immigrants. An investigation by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) discovered that employees at over 50 restaurants turned in unverifiable I-9 forms -- also known as “Employment Eligibility Verification forms” -- which companies provide to the government to ensure that a worker is eligible to work in the U.S. 

      The investigation led to the firings of hundreds of workers at a Chipotle in Minnesota, and some reports say that the dragnet has expanded to restaurants in Washington, DC, and Virginia. 

      Warning to shareholders

      According to a Reuters report, Chipotle warned investors as early as a year ago that it might be subject to a federal crackdown. 

      “We have been subject to audits by immigration authorities from time to time,” the company said in its 2009 annual reported, filed last February.

      “[A]t the time of that disclosure, we had not been notified by DHS or any other government agency that any of our worker documents were suspect,” Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said in an email statement to Reuters. 

      “We had no notice of any issues with our employees until we received a Notice of Suspect Documents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement in November 2010.” 

      Class action by employees

      Two of the terminated employees have filed a class action lawsuit alleging that Chipotle failed to pay them back wages in a timely fashion. 

      Tanya Cortes and Alejandro Juárez allege in their suit that Chipotle broke Minnesota state law when it failed to  give them all earned compensation at the time they were fired. 

      Arnold told the Pioneer Press that the suit’s allegations are without merit. 

      “We have paid every employee everything that they were owed including wages, accrued vacation and bonuses,” he said in an email to the paper. 

      Consumer backlash

      The issue is also causing a backlash among some consumers and threatening to create a public relations nightmare for Chipotle, which prides itself on providing “food with integrity.” After the Minnesota terminations were made public, eight protestors chained themselves to the door of the restaurant, and were eventually charged with trespassing after they refused to leave. Several of the protestors were carrying signs that said, “Chipotle: You cannot sell Mexican food and then sell out Mexican workers.” 

      Indeed, Arnold -- who concedes he is juggling a lot of plates at the moment -- sounded melancholy when addressing the issue recently in an interview with The Wall Street Journal

      “Ours is a culture that is built on recognizing top-performing employees and developing them into future leaders, so this is a particularly troubling situation for us because of the impact this has on future generations of leaders and managers,” he said. “We'd rather keep all these people but under the law we can't do that.”

      Chipotle Faces Immigration Dragnet, Class Action Lawsuit ICE woes add up for the popular chain...

      Guzzling Diet Soda Can Increase Stroke Risk

      Diet sodas, high in sodium, can lead to vascular troubles, study finds

      Consumers hoping to cut liquid calories from their diets are sometimes encouraged to switch from sweetened soft drinks to the zero calorie versions. But trading one addiction for another can still have its consequences.

      According to research presented at this year’s American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference, drinking large amounts of diet pop can lead to a higher risk of stroke.

      In findings involving 2,564 people in the large, multi-ethnic Northern Manhattan Study (NOMAS), scientists said people who drank diet soda every day had a 61 percent higher risk of vascular events -- like stroke -- than those who reported no soda drinking.

      "If our results are confirmed with future studies, then it would suggest that diet soda may not be the optimal substitute for sugar-sweetened beverages for protection against vascular outcomes," said Hannah Gardener, Sc.D., lead author and epidemiologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Miami, Fla.

      Salt and stroke

      In separate research using 2,657 participants also in the Manhattan study, scientists found that high salt intake, independent of the hypertension it causes, was linked to a dramatically increased risk of ischemic strokes (when a blood vessel blockage cuts off blood flow to the brain).

      In the study, people who consumed more than 4,000 milligrams (mg) per day of sodium had more than double the risk of stroke compared to those consuming less than 1,500 mg per day.

      At the start of both studies, researchers assessed diet by a food frequency questionnaire.

      NOMAS is a collaboration of investigators at Columbia University in New York and Miami's Miller School of Medicine, launched in 1993 to examine stroke incidence and risk factors in a multi-ethnic urban population.

      Continuing study

      A total of 3,298 participants over 40 years old (average age 69) were enrolled through 2001 and continue to be followed. Sixty-three percent were women, 21 percent were white, 24 percent black and 53 percent Hispanic.

      In the soda study, researchers asked subjects at the outset to report how much and what kind of soda they drank.

      Based on the data, they grouped participants into seven consumption categories: no soda (meaning less than one soda of any kind per month); moderate regular soda only (between one per month and six per week), daily regular soda (at least one per day); moderate diet soda only; daily diet soda only; and two groups of people who drink both types: moderate diet and any regular, and daily diet with any regular.

      During an average follow-up of 9.3 years, 559 vascular events occurred (including ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke, which is caused by rupture of a weakened blood vessel).

      Researchers accounted for participants' age, sex, race or ethnicity, smoking status, exercise, alcohol consumption and daily caloric intake.

      Greater risk

      And even after researchers also accounted for patients' metabolic syndrome, peripheral vascular disease and heart disease history, the increased risk persisted at a rate 48 percent higher.

      In the sodium research, 187 ischemic strokes were reported during 9.7 years of follow-up. Stroke risk -- independent of hypertension -- increased 16 percent for every 500 mg of sodium consumed a day, the scientists calculated.

      Those figures included adjustment for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, alcohol use, exercise, daily caloric intake, smoking status, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and previous heart disease.

      Only a third of the participants met the current U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommending daily sodium intake fall below 2,300 mg, or about a teaspoon of salt, Gardener said.

      Only 12 percent of subjects met the American Heart Association's recommendations to consume less than 1,500 mg a day. Average intake was just over double that amount -- 3,031 milligrams.

      The findings for both studies, while sobering, are also not 100 percent set in stone.

      Limitations

      According to Gardener, participants' reporting their dietary behavior is a key limitation of both studies.

      In the soda study, investigators also lacked data on types of diet and regular drinks consumed, preventing analysis of whether variations among brands or changes over time in coloring and sweeteners might have played a role.

      Still, with an 8 ounce serving of diet soda containing roughly 30 mg of sodium, the numbers can add up quickly, regardless of type or brand.

      "The take-home message is that high sodium intake is a risk factor for ischemic stroke among people with hypertension as well as among those without hypertension, underscoring the importance of limiting consumption of high sodium foods for stroke prevention," said Gardener.

      Guzzling Diet Soda Can Increase Stroke Risk Diet sodas, high in sodium, can lead to vascular troubles, study finds...

      Smartphone Sales Surged 72% In 2010

      Apple's iPhone comes up the big winner

      Consumers traded in their mobile phones for a smartphone at a staggering pace last year, according to the market research firm, Gartner, Inc.

      The company reports worldwide mobile device sales to end users totalled 1.6 billion units in 2010 -- a 31.8 percent increase from 2009. Those numbers were powered by smartphone sales to end users, which were up a staggering 72.1 percent from 2009 and accounted for 19 percent of total mobile communications device sales in 2010.

      "Strong smartphone sales in the fourth quarter of 2010 pushed Apple and Research In Motion (RIM) up in our 2010 worldwide ranking of mobile device manufacturers to the No. 5 and No. 4 positions, respectively, displacing Sony Ericsson and Motorola," said Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner. "Nokia and LG saw their market share erode in 2010 as they came under increasing pressure to refine their smartphone strategies."

      Nokia loses ground

      Though still ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively, Nokia and Samsung were clearly the big losers last year. Nokia's 2009 market share of 36.4 percent plunged to 28.9 percent last year. Samsung went from a 19.5 marketshare to 17.6.

      As expected, Apple was the big winner. It improved marketshare from 2.1 percent to 2.9 percent. Apple sold 46.6 million units in 2010, 87.2 percent growth from 2009 -- growth largely due to expansion into new countries and the ending of exclusivity deals, which has made the iPhone available through 185 communication service providers (CSPs) around the world.

      For 2011, Apple's main growth opportunity will come from adding Verizon Wireless to its list of CSPs in the U.S., Gartner analysts said.

      New iPad?

      Meanwhile, Apple may be ready to introduce a new version of its iPad tablet computer, which debuted a year ago. The Wall Street Journalreports the new model is already in production, and will feature a faster processor and built in camera for video conferencing.

      The Journal said no Apple executive would comment, but sited sources as saying the new iPad will initially be available through AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

      Since releasing the iPad a year ago, Apple has sold 14.8 million of the computers, which list at about $500. In the fourth quarter of last year, iPad sales contributed nearly 17 percent of Apple's total revenue.

      Apple's iPhone continues to gain marketshare as consumers switch to smartphones....

      Poll Finds Americans Worried About Online Privacy;LegislationImminent

      California lawmaker introducing "Do-Not-Track" bill to hamstring online advertisers

      Anew USA Today/Gallup poll that found most Americans are worried about privacy and viruses when using Facebook or Google underscores the need for a Do Not Track mechanism to protect consumers online,Consumer Watchdogsaid today.

      The poll was released as Rep. Jackie Speier(D-Calif.)was preparing Do Not Track legislation, expected to be introduced later this week.  Her bill would give the Federal Trade Commission power to implement and enforce Do Not Track regulations.

      The USA Today poll found that nearly seven out of 10 Facebook members surveyed — and 52% of Google users — say they are either "somewhat" or "very concerned" about their privacy while using the world's most popular social network and dominant search engine.

      A poll by Consumer Watchdog last summer found that 90% of Americans want legislation to protect their online privacy and 80% support a Do  Not Track mechanism. Another 86% want a single-click button on their browsers that makes them anonymous when they search online.

      Sperier's billwould enable consumers to "opt out" of tracking by online advertisers. The aide said the bill is narrowly tailored to address tracking issues only, rather than the broader question of online privacy,The Hill newspaper reported.

      Speier's officesaid Rep. Speierworked with anumberof pro-privacy groups on the bill, including Consumer Watchdog, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, among others. 

      Chrome, Firefox

      The Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox Web browsers announced last month that they were implementing do-not-track tools on forthcoming editions of their browsers.

      For the Mozilla tool to work, Web advertisers and tracking companies will have to agree not to follow users who enable the do-not-track feature. The non-profit Mozilla Corp.says it will urge companies to "honor people's privacy choices."

      Google said its Keep My Opt-Outs feature will let users permanently opt out of ad-tracking cookies. The extension is available immediately in the Chrome Web store.

      The Federal Trade Commission has been urging the advertising industry to adopt do-not-track measures but has not ruled out pursuing legislation to mandate it.

      The FTC wants to help ensure that the growing, changing, thriving information marketplace is built on a framework that promotes privacy, transparency, business innovation and consumer choice. We believe that’s what most Americans want as well,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitzrecently.

      It would behoove both Facebook and Google to support Do Not Track legislation,” said John M. Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s Inside Google project. “Both companies need consumers’ trust to thrive. The polls show people are worried when they use their services. A Do Not Track option would give consumers control of their data and restore trust.  It’s a win-win for consumers and online businesses.”

      Consumer Watchdog, is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization with offices in Washington, DC and Santa Monica, Ca. 

      Poll Finds Americans Worried About Online Privacy; Legislation Imminent. California lawmaker introducing "Do-Not-Track" bill to hamstring online advertiser...

      New and Improved Egg? USDA Says Yes

      Humpty-Dumpty's back together again: less cholesterol, more vitamin D

      It seems that all dietary advice is regularly scrambled and the latest example is the lowly egg, long decried as a source of excessive cholesterol.

      But now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says today's egg has grown up and gone straight. A nationwide sampling of eggs finds your typical large egg contains about 185 milligrams of cholesterol, down from 215 milligrams just a few short years ago.

      Why would that be? Well, no one really knows. Maybe today's chickens are eating a better diet. Or maybe they're getting more exercise, although if you've ever seen an egg factory, you'll have a hard time believing that.

      But whatever the reason, the USDA now says it's OK to eat one egg a day.

      "Evidence suggests that one egg (i.e. egg yolk) per day does not result in increased blood cholesterol levels, nor does it increase the risk of cardiovascular disease in healthy people," according to the government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

      More vitamin D

      Not only does today's egg have less cholesterol, it has more vitamin D – 41 International units (IU) -- than a few years ago, when it had a measly 25. That's thought to be the result of farmers beefing up the chicken feed with extra vitamins.

      And not only that, the American Egg Board (yes, there is such a thing) is quick to point out that eggs have other sterling qualities, including:

      • Protein The right mix of protein and carbs is always controversial but if it's protein you're after, a large egg contains about 6.25 grams of protein and is virtually free of carbohydrates.
      • Gluten Those who suffer from celiac disease will do just about anything to avoid gluten, the protein found in all forms of wheat. Unfortunately, gluten is also used as a stabilizer in any number of foods, a role that egg protein can fill perfectly, say Egg Board researchers.
      • Low-Glycemic Formulations There's a lot of buzz these days about choosing foods that don't cause spikes in blood glucose levels, important both for those with diabetes or pre-diabetes and those trying to control their weight. Eggs, which are packed with protein but contain virtually no carbohydrates, play into this scenario nicely.
      • Stabilization There are all kinds of chemicals and other substances being used as food “stabilizers.” Few are as natural as eggs, which perform more than 20 distinct functions in foods, many of which are regarded as stabilization.
      New and Improved Egg? USDA Says Yes Humpty-Dumpty's back together again: less cholesterol, more vitamin D...

      HHS Proposes Rule to Protect Students' Health Care Rights

      New rule ensures students get health insurance protections of the Affordable Care Act.

      A new proposed regulation announced today by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would ensure students enrolled in health insurance coverage through their college or university benefit from critical consumer protections created by the Affordable Care Act

      Students enrolled in college plans would have the freedom from worrying about losing their insurance, or having it capped unexpectedly if they are in an accident or become sick.

      Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, college students will have more control over their health care,” said Secretary Sebelius. “This rule would ensure that these plans remain a viable, affordable option for students while guaranteeing that they are regulated consistently and offer transparent benefits to students.”

      Student health plans are often purchased when family coverage is not available, or is unaffordable.  Approximately 1,500-2,000 institutions of higher education across the country offer some type of health coverage; however, what benefits are covered by these plans, as well as how they’re regulated vary widely. 

      The proposed regulation would ensure students enrolled in these plans benefit from important consumer protections created by the Affordable Care Act by clarifying that these plans will be defined as “individual health insurance coverage.”  Under the proposed rules, some of the new health insurance protections include:

      • No Lifetime Limits on Coverage: Insurance companies would no longer be able to impose lifetime dollar limits on the amount they spend on health benefits in student health plans.

      • No Arbitrary Rescissions of Insurance Coverage: Insurance companies can no longer drop coverage when student health plan enrollees get sick because of an unintentional mistake on an application.

      • No Pre-Existing Condition Exclusions for Students Under Age 19:  Insurance companies cannot deny or exclude coverage for students under age 19 because of a pre-existing condition.

      Today, some student health plans, only offer limited benefits with low annual dollar limits on health care, or have limited networks of doctors, and other health care providers. For many students, these health plans are their only health insurance option.

      The proposed rule won the endorsement of Campus Progress, the youth division of the Center for American Progress.

      By classifying college students as individual consumers subject to the protections of the Affordable Care Act, the new rule proposed by HHS would ensure that the 4.5 million students currently enrolled in college plans will have access to free preventative care, and that their health insurance won’t be capped when they need it most, such as after an accident or serious illness,” said Tobin Van Ostern, advocacy associate at Campus Progress.

      The Affordable Care Act allows HHS to take steps to preserve market stability while ensuring student health plans remain affordable until all Americans have new coverage options through the state-based Exchanges that will be established in 2014.

      Under the proposed rule announced today, student health insurance plans would be allowed to have annual dollar limits on essential health benefits of no less than $100,000 for policy years beginning before September 23, 2012.  Student health plans with policy years beginning after that date must fully comply with the Affordable Care Act’s annual limit restrictions.

      The proposed rules would also require insurance companies to clearly tell students enrolled in student health plans whether or not their plan meets the new requirements laid out under the Affordable Care Act—bringing transparency to this marketplace and enabling students to understand the value and quality of the coverage they have.

      As a part of the new proposed rule, HHS also is requesting comments on how other Affordable Care Act protections might apply to student health plans, including the choice of medical provider and application of the new medical loss ratio rules.

      HHS Proposes Rule to Protect Students' Health Care Rights. New rule ensures students get health insurance protections of the Affordable Care Act....

      No-Superbowl-Seats Suit Seeks $5 Million

      Class-action suit charges fraud and deceptive sales practices

      A class action lawsuit allegingbreach of contract, fraud and deceptive sales practiceshas been filed against the National Football League, the Dallas Cowboys and Jerry Jones, seeking damages for fans who were denied seating at Sunday's Super Bowl.

      The complaint, which seeks compensatory damages of over $5 million, claims that the unlawful acts of Jones, the NFL and the Cowboys resulted in approximately 400 fans who purchased tickets and traveled to the game being denied a seat, despite having spent thousands of dollars in tickets and travel expenses to attend the Super Bowl.

      The complaint also alleges that Jones and the Cowboys deceived Cowboys season ticket holders known as the “Founders” into paying $1,200 a seat for Super Bowl tickets that turned out to be temporary seats with obstructed views.

      The “Founders,” who collectively account for over $100 million in personal seat licenses sold to help fund construction of the stadium, each paid at least $100,000 per seat for their seat license, which the Cowboys and Jones promised would entitle them to the “best sightlines in the stadium” and the right to purchase a ticket to Sunday’s Super Bowl at face value.

      Instead, they arrived at the stadium Sunday to discover that they had been assigned to sit in obstructed view, temporary metal seats, which had only recently been installed in an effort to meet Jones’ goal of breaking NFL Super Bowl attendance records.

      “You don’t have to own the Cowboys or run the NFL to know that you cannot lawfully treat people like this,” stated lead attorney Michael Avenatti. “At an absolute minimum, Jones, the Cowboys and the NFL need to accept full responsibility and reimburse fans one hundred percent for their expenses and damages. Anything short of that is a slap in the face to the fans of the NFL and the Cowboys.”

      For more information about the lawsuit, please visit www.ticketlawsuit.com.

      No-Superbowl-Seats Suit Seeks $5 Million. ...

      College Scholarship, Grant Information Is Free; Don't Pay For It

      Parents, students should never pay for help in getting education grants, assistance

      Millions of people depend on grants and scholarships to pay for college. Navigating the process of applying for financial aid can be confusing and some companies claim they can help, but only end up providing information and assistance the student can already get for free elsewhere. The Better Business Bureau recommends doing your research before paying a company to find financial aid for college.

      During the 2009-2010 school year, $94 billion in grants was made available to college students to help cover education costs, according to The College Board. Sources of the funding included federal and state government, institutions, private entities and employers.

      Times are tight and many families desperately want to tap into the well of scholarships and grants to help their kids go to college,” said Stephen A. Cox,president of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. “While some companies are trying to take advantage of struggling families looking for funding, the good news is that all of the information you need is already available for free.”

      Every year, BBB receives complaints from parents who paid money upfront to a company that promised to find scholarships and grants for their child but ultimately didn’t deliver.

      One such company, Edifi-College Financial Aid, sends prospective college students a letter explaining they have been selected for a personal interview. Students who call for their interview are scheduled for a financial aid seminar along with other students and parents. Complainants say they attended the seminar and later paid more than $1,000 for help finding aid, but the services offered were mostly assistance in filling out financial aid forms.

      BBB is also receiving complaints about J.E.C.C., Inc. Complainants say they thought they were taking advantage of a free trial CD-ROM on how to get federal grants for college. Some were charged as much as $69 even before receiving the information in the mail and those who did receive the information complained that it wasn’t helpful at all.

      BBB recommends listening for the following red flags when receiving the sales pitch from a financial-aid finder:

      • The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back.” In reality no one can guarantee that they will get you a grant or scholarship. The refund guarantees that are offered usually have so many conditions or strings attached that it is almost impossible for consumers to get their money back.

      • You cannot get this information anywhere else.” Actually, scholarship information is widely available in books, from libraries and financial aid offices and on the Internet, if you are willing to search for it.

      • We will do all the work.” Only parents and students can really determine and provide the financial information needed to complete the forms.

      • You have been selected by a national foundation to receive a scholarship.” If you have not entered a competition sponsored by the foundation, this claim is highly unlikely.

      • May I have your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship?” This is never a requirement for a legitimate scholarship offer.

      • The scholarship will cost some money.” Legitimate scholarship offers never require payment of any kind.

      For more information on finding financial aid for school, visit www.fafsa.gov.  

      College Scholarship, Grant Information Is Free; Don't Pay For It. Parents, students should never pay for help in getting education grants, assistance....

      Identity Theft Cases Down, But Per-Incident Losses Up

      New accounts, debit cards more vulnerable to fraud, report finds

      The good news is that the number of identity theft and fraud incidents was down in 2010. The bad news is that the average loss to consumers was up, from $387 in 2009 to $631 in 2010, according to Javelin Strategy and Research.

      The reason for the increased loss per incident? Javelin researchers say there was more incidents of fraud involving new accounts – the type of fraud that's least likely to be detected quickly and therefore most likely to result in relatively large losses.

      Out-of-pocket losses for consumers on new-account fraud averaged $1,267 in 2010, up from $787 in 2009.

      Debit vs. credit

      Also accounting for higher losses per incident was an increase in the use of debit cards, which typically don't have the same protection against losses as credit cards.

      Javelin found that debit-card fraud was up from 26 percent of all existing-account cases in 2009 to 36 percent in 2010.

      High-income households had the highest rate of fraud – 7.3 percent compared with an average of 3.5 percent for all income levels.

      The Javelin 2011 Identity Fraud Survey Report provides a detailed, comprehensive analysis of identity fraud in the United States to help consumers and businesses better understand the effectiveness of methods used for its prevention, detection and resolution. A nationally representative sample of 5,004 U.S. adults, including 470 fraud victims, was surveyed via a 50-question phone interview, providing insight into this crime and the effects on its victims.

      Identity Theft Cases Down, But Per-Incident Losses Up. New accounts, debit cards more vulnerable to fraud, report finds....

      Qualitest Pharmaceuticals Recalls Hydrocodone Bitartrate and Acetaminophen, and Phenobarbital Tablets

      Incorrect labeling could hold dire consequences for patients using the medications

      Qualitest Pharmaceuticals has issued a voluntary nationwide recall of Hydrocodone Bitartrate and Acetaminophen Tablets and Phenobarbital Tablets. 

      The company says some of the tablet bottles were incorrectly labeled and, as a result of this mix-up, patients may unintentionally take Hydrocodone and acetaminophen tablets, instead of the intended dose of Phenobarbital. 

      Severe consequences

      Unintentional administration of Hydrocodone can lead to serious adverse events including respiratory depression, CNS depression, coma and death, especially in opioid naïve patients and patients on other CNS depressants. 

      Unintentional administration of acetaminophen may result in liver toxicity in patients on other acetaminophen containing medications, patients with liver dysfunction, or people who consume more than three alcoholic beverages a day. Additionally, missing doses of Phenobarbital could result in loss of seizure control. 

      No injuries have been reported to date. 

      Consumers who have affected product should stop using the product and contact Qualitest at 1-800-444-4011 for reimbursement. The lot number can be found on the side of the bottle. 

      The recall includes the following products: 

      • Hydrocodone Bitartrate and Acetaminophen Tablets, USP 10mg / 500mg, NDC 0603-3888-20, 60 count, Lot Numbers T150G10B, T120J10E and T023M10A
      • Phenobarbital Tablets, USP 32.4 mg, NDC 0603-5166-32, 1000 count, Lot Numbers T150G10B, T120J10E and T023M10A

      This voluntary recall is being made with the knowledge of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

      These lots were distributed between Sept. 21, 2010 and Dec. 29, 2010 to wholesale and retail pharmacies nationwide (including Puerto Rico). Lot numbers can be found on the side of the bottle. 

      Hydrocodone Bitartrate and Acetaminophen Tablets are large (approximately 16.5 mm in length), pink, capsule-shaped tablets, debossed (3600) on one side, and debossed (V) on the reverse side; Phenobarbital Tablets are small (approximately 6.4 mm in diameter), white, round, biconvex, scored tablets, debossed (5012) and (V) on one side and plain on the reverse side. 

      All patients who have filled prescriptions of Phenobarbitol manufactured by Qualitest, are asked to double-check the identity of their tablets. 

      Qualitest is notifying all customers who may have received affected product and arranging for the return of any affected product. 

      Consumers with questions may contact Qualitest at 1-800-444-4011 for more information.

      Adverse reactions or quality problems experienced with the use of this product may be reported to the FDA's MedWatch Adverse Event Reporting 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

      Qualitest Pharmaceuticals Recalls Hydrocodone Bitartrate and Acetaminophen, and Phenobarbital Tablets Incorrect labeling could hold dire consequences f...

      Faster Generic Drug Approval May Not Lower Prices

      Could make production more expensive, researcher says

      When a name-brand drug goes generic, it means other drug companies can start producing it, not just the firm that held the original patent. That can mean the drug will cost less, though that's not always the case.

      Andrew Ching, a Canadian market researcher, has conducted a study that shows faster approval times for generic drugs will get them into consumers' hands quicker, but may not make the price any cheaper. Ching contends that speeding up the generic approval process actually keeps the price from being as low as it could be.

      As part of his research, Ching created a mathematical model showing that fewer firms enter the marketplace because the chances of getting there first and commanding the best profits are dramatically smaller when drug approval times are shorter.

      Ching is an associate professor of marketing at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

      Using the drug clonidine, Ching's model showed the number of firms in the marketplace dropped by 25 percent -- from 12 to nine -- under a shortened approval time scenario.

      Faster not necessarily cheaper

      "Potentially, for the consumer, the price may not drop as much as you'd hope," said Ching.

      It normally takes companies an average of more than 20 months to get U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for generic versions of established drugs. That makes approval times uncertain and companies often must go through several rounds of review.

      Companies also pay several million dollars when they apply for FDA approval. Given these as well as other development costs, firms making it to the marketplace last sometimes experience losses.

      Wrong approach?

      Chaig says his research is relevant because the FDA has actively tried to reduce generic approval times in order to benefit consumers, and has proposed strategies for how to do it -- including spending more money in order to bring on extra staff to do the reviews.

      Ching says his results, which were published in International Economic Review, suggest the FDA should think twice before going that route.

      "Even if the government spends a large amount of resources to improve the efficiency of the FDA in approving generic drugs, it does not necessarily achieve the goal of enhancing welfare," Ching's said.

      The FDA would like to get generic drugs into consumers' hands faster, but a researcher contends that might not be much of a benefit....

      FDA Approves Pacemaker Designed To Work Safely During Some MRIs

      Makeup of some pacemakers can cause conflict with the workings of the exam technology

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the first heart pacemaker designed to be used safely during certain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exams. 

      Pacemakers are surgically implanted medical devices that generate electrical impulses to treat irregular or stalled heartbeats. MRIs use a powerful magnetic field, radio frequency pulses and an internal computer to produce detailed images of organs, soft tissues, bone, and other internal body structures not available with other imaging methods. 

      About half of all patients with pacemakers may require an MRI, but are advised not to have one because an MRI’s magnetic and radiofrequency fields can disrupt the pacemaker’s setting or cause wires to overheat, resulting in unintended heart stimulation, device electrical failure, or tissue damage. 

      Work-around

      The Revo MRI SureScan Pacing System includes a function that is turned on before a scan to prepare patients for the MRI. The pacemaker’s use in MRIs is limited to certain patients, certain parts of the body, and certain scanning parameters. FDA also is requiring training for cardiologists and radiologists who use the system. 

      “FDA’s approval of the Revo pacemaker represents an important step forward toward greater device innovation,” said Jeffrey Shuren, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “Those patients who meet the parameters for the device will be able to maintain their critical cardiac therapy while benefiting from the precise diagnostic capability of an MRI.” 

      Satisfactory test results

      The FDA reviewed results from one clinical trial of 484 patients. Of those, 464 were successfully implanted with the device and then randomized to receive or not receive an MRI. 

      None of the 211 who underwent an MRI experienced an MRI-related complication. The clinical results confirmed earlier data from animal studies, computational modeling, and other nonclinical research. 

      Revo is manufactured by Medtronic Inc. of Mounds View, Minn.

      FDA Approves Pacemaker Designed To Work Safely During Some MRIs Makeup of some pacemakers can cause conflict with the workings of the exam technology ...

      Major Health Care Fraud Takedown

      Operation Bad Medicine busts $7 million health care fraud scheme

      More than 150 teams led by FBI special agents and task force officers fanned out in several municipalities in Puerto Rico last month and arrested -- without incident—about 200 of the 533 people named in a federal indictment involving a nearly $7 million health care fraud scheme. 

      Over a dozen others were arrested on the U.S. mainland and the Dominican Republic, while the 300 or so people in Puerto Rico began to surrender -- at the rate of about 70 a day. 

      Phony health claims

      What were they accused of? Submitting bogus accidental injury claim forms to a large U.S. insurance company and receiving payment in return. Among those indicted was the doctor who fraudulently signed all the forms.   

      The January 2011 arrests was actually the second phase of Operation Bad Medicine. In December 2009, 103 individuals, including two other doctors, were indicted for the same criminal activity that resulted in the insurance company paying out more than $800,000. All 103 were convicted.     

      How the case began

      Several years ago, internal auditors from the victim insurance company, which was headquartered in Atlanta, contacted the FBI office there with suspicions that certain doctors working in Puerto Rico were facilitating a scam against the company. 

      After the initial investigative work and the first round of indictments, the bureau was able to identify more than 500 others involved in the same accidental injury scam against the same company. According to the indictment, from 2004 to 2008, a doctor from Lares, Puerto Rico, falsely completed and signed some of the accidental injury claim forms for policyholders and their dependants -- and pocketed approximately $450,000 for doing it. 

      How the scheme worked

      In general -- after word got out that this particular doctor could be bought -- policyholders would go to his office claiming every sort of accidental injury imaginable. The doctor, without even examining the patient, would fill out the claim form for a fee of between $10 to $20 per form. 

      The policyholders would also make fraudulent claims of accidental injuries on behalf of their kids and other family members...injuries that were never properly verified by the doctor. 

      The scheme became so popular that some of the policyholders became intermediaries between the doctor and other policyholders. People didn’t even have to go to the doctor’s office. For a $20 fee, intermediaries would carry the necessary paperwork to and from the office for them. 

      Once the claim form was mailed, the insurance company would send the supposed “injured” party a check within about four weeks. Officials say that's why most of the defendants didn’t just submit one claim; over time, some submitted hundreds of claims totaling thousands of dollars.  

      The bureau notes that what’s surprising about this case is that the defendants aren’t -- for the most part -- hardened criminals. They are business professionals, blue-collar workers, housewives, government workers, and even some law enforcement officers. If convicted, they face up to 20 years in prison. 

      Major Health Care Fraud Takedown Operation Bad Medicine busts $7 million health care fraud scheme ...

      Displaced Super Bowl Fans Still Irked

      Aborted temporary seats at Cowboys Stadium causes huge mess

      For most of the country, the Packers's 31-25 victory over the Steelers on Sunday means that thoughts of football get put on the backburner until the 2011 season starts next September. 

      But for 400 fans who had tickets to the big game but were shut out at the last second, this year's Super Bowl is likely to be on their minds well into the future. 

      The mishap occurred after the National Football League (NFL) sold extra tickets for temporary seats that weren't completed in time for the game, rendering them unsafe and unusable. 

      “Incomplete installation of temporary seats in a limited number of sections made the seats unusable,” the NFL said in a prepared statement. “The safety of fans attending the Super Bowl was paramount in making the decision and the NFL, Dallas Cowboys and City of Arlington officials are in agreement with the resolution. We regret the situation and inconvenience that it may have caused. We will conduct a full review of this matter.” 

      400 fans left out in the cold

      Initially, it looked like 1,250 fans were going to be without seats, but the NFL came up with replacements for 850 of them at the last minute. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello tweeted that “NFL + Cowboys staff and families gave up seats,” according to ESPN

      But that still left 400 fans without seats -- and very angry. 

      “I got to my seat, which was row 33, and guess what? There was no row 33,” Milwaukee resident Jim Sass told the New York Post on Monday. 

      “Some smart-ass from the NFL told us, 'Hey buddy, don't bother me. You're just going to have to stand somewhere and watch the game,” said Sass, who spent $12,000 to make the trip with his 29-year-old daughter Tammy. “My daughter was crying. If I was younger, I'd have decked him.” 

      Triple refund, free seats for next year

      In an attempt to make nice with the unamused fans, the NFL let them watch the game on monitors inside the stadium’s clubhouse, and gave them access to standing room platforms in the corners of the stadium. Aiello’s tweet said that these fans were also given “free food, soft drinks + merchandise.” 

      The unlucky 400 were also refunded the full ticket price, three times over -- thus, an $800 ticket yielded a $2,400 refund. And in case there are still any hard feelings, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that the fans will be “guests of the NFL” at next year’s Super Bowl, meaning they’ll get complimentary seats to the 2012 game in Indianapolis. 

      In a statement, Goodell said the incident was “obviously a failure on our behalf,” and that there were “no excuses” he could offer the displaced fans. 

      Class action possible

      But despite the humbled commissioner’s mea culpa, and the prospect of free seats and a $1,600 windfall, there are already rumblings about the mess sparking a class action lawsuit against the NFL. NBC Sports reported that at least two websites -- SuperBowlSuit.com and SueSuperBowl.com -- have been created in apparent response to the incident. 

      The final chapter of Super Bowl XLV may have yet to be written.

      Displaced Super Bowl Fans Still Irked Aborted temporary seats at Cowboys Stadium causes huge mess...

      Investment Scam on Elderly Results in Nine-Year Prison Sentence

      Canadian telemarketer was previously sued by the FTC

      A federal judge has imposed a nine-year prison sentence on a Canada-based con artist who was charged by the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California with defrauding elderly consumers using phony claims about non-existent prizes and investments. In the sentencing hearing, the judge called the scheme “cold, calculating, callous behavior.”

      In addition to imposing the prison sentence, the judge ordered the defendant, John Raymond Bezeredi, to pay $4.6 million in restitution for the 4,500 consumers he defrauded.

      The U.S. Attorney’s criminal case followed a civil lawsuit filed by the Federal Trade Commission. In 2007, the FTC obtained a court order against Bezeredi requiring him to pay $4.76 million for consumer redress and barring him from fraudulent telemarketing. The FTC’s Criminal Liaison Unit, a special branch of the agency set up to ensure that appropriate consumer scams are referred for criminal prosecution, then sent the case to the U.S. Attorney for criminal prosecution. In September 2009, Bezeredi pleaded guilty to one criminal count of mail fraud and admitted that he had targeted elderly victims with the telemarketing scheme.

      The 2005 FTC case dealt in part with fraudulent bonds that Bezeredi sold to mostly elderly seniors. He falsely promised consumers that after buying the bonds, they would be entered into monthly drawings and that they were very likely to receive substantial cash winnings or receive regular cash payments.

      Few, if any, consumers ever received such payments after buying the “bonds,” leading the FTC to charge Bezeredi with violating the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR).

      How it worked

      The FTC said in 2005 that Bezeredi, through his Canadian telemarketing operation, contacted mostly elderly U.S. consumers, offering them the chance to invest in European bonds involving monthly cash prize drawings.

      Telemarketers allegedly told consumers they were highly likely to receive regular cash winnings of at least $50 if they bought the bonds over the phone. At times, telemarketers called consumers more than once in an attempt to persuade them to send multiple payments for additional bonds.

      Consumers who bought the “bonds” received a variety of documents on letterhead bearing a Hungarian address. The documents included a cover letter congratulating them for participating in the bond program and explaining the “value” of their membership program.

      Consumers also received an information sheet stating that their bond purchase is registered with the “European Central Union Bank.”

      Unfortunately, for the consumers who bought the “bonds,” there is no European Central Union Bank, and the European Central Bank, which sets monetary policy in the 12 European countries that use the Euro as legal tender, does not operate a prize bond program.

      According to the FTC, consumers paid Bezeredi between $400 and $5,950 each to buy the foreign “bonds” his telemarketers were pitching. Most consumers who sent money received nothing of value in return.

      Investment Scam on Elderly Results in Nine-Year Prison Sentence. Canadian telemarketer was previously sued by the FTC....

      Last Chance to Disenroll from Medicare Private Health Plan

      Medicare Advantage Disenrollment Period Ends on February 14

      Medicare consumers who are dissatisfied with their Medicare private health plans, also known as “Medicare Advantage” plans, have until Monday, February 14, to disenroll. Consumers have had the opportunity to drop their private plan and enroll in Original Medicare since January 1, when the Medicare Advantage Disenrollment Period (MADP) began.

      After the MADP, most people with Medicare will be unable to make another change to their health coverage until the Fall Open Enrollment Period, which begins on October 15, 2011.

      “Time is running out for consumers to take advantage of the Medicare Advantage Disenrollment Period,” said Joe Baker, president of the Medicare Rights Center. “People who are unhappy with their plan and wish to make the change back to Original Medicare should do so promptly, but also thoughtfully. The window of opportunity is closing, but you should review your coverage options carefully and understand how your coverage will change before you disenroll.”

      Your options

      If you have:

      • A Medicare Advantage private health plan with prescription drug coverage, you can switch to Original Medicare plus a prescription drug plan OR Original Medicare without a prescription drug plan

      • A Medicare Advantage Private Fee-For-Service (PFFS) plan that does not include prescription drug coverage and a stand-alone prescription drug plan, you can switch to Original Medicare, but you must keep your current prescription drug plan

      • Original Medicare or Original Medicare and a prescription drug plan, you cannot make any changes during this time

      Original Medicare, the traditional fee-for-service program offered through the federal government, covers most necessary services and is accepted by most doctors and facilities across the country. However, it does not cover the full cost of care. Many people who enroll in Original Medicare choose to purchase supplemental coverage to help pay for out-of-pocket costs such as deductibles and coinsurance.

      Consumers who disenroll from their Medicare private health plan should be aware that they may have limited ability to buy coverage that supplements Original Medicare. State laws vary on when consumers can purchase Medicare supplemental policies, also known as Medigaps. Call your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) to find out if and when you can enroll in a Medigap plan in your state. You can find the number for your local SHIP by visiting www.shiptalk.org or calling 800-MEDICARE.

       Consumers who disenroll from their private plan may need to join a stand-alone Medicare prescription drug plan in order to maintain drug coverage. Medicare Rights advises consumers who are choosing a plan to consider not only premium and copayment costs, but also whether the drugs they take are on the plan’s formulary (list of covered drugs). Consumers should also check to see whether the plan places any restrictions on the drugs they take. Restrictions can take the form of quantity limits, prior authorization and step therapy. To learn more about choosing a Medicare prescription drug plan that best meets your needs, visit Medicare Interactive.

      Medicare Rights advises consumers who wish to change their health coverage, and enroll in a drug plan if necessary, to do so by calling 800-MEDICARE rather than their plan. Changes made before the end of the MADP are effective March 1.

      Last Chance to Disenroll from Medicare Private Health Plan. Medicare Advantage Disenrollment Period Ends on February 14....

      Think Kids' Shows Are Tobacco-Free? Think Again

      Study finds smoking still featured on shows aimed at kids and teens

      As lawmakers push to eliminate smoking in public, there’s still one place many people are allowed to light up with seemingly no consequences: TV.

      And according to a new report published this month in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, many of those television shows are popular with kids and teens.

      Conducted by Legacy, a national public health organization dedicated to reducing tobacco use in the United States, the study aimed to quantify teen exposure to smoking on television, given the powerful role tobacco images in media play in influencing kids to smoke.

      Cheryl G. Healton, DrPH, President and CEO of Legacy said among kids 8 to 18, thirty percent of their media use is spent watching TV and during Legacy’s analysis, nearly one million young people were exposed to tobacco images -- from an ashtray, to a lit cigarette in a character’s hand, and anything in between.

      Legacy researchers reviewed more than 70 episodes of top-rated/prime-time broadcast television shows popular among 12 to 17 year olds such as “Family Guy,” “Gossip Girl,” “Heroes,” and “The Simpsons” and found forty percent of all episodes reviewed contained at least one depiction of tobacco use.

      Of those depictions, 89 percent were of cigarettes.

      All of the episodes (representing an estimated 61.5 hours of programming in a single fall season) were rated either TV-PG or TV-14.

      The TV-14 rating stands for “Parents Strongly Cautioned” and is given to television shows with content that could be questionable for children whereas shows rated TV-PG, meaning “Parental Guidance Suggested,” are given to more kid-friendly shows.

      However, the Legacy report found among episodes rated TV-PG, 50 percent showed one or more incidents of cigarette use, compared to 26 percent of TV-14 episodes.

      Fox, CW most likely  

      Legacy said this finding could indicate exposure to tobacco depictions may skew toward youth of younger ages, resulting in earlier exposure to this behavior. This may have an impact on teens' decisions to smoke.

      The Legacy report also found FOX and The CW to be the most likely networks young people could see depictions of tobacco use.

      Of the episodes with any depictions of tobacco use, 44 percent came from FOX and 41 percent came from The CW.  Both networks are home to many popular shows aimed at teens like “Glee” and “Gossip Girl.”

      Past research confirms a relationship between smoking shown on television and young people starting to smoke, with the risk for kids’ starting increasing with the more television they watch.

      Additionally, past research has found depictions of smoking in movies leads to an estimated 180,000 new young smokers each year, prompting public health advocates to ponder (or consider) the impact smoking on television might have on kids.

      "Since movies and television are not mutually exclusive media channels, the body of evidence pertaining to movies is highly relevant to television as well, particularly since most movies are shown on television after airing in cinemas," said Healton.

      Legacy recently joined several groups in asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to update its TV ratings system so that parents can be warned about depictions of tobacco use.

      Think Kids' Shows Are Tobacco-Free? Think Again Study finds smoking still featured on shows aimed at kids and teens...

      Feds Find No Defect in Toyota Electronics

      "No electronic-based cause” for unintended acceleration in Toyotas

      Toyota won a major victory today as U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said federal investigators had found no evidence the automaker's electronic throttle system played a part in incidents of unintended acceleration.

      "There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas," LaHood said in a statement issued to news organizations.

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched the study ten months ago and called on NASA engineers to help determine whether cases of unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus models were caused by any cause other than sticky gas pedals and floor mats that trapped the gas pedals.

      We enlisted the best and brightest engineers to study Toyota’s electronics system, and the verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended, high-speed acceleration in Toyotas.” LaHood said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

      The finding is a major victory for Toyota, which has recalled more than 18 million vehicles since 2009. Five million of those recalls were to fix floor mat problems and four million were to fix gas pedals that were prone to stick.

      Toyota faces hundreds of lawsuits filed on behalf of victims of accidents blamed on unintended acceleration. It has already paid $48 million in fines in three separate cases and faces potential liabilities of $10 billion or more in the cases that are still pending.

      Human error

      While the report exonerated Toyota's electronic throttle system, it did not directly examine the prevalence of pedals that became trapped in place by floor mats or pedals that stuck in the open position.

      However, the report said that most of the incidents NASA and DOT engineers examined occurred at low speed and appeared to be caused by driver error, with the driver inadvertently stepping on the gas rather than the brake, or in some bases depressing both pedals at once.

      The few high-speed incidents that have been documented were likely caused by the floor mat jamming the accelerator pedal into the wide-open position, investigators said.

      Feds Find No Defect in Toyota Electronics. "No electronic-based cause” for unintended acceleration in Toyotas...

      Suit Says MyLife.com is Classmates by a Different Name

      Plaintiffs allege fraud, overbilling, incomplete refund

      Remember Classmates.com?

      Over two years ago, the seemingly popular website was sued for telling consumers that “former classmates are trying to contact you! Upgrade now to see their messages!”

      When plaintiff Anthony Michaels bought the line and paid to upgrade from his free membership to a “Gold” one -- the only way that he would be allowed to respond to whoever was waiting for him -- he quickly discovered that, in fact, no one was waiting for him.

      Michaels filed suit, accusing the site of making “false representations regarding the attempted contacts.” The action settled last March, with Classmates agreeing to pay out $9.5 million, up to $3 to each affected consumer.

      And with that, the controversy seemed to have subsided. Classmates.com is still up and running, although ConsumerAffairs.com still receives plenty of complaints about it.

      Classmates reincarnated?

      But now, a new class action complaint claims that MyLife.com -- whose trademarked slogan is “Who's Searching for You” -- is just the latest incarnation of the stubborn Classmates scam.

      The suit, filed last week in a California federal court, says that MyLife CEO Jeffrey Tinsley “has been running essentially the same spam-and-scam operations since at least 2002, when he founded the company under the name Reunion.com. The company later operated using the names Wink.com and Classmates.com, before taking on its latest alias, MyLife.com, in February 2009. False solicitations that 'someone' is looking for you have been the core of the business plan for these entities for some time,” according to the complaint.

      Veronica Mendez, one of the suit's lead plaintiffs, had an experience similar to that of Michaels. Last year, according to the suit, Mendez “received an e-mail from MyLife stating that people were searching for her ... She signed up for a trial subscription with MyLife for $5.00. Rather than charging her $5.00, however, MyLife charged her $60.00,” according to the suit.

      Lead plaintiff John Clerkin signed up for MyLife for one month, thinking he would be charged $21.95. Once Clerkin learned that he, too, was not a hot search topic for other MyLife users, he “sought to cancel the service and learned that he had been charged $155.40.” He demanded a refund, but only received $104.55 back from the website, the suit alleges.

      Suit cites “cycle of fraud”

      Tinsley, who is a self-proclaimed “serial internet entrepreneur,” allegedly rebranded Classmates as MyLife in February 2009, shortly after Michaels's suit had been filed.

      The suit alleges that “individual victims of the MyLife scam are generally cheated out of roughly $90 to $190 at a time.” A diagram included in the complaint depicts a three-part “cycle of fraud” allegedly employed by MyLife: first the company provides a “false solicitation that 'someone' is looking for you, find out who for a small fee”; then it “overbill[s] victim's account for a much larger fee [than indicated], often more than $100”; and finally, it “hack[s] victim's address book to identify new targets for false solicitations.”

      The suit says that credit card companies are onto MyLife's scheme, having “fielded thousands of complaints about MyLife and its fraudulent billing practices. As a result, some, including Visa and American Express, have designated MyLife as a frequent offender whose charges are inherently suspect,” according to the complaint.

      The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages, and an injunction ordering MyLife to “immediately cease the improper billing of data usage.”

      Consumer complaints

      As is the case with Classmates.com, ConsumerAffairs has no shortage of complaints about MyLife.com.

      William of Virginia Beach, Va. echoes the allegations made in the suit:

      “The website is misleading. It is a scam with no refunds. $12.95/mo doesn't sound so bad until they bill you for an entire year at $155.00 with no refunds, no cancellations. I've read many complaints about this company and my credit card is disputing the charge. It's a scam...don't fall for it.....”

      Yolanda of Fayeteville, NC had a similar experience:

      “Advertised to join would only be something like $19.95, but after I joined my credit card was charged $155.40! When I called the number to remove the account, I was told I could not get a refund and that the website states this. I called within 15 minutes of the transaction.”

      Suit Says MyLife.com is Classmates by a Different NamePlaintiffs allege fraud, overbilling, incomplete refund...

      Folger, Dunkin' Donuts Coffee Prices Going Up

      Starbucks also adjusting prices on a market-by-market basis

      The cost of green – or “raw” – coffee keeps rising, and so do retail prices. The latest price hike comes from J.M. Smucker Co., which said it is raising the price of coffee sold under its Folgers and Dunkin' Donuts brands by 10 percent. That's on top of price increases last May and August.

      Starbucks, which reported disappointing earnings last month, has said it is “adjusting” prices on a market-by-market basis.

      Coffee prices for unroasted beans are at 13-year highs and have been rising steadily for the last two years.

      The composite average price of green coffee last month was $1.97 per pound, the highest monthly figure since at least 2008, according to the International Coffee Organization. It's a 13-cent increase over December 2010.

      The composite price includes Colombian Mild Arabicas, Other Mild Arabicas, Brazilian Natural Arabicas and Robustas.

      Coffee production has been down slightly in recent months, partly because of bad weather, and supplies have also fallen, helping to drive prices higher. Demand, meanwhile, continues to rise, thanks to a surge in the number of coffee drinkers around the world, primarily in emerging economies.

      Ironically, much of the new demand is coming from Brazil, the world's largest coffee producer. Coffee has always been a staple in Brazil but as the country's economy continues to surge, coffee consumption is rising steadily.

      Brazil is expected to pass the United States as the world's largest coffee-consuming country in the near future, if it hasn't already, industry experts say. Coffee is also becoming more popular in China, as consumers there adopt more Western habits.  

      Folger, Dunkin' Donuts Coffee Prices Going Up. Starbucks also adjusting prices on a market-by-market basis,...

      Consumer Credit Increases In December

      It's the third straight month that shoppers have put it on the tab

      Consumers appear to be more willing to add to their credit card balances lately, and banks appear willing to let them do it.

      After two years in which credit card companies reduced credit limits and closed some accounts entirely, the amount of consumer credit debt is rising once again. The Federal Reserve reports consumer credit rose in December.

      While holiday spending undoubtedly had something to do with that, it wasn't the only reason. The rise in consumer debt in December was the third straight month of increases, signaling consumers may  be more comfortable spending again.

      A $6.1 billion increase

      According to the Fed's repot, credit rose by $6.1 billion, reaching a total of $2.41 trillion. While that's definitely a lot of money, it remains below the high point of consumer debt -- $2.58 trillion -- reached in July 2008.

      Economists see the rise in consumer credit -- especially the three month trend -- as a hopeful sign for economic recovery. With the jobless rate at 9.0 percent, businesses aren't likely to begin hiring in strong numbers until they see signs the consumer is spending once again.

      There are, of course, risks to consumers who begin to add to their debt, especially credit card debt. Debt is essentially borrowing from future earnings, and if earnings aren't going up, it creates a squeeze at some point.

      Economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pa., recently noted the drop in the unemployment rate was good news for the economy, but obstacles to growth remain.

      Stagnant wages

      "The one remaining huge problem is wages: they are stagnant," Naroff said. "While that may be helping grow profits, it is not doing a whole lot to raise income and spending."

      Beyond that, household consumption is being challenged by rising energy and other costs and without larger wage increases, the likelihood of robust growth is reduced.

      The Center for Responsible Lending also sees that as a danger if consumers return to heavy credit card use.

      "A combination of job instability, shaky benefits, and uncertain retirement, has unraveled the worker's safety net," the group says. "Credit card issuers step in to the breach, as Americans reach for their credit card to borrow for basic living expenses."

      If consumers are using their credit cards to purchase discretionary items, that may indeed help spur the economy. If rises in credit are to meet every day basic needs, economists say, that's something else entirely.

      Consumers are increasing their use of credit, which may or may not be a good thing....

      New Mortgage Scam Surfaces In Nevada

      If you're informed your mortgage has been sold, make sure it has.

      Banks buy and sell residential mortgages, so it's not unusual for you to take out a loan with one bank, only to have it sold to, and serviced by another.

      When this happens, the homeowner usually is contacted by mail, informed of the change and given a new address where the monthly payment is sent. But scammers have figured out how to exploit this to steal homeowners' mortgage payments.

      The Nevada Attorney General's office has filed changed against two Las Vegas men for allegedly running just such a scam. The criminal complaint alleges that Joseph Yorkus and James Bartczak set up "Great Western Business Services" to steal homeowners' mortgage payments by fraudulently claiming the mortgage holder's loan servicer had changed. 

      Intercepted payments

      They allegedly mailed notification to homeowners in Nevada, in effect intercepting heir monthly mortgage payments. Authorities say eventually the homeowner's real mortgage company would declare the loan to be in default.

      "This type of corporate identity theft is devastating to the homeowner victim and to the true loan servicer, both of whom are harmed by these types of scams," said Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto.   

      Bank of America customers targeted

      She said the scam involved sending letters to homeowners falsely stating that servicing of the homeowners' loans had been transferred from Bank of America to Great Western Business Services. The letters instruct homeowners to send their mortgage payments to Great Western Business Services instead of the true servicer, Bank of America. 

      The alleged scam would result in victims unknowingly missing one or more mortgage payments which could result in a potential notice of default and foreclosure, despite the fact that the homeowner had actually made their payments, albeit to the scammers instead of their true loan servicer. 

      It's hard to protect yourself against a scam such as this. Consumer authorities say your best defense is to conduct some research about the "new" mortgage company if it's a company you're not familiar with. You can also contact your present servicer to confirm that the loan has, indeed, been sold.

      Nevada has arrested two men it says fraudulently told Bank of America customers their mortgages had been sold....

      Eating Dark Chocolate Good for Cholesterol Levels

      Scientists give us a good reason to eat chocolate... as if we need one

      Just in time for Valentine's Day, arguably one of the more candy-centric holidays, a new study by Japanese scientists will give choco-holics a reason to cheer: chocolate -- specifically dark chocolate -- is good for your cholesterol.

      In the study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Midori Natsume, Ph.D., and colleagues note studies have shown cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, appears to reduce the risk of heart disease by boosting levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, and decreasing levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol.

      Credit for those heart-healthy effects goes to a cadre of antioxidant compounds in cocoa called polyphenols, which are particularly abundant in dark chocolate.

      Just as those heart-shaped boxes of chocolates gets mouths watering, polyphenols rev up the activity of certain proteins, including proteins that attach to the genetic material DNA in ways that boost HDL levels.

      How they work

      Until now, however, nobody knew exactly how the polyphenols in cocoa orchestrated those beneficial effects.

      The scientists analyzed the effects of cocoa polyphenols on cholesterol using cultures of human liver and intestinal cells. They focused on the production of apolipoprotein A1 (ApoA1), a protein that is the major component of "good" cholesterol, and apolipoprotein B (ApoB), the main component of "bad" cholesterol.

      What they discovered was cocoa polyphenols increased ApoA1 levels and decreased ApoB levels in both the liver and intestine.

      Additionally, the scientists discovered the polyphenols seem to work by enhancing the activity of so-called sterol regulatory element binding proteins (SREBPs).

      SREBPs attach to the genetic material DNA and activate genes that boost ApoA1 levels, increasing "good" cholesterol. The scientists also found polyphenols appear to increase the activity of LDL receptors, proteins that help lower "bad" cholesterol levels.

      Mental health aid

      Chocolate can get beneficial for your mental health, too.

      A study published in 2009 in the Journal of Proteome Research found eating about an ounce and a-half of dark chocolate a day for two weeks reduced levels of stress hormones in people who felt highly stressed.

      “The study provides strong evidence that a daily consumption of 40 grams [1.4 ounces] during a period of two weeks is sufficient to modify the metabolism of healthy human volunteers,” the study authors said.

      So go ahead -- indulge in some dark chocolate this Valentine’s Day. Your head and your heart might thank you.

      Eating Dark Chocolate Good For Cholesterol Levels Scientists give us a good reason to eat chocolate... as if we need one...

      Vizio Debuts Its 'Passive 3D' TV

      Consumer Reports takes a look -- gives you the pros and cons

      Coming out of Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year, one of the main stories was the debut of new "passive" 3D TVs, announced by companies including LG, Toshiba and Vizio

      One big promise of passive 3D is that you can wear lightweight, inexpensive polarized glasses like the ones you get in movie theaters, rather than the bulkier, more expensive active-shutter glasses required by current 3D sets. 

      The first passive 3D TV to hit the market is Vizio's 65-inch VT3D650SV ($3,700), a 1080p LCD TV that uses an edge LED backlight. Testers from Consumer Reports (CR) bought a set as soon as it was available and recently completed preliminary testing in its TV labs. 

      For purposes of comparison, CR pitted the new Vizio set against Panasonic's top-rated TC-P65VT25 ($4,300) plasma 3D TV. The magazine says it has found plasma to be a better technology for 3D, primarily due to the lack of ghosting, so testers were curious to see how the Vizio passive set stacked up. 

      A lot to like

      In general, there is a lot to like about the VT3D650SV. For one thing, the polarized glasses are very comfortable to wear; they weigh just 0.7 ounces, so they felt very similar to wearing regular sunglasses. CR also liked that you get four pairs of glasses with the TV -- with additional pairs expected to cost from $10 to $30. That's a far cry from the $130 to $150 you have to shell out for active glasses. 

      In addition, the passive 3D glasses dim the image less than any of the active-shutter glasses testers have tried, enabling the Vizio to produce the most satisfyingly bright picture we've experienced when viewing 3D. 

      Perhaps even more important, CR found that ghosting -- which has been a significant distraction on almost all the 3D LCD TVs it's reviewed -- is reduced to the point where it gives plasma TVs a run for their money. The testers note that when they watched both Avatar and Monsters vs. Aliens in 3D, "we were wowed by the effortless presentation of clean 3D without any of our usual ghosting complaints." Other passive advantages, they say,  include virtually no flicker, and the lack of any issues related to the glasses syncing properly to the TV.

      However…

      But Consumer Reports' initial excitement about the Vizio was tempered by what it says is  "the most significant downside to the passive 3D technology: the noticeable loss of resolution that's the result of the way the separate 3D images are displayed for each eye." 

      Passive TVs use a different 3D technology than the current active 3D sets already on the market. Unlike those sets, which use active glasses with shutters that open and close very rapidly to provide each eye its own view, passive TVs use a polarizing film on the TV screen itself, which divides the picture into alternating lines, much like the interlaced images on older tube TVs. Each lens in the glasses blocks the images meant for the other eye. 

      As a result, each eye receives only half the vertical resolution of the image. So while active sets can send full HD 1080p (1920x1080) signals to each eye when connected to a high-def 3D source, such as a 3D Blu-ray player, the best a passive 3D TV can do is 1920x540. And if you get your 3D signals via cable or satellite broadcasts, which squeeze 3D signals into the space meant for a single high-def image, cutting the horizontal resolution, the resolution is reduced even further, to 960x540. 

      This loss of resolution may be visually subtle to some viewers, depending on the 3D program material, but it's likely to be noticeable -- and bothersome -- to more discerning viewers. 

      In CR's preliminary tests, this loss of resolution resulted in interlaced-like image effects, such as jaggies and moiré, which recall the 480i- and even 1080i TVs of not too long ago. For example, overall picture detail was much courser on the Vizio than with the Panasonic, and there was visible blurring on objects in motion in some scenes. 

      In addition, there were jaggies on the edges of objects, especially on diagonal lines. For example, in the opening credits of Monsters vs. Aliens, the DreamWorks logo features a boy with a fishing pole sitting on the moon. On the Vizio, the fishing pole looked like a dotted line; with the Panasonic the pole was a complete, unbroken line. 

      While the artifacts weren't terrible, they did feel like a throwback to an era before progressive-scan images were available -- one the testers say they were happy to leave behind. When comparing a detailed, 1080p 3D "freeze frame" Blu-ray image on the Vizio and Panasonic sets, the difference is quite apparent. Depending on the scene, the Vizio often exhibited significant jaggies and moiré; images on the Panasonic were detailed, smooth, and filmlike, free of classic video artifacts. 

      Other issues

      There were also a few other issues, likely attributable more to the differences in display technology than to 3D. For example, there was "clouding" in the corners and sides of the Vizio sets on dark scenes, caused by backlight uniformity issues, and the viewing angle was noticeably narrower. That said, the testers believe the new Vizio set's advantages allow it to deliver the best overall 3D performance available of any LCD 3D TV they've tested. 

      The verdict

      Here's the bottom line on the Vizio VT3D650SV "passive" 3D TV: 

      Pros:

      • Provides a high-quality, comfortable 3D viewing experience;
      • Minimal ghosting, comparable with the best plasmas;
      • Very comfortable, lightweight, low-cost polarized glasses;
      • Bright 3D image.

      Cons:

      • Vertical resolution cut in half (from 1080 to 540 lines);
      • Visible video artifacts, such as jaggies and moiré, in some scenes;
      • Very fine details that fall within a row of pixels tend to "shimmer" since each eye is only getting half the image;
      • 3D broadcasts transmitted in "side-by-side" mode displayed on the Vizio will have a resolution of 960x540, one-quarter that of full 1080p;
      • Unlike prior Vizio models with wide viewing angles, this one has a more limited viewing angle, comparable to that of most LCDs.
      Vizio Debuts Its 'Passive 3D' TVConsumer Reports takes a look -- gives you the pros and cons...

      Instant Tax Refunds Are Just High-Interest Loans

      New Jersey officials crack down on expensive refund anticipation loans

      Consumers who have a big tax refund coming often want to get their hands on it as soon as possible. In New Jersey, the Office of the Attorney General and State Division of Consumer Affairs last week inspected 574 tax preparation offices statewide in search of false and misleading advertising of so-called "instant," "same day" and "24 hour" tax refunds.

      State officials reminded taxpayers that there is no such thing as an "instant" tax refund, as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) cannot issue refunds that quickly. So-called "instant" refunds offered by some tax preparers are usually Refund Anticipation Loans (RALs), which often come with high fees and interest rates that cut deeply into the amount a taxpayer would receive from the IRS.

      Empty promises

      "The promise of fast cash and an instant refund can be very attractive, especially in times of economic hardship," said New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow. "But tax preparers who offer so-called same-day refunds are selling something that does not exist -- typically at a high cost to the buyer."

      The Division of Consumer Affairs investigators say they found five New Jersey businesses falsely advertising RALs in storefront signs, posters or flyers as "instant" or "same day" refunds. Each inaccurate or misleading sign is considered a separate violation of the state's Consumer Fraud Act's Advertising Regulations. The state is seeking a civil fine of $1,500 for each violation, for a total of $7,500 in fines; and reimbursements of $250 from each cited business for the state's investigative costs, for a total of $1,250 in reimbursements.

      The businesses cited last week are: Demian and Co., LLC, in Cranford; MB Motor Sports, Inc., in Tinton Falls; City Tax in Jersey City; Girotel NJ, LLC in Union City; and Personal Touch Taxes, LLC in Newark.

      Tax preparers who offer RALs are required to advertise them accurately. They are prohibited from requiring a client to enter into a refund anticipation loan and must be transparent about the costs involved. Tax preparers must also provide itemized statements of service charges, including charges for tax return preparation, electronic filing, and providing or facilitating the RAL.

      Next best thing to instant

      While the IRS doesn't hand out "instant refunds," its e-file system coupled with direct deposit, can put your refund into your account very quickly -- and it doesn't cost anything. Many taxpayers can even qualify for free tax-filing software.

      The Free File Alliance, a coalition of industry-leading tax software companies partnered with the IRS, offers low-to-moderate income taxpayers free access to leading commercial tax preparation software. This year, every taxpayer with a 2010 Adjusted Gross Income of $58,000 or less may visit www.IRS.gov to prepare, complete and e-file his federal tax return at no cost.

      "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."

      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.

      New Jersey officials caution consumers against falling for expensive refund anticipation loans, and instead take advantage of IRS freefile....

      Yard Work Isn't Just Boring, It Can Also Land You In the Hospital

      Dermatologists urge public to stay safe and rash-free when working outside

      Parts of the country may be buried in snow, but the start of spring is right around the corner.

      And with warmer temperatures comes working in the yard. Dermatologists are hoping to get a head start on warning the public that what may start as a seemingly harmless day of gardening or yard work can quickly take a turn for the worse when common plants make their mark on the skin, causing a host of mild to severe skin reactions.

      Skin allergies

      Last week, at the 69th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology (Academy), dermatologist Julian J. Trevino, MD, FAAD, associate professor of dermatology at Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine in Dayton, Ohio, discussed common skin reactions that can occur from contact with plants, including effective treatments and preventive strategies.

      According to Trevino, most skin reactions resulting from direct contact with a hazardous plant tend to be more of a nuisance than anything else, there are some instances where the reaction can affect the entire body and pose a potentially more serious risk.

      "For example," he said, "people who are allergic to plants or have sensitive skin that is prone to eczema or atopic dermatitis may experience more severe or long-lasting effects that require medical attention."

      The sources

      There are many outdoor plants that can cause an adverse skin reaction simply by brushing up against them.

      One group of plants in particular that causes toxin mediated urticaria (hives) is stinging nettle plants, which have sharp hairs that produce irritants.

      These irritants are chemicals, such as histamine or acetylcholine, which usually cause an immediate outbreak of hives within 30 to 60 minutes upon exposure. Most people experience a mild reaction with hives that resolve on their own in a few hours.

      Trevino also explained people who handle food frequently or those with a tendency toward eczema can develop an allergic reaction to plants known as immunologic contact urticaria.

      This reaction usually results from susceptible individuals coming in contact with various fresh fruits and vegetables, herbs, nuts, shrubs and grasses.

      In this instance, a person usually experiences itching and hives within 30 minutes. In its more severe form, this reaction can involve not only hives on the skin, but also swelling in the throat, lungs or gastrointestinal tract that requires immediate medical attention.

      Another common cause of skin irritation from plants stems from exposure to spines or glochids -- tiny emergences of certain cacti or prickly pear plants -- which can get caught in the skin and cause an itchy rash.

      Since these tiny spines break the skin, Trevino cautioned a person could develop a staph or fungal infection if bacteria or fungus are present on the prickly spine that enters the skin, leading to a more serious situation.

      "The spines from the plants should be carefully removed from the skin, usually with tweezers or a piece of tape that is placed over the area where the spine entered the skin and gently torn away with the tip of the spine attached," said Trevino.

      Treatments

      Minor itching, irritation or rash can be typically treated with an oral antihistamine or over-the-counter topical steroid, but Trevino recommends seeing a dermatologist when a rash doesn’t respond to over-the-counter treatments.

      “In cases where a rash is accompanied by more severe reactions such as difficulty in breathing or swallowing, a person should go to the emergency room immediately," he said.

      The Big Three

      Perhaps the most well-known and feared plants linked to skin rashes and irritation are poison ivy, oak and sumac.

      Trevino explained that these plants contain a resinous sap called urushiol that can cause a rash when it comes in contact with the skin in the estimated 50 percent of the population that is allergic to these plants.

      However, Trevino added that direct contact with poison ivy and its variants is not the only way that people can get this bothersome rash.

      Urushiol can be released in the air and stick to nearby objects if a poison ivy plant is injured.

      "That means that you can develop poison ivy if you pet your dog after he has come in contact with the plant, or if you touch a gardening tool or piece of clothing that has come in contact with poison ivy,” said Trevino.

      Even airborne contact with urushiol is possible, especially in the fall or winter when poisonous plants are burned among other brush and particles of urushiol are released into the air.

      “If these airborne particles land on your skin or you inhale them, you can get a widespread rash and severe irritation in the respiratory tract."

      Quick treatment

      When a person with poison ivy allergy contacts the plant, Trevino said time is of the essence to prevent a rash. The area that has been exposed should be rinsed off immediately with water. This can remove at least some of the resin before it is absorbed in the skin.

      To treat a rash caused by poison ivy, lukewarm baths and soaks with products containing aluminum acetate (a type of salt that dries up the weeping and blisters), and topical preparations such as calamine or topical steroids are helpful.

      While oral antihistamines will help alleviate itching and skin irritation, topical antihistamines should be avoided – as some people are allergic to them and the rash could get worse.

      "In some cases when a rash is severe or covers a large area of the body and is not getting better with over-the-counter therapies, a dermatologist may prescribe strong topical steroids or a course of steroids taken orally," said Trevino.

      Prevention

      To minimize the risk of such skin reactions, Trevino recommends the following tips:

      • Wear protective clothing whenever possible -- including gloves (preferably vinyl gloves), long sleeves and long pants tucked into socks.
      • Apply an over-the-counter barrier cream or lotion containing quaternium-18 bentonite to exposed skin before going outdoors. This helps prevent urushiol from poisonous plants from contacting the skin.
      • Avoid poisonous plants (remember this phrase: "leaves of three, let it be").
      Yard Work Isn't Just Boring, It Can Also Land You In the HospitalDermatologists urge public to stay safe and rash-free when working outside...

      Study Reveals Parkinson's Disease Risk Genes

      Finding may lead to better diagnosis and treatment

      In the largest genome-wide association study to date in Parkinson’s research, scientists have discovered that genetics play a substantial role in the disease. The finding may one day lead to better diagnostics and therapies for this debilitating condition.

      Parkinson's disease is a progressive neurologic disorder that usually affects people over the age of 50. It affects about 1.5 million Americans.

      Parkinson's disease is caused by the degeneration of nerve cells in the portion of the brain that controls movement. It was once considered a non-genetic disease. However, recent genome-wide association studies uncovered a genetic component to the disorder. These studies analyze large amounts of DNA to identify subtle genetic variations that contribute to disease.

      To find genetic variations that contribute to Parkinson's disease, Dr. Andrew Singleton of NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA) and several other leading Parkinson's researchers in the United States and Europe undertook the largest genome-wide association study of the disease to date. They pooled DNA data from more than 33,000 participants.

      First, the researchers scanned the genome looking for variations associated with Parkinson's. Then, to confirm these findings, they analyzed suspected risk variants in DNA from an independent group of people with Parkinson’s and a similar group of people free of the disease. The study was supported by several NIH institutes and the U.S. Department of Defense.

      In the February 2, 2011, online edition of the Lancet, the researchers identified 5 new genomic regions linked to Parkinson’s disease. They also confirmed 6 previously identified regions that may contribute to increased disease risk. Based on these 11 risk variants, the researchers estimate that people in the top 20% of genetic risk are more than 2½ times as likely to have Parkinson's disease as those in the bottom 20% of the genetic risk spectrum.

      "Up until just 10 or 15 years ago, the field did not think genetics played much of a role in the development of Parkinson's disease," Singleton says. "This work not only increases our understanding of how genes are involved in the disease process, but with more research, may one day result in the development of better diagnostics and therapeutic interventions for this debilitating disease."

      Study Reveals Parkinson’s Disease Risk Genes. Finding may lead to better diagnosis and treatment....

      FCC Hopes for Rural Broadband Expansion

      Agency chief wants to use Universal Service Fund to underwrite effort

      When the Internet came along, there was lots of talk about how it would rejuvenate rural America, making it possible for more people to open online businesses work from home, even if home was miles from the nearest Starbucks.

      After all, electricity and telephone service had been extended to nearly 100 percent of the population through the effort of government agencies that imposed small fees on urban customers to help finance expansion of service into the hinterlands. Everyone sort of thought that something similar would happen again.

      So small communities sat back and waited for the boom that never came.

      That may be about to change. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski is proposing to convert the $8 billion fund that subsidizes rural telephone service into one that brings Internet service into rural and other under-served areas.

      Genachowski outlined his plan in a speech today and the FCC is expected to take up the proposal tomorrow (Tuesday).

      Genachowski has dubbed his proposal the Connect America Fund. It would replace the Universal Service Fund, a virtual fossil that Genachowski says was “designed for a world with separate local and long-distance telephone companies, a world of traditional landline telephones before cellphones or Skype, a world without the Internet – a world that no longer exists.”

      Just how the Connect America Fund would be funded is open to discussion. The Universal Service Fund is supported by fees levied on long-distance companies, who pass them on to their customers. Because long-distance rates have fallen sharply, the rate imposed on long-distance companies has risen rapidly and currently stands at 15.5 percent, double what it was in 2003.

      FCC Hopes for Rural Broadband Expansion. Agency chief wants to use Universal Service Fund to underwrite effort...

      Power Balance Bracelet Faces More Class Actions

      Lawsuits follow “no credible scientific evidence” admission by manufacturer

      An Orange County, Calif., man is the latest to file a federal class-action lawsuit against the makers of Power Balance wristbands, following the company's recent admission that there is “no credible scientific evidence” that supports its claims.

      Brian Casserly's suit also names celebrity endorsers Shaquille O'Neal and Lamar Odom.

      In its advertisements and promotional materials, Power Balance claims its wristbands and necklaces containtwo holograms on Mylar "treated with energy waves at specific frequencies," and that the product will "optimize the body's natural energy flow."

      "Our allegation is it's biologically impossible for two holograms to affect your strength or performance," said D. Greg Blankinship, one of Casserly's lawyers.

      Last month, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) concluded that the bracelet “may be no more beneficial than a rubber band.” The company then conceded that there is “no credible scientificevidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of” an Australian consumer protection law.

      The ACCC ordered Power Balance to take the product off the market and to issue a refund to any consumer who so requested.

      But the company is continuing to tell a different story in the United States.

      "Contrary to recent assertions in the Australian press, Power Balance has made no claims that our product does not perform,” reads a statement by Power Balance President Keith Kato on the company's Web site. "Our products are based on the idea of optimizing the body's natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many holistic and Eastern philosophies."

      Kato's statement makes no mention, however, of official statements released by the ACCC, the Australian equivalent of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

      Power Balance Australia Pty Ltd claimed the wristbands improve balance, strength and flexibility and worked positively with the body's natural energy field. It also marketed its products with the slogan 'Performance Technology'. The ACCC raised concerns that these claims were likely to mislead consumers into believing that Power Balance products have benefits that they do not have,” read an official ACCC press release.

      Power Balance has admitted that there is no credible scientific basis for the claims and therefore no reasonable grounds for making representations about the benefits of the product. Power Balance has acknowledged that its conduct may have contravened the misleading and deceptive conduct section of the Trade Practices Act 1974,”the official Australian statement continued.

      At least ten other class actions have been filed against Power Balance. It's expected they will be consolidated into a single suit and heard in California, where the company is based.

      Power Balance Bracelet Faces More Class Actions. Lawsuits follow “no credible scientific evidence” admission by manufacturer....

      Supermarket Experiments With Wine Vending Machine

      Wegmans adds a dimension to its popular in-store cafe

      Though not widely known outside its East Coast 'hoods, the Wegmans supermarket chain seems to stay a step ahead of its competitors. Its latest innovation is a winde-by-the-glass dispenser in the cafe at its Allentown, Pa., store.

      Customers can buy a 5-ounce glass of selected red or white wines with a prepay card for $6 to $10, or a 2.5-ounce pour for about half that. Just want a “sample?” They go for $1 to $2.

      Wegmans and Whole Foods are becoming strong contenders in casual dining as well as groceries. Both offer menus featuring everything from sushi to Thai food. Some stores in the chains have seafood bars as well.

      Wegmans isn't saying where else it's testing the wine-by-the-glass experiment, according to the Allentown Morning Call. Wegmans operates a full-service bar at its Collegeville, Pa., store, with beer on tap, martinis and other mixed drinks as well as a wide selection of wines.

      All of this muscling in on restaurants is occurring as other retailers are invading the supermarkets' turf. CVS and other chain pharmacies are stocking wider selections of groceries lately, as are dollar stores. Target and Wal-Mart continue to expand the grocery sections in their superstores and are Wal-Mart is looking at recreating the corner market in dense urban areas.

      Supermarket Experiments With Wine Vending Machine. Wegmans adds a dimension to its popular in-store cafe...

      Consumer Finance Protection Bureau Taking It To the Street

      Agency's Website seeks consumer suggestions, complaints, promises vigorous enforcement

      She doesn't look much like J. Edgar Hoover but Elizabeth Warren might be reading from his playbook. Hoover quickly built the FBI into a high-profile crime-fighting agency back in the 1920s, and Warren appears to be on the same track with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau(CFPB).

      The outspoken Harvard law professor, who is setting up the agency as an aide to President Obama, hosts a video on the bureau's new Web site, asking for suggestions from the public on what the agency's top priorities should be.

      For the first time in many years, we have the opportunity to create a brand new consumer agency from the ground up,” she said. “We want to make sure that you are with us all the way while we build it.”

      The bureau is the centerpiece of the financial overhaul enacted last year. While it won't have G-men chasing bank robbers down the street, it's expected to take an aggressive stance against predatory lenders and misbehaving financial institutions.

      Warren has already made it clear that the bureau will be aggressively going after lending institutions who abuse members of the armed services and violate the terms of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, as J.P. Morgan Chase admitted doing last month.

      Military might  

      One of Warren's first appointments was Holly Petraeus, the wife of Gen. David H. Petraeus, top U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, to lead the bureau's Office for Service Member Affairs.

      Besides policing payday lenders, mortgage lenders and others notorious for abusing service members, Petraeus is expected to turn a sharp eye towards car dealers, who managed to lobby their way out of the bureau's jurisdiction but could still feel the sting of negative publicity and future legislation if Petraeus documents widespread misconduct.

      The CFPB will “be a cop on the beat to patrol the consumer financial services markets,” Warren said. It will set up a consumer complaints section on its Website, allowing consumers to submit complaints about financial products and services.

      Financial companies that break the laws will be held accountable. That’s fair to customers, and it is fair to the lenders who play by the rules and work to provide real value for their customers,” she said.

      Though not a career politician, Warren has proven herself nimble at navigating the treacherous shoals of Washington. Her appointment of Holly Petraeus silenced Republican critics who had vowed to extinguish the agency.

      Her appointment of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, a moderate Democrat, to head enforcement efforts answered critics who had feared that ideological zealots would be in charge of enforcement.

      Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which led an aggressive lobbying campaign against creation of the agency, has shifted its attention to offering feedback on how the agency develops, citing small businesses' fear that the CFPB will be covering many of the same issues as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

      Consumer Finance Protection Bureau Taking It To the Street. Agency's Website seeks consumer suggestions, complaints, promises vigorous enforcement....

      GM Plans to Make Hybrid Technology Standard in Future Models

      Buick LaCrosse sedan gets new technology this summer

      Hoping to get a jump on meeting tough new federal fuel standards, General Motors plans to introduce a new type of gasoline-electric hybrid across all of its future models, starting with the Buick LaCrosse sedan.

      The LaCrosse will get the new technology, called eAssist, this summer and it will be introduced to other models over the next few years, according to Mark Reuss, GM's president of North American operations, who revealed the plans at a dealers conference in San Francisco.

      Reuss said the new technology differs from the full-hybrid version used by Toyota and some other manufacturers. Instead of using an electric motor as the sole source of power under certain conditions, eAssist will use a compact electric motor to provide a power boost during acceleration.

      Reuss said eAssist will provide a 20% to 25% increase in fuel efficiency in passenger cars. It will use a lithium-ion battery pack. The batteries will be recharged by energy generated during braking.

      The 2012 Buick LaCrosse, a full-size sedan, will get up to 37 miles per gallon on the highway, 25 in the city, Reuss said. The base model will be equipped with a four-cylinder engine and an 11-kilowatt electric motor that will provide an additional 15 horsepower during acceleration.

      Auto makers must reach a national fleet average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016to comply with new federal fuel standards.  

      GM Plans to Make Hybrid Technology Standard in Future Models. Buick LaCrosse sedan gets new technology this summer...

      Suzuki Recalls Grand Vitara, SX4

      Drive belt problem could cause stalling, overheating, power steering failure

      Suzuki is recalling about 32,000 2009-2011 Grand Vitaras and 2010-2011 SX4s.

      The company said the tension adjuster pulley for the drive belt has a defective spring that can break, causing the belt to be adjusted improperly. This could lead to the engine overheating, the battery discharging and the engine stalling. Also, the power steering could fail.

      Dealers will replace the pulley with an improved part when the recall begins in mid-February.

      Owners may contract Suzuki about Recall No. SM at 1-887-697-8985 or at www.suzukiauto.com.

      Suzuki Recalls Grand Vitara, SX4. Drive belt problem could cause stalling, overheating, power steering failure....

      Should You Take A Loan From Your 401(k)?

      There are important issues to consider before tapping into your retirement funds

      Over the last two years interest rates have fallen sharply but, for many consumers it has been a moot point. With tighter lending standards and rules, fewer consumers have been taking out bank loans.

      But if you are still paying off credit card debt at 15 percent or higher, some personal finance experts think it might make sense to take a loan from yourself, borrowing from your 401(k) retirement account.

      In the past this practice was highly frowned upon. After all, the money in that account is working for you on a tax deferred basis, accelerating its growth. You should be putting more money in, they argued, not taking it out.

      The law allows a loan against a 401(k) account but does not require your employer to provide one. Some small companies are not in the position to administer these loans and may not allow then. Checking your company's policy is the first step.

      Although plans differ, you may be able to take a loan from your 401(k) account of up to 50 percent of what you have paid in so far. To some it's appealing because there's no banker to please, no credit check or jumping through hoops.

      Low rates are appealing

      Also, the interest rate on a 401(k) loan can be quite low, and this is likely the main reason some financial experts are beginning to change their view. If you have a balance on your credit card with an interest rate of 14.5 percent and you can pay it off with a 401(k) loan at 4.5 percent, in many ways you're ahead.

      But in some ways, you aren't. While you have five years to pay back the loan -- usually through a payroll deduction -- some plans don't allow you to make new contributions to the account until you fully pay off the loan. If you take the full five years to repay your loan, you're missing five years of tax-deferred contributions.

      What if you aren't able to repay the loan? If there is a strong risk of that, then it might be better to pass on a 401(k) loan and take your chances with the bank.

      Job security is a key issue

      If you quit your job, or get fired before you repay the loan, you have 60 days to repay the loan in full. If you can't manage that, then it's classified as a 401(k) withdrawal.

      If you are over the age of 59 1/2, it is less of a problem because you are allowed to take distributions after that age. However, the unpaid loan balance will be taxed as regular income. Depending on your bracket, it can be a big bite.

      If you haven't reached age 59 1/2, the unpaid balance is classified as an early withdrawal. Besides paying the tax, you have to pay an extra 10 percent penalty.

      Taking out a loan against your retirement account probably boils down to your individual situation. It's a good idea to discuss the matter with your tax or financial adviser before acting.

      Though loans against a 401(k) account are becoming more common, some financial experts still consider them risky....

      Bank of America Settles Overdraft Suit

      $410 million settlement shows dangers of overdraft protection

      Bank of America has settled a lawsuit alleging that it charged excessive overdraft fees, agreeing to pay $410 million to put the action to rest.

      Lead plaintiff Ralph Torres, a Miami resident, said in the complaint that he signed up for an account with Bank of America after seeing ads touting “free checking.”

      “The bank actively provides false or misleading balance information to these customers, including plaintiff, that in turn deceives these customers into making additional transactions that, in turn, will generate even more overdraft fees for the bank,” the complaint alleged.

      Multiple states and defendants

      The suit, consolidated in a federal court in Florida, encompasses actions brought on behalf of consumers in 14 states who said that the bank processed debit transactions in order of size -- largest to smallest -- rather than chronologically. As a result, consumers were more likely to overdraw their accounts -- and once they overdrew once, subsequent overdraws were more likely to occur, causing some consumers to accrue hundreds of dollars in fees.

      Along with Bank of America, the suit named two dozen other banks as defendants, including JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bancorp, SunTrust, and Huntington Bancshares.

      Overdraft charges cost billions: study

      According to the Center for Responsible Lending, consumers paid $23.7 billion in overdraft fees in 2008, compared to just $10.3 billion in 2004. The center found that low-amount debit card transactions were the most frequent trigger of overdraft fees -- an average debit transaction of $20 triggered an average overdraft fee of $34.

      The center further found that “16 percent of people who overdraft pay 71 percent of overdraft fees,” and that overdrafters are “more likely than the general population to be lower income, single, non-white, and renters.”

      Dubious “overdraft protection”

      As ConsumerAffairs.com  reported in August, many consumers still choose to enroll in “overdraft protection,” the deceptively-named program that actually enables exorbitant overdraft fees. Consumers who decline overdraft protection simply have their card declined when their account has insufficient funds; consumers who opt in to the program, by contrast, are allowed to use their card but have to cough up the accompanying overdraft fee.

      New rules require opt-in

      Under rules promulgated in 2009, banks are no longer allowed to automatically enroll consumers in overdraft protection; they must first obtain their permission. Before a consumer is allowed to consent, she “must be provided a notice that explains the financial institution's overdraft services, including the fees associated with the service, and the consumer's choices,” according to a press release issued by the Federal Reserve.

      Bank of America announced last March that it was doing away with overdraft fees altogether. Although the bank at first said that it would allow consumers to opt-in to overdraft protection, it later backtracked and said that no customer would be charged an overdraft fee.

      “When you looked at it in hindsight, it's not the right way to treat them,” Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan told The Wall Street Journal of the overdraft fees. “I don't think them opting in is going to change that dynamic, and I think they'll be upset once they opt in down the road.”

      Bank of America Settles Overdraft Suit $410 million settlement shows dangers of overdraft protection...

      Play It Safe Buying Packers' Merchandise Online

      The annual post-Super Bowl buy frenzy is filled with opportunities -- for scammers

      It's all about the Green and Gold! Following Green Bay's Super Bowl win, almost everybody (except those of us who cheer for the Bears) is a Packers fan. And that means team merchandise and collectables will be hot items on online auction sites.

      Football fans need to remember to do their homework before making an online purchase. Consumers should deal only with sellers/companies they know and trust. Beware of fake/counterfeit items and offers that sound too good to be true.

      Online shopping

      Shopping online offers many benefits that you won’t find shopping in a store or by mail. The Internet is always open -- seven days a week, 24 hours a day -- and bargains can be numerous. With a click of a mouse, you can buy an airline ticket, book a hotel, send flowers to a friend or purchase your favorite fashions.

      You can order tulip bulbs directly from Holland, exotic spices from Turkey or hand woven wall hangings from Mexico or Morocco. But sizing up your finds on the Internet is a little different from checking out items at the mall.

      Shopping electronically, especially when you’re dealing with vendors in other countries, opens up a whole world of questions. Are the prices posted in U.S. dollars or some other currency? Does the company ship internationally? How long will it take for an order to be delivered? Will unexpected taxes or duties be added to the price?

      If you’re buying items form an online retailer or auction website, the Wisconsin Division of Trade & Consumer Protection offers the following advice: offer this advice to help you make the most of your shopping experience:

      • Know with whom you’re dealing. Anyone can set up shop online under almost any name. ID thieves can create websites that imitate and look like the business’ real website. Avoid the tendency to trust a website based solely on its appearance. Confirm the onlineseller’s physical address, including the country where it is based, and an email address orphone number in case you have questions or problems. And consider dealing only withvendors that clearly state their policies.

      If you get an email or pop-up message while you’re browsing that asks for financial information, don’t reply or click on the link in the message. Legitimate companies don’t ask for this information via email. Look up the business’ phone number and call it and ask if it is requesting private information on its Website.

      • Know exactly what you’re buying. Read the seller’s description of the product closely, especially the fine print. Words like “refurbished,” “vintage” or “close-out” may indicate that the product is in less-than-mint condition, while name-brand items with “too good to be true” prices could be counterfeits.
      • Pay close attention to the information you’re entering when you place an order. For example, an additional keystroke could get you 10 shirts when you wanted only one.
      • Know what it will cost. Check out websites that offer price comparisons and then compare “apples to apples.” Factor shipping and handling along with your needs and budget into the total cost of the order. Verify that all charges are calculated correctly. Do not send cash under any circumstances.
      • Pay by credit or charge card. If you pay by credit or charge card online, your transaction will be protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act. Under this law, you have the right to dispute charges under certain circumstances and temporarily withhold payment while the credit card company investigates.

      In the event of unauthorized use of your credit or charge card, you generally would be held liable only for the first $50 in charges. Some companies offer an online shopping guarantee that ensures you will not be held responsible for any unauthorized charges made online, and some cards may provide additional warranty, return, and/or purchase protection benefits.

      • Check out the terms of the deal, like refund policies and delivery dates. Can you return the item for a full refund if you’re not satisfied? If you return it, find out who pays the shipping costs or restocking fees and when you will receive your order.

      Sellers are required to ship items as promised within 30 days after the order date if no specific date is promised, or give you an “option notice.” This notice gives you the choice of agreeing to the delay or canceling your order and receiving a prompt refund.

      There is one exception to the 30-day rule. If a company doesn’t promise a shipping time, and you are applying for credit to pay for your purchase, the company has 50 days after receiving your order to ship. Find out where you should call, write or email with complaints or problems.

      • Keep a paper trail. Print and save records of your online transactions including the product description and price, the online receipt, and copies of every email you send or receive from the seller. Read your credit card statements as you receive them and be on the lookout for unauthorized charges.
      • Don’t email your financial  information. Email is not a secure method of transmitting financial information like your credit card, checking account or Social Security number. If you initiate a transaction and want to provide your financial information through an organization’s Website, look for indicators that the site is secure, like a lock icon on the browser’s status bar or a URL for a website that begins “https:” (the “s” stands for “secure”).

      Unfortunately, no indicator is foolproof. Some fraudulent sites have forged security icons.

      • Check the privacy policy. It should let you know what personal information the Website operators are collecting and why and how they’re going to use the information. If you can’t find a privacy policy or if you can’t understand it, consider taking your business to another site that’s more consumer-friendly.
      • Be sure your computer is protected. Install a quality firewall, virus protection, and spyware protection software on your computer. These tools will help combat hackers and identity thieves. Always run an update before shopping online.
      • Don’t allow anyone else to share your computer or use your Internet access. Identity thieves can install software on your computer that permits them to log every keystroke you make. If you permit someone else to use your computer or Internet access, particularly if they use your computer more than one time, you run the risk of becoming an ID theft victim.
      • If you really do want to share your computer with another person regularly, make sure you know him well and trust him completely. Also, set up a separate account for them rather than give out any of your passwords.
      • Never give out your Internet password. Be original when creating your password(s). Consider using a combination of numbers, letters, and symbols or a phrase to remember it. For example: UR2G$48* -- “You are to give money for eight stars.”

      Avoid using established numbers for your password, such as your house number, birth date or a portion of your telephone or Social Security numbers.

      Internet auctions

      Thinking of bidding in an online auction or selling some of your stuff? Internet auctions are a great resource for shoppers and sellers, but you need to watch out for some pitfalls. Here’s how:

      • Evaluate how soon you need to receive the item you’re bidding on and whether you can tolerate it being delivered late or even not delivered. Many complaints about Internet auction fraud involve late shipments, no shipments or shipments of products that aren’t the same quality as advertised.
      • Whether you’re a buyer or a seller, read each auction site’s Terms of Use before using it for the first time. Sites may charge fees, follow different rules, or offer different protections.
      • Carefully consider your method of payment. Learn what recourse you have if something goes wrong. Don’t send cash and don’t use a money wiring service.
      • Don’t reply to “phishing” emails. Messages that look like they’ve been sent by an auction Website or payment service and ask for your password or other personal information.
      • Know with whom you’re dealing. Avoid doing business with sellers you can’t identify, especially those who try to lure you off the auction site with promises of a better deal. Confirm the seller’s telephone number in case you have questions or problems.
      • Know exactly what you’re bidding on. Read and print a copy of the seller’s description of the product closely especially the fine print. Save copies of all emails you send and receive from the auction site or seller, too.

      Tips for using online classifieds

      • Deal locally with buyers and sellers you can meet in person.
      • Never use wire transfer services to send money -- anyone who asks you to do so is likely a scammer.
      • Fake cashier checks and money orders are common.  Banks will cash the checks and then hold you responsible when the counterfeit check or money order is discovered weeks later. Make certain the check or money order has actually cleared before you send money. That might take a couple of weeks. Ask your bank.
      • Never give out financial information (bank account number, social security number, eBay/PayPal info, etc.).
      • Avoid deals involving shipping or escrow services.

      Types of fraud

      • Most people who complain about Internet auction fraud report problems with sellers who:
      • Fail to send the merchandise.
      • Send something of lesser value than advertised.
      • Fail to deliver in a timely manner.
      • Fail to disclose all relevant information about a product or terms of the sale.

      Escrow service complaints

      Another type of fraud occurs when sellers or buyers pose as escrow services to obtain money or goods improperly. The so-called seller puts goods up for sale on an Internet auction and insists that prospective buyers use a particular escrow service. Once buyers provide the escrow service with their payment information, the escrow service doesn’t hold the payment but sends it directly to the so-called seller.

      The buyer never receives the promised goods, can’t locate the seller, and -- because the escrow service was part of the scheme -- can’t get any money back. In some cases, a fraudster poses as a buyer and, after placing the highest bid on an item, insists that the seller use a particular escrow service. The escrow service tricks the seller into sending the merchandise and doesn’t send the payment or return the goods to the seller.

      Fake check scams

      Sellers can be victims of fraud when buyers send fake checks or money orders that are detected by the bank only after the seller has shipped the goods. A buyer might offer to use a cashier’s check or corporate check to pay for the item you’re selling.

      Sometimes, the buyer sends a fake check or money order that exceeds the cost of the item that has been purchased. The so-called buyer (or the buyer’s “agent”) states that hemade a mistake or comes up with another reason for writing the check for more than the purchase price.

      In either case, the buyer asks you to wire back the difference after you deposit the check. You deposit the check and wire the funds back to the “buyer.” Later, the bank determines that the check is fraudulent, leaving you liable for the entire amount. The checks were counterfeit, but good enough to fool unsuspecting bank tellers. 

      Play It Safe Buying Packers' Merchandise Online The annual post-Super Bowl buy frenzy is filled with opportunities -- for scammers ...

      Volkswagen Super Bowl Ads Win Praise

      Kellogg Super Bowl ad review pans Lipton Tea, Go Daddy spots

      Volkswagen earned top marks for its "Beetle" and "Star Wars" ads, winning the seventh annual Kellogg School Super Bowl Advertising Review.  Other top-ranked advertisers for 2011 included Chrysler and Doritos, while Lipton Brisk, HomeAway and Hyundai ranked at the bottom of the much-anticipated Review.

      "This was definitely the year of the auto and it was reflected with the panel's top two advertisers being automakers -- Volkswagen and Chrysler," said Clinical Professor of Marketing Tim Calkins, who leads the event with a panel of students from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.  "At Kellogg, our Review evaluates the ads based on strategic execution and the potential to build brands."

      Best and worst

      Armed with that strategic framework in mind, Kellogg MBA students gave the top ranking to Volkswagen because it drove home its strong branding with clever creative. Volkswagen edged out fellow "A" grade advertisers Chrysler, Doritos, E-Trade, Mini Cooper and Bridgestone.

      GoDaddy and Kia joined Lipton Brisk, HomeAway and Hyundai at the bottom of the Review.

      Huge opportunity

      "The Super Bowl is the biggest live event for reaching the widest audience of consumers," said Associate Professor of Marketing Derek D. Rucker, who also leads the Review. "Some advertisers, including Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Bud Light integrated social media campaigns to extend their $3 million investments beyond a 30-second spot. However, while their campaigns were robust, the Super Bowl spots ranked in the middle of our results."

      Unlike other popularity-based reviews, the Kellogg School Super Bowl Advertising Review uses a strategic academic framework known as ADPLAN.  The acronym, developed by Kellogg School faculty, instructs viewers to grade ads based on Attention, Distinction, Positioning, Linkage, Amplification and Net equity.

      The Kellogg School of Management ranks the Volkswagon Super Bowl ads the best....

      Drug Okayed To Reduce Risk Of Preterm Birth

      Feds approve Makena for at-risk pregnant women under accelerated approval regulations

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Makena (hydroxyprogesterone caproate) injection to reduce the risk of preterm delivery before 37 weeks of pregnancy, in pregnant women with a history of at least one spontaneous preterm birth.

      The drug is not intended for use in women with a multiple pregnancy, such as a twin pregnancy, or other risk factors for preterm birth.

      Accelerated approval

      Approval was granted under FDA's accelerated approval regulations that allow promising drugs to be approved based on a surrogate endpoint benefit -- in this case, reducing the risk of delivery before 37 weeks of pregnancy -- that is reasonably likely to predict a clinical benefit.

      Under these regulations, the manufacturer must conduct additional studies after the product is approved to demonstrate that the drug does, in fact, have a clinical benefit.  An international trial is ongoing to learn if there is also improvement in the outcome of babies born to women given Makena.

      Such outcomes include reducing the number of babies who do not survive or who suffer serious health problems shortly after birth.

      Major health concern

      “Preterm birth is a significant public health issue in the United States,” said Sandra Kweder, M.D., deputy director of the Office of New Drugs in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “This is the first drug approved by the FDA that is indicated to specifically reduce this risk.”

      A health care provider would give Makena once a week by injection into the hip. Treatment should begin at 16 weeks and no later than 21 weeks of pregnancy.

      Study specifics

      The FDA reviewed data on the safety and effectiveness of Makena in a multicenter randomized double-blind clinical trial. The study included 463 women 16 to 43 years of age who were pregnant with a single fetus and had a history of a prior spontaneous preterm birth. Among women treated with Makena, 37 percent delivered early (before 37 weeks) as compared with 55 percent of women in the control group.

      A separate study evaluated the development of children born to mothers enrolled in the controlled trial. In this study, children ages 2.5 years to five years reached similar developmental targets, regardless of the mother’s treatment.  The confirmatory study that is underway will be followed by a similar infant follow-up study, to be completed about 2018.  That study is expected to include 580-750 infants, depending on the number of study sites and mothers willing to participate.

      The most common side effects reported with Makena included pain, swelling, or itching at the injection site; hives, nausea and diarrhea. Serious adverse reactions were rare; there was a single report each of blood clot in the lungs (pulmonary embolism) and an infection at the injection site.

      The FDA originally approved hydroxyprogesterone caproate under the trade name Delalutin in 1956 for use in pregnant women. The approved indications include threatened miscarriage. The original manufacturer requested the withdrawal of Delalutin from the market in 2000 for reasons unrelated to safety.

      Consumers and health care professionals are encouraged to report adverse events from medications to the FDA's MedWatch program at 800-FDA-1088 or online.

      Drug Okayed To Reduce Risk Of Preterm Birth Feds approve Makena for at-risk pregnant women under accelerated approval regulations...

      Whole Foods Providing More Data About Meat

      New label system will describe how animals were raised

      The government has regulations for the kinds of information that must be displayed on meat labels, but high-end supermarket chain Whole Foods Market says it's adding to the information available to consumers.

      These labels will carry information -- not about nutrition -- but how the animals were raised before slaughter. Whole Foods says the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating System is the signature program of the Global Animal Partnership, a nonprofit organization that facilitates and encourages continuous improvement in animal agriculture.

      Independent, third-party certifiers audit farms and rate animal welfare practices and conditions using a tiered system that ranges from Step 1 (no crates, no cages, no crowding) to Step 5+ (animals spend their entire lives on one farm). The company says the system provides a way to engage and reward producers by promoting continuous improvement in farm animal welfare. For shoppers, the rating system provides a way to make more informed choices at the meat counter.

      The five steps in the ranking system are:

      • Step 1: No cages, no crates, no crowding
      • Step 2: Enriched environment
      • Step 3: Enhanced outdoor access
      • Step 4: Pasture centered
      • Step 5: Animal centered; no physical alterations
      • Step 5+: Animal centered; entire life on the same farm

      Third party certifiers

      More than 1,200 farms and ranches providing the company's 291 U.S. locations with products have received Step certification through independent, third-party certifiers, Whole Foods said. Color-coded signs and stickers throughout Whole Foods Market meat departments identify these ratings.

      "In my 20 years of working with ranchers and farmers, this is the largest commitment to improving farm animal welfare that I have seen," said Anne Malleau, global animal production and welfare coordinator for Whole Foods Market. "Producers need to meet approximately 100 requirements to get a Step 1 certification, so achieving the first level is a remarkable accomplishment. Whole Foods Market is able to adopt the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating System thanks to the true partnerships we have with our producers who put just as much emphasis on the lives of their farm animals as they do on ensuring high-quality products."

      All meat sold at Whole Foods Market must meet the company's strict quality standards, which require that animals be raised on a vegetarian diet without being administered antibiotics or added growth hormones. Step-rated options are now available at all U.S. Whole Foods Market stores and by May 9, all beef, pork and chicken carried in the fresh and pre-packaged cases will be rated according to 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating standards, the company said.

      While Foods is introducing a new labeling system on meat to tell consumers how the animals were cared for before they were slaughtered....

      Report: Economic Development Could Change Worldwide Face of Cancer

      Researchers say preventive measures are key to preventing an increase in certain cancers

      A new report from the American Cancer Society says cancers associated with lifestyles and behaviors related to economic development -- including lung, breast, and colorectal cancers -- will continue to rise in developing countries if preventive measures are not widely applied.

      The finding comes from the second edition of Global Cancer Facts & Figures and its academic publication, Global Cancer Statistics, published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. Both publications were released on World Cancer Day, Feb. 4, 2011. 

      Increasing cancer

      According to estimates from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), there were approximately 12.7 million new cancer cases worldwide in 2008 -- 5.6 million of which occurred in economically developed countries and 7.1 million in economically developing countries.

      There were approximately 7.6 million cancer deaths worldwide in 2008, 2.8 million of which occurred in economically developed countries and 4.8 million in economically developing countries. By 2030, the global cancer burden is expected to nearly double, growing to 21.4 million cases and 13.2 million deaths.

      And while that increase is the result of demographic changes -- a growing and aging population -- it may be compounded by the adoption of unhealthy lifestyles and behaviors related to economic development, such as smoking, poor diet, and physical inactivity.

      Preventable deaths

      An accompanying editorial (appearing in CA:) by Otis W. Brawley, M.D., chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, says about 2.6 million of the 7.6 million cancer deaths that occurred in 2008, or about 7300 cancer deaths per day, were potentially avoidable through the prevention of known risk factors, including tobacco use, dietary factors, certain infections, and alcohol use.

      "The worldwide application of existing cancer control knowledge according to the capacity and economic development of countries or regions could lead to the prevention of even more cancer deaths in the next 2 to 3 decades," writes Dr. Brawley. "In order to achieve this, however, national and international public health agencies, governments, donors, and the private sectors must play major roles in the development and implementation of national or regional cancer control programs worldwide."

      Cancer rate comparisons

      A comparison of cancer rates reveals differences in cancer causation between economically developed and economically developing countries. In economically developed countries, the three most commonly diagnosed cancers in 2008 were prostate, lung, and colorectal cancers in men and breast, colorectal, and lung cancers in women. In economically developing countries, cancers of the lung, stomach, and liver were most frequently diagnosed in men while breast, cervical,