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Current Events in March 2011

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    Recession May Be Hitting Young The Hardest

    "AARP For Young People" aims to fight back

    Bill, 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."

    Our Time tries to raise awareness of youth unemployment....
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    Google Adds Its Version of the 'Like' Button

    Like a search result? Give it a plus-one

    Google 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.

    Google Adds Its Version of the 'Like' Button. Like a search result? Give it a plus-one...
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    What's On Your Mind? Kohler, US Bank, Delta, Dell

    Our daily rundown of consumer complaints

    A 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.

    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...
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      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.

      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...
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      Does Food With Coloring Need A Warning?

      FDA panel to investigate possible links to hyperactivity

      Would 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."

      An FDA panel of experts is investigating possible links between food coloring and behavioral issues....
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      50-State Effort to Write Down Troubled Mortgages Starts to Crumble

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

      Last 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.

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

      Toyota Dealers Warned of Spare Parts Shortage. Latest complication of the Japan earthquake...
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      What's On Your Mind? Mattresses, Scams, Blue Hippo

      Our daily rundown of consumer complaints

      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.

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

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

      Robo-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.

      Robo-Signing Returns - This Time to Vex Big Debt Collector. Minnesota charges Midland Funding used robo-signed affidavits to collect old debts...
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      New York to Probe AT&T/T-Mobile Deal

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

      New 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.

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

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


      Package Size

      UPC Codes

      X-Hero with English Label

      10 capsules


      X-Hero with English Label

      8 capsules


      X-Hero with Chinese/English Label

      8 capsules


      X-Hero with English Label

      1 capsule pack


      Male Enhancer

      60 capsule


      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.

      X-Hero, Male Enhancer Supplements Recalled Supplements are unapproved drugs, could cause harmful reactions...
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      'Stealth' Inflation May Have Been With Us For Years

      It's the same price, just not as good

      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.

      Can inflation be measured in more than just rising prices?...
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      Wells Fargo Ponies Up, Joins No-Debit-Card-Perks Posse

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

      Wells 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.

      Wells Fargo Ponies Up, Joins No-Debit-Card-Perks Posse. Banks are circling the wagons, determined to fight off fee foes....
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      Seven Ways To Spot A Scam Email

      There are always telltale signs

      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.

      Here are seven obvious signs an email was sent by a scammer....
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      What's On Your Mind? CitiBank, Comcast, Lowes

      Our daily rundown of consumer complaints

      Taking 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.

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

      Police say operation cheated 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.

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

      Suit Blames Paxil for Birth Defects. Louisiana couple argues depression drug is "unreasonably dangerous" to pregnant women....
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      Walnuts May Be Perfect Health Food

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

      If 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.

      Walnuts are among the highest foods in antioxidants, according to research presented at the American Chemical Society national meeting....
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      GAO: Consumer Credit Protection Products Need Oversight

      Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will take a closer look

      The 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.

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