Browse by year
 | 

Recession May Be Hitting Young The Hardest

"AARP For Young People" aims to fight back

Our Time tries to raise awareness of youth unemployment....

photoBill, who operates a marine service business in Callao, Virginia, has seen his business slow considerably in the last couple of years. Most of his clients are affluent retirees, who in the past operated one or more pleasure boats, keeping Bill busy.

Things have changed in this new economy, but not for the reasons you might think.

Money going elsewhere

"What I see are my clients getting out of boating because they are now having to financially help their children and grandchildren," Bill told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I seem to lose customers every month for that reason."

Anecdotal evidence suggests that, of the nearly nine percent of unemployed Americans, many are young people, just out of college or early in their careers. When businesses began laying off, young people were among the first out the door.

Matt Segal, co-founder of an youth employment advocacy group called Our Time, has launched  a campaign to engage young adults around the issue of rampant unemployment among the millennial generation.  The group has launched a petition, designed to build awareness as well as unite the millions of young Americans concerned about their futures.

 "Clearly, young Americans want to work," Segal said. "We are scrappy, entrepreneurial, and determined. Our strength is truly in our numbers."

Segal said young people have financial obligations, just like their seniors.  The average student loan debt from college is over $20,000 per person, and seniors graduate with an average of over $2,100 in credit card debt on top of that figure. Moreover, nearly 14 million Americans aged 18-29 do not have health insurance.

The Federal Government spends approximately $8 on seniors for every $1 invested in “the children,” he said. A few decades ago, America’s investment in youth was greater; the economy, stronger; and the economic prospects for future generations, much more promising.

AARP for young people

The organization, described by the Huffington Post as the "AARP for the under 30 set," released a companion video (below) this week which was created by students at Kenyon University in support of the petition. 

Though the economy seems to be improving, and recent hiring reports have sounded encouraging, Segal says America's youngest generation of workers aren't getting hired and remains disproportionally jobless. He says one-in-six young Americans are currently unemployed, and millions more are looking for full-time work.

"America needs a wake-up call, we are leaving our next generation behind," Segal said.  "And young Americans need a reality check - no one is coming to bail us out. We have to band together and advocate for own economic interests if we want things to change."

More

Google Adds Its Version of the 'Like' Button

Like a search result? Give it a plus-one

Google Adds Its Version of the 'Like' Button. Like a search result? Give it a plus-one...

photoGoogle doesn't like the way Facebook's “Like” button is showing up everywhere, so it's adding its own version – the “plus-one” button. It's an effort to make search more social and slow down Facebook's growing dominance.

Starting today, Google users will be able to vote plus-one on search results they fine useful and share that preference with their friends using Gmail, Google Chat, Google Reader and Buzz. Twitter will be added soon, Google says.

But the plus-one isn't just a social web gimmick. Google says that, over time, will be have an impact on search rankings, so that sites which users like will appear higher in the search results.

"When someone recommends something, that's a pretty good indicator of quality," said Matt Cutts, Google's principle search engineer. "We are strongly looking at using this in our rankings."

Inbound links and Twitter updates have previously been the strongest components of Google's page-ranking system, observers think.

You'll also be able to vote plus-one on search ads. Better ads should produce more plus-ones, which should improve quality scores and, over time, provide better positioning and lower rates for a given keyword or position.

And just to leave no doubt that Google's latest moves are aimed at Facebook, the company says that the first time you click on a plus-one button, you'll be asked to create a Google profile and adjust your privacy settings.

More

What's On Your Mind? Kohler, US Bank, Delta, Dell

Our daily rundown of consumer complaints

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Kohler, US Bank, Delta, Dell, Print out your statements, There are limits to first class perks and a benefit of r...

photoA bathroom toilet is a fixture that you shouldn’t have to think about very much. Doug, of Lake Forest, Calif., didn’t expect to give much thought to his new Kohler, since it had been installed for less than 30 days.

“I heard noise coming from the toilet, I removed the tank cover and the water fill valve shot into air,” Doug told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I had to shut off the water. It could have flooded my house if I wasn't home.”

Doug was upset that his house could have flooded, but was further ticked off when he discovered Kohler’s warranty included replacing the defective part, but not labor. In other words, he would need to install it himself. A Kohler representative stated the company’s policy in an email to Doug.

“Unfortunately, as our warranty states, we will provide the service part (s) necessary to replace/repair your product at no cost, but labor costs and service calls are not covered,” the email said.

Besides reading the warranty’s fine print, the lesson here may be to pay attention to your fixtures, especially one that has recently been installed. If a fixture is going to fail, chances are it will happen in the first 30 days. Or, the day after the warranty expires.

Print out your statements

Rising fees at big banks have sent a lot of customers looking for small, community banks that are more fee-friendly. But David, a former customer of US Bank in Monument, Colo., learned something that quite frankly we might never have considered.

“While my bank account was active, I was enrolled in their web-based system to receive my bank statements, David told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Since I closed my account, US Bank no longer allows me access to my bank statements.”

David said he discussed closing his account with bank employees and none mentioned he would no longer have access to the site. If you are closing a bank account and have done online banking, make sure you download all your records first.

There are limits to first class perks

Patricia, of El Granada, Calif., who describes herself as “rich, but not stupid,” is outranged that Delta Airlines charged her a fee of $150 to change the departure date of her Atlanta to San Francisco flight by one day. After all, she was flying first class, was a “Million Miler,” and was at the Diamond Medallion level.

“I thought this had to be a mistake,” Patricia told ConsumerAffairs.com “I called the phone number listed on the reverse of my Diamond Medallion card, and after punching in my SkyMiles number reached a pleasant human of the female variety. I told her what I was trying to do online and asked her if there was some mistake. I was told ‘no, it costs $150 to change the flight no matter what.’"

Patricia has learned what those of us back in coach have long known. The airlines don’t like to raise their fares for competitive reasons, but don’t hesitate to tack on fees wherever possible, even for those in first class.

A benefit of reading the manual

John, of Perryville, Md., bought a Dell computer from Best Buy. When he asked about the missing reinstallation CD, the store personnel told him not to worry, to just call tech support if he needed a reinstall.

“What they did not tell me was when your warranty is up you must pay $59 for them to reinstall,” John told ConsumerAffairs.com.

John is our kind of consumer. Instead of paying the $59, he started reading the computer’s user manual that most of us usually ignore.

“On page 23 it says you are allowed one copy of a reinstallation CD with all the software that was on your computer when you bought it,” he said.

John called Dell back and referred them to page 23. As a result, he says Dell sent him a reinstallation CD for his computer, at no charge.

 

More

Feds: Google's Buzz Roll-Out Violated Its Own Privacy Policy

Company agrees to 20 years of privacy audits, promises to build tougher privacy protections

Feds: Google's Buzz Roll-Out Violated Its Own Privacy Policy. Company agrees to 20 years of privacy audits, promises to build tougher privacy protections...

Google and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have reached a settlement of charges that Google used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy policy when it launched its social network, Google Buzz, last year.

When companies make privacy pledges, they need to honor them,” said Jon Leibowitz, Chairman of the FTC. “This is a tough settlement that ensures that Google will honor its commitments to consumers and build strong privacy protections into all of its operations."

The settlement bars the company from future privacy misrepresentations, requires it to implement a comprehensive privacy program, and calls for regular, independent privacy audits for the next 20 years.

This is the first time an FTC settlement order has required a company to implement a comprehensive privacy program to protect the privacy of consumers’ information. In addition, this is the first time the FTC has alleged violations of the substantive privacy requirements of the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor Framework, which provides a method for U.S. companies to transfer personal data lawfully from the European Union to the United States.

 

The FTC charged that when Google launched Buzz through its Gmail web-based email product, it led Gmail users to believe that they could choose whether or not they wanted to join the network, even thoguh the options for declining or leaving the social network were ineffective.

For users who joined the Buzz network, the controls for limiting the sharing of their personal information were confusing and difficult to find, the agency alleged.

On the day Buzz was launched, Gmail users got a message announcing the new service and were given two options: “Sweet! Check out Buzz,” and “Nah, go to my inbox.” However, the FTC complaint alleged that some Gmail users who clicked on “Nah...” were nonetheless enrolled in Buzz.

For those Gmail users who clicked on “Sweet!,” the FTC alleges that they were not adequately informed that the identity of individuals they emailed most frequently would be made public by default. Google also offered a “Turn Off Buzz” option that did not fully remove the user from the social network.

Google received thousands of complaints from consumers who were concerned about public disclosure of their email contacts which included, in some cases, ex-spouses, patients, students, employers, or competitors.

When Google launched Buzz, its privacy policy stated that “When you sign up for a particular service that requires registration, we ask you to provide personal information. If we use this information in a manner different than the purpose for which it was collected, then we will ask for your consent prior to such use.” The FTC complaint charges that Google violated its own policy by using information provided for Gmail for another purpose - social networking - without obtaining consumers’ permission in advance.

The complaint also alleged that a screen that asked consumers enrolling in Buzz, “How do you want to appear to others?” indicated that consumers could exercise control over what personal information would be made public. The FTC charged that Google failed to disclose adequately that consumers’ frequent email contacts would become public by default.

 

More

Does Food With Coloring Need A Warning?

FDA panel to investigate possible links to hyperactivity

An FDA panel of experts is investigating possible links between food coloring and behavioral issues....

photoWould Gummy Bears and Jello be as appealing if they were gray, or translucent? Or more to the point, ask health advocates, is the dye used to give them their bright colors really safe?

For years, the official response from the Food and Drug Administration has been that approved food dyes are absolutely safe to humans. But now, the agency said it will convene a panel of experts to look at the question again.

Looking for a link

Specifically, the experts will try to determine if there is any link between artificial colorings and hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in children. The experts could recommend that foods with artificial coloring carry a warning label.

For years, industry critics have pushed for limits on the use of artificial coloring in food. The Center for Science in the Public Interest maintains that Yellow 5, Red 40, and six other widely used artificial colorings are linked to hyperactivity and behavior problems in children and should be prohibited from use in foods.

In 2008, the group formally petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban the dyes, several of which are already being phased out in the United Kingdom. The other six dyes are Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, and Yellow 6.

A suspect for decades

In its petition, CSPI said synthetic food dyes have been suspected of disrupting children's behavior since the 1970s, when Dr. Ben Feingold, a San Francisco allergist, reported that his patients improved when their diets were changed.

The group points to controlled studies conducted over the next three decades in the United States, Europe, and Australia that it says proved that some children's behavior is worsened by artificial dyes.

Meanwhile, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) cited the issue in encouraging consumers who wish to avoid exposing their children to pesticides and synthetic food dyes to choose organic foods when they shop.

"Organic food production and processing represent the only system that uses certification and inspection to verify that synthetic food dyes and chemicals are not used," said Christine Bushway, OTA's Executive Director and CEO. "Those seeking to minimize their exposure to these chemicals can look for the USDA Organic label wherever they buy food."

 

More

50-State Effort to Write Down Troubled Mortgages Starts to Crumble

Four attorneys general said reducing mortgage principal presents a "moral hazard"

50-State Effort to Write Down Troubled Mortgages Starts to Crumble. Four attorneys general said reducing mortgage principal presents a "moral hazard"...

photoLast year, attorneys general from 50 states were working together to put pressure on mortgage lenders to clean up the foreclosure process and provide more help to consumers trying to stay in their homes despite financial difficulties.

The multi-state effort worked out a proposal that would offer relief to selected struggling homeowners by reducing the principal on their mortgage. It reportedly calls for banks to write down $20 billion in loan balances. (Mortgage lender complaints.)

But a lot has changed since last year. The November elections saw the ouster of several of the more aggressive AGs, including Richard Cordray of Ohio, who was later named to head the enforcement division of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Cordray was the first AG to sue a major loan servicer in the robo-signing scandal.

After newly-elected attorneys general took office in January, many displayed an abrupt change in their attitude towards consumer protection in general and the mortgage industry in particular. Now the 50-state coalition is falling apart with the defection of four attorneys general.

Florida's Pam Bondi, Greg Abbott of Texas, Kenneth Cuccinelli of Virginia and Alan Wilson of South Carolina have sent a four-page letter to Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who heads the multi-state effort.

The letters expresses the AGs' concern about the “moral hazard” posed by reducing loan principals to help select homeowners stay in their homes.

Miller's group earlier this month proposed a major increase in the number of mortgage modifications and called for prohibiting foreclosures while a modification is in progress.

Goes too far

But Bondi and her three colleagues say the proposed settlement goes too far and is unfair to homeowners who have kept up their payments.

"These proposals do a disservice to homeowners who, despite an economic downturn, have worked hard to maintain their mortgages," the letter states.

Miller's communications director Geoff Greenwood said the letter is under review.

"While all 50 attorneys general may agree on the pressing need to solve these very complicated problems, they may not all agree on all of the terms," Greenwood said.

The Palm Beach Post's editorial page differed sharply with Bondi. “Whose side is Bondi on? Not Florida's,” the paper thundered. It quoted a study which found that borrowers with equity in their homes default less often than those without equity.

If Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has been paying attention, she knows that about 25 percent of Florida homeowners who are delinquent on their mortgages have decided to default. They have no equity in their homes, and don't believe that the market will improve soon enough for them ever to get above water,” the paper said.

In Virginia, the director of the Virginia Poverty Law Center said he is troubled that the talk of “moral hazards” seems prefaced on the assumption that the homeowners – not the banks – are the ones guilty of wrongdoing.

"They [the banks] seem to be getting the benefit of the doubt -- despite the fact that they have been caught falsifying documents and abusing the legal system," Speer said, according to the Roanoke News.

More

Toyota Dealers Warned of Spare Parts Shortage

Latest complication of the Japan earthquake

Toyota Dealers Warned of Spare Parts Shortage. Latest complication of the Japan earthquake...

Toyota is advising its dealers to keep a careful eye on their spare parts bins, warning that some parts suppliers are still not back to normal production. At least 233 parts numbers will be affected for at least 30 day, and both the numbers and time may increase, the company cautioned.

The parts ini short supply are mostly body panel and pillar subassemblies as well as shock absorbers, a Toyota memo said.

Toyota said it will not fill routine orders to replenish dealer stock but will accommodate emergency requests when possible.

It's the latest in a long line of complications plaguing the auto industry since the horrendous earthquake and tsunami. In other developments:

  • Honda is cutting daily output by as much as 50 percent starting today. Orders for Japanese-built models have been suspended and the U.S. launch of the 2012 Honda Civic has been delayed.

  • Chrysler has restricted orders for ten paints colors and Ford has restricted orders for black and three red shades.

  • Mazda has suspended orders for vehicles made in Japan until further notice.

  • Nissan says all of its U.S. plants and operating normally.

  • Volvo says it gets ten percent of its components from Japan and can't predict what happens beyond the end of this week.

More

What's On Your Mind? Mattresses, Scams, Blue Hippo

Our daily rundown of consumer complaints

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Mattresses, Scams, Blue Hippo, You won! While we’re on the subject of scams and Case of the blues....

Mattresses are like cars. You don’t buy them that often and, frankly, aren’t always sure what to look for, and what to be on guard against. But Janelle, a reader from Manassas, Va., obviously knows her mattresses. She tells us she rejected three deliveries from Mattress Warehouse because the mattresses were not factory sealed, were the wrong fill weight, and were manufactured six or seven months prior to delivery.

“On their fourth attempt, Mattress Warehouse finally delivered a factory sealed twin Simmons Hayward mattress set to me manufactured on March 8, 2011,” Janelle told ConsumerAffairs.com. “My complaint with Mattress Warehouse has been resolved but I am very concerned for other customers.”

It’s a good reminder to do a little research before a major purchase you don’t make all that often, and to do an inspection before a mattress comes off the truck.

You won!

Each year, thousands of people fall for the old fake sweepstakes scam. Janice, of Anchorage, Alaska, isn’t one of them.

“I received a phone call saying that I won this months sweepstakes drawing,” Janice told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The sweepstakes comes with a check for $2.5 million and a new BMW. He identified himself as John Peters. He asked me how did that sound and I said great if I don't have to pay any money. He said the money was to cover the cost of insurance on the car. I told him that I would be happy to pay it when the car and check are delivered. Of course, he said the amount needed to be wired to them at an address in Jamaica, West Indies.”

Janice was right not to fall for the pitch, obviously using common sense that $2.5 million doesn’t just fall into your lap. Remember, you can’t win a sweepstakes that you didn’t enter.

While we’re on the subject of scams…

In the wake of the federal bailouts, it was common to hear people rhetorically ask, “where’s my bailout?” A new email scam making the rounds plays on that sentiment.

Elizabeth, of Pheonix, Ariz., found it in her inbox this week. It purports to be from an executive at Bank of America and the subject line shouts, “NOTIFICATION OF CREDIT.”

“We have on this day the 28th of March 2011, received a payment credit instruction from Mr. Ben S. Bernanke. The Chairman, Federal Reserve Bank New York, under the instruction of the United Nations and World Bank to credit your account with your US$ 2 million (Two million United States dollars) compensation funds allocated in your name from their reserve account with us,” the message reads.

However, to receive your share of the bailout, you are required to provide an extensive list of sensitive information, including your full name and address, the name of your bank, the bank’s address, your account name, your account number and the bank’s routing number.

In other words, all the information a scammer would need to clean out your bank account. We don’t have to tell you what to do with such a message if you receive it.

Case of the blues

Blue Hippo, the finance company that aggressively marketed overpriced computers to consumers with little or no credit, has been out of business since late 2009. Unfortunately, David, of Allentown, Pa., didn’t get the message.

“I ordered a computer over the phone as instructed by TV ad and.set up auto withdraw from my bank account,” David said. “It has been three years and about $1200 and I still have no computer! I cannot access any blue hippo account info to find out how much I actually paid.

In 2008 Blue Hippo settled with the Federal Trade Commission and agreed to pay $5 million into a restitution fund for consumers like David burned by the company. David should contact Pennsylvania Attorney General William Ryan’s office for information about the fund and assistance.

 

 

More

Robo-Signing Returns - This Time to Vex Big Debt Collector

Minnesota charges Midland Funding used robo-signed affidavits to collect old debts

Robo-Signing Returns - This Time to Vex Big Debt Collector. Minnesota charges Midland Funding used robo-signed affidavits to collect old debts...

photoRobo-signers are in the news again – but this time they're not signing mortgage documents. Instead, Minnesota authorities say a debt-collection firm is using deceptive robo-signed affidavits to collect on old credit card debts.

The case involves Midland Funding, LLC, and its affiliate, Midland Credit Management. The companies are so-called “debt buyers” – meaning they buy old consumer debts from credit card companies and others for about three cents on the dollar.

They then try to collect the old debts and keep whatever they can wheedle out of consumers.

In a legal filing, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson alleges that Midland aggressively filed thousands of lawsuits against individual citizens for collection of old, purchased debt, often supporting those lawsuits with “robo-signed” affidavits generated at its St. Cloud, Minn., offices.

“The company put its thumb on the scale of justice to unfairly tilt the collection process in its favor,” said Swanson.

Company responds

The company responded to Swanson's charges by saying, in a prepared statement, that it takes the allegations “very seriously.”

“The complaint appears largely to restate concerns raised in a 2008 lawsuit against the company, which was recently settled in principle. As a result of that case, Encore modified its affidavit process in 2009 and believes that its current practices are legally sound. The company looks forward to working with Attorney General Swanson to resolve this matter,” the statement concluded.

“Robo-signing” is the practice of signing off on mass-produced, computer-generated legal documents without reading them or verifying the accuracy of the contents in order to speed up the collection process. In recent months, the mortgage industry has come under intense national scrutiny for supporting mortgage foreclosures in court with “robo-signed” affidavits.

In her filing, Swanson said Midland has purchased $54.7 billion in old consumer debt from credit card companies and others. In 2009, it filed 245,000 lawsuits against individual citizens nationwide, and it has filed over 15,000 lawsuits against citizens in Minnesota courts since 2008.

Midland pays for its debt acquisitions with hundreds of millions in financing from some of the nation’s largest banks, including several that sell old debt to it.

A wide net

The Attorney General said that debt buyers cast a wide net to find people who may owe old bills and often pursue the wrong person altogether or pursue people who paid the bills long ago. In some cases, debt buyers pursue people solely because they have the same or similar name or address as the real debtor.

The Attorney General said that Midland has created false and unreliable mass-produced, “robo-signed” affidavits as supposed “proof” of consumer debts in lawsuits against individual citizens in order to obtain judgments against or extract payments from mostly unrepresented citizens, some of whom had no knowledge of any alleged debt.

Midland and its publicly-traded parent corporation, Encore Capital Group, Inc., have paid more than $1.8 billion to obtain 33 million customer accounts with a face value of about $54.7 billion, or an average cost of about three cents on the dollar, according to Encore’s 2010 Form 10-K, Swanson said.

Midland and Encore buy electronic portfolios containing billions of dollars of old, charged-off consumer debt from credit card companies, banks, telecommunications firms, and other creditors. These include Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo, HSBC, Providian, and Verizon Wireless, among others.

Several of these banks, including Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Citibank, also provided Midland with financing to pursue its debt acquisitions and collections. For example, Encore currently has a $410 million revolving credit line to acquire consumer debt from many of the same banks that have sold debt to Midland, including JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and Citibank.

False affidavits

Numerous Midland employees have admitted in sworn testimony to signing up to 400 false affidavits per day, either without reading them, without personal knowledge of their contents, and/or without verifying the accuracy of the information to which the affidavits attest, Swanson charged. The robo-signed affidavits were then filed in court to “prove” the alleged debt to the court.

In today’s legal filing, Swanson took the first step in filing a lawsuit against Midland by seeking clarification from a federal court in Ohio that a pending class action settlement was not intended to bar the state’s governmental enforcement action against Midland.

An Ohio judge approved the $5.1 million class action lawsuit against Midland Funding for similar fraudulent actions earlier this month. Midland funding also dropped more than 100,000 debt collection claims worth roughly $10.2 million against Maryland consumers through a class action settlement approved by a Maryland federal court this month.

 

 

More

New York to Probe AT&T/T-Mobile Deal

Acquisition would create a “duopoly” that would dominate the airwaves

New York to Probe AT&T/T-Mobile Deal. Acquisition would create a “duopoly” that would dominate the airwaves...

photoNew York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says he is launching a full-scale review of AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile. The proposed merger would create the nation’s largest wireless company with a total of 130 million subscribers nationwide, opening the door to a near-duopoly shared by the merged firm and Verizon Wireless. 

"Cell phones are no longer a luxury for a few among us, but a basic necessity. The last thing New Yorkers need during these difficult economic times is to see cell phone prices rise," said Schneiderman. "Affordable wireless service and technology, including smart phones and next generation handheld devices, are the bridge to the digital broadband future. We want to ensure all New Yorkers benefit from these important innovations that improve lives.

T-Mobile, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, is a provider of choice for millions of New Yorkers and currently has 34 million customers nationwide, making it the fourth-largest wireless company in the country.

Consumer advocates have expressed fears that the proposed merger would start a process of consolidation that would lead to two firms – AT&T and Verizon – controlling nearly 80% of wireless subscribers nationwide and dominating the U.S. wireless business. Many observers think that third-place Sprint, already struggling with high subscriber turnover, would be unlikely to survive in an AT&T/Verizon-dominated world.

Schneiderman said he will closely scrutinize AT&T's argument that the merger has the potential to produce some benefits, such as expanding the coverage of AT&T's next generation broadband wireless network to rural areas in upstate New York that are underserved and have poor wired broadband connectivity.

Supporters argue that the merger might improve broadband service for T-Mobile customers by fulfilling some of their spectrum needs through access to AT&T's advanced network. The Attorney General’s review will weigh the benefits to New Yorkers against the anti-competitive risks posed to them, Schneiderman said.

 

 

More

Toys "R" Us to Pay $1.3 Million for Violating FTC Order

Company allegedly put the arm on suppliers to keep toy prices high

Toys “R” Us to Pay $1.3 Million for Violating FTC Order. Company allegedly put the arm on suppliers to keep toy prices high...

Toys aren't child's play, and neither are federal laws that ban big retailers from pressuring their suppliers to keep prices high.

Toys “R” Us, Inc. is learning that the hard way. The toy-store chain has agreed to pay a $1.3 million civil penalty to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that it violated a 1998 FTC governing its dealings with its suppliers.

The order prohibits Toys “R” Us from urging any supplier to limit supply of products or refuse to sell to discounters. It also bars Toys “R” Us from asking any supplier about its sales to any toy discounter, and requires the company to preserve and maintain records of communications with its suppliers related to its sales and distribution.

The civil penalty announced today comes in response to FTC allegations that between 1999 and 2010, in violation of the earlier order, Toys “R” Us, through its Babies “R” Us subsidiary, complained to several of its suppliers about the discounts other retailers were providing to consumers, requested information from several of the companies about how they were supplying products to discounters, and failed to keep records of communications with its suppliers.

The 1998 order was issued after the FTC found that Toys “R” Us had used its dominant position as a toy distributor to extract agreements from toy manufacturers to stop selling the same toys to warehouse clubs. The 1998 order was affirmed by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals for the United States.

“This case reaffirms the importance of complying with all aspects of a Commission order,” said Richard A. Feinstein, Director of the Bureau of Competition. “Although we did not find evidence that Toys ‘R’ Us entered into agreements with the suppliers that violated the order, the penalty here underscores the importance of parties complying fully with all of their order obligations.”

In the complaint filed today, the FTC alleges that Toys “R” Us violated the order by complaining to a number of manufacturers about discounting of their baby products at various times between 1999 and 2010, and that these complaints could lead those suppliers to limit supply or refuse to sell their products to toy discounters.

Second, the FTC complaint alleges that at various times between 2000 and 2010, Toys “R” Us requested information from a number of manufacturers about their supply of products to toy discounters, in violation of the 1998 order.

Finally, the FTC alleges that after the order became final, Toys “R” Us did not adopt any specific program or procedure to assure compliance with the requirement that it maintain all records and communications with suppliers related to any aspect of toy sales or distribution. In fact, Toys “R” Us’s practice from December 1998 until at least May 2010 was to delete the email files of employees who left the company, including those it was required under the order to keep, according to the complaint.

In its administrative complaint issued in May 1996, the FTC charged Toys “R” Us, the nation’s largest toy retailer at the time, with using its power to keep toy prices higher and reduce toy outlet choices for consumers. The FTC alleged that Toys “R” Us extracted agreements from toy manufacturers to stop selling certain toys to warehouse clubs, or to put the toys into more expensive combination packages, so consumers could not obtain lower-priced toys from the clubs or compare prices easily.

 

 

 

More

X-Hero, Male Enhancer Supplements Recalled

Supplements are unapproved drugs, could cause harmful reactions

X-Hero, Male Enhancer Supplements Recalled Supplements are unapproved drugs, could cause harmful reactions...

USA Far Ocean Group Inc., is recalling the company's two supplement products sold under the names X-Hero and Male Enhancer.

The company took the action after being informed by representatives of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that lab analysis by FDA of X-Hero sample found the product contains sulfosildenafil, the analogue of the active ingredient of an FDA-approved drug used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED), making X-Hero an unapproved drug.

In addition, FDA analysis of Male Enhancer sample found the product contains tadalafil, the active ingredient of an FDA-approved drug used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED), making Male Enhancer an unapproved drug.

FDA advised that both products pose a threat to consumers because they may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs (such as nitroglycerin) and may lower blood pressure to dangerous levels.

According to the FDA, consumers with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease often take nitrates. FDA advises that ED is a common problem in men with these conditions, and they may seek products to enhance sexual performance. FDA advises that either sulfosildenafil or tadalafil may cause side effects, such as headaches and flushing.

These two products have been distributed nationwide via retail stores, internet sales and mail order. All of the following packages of X-Hero and Male Enhancer products are involved in this voluntary recall:

Product

Package Size

UPC Codes

X-Hero with English Label

10 capsules

689087070995

X-Hero with English Label

8 capsules

689076499255

X-Hero with Chinese/English Label

8 capsules

689076499255

X-Hero with English Label

1 capsule pack

None

Male Enhancer

60 capsule

982010061205

Consumers who have X-Hero or Male Enhancer in their possession should stop using it immediately and contact their physician if they experienced any problem that may be related to taking this product.

More

'Stealth' Inflation May Have Been With Us For Years

It's the same price, just not as good

Can inflation be measured in more than just rising prices?...

Recent government reports on prices at both the producer and consumer levels have shown sharp increases of late, worrying many consumers that a bout of nasty inflation may be on the way.

What if significant inflation has been occurring for years, but we just haven’t noticed? Just because the price of a particular item hasn’t gone up doesn’t mean it hasn’t been affected by inflation.

For example, a lot of the consumer products that used to be made in the U.S. are now made overseas. But consumers can go to discount stores and buy them for the same price they’ve always paid. No inflation, right?

Not the same

Well, what if it’s not exactly the same product?

For example, imagine an ordinary product that consumers have been purchasing for decades. Consumers have always paid around $20 for it, and valued it for its reputation for quality and durability.

But if the company that is making the product kept making it the same way it always had, it would now have to charge $45 for the item. It would still be the same, high-quality item, but consumers might not buy as many at the higher, “inflated” price.

Looks the same, but it’s not

So the company, sometime in the 1990s, started making the product in China, using cheaper labor, materials and design. As a result, it has a product it can still sell for around $20, even though it is nowhere near the original in terms of quality.

The consumer buying the product doesn’t realize, or think about, the change in production. She thinks she is buying the same high quality product she always has, and is furious when the product is revealed to be a cheap imitation of what she expects. It’s a recurring theme in complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com.

If $20 doesn’t buy the quality it once did, isn’t that inflation too?

Hope you’re not hungry

The New York Times notes that food manufacturers have been engaging in a little stealth inflation of their own lately, especially now that raw food costs have begun to escalate. In order to keep prices the same, they have begun packaging a little less food in the package, while keeping the container roughly the same size.

“Consumers are generally more sensitive to changes in prices than to changes in quantity,” John T. Gourville, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School, told the Times.

He says companies try to do it in a way that doesn’t call attention to the fact that there’s less product in the container.

In fairness, the company is in a tough position. Its costs are rising but it’s afraid to raise prices to reflect economic realities. To do so might hurt sales, so the alternative is to sell the consumer something less, and hope she doesn’t notice.

Eventually, however, she almost always does.

 

More

Wells Fargo Ponies Up, Joins No-Debit-Card-Perks Posse

Banks are circling the wagons, determined to fight off fee foes

Wells Fargo Ponies Up, Joins No-Debit-Card-Perks Posse. Banks are circling the wagons, determined to fight off fee foes....

photoWells Fargo has joined the no-debit-card-perks posse. The San Francisco bank says it will stop offering debit card reward programs to new customers, and says no decision has been made about current customers.

Chase did the same a few weeks ago, as did US Bank and PNC.

The banks are blaming the decision on the Dodd-Frank financial services overhaul that limits the transaction fees banks can charge merchants for processing debit-card sales.

"Government price controls … make no sense. They distort our market-based, free-enterprise economy," Wells Fargo Chief Executive John Stumpf said in his annual shareholder letter posted on the bank's website earlier this month.

“What’s next?” Stumpf wrote. “Will the government require car dealers to sell a new vehicle for $5,000 or grocers a gallon of milk for 50 cents?

The Federal Reserve has drafted a proposed rule to implement the restriction. It would cap the interchange fee at 12 cents, a 75 percent drop from its current level.

The proposal followed years of complaints by merchants and consumer advocates who said the fees amounted to a hidden tax on consumers but there have been second thoughts about the measure from, among others, the Consumer Federation of America.

The CFA, while saying it “strongly endorses the intent of the statute,” echoes some of the objections being raised by banks.

”[The rule's] implementation could have a very significant impact on consumers who use debit cards or participate in the banking system, as well as the many who do not,” said Travis Plunkett, the CFA's legislative director.

Banks have also found allies in Congress, where they traditionally find about as many friends as they need. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) has introduced a bill that would suspend implementation of the fee pending a two-year study.

Tester said he and his bipartisan group of supporters aren't doing this as a favor to banks. He said he's afraid the measure will wind up hurting consumers, as banks pile fees on top of frees to make up for the fees they lose from debit cards.

 

More

Seven Ways To Spot A Scam Email

There are always telltale signs

Here are seven obvious signs an email was sent by a scammer....

It seems like cleaning out your email inbox takes longer each day. Mixed in with the jokes from your friend with too much time on his hands and the day’s marching orders from your boss, you’ll find sure fire ways to get rich, enhance body parts, and magically lose 75 pounds.

Many of these emails are harmless, if annoying, spam. Others are more sinister and are connected, in one way or another, to a scam. Here’s a way to quickly recognize the scams:

  1. The message includes instructions to keep the contents of the email secret. Now ask yourself why would a complete stranger would demand complete confidentiality. The reason is, they don’t want you mentioning it to someone who will tell you it’s a scam.
  2. There is a statement or message in the email asking you to forward it to all your friends and associates? They usually tell you the contents are so important they must be shared. But what better way to spread a scam than to have victims do it for you?
  3. The message suggests you will encounter bad luck if you fail to take some action? Nothing like scare tactics.
  4. The message warns of a dangerous virus circulating the Internet and that commercial anti-virus products are powerless to stop it. You are told to open and run an attachment. When you do, you unleash a nasty virus or malware in your computer.
  5. The message warns you that other messages are scams, and that it is not a hoax. Let’s face it, if you have to say it’s not a hoax, it is.
  6. The message is grammatically challenged, as though the writer was asleep during English class, or perhaps never attended school at all.
  7. The message has already been forwarded multiple times, as evident by the trail of email headers in the body of the message.

 A message meeting any one of these characteristics can be safely deleted.

 What are the scammers after? It can be something dangerous, like a phishing expedition, designed to get your personal information, or perhaps steal your identity. The scammer may be trying to get your to fill out a survey, so they can earn money. Or, they may just be the type of person who wants to spread chaos – and viruses – on the Internet.

 

More

What's On Your Mind? CitiBank, Comcast, Lowes

Our daily rundown of consumer complaints

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: CitiBank, Comcast, Lowes, A phone call would have been nice and Just take your chances....

photoTaking a cash advance on your credit card is almost always expensive. First, you're charged a percentage of the total draw. Then, you usually pay a high interest rate on the balance.

"CitiBank is continuing to charge me interest for cash advances from November, 2007, Leonard, of Daly City, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "With all the payments that I have made since then, the cash advance portion should have been paid at this point."

You would think so, but it doesn't always work like that. If Leonard already had a balance on his card, or a balance transfer, he could be paying on up to three credit lines with one monthly payment. Until about a year ago, when the CARD Act went into effect, credit card companies applied the payment to the lowest interest balance first. So until February 2010, it's possible none of Leonard's monthly payment went to pay down his cash advance balance.

The law now says "when consumers have accounts that carry different interest rates for different types of purchases (i.e., cash advances, regular purchases, balance transfers or ATM withdrawals), payments in excess of the minimum amount due must go to balances with higher interest rates first."

A phone call would have been nice

Comedians often like to joke about waiting for the "cable guy" to show up, but to Michael, of Chicago, it's no laughing matter.

"I have absolutely had it with Comcast," Michael told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Most recently I had an appointment to have them fix an issue I reported earlier in the week. The operator I spoke with stated that there were no outages in my area and they had to send out a tech. So I stayed home all day Saturday, canceling plans, to wait. No one shows and when I call they tell me that there was an outage in the area and as such they cancel their appointments when they fix an outage."

Michael would like a phone call when the cable company cancels an appointment. It's probably not too much to ask.

Just take your chances

With all the complaints about appliances, who can blame consumers for opting for the extended warranty, or service contract. Often, however, it doesn't help.

I purchased a new Frigidaire dishwasher from Lowes, in August 2008," Melba, of San Marcos, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I also purchased the four year extended warranty. Around the beginning of March 2011 I noticed that our dishwasher was making very loud motor sounds. It sounded like a helicopter preparing for lift off."

When Melba called Lowes for a repair she was referred to the company that serviced the contract. She said a repairman came, looked it over and advised her "not to use the dishwasher any more."

"What this repairman should have said to me was, 'don't run your dishwasher because I have done something horrible to it, Melba said.'" "Now your dishwasher will flood if you run it and it is going to leak all over the place."

Melba said she called the warranty company to get help but didn't get a call back. A few days later she said she received an Interpersonal Message Code from the company saying the warranty was invalid because of calcium build-up.

Frankly, it's almost always something like that. Melba would probably have been better off saving the money she spent on the extended warranty and using it to have her dishwasher repaired.

More

New Jersey Smashes Counterfeit Clothing Ring

Police say operation cheated businesses and consumers

Counterfeiting is a growing problem for both businesses and consumers....

Producing counterfeit products is big business, but it hurts both legitimate businesses and consumers.

Businesses that make a designer product, for example, lose money if a consumer buys a knockoff, thinking it's the real thing. Consumers often end up with shoddy, and even dangerous products.

New Jersey State Police say they have shut down a major counterfeit trademark operation based out of Passaic, N.J. Wan Kim, 52, of Ridgefield, N.J. was arrested by detectives and charged with possession and manufacturing of counterfeit trademark items.

$1.6 million in knockoffs

In a raid on a Passaic, N.J. warehouse, detectives seized over 15,000 pieces of counterfeit trademark clothing valued at approximately $1,600,000.

Some of the brands involved were Polo Ralph Lauren, Northface, Ed Hardy, and the NBA. Police says they also seized 100,000 counterfeit trademark neck labels and price tags for numerous trademark clothing companies including Lecoste, Baby Phat, True Religion, Girbaud, Coogi, Adidas, Sean John, and two Tajima 20 head embroidery machines valued at $120,000.

"This counterfeit operation was not small by any means, it produced millions of dollars worth of clothing that made its way onto the black market in New Jersey causing legitimate companies millions of dollars in the process," said Colonel Rick Fuentes, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police.

According to a study by the Counterfeiting Intelligence Bureau (CIB) of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) counterfeit goods make up five to seven percent of world trade.

Shoes and handbags big sellers

Counterfeiters in the apparel industry turn out clothes, shoes and handbags that bear a fake designer label but are made in varying quality. Sometimes the counterfeiter is trying to fool the consumer into thinking they are buying the real thing. Increasingly, however, consumers are buying the goods because they are cheap, and don't care if they're genuine or not.

Consumers have to be especially careful when it comes to counterfeit drugs and other personal products that might actually be dangerous. In 2007 Colgate warned consumers that counterfeiters were selling knockoff toothpaste. The toothpaste contained DEG, a deadly chemical found in antifreeze. The counterfeit tubes were discovered in discount stores in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.

Last year the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned consumers about a counterfeit and potentially harmful version of Alli 60 mg capsules. Tests conducted by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) -- the maker of the FDA approved over-the-counter weight-loss product -- revealed that the counterfeit version did not contain orlistat, the active ingredient in its product.

Instead, it contained the controlled substance sibutramine. Sibutramine is a drug that should not be used in certain patient populations or without physician oversight. It can also interact in a harmful way with other medications the consumer may be taking.

 

More

Suit Blames Paxil for Birth Defects

Louisiana couple argues depression drug is "unreasonably dangerous" to pregnant women

Suit Blames Paxil for Birth Defects. Louisiana couple argues depression drug is "unreasonably dangerous" to pregnant women....

A Louisiana couple claims that Glaxo SmithKline's Paxil, taken by the mother during pregnancy, caused their child's birth defects, including a club foot and other congenital defects and disorders.

In the case, being heard in federal court in Lake Charles, La., Russell and Desiree Figueroa say they did not discover that the injuries to their son, Joseph, were caused by Desiree's use of Paxil until years after their son's birth on Nov. 12, 2003.

They allege that Glaxo SmithKline concealed information about the possible harmful effects of taking Paxil during pregnancy.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Glaxo did not issue a warning about the risk of birth defects from Paxil use until September 2005, when they issued a news release noting that that a study had identified a risk of major congenital malformations in infants born to women taking Paxil and Paxil CR during the first trimester of pregnancy.

"Healthcare professionals are advised to carefully weigh the potential risks and benefits of using paroxetine therapy in women during pregnancy and to discuss these findings as well as treatment alternatives with their patients," the FDA said.

Desiree Figueroa says in the suit that she took Paxil as prescribed by her physician for treatment of depression. Glaxo SmithKline had not issued any warnings about using the drug during pregnancy and she argues she would not have taken the drug had she been properly advised of the risks associated with it.

The suit argues that because Paxil crosses the placenta, it is “unreasonably dangerous in design” and seeks damages and legal fees.

More

Walnuts May Be Perfect Health Food

They're No. 1 in antioxidants in the nut family

Walnuts are among the highest foods in antioxidants, according to research presented at the American Chemical Society national meeting....

photoIf you frequent the supermarket organic aisle in search of healthy food high in antioxidants, perhaps you should wander on over to the baking aisle and stock up on walnuts.

A report released at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting positions walnuts in the No. 1 slot among a family of foods that lay claim to being among Mother Nature’s most nearly perfect packaged foods -- nuts.

“Walnuts rank above peanuts, almonds, pecans, pistachios and other nuts,” said Joe Vinson, Ph.D., who did the analysis. “A handful of walnuts contains almost twice as much antioxidants as an equivalent amount of any other commonly consumed nut. But unfortunately, people don’t eat a lot of them. This study suggests that consumers should eat more walnuts as part of a healthy diet.”

Not the most popular snack

Unlike peanuts, people don’t tend to snack on walnuts. However, they add texture and nicely spice up yogurt and oatmeal. They are especially good in brownies, though that might negate some of their health effects. But if you were going to make brownies anyway, adding walnuts might, in fact, make them a tad healthier.

Vinson notes that nuts in general have an unusual combination of nutritional benefits -- in addition those antioxidants -- wrapped into a convenient and inexpensive package.

Nuts, for instance, contain plenty of high-quality protein that can substitute for meat; vitamins and minerals; dietary fiber; and are dairy- and gluten-free. Years of research by scientists around the world link regular consumption of small amounts of nuts or peanut butter with decreased risk of heart disease, certain kinds of cancer, gallstones, Type 2 diabetes, and other health problems.

Number one nut

Despite all the previous research, scientists until now had not compared both the amount and quality of antioxidants found in different nuts, Vinson said. He filled that knowledge gap by analyzing antioxidants in nine different types of nuts: walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, macadamias, and pecans. Walnuts had the highest levels of antioxidants.

According to the research, walnuts also have he best and most potent antioxidants. Vinson says antioxidants contained in walnuts were up to 15 times as potent as vitamin E, renowned for its powerful antioxidant effects that protect the body against damaging natural chemicals involved in causing disease.

“There’s another advantage in choosing walnuts as a source of antioxidants,” said Vinson, who is with the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. “The heat from roasting nuts generally reduces the quality of the antioxidants. People usually eat walnuts raw or unroasted, and get the full effectiveness of those antioxidants.”

Despite all this, the walnut appears both under appreciated and under consumed. Nuts, in general, he says, account for barely eight percent of the daily antioxidants in the average person’s diet.

Aren’t nuts, in general, loaded with fat and calories? Vinson says that nuts contain healthful polyunsaturated and monosaturated fats rather than artery-clogging saturated fat. As for the calories, eating nuts does not appear to cause weight gain and even makes people feel full and less likely to overeat.

 

More

GAO: Consumer Credit Protection Products Need Oversight

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will take a closer look

GAO: Consumer Credit Protection Products Need Oversight. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will take a closer look...

logoThe Government Accountability Office (GAO) has a suggestion for the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (CFPB): set some rules to help consumers deal with debt protection and credit insurance products.

The GAO said after a study that, although there are few consumer complaints about the products, they nevertheless carry a substantial cost and can be difficult for consumers to understand.

Fees can be substantial, with the annual cost often exceeding 10 percent of the cardholder's average monthly balance,” the GAO's report said. “In the aggregate, cardholders received 21 cents in tangible financial benefits for every dollar spent in debt protection product fees among the nine largest issuers in 2009.”

U.S. consumers paid about $2.4 billion on 24 million accounts for debt protection products in 2009, according to data from the nine largest credit card issuers.

Debt protection and credit insurance essential provide they same service – they cancel or suspend part or all of a credit card debt if the consumer dies, becomes disabled or becomes unemployed.

Debt protection is a banking product and is sold to consumers when they call their banks' customer service line, by direct mail, email and telemarketing and with new credit card applications. Credit insurance is an insurance product.

Debt protection products have largely displaced credit insurance in the credit card market, not necessarily a good development for consumers.

While credit insurance is regulated by state insurance commissions that, at least in some states, take a rather aggressive stance on cost versus benefits, debt protection is regulated by federal banking regulators, who focus on compliance with disclosure requirements and prohibitions of unfair or deceptive acts or practices.

However, GAO noted, the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection will soon assume supervisory and enforcement authority for financial products, including credit card debt protection products.

Ensuring that these products represent a fair value to consumers would be consistent with the new agency's mission,” the GAO said.

In particular, GAO suggested the CFPB study the financial benefits and costs to the consumer and improve consumer education efforts about the products.

 

 

More

Southwest Expands NYC-Area Service

Low-fare carrier offering 18 flights from Newark by June

Southwest Expands NYC-Area ServiceLow-fare carrier offering 18 flights from Newark by June...

photoSouthwest Airlines is adding routes from Newark's Liberty International Airport, a major move in its effort to lure more business travelers. It also flies out of LaGuardia and Long Island's MacArthur airports.

Current Newark service includes six flights to Chicago and two to St. Louis. In June, the carrier will add 10 more daily flights, to Baltimore, Orlando and elsewhere. Southwest will also be adding up to 19 flights daily from LaGuardia when its acquisition of AirTran wins federal approval.

Southwest has been trying to attract more business travelers by expanding service from major airline hub cities, including Boston, Denver and St. Louis.

Business travelers not only fly more frequently but tend to pay more, as they are more likely to make last-minute reservations and buy upgraded boarding priority and other extras.

The increased Southwest routes out of the New York City area should be a boon for Big Apple fliers, even those who travel on other airlines. Studies have consistently found that when Southwest adds a route, other airlines flying that route reduce their fares to remain competitive.

AirTran deal

Shareholders of AirTran Holdings, Inc., the parent company of AirTran Airways (AirTran), overwhelmingly approved the proposed acquisition of AirTran by Southwest Airlines last week. More than 98.6 percent of votes cast and 77.5 percent of shares outstanding were voted in favor of the acquisition.

The transaction remains under review by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and is subject to certain other regulatory clearances. Southwest and AirTran continue to operate as two independent companies pending those clearances. Southwest anticipates the transaction to close in the second quarter of this year.

 

More

AT&T T-Mobile Merger Far From Done Deal

The deal is likely to face strong headwinds in Washington

The proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile must first pass scrutiny by Washington regulators....

photoIf you’re a customer of either AT&T or T-Mobile and wondering how the announced merger of the two wireless carriers will affect you, hold on a minute. This deal could easily come unraveled in Washington.

Late last week the Wall Street Journal raised the issue that a lot of people may have been thinking. How is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) going to view a deal that reduces the number of wireless carriers in the U.S. while creating, by far, the nation’s largest mobile company?

It may view it with skepticism. The Journal quotes an FCC officials as saying the agency would not “just rubber stamp” the deal and that AT&T would “have a steep climb, to say the least.”

Anti-trust issues

A few blocks away from the FCC, lawyers at the U.S. Justice Department may have something to say about the proposed merger as well. In deals such as this, the Justice Department looks at ant-trust issues, to make sure the merger will not hurt competition. In markets where AT&T and T-Mobile are significant competitors, this could prove problematic.

If the deal is approved, 90 percent of the wireless business would be concentrated among just three companies – AT&T, Verizon and Sprint/Nextel. Of that, AT&T would have 43 percent of the business.

Will it be enough to derail the deal? Possibly, but AT&T is known in Washington for its lobbying power. The company says current customers of both companies will benefit from the union, because of expanded network coverage and additional spectrum.

Higher prices?

Critics of the deal, however, are likely to claim that the deal will result in higher prices for everyone. When the number of companies providing a service shrinks, costs to consumers almost always go up.

Another potential change for T-Mobile customers is the almost certain end to their unlimited data plan. T-Mobile currently has one, AT&T has moved to a tiered plan.

Lastly, there could be a consumer revolt among current T-Mobile customers. The blog eWeek reported over the weekend that anger and frustration is growing among some consumers. There is even an online site devoted to stopping the merger, where consumers can sign a petition against it.

 

More

What's On Your Mind? Barclay's Bank, Alamo, Kohl's

Our daily rundown on consumer complaints

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Barclay's Bank, Alamo, Kohl's, Remember the Alamo, Math problem and Hard to escape....

In the last two years lot of consumers have seen their credit card accounts closed or their credit limits reduced, as banks tried to reduce risk exposure. Mike, a Barclay’s Bank customer from Scottsdale, Ariz., said he was surprised when his credit limited dropped, since he had never missed a payment of ever been late. He said he rarely used the card and paid the balance within two weeks.

“I then called and inquired why they were reducing my credit line by 60 percent,” Mike told ConsumerAffairs.com. I was told that my account fit into a ‘certain risk category,’ resulting in the decrease. I asked when the last time I was late or had missed a payment had occurred. ‘Never’ was the response. I asked what my balance was. ‘Zero’ was the response.

In the credit card industry, a customer like Mike is generally known as a “deadbeat,” because he has access to credit but the credit card company makes no money from him. In the first scary days after the credit crisis, Mike’s account might have looked good to the bank. At this point, however, the bank may be trying to generate more revenue and wants to assign some of that credit to a consumer who carries a balance, and thus pays interest. In other words, Mike may be being punished for his good credit management.

Remember the Alamo

One of our readers, identifying himself only as “U.S. Traveler” from Miami, Fla., is having a spat with Alamo Car Rental at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport.

“When I returned the car the day of my departure, I had to rush to catch my plane,” he said. “I was instructed to put the car in a parking lot belonging to Alamo where no one was available to greet me and take the car from me. I had to go to the main counter inside the airport to return the key. I was able to barely catch my plane. Two days later, I receive an email from the manager of the rental office at Paris Charles de Gaulle stating that they could not find the GPS unit in the car and, if I do not have it with me to return it to them, they had to charge me $300.00.”

This is another reminder that it is risky to leave your rental car in a lot without having an attendant check you in. Something happened to the GPS between the time our reader dropped it off and the company checked it in. Alamo has no option except to hold our reader responsible. It may not be fair, but that’s the way it is. Our advice? If you are returning a rental car, it’s another good reason to get to the airport in plenty of time before your flight.

Math problem

Cynthia, of Goshen, Ohio, received $80 in Kohl’s Cash on a purchase at the department store, and a few days later, returned to the store with a Kohl’s coupon for 20 percent off her next total purchase.

“I gave the 20 percent coupon to the cashier upon checkout and she asked me if I had any Kohl's cash and I said yes and handed her two Kohl's cash coupons worth $80.00,” Cynthia said. “She took the $80 Kohl's cash off first and then applied my 20 percent off coupon to the balance. I questioned why the Kohl's cash was taken off first before discount was given and she said she didn't agree with it either but it was company policy.”

Cynthia says he thinks this is unfair, and she may have a point. In her mind, the Kohl’s Cash should be treated the same as real cash. The store obviously sees it differently, and it’s somewhat surprising that they would allow both the Kohl’s Cash and the coupon to be used in the same transaction. Often times you’ll see a disclaimer on a discount promotion that says “not valid with other offers.” Chances are, the policy is spelled out in the terms and conditions of the Kohl’s Cash. If they aren’t, Cynthia should press her case, or in the future, not use Kohl’s Cash and discount coupons in the same transaction.

Hard to escape

“My wife and I were looking on the Internet for vacation deals and went to Travelocity to check prices on a trip,” John, of Wilmington, N.C., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Now we have a $210 charge on a debit card from Simple Escapes because of a pop-up ad that opened on Travelocity’s website.”

Simple Escapes is a travel discount “membership” program marketed by Vertrue, and this particular program drew widespread complaints about unauthorized charges in the mid 2000s. John should have been clearly informed that he was entering into a membership program that would result in a charge on his credit card. If he doesn’t think he was, he should contact North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.

 

More

Mazda Suspends U.S. Dealer Orders for Most Models

Auto industry may have lost production of more than 300,000 cars because of Japan quake

Mazda Suspends U.S. Dealer Orders for Most Models. Auto industry may have lost production of more than 300,000 cars because of Japan quake....

 photoMazda has suspended U.S. dealer orders for vehicles made in Japan. The company had reopened its plants briefly but had to close them again because of disruptions caused by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant disaster.

Mazda models imported from Japan include the Mazda2, Mazda3, MX-5 Miata, RX-8, CX-7, CX-9 and Mazda5.

The suspension basically cuts off the May allocation for Mazda's U.S. sales network. It's not known when imports will resume.

Other automakers are having similar difficulties, although Mazda's situation is somewhat more severe, as it imports most of the cars it sells in the U.S., while other Japanese automakers assemble many of their vehicles in the U.S.

  • Honda suspended U.S. dealer orders for Japan imports this week, including the Honda Fit, CR-V, Insight, CR-Z, Civic Hybrid and Acura TSX and RL.

  • Nissan said it was cutting its May allocation in half, while Toyota and Mitsubishi have suspended dealer orders.

  • Toyotahas delayed the launch of its new Prius wagon in Japan. Shipments of the Prius sedan are on hold.

  • GM has had to idle some plants in Europe and the U.S. because of parts shortages.

  • Ford has advised its dealers that it won't be able to fill orders for black vehicles because of paint shortages.

  • Volkswagen said it may have to slow production in Europe as component suppliers in Japan struggle to get their plants back into action.

All told, global automakers have so far lost production of more than 232,000 vehicles, Bloomberg News reported today. That figure doesn't include lost production at Nissan, General Motors and other companies that haven't provided figures. The total figure may be over 300,000, industry sources say.

 

More

Season Ticketholder Sues Cleveland Browns, NFL

Fan wants an injunction blocking the team owners' player lock-out

Season Ticketholder Sues Cleveland Browns, NFL. Fan wants an injunction blocking the team owners' player lock-out....

logoA season ticketholder sued the National Football League (NFL) and its member clubs for breach of contract, tortious interference and bad faith, for locking out players and endangering the 2011-12 season.

Kenneth A. Lanci, an avid Cleveland Browns fan, signed up for ten season tickets back in 1997 and says the decertification of the NFL Player's Association and the league's subsequent lock-out of the players constitute a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

Shortly after the lock-out was announced on March 11, Lanci received an email from the Browns offering him his usual tickets and saying that if any games were canceled, he would receive a refund.

That's fine but it's not what his contract provides, says Lanci, who argues that the offer does not provide Lanci with his contractural right to “possess and use his seats for the Games.”

The team owners' decision to lock out the players destroyed the value of Lanci's contract and amounts to a breach of contract, the suit argues.

The suit, filed in Cuyahoga County Court, asks for damages of at least $25,000, representing the price of the tickets, plus interests, costs and attorneys fees as well as an injunction against the NFL prohibiting the lock-out of the players.

 

More

FDA Approves New Drug to Treat Advanced Melanoma

Drug lengthened survival time for skin cancer patients tested

FDA Approves New Drug to Treat Advanced Melanoma. Drug lengthened survival time for skin cancer patients tested ...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today approved a new drug for patients with late-stage melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer.

Yervoy (ipilimumab) is a monoclonal antibody that blocks a molecule known as CTLA-4, which is thought to play a role in slowing down or turning off the body’s immune system, affecting its ability to fight off cancerous cells.

Yervoy, developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., will initially be sold only for use in patients who have not responded to other treatments. The drug is administered intravenously.

Melanoma is the leading cause of death from skin disease. An estimated 68,130 new cases of melanoma were diagnosed in the United States during 2010 and about 8,700 people died from the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“Late-stage melanoma is devastating, with very few treatment options for patients, none of which previously prolonged a patient’s life,” said Richard Pazdur, M.D., director of the Office of Oncology Drug Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. "Yervoy is the first therapy approved by the FDA to clearly demonstrate that patients with metastatic melanoma live longer by taking this treatment."

Patients lived longer

Yervoy’s safety and effectiveness were established in a single international study of 676 patients with melanoma. All patients in the study had stopped responding to other FDA-approved or commonly used treatments for melanoma. In addition, participants had disease that had spread or that could not be surgically removed. 

The study was designed to measure overall survival, the length of time from when the treatment started until a patient's death. The randomly assigned patients received Yervoy plus an experimental tumor vaccine called gp100, Yervoy alone, or the vaccine alone.

 Those who received the combination of Yervoy plus the vaccine or Yervoy alone lived an average of about 10 months, while those who received only the experimental vaccine lived an average of 6.5 months.

While those benefits may appear modest, scientists say some people who took the drug several years ago when it was still in the early testing stages are still alive today.

"I think the vast majority of patients with metastatic melanoma should at some point try this agent," said Patrick Hwu, chairman of the department of melanoma medical oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Side effects

The drug can have severe side effects, including fatigue, diarrhea, skin rash, endocrine deficiencies (gland or hormone), and inflammation of the intestines (colitis). Severe to fatal autoimmune reactions were seen in 12.9 percent of patients treated with Yervoy. 

When severe side effects occurred, Yervoy was stopped and corticosteroid treatment was started. Not all patients responded to this treatment. Patients who did respond in some cases did not see any improvement for several weeks.

Due to the unusual and severe side effects associated with Yervoy, the therapy is being approved with a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy to inform health care professionals about these serious risks. A medication guide will also be provided to patients to inform them about the therapy's potential side effects, the FDA said.

 

 

More

What's On Your Mind? Adobe, Frigidaire, Magic Jack

Our daily look at consumer complaints

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Adobe, Frigidaire, Magic Jack, New isn't necessarily better, There's no magic to it and Let me speak to Flo....

photoIs Adobe software being too nosey when it asks for your birth date when you register their Photoshop Elements software? Norman, of Santa Barbara think so.

"After installing the software, the launch and registration window demands: 1) that the user sign in with Adobe; and, 2) provide a complete birth date," Norman told ConsumerAffairs.com. "There is no way to opt-out of this requirement, according to the support person with whom I spoke.

Norman thinks the policy is a danger to privacy and a violation of California's Online Protection Act.

"The product packaging does not indicate anywhere that the purchaser must provide a complete birthday to use the product," Norman said. "This is illegal, and I have requested a refund."

Norman probably isn't going to get one. Jay Foley, at the Identity Theft Resource Center, in San Diego, tells us that Adobe asks for the birth date because, as part of the registration of the software, the user also sets up an account. Foley said Adobe asks for the birth date to verify the person setting up the account is an adult and that's allowed under the law.

New isn't necessarily better

We've long suspected, based on the number of complaints about high-end, expensive appliances, that you would be better off buying a cheaper, stripped down model. Maybe that's not always the case.

"I had never purchased a brand new appliance before so, to say the least, I was proud of my new Frigidaire refrigerator that we paid over $500 for," Donna, of Inola, Okla., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "We decided it would be cheaper than buying used ones every other year because we thought it would last at least ten year."

But after 18 months, Donna reports the compressor has "kicked the bucket."

"I could have bought two or three used ones a lot cheaper and got more use out of them than I did this one that is only one and a half years old."

We're not sure why, but new appliances don't seem to last as long as the old ones.

There's no magic to it

Magic Jack advertises heavily on radio and TV for its VoIP telephone service. For $19.95 a year you get a telephone number and unlimited local and long distance service. That's a lot for the price, but some consumers say it doesn't work well for them. That may be why the company offers a 30-day free trial.

Nancy, of Alford, Mass., is upset because she says the company makes it too hard to return the product before the end of a 30 day free trial.

"We couldn't reach anyone by phone and tried to get a return address on the web site to return it and they wouldn't give us one," Nancy told ConsumerAffairs.com.

The Magic Jack website has a "returns" page where Nancy needs to enter the required information to get the RMA process started.

Let me speak to Flo

In their commercials, Progressive Insurance's customer service rep, Flo, is always perky and friendly with customers. An anonymous consumer from Denver says she called Progressive and the customer service rep definitely wasn't Flo.

"They were a very rude auto insurance representative. Her phone is always turn-off, you leave a message, she never returns phone calls. She doesn't know anything about customer service. I had to change insurance as I didn't like the experience with her."

 

 

More

Campaign Targets 'Grandparent Scam,' Other Imposter Scams

Victims lose thousands of dollars by responding to phony calls for help

Campaign Targets 'Grandparent Scam,' Other Imposter Scams. Victims lose thousands of dollars by responding to phony calls for help...

The “Grandparent Scam” has been around forever, in one form or another, but has been gaining ground lately as more scam artists learn about it and as evolving forms of communication make it easier to find victims and drain their funds.

The investigative TV news show “Inside Edition” identified the scam way back in 2006 and since then, consumer organizations and law enforcement officials have been issuing warnings, even as the number of victims rises. In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 60,000 complaints nationwide.

Now the Consumer Federation of America and New Jersey Attorney General Paula T. Dow are launching a nationwide public education campaign, including a two-minute video, to alert consumers to the threat.

The key to protecting consumers from fraud is public awareness. We hope that our new video and tips about the grandparent scam will help consumers in New Jersey and across the country avoid being tricked out of their money,” said Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection at the Consumer Federation of America.

The Grandparent Scam typically begins with an urgent phone call to an unsuspecting senior citizen. The caller may claim to be the victim’s grandchild, or claim to be a police officer. The message is always the same: Your grandchild is hurt, in jail, or otherwise in trouble, and needs hundreds of dollars immediately. Please don’t tell mom. Please do send a money order via Western Union or a similar service.

Those who fall victim later learn their grandchild never was in trouble. Instead, their money has been wired to a thief and may never be seen again.

A press event in Newark, NJ, yesterday included a statement from Jim and Dorothy, a Wayne, NJ, couple who nearly fell victim to the Grandparent Scam and who spoke publicly on the condition that their last name not be used. The couple received a call on February 15, 2011 from a young person who sounded remarkably like their grandson, and who accounted for the difference in his voice by saying his nose had been broken in a car accident. He claimed he was in jail in Canada while visiting family friends, and desperately needed $2,800 for bail.

The caller had a plausible and urgent story. He used specific family details during the lengthy conversation – details the family now believes were gleaned from the grandson’s or his friends’ Facebook pages. He pleaded with them not to tell his mother, but said he would tell her himself after his court appearance. Despite some reservations, the couple strongly considered sending money to a recipient in Canada. They stopped themselves when their daughter, the grandson’s aunt, saw them and asked questions that made them consider whether the caller’s story was real.

The Grandparent Scam and other impostor scams come in many varieties. Some common factors include:

  • Scammers typically ask the victim to send funds via a money order or other transfer service. Once money has been transferred and picked up by a recipient with a phony ID, it may be impossible to trace and retrieve.

  • Scammers often use marketing lists, with names and phone numbers or email addresses, to target victims.

  • Some scammers will tell their story using specific details, like the names of the grandchild’s relatives or friends. Scammers can often find this information online, such as on social networking websites.

  • Some scammers hack into consumers’ email accounts, then send emergency emails to the consumers’ friends.

  • Scammers who call on the phone will typically try to prevent the victim from checking whether their story is true. They will insist, “Don’t tell mom,” or, “You must act immediately.”

The Division of Consumer Affairs and Consumer Federation of America offer the following very simple tips to prevent senior citizens and others from being victimized:

  • If you receive an emergency call asking for money, always check with a family member to find out whether your loved one really needs help.

  • Take the time now to talk with your family about this and similar scams. Consider creating a code word or phrase – one only the family would know – in case it becomes necessary to make an emergency call for help.

  • Make it a personal policy, and a family policy, never to wire money without being sure the story you’re being told is true.

 

More

Girls Gone Wild Founder Needs a Lawyer ... Fast

Joe Francis has yet another court date but no lawyer

Girls Gone Wild Founder Needs a Lawyer ... Fast. Joe Francis has yet another court date but no lawyer....

photoThings aren't looking good for "Girls Gone Wild" mogul Joe Francis. He has less than a week to find a lawyer and avoid a possible default judgment in a case that involves claims by four women that Francis sexually exploited them when they were minors.

The women sued Francis and three of his companies in U.S. District Court in Florida alleging that they filmed the women “exposing their breasts and/or engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” The filming in Panama City, Fla., was part of Francis' series of “Girls Gone Wild,” widely sold over the Internet and as wireless phone content.

Francis' trial is set to begin March 28 but although he says he has been “earnestly searching,” Francis claims he has not been able to retain a lawyer.

U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak earlier entered a default judgment against Francis' corporations because Francis had failed to obtain counsel for them. Francis himself now faces the same fate.

Francis' most recent attorney, Frederick J. Bateman, withdrew from the case and sued Francis for $467,312.50 in allegedly unpaid fees.

If the judge enters the default judgment against Francis, the case will go to trial with only the issue of damages to be decided.

It's not as though Francis is unfamiliar with the inside of a court room. His once-booming business in teen-aged flesh and controversial sales practices have resulted in numerous legal actions against him.

  • In September 2006, Francis' company was fined $2 million by a Florida court after pleading guilty to charges that it failed to create and maintain age and identity documents for the performers in its films.

  • In April 2007, Francisco was indicted on federal tax evasion charges by a grand jury in Reno, Nev.

  • In March 2008, Francis finished an 11-month jail term in Florida on a felony count of child abuse and prostitution.

Francis and his companies have also faced numerous civil actions, including several consumer class action lawsuits, but its website continues to offer DVDs and pay-per-view videos and is currently conducting a “Hottest Girl in America” contest, which asks young women to submit photos and certify that they are over 18.

More

Does Cell Phone Exposure Weaken Bone Density?

Men who wear their cell phone on their belt may be weakening their hip bone

Researchers say men who wear their cell phone on their belt may be weakening their hip bone...


If you wear your cell phone on your hip, or carry it in your pocket, you may be weakening the bones in your body that are in closest proximity to the device. At least, that’s what a new study suggests.

The study found men who routinely wear their cell phone on their belt on the right side have reduced bone mineral content (BMC) and bone mineral density (BMD) in the right hip, according to the study by Dr. Fernando D. Sravi of National University of Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina.

"The different patterns of right-left asymmetry in femoral bone mineral found in mobile cell phone users and nonusers are consistent with a nonthermal effect of electromagnetic radiofrequency waves not previously described," Sravi writes. (Read consumer complaints about cell phone companies).

Electromagnetic radiation

The research team focused on electromagnetic radiation from cell phones, suggesting they can adversely affect bone strength. Other research reports have suggested links between this radiation and the formation of tumors, though the mobile industry is quick to say no definitive link has been made.

In this study, Sravi and his ream measured BMC and BMD at the left and right hip in two groups of healthy men: 24 men who did not use cell phones and 24 men who carried their cell phone in a belt pouch, on the right side, for at least one year.

Measured using a test called dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry, BMC and BMD are standard markers of bone strength.

Findings

What did they find? Average hip BMC and BMD measurements were not significantly different between groups. However, men who did not use cell phones had higher BMC in the right femoral neck (near the top of the thigh bone): a normal left-right difference that was absent in cell phone users.

The conclusion? Men who wore their cell phones on the right side had a relative reduction in femoral neck BMC in that hip.

The cell phone users also had reduced BMD and BMC at the right outside top of the thigh bone, close to where the phone would be worn on the belt. The difference between this area on the the left and right side was significantly related to the estimated total hours spent carrying a cell phone.

The researchers say very little study has been done concerning the possible affect of cell phones on bone density, but it could be vitally important, especially for a generation that will spend its entire adult life carrying a cell phone.

They say it could lead to a large increase in osteoporosis and other bone diseases as that generation ages.

 

More

Menthol Cigarettes No More Likely To Kill, Study Finds

Counters move to ban menthol from cigarettes

A Vanderbilt University study finds cigarettes with menthol no more harmful than regular cigarettes....

Despite claims that menthol in cigarettes makes them more addictive and more likely to lead to lung cancer, a new study funded by the National Cancer Institute finds no evidence to support that view.

William Blot, Ph.D., professor of Medicine, Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC), Nashville, Tenn., led the study.

"Black men are known to have a higher incidence of lung cancer and are more likely to smoke mentholated cigarettes compared to white men," said Blot. "It has been hypothesized that menthol in cigarettes influences smoking behavior, perhaps increasing dependency or adversely affecting the biology of the lung. However, our large study found no evidence to support those theories."

Southern smokers surveyed

The study of lung cancer risk was based on results from the Southern Community Cohort Study (SCCS), an ongoing investigation of cancer incidence and mortality disparities among racial, and urban versus rural populations in 12 southern states. Smoking prevalence among participants in the SCCS was exceptionally high, and both menthol and non-menthol cigarette use was common.

Anti-smoking advocates have long targeted menthol in cigarettes as a reason smokers have a harder time kicking the habit. A December 2010 study suggested menthol cigarettes may provide higher levels of carbon monoxide, nicotine and cotinine per cigarette smoked than regular cigarettes, so smokers who favor menthol can still get their fix, even with fewer cigarettes.

"Menthol stimulates cold receptors, so it produces a cooling sensation. This effect may help smokers inhale more nicotine per cigarette and so become more addicted," said Jonathan Foulds, Ph.D., professor, Public Health Sciences, Penn State College of Medicine, and an author of the report.

Possible menthol ban

Last October the Food and Drug Administration's scientific advisory committee took up the matter of whether tobacco companies use menthol as a way to keep smokers hooked. The committee was directed to write a report on the subject and could recommend regulating, or even banning the substance.

At the time, the head of the National Black Chamber of Commerce defended menthol and branded the move to ban it as directed at African-Americans.

"It is no secret that menthol cigarettes provide a distinctive taste that is preferred by many African Americans," NBCC President Harry Alford said. "In making a recommendation, it is my fervent hope that the committee not make a decision based on mixed information, decades-old marketing information, inconclusive studies or preconceived notions."

Support for menthol defenders

The latest study is likely to provide ammunition for Alford and others who defend menthol. Among people smoking 20 or more cigarettes a day, menthol smokers were approximately 12 times more likely to develop lung cancer than never-smokers, while non-menthol smokers were about 21 times more likely to have the disease. The differences were mirrored for lung cancer death rates and were found to be statistically significant.

The researchers also found that both white and black menthol smokers reported smoking fewer cigarettes per day than non-menthol smokers. When it comes to the likelihood of quitting smoking, there was no significant difference between menthol and non-menthol smokers.

The authors conclude that the findings suggest menthol cigarettes are no more, and perhaps less, harmful than non-menthol cigarettes. But smoking any kind of cigarette, they quickly point out, is unhealthy.

"Cigarette smoking remains the leading cause of premature death in the United States, but undue emphasis on reduction of menthol relative to other cigarettes may distract from the ultimate health prevention message that smoking of any cigarettes is injurious to health," said Blot.

 

More

Consumerinfo.com's 'Credit Scores' are Misrepresented, Suit Charges

The scores are proprietary, in-house scores not used by lenders, complaint alleges

Consumerinfo.com's 'Credit Scores' are Misrepresented, Suit Charges...

A federal class action claims Consumerinfo.com defrauds customers by misrepresenting its in-house method of calculating credit scores. 

The complaint, filed in federal court in San Diego charges that the site does not tell consumers that the credit score it sells is based on a proprietary, in-house method of calculation – Experian's Plus Score – that is not sold to lenders and not used by lenders to determine consumers' creditworthiness.

The suit charges that the credit scores are sold through Consumerinfo.com's network of websites, including www.freecreditreport.com, www.freecreditscore.com and www.consumerinfo.com.

The named plaintiff in the suit, David Waring of San Diego, said he purchased a credit score from Consumerinfo.com after visiting www.freecreditreport.com, enrolling in a monthly credit monitoring service for $14.95 per month, thinking he was buying information that give him guidance on how creditors viewed his creditworthiness.

Waring said Consumerinfo.com “failed to disclose clearly and conspicuously” that its credit score is not used by lenders.

20 million reports

Consumerinfo.com, based in Costa Mesa, Calif., claims to have delivered more than 20 million credit reports through its Internet sites. It is owned by Experian plc, whose corporate headquarters are in Dublin, Ireland.

The suit alleges that more than 90 percent of lenders use credit scores developed by Fair Isaac Corp., known as FICO scores.

Historically, Experian and the other two major U.S. credit bureaus – Equifax and TransUnion – have distributed FICO credit scores to lenders, under a licensing agreement with Fair Isaac. But in February 2009, Experian ended its relationship with FICO and no longer sells FICO-based scores to consumers, the suit charged.

“The 'credit scores' advertised by Defendant and provided to consumers are not credit scores sold to or used by lenders in determining consumers' creditworthiness and are not FICO scores … and [are] not therefore used by lenders in determining a consumer's creditworthiness,” the complaint charges.

Automatic enrollment

Consumers who place an order for their credit report and credit score are automatically enrolled in Consumerinfo.com's “Triple Advantage” credit reporting monitoring service, the suit alleges, results in a monthly charge of $14.95 or, in some instances, $19.95.

Experian plc had total revenue of $3.9 billion in 2010, according to its annual report, and cites its “interactive” business unit as contributing 27 percent of that revenue.

Previous challenges

It's not the first time Consumerinfo.com's claims have been challenged. In August 2005, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reached a settlement in a case in which it charged the company had engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices by failing to adequately disclose that consumers would be charged $79.95 if they did not cancel their credit report monitoring service within a trial period.

The company paid $950,000 in refunds to consumers as part of the settlement.

In January 2007, the FTC filed for an injunction, charged that Consumerinfo.com was violating the terms of the earlier settlement. The company was required to pay $300,000 in ill-gotten gains and enjoined from further violations.

The suit seeks damanges for all persons in the United States who purchased a credit score from Consumerinfo.com after March 22, 2007.

More

Video: Insurance Institute For Highway Safety Selects Top Safety Picks For 2011

U.S. made cars show improvements

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has selected 74 model vehicles for its 2011 Top Safety Pick....

A select club is growing larger. Each year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) announces its Top Safety Picks and most years, the list grows longer. What's sometimes overlooked is that the list grows throughout the year, as manufacturers resubmit models after making safety modifications.

This year, 68 models made the initial cut, up from 58 last year and the number has grown since then. Recent additions include the Mazda3, Honda Odyssey, three large GM SUVs, the MINI Cooper Countryman, Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300. (Complete list below)

Volkswagen was the big winner this year, with six winners. Ford, Kia, Subaru and Toyota had five each and Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai each had four. Subaru had a winner in every class in which it competes.

In just a year, automakers have more than doubled the number of vehicles that meet the criteria for Top Safety Pick,” said Adrian Lund, IIHS president. “Automakers deserve credit for quickly rising to meet the more challenging criteria for Top Safety Pick.”

Mark Huffman describes the selection process in this report:

Here is the complete list of winners:

 

LARGE CARS

Buick LaCrosse

Buick Regal

BMW 5 series
(except 4-wheel drive and V8)

Cadillac CTS sedan

Chrysler 300

Dodge Charger

Ford Taurus

Hyundai Genesis

Infiniti M37/M56
(except M56x 4-wheel drive)

Lincoln MKS

Mercedes E class coupe

Mercedes E class sedan

Toyota Avalon

Volvo S80

 

SMALL CARS

Chevrolet Cruze

Honda Civic
4-door models (except Si)
with optional ESC

Kia Forte sedan

Kia Soul

Mazda 3
built after December 2010:
sedan | hatchback

Mini Cooper Countryman

Mitsubishi Lancer sedan
(except 4-wheel drive)

Nissan Cube

Scion tC

Scion xB

Subaru Impreza
(except WRX):
sedan | wagon

Toyota Corolla

Volkswagen Golf
4-door models

Volkswagen GTI
4-door models

MINICARS

Ford Fiesta
built after July 2010:
sedan | hatchback

 

MIDSIZE CARS

Audi A3

Audi A4 sedan

Chevrolet Malibu

Chrysler 200
4-door models

Dodge Avenger

Ford Fusion

Hyundai Sonata

Kia Optima

Lincoln MKZ

Mercedes C class

Subaru Legacy

Subaru Outback

Volkswagen Jetta sedan

Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen

Volvo C30

 

MINIVANS

Honda Odyssey

Toyota Sienna

 

LARGE SUVs

Buick Enclave
built after January 2011

Chevrolet Traverse
built after January 2011

GMC Acadia
built after January 2011

Volkswagen Touareg

MIDSIZE SUVs

Audi Q5

Cadillac SRX

Chevrolet Equinox

Dodge Journey

Ford Explorer

Ford Flex

GMC Terrain

Hyundai Santa Fe

Jeep Grand Cherokee

Kia Sorento
built after March 2010

Lexus RX

Lincoln MKT

Mercedes GLK

Subaru Tribeca

Toyota Highlander

Toyota Venza

Volvo XC60

Volvo XC90

 

SMALL SUVs

Honda Element

Hyundai Tucson

Jeep Patriot
with optional side torso airbags

Kia Sportage

Subaru Forester

Volkswagen Tiguan

 

 

 

More

Consumers Warned About Weight Loss Scams

FDA is warning consumers to avoid products with exaggerated weight loss claims

The Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers to avoid products with exaggerated weight loss claims...

photoIf you’ve been tempted by ads that proclaim “magic diet pill,” or “melt your fat away,” don’t be. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says nearly all are scams, designed to separate you from your money.

Not only do these products not live up to their claims, they can cause serious harm. Regulators say they have found dozens of products being touted as dietary supplements that actually contain hidden prescription drugs or compounds that have not been adequately studied in humans. (More about weight loss scams).

Not legal

“These products are not legal dietary supplements,” said Michael Levy, director of the FDA’s Division of New Drugs and Labeling Compliance. “They are actually very powerful drugs masquerading as ‘all-natural’ or ‘herbal’ supplements, and they carry significant risks to unsuspecting consumers."

And Levy is not just talking about an illness keeping you in bed for a couple of days.

“We have seen deaths associated with these weight-loss products,” he said. “Make no mistake—they can kill you.”

FDA said it has found weight-loss products tainted with the prescription drug ingredient sibutramine. This ingredient was in an FDA-approved drug called Meridia, which was removed from the market in October 2010 because it caused heart problems and strokes.

Asking for help

FDA has also found other prescription drug ingredients that have been removed from the market or never approved at all. The problem is so big, the agency says, that it has asked the dietary supplement industry and consumers to help.

“We also need consumers to be aware of these dangerous products and to learn how to identify and avoid them,” said Levy.

Warning signs

How can you tell if a pitch for a diet product or supplement is fraudulent. Here are some red flags to look for:

  • promises of quick action, such as “lose 10 pounds in one week”
  • use of the words “guaranteed” or “scientific breakthrough”
  • labeled or marketed in a foreign language
  • marketed through mass e-mails
  • marketed as an herbal alternative to an FDA-approved drug or as having effects similar to prescription drugs

Very often, the companies marketing these bogus pills rip consumers off in other ways. They may offer a “free trial” shipment, but require the consumer to provide their credit card information to cover “shipping and handling.” The next thing the consumer knows, their credit card has been charged for multiple orders at the full price, some of which never even arrive.

Generally, if you are using or considering using any product marketed as a dietary supplement, FDA suggests that you check with your health care professional or a registered dietitian. They will be in a better position to tell you the best way to lose weight, instead of relying on ads that claim losing weight is easy.

 

 

More

Toyota, Honda Extend Factory Shutdowns

Earthquake aftermath cuts flow of popular models to U.S.

Toyota, Honda Extend Factory Shutdowns. Earthquake aftermath cuts flow of popular models to U.S. ...

photoTalk about timing. With gas prices rising, a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, ground zero for fuel-sipping cars, leaving American dealers and consumers with a fast-dwindling stock of Priuses, Corolla, Fits and other popular models.

Toyota and Honda have both extended factory shutdowns in Japan through at least this weekend, as they struggle to get their supply chains back into operations. Honda warned its dealers last week that orders will be disrupted at least through May.

The suspensions have cut off the flow of cars to the United States, including the Toyota Corolla, Prius and RAV4, the Honda Fit and CR-V as well as the Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester and most Infiniti, Acura and Lexus models.

Some other companies are struggling back to life but it is a process marked by fits and starts. Nissan said it still has five plants closed by the quake, interrupting production of Infiniti products as well as the 350Z and GT-R sports cars.

Mitsubishi and Mazda said their plants were back up but the supply of parts was still a question mark.

Subaru parent company Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. has suspended vehicle assembly until at least Thursday.

It's not only Japanese brands that are being affected. General Motors has closed the Louisiana plant that builds the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon pickups because it has run out of Japanese parts. Ford says it has not had any problems so far.

Rising prices

One thing everyone agrees on: car prices will be going up. While it's obvious that a shortage of Japanese models would drive up prices for those cars, the most likely scenario is that prices for nearly all cars and trucks will go up.

Nearly-new used cars are suddenly in demand. Buyers who might have bought a Japanese car will be competing with other buyers who already have their eyes on a Korean, German or American product.

As dealer inventories shrink, consumers can expect incentives to go away. Dealers will likely begin adding above-sticker charges to the models that are most in demand.

For anyone who has a car that's still in safe operating condition, now is probably the time to hang onto it. Bargains are going to be hard to find.

 

 

More

Timeshare Owners Still Get Burned By Empty Promises

Be leery of promises of a quick sale and a demand of an upfront fee

If a timeshare sale deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is....

In the last 12 months or so, various states have reached settlements with some companies in the business of reselling timeshares. These companies usually make big promises that they will sell an unwanted timeshare unit, but demand a large upfront fee.

In an eight-month period, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrels settled with two time-share real estate firms he accused of ripping off consumers. Massachusetts and Missouri were also among the states reaching timeshare settlements last year.

Last September, Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan warned  timeshare owners in her state that scammers have moved into the space, collecting money but making no attempt to sell anything.

How it works

Madigan says the scam typically works like this: a timeshare owner gets a call out of the blue from someone claiming to be a timeshare reseller. They have a client who wants to buy their timeshare, are they interested?

In this market, getting an unsolicited call from someone wanting to buy your timeshare is cause for jumping up and down. It sounds too good to be true, and of course, it is. And the problem persists.

"A few months back I was in really desperate straits," Chris, of Rincon, Ga., told ConsumerAffairs.com this week.

Out of nowhere

He said a company called Vacation Property Resellers "came out of nowhere" and assured him they could sell his timeshare.

"They seemed to know a lot about it and said they had buyers already lined up," Chris said. "The issue was they wanted $1100 up front. Yeah, I know. Dumb move but I was not thinking right back then. I paid it and saw the "closing date" move seven times in the last eight months."

George says he feels a bit sheepish after doing some online research and seeing the number of complaints about this, and other similar companies. He says he wishes he had known then what he knows now.

It's a good lesson for everyone else who has a timeshare they would like to sell. Keep in mind that today, selling any type of real estate - especially timeshares - is very difficult. Anyone who says they can, but needs an upfront fee, probably isn't shooting straight with you.

More

Chase Snips Debit Card Perks, Blames Feds

No more free miles on Continental or United for Chase debit card holders

Chase is mailing letters to its customers informing them that as of July 19, the rewards will be history. Customers will still be able to redeem rewards bu...

More

Oregon Law Firm Shut Down for Unlawful Debt Collection Practices

Attorneys are increasingly specializing in debt collection, mortgage modification

Oregon Law Firm Shut Down for Unlawful Debt Collection Practices. Attorneys are increasingly specializing in debt collection, mortgage modification...

Attorneys hungry for business are increasingly specializing in activities only loosely connected with the practice of law, debt collection and mortgage modification being the two most prominent examples.

Attorneys are, in some cases, able to evade consumer protection laws that might apply to more traditional debt collectors and debt counseling services. But in Oregon,Attorney General John Krogerrecentlyannounced an agreement that shuts down a Eugene-based law firm that was the subject of dozens of complaints about its debt collection practices.

In addition to closing down McGavic & Finney PC, the settlement requires founding partner Derrick E. McGavic to pay $70,000 and surrender his license to practice law.

"At a time when many Oregonians are struggling to manage their debt, the Department of Justice is committed to holding unscrupulous debt collectors accountable," said Keith Dubanevich, Chief of Staff and Special Counsel to Attorney General Kroger.

The state started investigating McGavic and his partner Kristan Finney after receiving more than 90 complaints against their law firm, Dubanevich said. McGavic was simultaneously undergoing an investigation by the Oregon State Bar.

McGavic & Finney specialized in representing national debt collectors that buy defaulted consumer obligations in massive quantities on the secondary market – often for pennies on the dollar.

Consumer complaints filed with the Oregon Department of Justice accused McGavic of systematically ignoring debtor protections and rights afforded under the Oregon and Federal Debt Collection Protection Acts. For example, McGavic allegedly misidentified or purposefully confused the identity of creditors in documentation to delay consumers' response and thus increase fees and interest payable to McGavic and his clients.

Notices issued by McGavic allegedly omitted specific information related to the amount of the defaulted debt and failed to provide proper verification of debts when requested by consumers. Similarly, McGavic allegedly repeatedly called debtors who had requested in writing not to be called.

The Department of Justice's investigation also uncovered McGavic's pattern of falsifying fee affidavits in Motions for Default Judgments by claiming services he did not perform. In addition, McGavic allegedly provided his office staff with a schedule to be used to arbitrarily increase the fees claimed - depending on the amount of money claimed or the venue of the action.

The agreement filed March 16 in Lane County Circuit Court requires Derrick McGavic to pay $70,000 to the Oregon Department of Justice to reimburse the cost of the investigation; dissolve the law firm of McGavic & Finney, PC; and resign from the Oregon State Bar.

McGavic is further prohibited from acting as a debt collector or operating a law firm or a collection agency in the State of Oregon. Kristan Finney may continue to operate under a different business or firm, subject to numerous stringent injunctive provisions specified in the settlement agreement.

More

Mortgage Modification Scams Still on the Rise

A single California agency reports conducting 4,500 investigations

Mortgage Modification Scams Still on the Rise. A single California agency reports conducting 4,500 investigations....

Homeowners continue to fall victim to scam artists operating bogus mortgage modification programs. In California alone, more than 4,500 complaints are being investigated by the state Department of Real Estate (DRE).

“With so many people struggling to stay in their homes, foreclosure rescue and mortgage relief scams have risen dramatically,” DRE Commissioner Jeff Davi said.

DRE has investigated over 4,500 cases that involved loan modification complaints, Davi said. These cases have resulted in 244 desist and refrain orders to halt illegal operations that name 785 separate respondents. In addition, the DRE has filed 88 accusations against 159 different real estate licensees for violating the real estate law in connection with offering loan modification services.

The typical scam involves the promise of a loan modification or other mortgage or foreclosure relief in exchange for an upfront fee, but once the fee is paid little or nothing is done to help the homeowner.

Helpful consumer tips on how to avoid such scams include:

  • Never pay an upfront fee for loan modification services. Such fees are illegal. Advance fees for short sale, deed-in-lieu of foreclosure and other residential mortgage foreclosure rescue services are also illegal under a new federal rule, with a very limited exception for fees paid to lawyers.

  • Watch out for promises of guaranteed success. No one can promise that a loan modification or other relief plan will be successful.

  • Too good to be true testimonials. False claims of successes are often the hook to get consumers to pay upfront fees.

  • Ask questions - lots of them! Check with the Better Business Bureau, and verify licenses and disciplinary records (if any) of those offering their services.

  • Perform Internet searches, such as Google. Often consumers will post information about unscrupulous operators well before regulators can act.

  • Contact a HUD approved counseling agency that can provide loan modification or other mortgage negotiation services for free.

  • Do it yourself. You do not need anyone to represent you to obtain a loan modification. The DRE has Frequently Asked Questions on how to seek and negotiate a loan modification, and it can be accessed at http://www.dre.ca.gov/faq_home.htm

 

More

Cereal Mystery Solved: Kellogg Sues Manufacturer of Box Liners

Company had to recall four cereal brands last year because of a bad smell

Cereal Mystery Solved: Kellogg Sues Manufacturer of Box Liners. Company had to recall four cereal brands last year because of a bad smell....

photoYou might remember that last June, Kellogg Company recalled several of its popular breakfast cereals because of what the company called "an uncharacteristic off-flavor and smell coming from the liner in the package.”

At the time no one seemed to know quite what the problem was but the company advised consumers not to eat the cereals – Corn Pops, Froot Loops, Apple Jacks and Honey Smacks – until the mystery was solved.

Well, the mystery has been solved, at least according to a lawsuit Kellogg has filed against FPC Flexible Packaging Corp., a Scarborough, Ontario, company. Kellogg claims Flexible sold it cereal box liners contaminated with hydrocarbons with "offensive, off characteristics that caused symptoms including nausea and diarrhea.”

Kellogg said it uses a paper, foil and wax cereal liner to package the affected cereals, a liner that, until June 2010, it purchased from FPC.

In a federal suit filed in Michigan, Kellogg said it suffered “significant damage to its property and was forced to institute a costly nationwide recall” because of consumer complaints about the off-putting smell.

“After extensive testing … Kellogg discovered that the offensive characteristics were caused by the present of heightened levels of hydrocarbons contained in the cereal liners manufactured by FPC,” the complaint alleges.

As a result of the faulty liners, Kellogg said it incurred millions of dollars in damages, including the cost of the recall, the loss of sales, replacement vouchers issued to customers, and the expense of investigating the problem and producing a health hazard assessment for submission to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Kellogg also complained that it was forced to find another supplier for its cereal liner “at higher overall cost than its existing contractual arrangement with FPC.”

For its part, FPC maintains that the liners were not defective and contends that Kellogg owes it $3.4 million for the materials it had purchased to manufacture future liners for Kellogg and $1 million for the allegedly defective liners.

Kellogg asks the court to award it damages, legal fees and “such other and further relief as this Court deems equitable and just.”

More

Second Infant Death Blamed On Delta Enterprise "Safety Peg" Drop-Side Crib

Missing Safety Pegs Create Risk of Entrapment and Suffocation

Second Infant Death Blamed On Delta Enterprise "Safety Peg" Drop-Side CribMissing Safety Pegs Create Risk of Entrapment and Suffocation...

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is repeating the 2008 recall of more than 985,000 drop-side cribs with "Crib Trigger Lock and Safety Peg" hardware.

In January 2011, CPSC and Delta Enterprise Corp., the crib's manufacturer, learned of a 2009 death in which a 7-month-old girl from Colorado Springs, Colo., became entrapped and suffocated between the detached drop-side and mattress of her recalled crib. The crib was purchased secondhand and re-assembled without safety pegs in the bottom tracks.

Missing safety pegs can create a situation where the crib's drop-side rail disengages from the track. This can create a hazardous space in which an infant can become entrapped and suffocate.

At the time of the October 2008 recall, CPSC notified consumers about the death of an 8-month-old girl who became entrapped and suffocated when the drop side of the crib detached. The crib involved in this incident also was re-assembled without safety pegs. At the time of the October 2008 recall announcement, there were reports of two entrapments and nine detachments in cribs without safety pegs.

"Buying or accepting cribs second hand can be risky," said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. "Second hand cribs may not come with all of the necessary parts that are needed to make sure your baby is safe. We urge parents and caregivers to use caution and to be aware that new rules established by CPSC will bring safer cribs to the market this summer."

The repeated recall involves cribs that were made in Taiwan and Indonesia. The cribs were sold at major retail stores including Kmart, Target and Walmart between January 1995 and December 2005 (through September 2007 for model 4624) for about $100.

Delta's name and address is printed on the mattress support boards and the Delta logo is on the crib's top teether rail. Model numbers are located on the top of the mattress support board. This announcement includes the following 49 crib models with "Crib Trigger Lock with Safety Peg" drop-side hardware:

  • 4320, 4340;
  • 4500, 4520, 4530, 4532, 4540, 4542, 4550, 4551, 4580;
  • 4600, 4620, 4624 - production dates 01/06 thru 11/07, 4640, 4660, 4720, 4735, 4742, 4750 - production dates 01/95 thru 12/00;
  • 4760, 4770, 4780, 4790;
  • 4820, 4840, 4850, 4860, 4880, 4890, 4892; and
  • 4900, 4910, 4920, 4925-2, 4925-6, 4930, 4940, 4943, 4944, 4947, 4948, 4949, 4950, 4958, 4963, 4968, 4969, 4980.

CPSC urges parents and caregivers to immediately stop using cribs that are missing a safety peg on either leg of the drop side and contact Delta to receive a free, easy-to-install repair kit. Call Delta toll-free at (800) 816-5304 anytime or visit the firm's website at www.cribrecallcenter.com to order the free repair kit.

Parents and caregivers are encouraged to find a safe, alternative sleep environment for their child until the repair kit, with new safety pegs, is safely installed on the recalled cribs.

CPSC reminds parents not to use any crib with missing, broken or loose parts. Make sure to tighten hardware from time to time to keep the crib sturdy. When using a drop-side crib, parents should check to make sure the drop side or any other moving part operates smoothly. Always check all sides and corners of the crib for parts separating that can create a gap and entrap a child.

In addition, do not try to repair any side of the crib. Babies have died in cribs where repairs were attempted by caregivers. Crib age is a factor in safety. At a minimum, CPSC staff recommends that you do not use a crib that is older than 10 years old. New, mandatory federal crib rules take effect on June 28, 2011. All cribs manufactured and sold after that date must meet new and improved safety requirements. Older cribs do not meet the new standard and can have a variety of safety problems.

More

What's On Your Mind? Unauthorized Charges, Toothpaste Allergy, Identity Theft

Our daily rundown of consumer issues

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Unauthorized Charges, Toothpaste Allergy, Identity Theft, More mystery charges, No cavities and Too much informat...

photoElizabeth of Mountain View, Hi., says she unwittingly signed up for Trilegiant “ID Secure” service.

“Trilegiant mailed a solicitation to me in the form of a small check of about $10 - $15,” Elizabeth told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I mistakenly thought it was a rebate on a transaction I had had with Priceline.com.”

So she cashed it. The result was two charges, one for $139.99 and one for $149.99, on her credit card. Negative option marketers have long used the small check gambit as a means to get people to sign up for their services. States have cracked down on this practice in recent years.

Elizabeth sent us a copy a letter she wrote to the company demanding that these charges be reversed. She sited two settlements in which Trilegiant made amends with consumers in a number of states. We also suggest she send a copy of the letter to her state attorney general.

More mystery charges

When you get a brand new credit card, there shouldn’t be any charges on it. But even before Darryl of Chino Hills Calif., got her Sears credit card, there was a charge placed by DealMax.com.

“First I have never dealt with this website, second I had not even received my new card yet and this company already was charging me something I never authorized,” Darryl told ConsumerAffairs.com. 

DealMax is part of Adaptive Marketing, which in turn is a subsidiary of Vertrue, which has a long history of complaints about surprise charges on consumer’s credit card. Darrryl says she is fortunate her credit card providers was able to deny the charge. But the mystery remains as to how it got there in the first place.

No cavities, but…

In recent months we’ve gotten complaints from consumers who say they feel a burning sensation in their mouth after using Crest toothpaste. April, of Headland, Ala., is one of them.

“After about just a few uses, I began having gum pain,” April told ConsumerAffairs.com.

April said she didn’t think much about it, then it started worsening and her gums started swelling.

“I woke up just this morning planning to see a dentist for it and noticed the left side of my face from the temple down to my lips were horribly swollen and numb as if I'd been given Novocaine at the dentists office and the skin on the inside of my cheek was peeling off in big pieces,” she said.

April said the dentist asked if she changed toothpaste recently and, when she said she did, told her to switch back, saying she was having an allergic reaction.

Flavorings used in toothpaste have been known to trigger an allergic reaction, but these reactions are usually mild and will resolve if you switch to a different flavor or brand of toothpaste. Danish researchers first identified the link in 1998.

Too much information

We all get those checks in the mail from our credit card companies, making it easier for us to take out cash advances. But actually, they’re just a hassle, because they require shredding for safety. Del, of Norcross, Ga., said he recently received a new credit card from Bank of America, along with two preprinted checks, with his name, address, and account number. And that’s not all.

“They prominently displayed ‘Your PIN for cash access is: XXXX’ next to the blank checks,” Del said. “This private information that could be used by identity thieves was sent through the mail. Inclusion of our cash access PIN was negligent and unnecessary exposure to identity theft criminals.”

That’s why you should open any and all communications from credit card companies, even if you think it’s just a marketing pitch. Shred any checks or documents that have personal information on them.

 

More

Walmart Tries to Get Back On Message

But what once worked well may not work as well anymore

Walmart Tries to Get Back On Message. But what once worked well may not work as well anymore...

It wasn't long ago that Walmart was trying to broaden its customer base, hoping to attract a slightly more upscale crowd. Now, mired in a sales slump that's lasted seven consecutive quarters, it's wishing it could just get its old customers back.

It's hoping to accomplish that by an advertising and merchandising campaign that takes it back to its “core pricing message” – the time-tested “Every Day Low Prices” slogan that saw it grow from a backwoods chain to Earth's biggest retailer.

An advertising campaign breaking next month will highlight the chain's decades-old everyday low pricing strategy and will also highlight its policy of matching competitors' advertised prices, a policy it's always had but hasn't talked about much.

Spiffed up

In its failed attempt to appeal to a more affluent crowd, Walmart abandoned its cluttered look and its policy of always having the lowest prices on the most basic merchandise. Instead, it spiffed up stores, starting talking about sustainability and organic food and offered discounts on some items while raising prices on others.

The remodeling effort may have been the biggest mistake. The company spent billions of dollars dolling up its stores but, in the process, cut back on its selection.

Now, hoping to return to its roots and win back its $30,000 to $70,000-per-year customer base, Walmart is once again stacking merchandise up to the ceiling and piling up boxes in the aisles, just like the good old days.

Will it work?

Some retail analysts note that times have changed. For one thing, the biggest demographic group in the country – the boomers – have aged. They're beyond their child-rearing years and aren't making as many big stock-up trips to the local Walmart.

Younger consumers, meanwhile, shop differently. Instead of making one or two big shopping trips a month, they tend to order online from the likes of Amazon.com and Drugstore.com – a pattern reinforced by the long hours and long commutes many families face today, not to mention the allure of sales-tax-free shopping that online purchasers enjoy in most states.

Could it be that the supercenter concept has run its course? That's the theory of Leon Nicholas, quoted by trade magazine Advertising Age.

Nor is Nicholas convinced that Walmart's strategy of rolling out small-format stores will be much help. The dollar chains are adding at least 1,000 stores this year while Walmart is adding only a few hundred over the next several years.

 

 

More

Federal Reserve Tightens CARD Act Rules On Lenders

Designed to prevent banks from circumventing new law

The Federal Reserve has tightened some of the new Credit Card rules covering banks....

logoThe Federal Reserve has tweaked a regulation implementing the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act, and it might turn out to be good news for consumers.

The rule is intended to enhance protections for consumers who use credit cards and to make sure lenders understand what their obligations are when it comes to compliance.

In order to protect consumers from running up unaffordable levels of credit card debt, the Credit Card Act requires that, before opening a new credit card account or increasing the credit limit on an existing account, card issuers consider a consumer's ability to make the required payments on the account. Much like banks were supposed to do with mortgages.

Show us the money

Specifically, the rule states that credit card applications generally cannot request a consumer's "household income" because that term is too vague to allow issuers to properly evaluate the consumer's ability to pay. Instead, issuers must consider the consumer's individual income or salary.

The Fed is also cautioning lenders about promotional programs that waive interest charges for a specified period of time. It says these programs are subject to the same Credit Card Act protections as promotional programs that apply a reduced rate for a specified period.

For example, a card issuer that offers to waive interest charges for six months will be prohibited from revoking the waiver and charging interest during the six-month period, unless the account becomes more than 60 days delinquent.

Watch out for waivers

CardHub.com CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou, a former Capital One executive, says Citibank skirted this rule by renaming introductory rates as interest waivers. More specifically, he says it offered a rebate of 70 percent of finance charges and classified it as a promotional waiver.

Since it’s a waiver, the Citibank disclaimer said it could revoke it at any time, thereby increasing customers’ interest rates even if they were not 60 days delinquent. Papadimitriou cheered the Fed’s move.

“This type of action is in stark contrast to Fed practices spanning the last decade which allowed unsafe lending to permeate unchecked,” Papadimitriou said.  “It is so refreshing to finally see the ‘new Fed’ take a very proactive role in addressing dangerous trends as soon as they pop up.”

More work to do

Papadimitriou says the Federal Reserve needs to continue its role in heading off devious practices by also addressing Bank of America’s proposed $59 membership fees, which he says is an attempt to increase interest rates by calling it something else.

The Fed says application and similar fees that a consumer is required to pay before a credit card account is opened are covered by the same Credit Card Act limitations as fees charged during the first year after the account is opened.

Because the total amount of these fees cannot exceed 25 percent of the account's initial credit limit, a card issuer that, for example, charges a $75 fee to apply for a credit card with a $400 credit limit generally will not be permitted to charge more than $25 in additional fees during the first year after account opening.

 

 

More

Judge OKs Walgreens Mouthwash Lawsuit

Suit challenges company's claims for its Full Action mouthwash

Judge OKs Walgreens Mouthwash Lawsuit. Suit challenges company's claims for its Full Action mouthwash....

photoConsumers can sue Walgreens for promoting, and charging a "significant price" for, a mouth rinse that the company misrepresented as capable of removing plaque above the gum line to promote healthy gums, a Florida federal judge ruled.

Judge James I. Cohn ruled that Howard Moss and other plaintiffs can proceed with their suit, which charges Walgreens with violating the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and with breach of warranty.

The suit alleges that Walgreens promotes its Full Action Mouth Rinse as delivering certain benefits, including: “Full action, Freshens Breath, Restores Enamel, Helps Strengthen Teeth, Helps kill germs that cause bad breath and Helps fight visible plaque above the gum line.”

But Moss claims that Walgreens does not support its claims, particularly the claim that Full Action removes plaque above the gum line or promotes healthy gums, and that its claims are therefore “misleading, false and reasonably likely to deceive the public.”

Moss also claims that Walgreens charges “a significant price premium” for Full Action.

Walgreens had challenged Moss, claiming that the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) governs such questions and that the FDCA pre-empts state law.

Moss' complaint had referred to a letter the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent to Walgreens on September 27, 2010.

In that letter, the FDA informed Walgreens that if Full Action indeed fights plaque above the gum line, it is a drug subject to regulation by the FDA. The letter also asserts that Full Action is mileading because its ingredients panel describes it as a “Sodium Fluoride and Acidulated Phosphate Topical Solution,” which the FDA said was “inconsistent with the actual ingredients of the product.”

 

More

AT&T Introduces 'Glasses-Free' 3D Smartphone

Carrier continues to add to its line-up

AT&T has introduced two new smartphone models....

photoJust one day after it announced its blockbuster deal to acquire T-Mobile, AT&T announced the launch of two new smartphones, including one model that it calls the first 3D phone sold in the U.S.

The LG Thrill 4G and the HTC HD7S joined the AT&T line-up today, as the carrier continues to offer a wider variety of devices, now that its once-exclusive iPhone is now available to Verizon Wireless subscribers.

AT&T says the LG Thrill 4G is the first U.S. smartphone that will feature a "glasses-free" 4.3-inch stereoscopic 3D display plus 4G speed capability. Beyond its 3D screen, the LG Thrill 4G features a dual-core, 1 GHz processor, and a 5-megapixel dual-camera that allows you to shoot and share high definition videos and images in 3D.

The HTC HD7S is another Windows Phone, this one with a 4.3-inch, WVGA, super LCD display, 1 GHz processor and 5-megapixel camera with dual-LED flash.

Exclusive

The iPhone may no longer be exclusive to AT&T, but the company says the LG Thrill 4G is, and will go on sale in AT&T stores later this year. It runs the first dual-core, dual-channel 1 GHz processor in the U.S. and is based on the Android 2.2 platform. It will allow users to shoot 3D video and 3D stills with the dual 5-megapixel stereoscopic camera. 

In addition to apps and games from Android Market, LG Thrill 4G will offer 3D content via the "LG 3D Space," which houses 3D games, video clips and images for quick, convenient access.  It will come preloaded with 16 GB of memory, 8 GB onboard plus an 8 GB MicroSD card.

New Windows phone

AT&T says the HTC HD7S will have the largest screen on a Windows Phone from AT&T and will include the latest version of Windows Phone software.  It will be powered by a 1 GHz processor and support more than 10,000 applications available for download or purchase from Windows Marketplace.

In addition, with the preloaded U-verse Mobile application, qualifying AT&T U-verse customers can download and watch TV shows on their Windows Phone.  Non-U-verse customers can subscribe to U-verse Mobile for $9.99 a month and choose from a broad selection of programming to watch on their Windows Phone. 

 

 

More

Male Plastic Surgery is Booming, Thanks to Boomers

Despite what you might think, it's men who are keeping plastic surgeons busy these days.

Despite what you might think, it's men who are keeping plastic surgeons busy these days....

You thought women were the only ones going in for cosmetic surgery? Maybe that was the case at one time, but today it’s aging men who want to look good, and who are keeping cosmetic surgeons in their Mercedes.

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) is out with a new survey today showing cosmetic surgeries on men rose two percent in 2010. It gets a little more interesting when you break it down by category of surgery.

Facelifts for men rose 14 percent in 2010 while male liposuction increased seven percent.

The ASPS 2010 statistics show that men underwent more than 1.1 million cosmetic procedures, both minimally-invasive and surgical.

Bucking the trend

The majority of the Men’s Top 10 fastest-growing cosmetic procedures are surgical, which bucks the previous trend of growth in minimally-invasive treatments.

“The growth in cosmetic surgical procedures for men may be a product of our aging baby boomers who are now ready to have plastic surgery,” said ASPS President Phillip Haeck, MD. “Minimally-invasive procedures such as Botox and soft tissue fillers work to a point. However, as you age and gravity takes over, surgical procedures that lift the skin are necessary in order to show significant improvement.”

Most popular procedures

Here’s the list of the top 10 cosmetic surgeries performed on men last year:

  • Facelift - 14% Increase 
  • Ear Surgery (Otoplasty) – 11% Increase 
  • Soft Tissue Fillers – 10% Increase 
  • Botulinum Toxin Type A – 9% Increase 
  • Liposuction – 7% Increase 
  • Breast Reduction in Men - 6% Increase 
  • Eyelid Surgery - 4% Increase 
  • Dermabrasion - 4% Increase 
  • Laser Hair Removal - 4% Increase
  • Laser Treatment of Leg Veins - 4% Increase

“Typically people think of celebrities and high profile men going under the knife,” said Stephen Baker, MD, an ASPS Member Surgeon based in Washington DC. “And while that may be true, the typical male cosmetic surgery patient that I see is an average guy who wants to look as good as he feels.”

Baker said much of the new business in male cosmetic surgery is among Baby Boomers. He calls Boomer men “the new face” of the male plastic surgery trend.

 

More

What's On Your Mind? Whirlpool, AT&T, Cuisinart

What consumers are saying about the problems they face

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Whirlpool, AT&T, Cuisinart, Doesn't add up, Really hot coffee, Elusive degree and complaints....

photoIt's easy to forget about your home's water heater - except when it doesn't work. Oscar, of Lawrenceville, Ga., says he's frustrated with his Whirlpool gas water heater.

"For years, I kept changing the thermocouple with the hope that I will not have to do it again next month. I was wrong; the flame in the pilot went off every two months," Oscar told ConsumerAffairs.com. "So far, I have changed the thermocouple of my new BF model many, many, many times,  and the flame continues to go off."

Oscar's complaint was much more common, once upon a time. In 2008 Whirlpool settled a class action suit that alleged the heaters were defective. Whirlpool has updated its design to reduce the amount of dust that collected in the combustion chamber, prompting the flame to go out. Whirlpool has worked hard to address this issue and, while Oscar expresses frustration that he has not been able to resolve his problem, he probably needs to bring it to the attention of someone at a higher level within the company.

Doesn't add up

Telecommunications company have recently begun "bundling services," encouraging consumers to get all their services from one source. Carol, of Houston, Tex., says it hasn't worked out that well for her.

"I have been a customer of AT&T for many years," Carol told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I saw an ad for a $99 a month U-Verse for one year. I signed up for that package with a rebate of $100. It is now March 2011 and I have been struggling with them for all these months to get billing straight. My bill has been over $200 every month."

Carol should have paperwork that was completed at the time she signed up for the service. The contract should spell out the terms. If, after carefully reviewing the terms Carol finds AT&T is not living up to the agreement, she should make her case firmly with a customer representative.

In many cases, however, consumers are confused by the packages, which include a special six-month introductory rate. The rate is low for six months, but then jumps after that. The company averages the high rate and the low rate over a 12- month period and advertises that price. Technically, that is the average rate, but consumers are often taken by surprise when the rate is higher than what was advertised.

Really hot coffee

How hard is it to make a good coffeemaker? We've received a number of complaints about different makes of coffeemakers over the years. If they aren't dripping coffee all over the counter, they're spitting sparks.

"I purchased a Cuisinart 12 cup coffee maker four months ago and it's a fire hazard!" Sylvia, of Vancouver, British Columbia told ConsumerAffairs.com. "This morning, immediately after brewing, the unit started billowing smoke and making a crackling noise. As my smoke detector sounded, I grabbed the smoking coffee maker and threw it on my balcony. A few more minutes and it would have ignited into a full flame."

We've had other similar complaints recently. Stay tuned.

Elusive degree?

For-profit colleges have come under closer scrutiny in the last year amid rising complaints from students, who feel many schools are only interested in the loans and financial aid used to pay for the courses. Faith, of Arlington, Tex., has a different complaint about Kaplan University.

"They will constantly reject paper work as a means to hold onto disbursements, but this time they have begun to get even worse with trying to get money from the students," Faith told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Faith said she is almost finished with her degree, which requires 91 credit. But recently, as she got closer to graduation, she maintains the school upped it to 106 credits.

Last year the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held hearings on for-profit colleges, and last year a lawsuit claimed that Kaplan recruiters aggressively signed up students who were unqualified and enrolled students in vocational-training courses for industries that they knew to be over-staffed.

 

 

More

AT&T Buys T-Mobile, Leaving Sprint a Weak Third

$39 billion deal was a bolt from the blue; AT&T promises expanded 4G LTE service

AT&T Buys T-Mobile, Leaving Sprint a Weak Third. $39 billion deal was a bolt from the blue; AT&T promises expanded 4G LTE service....

photoAT&T has announced that it is buying T-Mobile for $39 billion, a deal that will create the largest cellular carrier in the country and leave Sprint, long expected to merge with T-Mobile, as a very distant third to AT&T and Verizon.

However, the deal is expected to face considerable scrutiny from regulators and consumer activists are likely to object that the merger will reduce competition and raise prices although, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, cellular subscription costs fell 50 percent between 1999 and 2009, a period in which there was considerable consolidation.

There are also likely to be doubts that Sprint would long survive as an independent competitor, which could mean that in short order the number of full-scale competitors would be reduced to two.

AT&T now has 95.5 million wireless subscribers while T-Mobile, owned by Deutsche-Telekom, has 33.7 million. Verizon has 93.2 million.

Big win

From a technical standpoint, the deal is a big win, since both companies operate on the GSM standard, which would provide a clear path for both T-Mobile and AT&T to more quickly roll out a new 4G broadband data standard, presumably using AT&T's forthcoming LTE (Long Term Evolution) system.

In an early bid to win regulators' favor, AT&T said it was committing to a significant expansion of 4G LTE deployment to 95 percent of the U.S. population, reaching an additional 46.5 million Americans beyond current plans – including rural communities and small towns. 

This helps achieve the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and President Obama’s goals to connect “every part of America to the digital age,” AT&T said.

“This transaction represents a major commitment to strengthen and expand critical infrastructure for our nation’s future,” said Randall Stephenson, AT&T Chairman and CEO. "Mobile broadband networks drive economic opportunity everywhere, and they enable the expanding high-tech ecosystem that includes device makers, cloud and content providers, app developers, customers, and more.”

Low rates

T-Mobile has traditionally offered some of the lowest rates of the major cellular carriers, although its network was not as widely available as its three larger competitors, which made it an impactical choice for many consumers.

AT&T is expected to honor current T-Mobile contracts but it is likely that once those expire, T-Mobile customers may have to convert to AT&T’s higher rates. On the other hand, a more geographically robust network might reduce roaming charges or signal problems for consumers who travel in rural and other currently under-served areas.

That's not an argument consumer activists are likely to accept, however.

“Don’t believe the hype,” S. Derek Turner, research director of Free Press Research, a Washington think tank, told The New York times. “There is nothing about having less competition that will benefit wireless consumers. And if regulators approve this deal, they will further cement duopoly control over the wireless market by AT&T and Verizon.”

A surprise

The deal was a bolt from the blue for telecom industry observers. It had been a closely guarded secret since at least last December, when negotiations reportedly became more intense as speculation about a Sprint-T-Mobile merger grew.

 

More

Payday Loan Marketers Pay $800,000 to Settle FTC Charges

Swish Marketing allegedly tricked consumers into buying prepaid debit cards

Payday Loan Marketers Pay $800,000 to Settle FTC Charges Swish Marketing allegedly tricked consumers into buying prepaid debit cards...

Two men who operated a service matching borrowers with potential lenders will pay $800,000 and the proceeds from the sale of a house to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they tricked hundreds of thousands of payday loan applicants into paying for an unrelated debit card.

The FTC said it is closely monitoring payday lending and other financial services in order to protect financially distressed consumers.

According to the FTC’scomplaintSwish Marketing, Inc.and its principalsoperated websites advertising short-term, or “payday,” loan matching services. The websites included an online loan application form that allegedly tricked consumers into unknowingly ordering a debit card when they applied for a loan online.

On many sites, clicking the button for submitting loan applications led to four product offers unrelated to the loan, each with tiny “Yes” and “No” buttons. “No” was pre-clicked for three of them; “Yes” was pre-clicked for a debit card, with fine-print disclosures asserting the consumers’ consent to have their bank account debited.

Consumers who simply clicked a prominent “Finish matching me with a payday loan provider!” button were charged for the debit card. Other websites touted the card as a “bonus” and disclosed the fee only in fine print below the submit button. As a result, the FTC alleged that consumers were improperly charged up to $54.95 each.

In August 2009, the FTC charged Swish Marketing and VirtualWorks LLC, the seller of the debit card, and their principals with deceptive business practices. In April 2010, the FTC filedan amended complaintagainst the Swish Marketing defendants, adding allegations that they sold consumers’ bank account information to VirtualWorks without the consumers’ consent, and thatthe company's ownerswere aware of consumer complaints about the unauthorized debits.

More

Tax Deadline A Month From Today

Filing electronically might speed things up

Taxpayers are down to the last month before they must submit their 2010 tax return....

It's March 18, do you know where your tax return is? Just a reminder, since the April 18 tax filing deadline is now a month away.

The fastest, and maybe the easiest way to file your federal return is using the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) e-file system. You or your tax professional prepare your tax return and file it electronically. In many cases, the tax professional is also the Electronic Return Originator (ERO) who is authorized to file your return electronically to the IRS. Ask your tax professional to file your return through IRS e-file.

You sign your electronic tax return by either using a Self-Select PIN for e-file for a completely paperless return, or by signing Form 8453 ,U.S. Individual Income Tax Transmittal for an IRS e-file Return.

After you sign the return using a Self-Select PIN or Form 8453,the tax preparer transmits the return to the IRS or to a third-party transmitter who then forwards the entire electronic record to the IRS for processing.

Once received at the IRS, the return is automatically checked by computers for errors and missing information. If it cannot be processed, it is sent back to the originating transmitter to clarify any necessary information.

Free File

If you're on a budget and meet certain criteria, you can tax advantage of Free File, from the IRS. Free File is a public-private partnership between the IRS and the Free File Alliance, LLC. The Alliance is a consortium of approximately 20 tax software providers who make versions of their products available exclusively on line.

All Free File members must meet certain security requirements and use the latest in encryption technology to protect taxpayers' information.

The easiest way to locate a software provider is to use the online tool that, with a little of a taxpayer's personal information, can identify matching products. Or, taxpayers can review all providers and their offers. Some software providers also offer state income tax preparation for free or for a fee.

This is the third year that the Free File Alliance has provided the Free Fillable Forms program, which is like completing a Form 1040 online, except the program performs some math calculations and provides links to some IRS publications.

“IRS Free File is the one-stop shop for all taxpayers making $58,000 or less to file their federal returns,” said Tim Hugo, executive director of the Free File Alliance. “Through IRS Free File, about 100 million people have free access to the industry’s best tax preparation software and a range of forms to fit most tax situations. It’s all online, and it’s all free. Tax time can be stressful, but IRS Free File walks participants through each step of the filing process to make taxes less taxing.”

The IRS notes that Free File does not use the familiar question-and-answer format used by tax preparation software. It also does not support state income tax returns. Taxpayers can e-file the forms for free. Taxpayers must access the tax products through IRS.gov to avoid any charges for preparing or e-filing a federal tax return.

By early March, the IRS estimated almost 19 million tax returns had been filed from home computers so far this year, many of them using the Free File service.

 

More

No Escape From Medicare, Judge Rules

Retirees would have to give up Social Security and repay benefits to opt out of Medicare

No Escape From Medicare, Judge Rules. Retirees would have to give up Social Security and repay benefits to opt out of Medicare....

logoMuch of the opposition to “Obamacare” has centered around its supposedly unprecedented requirement that everyone must have a health insurance policy in place. But as a group of retired federal employees will tell you, this is hardly the only federal health program that lacks an opt-out provision. (Consumer complaints about Social Security).

A federal judge has ruled that retirees cannot opt out of Medicare Part A, the part that covers hospital stays, unless they are willing to forfeit their Social Security checks and repay all of the benefits they have already received.

Though sounding sympathetic, Judge Rosemary M. Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia declared her hands were tied.

“Medicare costs are skyrocketing and may bankrupt us all; nonetheless, participation in Medicare Part A (for hospital insurance) is statutorily mandated for retirees who are 65 years old or older and are receiving Social Security Retirement (so-called ‘old age’) benefits. Whether Congress intended this result in 1965 or whether it is good fiscal and public policy in 2011 cannot gainsay the language of the statute and the regulations,” Judge Collyer wrote.

The plaintiffs – Brian Hall, John Kraus, and Richard Armey – are retired federal employees who had previously been enrolled in the Federal Employees Health Benefit (FEHB) program and wanted to “disenroll” from Medicare without surrendering their Social Security benefits.

Too bad, said Judge Collyer, noting that the Supreme Court had previously recognized the “mandatory institutional health benefits (such as coverage for hospital expenses) provided by Part A.” in a 1986 decision.

“The parties use a lot of ink disputing whether Plaintiffs’ desire to avoid Medicare Part A is sensible. This is not an issue the Court needs to address,” she wrote. This dispute constitutes a case or controversy without regard to why Plaintiffs prefer other insurance coverage. ”

Under the law and Social Security regulations, the only way for an individual to avoid being “entitled” to Medicare Part A is to either not register for Social Security or submit a written request withdrawing from Social Security and returning all benefits previously paid, Judge Collyer held.

In conclusion, said the judge, “Plaintiffs are trapped in a government program intended for their benefit. They disagree and wish to escape. The Court can find no loophole or requirement that the [Health and Human Services] Secretary provide such a pathway.”

It could not be immediately determined whether the Richard Armey who was one of the three plaintiffs is “the” Richard Armey, the Texas Republican who served in Congress from 1985 to 2003 and was the House Majority Leader from 1995 to 2003.

 

More

Continental Recalls Tires on Ford F-250/F-350 Trucks

Tread separation could cause a crash

Continental Recalls Tires on Ford F-250/F-350 Trucks Tread separation could cause a crash...

Continental Tire is recalling about 390,000 Contitrac tires supplied as original equipment on some Ford trucks from the 2008-2009 model years. The recalled tires are:

Vehicle Make / Model:

   

Model Year(s):

     FORD / F-250

   

2008-2009

     FORD / F-350

   

2008-2009

Tire Brand Name / Tire Line / Tire Size:

   

Production Dates:

    CONTINENTAL / CONTITRAC / LT275/70R18 125/122S

   

MAY 06, 2007 - SEP 20, 2008

    CONTINENTAL / CONTITRAC TR BSW / LT275/70R18 125/122S

   

MAY 06, 2007 - SEP 20, 2008

    CONTINENTAL / CONTITRAC TR OWL / LT275/70R18 125/122S

   

MAY 06, 2007 - SEP 20, 2008

The company said some of the tires may experience uneven wear and vibration and, in some cases, separation between the belt edges, especially when overloaded or when the temperature is very high.

Separation of the belt edges could lead to tread belt separation, increasing the risk of a crash.

Continental Tire will notify owners and replace the affected tires free of charge. the safety recall is expected to begin during march 2011. Owners may contact continental customer service toll-free at 1-888-799-2168.

More

Kashi Recalls Southwest Style Chicken Products

Packages may be mislabeled and may contain eggs, an allergen

Kashi Recalls Southwest Style Chicken Products. Packages may be mislabeled and may contain eggs, an allergen....

Kashi, of La Jolla, Calif., is recalling approximately 2,790 pounds of Kashi Southwest Style Chicken products because the packages may instead contain Kashi Chicken Pasta Pomodoro, which contains an undeclared allergen, egg, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today. Egg is a known allergen, which may not be declared on the label.

The products subject to recall include:

  • 10 oz. Kashi Southwest Style Chicken entrees marked with UPC Code 1862729292 and bear a lot code of DEC28 11 RF B1.

Retailers should look for products labeled:

  • 8-count cases containing 10 oz. packages of Kashi Chicken Pasta Pomodoro which bear lot codes DEC 28 2011 RF B1 06:00 through DEC 28 2011 RF B1 08:00.

The individual packages are labeled Keep Frozen and bear the establishment number P-17644 inside the mark of inspection. Request Foods, Inc., a Holland, Mich., establishment, produced the chicken entrees for Kashi on December 28, 2010 and the products were shipped to retailers nationwide. The problem was discovered through customer complaints to Kashi when the packaged product did not appear to be correctly labeled.

It was determined that product may have been incorrectly packaged at the end of a production run. FSIS and the company have received no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products. Anyone concerned about an allergic reaction should contact a health care provider.

FSIS routinely conducts recall effectiveness checks to verify recalling firms notify their customers of the recall and that steps are taken to make certain that the product is no longer available to consumers.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact the Kashi Consumer Response Center at (877) 864-3523 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern time, or visit www.kashi.com. Members of the media with questions should contact the Kashi Media Hotline at (269) 961-3799.

More

Gas Prices Level Off After Huge Run-Up

Feds predict $4 a gallon gas later this year

Gasoline prices finally leveled off this week after weeks of increases....

photoThe good news for motorists this week is gasoline prices have stopped going up. The bad news, of course, is they are at the highest point in three years after weeks of rapid increases.

The average price of self-serve regular gas today is $3.540 a gallon, about the same price as seven days ago, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. But prices are 41 cents a gallon higher than they were a month ago and 75 cents a gallon higher than the price a year ago.

Diesel fuel prices, meanwhile, are closing in on the $4 a gallon mark, with the average price $3.929, about a penny higher than seven days ago.

Gasoline prices are only now beginning to slow down, reflecting this week’s sharp drop in oil prices, in the wake of Japan’s massive earthquake and tsunami. Energy analysts expect Japan’s oil imports will drop sharply until it begins to recover from the disaster.

However, oil prices rose back above the $100 mark early Friday after the United Nations decided to intervene in Libya’s civil war. Because of the ongoing uncertainty in that part of the world, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts the national price of gasoline will hit $3.70 a gallon this summer and could cross the $4 mark by the fall.

At least one state, Hawaii, already has an average gas price above $4 a gallon and another, Alaska, is not far behind.

The states with the most expensive gasoline today are:

  • Hawaii ($4.073)
  • Alaska ($3.946)
  • California ($3.966)
  • New York ($3.749)
  • Connecticut ($3.744)
  • Washington ($3.684)
  • Oregon ($3.669)
  • Illinois ($3.622)
  • Vermont ($3.603)
  • Maine ($3.585)

The states with the least expensive gasoline today are:

  • Wyoming ($3.296)
  • Colorado ($3.369)
  • Missouri ($3.377)
  • New Jersey ($3.386)
  • Oklahoma ($3.401)
  • South Carolina ($3.403)
  • Tennessee ($3.406)
  • Texas ($3.427)
  • Alabama ($3.448)
  • Mississippi ($3.449)

 

 

More

Lincoln Tops JD Power Dependability Ratings

Ratings are for 2008 models

JD Power & Associates finds overall improvement in dependability among 2008 model cars....

photoUnless it's a lemon, you expect a new car to perform as it's supposed to, but what about after three years of driving? That's where the rubber really meets the road.

That's why, when JD Power & Associates rates cars for dependability, they look back three model years, in this case to 2008. Topping the list in this year's survey, Ford's Lincoln brand.

Lexus was number two, followed by Jaguar, Porsche and Toyota.

Finding a reliable used car

This is also helpful news for people shopping for used cars, since many automotive experts say the best value in a used car is one that is three years old. JD Power's average dependability rating, which measures the frequency of reported problems, is lowest for the 2008 model year than any other year

When there are problems, they tend to be electronic in nature, according to JD Power. Car companies have been installing sophisticated audio and navigation systems that don't always hold up.

Overall, the Porsche 911 logged the fewest complaints of any individual model, while Toyota took a big step in restoring its reputation, collecting seven class awards. In fact, Toyota outperformed all other brands in long term dependability.

At the bottom of the list

Does the dependability survey suggest some 2008 models you might want to avoid on the used car lot? In fact, it does.

The Mini did not do well when it comes to dependability and neither did the Land Rover. Cars from the Chrysler Group did particularly poorly. Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep were among the first worst when it comes to dependability.

GM was in the middle of the pack, earning high marks for the Buick Lucerne, Cadillac DTS and Chevy Tahoe.

 

 

More

Obama Administration Vows to Protect Privacy

Online tracking by advertisers a clear and present danger to the Union?

Obama Administration Vows to Protect Privacy. Online tracking by advertisers a clear and present danger to the Union?...

The Obama White House has joined the crusade for a “privacy bill of rights,” saying Americans need to be protected from intrusive data gathering. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Lawrence E. Strickling testified before the Senate Commerce Committee to sound the alarm and vow swift and forceful action.

Of course, if the data gathering is so intrusive, one might think that it would be more obvious. On the contrary, one of the most-cited arguments against data gathering is that it occurs in the background, without one being aware that one is supposedly under surveillance.

There is no guarantee of privacy in the Constitution and, although most civil liberties groups do not seem concerned by it, there is an inherent conflict between freedom of expression, not to mention the public's oft-cited “right to know” and the right to privacy.

The Obama White House's action marks a sharp turn from the hands-off-the-Internet policy followed by recent administrations of both parties. Its Congressional champions include Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA).

A top aide to Sen. Kerry admonished a group of Web publishers during the last Congressional session, telling them their industry “has a problem” and saying that Sen. Kerry intended to fix it,, as part of his effort to “save newspapers.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) cautioned that government should move carefully in its zeal to muzzle online publishing, lest it “kill the goose that lays the golden egg” by stifling the growth of online information and ecommerce sites.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC),whichis likely to be anointed to carry out the Administration's crusade,has no such fears however.

"The sky won't fall down on Internet commerce," FTCChairman JonLeibowitzsaid."It's going to continue.”Leibowitz did not say what effect he thought the regulations would have on news and information sites which rely on advertising and which often provide an alternative to mainstream media outlets.

 

More

Ear Wax Lawsuit Heats Up, Heads for Trial

Hot wax from ear candle burned woman's ear drum

Ear Wax Lawsuit Heats Up, Heads for Trial Hot wax from ear candle burned woman's ear drum...

photoNormally, a product liability suit alleges that a product was unsafe because it either did something it shouldn't have, or didn't do something it should have. But in Kansas City, a case is headed for trial that alleges a candle did what candles do – burned.

The case involves Anne Danaher, who sued Wild Oats Markets and Wally's Natural Products after her ear drum was burned during an ear-cleaning procedure that involved sticking a burning candle into her ear.

Danaher claims the injury occurred because the store sold her the candle without including the warning that the user should keep his or her head upright while inserting the burning candle parallel to the floor. (It goes without saying, one hopes, that the business end of the candle should not be inserted in the ear).

Complicating the case is the involvement of one Karen Kenney, the “ear-candler.” She performed the ear-candling procedure back in 2006 and, not having access to the warning, had Danaher put her head in a horizontal position while she held the candle perpendicular to the floor, allowing hot wax to run into Danaher's ear.

Kenney, whose training apparently consisted of reading a pamphlet called “A History of Ear Candles” obtained at a health food store also did not know that the candle should not be allowed to burn down to less than four inches. Danaher says the candle was at about three inches when she was burned.

U.S. Magistrate Judge David A. Waxse partially denied Wild Oats' motion for summary judgment and ruled the case could proceed to trial to determine whether the ear candle was defective based on a warning defect.

Waxse also allowed a negligence claim against Kenney to proceed.

Not recommended

Ear-candling” has become popular in some circles as an alternative to more conservative ear-wax-clearing methods, even though the Food and Drug Administration has warned that ear candles “can cause serious injuries, even when used in accordance [with] manufacturers' directions.” The procedure has been banned in Canada.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also said consumers shouldn't be swayed by claims that ear candling can improve hearing, relieve headaches, sinus and ear infections, purify blood, cure cancer, or improve brain functions.

"FDA has found no valid scientific evidence to support the safety or effectiveness of these devices for any medical claims or benefits," the agency said in a statement released on Saturday.

Ear candles are hollow cones about ten inches long made from a fabric tube soaked in beeswax, paraffin, or a mixture of the two. Companies that make these products claim that burning a candle in the ear creates a vacuum that draws wax and other debris from the ear canal.

But the FDA said consumers who have used ear candles have suffered burns and perforated eardrums that required outpatient surgery. These injuries happened even when consumers used the ear candles according to the manufacturer's direction, the FDA said.

Not for children

"FDA is especially concerned because some ear candles are being advertised for use in children," the agency said. "Children of any age, including babies, are likely at increased risk for injuries and complications if they are exposed to ear candles. Small children and infants may move during the use of the device, increasing the likelihood of wax burns and ear candle wax plugging up the ear canal. "Also, their smaller ear canal size may make children more susceptible than adults to injuries."

The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS) also warns consumers about the risks associated with ear candling -- even for something as simple as removing wax from the ear canal. The organization represents specialists who treat the ears, nose, throat, head, and neck.

"Ear candles are not a safe option of wax removal as they may result in serious injury," the AAO-HNS states on its Web Site. "Since users are instructed to insert the 10" to 15"-long, cone-shaped, hollow candles, typically made of wax-impregnated cloth, into the ear canal and light the exposed end, some of the most common injuries are burns, obstruction of the ear canal with wax of the candle, or perforation of the membrane that separates the ear canal and the middle ear."

An international non-profit organization that exposes health-related frauds myths, and fallacies, has also investigated ear candling.

A report on the Web site Quackwatch, titled "Why Ear Candling Is Not a Good Idea," cited many injuries associated with the practice, including external burns, ear canal obstructions, and perforated eardrums.

The report by Dr. Lisa Roazen, who practices emergency medicine in New York City, also referred to a story in the Canadian newspaper, The London Free Press , regarding a woman who experienced stuffiness in her nose and ear pains while scuba diving.

The woman went to a local health-food store and was referred to a "qualified" ear candler. During the procedure, the woman felt intense burning in her ear. She later went to the emergency room, where doctors were unable to remove the wax that had dripped from the candle into her eardrum. The woman had to undergo surgery, the story stated.

During the operation, surgeons discovered a hole in the woman's eardrum. They suspected the ear candling caused that injury. The woman later recovered and did not lose her hearing. According to the story, the ear-candling practitioner apologized to the woman and stopped performing the procedure.

Dr. Roazen's Quackwatch report also cited two fires in Alaska linked to ear candling, including one that led to a woman's death.

"On January 27, 2005 a 59-year-old woman ignited her bedding when she dropped an ear candle that she was attempting to use in the ear without any assistance," the report stated. "The candle ignited the bedding and quickly spread to curtains and other combustibles in the room. The woman did escape but suffered an asthma attack and died in a hospital emergency room."

More

Chase Testing $5 ATM Fee In Illinois

Banks trying to recover revenue from lost fees

Large banks may be eyeing ATM Fees as a way to recover lost revenue....

When Congress passed and President Obama signed the CARD Act, it put a serious dent in the billions of dollars in overdraft and other fees banks were collecting from consumers. So it looks like the banks are trying to make up for that lost revenue - with more fees.

Quietly, the large national banks have begun raising the fees they charge non-customers for using their ATMs. After all, it's not like they're putting the squeeze on their own account-holders.

In Illinois, JPMorgan Chase has raised its fee for non-customer ATM withdrawals to $5 from $3. The fee change is in effect at 1,700 ATM locations in the state.

The Chase ATMs installed at Illinois Walgreen Drug Stores are reportedly exempt from the fee increase. Non-Chase customers will continue to pay a $3 fee in those locations.

More fees

The Wall Street Journal reports consumers can expect to pay all sorts of higher bank fees in the months ahead, comparing banks to the airline industry, which has altered its business model in recent years to build revenue on fees for checked bags, snacks, and other "perks" once provided for free.

And while banks may feel safe in upping the fees for non-customers, they aren't opposed to charging their own customers higher fees as well.

Sherri, a Chase customer from Burleson, Tex., recently noticed that the bank had charged $12 fees to both her checking and savings accounts. After talking to a bank official, she learned Chase had instituted a new set of fees.

New requirements

"It seems that even though it's your money, upon making transfers online from checking to saving, you are only allowed so many per month," Sherri told ConsumerAffairs.com.  "Otherwise you get charged $12.00 a month, and you must maintain $1500.00 in your savings account in order to not be charged as well."

Sherri said she was also told that to avoid a $12 monthly service charge on her checking account, she must have at least one direct deposit per month of at least $500.

 

More

Payday Loan Industry Floods Congress with Funds

Loan industry expects a healthy return on its investment

Payday Loan Industry Floods Congress with Funds. Loan industry expects a healthy return on its investment....

photoThe payday loan industry isn't going away without a fight. A new report finds the industry has more than doubled its lobbying expenditures to fight off crackdowns by federal regulators and Congress. (Read more payday loan complaints).

Once again, we see that money talks in Washington,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).  “As usual, money paid to lobbyists was well spent, but working Americans were left out in the cold.”

CREW found spending surged as Congress stepped up financial regulatory reform efforts as it worked to pass Dodd-Frank last year.

In the new report, CREW reveals that the payday loan industry more than doubled its lobbying expenditures between the 110th and 111th Congresses.  This spending paid off as the industry was able to kill legislative proposals to cap payday loan interest rates and limit the number of times borrowers could take out such loans.

At the same time, industry campaign donations jumped 80% between the 2006 and 2010 midterm election cycles. In the 2010 cycle, former Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-FL) received the most contributions, taking in more than $50,000.

The one bright note,Sloan said, is thatthe newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau(CFPB)will have jurisdiction to regulate payday lenders.  As a result, an industry trade association, Financial Service Centers of America, announced it would move to Washington and make the new bureau “a primary area of focus.”

This is just one sector, focused on a small sliver of our economy,” said Ms. Sloan, “but the payday loan industry isn’t alone in flooding our political system with cash, especially in the wake of the disastrous Citizens United decision.  Unfortunately, real reform of our system would require lawmakers to bite the hand that feeds them. I won’t hold my breath.”

More

Visa To Allow Consumers To Pay Each Other With Plastic

Person-to-person payments mount challenge to PayPal

Visa announces it will allow consumers to use their credit cards to pay each other....

Who needs cash? Visa says it will soon allow U.S. consumers to send and receive payments using their Visa credit and debit accounts. Consumers will be able to use plastic to pay each other.

It's not exactly a new concept. PayPal has been doing that for years, though a lot more consumers have Visa cards than PayPal accounts. Also, there are additional steps required for receiving and using the money with PayPal.

Technical enhancements

The new Visa consumer payments service was made possible through technical enhancements to VisaNet, Visa's global payments processing network, and through the introduction of a new Visa transaction type that allows financial institutions to accept incoming funds.

Visa also said it will work with CashEdge Inc. and Fiserv Inc., two providers of electronic person-to-person payment, account transfer and bill payment services to U.S. financial institutions.

CashEdge and Fiserv will have access to VisaNet, enabling them to integrate the Visa personal payment service into their respective person-to-person platforms - Popmoney and ZashPay. This will allow a participating bank's customers to send money directly to a Visa account.

Evolution

"For fifty years, Visa has worked to simplify payments at the merchant point of sale; we are now evolving our network capability to make it easier for our account holders to pay one another," said Jim McCarthy, global head of products at Visa Inc. "Through our agreements with Fiserv and CashEdge, we can accelerate the delivery of new and innovative Visa payments services, and better enable financial institutions to extend these services to customers." 

If you are a customer of a participating financial institution, you'll have the option to select a Visa account as the destination for funds when making a personal payment. Just by entering the recipient's 16-digit Visa account, email address or mobile phone number, consumers can send funds directly from their bank account to a recipient's Visa account.

Fees not disclosed

In its announcement, Visa did not disclose how much consumers would pay to transfer money to each other. PayPal charges members a fee of three percent to accept credit card purchases. While the new service may be seen as a major challenge to PayPal, that company appears unconcerned.

PayPal's eBay unit issued a statement saying it connects to 57 different financial networks and 15,000 local banks in 190 markets. That, and its head start in the personal payment space, will give it an advantage with consumers, the company said.

 

More

FDA Warns of Dangers in 'Black Ant'

Contains undeclared drug ingredient

FDA Warns of Dangers in 'Black Ant' Contains undeclared drug ingredient...

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is advising consumers not to purchase or use “Black Ant,” a product for sexual enhancement sold on various websites.  Claims made for the product falsely state that it is a “natural sexual enhancer” and that it has “no known side effects.”       

FDA laboratory analysis confirmed that Black Ant contains sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, an FDA approved prescription drug for Erectile Dysfunction (ED).  The product tested had three times the starting dosage for the approved product.  Sildenafil may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs such as nitroglycerin and may lower blood pressure to dangerous levels.  Men with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or heart disease often take nitrates.

Consumers should stop using this product immediately and throw it away.  Consumers who have experienced any negative side effects should consult a health care professional as soon as possible. 

 

More

U.S. Sues Lawn Darts Company; Says Darts are Hazardous

Suit cites injuries and deaths of children attributed to lawn darts

U.S. Sues Lawn Darts Company ; Says Darts are Hazardous...

photoThe U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has sued Lawn Dart Parts, demanding that it stop selling its products in stores and on the Internet. The suit, filed in federal district court in St.. Louis, notes that lawn darts are banned by federal law because of the dangers they pose to children and seeks an injunction banning further sales by the company.

Lawn Darts Parts LLC is a Pevely, MO, company owned by Steve King and, according to the lawsuit, operates several websites, including www.lawndartparts.com, www.tossinggames.com, www.stevenking.biz, and www.missourimarketplace.net/jartparts.

Lawn darts are a hazardous substance under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act because they pose an “unreasonable risk of injury to children” and, as such, their sale is prohibited by the Consumer Product Safety Act, the complaint alleges.

The lawn darts, which are simple darts with elonated tips, are designed so that when they are thrown into the air, they contact the ground tip-first.

The suit notes there have been “numerous injuries ranging from lacerations and bruises to severe brain damage, as well as three known deaths of children associated with the use of lawn darts .”

They have been banned since at least 1970; in 1988, the CPSC removed an exemption that had allowed the sale of lawn darts which were labeled for use by adults only.

The CPSC said it became aware of King's operation in February 2009 when an investigator visited two of his websites. Posing as a customer, the investigator ordered a set of lawn darts for $100 via email and was contacted by someone identified as “Steve,” who instructed the investigator to pay via PayPal.

The lawn darts were sent and arrived at the Michigan address used by the investigator on March 20, 2009. The package included four lawn darts, four plastic rings and six plastic fins. The items were packaged in what appeared to be original product packaging and stated "Regent Jarts . . . An Outdoor Skill Game for Adults."

The investigator then ordered an additional set of lawn darts for $218. The package arrived on November 15, 2009.

The package included four metal shafts, two plastic red fins, two plastic blue fins, and two plastic yellow rings. Also delivered is what appears to be original product packaging stating “Jarts Missle Game. The Most Exciting Outdoor Game Today. Jarts Company, Fort Edward, New York.” Finally, the package included a business card for the web site “www.TossingGames.com” with the name “Mr. Steve King, Owner and Webmaster” printed on it.

 

More

More Americans Losing Their Health Benefits

The Great Recession has not only taken a toll on jobs, but health coverage too.

More Americans Losing Their Health Benefits. The Great Recession has not only taken a toll on jobs, but health coverage too....

logoLosing your job is bad enough. But in the U.S., where health benefits are usually obtained through an employer, losing your job means losing your health benefits.

With unemployment close to nine percent - and many experts think that understates the number - that's a lot of people who used to have health coverage, but no longer do.

Nine million lose coverage

The Commonwealth Fund 2010 Biennial Health Insurance Survey estimates nine million working-age adults-57 percent of people who had health insurance through a job that was lost-became uninsured in the last two years.

The survey estimates 43 million adults under age 65 either lost a job, or their spouse became unemployed, in the last two years.

Only 25 percent of people who lost employer health insurance were able to find another source of health insurance coverage, and only 14 percent continued their job-based coverage through COBRA.

Not a viable option

In addition, purchasing individual coverage was not a viable option for most people. Seventy-one percent of adults who tried to buy individual coverage in the past three years, or 19 million people, either found it difficult or impossible to find a plan that fit their needs; found it difficult or impossible to find a plan they could afford; or were turned down or charged a higher price for coverage because of a pre-existing condition.

"This survey tells a story of millions of Americans who lost their jobs during the recession, lost their health benefits too, and had essentially no place to turn for affordable health care coverage-putting their health and financial security at risk," said Commonwealth Fund President Karen Davis.

More uninsured than in 2001

According to the survey, more people were uninsured at some point in 2010 - 52 million - than the 38 million Americans who were without health insurance in 2001. Not surprisingly, the lower your income, the more likely you were to be without insurance.

Fifty-four percent of lower-income adults (under $22,050 for a family of four) and 41 percent of moderate-income adults ($22,050 to $44,100 for a family of four) were uninsured for some time during the year, compared with 13 percent of adults with higher incomes, according to the survey.

 

More

Cheap Generics Key To Savings On Health Care?

Savings could be huge, study says

Consumers looking for ways to cut spending should take advantage of $4 generic drug prescriptions...

What if one of the answers to skyrocketing healthcare costs were right in front of us, but we just don't see it? That's a question posed by a University of Pittsburgh study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

In the study, researchers suggest that if everyone who was eligible took advantage of a $4 generic drug program, offered by a number of drug stores, the total savings could amount to $6 billion.

$4 generics

Wal-Mart started the $4 generic drug program several years ago and now, many other national drug store and pharmacy chains have similar programs. If a patient's prescription can be substituted for one of the generics on the list, the consumer pays just $4 each time the prescription is filled.

The study examined a large group of people who used generic medications or their brand-name counterparts - drugs like lovastatin or prescription-strength ibuprofen - that also were available for $4 per 30-day supply through a discounted generic drug program.

Despite the very significant savings offered by the generics, the study found that among the patients taking these medications, less than 6 percent used the $4 generic medication programs in 2007. They passed up these savings even though average prescription drug coverage plans ask patients to pay about $10 per 30-day supply for generic drugs and about $25 per 30-day supply for brand-name medications.

$5.8 billion in potential savings

If all eligible patients used the discount programs in 2007, the researchers say society would have saved $5.8 billion on prescription drug spending. Why do consumers pass up this savings? The study doesn't address that, though researchers suggest the individual savings, on a case-by-case basis, might not seem that large.

"Although just half of the potential users of the $4 programs would have saved more than $22 a year in out-of-pocket expenses, the societal savings are great. This suggests the majority of savings comes from a small proportion of individuals," said the study's lead author, Yuting Zhang, Ph.D., assistant professor of health policy and management, at the University of Pittsburgh.

The researchers conclude that some of the answers to ever-expensive health care may, in fact, be simple. And consumers looking for ways to trim their budgets in these tight times should check to see if their prescriptions are available for $4.

"We are not promoting any specific pharmacy or any retail store's discount generic medication program," Zhang said. "However, if policy makers and clinicians direct patients to low-cost generic programs, patients and taxpayers could save tremendously."

 

More

Verizon Wireless, Content Provider, In Legal Stalemate

Company accused of 'cramming' mounts counter-offensive

Verizon Wireless loses initial bid to shut down company accused of "cramming."...

Last week Verizon Wireless said it filed a lawsuit against companies that it said were engaged in sending text spam that results in unwanted charges on consumers' bills.

This week one of the companies named by Verizon, JAWA, of Scottsdale, Ariz., issued a press release, saying the federal judge in the case denied a motion that would have prevented the company from doing business with Verizon customers.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott had also filed a similar complaint in Texas. JAWA says that complaint, too, was dismissed by a judge in Austin last week.

TRO granted in Texas

However, Lauri Saathoff, in the Texas Attorney General's Office, told ConsumerAffairs.com that the Texas judge signed a Temporary Restraining Order Against JAWA and other defendants Tuesday, once language issues were resolved.

"This was a big victory for our company" said JAWA Founder and CEO Jason Hope, referring to the Verizon case. "Verizon Wireless is trying to use its dominant position in the wireless market to put third party content providers like JAWA out of business and we are going to fight them every step of the way."

Verizon had sought a temporary restraining order to stop JAWA, Eye Level Holdings, and other interconnected companies, from doing business with Verzon Wireless customers. U.S. District Judge David G. Campbell denied the motion, even though he said Verizon had "submitted specific evidence that Defendants are doing business through shell corporations, using false business addresses, using websites that do not comply with industry standards and that trick consumers, and using diversionary software to prevent Plaintiff from discovering these activities."

Charges of ‘cramming’

Verizon claimed the Defendants baited consumers into providing their cell phone numbers, then charged them for monthly subscriptions to various content, a practice known as “cramming.”

But Campbell denied the motion for a TRO, saying the language in the proposed restraining order "is too general, and too focused on disputed factual matters, to give Defendants meaningful guidance as to precisely what actions would be enjoined."

At the same time, the judge denied JAWA's motion to enjoin Verizon from taking action against it, saying the Defendants had not shown their claims had a "fair chance of success on the merits." Even so, Hope sees the legal stalemate as a victory.

It’s on

"We're not going to take this lying down," Hope said. "Our 240 employees have mortgages to pay and families to feed. I am not about to stand by and allow this corporate giant to put people out of work so it can make a few more million."

Meanwhile, Verizon clearly believes it will prevail in court, once the language in the restraining order is resolved.

"This case is about the fraud committed against us and against our customers, as we outlined in the initial complaint," Debra Lewis, a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "There will be many hearings and decisions along the way."

More

Oil Prices Plunge, Gas Prices Still Rising

Japan tragedy sends oil prices reeling but gas prices still going up

Despite falling oil prices, gasoline prices still seem to be going up....

photoThe horrific disaster in Japan, and still unfolding nuclear crisis, has sent oil prices spiraling downward on world markets. Japan, a huge oil importer, will likely require much less until it begins to recover from the devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Crude oil for April delivery fell another $2.50 at the New York Mercantile Exchange today, and is now well below the $100 a barrel mark. Brent crude, the more expensive oil used mostly in Europe, is trading at around $110 a barrel, down about $10 from last week.

But despite the falling oil prices, gasoline prices have yet to follow. The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.556 a gallon, according to AAA, up four cents a gallon from last week. The price is a fraction of a cent lower than yesterday's average.

In fact, the price is up more than a dime a gallon in Hawaii, the state with the most expensive fuel. The AAA Fuel Gauge Survey shows the average price of self-serve regular in Hawaii has eclipsed the $4 a gallon mark, to $4.016 a gallon. It was $4.896 a week ago.

Even Wyoming, the state with the cheapest average gas, has seen an eight-cent surge in its average in the last seven days.

Analysts say supply and demand was never a factor in the recent price run-up. Rather, oil traders were concerned that political violence in the Middle East could spread, perhaps eventually threatening the flow of oil to the West.

 

 

More

Verizon Launching Its First 4G Smartphone

Has something the iPhone doesn't

Verizon is launching the first smartphone designed to run on its faster 4G LTE network....

photo Verizon Wireless will introduce a new smartphone Thursday, though it's getting none of the buzz accompanying Verizon's iPhone. But the new HTC ThunderBolt has something the iPhone doesn't - 4G speed.

Though Verizon rolled out its much-faster 4G network late last year, until now it has not sold a smartphone that runs on it. The faster network was accessible only through air cards, attached to PCs.

Three more smartphones in the wings

The Thunderbolt is the first 4G smartphone, though at least three others are expected later this year. Verizon Wireless has promoted future 4G phones from Samsung, LG and Motorola.

The ThunderBolt goes on sale March 17 for $249.99, with a two year contract. It's powered by Android 2.2 and features the latest version of HTC Sense, which offers enhancements including new personalization options, a consolidated e-mail inbox, and special camera effects and filters.

Download speeds of 5 to 12 mbps

Because it operates on the 4G LTE network, Verizon said customers can expect download speeds of 5 to 12 Mbps and upload speeds of 2 to 5 Mbps in 4G Mobile Broadband coverage area. That area is rather limited now, but should cover a wide area of the country by the end of the year.

It has a 4.3-inch WVGA display and 8-megapixel rear facing camera and HD (720p) video recording 1.3-megapixel front facing camera with video chatting capabilities. It's powered by Qualcom's 1GHz Snapdragon processor.

In a new feature, the Thunderbolt will have Mobile Hotspot capability, which means it can share its  4G connection with up to eight Wi-Fi-enabled devices. Consumers who purchase the phone right away get that feature for free. After mid-May, it will cost $20 for two gigabytes per month.

 

 

More

Sen. Franken Says Corporations Gunning For Internet

Urges artists, consumers, to speak up

Sen. Al Franken warns corporations will soon take over the Internet....

photo Sen. Al Frankin (D-MN) is, by trade, a comedian, but he's been very serious as a lawmaker. Before an artists' group in Austin, Tex., Frankin warned that corporations are out to destroy the Internet, and it's no laughing matter.

"I came here today to warn you that the party may almost be over," Franken told artists attending the South by Southwest Interactive Festival. "There is nothing more motivated than a corporation that thinks it's leaving money on the table. They are coming after the Internet, hoping to destroy the very thing that makes it such an important tool for independent artists and entrepreneurs -- its freedom and openness."

Franken recounted for his audience the ways in which the Internet has opened up opportunities for artists and benefited consumers. He said "Net neutrality" laws protecting equal access to the Internet are vital to protecting and maintaining those opportunities.

Equality

"Net neutrality means that content -- a web page, an email, a download -- moves over the Internet freely, and it moves at the same speed no matter what it is or who owns it," Franken said. "So an email from President Obama and an email from your Tea Partier uncle come in at the same speed."

Franken pointed out that Net neutrality is actually the status quo, and he wants to keep it that way. But he warns that major players in the industry have a vested interest in changing things, since they own the physical infrastructure that makes the Internet work.

"Now, let me say something about big corporations. They're not inherently evil," Franken said. "But corporations have a contractual duty -- a legal obligation to their shareholders-to make as much money as they can. And the big telecom companies make lots and lots of money off their ownership of the Internet -- but they've figured out a way to make more."

Paid prioritization

Franken said the industry wants to move toward something called "paid prioritization." There would be, in effect, a high-speed lane for corporations that can pay for it. That, he says, would make these corporations gatekeepers of the Internet, with the power to decide what content can get to its intended audience in the high-speed lane and what content gets stuck in traffic, depending on what makes the most money for their shareholders.

"For American consumers, this would of course be bad news," Franken said. "We'll have a lot fewer viewpoints represented online -- not just creative viewpoints, but maybe even ideological viewpoints. Do you think Comcast would refrain from making it harder for people to watch this speech online if they could do so legally?"

Franken says there are other issues at stake with Net neutrality. He pointed to the number of recent start-ups like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter that have created wealth and jobs. With the economy just beginning to recover from recession, he says, this job creation could be at risk. And that, he says, may provide the leverage necessary to preserve Net neutrality.

Speak up

"I haven't been in Washington that long, but I've heard enough from both parties to know that people there are desperate to hear from successful entrepreneurs like you," Franken said. "Job creators get their phone calls returned. Do not underestimate how much political power you have."

Just as the Internet has proven to be the last, best independent distribution system, he says artists and consumers might be the last, best hope for saving it.

"But we don't have much time," Franken concluded. "Net neutrality is in trouble."

 

 

More

Study Finds Little Action Taken Against Dangerous Doctors

State medical boards either lack information or lack incentive to act

Study Finds Little Action Taken Against Dangerous DoctorsState medical boards either lack information or lack incentive to act...

Think someone is making sure your doctor is competent? Don't be too sure.

An analysis of state medical boards by the non-profit public interest group Public Citizen finds that the boards have failed to discipline 55 percent of the nation’s doctors who either lost their clinical privileges or had them restricted by the hospitals where they worked.

Of 10,672 physicians listed in the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) for having clinical privileges revoked or restricted by hospitals, just 45 percent of them also had one or more licensing actions taken against them by state medical boards. That means 55 percent of them -- 5,887 doctors -- escaped any licensing action by the state. The study examined the NPDB’s Public Use File from its inception in 1990 to 2009.

“One of two things is happening, and either is alarming,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and overseer of the study. “Either state medical boards are receiving this disturbing information from hospitals but not acting upon it, or much less likely, they are not receiving the information at all. Something is broken and needs to be fixed.”

Hospital disciplinary reports are peer-review actions and, as such, are one of the most valuable sources of information for medical board oversight. Subsequent state medical board action against a physician’s license is a crucial next step to protect patients.

Boards have the authority to oversee and even limit the practice of a disciplined physician, which not only yields a more complete record for the purpose of patient safety but also serves to inform other state boards and future employers.

Public Citizen today sent the report to Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, urging the agency’s Office of Inspector General to reinstitute investigations of state medical boards, something it has not done since 1993. Public Citizen also is notifying the 33 medical boards that have had the worst records in disciplining these doctors.

A physician must have serious deviations of behavior or performance to warrant clinical privilege actions. Of the 5,887 physicians who the state medical boards failed to discipline – many of whom also had a history of medical malpractice payments -- 1,119 of them were disciplined because of incompetence, negligence or malpractice, 605 were disciplined for substandard care and 220 of them were identified as an immediate threat to health or safety.

The implications of this lack of licensing action against physicians with serious medical practice problems can be seen in specific examples.

In Florida, a doctor had hospital privileges permanently revoked in 2002 for incompetence and racked up 10 medical malpractice reports totaling $1 million between 1992 and 2009 for, among other things, an unnecessary procedure, leaving a foreign body in a patient and misdiagnosis. Two patients died. Yet the state of Florida took no disciplinary action against the doctor.

In Illinois, a doctor had clinical privileges permanently revoked in 1999 and accumulated 10 medical malpractice reports between 1992 and 2006 totaling $7 million for, among other things, improperly managing cases, failing to diagnose and failing to identify fetal distress. One patient suffered a major permanent injury while another became a quadriplegic due to a brain injury. Yet Illinois did not discipline the doctor.

Public Citizen is sending its report with supporting documentation to the District of Columbia and the following states, in each of which 50 percent or more of the physicians with clinical privilege reports in the NPDB did not have a licensure action: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.

More

Japan Disaster Imperils Seafood Supply

Japanese imports make up a big part of Americans' seafood diet

Japan Disaster Imperils Seafood Supply. Japanese imports make up a big part of Americans' seafood diet....

photoMuch of the coverage in the wake of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami has focused on the effects on the automotive and electronics markets. But there's another major Asian export that will also be in short supply for some time to come.

We're talking, of course, about seafood. Americans' taste for seafood has grown in recent years, with per capita consumption now around 16 pounds annually, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Japan exports roughly 35 percent of its annual seafood harvest, about $833 million worth, to the United States, the world's third-largest importer of seafood. China, the world's largest producer and consumer of seafood, is likely to take up some of the slack and higher prices can be expected to reduce demand somewhat.

The domestic U.S. seafood industry has been in something of a slump since Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and many consumers remain wary of eating farm-raised fish, so it's an open question where replacement supplies will come from.

Whatever happens in the short term, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says we'll all be eating more farm-raised fish by 2020, when 50 percent of the U.S. seafood supply will come from aquaculture. Presently, more than 70 percent of the seafood consumed in the
United States is imported, and at least 40 percent of that is farm-raised.

There used to be a lot of fish in the sea but the levels of many of the most prized specimens have lately fallen to dangerous levels. So it's possible that a pause in Japan's fishing activities will help Mother Nature regain her footing, even while her biped offspring suffer.

More

What's On Your Mind? Gift Cards, Rebates, Cell Phones

Issues our readers are dealing with today

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Gift Cards, Rebates, Cell Phones, Free delivery rebate and Bad impression? Use the warranty....

photoComplaints about gift cards are nothing new. Consumers have long complained about excessive fees that eat away at the value, and difficulty in redeeming the cards for merchandise.

“I received an American Express $100 gift card and used it once for $37,” Dyanna of Barrington, R.I., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “When I tried to use again to buy merchandise at Amazon I was told there was a problem because the purchase was for more than remainder on the account - about $63.”

When Dyanna tried to use the card for lesser purchases, she said she was told there was a “hold” on the card because the new CARD Act prohibits the sale of gift cards with an expiration date less than five years. It’s possible hers was issued before the law took effect.

Gift card rules changed last year, and are supposed to provide more consumer protections. You can find a good explanation here. Dyanna needs to find out when and where the card was purchased, and try again to get someone at American Express to understand her issue.

Free delivery rebate

Rebates are often a source of trouble. Frankly, they are usually offered to entice consumers into thinking they are getting a lower price. The company offering the rebate hopes most consumers won’t go to the trouble of following through on the paperwork to actually get the rebate.

Warren, of Lake Elsinore, Calif., said he bought a washing machine online from Sears and filled out the advertised free delivery rebate, saving him about $70.

“I even checked with the delivery department and a nearby store that it was valid for free delivery rebate,” Warren told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Four months later, the online rebate center said my application was still ‘in process’, but when I called again, they said that my application was already denied because any ‘sales item’ did not qualify.

Warren said he went back to the Sears site and there was no mention of a free delivery rebate. Without printing out a copy of the online rebate form he filled out, he has no proof he ever applied for a rebate. The lesson: if you apply for a rebate online, print and keep a copy.

Bad impression?

Lori, of Bolingbrook, Ill., has a problem with her Samsung Impression phone she purchased in April 2010.

“The touch screen went out this week. Text messages do not send or delay and consequently, we sent several duplicate texts and have been charged double our normal monthly billing rate,” Lori told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The water damage indicator turned pink and the phone has not been anywhere near water. When I was in the AT&T store, two other customers were there to report the exact same issues with their Samsung Impression phones. All three of us were told that it was our fault due to water damage.”

The Samsung Impression has a pretty good reputation as a feature phone, as far as we can tell, but we have gotten at least one other simiar complaint about the phone in the last year. If you have experienced a similar problem, however, please let us know.

Use the warranty

Arlette, of Marion, Iowa, purchased an HP laptop at Wal-Mart right after Christmas. Within weeks, she said, she began having problems with the mouse.

“I just figured it was me as I have never used a laptop before,” she told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Others have tried the laptop and confirmed that there definitely is something wrong. Wal-Mart will not take it back as their policy is refund or exchange in 15 days. HP customer service says their policy is 21 days. What am I to do? I invested over $500 and have a product that is not working properly?”

Arlette received a negative reply because she asked for a refund. However, the machine should still by covered by HP’s factory warranty so she should ask that it be repaired. From her description of the problem, it sounds like a glitch in the software that controls the mousepad, something that could be easily fixed.

 

More

Beware Of Refinancing Scams

Scammers take advantage of distressed homeowners

Homeowners who are underwater, and who have adjustable rate mortgages, are prime targets of refinancing scams....

Homeowners who purchased homes at the height of the real estate bubble sometimes face a double-whammy. Not only are they underwater, owing more than their home is now worth, sometimes they have an adjustable rate mortgage that are adjusting higher.

People in these challenging circumstances can be easy targets for operators of refinancing scams. Fraudulent refinancing offers may begin with a call from an "underwriter," who may refer to the homeowner's good payment record, good credit, or current mortgage rate to confuse the homeowner into believing that the call is from the homeowner's current mortgage lender.

Alarm bells

The refinancing offer may almost sound too good to be true: a lower interest rate, no closing costs, guaranteed approval, no required appraisal, and a speedy closing. In this climate those kinds of deals are few and far between, so such an offer should set off alarm bells.

But the victim is caught off guard, since the scammers has created the impression that their current mortgage lender is offering the deal. Wanting to believe that they are finally getting a break, they don't question the offer.

After the caller convinces the homeowner to refinance, the homeowner is asked to pay a fee to proceed with the refinancing, which can be as high as two mortgage payments. Once the homeowner provides payment for the refinancing, nothing happens. The money and the scammer are gone and the loan never closes.

Hard to detect

"These types of scams are hard to detect because the refinancing process can be confusing, and terms, fees and conditions of a refinance can vary from person to person," said Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson.

Even if the loan offer is real, and not a scam, it might not be in your best interest. It's wise to go slowly, and even shop around.

Before agreeing to any refinancing deal, clarify who you are dealing with. If you believe the refinancing offer is being made by your current lender, confirm this before proceeding with the transaction, especially if you are relying on the caller's affiliation with your current lender as a basis to agree to refinance. Fraudsters may make statements about your credit history, payment history or current interest rate to mislead you into believing that they are affiliated with your current bank.

Good faith estimate

You should see an offer in writing before agreeing to any terms. You are entitled to certain disclosures about your refinancing, including a good faith estimate, which outlines the fees associated with the refinance, and truth-in-lending statement, which spells out the APR (annual percentage rate), representing the total cost of the loan for a year.

While the good faith estimate and truth-in-lending statement provide the borrower with the information needed to determine the cost of the mortgage, they do not prevent the borrower from being overcharged. You should shop around to make sure you are getting the best loan.

Because refinancing fees can be rolled into the loan, they are easy to disguise, and unscrupulous lenders may offer you a great rate and no "out-of-pocket" expenses, while charging excessive fees that are financed through the loan. Fees are oftentimes based on your credit and financial profile, and can vary from person to person.

Pressure

If the loan salesperson applies pressure of any kind, it's a very bad sign. It may be tempting to lock in immediately when offered a great rate with great terms, but rates may go up or down, and taking a day or two to consider the offer or research the company should not alter the refinance offer too drastically.

Watch out for the term "pre-approved." It really means nothing. You are not guaranteed a loan or a rate until you have undergone a thorough credit check. Anyone who tells you differently has a different agenda.

Finally, don't agree to or sign anything that is contrary to what you were promised. Many consumers find themselves agreeing to an arrangement in writing or in a recording that is different from the offer given to them. It is difficult to dispute an unauthorized charge if there is a contract or recording that shows you agreed to the arrangement.

 

More

Radiation Fears Cause Run on Potassium Iodide

Health officials say Americans not at risk from Japanese nuclear reactors

Radiation Fears Cause Run on Potassium Iodide Health officials say Americans not at risk from Japanese nuclear reactors...

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington, Los Angeles traffic reporters could be heard ruminating about the effect of the East Coast attacks on West Coast drivers' behavior. One reporter said LA drivers were being “much more considerate” than usual.

Now Californians are fearful that damage to Japanese nuclear power plants will leave them dusted with harmful amounts of radiation. That's creating a land rush business for the few U.S. manufacturers of potassium iodide.

Potassium iodide is administered to protect the thyroid gland from radiation poisoning when one is exposed to high doses of radiation. It blocks absorption of harmful radioactive iodine.

But is this really necessary in California? Health officials say no and caution that there is a risk of side effects in people who are allergic to shellfish or who have existing thyroid problems.

One public health official noted that Japan has evacuated residents who live within 12 miles of the troubled nuclear plants. The West Coast of the United States is more than 5,000 miles from Japan, which would seem to minimize the risk of harm, he noted.

The Wall Street Journal reported that fearful Americans had bought up nearly all of the existing supplies of potassium iodide from companies such as Anbex Inc., of Williamsburg, Va.

"Those who don't get it are crying.  They're terrified," a company official said.

 

 

More

How To Save On Gas And Groceries

It's hard to save on these basic necessities, but it can be done

Some tips for saving money each month on food and gasoline....

The overall inflation rate remains fairly low, but the costs of certain items have been rising for months, putting consumers – who have to buy these items – under stress.

While many expenses can be cut or postponed, it’s hard to do anything about the budget items of food and gasoline. We have to eat and we have to get to work and back.

In fact, consumers do appear to be spending slightly less on food. According to a report by CredAbility, a financial services counselor, overall spending on food was down 2.5 percent in February, among the company’s clients.

However, spending on gasoline was higher. The company says spending on gasoline was up more than seven percent in February from February 2010.

Basic necessities

"Gas and groceries are among our basic necessities," said Michelle Jones, senior vice president of counseling for CredAbility. "Both our commute and putting food on the table are getting more expensive and, for families already struggling to make ends meet, these added costs only make it more difficult."

How can you save money on both food and gasoline? Here are some tips or saving on gas:

  • Look for opportunities to carpool - Work with neighbors and co-workers to share the expense of getting kids to school and driving to work.
  • Telecommute - If your job requires little more than a computer, try and work from home one or more days per week to cut down on commuting costs.
  • Look for the lowest prices - Websites, such as www.gasbuddy.com, keep track of gas prices throughout the country and post them. You can also download an app for your smart phone and get prices on the go.
  • Look for discounted gas or rebate options - Some retailers offer discounts on gas for shopping in their stores or using a specific card. Costco offers a cash back rebate on gasoline purchased with the Costco American Express Card. Wal-Mart offers 3 cents off per gallon discount if you use a pre-paid gift card or store credit card.
  • Pay cash for gas - If you don't know how much you are spending in gas, or you are struggling to pay off gas purchases made on a credit card each month, use cash to pay for gas.
  • Lighten your load - If you have a trunk full of stuff, you are getting fewer miles per gallon. Empty your trunk and save.
  • Keep the appropriate air pressure in your tires to get the best gas mileage. Reduce the cost to cool down a hot car by using a sun-shade in the front window and parking in a shady area.
  • Plan your day so you can combine trips and drive fewer miles.
  • Drive the speed limit-speeding reduces your miles per gallon.

 Here are some tips for saving on groceries:

  • Make a list, and stick to it - While grocery shopping can be expensive, it is often the unplanned purchases that put the bill over the top. Plan your menus for the week and make a list of things you need before you go to the store.
  • Take advantage of coupon savings, special purchases, and buy one-get one promotions - Coupon savings are usually worth the cost of the Sunday paper. In addition to manufacturer's coupons, sites like www.couponmom.com compare in-store specials at many grocery chains. A great sale or double or triple coupon values may make it worth the trip to a store you don't usually go to. For staple items with a long shelf-life, stock up during sales. Avoid buying things you wouldn't normally buy just because you have a coupon.
  • Use technology to help you save. There are many apps to help you organize your lists, find coupons, track prices at stores in your area and more. Grocery Pal shows you what's on sale at your local retailers. Apples2Oranges allows you to compare prices on various sizes to see which offers the better deal. Grocery Gadget can help organize your shopping list and track prices for maximum savings. Most apps are available for multiple devices.
  • Buy in bulk, sometimes - It may be cheaper to buy 3 dozen eggs, but only if you don't end up throwing out a dozen because they have expired. Compare prices on bulk purchases. Consider shopping for bulk items with a friend and share the cost.
  • Eat before you shop - Shopping on an empty stomach will always cost you more at the store. Have a snack before you go and you'll be less tempted to impulse buy.
  • Don't limit your shopping to eye level - Many lower cost items, including store brands, are stocked on higher and lower shelves while higher priced items are at eye level.
  • Don't assume items are cheaper because they are a larger size or displayed separately - Take a calculator along to determine the price per ounce or pound so you can get the best deal. And remember, larger is not always better. Buy only what you will use.
  • Save on eating out - While it may add slightly to your grocery bill, packing your lunch can save you a hundred dollars or more per month when compared to eating out.

 

More

Acai 'Free' Offers Can Be Anything But

Make sure you read the fine print

Consumers are still getting burned by free trial offers for acai berry supplements...

photoDespite all the consumer warnings over the last couple of years about so-called "free trials" of acai berry supplement products, consumers continue to get burned.

"You order a free trial and within days they charged you $84.95," Jeanie, of Candler, N.C. told ConsumerAffairs.com.

She was surprised, since she thought she was simply signing up for a free trial of Acai Ultimate and Purity 12 supplements.

"However, the ad says you have to make sure to take both supplements at the same time," she said. "The second bottle came 10 days later and naturally you only have ten days to verify if you want it or not."

Once signed up, it's pretty hard to cancel. And it's being going on for a long time, as this TV news reports shows.

Read more about other bogus offers and Scams

 

More

Can Public Transit Handle $5 a Gallon Gas?

Consumers tend to take the bus only when gas prices rise

The people that operate public transportation are worried about an impending crush of passengers....

photoIt takes a lot to get Americans out of their cars, but expensive gasoline has been known to do it. When gas prices rise, so does ridership on public transportation.

With gasoline prices over $4 a gallon in some areas, with predictions of $5 a gallon in the not-too-distant future, even more people may  be eyeing public transportation. The question is, can public transportation handle the increase in passengers?

Ridership increases, along with gas prices

A study released by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) found that if the national average price of gasoline reaches $4 a gallon, as it did three years ago, it will result in an extra 670 million passenger trips per year on mass transit, for a total of 10.8 billion passenger trips per year.

The study showed that $5 a gallon gasoline would increase annual passenger trips by 1.5 billion. If prices at the pump were to soar to $6 a gallon, there could be an extra 2.7 billion passenger trips per year by consumers forced to give up their cars.

But with municipalities struggling to contain budgets, very few are allocating funds to build more subways and put more buses on the street. Besides, this type of infrastructure additions require significant lead time.

Wake up call

"The volatility of the price at the pump is another wake up call for our nation to address the increasing demand for public transportation services," said APTA President William Millar.  "We must make significant, long-term investments in public transportation or we will leave our fellow Americans with limited travel options, or in many cases stranded without travel options.  Public transit is the quickest way for people to beat high gas prices if it is available." 

Millar says public transit systems in many parts of the country are already seeing a big jump in ridership. The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority in Pompano Beach, Fla., increased by 10.6  percent; Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority of Philadelphia, Pa., increased by 10 percent;  and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority of Oakland, Calif., increased by 14 percent.

"We saw this same story in 2008 and several times before where high gas prices caught our country without adequate travel options," said Millar.  "However, this time we can write a happy ending and make sure investment is made to expand public transportation so that more Americans have a choice in how they travel."

But with Congress wrestling with rising budget deficits, very few lawmakers are talking about spending more on public transportation.

 

 

More

What's On Your Mind? Bank Of America, Enterprise, Whirlpool

Some of the problems consumers are facing today

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Bank Of America, Enterprise, Whirlpool, It's your word against theirs and Shrinking lifespan....

photoCan you lose your house to foreclosure, eight years after you've sold it? Technically no, but Carmen, of West Yarmouth, Mass., and her husband have not been able to convince Bank of America.

"My husband and I sold a house at in Bridgewater, Mass., on December 6, 2002," Carmen told ConsumerAffairs.com. "A few months ago we started getting letters and phone calls from Bank of America saying we were in default and were in danger of foreclosure."

Carmen said she called the bank, thinking she could easily clear this up. She couldn't. Even after faxing their closing papers, the bank still insisted the loan was active and they were headed toward foreclosure.

"I went to the local Registry of Deeds and even found an entry showing the loan was paid off and they were still not satisfied," she said.

In a large institution, mistakes are bound to occur, but Carmen and her husband are obviously in no danger of losing a home they no longer own. But the bigger problem for them is Bank of America's insistence they are in default, since that has been reported to credit agencies.

"They have ruined our credit and continue to insist we owe them money on a house we sold eight years ago," Carmen said. "Do we have any recourse? We are having difficulty getting a loan on a car due to this issue."

Carmen should continue trying to find someone at Bank of America who can resolve the apparent misunderstanding. In the meantime, she should contact each of the three credit reporting agencies - Experian, Equifax and Trans Union - and challenge the negative entry by providing documentation showing that the debt was paid off, on time, more than eight years ago.

It's your word against theirs

Jerry of Eugene, Ore., dropped off his Enterprise rental car at the airport at 4:30 a.m., when the Enterprise desk was unstaffed. He left the car in a return parking slot and dropped the key and paperwork into the night slot. He says the car was undamaged when he left it there.

"Two days after I returned the car, a credit card charge of $500 was made to my account by Enterprise," Jerry told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Jerry argued with Enterprise but was unable to resolve the matter. The company says there was damage to the vehicle when they inspected it. Jerry insists it occurred after he dropped it off.

I've notified my credit card company who will refute the charge on my behalf," Jerry said. What else can I do to protect myself from Enterprise simply deciding on it's own to charge me this fee?"

If Jerry had used a digital camera to photograph all four sides of the car after he parked it, and the photographs had time and date stamps, that might be enough to persuade the company. But the lesson here is that dropping off a rental car after hours, and not having someone inspect it before you leave the premises, is risky.

Shrinking lifespan

Just how long should a major home appliance last before it has to be replaced? Kari, of Rockford, Ill., bought a Whirlpool dryer about four years ago and says the motor has already stopped working.

"We had a repairman, contacted through Whirlpool, look at it, and spent $85 just to be told that it would be cheaper to get a new dryer and that this one was old anyway," Kari said. "Yes, their repai rpeople refer to a four year old dryer as 'old.' Tells you how long they expect them to last."

Obviously, before making a major purchase like a washer and dryer, you should conduct some research to see what other consumers say about have to say about it. Judging from many of the complaints about different manufacturers that we've reviewed, it appears that you are often better off purchasing a basic, cheaper unit and not the top-of-the-line. Many of the more expensive units have more features and functions that break down.

 

 

More

Morgan Stanley Investigated for Unlawful Military Foreclosures

It's the latest instance of lenders disregarding laws protecting active-duty military

Morgan Stanley Investigated for Unlawful Military Foreclosures. It's the latest instance of lenders disregarding laws protecting active-duty military....

Morgan Stanley is the latest financial institution being investigated for allegedly foreclosing on the homes of active-duty military families despite a federal law that severely restricts such actions.

The Justice Department confirmed that it is investigating Saxon Mortgage Service, a Morgan Stanley company, along with several other mortgage firms, The New York Times reported today. Morgan Stanley had disclosed in a recent regulatory filing that it was “responding to subpoenas and requests for information” about its “compliance with the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act,” the newspaper said.

Other mortgage lenders previously accused of overcharging or wrongly foreclosing on military families include JP Morgan Chase and Wells-Fargo.

A federal judge in Michigan ruled last year that Saxon had illegally foreclosed on the home of Sgt. James B. Hurley, a Michigan National Guard member, while he was serving in Iraq. Hurley returned from Iraq in December 2005 to find that Saxon had foreclosed on his riverside home and sold it to someone else.

The Times report said that as many as 23 other Saxon foreclosures involving military families were under investigation.

SCRA

The federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) strictly limits the interest rates that can be charged active-duty military members and requires a hearing before a judge before any foreclosure action is taken against military families, regardless of how strict or lax applicable state laws may be. Further, the military member must have adequate representation at any such court hearing and cannot be found in default simply by failing to appear.

Other military members, including Jose of Dallas, have complained to ConsumerAffairs.com that Saxon Mortgage charged them interest rates higher than allowed by the SCRA.

Congressional criticism

The Saxon allegations are likely to add fuel to Congressional criticism of the banks and demands for additional investigations.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) in January asked Attorney General Eric Holder to examine the incidents and Deleware Attorney General Beau Biden asked all banks to review mortgage practices to make sure they comply with the law.

"Soldiers who are fighting on the front lines to protect our country shouldn't have to needlessly fight with banks to protect their homes," Reed said.

In the House, lawmakers demanded hearings. “We believe a hearing on the mishandling of mortgages of active-duty military families, including an examination of whether the improper actions of JPMorgan Chase extend to other financial institutions as well, is critical," 40 House members said in a letter.

Other violations

Chase admitted in January that it overcharged thousands of military service personnel on their mortgages and wrongfully foreclosed on 14 active-duty families, despite a federal law that limits interest rates that can be charged to active-duty military and prohibits foreclosure actions against them.

"We made mistakes and we are fixing them," the bank said in a statement. "We feel particuarly badly about the mistakes we made here."

The bank said it is mailing about $2 million to more than 4,000 military families that were overcharged and said it has already resolved 13 of the 14 foreclosures.

Wells-Fargo last month agreed to settle a class action lawsuit that alleged the bank charged military veterans improperly high fees when they refinanced their mortgages. The bank, the nation's largest mortgage originator, will refund up to $10 million in fees to eligible military veterans who refinanced their mortgages with the bank.

 

More

FTC Finalizes Settlement with Twitter

Social networking site was accused of deceiving consumers, endangering their privacy

FTC Finalizes Settlement with Twitter Social networking site was accused of deceiving consumers, endangering their privacy ...

The Federal Trade Commission has voted to finalize a settlement with Twitter, resolving charges that Twitter deceived consumers and put their privacy at risk by failing to safeguard their personal information. The settlement was tentatively reached in June 2010.

The FTC alleged that serious lapses in the company’s data security allowed hackers to obtain unauthorized administrative control of Twitter, including both access to non-public user information and tweets that consumers had designated as private, and the ability to send out phony tweets from any account.

The privacy policy posted on Twitter’s website stated that “Twitter is very concerned about safeguarding the confidentiality of your personally identifiable information. We employ administrative, physical, and electronic measures designed to protect your information from unauthorized access.”

In addition, Twitter offered its users privacy settings that enabled them to designate their tweets as private.

The FTC’s complaint alleged that between January and May of 2009, hackers were able to gain administrative control of Twitter on two occasions.

Under the terms of the settlement, Twitter will be barred for 20 years from misleading consumers about the extent to which it protects the security, privacy, and confidentiality of nonpublic consumer information, including the measures it takes to prevent unauthorized access to nonpublic information and honor the privacy choices made by consumers.

The company also must establish and maintain a comprehensive information security program, which will be assessed by an independent auditor every other year for 10 years.

 

More

American Suzuki Recalls KingQuad ATVs

Fuel tanks can leak

American Suzuki Recalls KingQuad ATVsFuel tanks can leak...

American Suzuki is recalling about 29,000 Suzuki KingQuad ATVs. Some KingQuad ATV’s plastic fuel tanks were improperly manufactured and can develop a fuel leak, posing a fire hazard.

American Suzuki has received 19 reports of fuel leaking from the recalled ATVs. No injuries have been reported.

This recall is for the following Suzuki KingQuad models: all 2008 to 2010 LT-A450X models, all 2009 to 2010 LT-A500X models, all 2008 to 2010 LT-A750X models and 2011 LT-A500X and LT-A750X models manufactured before December 11, 2010. The words “Suzuki KingQuad"” are on the left and right sides of the fuel tank housing. Model numbers are on the left and right lower side panels above the footrests.

Suzuki ATV dealers sold the ATVs nationwide from July 2007 through February 2011 for between $6,600 and $9,500. They were made in the United States.

Consumers should immediately stop using these vehicles and contact a local Suzuki ATV dealer to schedule an appointment for a free repair. Consumers with 2011 LT-A500X and LT-A750X models should call their local Suzuki ATV dealer to determine if their ATV is subject to this recall. Consumers with recalled ATVs are being sent a notice directly from Suzuki.

For more information, contact Suzuki at (800) 444-5077 between 8:30 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm’s website at www.suzukicycles.com

More

Amazon Cuts Illinois Loose, Prepares to Take On California

Online giant gives no quarter in its opposition to collecting sales tax

Amazon Cuts Illinois Loose, Prepares to Take On California. Online giant gives no quarter in its opposition to collecting sales tax....

photoIllinois may be rid of those fugitive Wisconsin and Indiana legislators but it still has Amazon to contend with. The giant online retailer has severed ties with its affiliated websites in Illinois as retribution for a new state law that requires online retailers to collect Illinois' 6.25% sales tax.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed the new law yesterday. It requires that online retailers who work with affiliates in Illinois must collect sales tax on purchases made by Illinois residents. Affiliates are Web sites that encourage their readers to order products through Amazon links on their sites. The affiliates get a small commission on each sale.

Amazon has fiercely opposed sales taxes in Hawaii, North Carolina and Rhode Island and has cut off its affiliates in those states as well. It is currently locked in a court battle over the issue in New York.

Meanwhile, the grand prize, California (sales tax: 8.25%), is considering legislation similar to Illinois'.

While Amazon was able to jettison its longtime affiliates in smaller states like Rhode Island without noticeable damage to its bottom line, it may not find it quite so easy to go to war with the likes of California, New York, Illinois and other large and relatively prosperous states.

Nevertheless, Amazon is sticking to its guns, insisting that it is “unconstitutional and counterproductive” for states to force it and other online retailers to collect the same tax that is charged by brick-and-mortar retailers.

Loss to affiliates

Meanwhile, the potential loss to Amazon's Illinois 9,000 affiliates is far from minor. Those affiliates generated $611 million in revenue in 2009 and paid taxes of $18 million, a trade association said.

Many affiliates are small, one-person operations while others are non-profit organizations that make a few extra dollars by encouraging their members and supporters to buy books and other products through the Amazon links on their sites.

But larger affiliates may well move out of Illinois to avoid being stuck in the middle of the tax collection battle.

The issue revolves around a 1992 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court which held that retailers must collect sales taxes only if they have a substantial physical “nexus” in a state. Illinois' new law adds affiliates to the “nexus” definition, while Amazon refers to them as “advertisers.”

Unfair advantage

Brick-and-mortar retailers complain that freedom from sales tax gives online retailers an unfair advantage – an argument that increasingly rings true to states that find themselves with huge budget deficits brought on at least in part by falling or stagnant sales tax revenues.

Of course, retailers don't want to advertise the face that they're trying to impose new taxes on their customers, so they generally do their lobbying through trade associations.

In Illinois, it was a nationwide trade group called the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) that drummed up support for the measure and praised Gov. Quinn for signing it into law. And who might members of that association be? A few you might recognize are Wal-Mart and Best Buy, as well as most other big-box retailers and many local and regional outlets.

Governor Quinn has taken a bold step today to help level the playing field for retailers in Illinois,”RILA President Sandy Kennedy.  “Whether a sale happens in a store or online, the sales tax collected should be the same.  It’s time to end the special treatment given to online-only retailers.”

RILA says its members include more than 200 retailers, product manufacturers, and service suppliers, which together account for more than $1.5 trillion in annual sales. RILA members operate more than 100,000 stores.

Kennedy said Illinois retailers would be expanding their affiliate programs to make up for any losses caused by Amazon's pull-out.

If Amazon chooses to terminate its relationships with Illinois businesses in order to continue dodging sales tax laws, that’s a short-sighted decision, but its Amazon’s to make.  America’s largest brick-and-mortar companies are expanding their affiliate programs should Amazon abandon its partners in Illinois.  Main Street retailers employ more than 590,000 workers in Illinois—and we’re not leaving.”

More

Bank Fees Hit Consumers Where It Hurts

Banks appear to be making up for lost revenue

A new law got rid of overdraft fees, but consumers are facing a new set of fees....

Early in 2011, a number of major banks began charging some new fees to their checking and savings customers. 

The new CARD Act, which did away with overdraft fees, has removed billions from banks bottom lines. The banks appear to be looking for ways to make up that lost revenue.

Among the consumers who have suddenly noticed the changes is Sherry, of Burleson, Tex. She noticed Chase had charged $12 fees to both her checking and savings accounts.

'$24 coming out of my pocket'

"I kept my cool but was somewhat disgruntled at the idea of $24.00 coming out of my pocket and not knowing why," Sherry told ConsumerAffairs.com. I went to the bank the next day, having already made up my mind to close my savings account so I wouldn't have two charges coming out for whatever reason."

Sherry said bank personnel explained the new fees this way: if you exceed a set number of online transfers from checking to savings in a given month, it's a $12 fee. If you don't maintain a balance of at least $1,500 in your savings account, it's a $12 per month fee. If you don't have a $500 or more direct deposit go to your checking account once a month, it's a $12 fee.

Part-time employee

That last fee is a problem for Sherry because she works part-time. Her direct deposit checks usually don't total $500, she says. She says she feels she is being punished because of what she earns and would like options.

One option might be a credit union, though those institutions aren't without their problems. Many smaller, community banks may also offer more competitive services for bank accounts. Sherry should also read How To Fight The New Bank Maintenance Fees.

 

More

Need More Exercise? Get A Dog

Researchers find dog walkers to be healthier

Owning a dog might be a prescription for a healthier, more active lifestyle....

Most of us need to get more exercise. We spend too much time in front of a computer, in front of the TV, and in front of the dinner table.

It turns out having a dog might be a good way to improve your physical activity. Epidemiologist Mathew Reeves led a team of researchers from Michigan State University who found that people who walked their dogs were 34 percent more likely to be considered "physically active," when measured by current federal benchmarks.

Promotes walking

"Walking is the most accessible form of physical activity available to people," Reeves said. "What we wanted to know was if dog owners who walked their dogs were getting more physical activity or if the dog-walking was simply a substitute for other forms of activity."

According to the data, dog walkers do indeed appear to be more active. Reeves says the results show that promoting dog ownership and dog walking could help many Americans - of which fewer than half meet recommended levels of leisure-time physical activity - become healthier.

Extra hour of walking per week

For example, the study showed people who walked their dogs generally walked about an hour longer per week than people who owned dogs but did not walk them. And all that extra exercise isn't just from taking Brutus around the block twice a day.

"Obviously you would expect dog walkers to walk more, but we found people who walked their dog also had higher overall levels of both moderate and vigorous physical activities," he said. "There appears to be a strong link between owning and walking a dog and achieving higher levels of physical activity, even after accounting for the actual dog walking."

Positive impact

Reeves says he isn't arguing that owning a dog will suddenly make your shed 15 pounds, but he does see a correlation between the human-animal bond that appears to have an overall positive impact on quality of life.

"The findings suggest public health campaigns that promote the responsible ownership of a dog along with the promotion of dog walking may represent a logical opportunity to increase physical activity," he said.

If you're thinking about adding a dog to your family, be sure to take the time to consider what breed will be most compatible with you and other family members. And when it's time to make a selection, try your local animal shelter, or animal rescue service first.

 

More

Video: A Fix For The Samsung TV Power Problem

If you're at all handy, you may be able to do the fix yourself

Video: A Fix For The Samsung TV Power Problem...

Over the years flat-screen TVs have come down in price, partly because some manufacturers use cheaper parts. That has led to a lot of complaints about TV sets losing their picture, or not turning on at all.

Usually, the problem occurs right after the set is out of warranty coverage.

"I have a Samsung 40" LCD TV that I paid $1200.00 for in December 2008. All I get is a black screen with sound no picture," Rich of Westminster, Colo., told ConsumerAffairs.com. In my research I have found that hundreds of people are having the same issue with there TV's as I am in different models of Samsung TV's. The capacitors are defective."

Maybe not defective, but not the most durable parts. They do, indeed, appear prone to failure.

Since the set is out of warranty, you could be looking at an expensive repair bill. A number of consumers have figured out how to identify and replace the capacitors themselves. There are a number of consumer videos on YouTube that can walk you through it. Make sure you unplug all power cords before starting, however.

If you've recently purchased a flat screen TV, Kinnya, a consumer from Laurelton, N.Y., says you may get longer life out of your capacitors, and other internal parts, by investing in a really good surge protector. At the urging of a customer service rep, who she thought was only trying to upsell her, she bought a high-end surge protector for $199. A few months later, her apartment flooded.

"The $199 surge protector immediately powered off, cutting the power to all appliances," Kinnya told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I stronglysuggest that a excellent surge protector that comes with a lifetime warranty on the appliances connected is purchased when one makes such an investment."

More

FDA Warns Sugar Substitute Can Be Harmful to Dogs

Xylitol used in many over-the-counter drugs, sprays, chewing gum

FDA Warns Sugar Substitute Can Be Harmful to Dogs Xylitol used in many over-the-counter drugs, sprays, chewing gum ...

The Food and Drug Administrationhas a word of advice for pet owners: keep your dogs and ferrets away fromxylitol,a sugar alcohol that's usedin many common products, including sugar-free baked goods, candy, oral hygiene products, and chewing gum.

Xylitol can be found in many over-the-counter drugs such as chewable vitamins and throat lozenges and sprays. It can also be purchased in bulk bags for use in home baking. These products are intended only for human use.

FDA said it is aware of complaints involving dogs that experienced illness associated with the accidental consumption of xylitol. Xylitol is safe for humans but it can be harmful to dogs and ferrets.

FDA is advising consumers to always read the label on products and to not presume that a product that is safe for humans is safe for your pet.

The FDA reports included clinical signs such as a sudden drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia), seizures and liver failure. If you suspect your pet has ingested xylitol, some signs to look for are depression, loss of coordination and vomiting. The signs of illness may occur within minutes to days of ingesting xylitol.

Owners should consult their veterinarian or pet poison control center immediately for advice if they know or suspect that their pet has ingested a human product containing xylitol.

 

More

Osteoporosis Drug Reclast Linked to Kidney Failure

Public Citizen wants FDA to warn physicians, consumers

Osteoporosis Drug Reclast Linked to Kidney Failure. Public Citizen wants FDA to warn physicians, consumers....

Does Canada care more about its citizens' health than the U.S.? It sometimes looks that way.

The consumer group Public Citizen wants the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to do what Canada apparently did five months ago – tell Novartis to warn physicians and consumers about a dangerous link between a widely-used osteoporosis drug and serious renal toxicity, which can result in death.

In a letter to the FDA, Public Citizen's Health Research Group said the Canadian government reacted after learning of 265 cases of serious kidney impairment in patients using Aclasta (zoledronic acid). The drug is called Reclast in the U.S. and is identical to the Canadian version.

Five months later, the FDA has done nothing, said Public Citizen's Sidney Wolfe, M.D., in a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, M.D.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has failed to take ... action requiring Novartis to alert physicians and patients in the United States about the growing evidence linking Reclast to this serious, life-threatening adverse event,” Wolfe said. “We therefore urge the FDA to immediately require that Novartis issue a similar “Dear Doctor Letter” to all physicians in the U.S.”

Reclast is given once a year for treatment of osteoporosis in men and postmeopausal women and once every two years for prevention of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women.

Wolfe noted that more than one million infusions of Aclasta had been administered worldwide as of October 2010. The 265 cases of renal impairment reported in Canada corresponds to a rate of about 20 cases per 100,000 patient-years of exposure. The FDA estimates that no more than 10 percent of adverse drug reactions are reported.

Clearly, the current warnings and precautions in the FDA-approved label for Reclast about the risk of renal impairment are not sufficient for making physicians adequately aware of this serious, life-threatening renal toxicity associated with Reclast, the very reason that the Canadian government convinced the company to initiate the additional warnings,” Wolfe said..

 

More

A Novel Way To Limit Unauthorized Charges

New meaning to 'cash is king'

A ConsumerAffairs.com reader offers a tip on avoiding unauthorized credit card charges....

Consumers understandably get angry when they find their credit cards have been charged for something they didn't expect.

Sometimes it happens on a "negative option" sale they aren't even aware of. Sometimes it's a case of a merchant, who has their credit card information, placing multiple charges on their accounts and hoping they won't notice, or saying the consumer misunderstood the actual cost.

The online sales of "Your Baby Can Read" have drawn a number of complaints from consumers who say they agreed to one charge but were eventually charged much more. 

"I was told I would have a $14.95 trial fee," Anna, of San Francisco, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Then my card would be processed another $66.00 if I chose to sign one."

Surprise!

Anna said she paid all the agreed-upon fees, then saw that her card had been charged another $66.

"I called and they told me the invoice states they are going to charge me a total of $214," Anna said. "The person I spoke with on the phone told me I would be charged 134.80 plus the tax. These people are very sleight of hand."

Another consumer, Heather, of Henderson, Ky., had read all the reviews and complaints about online purchases, so went to her local Wal-Mart. She says she's found a way to virtually eliminate the risk of having unexpected charges placed on her credit card.

Cash is king

"I bought the first stage at Wal-Mart for $25 and there wasn't any trial period or fee and I paid with cash. They have no clue about any of my credit cards," Heather told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Wow, a new discovery, going to a store to buy something instead of ordering it on the Internet!! Get some sunlight people and get out of your houses!"

In all fairness, it's possible to be subjected to unauthorized charges in an in-person transaction too, but Heather has a point. They can't keep charging you if your initial transaction is paid in cash.

It's helpful to remember that once anyone has your credit card information, they can essentially place charges on it at will, and you will be required to dispute it. Reputable businesses don't engage in that kind of behavior, but no one can control the actions of their employees 100 percent of the time..

 

More

Video: Aftermath Of A Baking Dish Explosion

Glass bakeware can make quite a mess if it shatters

Video: Aftermath Of A Baking Dish Explosion. Glass bakeware can make quite a mess if it shatters....

Over the years, ConsumerAffairs.com has received a number of complaints from consumers about their glass bakeware exploding, either in the oven or soon after being removed.

"My wife was baking fish with vegetables in a Pyrex baking dish when we both heard a bang like a crash of glass coming from inside the oven," Al of Chicago told ConsumerAffairs.com recently. "We opened it and saw that the glass dish had literally exploded, with about 15 large pieces and countless smaller pieces of glass of all sizes inside the oven."

One consumer submitted this YouTube video, showing the aftermath of
one of these kitchen catastrophes.


ConsumerAffairs.com has also received similar complaints about glass baking dishes made by Anchor Hocking.

"I was making dinner last night with our 9x11" glass casserole dish made by Anchor," Kami, of Ashburn, Va., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I pulled the dish out of the oven, set it on the stovetop to cool off for a few minutes before cutting the casserole to serve for dinner. About five minutes later, we heard the knife fall to the floor and a loud "BOOM" sound. We look up to find that our casserole dish had exploded all over the stove, counters, and floor!"

For the record, the company that makes Pyrex says its products are safe, are made the same way they always have been, and that users should carefully follow the directions for use.

More

New Jersey Charges 11 Unlicensed 'Mortgage Loan Modification' Providers

States seeks penalties and restitution for consumers who paid for help

New Jersey Charges 11 Unlicensed 'Mortgage Loan Modification' Providers. States seeks penalties and restitution for consumers who paid for help....

New Jersey hasfiled administrative actions against 11 unlicensed businesses offering “mortgage loan modification” services for homeowners in dire financial straits. State law requires that anyone providing these services in New Jersey be licensed as a Debt Adjuster by the Department of Banking and Insurance, or be otherwise authorized.

When homeowners are desperate for help, struggling to pay their debts and keep their homes, they should be able to trust the businesses that offer to help. Because so much is at stake for the homeowner and the overall economy, the State will not tolerate unlicensed businesses that present themselves as legally authorized to offer mortgage modification services to individuals in great need,” Attorney General Paula T. Dow said.

The Division of Consumer Affairs filed Notices of Violation against the businesses, which were found to be in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act’s Advertising Regulations. The businesses offered mortgage loan modification services even though they are not licensed to do so in New Jersey. The State is seeking $55,000 in civil penalties and $125,906.29 in consumer restitution from the businesses. The amounts sought in consumer restitution represent the fees paid by approximately 65 consumers for mortgage loan modification services.

When people fear losing their home, they are vulnerable to making desperate decisions that can put them in an even worse situation,” said Thomas R. Calcagni, Acting Director of the State Division of Consumer Affairs. “With this statewide initiative, we’re turning up the heat on those businesses that take advantage of homeowners in their hour of desperation. And we’re sending a clear message to all mortgage modification businesses in the state: You will comply with our laws.”

The following is a list of the 11 businesses, and the amounts the state is seeking from each in civil penalties and consumer restitution:

  • ASRC, LLC, of Little Falls. The State is seeking a $5,000 civil penalty and $1,000 in consumer restitution from this company.

  • Creative Land Marketing Corp., d/b/a CLM Corp. Home Mitigation Advisors, d/b/a Express Debt 411, d/b/a Home Mitigation Adv., d/b/a Express Home 411, of New Brunswick. The State is seeking a $5,000 civil penalty and $1,250 in consumer restitution.

  • Excel Loan Modifications, of Cherry Hill. The State is seeking a $5,000 civil penalty and $1,059.01 in consumer restitution.

  • Homeowners First Financial, LLC, of Parsippany. The State is seeking a $5,000 civil penalty and $2,200 in consumer restitution.

  • Hope Loan Today, of Robbinsville. The State is seeking a $5,000 civil penalty and $14,000 in consumer restitution.

  • Integrity Plus Financial, LLC, of Berlin. The State is seeking a $5,000 civil penalty and $3,000 in consumer restitution.

  • Loan Modification Firm, LLC, of Union City. The State is seeking a $5,000 civil penalty and $1,500 in consumer restitution.

  • Mortgage Foreclosure Experts, LLC, of Mt. Laurel. The State is seeking a $5,000 civil penalty and $9,917.28 in consumer restitution.

  • Mortgage Solutions for America, LLC, of Gibbsboro. The State is seeking a $5,000 civil penalty and $1,251 in consumer restitution.

  • National Foreclosure Group d/b/a/ Hope 4 Solutions, LLC, of Woodbury. The State is seeking a $5,000 civil penalty and $88,479 in consumer restitution.

  • Spiros Chartofillis, of Nutley. The State is seeking a $5,000 civil penalty and $2,250 in consumer restitution.

A mortgage loan modification involves changing the terms of an existing loan – for example, by lowering the monthly payments, adjusting the interest rate, extending the length of the loan, or in some cases decreasing the unpaid balance.

The only types of business that can engage in mortgage loan modification services in New Jersey are:

  • Nonprofit organizations licensed as Debt Adjusters by the State Department of Banking and Insurance;

  • The lender or owner of the loan;

  • The mortgage servicer acting on the lender or owner’s behalf; or

  • An attorney, provided he or she is not primarily engaged in debt adjustment.

 

More

States Reach Landmark $68.5 Million Settlement With AstraZeneca

Settlement comes after three-year investigation into marketing of Seroquel

States Reach Landmark $68.5 Million Settlement With AstraZeneca Settlement comes after three-year investigation into marketing of Seroquel ...

The attorneys general of 38 states today reached a record-breaking agreement with AstraZeneca, which the states investigated for improper marketing practices. The states’ $68.5 million settlement resolves a three-year investigation into AstraZeneca Pharmaceutical’s efforts to market the antipsychotic drug Seroquel.

Today’s multistate agreement stems from a complaint in federal court charging AstraZeneca with unlawfully marketing Seroquel for unapproved – or off-label – uses. The states also charged AstraZeneca with failing to disclose Seroquel’s harmful side effects and concealing scientific data that revealed safety concerns.

Under the settlement, AstraZeneca agreed to comply with state and federal laws governing its marketing – including legal requirements that prohibit manufacturers from promoting their products for off-label uses not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

While physicians may prescribe drugs for off-label uses, pharmaceutical manufacturers may not market their products for a purpose until that use has been approved by the FDA. AstraZeneca marketed Seroquel for a number of off-label purposes.

The states’ legal action explained that AstraZeneca targeted Alzheimer’s patients at nursing homes, as well as patients who suffered anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and post traumatic stress syndrome.

The settlement also imposes injunctive provisions that require AstraZeneca to:

• Publish any payments it makes to physicians on the Internet;
• Implement policies that ensure its marketing and sales personnel are not financially compensated for marketing off-label uses;
• Establish polices to ensure that its sales personnel will refrain from marketing Seroquel to health care providers who are unlikely to prescribe it for an FDA-approved use; and
• Cite Seroquel’s FDA-approved indicators when referencing selected symptoms.

Atypical antipsychotics, including Seroquel, can produce dangerous side effects, including weight gain, hyperglycemia, diabetes, cardiovascular complications, an increased risk of mortality in elderly patients with dementia and other severe conditions.

 

More

McCain, Kerry Planning 'Online Privacy Bill of Rights'

Bipartisan measure would regulate online tracking

McCain, Kerry Planning 'Online Privacy Bill of Rights' Bipartisan measure would regulate online tracking...

photoDespite residing on different sides of the political fence, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and John Kerry (D-MA) have a couple of things in common, besides having run unsuccessfully for President.

They're quietly circulating proposed legislation to create an “online privacy bill of rights,” the Wall Street Journal reported today. It's intended to address consumer concerns about online tracking companies that follow Web users around and use the information to deliver targeted advertising.

Similar legislation was introduced in the House earlier this monthbyRep. Jackie Speier (D-CA).Her bill would give the Federal Trade Commission power to implement and enforce regulations.

The Federal Trade Commission has also been chewing on the issue and in December, urged Congress to authorize a “do-not-track” system, similar to the FTC's do-not-call list.

No one has ever demonstrated that such tracking does any harm or cited any instance of anyone's personal lives being harmed in any way but it's an issue that seems to resonate with consumers.

The Kerry-McCain bill would cover not just the Internet but personal data gathering across all industries, the Journal's report said. Current laws cover medical and financial information but do not address other topics.

Whether the perceived problem really is a problem is open to debate but there's little doubt the politicians are onto a topic that resonates with voters. A USA Today/Gallup poll earlier this month found consumers are concerned about their privacy online.

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 bill would 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.

 

More

Lawsuit Says Sprint Overcharging For Its 'Premium Data' Service

Customers whose contracts provide for "unlimited" data are being charged $10 extra per month

Lawsuit Says Sprint Overcharging For Its 'Premium Data' Service. Customers whose contracts provide for "unlimited" data are being charged $10 extra per mon...

A class action lawsuit charges that Sprint has wrongly charged millions of customers a $10 per month “Premium Data Add-On” fee, even though the customers contract provides for “unlimited” data transfer at a fixed price.

The suit lists 25 separate data plans that promise “unlimited domestic web access,” unlimited domestic text and “all you can stream, browse email, chat watch and game on the Sprint network.”

But on June 4, 2010, when Sprint began selling its HTC EVO 4G mobile phone, it began charging the “Premium Data Add-On” fee of $10 per month to customers whose contracts already entitled them to unlimited data.

The suit charges that the “Premium Data Add-On” is nowhere defined in Sprint's terms and conditions and alleges that it is simple “a made-up term that Sprint created to disguise the fact that it was simply charging an additional fee for data services for which customers had already paid and which was already obligated to provide.”

While $10 may not mean much to an individual customer, it adds up quickly if you, like Sprint, have 42.8 million subscribers. The suit estimates that more than a million customers are being charged the new fee, translating to $120 million in new revenue for Sprint.

Plaintiff Gretha Wilkerson of Vallejo, Calif., said that she subscribes to the Sprint Everything Plus Data Share 3200 plan for her four lines. Wilkerson said that so far, she has been overcharged $35 in “Premium Data” charges.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

More

Vertrue To Pay $30 Million To Iowa Consumers

Largest consumer protection settlement in the state

Vertrue, the company behind many of those mystery charges on credit cards, will pay $30 million to Iowa consumers....

logoFor years, Vertrue has operated a number of "buying clubs," sold to consumers through negative option marketing, often without them being aware of it.

Now, the company has been ordered to pay more than $30 million in restitution and penalties to consumers in Iowa. The state's attorney general, Tom Miller, went to court and successfully argued that Vertrue violated Iowa's buying club law and engaged in deceptive and unfair practices over the last couple of decades.

The $32.6 million ruling includes $29.8 million in consumer restitution, $2.8 million in civil penalties, and $725,000 in costs and fees. Vertrue may appeal the court's ruling.

Nearly 20 years

Since 1993, the court found, Vertrue unlawfully marketed 639,721 "memberships" in discount programs to Iowans.  These buying club "memberships" typically cost $9.95 to $19.95 per month, with charges usually made to consumers' credit card or bank accounts.  Consumers were supposed to use their "membership" to earn discounts on travel, entertainment, and other products and services, but few did.

In fact, the court found that 90 percent who ended up with Vertrue memberships would have cancelled within the required three-day cancellation window, had they known to do so.

During the middle years of the last decade, Vertrue was enormously successful, linking up with many well known retailers and websites, who offered Vertrue’s membership programs as part of a “loyalty” program. In other words, the companies offering Vertrue products thought they were doing their customers a favor.

Actually, it usually turned out poorly for the consumer. At the end of transaction, the consumer was asked if they would like a “free trial” in a discount program. The consumers was supposed to be informed that after the trial, they would be enrolled in an ongoing membership program and their credit card would be charged $9.95 or so a month.

Often, this detail was left out. Instead, outraged consumers found unexplained charges on their credit card bills and had difficulty in canceling the program.

Duped

"This is an outstanding outcome for the hundreds of thousands of Iowans who were duped by this company and its deceptive practices," Miller said. "I am elated at this decision that will grant Iowans the restitution they deserve."

Miller filed the lawsuit in 2006. A judge ruled last March that Vertrue violated the state's Consumer Fraud Act and Buying Club Law. Miller says today's judgement is the latest consumer protection verdict ever awarded in Iowa in a case filed by the attorney general.

Vertrue was once known as MemberWorks, Inc. and operates subsidiaries, including Adaptive Marketing, LLC and Idaptive Marketing, LLC.

 

 

More

If You Want Your FICO Score, Be Prepared To Pay For It

Sometimes, it's worth the money

Despite offers of "free" FICO scores, be prepared to pay for that information....

graphThere are lots of commercial Internet sites offering a "free" credit report, sometimes confusing consumers who know that the law allows them access to their credit reports, at no charge, once a year.

But the truly free credit reports are only available at one site - annualcreditreport.com. How do you know the site is truly free? It's the only one that won't ask for your credit card number.

Other sites offering "free" credit reports take your credit card information because, to get the "free" credit report, consumers must enroll in a credit monitoring service for about $15 a month. They are told they won't be charged if they cancel the program within a set time, but consumers have complained that it is sometimes hard to cancel.

Unless you actually want to pay $15 a month for a credit monitoring service, you should probably only use www.annualcreditreport.com to get your credit report.

No free FICO score

But what about your FICO score? Is there any way to get that for free? Unfortunately, the law does not provide for a free annual FICO score, just your credit reports from the three credit reporting agencies, Experian, Equifax and Trans Union.

But your credit score is very useful information to have, so it might be worth paying for it. Banks and credit card companies rely on that score when deciding what interest rate to offer you, so knowing where you stand is important.

While a number of sites may offer a "free" FICO score, rest assured it is the same kind of arrangement as the "free" credit reports. You will have to enroll in some kind of program in order to get the score. You'll have a short period of time to cancel without being charged, but you shouldn't count on that happening.

MyFICO.com

A good place to obtain your credit score is at www.myfico.com, the site operated by Fair Isaac, the company that came up with the FICO score in the first place. While the site does offer a "free" FICO score, it requires you to sign up for a service and go through the whole cancellation drill.

Since a FICO score is valuable information to have, maybe it's worth paying for. One time access to your FICO score, as well as your credit report, is $19.95. But it's one transaction with nothing to cancel.

If you want to try for the "free" FICO score, you can enroll in the 10-day free trial of ScoreWatch, MyFICO.com's service that costs $14.95 a month. Here are the terms of the 10-day free trial, as outlined on the MyFICO website:

"You will not be billed unless you decide to keep Score Watch(r) beyond your 10-day free trial period.  Three days before your trial expires, we will contact you by email to notify you of the upcoming conversion of your trial to a monthly subscription," the company says. " Your credit card information will only be used if you do not cancel prior to the end of your free trial - you can cancel at any time during your 10-day free trial."

There is one way to get your FICO score for free. If you have applied for a mortgage, the loan company is required by law to reveal your credit score.

 

More

Quik Cash Agrees to Pay Restitution to Arizona Consumers

Payday loan company deprived customers of their day in court

Quik Cash Agrees to Pay Restitution to Arizona Consumers. Payday loan company deprived customers of their day in court....

Quik Cash Financial Services has agreed to pay up to $170,000 in restitution as part of a consent judgment reached with Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne.

Horne said Quik Cash, a payday lender, routinely filed default judgments in Pima County Court in Tucson against residents who lived elsewhere in the state and often succeeded in getting garnishment orders against them.

The state sued Quik Cash in 2009, alleging that the company's actions deprived consumers of their right to appear in court or to contest judgments and garnishments. In some cases, Quik Cash allegedly collected on debts that consumers had already paid, the state's lawsuit charged.

Payday lending is now illegal in Arizona,” Horne said.  Anyone who is aware of payday lending in the state should contact his office, he said.

More

Raw Milk May Be Natural, But It's Naturally a Risk

FDA strongly advises against drinking non-pasteurized milk

Raw Milk May Be Natural, But It's Naturally a RiskFDA strongly advises against drinking non-pasteurized milk...

photoRaw” milk is showing up more and more often in supermarkets and at specialty health food stores and farmers markets, along with cheese, yogurt and other milk-based products. It's part of the “eating local” and “back to nature” philosophy that's currently in vogue.

Besides thinking it tastes better, many consumers are now convinced that raw milk is more nutritious and healthful than pasteurized milk.

Simply put, it's not true, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Pasteurization is used because it prevents outbreaks of such foodborne illnesses as tuberculosis, brucellosis, salmonellosis, scarlet fever, and listeriosis. It was first used in the United States more than 100 years ago and has been widely used for more than a half-century, says John Sheehan, an FDA expert on the safety of dairy products.

During the pasteurization process, the milk is heated to 161 degrees and kept there for 15 seconds. Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria—including salmonella, E. coli, and listeria—that can contaminate milk before it gets to your table.

Although the heating process slightly affects a few of the vitamins—thiamine, vitamin B6 and folic acid within the B-complex, and vitamin C, the changes are not significant,according to the FDA.

Meanwhile, there is a risk that milk could be contaminated by environmental factors such as soil or animal feces, animal diseases, or bacteria on an animal's skin.

Artisanal cheese

Besides milk, there is currently more raw cheese on the market because of the growth of the artisanal cheese industry, Sheehan says. These cheeses are made by hand using what are considered to be traditional methods—often on the farm where the milk is produced.

Some of these cheese makers use pasteurized milk in their products, but others use raw milk that could contain disease-causing bacteria.

Some people believe cheese made from raw milk is better for you, but Sheehan says there is no scientific evidence to support that belief.

In countries where pasteurization of milk is less common, outbreaks of foodborne illness attributed to tainted milk or milk products occur more frequently than they do in the United States. In France, for example, the rate of foodborne illness attributed to milk and milk products was reported to be roughly three times what it is in the U.S., says Sheehan, citing a 2001 study by researcher Marie-Laure De Buyser and other French scientists.

Laws governing raw milk vary from state to state. About half allow some form of it to be sold. But federal lawprohibits dairies from distributing raw milk across state lines if it has been packaged for consumers.

It's up to consumers to be alert when buying milk at farmers markets and other non-traditional sources. Sheehan advises reading labels carefully and asking the store or market persononel if the milk has been Pasteurized.

Consumers should also be aware, health officials say, that they are not only endangering themselves by consuming raw milk but also others they may come in contact with. Foodborne illnesses may not be serious for healthy people but are especially dangerous to pregnant women, children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems.

 

 

More

Video: American Consumers Turning Back to Credit Cards

It's good for the economy but can be a trap for individual consumers

Video: American Consumers Turning Back to Credit Cards. It's good for the economy but can be a trap for individual consumers....

American consumers are putting their credit cards back to work.  That's good news for the economy but it can be a disaster for individual consumers if they let their credit get out of control.  Mark Huffman reports.

 

More

Skype Skips Into AdLand

Internet telephony service adds ads to its nearly-free service

Skype Skips Into AdLand Internet telephony service adds ads to its nearly-free service...

logoThere may be no free lunch but Skype comes close. The Luxembourg-based Internet telephony company provides free Internet calls and ridiculously cheap calls from an Internet-based Skype account to a landline or cell phone just about anywhere on earth.

But fiscal reality eventually rears its handsome head in even the most idealistic venture and thus, with its initial public offering looming, Skype has announced it will begin running ads on its home page. The first advertisers to sign up with Skype include Groupon, Nokia, Universal Pictures, and Visa.

Skype says the ads may include audio or video but promises they won't pop up in the middle of calls.

“The user experience on Skype is always job number one. So, we’ve spent a lot of time working through the best way to show advertising in the Skype environment. We believe our daily sponsorship ad from one brand per day is valuable for premier advertisers, but doesn’t detract from the experience for our users,”  said Doug Bewsher, Chief Marketing Office for Skype.

“Many people log into Skype as part of their daily routine, just like they check Groupon," said Rob Solomon, president and COO of Groupon. "We look forward to leveraging Skype's new display advertising to connect Groupon to an even larger captive audience."

Skype's IPO is expected to be one of the biggest in the technology space since Google raised $1.67 billion in 2004. Some investors are nervous about the company's ability to turn a profit, though. Last year, Skype had a loss of about $7 million on revenue of $860 million.  “We are just taking our first steps in this space and we expect to test and learn a lot as we move forward.”

The company says it has 145 million connected users, but only 8.8 million of them are paying a monthly fee.

More

Study: Teens More Prone to Texting and Driving

Distracted driving called a "deadly epidemic"

Study: Teens More Prone to Texting and Driving...

photoResearchers say young drivers are more likely to text and drive than their elders, so the U.S. Department of Transportation and Consumer Reports are launching a publicity campaign to alert parents, teachers and teens about the dangers of distracted driving.

Distracted driving has become a deadly epidemic on America’s roads, and teens are especially vulnerable because of their inexperience behind the wheel and, often, peer pressure,” Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said.  “Behind the statistics are real families who have been devastated by these tragedies. We’re pleased to be working withConsumer Reportsto raise awareness and help communities fight this problem.”

Not everyone agrees with LaHood, however. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), for one, said recently that texting bans haven't been effective in reducing crashes. IIHS prsident Adrian Lund said LaHood was ignoring"the endless sources of distraction and relies on banning one source or another to solve the whole problem."

The DOT-Consumer Reports campaign consists primarily ofa free guide for parents and educators called “Distracted Driving Shatters Lives,”s available at the Department of Transportation (DOT)’s web site Distraction.gov and ConsumerReports.org/Distracted

Copies will be distributed to schools and volunteer groups by the National School Safety Coalition. DOT and Consumer Reports today are sending a public service announcement to TV stations nationwide, and the guide will be highlighted in a Consumer Reports video to air in retail stores across America in April, where it is expected to reach as many as 100 million people.

Survey shows risk

A new, national survey by Consumer Reports National Research Center showed how widespread distracted driving is, especially among younger drivers:

  • 63 percent of respondents under 30 years old reported using a handheld phone while driving in the past 30 days, and 30 percent of them texted while driving during the same period.   That compares with 41 percent and 9 percent, respectively, of respondents who were 30 or older.

  • Among the under-30 respondents, only 36 percent were very concerned about the problem of distracted driving, and only 30 percent felt it was very dangerous to use a handheld phone.

  • 64 percent of respondents overall said they had seen other drivers texting using a handheld device in the past 30 days.  94 percent had observed drivers talking on a mobile phone and 58 percent had seen a dangerous driving situation related to a distracted driver in the past month.

  • 78 percent of respondents overall said they had reduced or stopped behaviors related to distracted driving.  Of that group, 66 percent said they did so because of reading or hearing about the dangers.

According to the Department of Transportation, nearly 5,500 people in the U.S. were killed and almost half a million were injured in accidents related to distracted driving in 2009.  Eighteen percent of those fatal accidents involved the use of a cell phone.

 

More

Debt-Ridden New Yorkers Getting $1.1 Million In Refunds

Debt settlement firm agrees to make amends

New York has secured an agreement from a debt settlement firm to refund $1.1 million....

As part of a settlement with a company offering debt settlement services, more than 5,000 New Yorkers will get refunds totaling $1.1 million.

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced the agreement with Freedom Debt Relief, a company he says misled debt-saddled consumers about the amount of money they would save and the services it would provide, while reaping large profits in up-front fees.

"Freedom Debt promised relief and financial stability, but left thousands of its customers even farther in the red,"  Schneiderman said. "This office has zero tolerance for those who prey on the vulnerable to make a profit, and will continue to root out the kinds of deceptive practices seen in this case. It is just as important that New Yorkers know how to both recognize and avoid a bad deal, so that they can make sound financial decisions."

Lured consumers

Schneiderman said his investigation revealed that Freedom Debt lured consumers by making false and misleading claims, promising to eliminate large portions of debt by negotiating directly with creditors, claiming that it could reduce total debt by 40 to 60 percent. Consumers were told that they would be "debt-free" within anywhere from one to three years.

But, says Schneiderman, the company's program was fundamentally flawed, leaving most New York consumers with as much or more debt than they had before signing up for the service. In lieu of making even the minimum payments to their creditors, customers made monthly deposits to a designated account that was purportedly to be used to settle their debt. Freedom Debt deducted its up-front fees from this account before it engaged in a discussion with consumers' creditors - a practice it continued until the Federal Trade Commission banned it in October 2010.

When consumers were unable to make the strict monthly deposit schedule the program required, they dropped out of the program - having paid most or all of the fees without receiving the promised services.

Not just one company

Schneiderman says these practices aren't limited to this particular company, and that consumers should be wary of most firms promising credit relief. His advice? Be wary of debt settlement companies that promise to reduce your debt substantially or to make you "debt free." Also, never agree to sign a contract with a debt settlement company that requires the payment of up-front fees, which are generally illegal.

Keep in mind that enrollment in a debt settlement plan premised on stopping payments to creditors will likely lead to more frequent and aggressive creditor collection efforts often resulting in judgments, wage garnishments, and freezing of bank accounts.

Schneiderman says a wise first step to help resolve an outstanding account is to speak directly to the credit card issuer. Alternatively, it may be helpful to speak to an attorney or an accredited credit counselor who can help develop a plan of action that best works for each consumer's unique situation.

 

More

DirecTV Subscribers Still Face Unexplained Porn Charges

Bills sent to collections if customers don't agree to pay

DirecTV Subscribers Still Face Unexplained Porn Charges. Bills sent to collections if customers don't agree to pay ....

photoOne seemingly unavoidable hazard of modern life is being billed by DirecTV for pornographic movies, whether or not you actually watch the skin flicks. Complaints have piled up for years and the company has occasionally said it is “evaluating possible solutions” but customers complain thatDirecTVreps are unsympathetic and unbending.

As recently as March 2, Jerry of Coral Springs, Fla., complained that after he terminated his DirecTV service in January and paid the final bill, he received a new bill for $29.35, supposedly representing Pay Per View charges from 2004.

I have NEVER in 10 years as a Direct TV customer EVER ordered anything much less filth!Jerry told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Iam beyond disgusted to be threatened with collections by Direct TV for refusing to pay for this fraudulent bill.”

Jerry, like many others, took note of a 2006 ConsumerAffairs.com story that told of an outbreak of similar disputed billings in the Philadelphia area. DirecTV refused to help, even though some of those billed were not even DirecTV subscribers.

One theory then was that rogueemployees at some DirecTV subcontractors were setting up bogus accounts for the commission a theory that Jerry thinks might explain his problem.

A few years ago, I had my Direct TV account and satellite plus receivers upgraded by a subcontracted field rep for Direct TV. I complained to Direct TV that I should be dealing with an employee not a subcontract and they did not care. Now I am finding out that these subs are stealing account info from the cards removed from the old receivers and charging pornographic material on them.”

Jerry is not the only one belatedly billed for viewings that supposedly occurred in 2004. Lisa of Minneapolis received a bill in December 2007 that included porn charges,she said. DirecTV insisted the bill was accurate and said she would be charged a late fee, even though she had not previously been billed for the supposed viewings.

Company can't corroborate

A company spokesman said he could not comment on the individual cases and would not concede that any such incidents had ever happened.

Asked what customers could do in the event of inaccurate billing, he said, “Our customers cancall 1800DirecTv. We have proficient customer service reps who can assist you.”

But not all consumers have found the customer service reps helpful.Kimberly of Shannon, N.C.,said she was charged $197 for pornographic movies that she said she did not watch. DirecTV refused to waive the charges, even though a customer service rep agreed that the purchases did not show up in her purchase history, Kimberly said.

Melissa of Stern, N.C., who is a technical writer, and her husband, an engineer, took great pains to avoid unauthorized charges when they set up their DirecTV account, seeking to ensure that their mentally-disabled son would not inadvertently incur charges.

As soon as the system was installed, we set the Parental Locks and Limits feature to restrict the purchase of pay-per-view movies, as instructed by DirecTV, she said."We are technically competent and believe we set up the controls correctly. “

Despite their efforts, they were billed for several Pay Per View movies. DirecTV eventually agreed to block movie orders via the remote control and reduce the unauthorized charges by half, but refused to refund the entire amount or allow Melissa to cancel the account.

More about DirecTV

 

More

Grandparent Scam Finding New Victims

Call from distressed grandchild turns out to be fake after money is wired

Grandparent Scam Finding New Victims Call from distressed grandchild turns out to be fake after money is wired...

What would you do if your grandchild called and desperately needed money to get out of jail in a foreign country?  Assuming you have a grandchild, you'd probably send it, right?

Bad idea, says Lawrence Wasden, the attorney general of Idaho, which has seen a rash of such cases lately.

The scam, which has been around in one form or another for years, involves a phone call from a criminal posing as the victim’s grandchild.  The caller says that he or she is in trouble or under arrest in another country and needs money right away. 

The caller then asks the grandparent to wire the cash right away and asks the grandparents not to tell anyone.  Sometimes another person will get on the line to back up the caller’s story. 

The second person usually claims to be a police officer, bail bondsman or just a helpful bystander.  If the grandparent does send money, the scammers usually call again to ask for more and give various reasons for the second request for money.

Wasden says he has heard from three Idaho residents who fell for the scam and lost thousands of dollars.

One Idaho, man received a call from a young man whom he felt confident was his grandson.  The caller told him that he was with a number of other young men, and he had been arrested for speeding and put in jail in Canada.  He went on to say that the police searched their car and found marijuana. 

The grandparent was told to call an “Officer Steely” at a Toronto, Canada number. “Officer Steely” then instructed him to send $6,100 via Western Union to Nashville, Tennessee, because bail had been let out for competitive bid and the Nashville’s bondsperson submitted the lowest bid. 

“Officer Steely” said that a bail bondsperson in Nashville would forward it to Canada, and the man’s grandson would be released from jail.  After being asked to send additional money for a court-ordered fine, the victim became suspicious and called his grandson, who was actually at home in Oregon.

Two Idaho women reported losing $3,000.  The grandmother was told that her grandson had been driving an uninsured rental car in Trinidad when he was sideswiped and that the rental company needed to be paid or he would go to jail.  The grandmother contacted the mother and together they came up with the money. 

After wiring the money, the mother received a call from the imposter.  She became suspicious of his unfamiliar voice and accent.  She then hung up and made an effort to contact her son. Later, her real son called her back and said, “Mom, tell me you didn’t send $3,000 to Trinidad.”

 An Idaho couple was told that their granddaughter was in Spain attending a funeral with relatives, when their car was stopped on the way to the airport to fly home.  The couple was told their granddaughter was arrested after the police searched the trunk of the car and found cocaine and that she needed money for a bail bond. 

After they sent the money, someone impersonating a Marine sergeant called and said he was calling from the American Embassy.  He advised them their granddaughter had lost her passport and needed money for a replacement.  They sent that money as well, losing a total of $5,870.  Although the callers claimed to be in Spain, the telephone company said that the number where the call originated was in Canada.

Off-guard 

“You may think that you wouldn’t fall for these scams, but they’re designed to catch you off guard,” Attorney General Wasden said. “Con artists play on your fears to make you do things you wouldn’t normally do.”

 If you receive a call like this, Wasden recommends you follow the three C’s: Calm, Contact and Confirm.

 • CALM down.  Being agitated or upset clouds your judgment. Take a few deep breaths and then evaluate the situation. 

• CONTACT your grandchild with the information about the call.  Call his or her home or cell phone.  Call the parents or other family members.  Don’t trust the caller.  When he says, “I don’t want Mom and Dad to know,” it is just a scammer’s technique to keep you from discovering the truth. 

• CONFIRM your suspicions.  The people who don’t fall victim to this scam find out where their grandchild is. Usually, that is at home, work or school, and completely unaware of the scam.

 

More

Skippy Peanut Butter Recalled in 16 States

May be contaminated with Salmonella

Skippy Peanut Butter Recalled in 16 States. May be contaminated with Salmonella....

Unilever United States, Inc. today announced a limited recall of Skippy Reduced Fat Creamy Peanut Butter Spread and Skippy Reduced Fat Super Chunk Peanut Butter Spread, because it may be contaminated with Salmonella, an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems.

Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, infection with Salmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis and arthritis.

The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). No other Skippy products are affected by this recall.

The product was distributed to retail outlets in Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The affected product, which is packaged in 16.3 oz plastic jars, is as follows:

  • UPCs: 048001006812 and 048001006782 (located on the side of the jar's label below the bar code.)
  • Best-If-Used-By Dates: MAY1612LR1, MAY1712LR1, MAY1812LR1, MAY1912LR1, MAY2012LR1 and MAY2112LR1 (Stamped on the lid of the jar.)
More

Android Pulls Ahead In Smartphone Race

System has been growing quickly since the summer

Android has become the number one smartphone operating system, according to Nielsen....

photoThere has been a lead-change in the ongoing battle for supremacy in the smartphone world, with Android pulling ahead of Research In Motion's (RIM) Blackberry, according to Nielsen Co.

However, the results may be open to interpretation.

"When it comes to consumer marketshare by operating system, Android (29%) appears to be pulling ahead of RIM Blackberry (27%) and Apple iOS (27%)," Nielsen said in a release. "But an analysis by manufacturer shows RIM and Apple to be the winners compared to other device makers since they are the only ones creating and selling smartphones with their respective operating systems. HTC follows with 12 percent of consumer smartphone owners having an HTC Android device and 7 percent owning an HTC device running a Microsoft OS. Ten percent of consumer smartphone owners had a Motorola Android device and one percent owned a Motorola device running a Microsoft OS."

Advantage, Android

Android has an advantage, say industry analysts, because the operating system is used by so many different manufacturers. Apple's operating system, on the other hand, is only available on the iPhone.

Another thing going for Adroid's operating system is demographics. When you analyze who are buying Android phones, it tends to be those in the 18-24 age group, one of the largest groups of mobile device consumers.

Android's gain in marketshare is also impressive when measured against Nielson's Summer 2010. At the time, Android had only a 19 percent market penetration, which had grown to 25 percent in January.

It's also good news for Verizon Wireless, which offered a large number of Android phones, at a time when it couldn't offer Apple's iPhone. Ironically, now that Verizon is selling the iPhone, industry speculation has suggested lackluster iPhone sales. AT&T, meawhile, recently began offering more Android phones, perhaps compensating for the loss of iPhone exclusivity.

The battle shows no sign of letting up, especially considering the stakes. In the last six months, Neilson observes that 47 percent of consumers who purchased a mobile phone selected a smartphone over a feature phone, capable only of voice and text communication.

 

More

FDA Expands Use of Lap-Band for Weight Loss

Controversial procedure is not without adverse reactions, poor outcomes

FDA Expands Use of Lap-Band for Weight Loss. Controversial procedure is not without adverse reactions, poor outcomes....

photoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration has expanded the use of Allergan’s LAP-BAND Adjustable Gastric Banding System, a device implanted around the upper part of the stomach to limit the amount of food that can be eaten at one time.

The approval expands the use of the LAP-BAND to include obese individuals with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 to 34 who also have an existing condition related to their obesity. BMI is a general measure of body fat based on an individual’s weight and height.

The FDA approved the LAP-BAND in 2001 for use in severely obese patients with a BMI of at least 40, those with a BMI of at least 35 and who also have an existing severe condition related to their obesity, such as heart disease or diabetes, or those who are at least 100 pounds overweight.

But not all LAP-BAND procedures are successful. 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.

She was the fourth Southern California patient to die following surgery related to the 1-800-GET-THIN advertising campaign, according to The Los Angeles Times.

The LAP-BAND is intended to be used for weight loss in adults who have not lost weight using non-surgical weight loss methods. The newly-approved indication is limited to patients with a BMI of 30 to 34 and at the highest risk of obesity-related complications. This represents a narrower indication than originally sought by Allergan. 

Public health concern

The company had also proposed to expand the indication to include people with a BMI of 35 to 39 and no obesity related condition. Patients using the LAP-BAND must be willing to make major changes to their lifestyle and eating habits.

Obesity is a major public health concern in the United States,” said William Maisel, M.D., M.P.H., deputy director for science at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “A healthy lifestyle and weight loss are keys to improvements in health and a person’s overall quality of life.”

Use of the LAP-BAND in patients with BMIs between 30 and 40 was examined in a U.S. study. Results showed that 80 percent of patients lost at least 30 percent of their excess weight and kept it off for one year. Some patients in the study lost no weight, while others lost more than 80 percent of their extra weight.

Adverse reaction

In the same study, more than 70 percent of patients experienced an adverse event related to LAP-BAND, most often vomiting and difficulty swallowing. The events ranged from mild to severe but most were mild and resolved quickly.

Seven out of 149 patients needed other procedures after implantation: four to remove the LAP-BAND, two for port revisions, and one to reposition the LAP-BAND.

The LAP-BAND works by limiting the amount of food that can be eaten at one time and increasing the time it takes for food to be digested, to help people eat less. It is placed around the upper part of the stomach during a surgical procedure. The band creates a small stomach pouch that holds a small amount of food.

The LAP-BAND should not be used in certain people, for example, those who are poor candidates for surgery, have certain stomach or intestinal disorders or an infection, take aspirin frequently, or are addicted to alcohol and/or drugs. It should also not be used in those not able or willing to follow dietary and other recommendations.

The LAP-BAND is marketed by Allergan Inc., based in Goleta, Calif.

More

FDA Warns That Anti-Convulsant Medication May Cause Birth Defects

Increased risk of cleft lip and palate accompany Topamax use

FDA Warns That Anti-Convulsant Medication May Cause Birth Defects. Increased risk of cleft lip and palate accompany Topamax use...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)notified healthcare professionals and patients of an increased risk of development of cleft lip and/or cleft palate in infants born to women treated with Topamax (topiramate) during pregnancy.

Because of new human data that show an increased risk for oral clefts, topiramate is being placed in Pregnancy Category D. Pregnancy Category D means there is positive evidence of human fetal risk based on human data but the potential benefits from use of the drug in pregnant women may be acceptable in certain situations despite its risks. 

The patient medication guide and prescribing information for Topamax and generic topiramate will be updated with the new information.

Topiramate is an anticonvulsant medication approved for use alone or with other medications to treat patients with epilepsy who have certain types of seizures. Topiramate is also approved for use to prevent migraine headaches.

Recommendation

Before starting topiramate, pregnant women and women of childbearing potential should discuss other treatment options with their health care professional. Women taking topiramate should tell their health care professional immediately if they are planning to or become pregnant.

Patients taking topiramate should not stop taking it unless told to do so by their health care professional. Women who become pregnant while taking topiramate should talk to their health care professional about registering with the North American Antiepileptic Drug Pregnancy Registry, a group that collects information about outcomes in infants born to women treated with antiepileptic drugs during pregnancy.

More

Senate Bill Would Make It Illegal to Rent Recalled Cars

Survey finds barely half of rental cars are repaired after recalls

Senate Bill Would Make It Illegal to Rent Recalled Cars...

photoCar rental companies would be prohibited from renting cars that have been recalled for safety-related issues under legislation being proposed by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY). Earlier this week, a study by federal safety regulators found that since 2006, major car rental companies have let tens of thousands of drivers go on the road without repairing defects.

Under current law, any car under a recall notice cannot be sold by an auto dealer until the safety issue has been resolved, but that same restriction does not apply to rental car companies, which are currently allowed to rent cars under recall before the safety issue has been addressed.

Schumer's bill, the Safe Rental Car Act, would make that illegal.

The issue was brought to public attention when two sisters from California died when their rented PT Cruiser caught fire and crashed into a tractor-trailer truck as a result of a safety defect subject to a recall.

Schumer’s bill will address serious concerns brought to light by a recent study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that shows that major rental car companies are failing to address safety recall issues for a significant percentage of cars in their rental car fleets before renting their vehicles.

“Rental car companies should be immediately barred from renting cars that would be pulled from showrooms and car dealer lots because of safety recall concerns,” said Schumer. “This is a serious public safety issue and, tragically, we have already seen the grave and devastating consequences of inaction.”

NHTSA examined the percentage of dozens of GM and Chrysler vehicles in rental car fleets that had been fixed within 90 days of 10 different recall notices from 2006 to 2010. (Ford failed to respond to the survey).

Automakers have previously told the federal government that rental car companies typically fix less than a third of recalled vehicles within a month of the recall and, over the course of a year, that number climbs to just 50%.

According to the audit only 34% of Hertz’s rental cars under recall had been fixed within 90 days. Avis/Budget had only fixed 53% of the cars under recall during the same time period, and Enterprise, the top performing member of the group, had only addressed recall notices in 65% of their cars after 90 days. The study suggests that tens of thousands of rental car drivers have unknowingly rented vehicles under recall, posing a serious threat to safety on roadways.

Raechel and Jacquie Houck, sisters from California, rented a Chrysler PT Cruiser from Enterprise. One month before it was rented to the Houcks, the car had been recalled because a possible leakage of power steering fluid could result in a fire under the hood of the car.

Enterprise failed to address the safety recall, and the Houck sisters were killed when their rental car caught fire and slammed into an oncoming truck. The victim’s mother, Cally Houck, sued Enterprise and was eventually awarded $15 million.

"I welcome a bill that would prevent the sort of tragedy that took my daughters' lives,” said Cally Houck. “No other family should have to endure the heartbreaking loss of loved ones because of an unsafe rental car." 

More

Bing Launches a Daily Deals Section

200,000 offers in 14,000 cities and towns, Bing claims

Bing Launches a Daily Deals Section 200,000 offers in 14,000 cities and towns, Bing claims...

Yesterday it was the august New York Times sniffing that it would soon launch an “upscale” and “curated” daily deals program for what it sees as its highly select and discerning audience, rather than the masses that flock to the likes of Groupon.

Coming back down to earth, Microsoft's Bing today announced it's launching daily deals for the desktop and mobile (m.bing.com), claiming to offer more than 200,000 unique offers in more than 14,000 cities across the United States.

Bing is assembling all these deals from existing sites, including Groupon, Living Social and Restaurant.com, it said, “ making it easier to discover, share and search for the best deals in your area – all from one place.”

Bing is partnering with The Dealmap to launch Bing deals. Dealmap already assembles daily offerings from other deal sites and says it has its own Deal Heroes, stealthy undercover operatives who sleuth out the best buys around town.

And what of Google, Bing's arch rival in the online search business?

No one quite knows. There have been reports that Big G is working on a Groupon-like program and supposedly has talked with businesses around its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters but that seems to be all anyone knows at the moment.

 

More

Debt Settlement, Credit Issues Top List of Consumer Complaints in Illinois

Con artists take advantage of tough times to make a buck

Debt Settlement, Credit Issues Top List of Consumer Complaints in Illinois Con artists take advantage of tough times to make a buck...

Debt settlement and other credit-related issues topped the list of consumer complaints in Illinois last year, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said today as she released her top 10 consumer complaints, detailing concerns of the 170,000 consumers who contacted her office’s Consumer Protection Division in 2010.

That consumer debt again topped the list of concerns in 2010 mirrors what Madigan’s office has seen in recent years as consumers struggle with pocketbook issues in a down economy. Complaints related to residential mortgages ranked highest among consumer debt concerns, showing that, much like 2009, people are still fighting to stay in their homes. Many consumers also contacted Madigan’s office over credit card debt and abusive collection practices.

“The economic crisis continues to affect consumers in Illinois,” Attorney General Madigan said. “People are struggling just to make ends meet. Consumers should know my office is here to help protect them against financial abuse and from con artists who are taking advantage of these tough times to make a quick buck.”

Included in the more than 7,000 consumer debt complaints filed with Madigan’s office is a new attempt to evade recent reforms aimed at protecting consumers. Last year, Madigan successfully led an effort to pass the Debt Settlement Consumer Protection Act, which bans upfront fees debt settlement companies charge and requires they can only collect fees if a consumer’s debt is actually settled.

Legal Helpers

Madigan today filed a lawsuit against a national legal firm that has unlawfully charged upfront fees to consumers in Bureau, Champaign, Kendall, Will and Cook counties. Madigan’s suit, filed in Sangamon County Circuit Court, alleges Legal Helpers Debt Resolution LLC unlawfully charged consumers upfront fees for debt settlement services with promises to make them debt free. But, in fact, they never lowered the consumers’ debt and actually left them worse off financially.

The lawsuit alleges Legal Helpers Debt Resolution, based in Chicago, illegally charged fees upfront under a guise that attorneys, who are exempted from an upfront fee ban, were providing the debt settlement service to consumers, enabling them to charge the initial fees. In fact, Madigan alleges, attorneys with Legal Helpers Debt Resolution only served as a front to the business, and debt settlement service was contracted out to non-lawyer, third-party companies.

 

More

More Evidence Alzheimer's May Be Inherited From Mom

Genetic link to maternal much stronger than the paternal

Researchers say your risk of Alzheimer's is much higher if your mother had the disease....

Research has suggested a genetic link to Alzheimer's disease. If one of your parents has it, the risk that you will one day get it increases.

Now, results from a new study finds that if it is your mother who has the cognitive illness, the odds against your are even greater. The study is published in the March 1, 2011, print issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

"It is estimated that people who have first-degree relatives with Alzheimer's disease are four to 10 times more likely to develop the disease themselves compared to people with no family history," said study author Robyn Honea, DPhil, of the University of Kansas School of Medicine in Kansas City.

For the study, an equal number of participants had a father with Alzheimers and an equal number had a mother with the illness. The groups were given brain scans and cognitive tests throughout the study.

Twice the gray matter shrinkage

The researchers found that people with a mother who had Alzheimer's disease had twice as much gray matter shrinkage as the groups who had a father or no parent with Alzheimer's disease.

In addition, those who had a mother with Alzheimer's disease had about one and a half times more whole brain shrinkage per year compared to those who had a father with the disease. Shrinking of the brain, or brain atrophy, occurs in Alzheimer's disease.

"Using 3-D mapping methods, we were able to look at the different regions of the brain affected in people with maternal or paternal ties to Alzheimer's disease," said Honea. "In people with a maternal family history of the disease, we found differences in the break-down processes in specific areas of the brain that are also affected by Alzheimer's disease, leading to shrinkage. Understanding how the disease may be inherited could lead to better prevention and treatment strategies."

Growing threat

Alzheimer's continues to be the focus of intense medical research as millions of Baby Boomers enter the age in which they are at risk. A 2010 report by the Alzheimer's Association projects that as many as 10 million baby boomers in the U.S. will eventually develop Alzheimer's, a degenerative and always fatal disease.

Today, as many as 5.2 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease, which includes between 200,000-500,000 people under age 65 with young-onset Alzheimer's disease or other dementias. Medical researchers predict by 2010, there will be almost a half million new cases of Alzheimer's disease each year; and by 2050, there will be almost a million new cases each year.

Eventually, the report says, the disease will strike one out of every eight Boomers.

 

 

More

New York Times Thinks It Can Take on Groupon

Times plans TimesLimited, an "upscale" daily deals program

New York Times Thinks It Can Take on Groupon. Times plans TimesLimited, an "upscale" daily deals program....

The New York Times is preparing to introduce its own daily deals service called TimesLimited later this month, preferring to go it alone rather than teaming up with Groupon or LivingSocial.

“We looked at partner options when we began looking at the space a few months ago,” said Denise Warren, senior vice president and chief advertising officer for the NYT Media Group and the NYTimes.com GM. “But we realized that we have the assets, the consumer reach, and the relationships with advertisers to do this on our own.”

TimesLimited will be aiming a little more upscale and providing a more “curated experience” than the more general offerings of other sites, Warren sniffed.

Over the past few days, TimesLimited was quietly sending offers to print subscribers and registered online users. It will publicly debut in the New York area shortly, with other areas to follow.

“Right now, we’re building our e-email list and making sure we have users permission and interest,” Warren told PaidContent, a trade publication.

Skeptics may say the Times doesn't have a chance against the wildly successful Groupon and its followers but those of a more traditional bent think the Times brand means a lot. And, they note, this isn't the first dive into ecommce for the Times Company.

In addition to theNYT Wine Club -- dubbed a "glorified affiliate program" by one longtime Web observer -- that was unveiled in the summer of ‘09, the NYT has other e-mail-based marketing programs, including the Sophisticated Shopper, which offers readers “an inside look at exclusive luxury shopping deals,  and Great Getaways, which spotlights “last-minute retreats, vacation packages and exclusive travel destinations.”

The TimesLimited project comes as the Times continues dithering with its metered paywall, said to be in the “final testing phase.” The Times thinks its content – much of which, like all other newspapers, comes largely from the wire services – is so outstanding that consumers will rush to pay for it rather than read news stories from, ahem, lesser publications.

 

More

Nexium, Prilosec May Cause Low Magnesium Levels, FDA Warns

Over-the-counter low-dosage versions are probably safe, however

Nexium, Prilosec May Cause Low Magnesium Levels, FDA Warns Over-the-counter low-dosage versions are probably safe, however...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that prescription proton pump inhibitor (PPI) drugs may cause low serum magnesium levels (hypomagnesemia) if taken for prolonged periods of time, in most cases, longer than one year.

In approximately one-quarter of the cases reviewed, magnesium supplementation alone did not improve low serum magnesium levels and the PPI had to be discontinued.

PPIs work by reducing the amount of acid in the stomach and are used to treat conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), stomach and small intestine ulcers, and inflammation of the esophagus. In 2009, approximately 21 million patients filled PPI prescriptions at outpatient retail pharmacies in the United States. Patients who take prescription PPIs usually stay on therapy for an average of about 180 days (6 months).

Prescription PPIs include Nexium (esomeprazole magnesium), Dexilant (dexlansoprazole), Prilosec (omeprazole), Zegerid (omeprazole and sodium bicarbonate), Prevacid (lansoprazole), Protonix (pantoprazole sodium), and AcipHex (rabeprazole sodium). Vimovo is a prescription combination drug product that contains a PPI (esomeprazole magnesium and naproxen).

Over-the-counter (OTC) PPIs include Prilosec OTC (omeprazole), Zegerid OTC (omeprazole and sodium bicarbonate), and Prevacid 24HR (lansoprazole).

In contrast to prescription PPIs, OTC PPIs are marketed at low doses and are only intended for a 14 day course of treatment up to 3 times per year. FDA believes that there is very little risk of hypomagnesemia when OTC PPIs are used according to the directions on the OTC label.

More

Postal Service Faces Financial Crisis, GAO Warns

Government watchdog puts post office on its high-risk list

Postal Service Faces Financial Crisis, GAO WarnsGovernment watchdog puts post office on its high-risk list...

photoThe Government Accountability Office warns that the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is reaching a “tipping point” unless it can stop its rapidly deteriorating financial condition.

The problem is not complex: the post office is not taking in enough money to cover its expenses. But the solution may not be all that simple. The GAO, a non-partisan Congressional agency, says the USPS needs to take swift action to modernize and restructure its operations.

USPS experienced a net loss of $329 million in the first quarter of fiscal year 2011 and is projecting a $6.4 billion total net loss for fiscal year 2011. Mail volumes, USPS's main revenue source, have generally been decreasing as customers have shifted to electronic alternatives, GAO noted.

This trend exposes weaknesses in USPS's business model, which has relied on mail volume growth to help cover costs,” the GAO said in a report released today. “While USPS continues to reduce employees' work hours, its cost reduction efforts have not been sufficient to offset lost revenue.”

Since fiscal year 2006, USPS has relied on debt to help cover its obligations. If it borrows $3 billion in fiscal year 2011 as its plans indicate, USPS will reach its $15 billion statutory debt limit.

President Obama proposes provide $4.5 billion in short-term help in fiscal year 2011 but the GAO says those actions don't address USPS' structural problems.

The GAO report says Congress, the administration, USPS and key constituencies must quickly agree on a modernization package that would “meet changing customer needs, and remove barriers restricting USPS actions.”

This would allow USPS to optimize its networks and workforce so that it can become more efficient and reduce costs,” GAO said.

GAO recently reported on lessons learned from foreign postal services' modernization efforts, including using outreach and communication strategies to inform public officials and customers of increased access to products and services to help gain acceptance for retail network changes.

Some post offices also developed labor transition strategies that included training, relocation, job search services, and financial incentives to support employees who were negatively affected.

While USPS has taken steps to generate ideas for modernizing its retail and delivery networks, GAO said the experiences of foreign posts suggest that it will be “critically important for USPS to fully develop and implement similar outreach, communication, and labor transition strategies.”

 

More

Apple Unveils iPad2

The new device is thinner, faster than the original

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has formally introduced the iPad2....

Declaring his company pretty much owns the tablet computer market, Apple CEO Steve Jobs today took the wraps of the technology industry's worst-kept secret - the iPad 2.

Sleeker and lighter than the original device introduced a year ago, the iPad2 features an all new design.

photo

"These are not marginal improvements," Jobs said.

For starters, he says the new iPad will be quite a bit faster than the one it replaces. It features the A5 chip and a dual core processor that moves at twice the speed of the original.

More compact

The iPad2 will also come in a more compact design. Where the original case measured 13.4 mm thick, the new tablet is just 8.8mm. It weighs about the same, however. Battery life should be about the same as the original - 10 hours.

The iPad2 features built-in cameras and a gyroscope. It will come in both black and white and be available through both AT&T and Verizon at the same price as the original iPad, with units starting at $499.

Apple says the iPad2 will begin shipping March 11 in the U.S. and March 25 internationally.

Jobs said Apple sold 15 million iPads in the nine months during 2010 that it was available. Sales totaled  $9.5 billion, giving Apple 90 percent of the tablet market.

Meanwhile, Jobs announced that Random House will make its books available through the iBook store. He said the store now has more than 2,300 participating publishers.

 

 

More

PNC Says It Will Maintain Free Basic Checking

Most big banks are raising fees and creating new ones but PNC says it will hold the line

PNC Says It Will Maintain Free Basic Checking. Most big banks are raising fees and creating new ones but PNC says it will hold the line....

Most big banks are raising fees on checking accounts and other services, but PNC says it will keep its basic checking account free, although some perks will go away.

The Pittsburgh-based bank, the nation's sixth-largest, says basic checking customers will no longer get debit card rewards or refunds of fees when they use a non-PNC ATM machine, but basic checking will remain free.

"We are focused on understanding what our customers want and need to achieve their financial goals," said Joseph Guyaux, president of PNC. "As a result, we've made it easier for them to save, manage spending and avoid fees."

Banks have been piling on new fees in anticipation of a new federal law that limits how much banks can charge merchants for debit-card transactions. Banks say they need to make up for that lost revenue but although PNC estimates it will lose $800 million from the new rule, it thinks it can squeak by without jacking up fees for its poorest customers.

PNC hopes it will attract some new customers from Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and other banks that are raising their fees. It also hopes that some of its basic customers will sign up for fee-based accounts that offer more services and is lowering the minimum balance requirements for some types of accounts.

PNC estimates about 70 percent of its customers currently have free, basic checking accounts.

PNC said it would introduce a prepaid, reloadable card for lower-end customers in June. Other banks also are introducing prepaid cards for customers whose checking accounts carry low balances, making them less profitable for the bank.

PNC also said it is reducing restrictions on Virtual Wallet, its online and mobile bank account to encourage greater use by its mainstream checking-account customers.

The new rules that cap fees on debit transactions take effect in July. Banks are fighting the provision.

Currently, banks charge merchants an average of 44 cents to process a debit card sale. The Federal Reserve is proposing to cap that figure at between 7 and 12 cents.

 

 

More

FDA Plans to Remove Unsafe Drugs from the Market

Some of the targeted drugs are dangerous, others simply ineffective

FDA Plans to Remove Unsafe Drugs from the Market...

Certain unapproved prescription medicines intended to relieve cough, cold and allergy symptoms could do you more harm than good.

As a result, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it intends to remove them from the U.S. market.  That won’t leave you hacking and wheezing, though. The agency says there are other products available — including FDA-approved prescription drugs or over-the-counter drugs that follow appropriate standards.

These products being have not been evaluated by FDA to assure that they are safe, effective, and of good quality. They may therefore pose unnecessary risk to consumers, especially when there are other products available for treatment of cough, cold, and allergy symptoms, including FDA-approved prescription drugs or over-the-counter drugs that follow appropriate FDA standards.

Complaints, problems and confusion

FDA officials say they have numerous concerns about these products that have not been evaluated by the agency. Some may have potentially risky combinations of ingredients, while others — marketed as “timed-release” — may release active ingredients too slowly, too quickly or inconsistently.

FDA has also received reports that some of the products have names that look or sound similar to other products — a problem that could contribute to medication errors.

In addition, FDA health experts are concerned that some of the products are inappropriately labeled for use by infants and young children. Many of the unapproved drug products covered by the announcement contain the same ingredients as the over-the-counter cough and cold products that were the subject of a 2008 FDA public health advisory.

That advisory said non-prescription cough and cold products should not be used for infants and children under two years of age because of serious and potentially life-threatening side effects. Many manufacturers voluntarily withdrew products labeled for children under two-years-old, and some products were relabeled to state that they were not for use by children under four-years-old.

Safe and effective drugs

Removing these unapproved products from the market will reduce potential risks to consumers from products that have never been evaluated by the FDA for safety, effectiveness, and quality,” says Deborah Autor, compliance director at FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

FDA says most manufacturers affected by this action must stop making the products within 90 days and stop shipping them within 180 days. (Some manufacturers may have to stop making and shipping their products immediately.)

Autor says taking them off the market shouldn’t create problems for consumers because there are many other products — both prescription and over-the-counter — available for treatment of cough, cold, and allergy symptoms that meet FDA standards.

Some of the prescription medicines being removed have been marketed for many years. Over the past century, the laws outlining the requirements for drug approval have changed. First, drug regulation focused on adulteration and misbranding, but did not require that new drug products be approved prior to being marketed. Then, laws on drug regulation changed to include drug safety as a requirement for approval.

Currently, the law requires that new drugs be shown to be safe, effective, of good manufacturing quality, and not misbranded prior to being approved by FDA for marketing in the United States. In part, as a result of these changes in the law, many of the products that are the focus of this action have been marketed without being approved under the current legal requirements.

Approved drug lists

If you are taking a prescription medicine for cough, cold, or allergy symptoms and you want to know if it is an approved drug, use one of the FDA resources listed below. (These resources do not include many over-the-counter drugs because many of these drugs do not require FDA approval to be legally marketed.)

  • Drugs@FDA (contains most FDA-approved drug products): If a product is not included here, the search results will say, “Your search term did not return any results.”

  • The Orange Book List of Approved Drug Products: If a product is not FDA approved, the search results will say, “No matching records found.”

  • The National Drug Code (NDC) directory of prescription drugs and insulin products: Search results include a column marked “Appl No.”  FDA-approved products will have an associated NDA (new drug application) or ANDA (abbreviated new drug application) number in this column.

If you are taking one of the unapproved prescription medications that are affected by this FDA action, discuss alternatives with your health care provider. To dispose of your unused, unapproved prescription cold, cough, or allergy products, please see this link.

 

More

States Eye Revenue from Online Gambling

Congress prohibits it but states think may have a loophole

States Eye Revenues from Online Gambling. Congress prohibits it but states think may have a loophole....

photoWhat does it say when states are in such desperate financial straits that their citizens are taking to the streets of Madison, Wisconsin? Quite a few governors think it says it's time for states to legalize Internet gambling. After all, the house always wins.

While the focus lately has been on Wisconsin, New Jersey is actually the front line of the gambling revolution at the moment. Gov. Chris Christie this week will decide whether to allow Atlantic City casinos to set up gambling websites for residents of the Garden State.

Online gambling has been outlawed in the United States since 2006, when Congress barred credit card companies from processing gambling transactions across state lines. Casino interests have been trying to cut Congress in on the game in recent years but to no avail.

However, while Congress can pass laws governing interstate commerce, it generally can't dictate what states do or don't allow and if states want to allow residents of their state to place bets on websites that operate only within that state, they might be able to do so, although legal challenges would no doubt by plentiful.

The U.S. Justice Department, for one, has long decreed that nearly all forms of online gambling are illegal, although it has not specifically addressed the interstate gaming issue.

Opposition is also likely from Indian tribes, who currently have a virtual monopoly on casinos in many states as well as offshore Internet gambling sites and at least some casino operators.

In New Jersey, it's estimated that intrastate online gambling wold produce about $200 million in revenue, of which about $30 million would be paid to the state in the form of taxes. That's not enough to solve the state's budget headaches but it's a start.

And then there's the question of whether online gambling would cut into the revenue of the big casinos in Atlantic City. One study said it would probably reduce Atlantic City revenues by 5% but if the casino companies operated the sites, the money would simply be shifted from one pocket to another.

Of course, there are those who argue that government can never successfully prohibit anything – witness such blatantly ignored laws as traffic regulations, drug laws and prohibitions against tax chiseling. Supporters of this view would say that gambling will happen and the government might as well take its cut.

Supporting this view is the experience of offshore sites like Poker Stars and Full Tilt Poker. Although it's illegal for Americans to gamble on these sites, it's illegal for the sites to allow it and it's illegal for financial institutions to transfer the money, an estimates 10 million Americans play regularly.

In other words, governments that let the revenue from gambling elude them may wind up behind the 8 ball.

 

 

More

Facebook Linked To More Divorces

Cited as evidence by 66 percent of divorce lawyers

Divorce lawyers says Facebook cited as evidence in 66 percent of cases....

photoIf you're single, Facebook and other social networking sites can help you meet that special someone. However, for those in even the healthiest of marriages, Facebook can quickly devolve into a marital disaster.

The source of this observation is the nation's divorce lawyers, who may be in a position to know. A survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 66 percent of divorce lawyers say Facebook is cited as evidence in divorces they are handling.

Also, more than 80 percent of divorce lawyers reported they "have seen an increase in the number of cases using social networking evidence" during the past few years.

Connecting online

"We're coming across it more and more," said licensed clinical psychologist Steven Kimmons, Ph.D., of Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill. "One spouse connects online with someone they knew from high school. The person is emotionally available and they start communicating through Facebook. Within a short amount of time, the sharing of personal stories can lead to a deepened sense of intimacy, which in turn can point the couple in the direction of physical contact."

If a marriage is an unhappy, unstable one to begin with, it's not hard to see how Facebook's online intimacy could lead to trouble. But Kimmons says even strong marriages can hit the rocks if one partner succumbs to Facebook's siren song.

"I don't think these people typically set out to have affairs," said Kimmons, whose practice includes couples therapy and marriage counseling. "A lot of it is curiosity. They see an old friend or someone they dated and decide to say 'hello' and catch up on where that person is and how they're doing."

Too much contact?

It all boils down to the amount of contact two people in any type of relationships - including online - have with each other, Kimmons said. The more contact they have, the more likely they are to begin developing feelings for each other.

"If I'm talking to one person five times a week versus another person one time a week, you don't need a fancy psychological study to conclude that I'm more likely to fall in love with the person I talk to five times a week because I have more contact with that person," Kimmons said.

Stories of people whose marriages were destroyed by affairs that began on social networking sites abound on the Internet. Though there are no hard-and-fast rules to follow, there are some safeguards couples can apply to decrease the chance of online relationships getting out of control. For starters, do a self-assessment of why you're using online sites.

Self analysis

"Look at the population of the people who are your online friends," Kimmons said. "Is it a good mixture of men and women? Do you spend more time talking to females versus males or do you favor a certain type of friend over another? That can tell you something about how you're using social networks. You may not even be aware that you're heading down a road that can get quickly get pretty dangerous, pretty fast to your marriage."

Another safeguard is to spell out from the beginning with your online contacts what your expectations are of social networking relationships. Also, it's a good idea to not engage in intimate conversation with someone who is not your spouse.

"From the start tell your online friend that you're not looking for anything more than establishing old contacts with people to find out how they're doing," Kimmons said.

In some instances, couples could share passwords with each other and place the computer in a common area in the house or apartment.

"It's not that people are going to read what you're writing but they'll see what you're doing, Kimmons said. "Then it's not a secret."

 

 

More

End Times for Tax Refund Anticipation Loans

New regulations may at last spell the end of “instant refund” loans

End Times for Tax Refund Anticipation Loans New regulations may at last spell the end of “instant refund” loans...

photoThis may be the last year in which tax preparers and their partner banks are able to skim hundreds of millions of dollars from tax refunds by selling refund anticipation loans (RALs). Two major consumer groups say regulatory actions by banking regulators and the IRS may spell the end of the popular but extremely expensive loans.

In their annual report on the issue, the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) and Consumer Federation of America (CFA) document how regulatory actions by the IRS and banking regulators may potentially spell the end of RALs.

The report also takes a look-back at RAL lending in prior years, finding that the loans drained the refunds of about 7.2 million American taxpayers in 2009, costing them in the neighborhood of $606 million in loan fees, plus over $58 million in other fees. In addition, another 12.9 million taxpayers spent $387 million on related financial products to receive their refunds.

“We will be glad to see the last of these high-cost, high-risk loans,” declared Chi Chi Wu, NCLC Staff Attorney. “It’s not a moment too soon to stop multi-million dollar corporations from skimming off the tax refunds of hard-working families.”

Expensive loans

RALs are bank loans secured by the taxpayer’s expected refund -- loans that last about 7 to 14 days until the actual IRS refund repays the loan. Using the most recent data available from the IRS, NCLC and CFA calculate that about 7.2 million taxpayers received RALs in the 2009 tax filing season (for tax year 2008). This represented a 14% drop from the 8.4 million taxpayers who took out a RAL in the 2008 filing season.

RALs are mostly marketed to low-income taxpayers, including recipients of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the nation’s largest federal anti-poverty program. According to IRS data, 87% of taxpayers who applied for a RAL in 2009 were low-income, and nearly two-thirds (64%) were EITC recipients

In addition to RALs, refund anticipation checks (RACs) are another product offered by tax preparers and their partner banks. With RACs, the bank opens a temporary bank account into which the IRS direct deposits the refund check. After the refund is deposited, the bank issues the consumer a check or prepaid card and closes the temporary account.

Consumers without a bank account may pay extra to then cash the RAC check. RACs generally cost about $30. In 2009, about 12.9 million taxpayers received a RAC.

More limited, even more expensive

In 2011, RAL availability is more limited, but the loans are more expensive. For example, Republic Bank states that it charges $61.22 for a RAL of $1,500, which translates into an APR of 149%. If the refund exceeds $1561.22, the taxpayer will be charged another $29.95 when the remainder of the refund arrives in the form of a RAC, for a total of $91.17 in fees.

Tax preparers may also charge their own fees in addition to a RAL or RAC fee charged by the bank. These add-on fees can range from $25 to several hundred dollars.

Changes in the industry

During the past year, there have been a number of major developments in the RAL industry. Concerns over RALs have prompted a number of regulators to take action against them. Collectively, these developments signal the end of RAL lending.

“We are pleased that the IRS and bank regulators may have effectively put an end to loans that siphon off hundreds of millions in taxpayers’ hard-earned money and federal benefits meant to lift hard-working Americans out of poverty,” said Jean Ann Fox, Director of Financial Services for CFA.

In August 2010, the IRS announced it would stop providing the Debt Indicator, a service that helped tax preparers and banks make RALs by acting as a form of credit check. The Debt Indicator revealed whether a taxpayer’s refund would be paid or would be intercepted for government debts. Consumer advocates had strongly urged termination of the Debt Indicator, and applauded the IRS’s action.

In April 2010, JP Morgan Chase voluntarily exited the RAL market. Chase had been one of the three biggest RAL providers, serving about 13,000 independent preparers. This left many independent preparers without a source of RALs.

In October 2010, the Office of Thrift Supervision issued a supervisory directive to MetaBank, effectively prohibiting that bank from making RALs. Previously, MetaBank had announced its intent to make RALs, and was expected to be the RAL partner for Jackson Hewitt.

MetaBank also had previously provided Jackson Hewitt with a “pay stub” RAL in the form of its iAdvance line of credit on a prepaid card. The OTS directive resulted in the termination of the iAdvance program, citing “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.”

In December 2010, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency issued a directive prohibiting HSBC from offering RALs. HSBC had been H&R Block’s RAL-lending bank partner. This followed a similar OCC action in December 2009 that forced Santa Barbara Bank & Trust, which had been Jackson Hewitt’s main RAL lending partner, out of the RAL market.

As a result of the OCC and OTS’s actions and the departure of JPMorgan Chase, there were only three state-chartered banks this year making RALs—Republic Bank & Trust, River City Bank, and Ohio Valley Bank/Fort Knox Financial Services. All three banks are small banks, and have only a fraction of JPMorgan Chase’s or HSBC’s RAL lending capacity. Republic is the RAL lending partner for both Jackson Hewitt and Liberty Tax Service in 2011.

On February 10, 2011, Republic announced that its federal regulator, the FDIC, had notified the bank that the practice of originating RALs without the benefit of the Debt Indicator is unsafe and unsound. Ohio Valley Bank received a similar notice, and its Board of Directors voted to discontinue making RALs. River City Bank also announced that it would exit the RAL business after the 2011 tax season, following conversations with the FDIC.

The FDIC’s actions signal that the three remaining RAL lending banks have been forced out of the RAL market. Two of the banks have accepted the FDIC’s decision, but Republic Bank & Trust has stated it will appeal the decision to an administrative law judge, and potentially to a federal court. Unless Republic’s appeal is successful, the FDIC’s actions mean there will be no banks left that could make RALs in 2012, effectively ending the product.

Future perils

Even with the end of RALs, low-income taxpayers still remain vulnerable to profiteering. Tax preparers and banks continue to offer RACs, which can be subject to significant add-on fees and may represent a high-cost loan of the tax preparation fee. Consumer advocates recommend taxpayers consider alternatives to RACs.

“Consumers should think about opening a real bank account to get their refunds fast, instead of paying $30 for a one-time use account,” recommended Jean Ann Fox of CFA.

Another option is prepaid debit cards, including any existing payroll or prepaid card that the taxpayer already has. There are prepaid card options specifically targeted for tax time, such as the Get It Card from Advent Financial Services or the H&R Block Emerald Card. A few even permit taxpayers to have the costs of tax preparation deducted from their refunds.

Earlier this year, the U. S. Department of Treasury announced a pilot project to offer 600,000 low-cost prepaid cards to families who may not have a bank account to receive their tax refunds, a move applauded by consumer advocates.

Consumer advocates recommended that taxpayers be cautious when considering other types of prepaid card options.

“As with any financial product, taxpayers should compare costs and consumer protections when choosing among prepaid cards,” recommended Chi Chi Wu, NCLC Staff Attorney.

Another development is that the IRS has stated it will explore the idea of permitting a portion of tax refunds to go directly to pay for tax preparation. A split refund option would allow taxpayers to pay for preparation fees out of their refunds without the need for a RAC. Consumer advocates have supported the idea, if properly limited in amount to prevent abuse.

Other potential future developments could be less beneficial. Unscrupulous preparers could partner with non-bank lenders to make RALs, perhaps employing tactics used by high-cost loan companies.

Finally, the reforms that have signaled the end of RAL lending have been issued by the IRS and banking regulators. With different regulators, these decisions could be reversed

easily.

 

More

Supreme Court: AT&T Is Not a Person

But Court urges the company not to take it personally

Supreme Court: AT&T Is Not a Person. But Court urges the company not to take it personally...

photoDoes AT&T have a right to “personal privacy?” The huge telecommunications company made that claim as it resisted the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) attempt to release some AT&T documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

FOIA is frequently used by reporters, consumer activists, special interest groups and individuals who are seeking access to documents being held by the federal government. It is based on the principle that information held by the government belongs to the people.

There are exceptions, of course. If a FOIA request would cause personal privacy to be violated, the information can be withheld, or at least edited to eliminate the personal references.

That sounded good to AT&T, which apparently sees itself as a person. So it went all the way to the Supreme Court to argue that documents it had provided to the FCC should not be released to the public.

You can see how AT&T might think that. It wasn't long ago, after all, that the Court held in the Citizens United case that corporations can be treated as persons when it comes to political advertising and that their First Amendment rights would be violated if they were prohibited from running political ads. The ruling was seen as strengthening corporations' influence over elections.

But this time the Court took a narrower view. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Roberts held that adjectives like “personal” do not always carry the same meaning as their corresponding noun – “person” in this case.

Expounding on that topic, Robert noted the differences bertween “crank” and “cranky,” “corn” and “corny,” “crab” and “crabbed.”

But, with no dissents heard, Roberts ended with the hope “that AT&T will not take it personally.”

Judicial humor aside, the decision protects – at least for now – citizens' rights to see documents of public importance gathered by the government at taxpayers' expense

 

 

More

Consumers Warned About Health Care Credit Cards

New York's attorney general says cards carry high interest and fees

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says consumers should be wary of health care credit cards....

When a medical emergency arises and health insurance falls short, many consumers look for financing options to take care of health care bills.

But New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says this can be a financial minefield, especially if the patient’s clinic or health care provider pushes an expensive credit card option.

Health care debt is the number one cause of individual bankruptcy, says Schneiderman, and your bill can skyrocket when interest and fees are added.

Personal incentives

Some doctors and dentists have arrangements with credit card companies to offer you financing, with health-related names for what are essentially high-interest credit cards. Consumers need to beware these offers, Schneiderman advises.

First, explore all of your options before you apply for a health care credit card, and evaluate whether a credit card is the best way to pay for your health care needs.  Ask your health care provider if you can work out a payment plan to spread out your payment rather than opening a credit card account. 

If you must borrow, check with your bank or credit union to find out whether you can obtain a loan with more favorable terms than a credit card.  If you do take out a health care credit card, only charge what you can afford.  Remember that interest and fees that apply to credit cards can mean you will end up paying much more than the actual cost of your health care. 

Credit card calculator

Schneiderman has a credit card calculator on his website to show you home much you could end up paying with a medical credit card. Using the calculator, we entered $10,000 as the amount of the charge, 29.9 percent as the interest rate, and $300 as a monthly payment.

Using that criteria, it would take you 73 months to pay back the loan, including $11, 639.62 in interest, more than twice the amount charged in the first place.

Don't be pressured

Schneiderman says some health care providers aggressively market health care credit cards to their patients.  Do not allow your health care provider to pressure you into signing up for a credit card that you may not want or need. 

Be aware that health care providers may be promoting these credit cards because the cards ensure that providers are paid in full, not because it is in your best interest to pay for health care with a credit card.  Before applying for a credit card through your health care provider, ask if they have a financial incentive in promoting the card.

Finally, make sure you read and understand any financing documents your health care provider gives you before signing the documents.  Some health care providers may attempt to sign you up for a credit card without explaining that you are signing up for a credit card issued by a third party bank, not your health care provider.

Cuomo probe

Schneiderman's predecessor, current New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, launched an investigation last year that found some health care providers pressured consumers into using GE Money's CareCredit "through fast-talking sales pitches and deceit."

Cuomo said the investigation also found that medical credit card issuers often pays kickbacks in the form of rebates to the providers based on how much business they charge consumers on the credit cards.

 

More

Class Action Challeges Webloyalty Negative Option Scheme

Customers conned into paying $12 a month for nothing, suit charges

Class Action Challeges Webloyalty Negative Option Scheme. Customers conned into paying $12 a month for nothing, suit charges....

A Virginia girl who went online to buy her mother a present claims in a federal class action suit that she was defrauded by Shopper Discounts, a subsidiary of Webloyalty, in a “coupon click fraud” negative option scam.

The suit charges that Danielle Stryker of Winchester, Va., who was 15 years old at the time, wound up inadvertently signing up for a “membership” that cost her $12 a month, even though she did not intend to sign up for it, had no use for it and never used it.

Danielle's suit charge that the business practice at issue is “as simple as it is deceptive and devious” and is used on a wide network of Web sites that subscribe to Webloyalty's e-commerce services.

In Danielle's case, she was on the Woman Within site looking for a gift for her mom when a pop-up offered her a $10 discount on her next purchase. When Danielle filled out the form, her credit card number and other information were transferred to Shopper Discounts, which began charging her $12 a month, supposedly as part of a 30-day trial.

No disclosure of the fee and membership terms is made prior to the transaction, the suit charges. Webloyalty later sends the customer an email informing them that they have 30 days to cancel their membership or they will be charged $12 per month indefinitely. The supposed discount program, in fact, provides no benefits whatsoever, the suit alleges.

The notification email is purposely designed to resemble spam and is unlikely to be read or even seen by the majority of the customers victimized by the scheme, the suit charges.

Stryker said she did not discover the charge on her debit card until $168 had been taken from her account. The suit says Webloyalty failed to refund the payments, even after being informed via an affidavit that Stryker was a minor and thus unable to enter into a legally-binding agreement.

Many complaints 

The lawsuit alleges that “hundreds of thousands” of consumers have complained to Webloyalty and to local, state and federal agencies about the program, which is marketed under the name “Reservation Rewards” and recounts previous class actions, suits by the attorneys general of New York and Connecticut and even a U.S. Senate hearing, but says the negative option practices continue to victimize customers.

The actions amount to a violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and also constitute unfair and deceptive acts, unjust enrichment, invasion of privacy, obtaining money by false pretenses and computer fraud.

The suit alleges that as a result of its practice of “charging customers $12 for nothing,” Webloyalty generated revenue of more than $100 million in 2006 and has since expanded on that amount by acquiring new affiliates.

Webloyalty is based in Norwalk, CT. Woman Within is owned by Redcats, a New York company that also owns such well-known businesses as Roamans, Jessica London, Brylane Home and Avenue.

 

Learn more about negative options.

More

Sweet Beverages Linked With High Blood Pressure

Is it the sweetener?

More research suggests drinking too many sugary beverages isn't good for you....

If you're looking for ways to reduce your blood pressure, maybe you should lighten up on the sugary beverages. New research links sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages such as fruit drinks with elevated blood pressure.

In a study, for every extra sweetened drink a test subject consumed on a daily basis, both systolic and diastolic blood pressure rose significantly. Systolic blood pressure is the first number in the reading, such as 120/80. Diastrolic blood pressure is the bottom number.

Suspicion as to the cause of the increase has focused on the sweeteners used in the beverages. Researchers found higher blood pressure levels in people who consumed more glucose and fructose, both sweeteners that are found in high-fructose corn syrup, the most common sugar sweetener used by the beverage industry.

Then, there’s sodium

But beverages also contain sodium, long known to be a contributor to hypertension. Higher blood pressure was more pronounced in people who consumed high levels of both sugar and sodium.

The researchers said they found no consistent association between diet soda intake and blood pressure levels. Those who drank diet soda had higher mean Body Mass Index (BMI) than those who did not and lower levels of physical activity.

"This points to another possible intervention to lower blood pressure," said Paul Elliott, Ph.D., senior author and professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the School of Public Health at Imperial College London. "These findings lend support for recommendations to reduce the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, as well as added sugars and sodium in an effort to reduce blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health."

Sugary beverages have also come under scrutiny lately as a possible contributor to obesity. In 2006, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that one-third of all carbohydrate calories in the American diet come from added sweeteners. Of that total, the study claimed, beverages account for about half those calories.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

The study pointed the finger of blame at the main sweetener used in soft drinks, high fructose corn syrup. Not only does it contain more calories than regular refined sugar, but some studies suggest it reduces the body's ability to process calories. The study notes the increased availability of soft drinks has also been a contributing factor. It notes that consuming one extra soft drink each day would add 15 pounds in body weight to the normal person in a year.

In the blood pressure study, the researchers found that sugar intake in the form of glucose, fructose and sucrose was highest in those consuming more than one sugar-sweetened beverage daily. They also found that individuals consuming more than one serving per day of sugar-sweetened beverages consumed more calories than those who didn't, with average energy intake of more than 397 calories per day.

Less-healthy diets

"People who drink a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages appear to have less healthy diets," said Ian Brown, Ph.D., research associate at Imperial College London. "They are consuming empty calories without the nutritional benefits of real food."

The American Heart Association recommends no more than half of the discretionary calorie allowance from added sugars, which for most American women is no more than 100 calories per day and for most American men no more than 150 calories per day.

Discretionary calories are the remaining calories in a person's "energy allowance" after consuming the recommended types and amounts of foods to meet all daily nutrient requirements.

 

More