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Primerica Finds Qualified Sales Agents In Short Supply

The giant insurer has no trouble recruiting agents, but many fail licensing tests

Primerica Finds Qualified Sales Agents In Short SupplyThe giant insurer has no trouble recruiting agents, but many fail licensing tests...

 logoPrimerica, a life insurance company that caters to middle- and lower-income clients, finds itself in a predicament similar to Wal-Mart, whose CEO is worried that the chain's customers are running out of money earlier and earlier each month, as they struggle to get from one paycheck to the next.

As anyone who dozed through Marketing 101 will tell you, selling to lower-income consumers has one big advantage: there are lots of them. On the other hand, when times are tough they don't have as much money to spend on non-essentials.

Since its founding in 1977, Primerica has specialized in term life insurance, a much more affordable, though more limited, form of protection than whole life or universal life.

To keep its fixed costs down, Primerica uses a multi-level sales network, much like companies that sell soap products, expensive pots and pans and plastic bowls. Thus, agents get paid commissions not only on what they sell, but also on sales made by the agents they recruit

This has worked out pretty well for Primerica, which has never had trouble recruiting agents. It signed up about 230,000 in the last year, but nearly that many dropped out so keeping a stable army of agents isn't as simple as it sounds.

Can't pass the test

Part of Primerica's problem is that it tends to recruit agents who know their territory – minority group members, blue-collar adults without a lot of formal education and parents looking for a second job to make ends meet.

While some of these people might turn into good agents who sell a lot of insurance, they tend to have a hard time passing state licensing exams. In fact, about 80% of Primerica recruits don't become agents and in many cases it's because they can't pass the state tests.

So, what's an insurer to do?

Primerica isn't likely to have much luck recruiting eager young college graduates to go sell life insurance in blue-collar neighborhoods, so it's trying to jawbone the states into revising their licensing tests.

This is not well-received in some quarters but several states have agreed to start collecting demographic data to ensure that its tests are free of cultural bias and that they aren't, as some critics contend, simply testing would-be agents' test-taking abilities.

Dangerously underinsured

chartPrimerica argues that without some kind of action, lower-income families will be less likely to have the insurance they need. And in fact, that seems to be the case. The number of middle-class families buying term insurance dropped 45% over the past 25 years.

"Millions of middle-income households in this country are dangerously underinsured or have no life insurance," Primerica CEO Peter Schneider said in a recentWall Street Journalarticle chronicling the insurer's problems.

Interestingly, despite the bad press Primerica has experienced recently, ConsumerAffairs.com has received a relatively small number ofcomplaints about Primericaand only 15% of those complaints dealt with its insurance products. By far the largest percentage (30%) dealt with its recruiting tactics and another 25% with the trials, tribulations, disappointments and victories of self-employed salespeople.

Does any of this matter to a consumer looking for the right kind of life insurance? Certainly having a competent and knowledgeable agent can be helpful but many insurance companies, likeGEICO, have millions of presumably satisfied customers even though they have no agents.

Most important is to be sure you'rebuying the right kind of policy, one that provides enough protection at a price you can afford.

Enough but no more

The attraction of term life insurance, the kind Primerica pioneered, is that it covers – as the name implies – a certain term.

For example, if you have children who are 10 and 12 years old, you might want a 10-year term policy. That way, if you die – remember, that's what life insurance is all about – within that time, you family will get $50,000 or $100,000 or whatever amount you have chosen to defray your burial costs and help the children get through school.

Term-life is cheaper because it covers you when you are, presumably, younger and less likely to die.

Whole and universal life insurance plans, on the other hand, are more expensive because they are really savings plans that happen to include a death benefit.

It can be a complicated decision but it's not so complicated that anyone with dependents should put it off. A good place to start is to check with your state Insurance Commission, also called the Department of Insurance in some states. There you can find information about which companies are licensed in your state and see their financial ratings.

 

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Government Issues Guidelines On Marketing Food To Children

Guidelines are still voluntary, however

The U.S. Government has issued guidelines for marketing food to children, in an effort to reduce obesity....

photoThe U.S. Government is presenting the food industry with a set of voluntary guidelines designed to reduce childhood obesity. The message in the guidelines is clear: don't use clever marketing to sell junk food to kids.

If adopted, the new guidelines would change how many food items like cereal, sodas, snacks and fast food meals are advertised.

“Children are strongly influenced by the foods they see advertised on television and elsewhere. Creating a food marketing environment that supports, rather than undermines, the efforts of parents to encourage healthy eating among children will have a significant impact on reducing the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “These new principles will help food and beverage companies use their creativity and resources to strengthen parents’ efforts to encourage their children to make healthy choices.”

Working group on obesity

The guidelines are the product of a working group comprised of four federal agencies – the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevetion (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Their guidelines have been published for public comment.

The proposed voluntary principles stop short of the mandatory regulations many food industry critics advocated, but are designed to reach the same goals; to encourage stronger and more meaningful self-regulation by the food industry and to support parents’ efforts to get their kids to eat healthier foods.

“As a parent and grandparent, I know the power advertising and marketing can have on kids, and my hope is that the food industry will embrace these voluntary principles and apply them so parents can make informed decisions about the foods they feed their children,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“To their credit, some of the leading companies are already reformulating products and rethinking marketing strategies to promote healthier foods to kids. But we all have more work to do before we can tip the scales to a healthier generation of children,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “This proposal encourages all food marketers to expand voluntary efforts to reduce kids’ waistlines.”

Big changes

The proposals, if adopted by food producers, would require that their advertising and marketing be used to encourage the consumption of healthy foods. A cartoon character used to pitch a sugary cereal, for example, might be retired, or given a new job promoting a different, healthier product.

The working group makes it clear it wants to see the food industry spend ad dollars to promote a healthful diet from food groups including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk products, fish, extra lean meat and poultry, eggs, nuts or seeds, and beans.

By the same token, the guidelines indicate saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars, and sodium in foods marketed to children should be limited to minimize the negative impact on children’s health and weight.

The working group proposes that industry strive to market foods by the year 2016 that meet the proposed nutritional principles and marketing criteria. For sodium, the proposal includes interim targets for 2016 and final targets for 2021.

'Strong and sensible'

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a long-time food industry critic, praised the working group's guidelines as “strong and sensible,” even though they are voluntary and lack the force of regulatory action.

“A key weakness of the current self-regulatory approach to food marketing to children is that each company has its own strategically tailored standards,” said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at CSPI. “While overall the standards look fairly similar, many have loopholes, like weak or no sodium standards for fast-food companies and weak sugar standards for cereal marketers.”

CSPI says food companies spend approximately $2 billion a year on marketing foods and beverages to children, mostly for foods high in calories, fats, sugars, and sodium, and low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and key nutrients.

 

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What's On Your Mind? Identity Theft, National CreditSolutions,Humana

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Identity Theft, National CreditSolutions, Humana, Through the looking glass and What debt?...

photoThis week's report about the Sony PlayStation hack raised the threat of identity theft for millions of potential victims. For Daris, of Lorton, Va., unfortunately, identity theft is more than a potential threat.

“I checked my credit report and found that I was the victim of identity theft,” Darin told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I contacted Household Finance about a loan that had been taken out in my name without my knowledge.”

Darin learned that the loan taken out in his name was already in default and had been turned over to a collection agency. Otherwise, he says, the company was less than helpful.

“I'm still in shock at the entire ordeal,” he said. “Apparently, a loan was issued in my name by Household Finance using a different address and possibly date of birth from mine - I'm still not entirely sure since I received conflicting statements from their service reps.”

Darin has a lot of hard work ahead of him to deal with this. The first step should be to contact all three credit reporting agencies and place a fraud alert on his account. That will stop any new accounts from being opened. The Federal Trade Commission's advice for identity theft victims is also required reading.

What debt?

Our friends at National Credit Solutions are certainly staying busy. According to consumers reporting to ConsumerAffairs.com, the collection agency is collecting debts for Hollywood Video and BMG Music, even though those reporting to us say the debt doesn't exist.

Marilyn of Gladys, Va., says she just heard from NCS about a debt she supposedly owes to Columbia House but is sure she doesn't.

“It supposedly occurred in 2006,” she said. “As I started talking the lady was very rude. I was so appalled at this comeback from this person, I told her so and she reduced the payoff from $43.95 to $24.94.”

Marilyn says she is angry but is thinking about paying it to make it go away. We would not advise her to do so unless she is presented with documentary proof of the debt. After all, that's her right.

Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, a debt collector can't force you to pay just because they say you owe it. At the initial contact, the consumer should request a “demand letter” from the debt collector. In response to that letter, the consumer has the right to dispute the charge. After that, the debt collector must obtain “verification of the debt.” If the debt doesn't exist, they won't be able to do it.

Through the looking glass

Carla of Houma, La., is frustrated with her health insurer, Humana. When she was injured in a softball game, she went to the hospital emergency room for treatment.

“Six months later I get an ER bill,” Carla told ConsumerAffairs.com. “When I called Humana they said the hospital was in network; however, the doctor that treated you in the ER was not.”

Carla wants to know how a hospital can be included in a health insurance plan but the only doctor working in its emergency room is not. We admit we're at a loss to explain, and apparently so is the hospital.

“I called the hospital and she told me they have been fighting Humana for the whole six months, in that if the facility is covered, therefore the attending ER physician should be covered,” Carla said. “If the hospital can't get them to pay then how am I going to get them to pay?”

 

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States Want Feds to Crack Down on Underage Drinking

FTC needs to limit alcohol advertising aimed at teens, attorneys general argue

States Want Feds to Crack Down on Underage Drinking FTC needs to limit alcohol advertising aimed at teens, attorneys general argue...

The attorneys general of 24 states are asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take stronger measures to stop underage drinking. In a letter to the FTC, the attorneys general offered a three-step plan to keep alcohol advertising away from teens.

The more young people are exposed to alcohol advertising and marketing, the more likely they are to drink, or if already drinking, to drink more,” wrote Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and the other attorneys general.

The FTC is planning to collect information from advertisers about the way alcohol is advertised, sold and marketed and how data is collected. The attorneys general offered three ways this should be done:

1. Advertising and promotional spending data should be collected on an ongoing basis instead of intermittently.

2. Alcohol advertising should not be allowed when more than15% of the people in the audience are between the ages of 12 and 20.

3. Alcohol advertising data should include digital and social media marketing such as blogs and corporate sponsored social media sites.

On May 8, 2006, the attorneys general sent a letter endorsing the FTC’s proposal to set the standard that alcohol advertising be directed to audiences where at least 70% of the audience is of legal drinking age. A higher standard is now being proposed to limit the amount of advertising to those between the ages of 12 and 20 year old, which is 15%, rather than the percentage of those under 21, which is 30%.

With the health and lives of this nation’s young people at stake, we believe that state, federal and industry efforts are needed to stem the flow of alcohol to our youth,” concludes the attorneys general.

The letter was signed by the attorneys general in Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming. 

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CEO: Wal-Mart Shoppers 'Running Out Of Money'

High gas prices taking a huge toll

Wal-Mart has noticed its customers don't seem to have as much money to spend as they once did....

photoOn the same day that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announced the economy continues to make a moderate recovery, Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke delivered a different assessment.

Wal-Mart customers, he said, are running out of money at a faster pace. He sees it in end-of-the-month sales figures, when sales drop off more sharply than in the past.

"We're seeing core consumers under a lot of pressure," Duke said at a Wall Street Journal event in New York. "There's no doubt that rising fuel prices are having an impact."

As for the drop-off in late month purchases, Duke calls it a growing concern at the retail giant. Wal-Mart customers typically live paycheck-to-paycheck and a drop in spending is viewed as a barometer of the overall economy.

Duke said Wal-Mart has recently raised prices on many food items, to cover the soaring cost of food commodities, but has tried to compensate by lowering prices on other items in the store, like electronics.

$1.02 a gallon higher than last year

Fuel costs are undoubtedly taking a bigger bite out of the average Wal-Mart shopper's budget. The average price of self-serve regular gas is $1.02 more than it was at this time last year, meaning the typical refueling costs an extra $20. That's a big bite out of anyone's budget.

To underscore Duke's sober assessment, the U.S. Commerce Department today reported that economic growth slowed more than expected in the first quarter, to 1.8 percent. The slowdown follows a fourth quarter growth rate of 3.1 percent.

 

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Class Action Suit Claims Sony Was Negligent in PlayStation Hack

Sony failed to maintain adequate security to protect its customers, suit alleges

Class Action Suit Claims Sony Was Negligent in PlayStation HackSony failed to maintain adequate security to protect its customers, suit alleges...

photoWell, that didn't take long. The ink has barely dried on the stories about Sony letting hackers break into an unencrypted database containing private information on 77 million credit cardholders and already a class-action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of those 77 million.

But wait. Didn't the U.S. Supreme Court just outlaw class actions? Well, yes, but only in cases where the contract requires consumers to submit to arbitration instead of joining a class action.

In this case, plaintiff Kristopher Johns is alleging that he and his 77 million colleagues are the victims of breach of warranty, negligent data security, privacy violation and failure to inform consumers in a timely manner of unauthorized third-party access to their credit card account and other private information.

The suit accuses Sony of failing to maintain adequate security by failing to maintain "a proper firewall and computer security system," failure to properly encrypt data, unauthorized storage and retention of data and violation of Payment Card Industry Data Standards.

The suit alleges that Johns and friends were further victimized by the disruption of the Sony PlayStation Network, rendering them unable to access the online games essential to their well-being.

Johns, of Birmingham, Ala., said he first purchased a Sony PlayStation3 iin 2009. He noticed earlier this month, sometime around April 17-18, that he had lost access to the PlayStation Network but did not then know of the security breach that had resulted in the theft of his credit card data.

The suit notes that Sony represents in its advertising that the PlayStation Network is "an exceptionally powerful and secure gaming system and online gaming network."

Sony went public with the security breach earlier this week, conceding that the hackers who broke into its system made off with an unusually complete set of data on its 77 million users, including name, full address, country, email, date of birth, login and password.

The company also said it "can't rule out" the possibility that the hackers also got credit card information.

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Pew Study Finds Banks Still Rake In Overdraft Fees

Calls for more transparent account disclosures

Despite changes in rules, many consumers are still paying bank overdraft fees...

photoRegulatory changes now require banks to obtain customers' consent to be enrolled in debit card overdraft protection. That was supposed to end the practice of consumers being charged a $35 anytime they made a purchase that exceeded their balance.

According to the Pew Health Group’s Safe Checking in the Electronic Age Project, it may not be working out that way.

According to the report, these charges are estimated to cost Americans $38.5 billion in 2011, which would be an increase of $18.6 billion since 2000. While banks have to incur a risk that they will not be repaid, most institutions manage this by limiting the overdraft amount given to any costumer.

Big source of profits

In recent years banks have made huge profits on overdraft fees. Until the regulatory change, a customer had no choice. If they used their debit card for a purchase and the amount exceeded the funds available, the bank covered the purchase, but charged the customer an overdraft fee.

Many consumers complained, saying they would prefer their purchase be declined instead of being covered, and then being charged a fee. Federal regulators thought that was a good idea, and changed the rules so that a customer had to “opt-in” to continue receiving that “protection.”

Banks mounted a furious marketing campaign, urging their customers to opt-in, lest they lose billions in revenue from these fees. Apparently, they have little to worry about.

Pew’s research reveals that the median overdraft penalty fee is $35, which is an increase from $27 in 2007.  Likewise, the FDIC documents the median overdraft amount at $36.

5000 percent interest

If overdraft fees were treated like a short-term loan with a repayment period of seven days, then the annual percentage rate, or APR, on the typical overdraft would be over 5,000 percent, Pew notes. Additionally, Pew found that as of October 2010, when the data was collected, 100 percent of the accounts that were examined retained the right to re-order withdrawals from the highest to lowest amount and eight out of the 10 banks reserved the right to post withdrawals before deposits. Since then, several banks have reformed these practices but the playing field is not level, the report says.

In a separate survey, the Center for Responsible Lending said 33 percent of major bank customers have “opted-in” for the expensive overdraft protection, and that most did so based on misleading marketing information from their bank.

“Sixty percent of consumers who opted in stated that an important reason they did so was to avoid a fee if their debit card was declined,” the CRL report states. “In fact, a declined debit card costs consumers nothing.”

'Wearing down their customers'

The report concludes banks “succeeded in confusing and wearing down some of their customers to the point that they accepted a product that would ultimately cost them unnecessary, exorbitant fees.”

Pew agrees that consumers need better information. The study says most checking accounts still carry the hidden risks of costly fees and need to be more transparent, pointing out the median length of checking account disclosure documents at the 10 largest banks is 111 pages.

“It is exceedingly difficult for the average consumer to find the basic information needed to either select a checking account or to responsibly manage the one they currently have,” said Shelley A. Hearne, managing director of the Pew Health Group. “We are calling on policy makers to ensure that overdraft fees are reasonable and proportional. They must also address both the length and clarity of checking account disclosures, which are often 111 pages.”

For this study, Pew analyzed more than 250 types of checking accounts offered online by the 10 largest banks in the United States, which hold nearly 60 percent of all deposits nationwide.

 

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What's On Your Mind? ILD, Legal Helpers, T-Mobile

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: ILD, Legal Helpers, T-Mobile, Nothing's settled, Mystery bill and Burned up....

photoILD Teleservices has been the source of numerous complaints over the years, accused of “cramming” consumers' telephone bills with charges for websites and other unordered services. Because of a provision of the Telecommunications Act, third party providers like ILD are allowed to bill consumers through their telephone companies.

In addition to complaining, Pamela, of Reno, Nev., took effective action.

“I saw a $15.95 charge and a $12.95 charge on my AT&T bill,” Pamela told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I went directly to the AT&T store for help.”

Pamela said the AT&T personnel contacted their billing department and reversed the charge. They also placed a lock on Pamela's account so it can't happen again. Good information to have if you get “crammed” in the future.

Nothing's settled

Brian of Riverside, Calif., says he had two credit cards whose interest doubled to 30 percent because he was a week late making a payment and nearly had to file bankruptcy.

“Then I was contacted by a representative of Legal Helpers/ Debt Resolution,” Brian said. “They told me how they would be able to help me with my situation. I absolutely believe that I was mislead. I did however agree to their phone prompts to start and I have paid them $400 plus for the first 3 months and then $329 a month since.”

Brian made a mistake by agreeing to the phone prompts even though he did not fully understand what he was agreeing to. Meanwhile, Legal Helpers is not only the source of similar complaints, debt settlement firms like it are increasingly coming under fire from law enforcement officials. In March, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit, alleging 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. It might be a good idea if Brian contacted someone in Madigan's office.

Mystery bill

Every once in a while you get a bill that you know is a mistake. Ignoring it, however, can have consequences for your credit score.

“I had T-Mobile service for two days last month before returning the product because it did not work. I then received a bill for $29.00 for a service I never used,” Scott, of Covina, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “To get this off my back I paid the amount.'

That should have been the end of it, but it wasn't.

“During the last week I been receiving calls from them asking me for my last name and social,” Scott said. “I told them I would not give them that info so they said they can't help me.”

Scott is correct to be careful about revealing sensitive information over the phone to someone whose identity really isn't known. Instead, he should take the copy of his bill to a T-Mobile store and ask store personnel to check his account to see where the problem is.

Burned up

There's hardly anything more predictable than trouble developing with a flat screen TV just as soon as it is out of warranty. Tammy of Stringtown, Okla., says the trouble began with her Philips six months out of warranty but she put up with it. Last week, she says, the TV actually caught fire. At that point, she says she fired off an email to Philips explaining exactly what happened. This is the reply she says she got.

“Thank you for taking the time to contact Philips about our product and your recent experience with it. We want you to know that our customers mean a great deal to us, and we take your feedback seriously. We regret any gap between our performance and your expectations of us.”

“What a joke,” Tammy told ConsumerAffairs.com. “This is the response I would expect if I had emailed to say my TV was making an odd noise, not that it CAUGHT ON FIRE. It is quite obvious that they are lacking in the customer service department and may not even take the time to read emails sent in.”

Tammy says she expected more from customer service. She says her negative view of Philips is based not so much on the fact that her TV caught fire, but on the email she received in response to her problem.

 

 

 

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Suit Charges Nissan Covered Up Brake Defect Since 2004

Faulty sensor in ABS control unit endangers motorists, suit alleges

Suit Charges Nissan Covered Up Brake Defect Since 2004 Faulty sensor in ABS control unit endangers motorists, suit alleges...

 A federal class action claims Nissan has sold cars with defective delta stroke sensors, a brake mechanism, since 2004

In their suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Brandon and Erin Banks say that a defect in the delta stroke sensor, an electronic component that controls critical safety aspects of braking, causes drivers to lose braking ability without warning.

The plaintiffs claim that as a result of the defect, Erin Banks drove through a red light at a busy intersection with her two small children in the car.

"Despite applying the brakes in a manner reasonable anticipated to bring the vehicle to a complete stop, she frighteningly and dangerously went through the intersection," the suit alleges.

The suit seeks to represent all U.S. consumers who currently own Nissan products with the allegedly defective component and those who previously owned one, excluding those who claim to have suffered personal injuries as a result.

Nissan Armada

The Banks, who live in Placer County, Calif., say they bought a 2004 Nissan Armada in October 2006, when the truck had about 23,000 miles on the odometer. They also purchased a Nissan extended warranty that covered the vehicle for 75,000 miles.

On Feb. 24, 2011, as Erin Banks approached a red light at 40 miles per hour, she applied the brakes but the vehicle did not slow down. She pumped the brakes but still coasted through the intersection, the suit says.

The Armada was taken to Future Nissan in Roseville, Calif., and inspected. A service technician advised that the vehicle had displayed a test code which indicated a failure of the deltra stroke sensor in the ABS control unit.

The technician said he had seen the problem in a number of other vehicles, the suit charges, and said that Nissan had issued an update but that vehicles were being return for repairs even after the update had been applied.

$1,000 bill

The only way to fix the problem was to replace the sensor at a cost of more than $1,000, the technician advised, but the dealership declined to do so under warranty and referred Banks to Nissan's customer hotline, the suit stated.

After numerous phone calls, Nissan declined to pay for the replacement, allegedly stating that the warranty had expired and implying that Banks was not a "loyal" Nissan customer based on the number of non-Nissan vehicles he had owned.

Banks then spent $967 to have the sensor replaced at his expense.

The suit quotes Nissan Technical Service Bulletin NTB06-040 which describes the problem and outlines steps to remedy it.

Banks charges that he would not have purchased the Armada or the extended warranty had he known of the safety hazard allegedly posed by the faulty sensor, and charges that Nissan denied customers information that could have affected their safety and that of others on the road.

The suit seeks damages, legal fees and injunctive relief.

 

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Sony PlayStation Network Hack Hits 77 Million Users

Crooks get a treasure-trove of data in one of the biggest hacks ever

Sony PlayStation Network Hack Hits 70 Million UsersCrooks get a treasure-trove of data in one of the biggest hacks ever...

photoSomeone has a new collection of data that will likely prove very valuable. We're speaking, of course, of the Sony PlayStation Network user data stolen by hackers.

Sony says the hackers got a very complete profile of its 77 million users, including name, full address, country, email, date of birth and PlayStation Network login and password.

Oh, and by the way, Sony says it "can't rule out" the possibility that the hackers also got credit card information, not to mention past purchases and "secret answers" given to Sony for password security.

It's rare that hackers get this much information and most security analysts say it speaks very poorly of Sony that all this data was accessible to the crooks.

Hack jobs always raise the possibility of "phishing" expeditions, in which scam artists use the little information they have – perhaps email address and user id – to probe for the rest of the data. But the complete profiles lifted in the Sony hack can result in something much more dangerous, known as "spear-phishing," which enables con artists to be very specific in their emails, phone calls and so forth.

In a worst case scenario, the hackers may have enough information to place fictitious orders or even access consumers' credit and debit card accounts and drain money directly.

What to do

So what's a consumer to do? Well, once the cat is out of the bag, as they say, there's not much you can but be very vigilant and pro-active. This includes:

  • Tell your credit card company your number has been compromised and ask for a new one;

  • Ask the credit bureaus to put a fraud alert on your account;

  • Review your online statements frequently – at least once a week – to detect any suspicious activity;

  • If you use the Sony password and user ID on other sites, change them on every single site, immediately. Don't forget to change your email password.

To prevent future incidents:

  • Use a different user ID and password on every site. There are password management tools that make this much easier than it sounds, including LastPass and KeePass. KeePass is a free open-source tool that is platform-independent, meaning it will work on Windows, Linux and Apple machines. LastPass has both paid and free versions.

  • Keep your Internet browser (Firefox, Chrome, Explorer) and your operating system (Windows, Linux, Apple) up to date. It's vital to load all patches and updates.

  • Keep your anti-virus software up to date.

Of course, in the Sony case, all the browser updates and anti-viruses programs in the world wouldn't have helped you but that doesn't mean they're not important. Sure, you can get mugged walking down the street but that doesn't mean you leave your home unlocked. Does it?

 

 

 

 

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Chemical Flame Retardants Show Up In Dogs

Chemicals remain in environment after discontinued use

Indiana University researchers find chemical flame retardants in the blood of dogs at much higher levels than humans....

photoIndiana University scientists have found chemical flame retardants in the blood of pet dogs at concentrations five to 10 times higher than in humans, but lower than levels found in a previous study of cats.

What does it mean, and should pet owners be concerned?

Actually, the authors of the study, “Flame Retardants in the Serum of Pet Dogs and in their Food," say it suggests just how prevalent these chemicals are in the average home.

The study focuses on the presence of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in the blood of dogs and in commercial dog food. PBDEs have been widely used as flame retardants in household furniture and electronics equipment. The compounds can migrate out of the products and enter the environment.

Unknown effects

"Even though they've been around for quite awhile, we don't know too much about these compounds' toxicological effects on humans or animals," said Marta Venier, an assistant research scientist in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. "The bottom line is that we still need to keep measuring them, particularly in homes."

PBDE mixtures made up of less-brominated compounds are regarded as more dangerous because they bioaccumulate in animal tissues. These mixtures were banned by the European Union and were voluntarily removed from the U.S. market in 2004, but remain in the environment.

Mixtures with more-brominated compounds remain in use in the U.S. but will be phased out by 2013.

Venier and fellow researcher Ronald Hites report on an analysis of flame retardants in blood from 17 pet dogs, all of whom live primarily indoors. They also examined samples of the dry dog food that made up the pets' diet, attempting to determine if food was a major source of PBDE exposure.

Five to 10 times higher than levels in humans

The average concentration of PBDEs in blood from the dogs was about 2 nanograms per gram, about five to 10 times higher than the levels found in humans in the few studies of human exposure that have been done in North America.

In dog food samples, the researchers found PBDEs at levels averaging about one nanogram per gram. That is much higher than levels found in meat and poultry sold as food for humans, suggesting the PBDEs in dog food may result from processing rather than from the food sources.

A 2007 study by Venier, Hites and several co-authors found concentrations of PBDEs in house cats that were 20 to 100 times higher than levels found in humans.

Venier said the evidence shows dogs metabolize the compounds more rapidly than cats.

The current study also detected newer flame retardants that have come onto the market as PBDEs have been removed, including Dechlorane Plus, decabromodiphenylethane, and hexabromocyclododecane. The chemicals are largely unregulated but pose concerns because they are structurally similar to organic pollutants that have been linked to environmental and human health effects.

"The concentrations of these newer flame retardants were relatively low compared to the PBDEs," Venier said, "but the fact that they are new and not regulated suggests their levels are going to increase in the future."

 

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Lousy Economy Still Influencing Consumers' Diets

Can have beneficial effect, up to a point

Consumers have adapted their diets to the new economy and some are eating healthier....

photoThe Great Recession has changed a lot of consumer behavior, especially when it comes to mealtime. Economic difficulties have led to some new food trends, tracked by Food Technology Magazine. 

Data gathered from a variety of sources finds that although there were signs of improvement last year in the consumer food products industry, lingering issues such as high grocery and gasoline prices, job insecurity and the risk of inflation are limiting what consumers will spend.

Oddly, this might be a positive development for consumer health. This new conservative attitude is leading to more home cooked meals, which tend to be healthier than restaurant meals.

For example, last year more than half (55 percent) of grocery shoppers prepared more meals at home than in 2009, approaching a 20-year high. That trend is expected to continue.

Older consumers eat healthier

When you break down the numbers demographically, older consumers tend to eat healthier than their younger counterparts. For example, those older than 50 are the last generation to be raised on European-influenced meals made from scratch and served three times a day. In contrast, the NPD Group predicts that Gen Yers will drive consumption of salty/savory snacks, easy meals, center-of-the-plate proteins, sweet snacks/desserts, and heat-and-eat breakfasts.

The magazine finds that consumers are increasingly concerned about contents of the food in their diets, believing that limiting them is a component of healthy eating. Research finds half of consumers deliberately avoid preservatives, almost half (47 percent) avoid artificial flavors, and 43 percent avoid colors. Natural ingredients rank third on the list of most looked-for items on the ingredient label, after type of fat/oil and sweeteners.

Consumers also seem to be very concerned about risk factors for disease, and they are turning to functional foods to aid in their health goals. Research finds 68 percent of baby boomers were concerned about cholesterol and 66 percent were concerned about blood pressure. Among Gen Y consumers, 40 percent were concerned about cholesterol and blood pressure.

Rising prices could be a threat

But as food prices begin to rapidly rise, there is growing concern that this inflation could negate some of these healthy-eating trends.

“Coupled with the financial crisis, high food prices can take a significant toll on nutrition, especially in developing countries,” sais Lora Iannotti, PhD, a public health expert and professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.

Iannotti says the same thing can happen in wealthier countries like the U.S., as households opt for less expensive, poor quality foods.

Iannotti and Miguel Robles, PhD, from the International Food Policy Research Institute examined the effects of food price hikes on calorie consumption in seven Latin American countries.

Poorer quality food

“During a food price crisis, households moved away from ‘luxury’ food items such as meat, fish and dairy products to poorer quality food,” she said.

Using data from nationally representative household budget surveys, Iannotti and colleagues found that during a food price crisis calorie intake was reduced by an average eight percent from precrisis levels and rural areas and urban areas were equally affected.


“We are particularly concerned for families with young children,” Iannotti said. “When you have a reduction in calories and critical nutrients for kids under two, there are long term consequences such as stunted growth, cognitive deficits, lower educational attainment and reduced future productivity. ”

 

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Texas Jury Delivers $13.8 Million Verdict Against Credit Repair Business

Claimed they could help Texans get out of debt by exploiting "loopholes"

Texas Jury Delivers $13.8 Million Verdict Against Credit Repair Business Claimed they could help Texans get out of debt by exploiting "loopholes"...

A jury in Houston has returned a $13.8 million verdict against a credit repair business and its owner, finding they defrauded indebted Texans and failed to register with authorities in violation of state law.

The jury found that Jubilee Financial Management LLC, The Credit Card Solution (TCCS), Freedom from Debt Alliance and Robert M. Lindsey used illegal “debt invalidation” schemes that purported to help financially struggling Texans.

According to the information introduced at trial, the defendants assured customers that they could eliminate their credit card debts and restore their credit ratings. The defendants claimed they could help debtors exploit loopholes in the credit reporting system and pursue litigation against debt collectors for violations Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Simply filing lawsuits, the defendants falsely claimed, would allow their customers to erase their debts and reap thousands of dollars in court-awarded damages from debt collectors.

More than 700 people paid an average of $3,000 for the defendants’ fraudulent services. Because the defendants offered nothing of value – and charged thousands of dollars for the purported services – already struggling customers were worse off financially after paying TCCS.

Once a customer paid TCCS, the defendants promised to help customers send “form letters” to debt collectors and credit reporting agencies. The defendants claimed that the form letters would put the recipient on notice, which TCCS claimed would ultimately benefit customers financially.

After a week-long trial, the jury found that all four defendants violated both the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act and the Texas Credit Services Act. The jury also found that Lindsey and TCCS violated the Texas Business Opportunity Act. The latter violations stemmed from the defendants’ attempt to use customers to sell its fraudulent services to other financially strapped Texans. 

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Chevrolet Volt & Nissan Leaf Earn Top Crash Ratings

Little electrics sweep the first U.S. crash tests of mainstream electric cars

Chevrolet Volt & Nissan Leaf Earn Top Crash Ratings Little electrics sweep the first U.S. crash tests of mainstream electric cars...

The Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf earn the highest safety ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in the first-ever U.S. crash test evaluations of plug-in electric cars.

The milestone demonstrates that automakers are using the same safety engineering in new electric cars as they do in gasoline-powered vehicles, IIHS said.

"What powers the wheels is different, but the level of safety for the Volt and Leaf is as high as any of our other top crash test performers," said Joe Nolan, the Institute's chief administrative officer.

The Volt and Leaf earn the top rating of good for front, side, rear, and rollover crash protection. With standard electronic stability control, they qualify as winners of "Top Safety Pick," the Institute's award for state-of-the-art crash protection. The ratings help consumers pick vehicles that offer a higher level of protection than federal safety standards require.

photo

The addition of the 2 electric cars brings to 80 the number of award winners so far for 2011, including 7 hybrid models. That lifts General Motors' current model tally to 12 and Nissan's to 3.

The dual-power Volt and all-electric Leaf not only surpass benchmarks for protecting occupants in crashes but also exceed current fuel efficiency and emissions standards. Both models are brand new for 2011.

The Volt is a plug-in battery/gasoline hybrid that can run in electric-only mode with a range of about 35 miles on a single charge. A gasoline engine kicks in to power the electric motor when the battery is spent. The Leaf runs on battery power alone and has an Environmental Protection Agency-estimated average range of about 73 miles on a single charge

photo"The way an electric or hybrid model earns top crash test ratings is the same way any other car does," Nolan said. "Its structure must manage crash damage so the occupant compartment stays intact and the safety belts and airbags keep people from hitting hard surfaces in and out of the vehicle."

Small but safe

The Volt and Leaf are classified as small cars, with their overall length, width, and passenger capacity in line with their peers. But their hefty battery packs put their curb weights closer to midsize and larger cars.

The Leaf weighs about 3,370 pounds and the Volt about 3,760 pounds. This compares to about 3,200 pounds for Nissan's Altima, a midsize car, and about 3,580 pounds for Chevrolet's Impala, a large family car.

photoLarger, heavier vehicles generally do a better job of protecting people in serious crashes than smaller, lighter ones because both size and weight influence crashworthiness.

For years the debate over fuel economy has been about making cars smaller and lighter, changes that could put people at greater risk of dying or being injured in crashes. The Institute long has maintained that advanced technology is key to improving fuel efficiency without downgrading safety.

"The Leaf and Volt's extra mass gives them a safety advantage over other small cars," Nolan said. "These electric models are a win-win for fuel economy and safety.

 

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ducduc Cribs Recalled

Fall and entrapment hazards

ducduc Cribs Recalled Fall and entrapment hazards...

ducduc llc is recalling about 330 fixed-side cribs. The bottom rails on the crib sides can separate from the sides when the mattress is in the lowest position, causing the spindles to separate and the mattress to drop. This poses fall and entrapment hazards for young children.

The manufacturer has received five reports of separated rails. No injuries were reported.

This recall includes ducduc fixed-side cribs with the model names and item codes ending in 2009, 2010 and 2011 listed below. The name"ducduc" and the item code can be found on a label located on the mattress panel.

AJ

Austin

Cabana

Campaign

Parker

AJ.C100.X.2009

A.C100.X.2009

CA.C100.X.2009

C.C100.X.2009

P.C100.X.2009

AJ.C100.X.2010

A.C100.X.2010

CA.C100.X.2010

C.C100.X.2010

P.C100.X.2010

AJ.C100.X.2011

A.C100.X.2011

CA.C100.X.2011

C.C100.X.2011

P.C100.X.2011

 

   "X" is the month of manufacture (1 through 12)

The cribs were sold at the ducduc New York showroom, online at www.ducducnyc.com, at specialty stores and through interior designers nationwide from January 2009 through February 2011 for between $1,500 and $1,800. They were made in the United States.

Consumers should stop using these cribs immediately if the mattress is in the lowest position. Consumers should contact ducduc, if the company has not already contacted them, for a free repair kit which includes new crib sides. Ducduc is contacting each customer directly. In the meantime, parents are urged to find an alternate, safe sleeping environment for their child, such as a play yard, bassinet or toddler bed, depending on the child's age.

For additional information, contact ducduc at (212) 226-1868 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET, or visit the firm's website at www.ducducnyc.com

Picture of recalled natural walnut/white AJ crib
AJ Crib

Picture of recalled Austin crib
Austin Crib

Picture of recalled Cabana crib
Cabana Crib

Picture of recalled Campaign crib
Campaign Crib

Picture of recalled Parker crib
Parker Crib

Picture of recalled crib label

LABEL

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Storm Victims Warned of Common Scams

Floods in South, Midwest leave residents prey to 'storm chasers'

Storm Victims Warned of Common Scam Floods in South, Midwest leave residents prey to 'storm chasers'...

Severe weather hashit much of the South and Midwest in recent days. While the damage to Lambert St. Louis Airport was the most dramatic, thousands of homeowners and small businesses have also suffered wind and water damage, leaving them prey to scam artists posing as legitimate contractors.

Those whose homes have been damaged by high winds, lightning or flooding should not be victimized again by criminals who are looking to take advantage of widespread devastation in the Commonwealth,” saidKentuckyAttorney General Jack Conway.

Conway said consumers needing work done quickly to repair storm-damaged homes and property are at risk of falling victim to fly-by-night contractors, also known as "storm chasers."  Common natural disaster scams include outright fraud, shoddy construction, charity scams, impersonating officials, and loan scams.

We know our neighbors are hurting right now and if residents see people in their communities who are trying to take advantage of consumers, I would encourage them to contact us,” General Conway said.

photoStates of emergency have been declared in Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky and Arkansas. In Missouri, Gov. Jay Nixon activated the National Guard as evacuations got underway in Poplar Bluff, where a levee on the Black River was seriously damaged.

A levee on Iron Mountain Lake was also leaking but at last word was still holding, ParklandNews.com reported (photo courtesy of Parkland News).

Price-Gouging Provision Triggered

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, in his emergency declaration yesterday, also agreed to trigger the price-gouging provision to help prevent unscrupulous businesses from raising prices on goods that consumers need to weather recent storms.

The vast majority of Kentucky businesses would never seek to profit from someone else’s misfortune, but we want to make sure that no one seeks to exploit our friends and neighbors who are cleaning up from floods, high winds or power outages,” General Conway said.

The price-gouging provision means businesses cannot gouge storm victims on things like hotel rooms, generators, gasoline and clean-up supplies.

Similar provisions are in effect in other storm-wracked states.

Conway provides the following tips to consumers needing storm repair or clean up services:

  • Never pay in advance for labor. Scam artists often take advance payments from consumers and never return to complete the work. If an advance is needed to purchase materials, offer to purchase the materials yourself;

  • Use local, reputable contractors for repairs, if possible. If local contractors bring in out-of-town workers, ask who will be responsible for their work if it is not satisfactory;

  • Ask if the contractor is licensed, bonded (if required by the city or county), and insured;

  • Demand a written contract. If possible, get estimates from several contractors;

  • Be suspicious of unfamiliar, out-of-state vehicles and those who offer repair work at unreasonably low prices. Contact local law enforcement about your suspicions.

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Latex Medical Gloves Should Be Banned, Public Citizen Tells FDA

The gloves are a danger to patients and medical workers alike, the group argues

Latex Medical Gloves Should Be Banned, Public Citizen Tells FDA The gloves are a danger to patients and medical workers alike, the group argues...

photoSurgical and patient examination gloves that have cornstarch powder on them or are made of natural rubber latex should be banned because of the serious threat they pose to patients and health care workers, Public Citizen said in a petition filed late Monday with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Safer alternatives, such as powder-free, non-latex gloves, are readily available, the consumer advocacy group said. 

The FDA’s prolonged failure to take action eliminating the dangers posed by powdered surgical and patient examination gloves demonstrates a reckless and inexcusable disregard for the health and safety of patients and health care workers,” said Dr. Michael Carome, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

The dangers posed by powdered surgical and patient examination gloves and all latex gloves have been widely recognized throughout the medical profession and the world for many years and are indisputable. Safer, equally effective substitutes are available.”

For health care workers, the major risk posed by the gloves is allergic reactions to latex, some of which can be serious or life-threatening. These allergic reactions can occur when health care workers wear latex gloves or when they inhale cornstarch powder bound to latex proteins that has been released from latex gloves worn by others.

Breathing in cornstarch powder bound to latex proteins can cause acute asthma attacks and anaphylactic shock in health care workers sensitized to latex.

Danger to patients

For patients, the danger is also grave. Patients can experience the same types of allergic reactions that occur in health care workers. Also, when cornstarch is deposited in tissues during surgery, it can promote infections, delay healing and cause inflammation, among other injuries.

This is the second time Public Citizen has petitioned the agency to ban the use of cornstarch powder in latex gloves. The first time was on Jan. 7, 1998. The next year, the FDA rejected the petition and, instead, proposed regulations to reclassify surgical and patient examination gloves as class II devices requiring special controls, such as warning labels – an inadequate response to such a serious health problem, Public Citizen said.

On Sept. 28, 2008, a group of doctors petitioned the FDA to ban the use of cornstarch powder on all types of surgical and patient examination gloves. Shortly thereafter, on Feb. 24, 2009, the director of scientific affairs and clinical education of a major glove manufacturer requested a similar ban.

Once again, the FDA is lagging dangerously behind other countries that have moved to limit the use of a harmful product long before the FDA belatedly does so, Carome said. The UK announced a ban of propoxyphene (Darvon/Darvocet) in 2006, more than four years before the FDA banned the dangerous drug. Europe and the UK banned the dangerous diabetes drug rosiglitazone (Avandia) more than seven months ago, whereas the FDA decided not to ban it but merely to restrict its use.

 Similarly, the weight-reduction drug sibutramine (Meridia) was banned in Europe in January 2010, but the FDA did not prod manufacturers to remove it from the market until October of that year. In 1998, the German government banned the use of powdered latex gloves.

 “Collectively, thousands of lives have been saved and many more injuries spared in these countries because they have placed the health of the public ahead of the concerns of manufacturers of products with no unique benefits, only unique risks,” Carome said.

 Since the FDA rejected Public Citizen’s initial petition, more evidence has accumulated that underscores the dangers of the gloves.

Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit www.citizen.org.

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What's On Your Mind? Fisher & Paykel, Tom Tom, AT&T

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Fisher & Paykel, Tom Tom, AT&T, Standing down a scammer, Not enough limits and Lost?...

photoD.P., of Holt, Fla. has checked in again to update us on her high-end Fisher & Paykel double-drawer dishwasher.

"Earlier, I reported that I had experienced nothing but trouble with the unit, that it never really preformed very well, and, although several dealers in my area sold F&P appliances, the sole repair technician was no longer available,” D.P. told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Then, out of the blue, I get a call from a F&P rep who, when I told her of my problems with service reps, told me she would find me one. She told me the poor performance I was seeing may be due to dishwashing detergent no longer containing phosphates.

D.P. isn't buying that explanation, noting that phosphates had been removed from dishwasher detergent long before her problems began.

“Last month I gave it up and bought a new Whirlpool dishwasher, which has been like a breath of fresh air,” D.P. said. “One of the happiest moments I've had in the past five years was watching my F&P double drawer dishwasher on it's way to the local landfill.”

Though she describes herself as satisfied with her other F&P appliances, D.P. says she won't be buying any more in the future.

Standing down a scammer

By now, the phony payday loan collector scam has raked in millions of dollars and still seems to be going strong, though consumers are beginning to wise up. Dana, of Riverton, Utah, began getting calls from a fast talkng man she said had a Middle-Eastern accent and claimed she owed money from a payday loan.

“I told him that I had never taken out a payday loan from InstaCash or from any payday loan company,” Dana said. “He said I was lying and that I took out a $1,500 loan in December. I told him I did not. He then informed me that I was going to be arrested. I then started realizing that this was an elaborate scam.”

At that point Dana should have probably just hung up the phone, but she said she did some research and called him back to tell him she was reporting him to the FBI. That was probably not a good idea.

These people are criminals and there is not point antagonizing them, especially since in many cases they reveal that they possess the potential victims' social security numbers and other sensitive information. In fact, after receiving one of these calls it might be advisable to contact the three credit reporting agencies and place a freeze on credit applications.

Lost?

Tom Tom is a U.S. company that sells its GPS navigation devices all over the world. One international customer, Stan, of Narangba, Australia thinks Tom Tom has an obligation to get it its directions right, even if the destination sees like a remote corner of the world.

“I have been trying for six months to have Tom Tom correct a glaring map error in their Australia map,” Stan told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The Bruce Highway in Queensland heading towards Brisbane, where the Bruce Highway meets the Gateway Motorway and the Gumpie Arterial, the map and voice over advises to take exit left for the Gympie Arterial and right for the Gateway Motorway, when the correct exits are in fact the reverse.”

Stan said he's had no problem with the wrong directions but is worried about tourists, who are unfamiliar with the area.

Not enough limits

AT&T offers “Smart Limits” on its wireless phones, a service where parents can exert some control over their child's usage.

“It was marketed as a way for me to control incoming, outgoing, and time of day use on her phone,” N., of Suwanee, Ga., said. “This is not in fact the case. I can set time of day restrictions so that she cannot use her phone, except for "allowable numbers." It was explained to me that this offered me complete control over my minor child's cell phone use.”

N. is upset because the feature does not block incoming calls and texts, except for 30 preloadable numbers. However, a look at AT&T's website description doesn't claim that it does, though without reading it carefully you might be led to believe it does.

“Restrict times of day the phone can be used for messaging, browsing and outbound calling,” the sale information states. Only the Enhanced Feature blocks both incoming and outgoing calls – but that is limited to 30 numbers. The service, by the way, costs $4.95 a month.

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FDA Approves New Vaccine to Prevent Meningococcal Disease in Infants

Dangerous disease can result in death and serious complications

FDA Approves New Vaccine to Prevent Meningococcal Disease in Infants Dangerous disease can result in death and serious complications...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today approved the use of Menactra in children as young as 9 months for the prevention of invasive meningococcal disease, a life-threatening illness caused by bacteria that infect the bloodstream (sepsis) and the lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord (meningitis). 

Menactra already is approved for use in people ages 2 through 55 years.

Even with appropriate antibiotics and intensive care, between 10 percent and 15 percent of people who develop meningococcal disease die from the infection. Another 10 percent to 20 percent suffer complications such as brain damage or loss of limb or hearing.

Although the rates of meningococcal disease are low in the United States, infants and toddlers are more susceptible to getting this serious illness. Meningococcal disease is particularly dangerous because it progresses rapidly and can cause death within hours. Early symptoms are often difficult to distinguish from influenza and other common illnesses.

The highest rate of meningococcal disease occurs in children under one year of age. With today’s approval, Menactra can now be used in children as young as 9 months of age to help prevent this potentially life-threatening disease,” said Karen Midthun, M.D., director of FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

The safety of Menactra in children as young as 9 months was evaluated in four clinical studies in which over 3,700 participants received the vaccine. The most common adverse events reported in children who received Menactra at 9 months and 12 months of age were injection-site tenderness and irritability. Occurrence of fever was comparable to other vaccines routinely recommended for young children.

 

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Consumers Still Find It Hard To Leave AOL

Court settlement was supposed to make it easier

After a 2007 court settlement, AOL was supposed to make it easier for members to cancel....

It is supposed to be easier than it once was to cancel America Online (AOL) service. But not all consumers are finding that to be the case.

“I have tried to cancel my AOL account for over five years,” Thomas, of Grand Terrace, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I set it up years ago and never used it. I don't even own a computer any more.”

Thomas says he has called AOL “for years” without result. Other consumers in recent months have voiced similar frustrations.

In 2007, AOL paid $3 million to settle complaints that it made it extremely difficult for consumers to cancel its service. Highly publicized consumer encounters, such as the one documented in the Today Show segment below, preceded the settlement.

In the 2007 agreement with 48 states and the District of Columbia, AOL promised to make a number of improvements including: easier cancellation procedures, improved billing disclosures and commitment to refunding unauthorized charges.

But the cancellation process, it turns out, still isn't exactly simple. According to AOL, here are the steps for cancelling an account:

  • You must cancel your billing and convert to a free AOL account in order to cancel your paid account. If you want to cancel your free account, read the help article How do I cancel my free AOL account?
  • If you cancel in the middle of your billing cycle, you’ll have access to the service until the end of the cycle because payments are made a month in advance. Once the billing cycle is over, though, you’ll no longer be able to access your address book, unless you reactivate your AOL account within 90 days of cancellation.
  • You will need your password to sign on to your AOL account. If you forgot your password, refer to the help article "Reset my forgotten AOL password."
  • You will also need the answer to your Account Security Question. If you don’t remember the answer, read the help article "I forgot the answer to my Account Security Question."
  • If you subscribe to any AOL Premium Service, you must cancel your subscriptions to those services before canceling your AOL account.
  • AOL reserves the right to charge and collect any fees, surcharges or costs incurred before your cancellation takes effect.
  • You can also cancel your account by calling the phone number listed on your credit card statement.
  • If you want to cancel an account on behalf of a deceased AOL member, please refer to the help article "Deceased billing contact."

However, the “help article” doesn't really address cancelling the deceased person's account, but rather how to transfer the deceased person's account to someone else's name.

Perhaps the best way for Thomas to cancel his account is in writing. He should send a letter to:

AOL

P.O. Box 65100

Sterling, VA 20165-8800

Specify that you're cancelling, give your full name, phone number, address and signature, and either the primary billing contact's AOL screenname or the last four digits of the current payment method. It's a good idea to send it registered or certified, and retain a copy for your file.

To be on the safe side, send the letter certified mail, return receipt requested.  Keep a copy of the letter and, when you get the delivery receipt, keep that together with the letter.  If that doesn't do the trick, you can sue the company in small claims court, complain to your state's attorney general and to the Federal Trade Commission.   

 

 

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New Home Sales Jump In March, Sort Of

Inventory at a 44-year low and sales still skimpy

Sales of new homes rose sharply in March, but only in comparison to February's dismal results....

Sales of new homes rose by 11.1 percent in March, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. But even better news was the new homes inventory: the lowest since 1967.

The fact that more new homes sold in March than February is not that significant, since February's sales total was among the lowest on record. Still, an increase is an increase and economists were heartened by the fact that sales were a bit stronger than forecast.

At the same time, the median price of a new home fell, suggesting some builders sold homes at break-even or a loss, to get them off the books. Also, new homes are smaller than a few years ago, resulting in a lower sales price.

Competition

It's no secret that new homes are in fierce competition with distressed properties, especially foreclosures. These homes usually sell for much less than a new home could be built.

“Investors continue to drive the market and were about 22 percent of the purchasers in March, up from 19 percent a year ago,” said economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa.

And of course, investors don't buy new homes, they look for foreclosures or short sales.

Looking for bargains

“They love those cheap distressed homes, which now make up 40 percent of the market,” Naroff said. “Given the tight lending standards cash buyers are more than welcome. To get a Fannie or Freddie loan, which are the only games in town, a borrower has to have a credit score of about 760.”

February's new home numbers were so low that March's look huge in comparison. For example, in the Northeast sales rose by 67 percent. However, the total was still at recession levels.

“Before anyone gets excited and thinks housing is on the rebound, understand that we need to more than double the March sales pace to reach decent sales levels,” Naroff said. “Prices remain soft and are down by about five percent over the year.”

 

 

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What's On Your Mind? BMG Music, GE, Hoover

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: BMG Music, GE, Hoover, A cool fix, Doing a slow burn and American Express....

photoNegative option marketing often results in consumers signing up for subscription services without knowing about it. That's bad enough, but it can get worse if you don't find out about it until much later.

“I discovered today that BMG Music has reported a debt to the major credit bureaus,” Jimmy, of Lutz, Fla., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I have never ordered anything from them.”

As far as Jimmy can tell, this goes back five or six years ago, when he said he received a promotion to buy one CD and get two free. He says he threw the package away.

“About a week later, CDs showed up in my mail box with my address but someone else's name,” he said. “I returned the package and called them to say that I did not want them, that other person did not live at my address and the name was unknown to me and not to send any more. I never heard from them again.”

He thought that was the end of the story, but it wasn't.

“Today, American Express called to tell me that they had received an adverse credit report on me and cancelled my credit card,” Jimmy said. “The incident had caused my credit score to slip below their required score in conjunction with the credit inquires for my new car as being too many.”

BMG Music is part of Bertelsmann AG, and took over the old Columbia House record club, a pioneer in negative option marketing and the source of many complaints in its own right. In doing some checking, we note that the collection firm Jimmy and many others are dealing with in these matters is National Credit Solutions, which also happens to be the collection agency calling former Hollywood Video customers about late fees they say they don't owe. We suggest Jimmy have a chat with someone in Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office.

A cool fix

We get lots of complaints about top of the line refrigerators. We especially like it when the consumer has also found a solution. First, the problem.

“Our new GE refrigerator arrived and from day one something was wrong, never keeping cool,” Joseph, of Cranston, R.I., said. “After four service calls a GE technician deemed it unrepairable and brought a new one.”

But Joseph says the new unit was no better. He said another technician told him that all the units with exterior water dispensers were having the same problem. So Joseph set out to fix the problem himself.

“My own experimentation found that simply removing the thermistor grill cover from the thermistor, inserting the thermistor into the cavity of the refrigerator, using two cotton balls to cover the thermistor and cover the hole with white tape, worked,” Joseph said. “My temperatures became constant at 35-37degrees at all times.”

Joseph wants to know why GE wasn't able to come up with a simple fix like this. Maybe GE should hire Joseph as a consultant.

Doing a slow burn

Sandra, of Louisville, Ky., describes herself as a 40-year customer of Hoover vacuum cleaners. At least, she says she was.

“I purchased a Hoover Bagless Windtunnel vacuum cleaner when they first came out,” Sandra told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I had the thing about 2 months and it overheated when I was using the hand tools and burned the motor out. I took it to the Hoover repair shop and they replaced the motor and the part that's supposed to shut the machine off when it overheats.”

From then on, she says, she was meticulously diligent about cleaning the filters, but the unit overheated again and ruined the motor.

“I took it to the repair shop and the owner actually refused to repair it because he said that it would just keep doing the same thing because it was a faulty design,” she said.

As for Hoover, Sandra says the best the company could do was offer a credit on a new machine of the same make and model. She said she declined.

“So, after 40 years, I am no longer a Hoover customer - and you know what? They don't give a hoot,” Sandra said.

 

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JP Morgan Chase Settles Military Mortgage Lawsuit

Bank will pay $56 million to settle claims it overcharged service members

JP Morgan Chase Settles Military Mortgage Lawsuit Bank will pay $56 million to settle claims it overcharged service members ...

photoJP Morgan Chase & Co. has agreed to pay $56 million to settle claims that it overcharged active-duty service members for their mortgages. The tentative agreement settles a class action lawsuit filed by U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Jonathon Rowles, whose South Carolina home was foreclosed on by Chase.

Rowles, a pilot flying missions in South Korea, filed a lawsuit last July in U.S. District Court in South Carolina, charging that military personnel were being overcharged and subjected to aggressive collection practices.

The bank will pay $27 million in cash to about 6,000 active-duty military, cut interest rates on soldiers' mortgages and return homes that were wrongfully seized in foreclosure actions.

"We are sorry and regret the mistakes our firm made on mortgages for members of the military, and we'd like to thank Capt. and Mrs. Rowles for helping us address them," said Frank Bisignano, Chief Administrative Officer of JPMorgan Chase who was appointed head of Chase Home Lending in February.

"We hold ourselves accountable and responsible for these mistakes, and fixing them is just the beginning of a new way forward with the military and veteran community as we make serving them a core part of how we operate our business every day,” Bisignano said.

JPMorgan conceded three months ago that it had made errors in the handling of mortgages covered by the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a law intended to shield deployed military personnel from financial stress. The law allows soldiers to demand mortgage interest rates be set at 6 percent while on active-duty status. The law applies to current loans and those taken out by troops prior to being deployed.

Additional programs

Chase said it would institute several new programs to help service members and named Rowles to serve as chair of an advisory panel.

"My family and I thank Chase for resolving this matter," said Capt. Rowles.  "It is our hope that this settlement will result in greater attention by the entire financial services industry to the nation's laws that protect our military families.  We also hope others follow Chase's lead in creating additional programs for job creation, home ownership, and other financial assistance for veterans and members of the military.  I look forward to working with Chase on these initiatives as an advisor to its Veteran's Advisory Council." 

On February 15, 2011, Chase announced a series of programs to help military and veterans. Those programs include:

Reduced Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) Pricing - Chase will lower eligible borrowers' effective mortgage interest rate to 4% while on active duty and for a year thereafter.  

Military Modification Program - An enhanced modification program for all members of the military who have served on active duty as far back as 9/11/01.

Home Ownership Assistance -

  • Chase will not foreclose on any currently deployed military personnel.  
  • Chase believes we now have the systems and controls in place to avoid wrongful foreclosure proceedings on any military covered by SCRA.  In cases where we have mistakenly foreclosed on military borrowers who should have been covered by SCRA, in addition to rescinding the sale, we will forgive all their remaining mortgage debt.  Going forward, if we ever have a wrongful foreclosure sale on an SCRA covered customer, we will forgive all of their remaining mortgage debt, as well.  
  • Chase will donate 1,000 homes to servicemembers and veterans over the next five years through our non-profit partners.
  • By the end of 2011, Chase will open six new Chase Homeownership Centers in cities near the large military bases.  
  • Chase will staff all of its Homeownership Centers with employees specifically trained in SCRA, military issues and Chase special military programs.

Jobs

  • On March 9, 2011, JPMorgan Chase launched the "100,000 Jobs Mission" with 10 other corporate partners. Collectively, these partners pledge to hire 100,000 transitioning military members and veterans by the end of 2020.  

Education and Training

  • In close partnership, JPMorgan Chase and Syracuse University will offer a tuition free technology certificate through Syracuse University exclusively for veterans to prepare them for technology careers. The program is available to all military members who have served on active duty going back to 9/11/01.

For more information on the firm's current programs available to military and veterans, visit www.chasemilitary.com.

 

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Feds: Beauty School Lied to Get Federal Grant Money

It's the latest in a series of for-profit school scandals

Feds: Beauty School Lied to Get Federal Grant Money It's the latest in a series of for-profit school scandals...

logoIn yet another case of corruption in profit-seeking colleges, federal prosecutors arrested seven officers and employees of USA Beauty School International and charged them with conspiring to fraudulently obtain federal Pell Grant money.  

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in New York, prosecutors say the New York City school's owner – Siu Ping Yuen, a/k/a/ Pamela Yuen – instructed an undercover FBI agent to submit a fraudulent tax return to the beauty school to help the school qualify for more financial aid.

It alleges that other school officials and employees:

  • forged students' signatures on financial aid applications;

  • falsified student attendance records; and

  • created false high school diplomas.

Pell grants, administered by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), are intended to help low-income high school graduates meet the costs of college or a vocational training school. The grants are outright grants, not loans, and do not have to be repaid.

Pell grants are paid directly to the educational institution where the student is enrolled.

In the complaint, Anthony Mangarella, a DOE special agent, says that since June 2006, the school has received about $4 million in Pell grants. In 2009, the school was placed on DOE's “heightened scrutiny” list, because of concerns about its practices.

An undercover investigator, meanwhile, called the school and said that although she wanted to attend, she did not have a high school diploma. The school official told her that the school would “add one” to her application.

When the investigator met with “Pamela Yuen,” she was allegedly told she did not need a high school diploma and also advised that she should provide a falsified tax return so as to qualify for the full amount of federal aid.

Unannounced visit

In an unrelated inspection, officials of the New York State Education Department conducted an unannounced visit and found that the school could not produce records for about 180 supposed graduates who had applied for cosmetology licenses from the state. Twenty-two of those supposed graduates had received Pell Grant funds.

When federal investigators later visited the school on May 18, 2010, the missing records for the 22 Pell Grant students mysteriously reappeared, the complaint states.

During the May inspection, “Pamela Yuen” allegedly admitted that about ten Pell Grant students enrolled at the school did not have high school diplomas.

Meanwhile, an agent present during the May inspection stated that he observed a school employee creating attendance records for Pell Grant students.

The employee allegedly tried to hide the records as agents approached but was unsuccessful. Agents said that when they reviewed the records, they found that attendance records had been created for the period of May 19 through May 31, 2010 – even though it was only May 18.

On a May 19, 2010 visit, agents spoke with a student through a Chinese interpreter. The student admitted that he or she had not graduated from high school and signed the federal financial aid application under instructions from school staff, not knowing what it said because the student does not speak or read English.

The complaint asks that arrest warrants be issued for “Pamela Yuen” and six other school officials.

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Men Claim Merck's Baldness Drug Made Them Impotent

Company didn't warn side effects might be permanent, suit charges

Men Claimed Merck's Baldness Drug Made Them Impotent Company didn't warn side effects might be permanent, suit charges...

photoNine men claim in a lawsuit that Propecia and Proscar, Merck's drugs for male pattern baldness, caused sexual dysfunction even after they stopped using them.

The active ingredient in both drugs is finasteride. Propecia is the brand name of the 1-milligram tablet and Proscar is the 5-milligramt tablet.

Finasteride has a number of known serious side effects, including cognitive impairment, depression and various forms of sexual dysfunction including erectile dysfunction, reduced ejaculate volume, low sex drive, reduced sexual sensation and infertility, the suit charges.

Male pattern baldness is a common condition thought to be caused by a combination of genetic factors and a hormone, commonly called DHT. Merck claims that finasteride prevents the conversion of adrogen testosterone to DHT, thereby reducing hair loss.

The suit claims that Merck knew or should have known that DHT is a hormone critical to male sexual performance. It cautions that side effects may include sexual dysfunction but says the side effects “resolve after discontinued use of the drug.”

Perhaps, but the nine plaintiffs say the effect on them has been ongoing, and they cite evidence by the Swedish Medical Products Agency, which in 2006 began investigating reports of persistent sexual dysfunction in men who had stopped taking the drug.

Merck changed its label in several European countries to warn that sexual effects might be permanent but did not do so in the United States, the suit alleges.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Propecia in 1997 and has, since then, received numerous complaints of sexual dysfunction.

Physicians in both the U.S. and Europe have expressed concerns about the problem, the suit notes.

I am just totally against finesteride. I have had so many patients that have come to me where that medication has destroyed their life,” it quotes Dr. John Crisler, a physician at a men's health clinic in Michigan, as saying. “[T]hey become depressed, weak, important and the problem is when they go off the drug their symptoms remain.”

The plaintiffs say they would not have taken the drug had they been warned of the possible side effects.

The suit charges Merck with negligence, failure to provide adequate warnings and breach of warranty.

The men are represented by attorney Alan Milstein of Moorestown, N.J.

 

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Apple, Android Phones Secretly Record Your Location

Information could be sold to marketers

Both Apple and Google are collecting location data about their customers....

photoYou may not realize it, but your smartphone could be secretly keeping tabs on your whereabouts and storing that information.

A report by the Wall Street Journal says the Apple iPhone and smartphones running on Google's Android platform regularly transmit their locations, and that information is stored at both Apple and Google.

Stephen B. Wicker, Cornell professor of electrical and computer engineering, says the revelation raises important privacy issues.

Privacy for sale

“Most people don’t understand that we’re selling our privacy to have these devices,” Wicker said.“It is vitally important to recognize that cellular telephony is a surveillance technology, and that unless we openly discuss this surveillance capability and craft appropriate legal and technological limits to that capability, we may lose some or all of the social benefits of this technology, as well as a significant piece of ourselves.

Why would Google and Apple want to know your location? Because there could be big money in it.

Huge market

Both technology firms are stockpiling location data as part of an effort to build databases that can pinpoint cellphone users' locations. The research firm Gartner says the market for location-bases services is nearly $3 billion, and expected to go much higher.

The revelations this week set off alarm bells in the hall of Congress. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) fired off a letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs, pressing him to address privacy concerns raised by the revelations.

Franken raised particular concerns over protecting the privacy of children and teenagers, who constitute nearly 15 percent of iPhone and iPad users.

"The existence of this information-stored in an unencrypted format-raises serious privacy concerns," Franken wrote in the letter. "The researchers who uncovered this file speculated that it generated location based on cell phone triangulation technology.  If that is indeed the case, the location available in this file is likely accurate to 50 meters or less. Anyone who gains access to this single file could likely determine the location of a user's home, the businesses he frequents, the doctors he visits, the schools his children attend, and the trips he has taken-over the past months or even a year."

Questions

Franken, who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, also asked Apple why consumers weren't informed of the data collection.

Wicker said the data is extreme valuable because it will lead to more effective advertising.

“The data that is collected by service providers and third parties can be used for direct marketing,” Wicker said.

Direct marketing is an enormous industry. According to the Direct Marketing Association, $149.3 billion was spent on direct marketing in 2009, more than half of all advertising expenditures in the United States with a return of close to $1.783 trillion dollars in sales attributable to the advertising. That's about 8.3 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.

“Back in the day when designers designed the cellular system, none of designers took privacy into account – they unintentionally created databases that accumulated a lot of information that is now being exploited by service providers and law enforcement,” Wicker said. “As for the latter, there have been an immense number of court cases involving law enforcement requests for data collected by cellular service providers.”

Is the loss of privacy the price of carrying a sophisticated smartphone? Not at all, Wicker says.

“We can create cellular systems that don’t create such databases,” he said.

 

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New York Man Accused of Running a $12 Million Ponzi Scheme

Investors' money was supposedly invested in real estate, private mortgages

New York Man Accused of Running a $12 Million Ponzi Scheme Investors' money was supposedly invested in real estate, private mortgages...

A New York man was arrested yesterday on charges of operating a $12 million Ponzi scheme from 2007 to 2010.

Joseph Mazella, the founder and president of the Great Atlantic Group, Inc., a Staten Island-based real estate and financial consulting company, was charged with securities fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering in a federal indictment that was unsealed in federal court in Brooklyn.

As alleged in the indictment, Mazella solicited investments in Third Millennium Enterprises, Inc. and 150 West State Street Corp., both of which were associated with the Great Atlantic Group that supposedly invested in real estate projects and provided private mortgages.

Perhaps the most egregious aspect of this case is that the defendant allegedly encouraged victims—some, senior citizens—to obtain mortgages on their homes and to invest the proceeds in what the indictment charges was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme,” said United States Attorney Loretta E. Lynch. “We will aggressively investigate and prosecute those who perpetrate these crimes.”

Mazella told prospective investors that he would invest their money in real estate projects, including projects in Trenton, New Jersey, a warehouse in Utica, New York, and a golf course development project. From approximately January 2007 until approximately December 2010, investors contributed a total of nearly $12 million to Third Millennium and 150 West State Street. As of December 2010, the combined closing balance of the bank accounts associated with the two companies was less than $15,000.

According to the indictment, Mazella described the investments as an opportunity to receive the returns of mutual funds and stocks, without any significant loss of liquidity, and at a fixed rate during the entire time period of investment.

Solicitation materials distributed by Mazella characterized the investments as “geared toward individuals who are interested in earning more than traditional bank savings and CD rates but without the risk of the stock market.”

Some investors were encouraged to obtain mortgages on their homes and to invest the mortgage proceeds with Third Millennium or 150 West State Street, and other investors, typically senior citizens, were encouraged to apply for reverse mortgages on their residences and to invest the proceeds with the two companies.

The indictment charges that, by as early as January 2007, Mazella had virtually stopped investing in real estate projects, and instead operated Third Millennium and 150 West State Street as a Ponzi scheme, in which he paid returns to investors from existing investors’ deposits or money paid by new investors. Many of the properties in which the companies held any mortgage or ownership interest were abandoned and in various states of disrepair, and the property taxes owed on several of those properties had fallen into arrears.

Mazella also allegedly used investors’ money to pay his personal expenses, including payments for a Porsche, a mortgage on his personal residence, and family expenses.

 

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Florida Debt Settlement Firm Banned From Missouri

Vortex Debt Group accused of unfair and deceptive practices

Missouri is the latest state to crack down on a debt settlement company....

The Show Me state has told a Florida debt settlement company to not show its face within its borders in the future.

Under a court judgment, Vortex Debt Group will no longer accept any business from Missourians and will refund fees paid by Missouri consumers who submit complaints to the Missouri Attorney General’s Office within one year.

Deceptive and unfair practices

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster filed the complaint against the company, accusing it of engaging in deceptive and unfair practices by promising to reduce consumers’ debt. First, says Koster, the company took significant fees from consumers in exchange for this claimed service, and failed to actually reduce consumers’ debts.  This often left consumers with more debt and less money, Koster said.

“Debt-settlement companies promise to help people reduce their debt load, but in fact these companies take significant fees from consumers without providing the promised debt relief,” Koster said. “I urge Missourians experiencing debt problems to contact a not-for-profit consumer counseling agency or to seek competent legal representation from a consumer bankruptcy attorney in order to deal with debt-related issues.”

About 300 Missouri consumers will get letters from the Attorney General's Office in the coming weeks, telling them they may be due refunds. The case is one of the latest by states that have begun to crackdown on companies, advertising on satellite radio, cable TV and the Internet, making unrealistic promises to debt-ridden consumers.

Washington State

Last month Washington State reached an $800,000 settlement with California-based Freedom Debt Relief, resolving charges it violated Washington’s Consumer Protection and Debt Adjusting Acts.

“We’re paying special attention to operations that take advantage of people who, due to this tough economy, are already struggling to put food on the table and keep the lights on,” Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna said. “Failing to inform customers that their credit may be ruined and taking illegal fees -- when those individuals are making a good-faith effort to settle their debts – are practices that we aim to stop.

 

 

 

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Data Breaches Due To Hacking On The Rise

Survey shows hackers continue to be more active

While some data breaches occur by accident, a new survey shows more and more are the result of hacking....

Private data increasingly appears to be at risk. If a laptop loaded with credit card data isn't being stolen, a hacker is breaking into a computer network. More and more, it's a case of the latter.

A survey by the Identity Theft Resource Center found that hacking accounted for the largest number of breaches in 2011 year-to-date.  Almost 37 percent of data breaches between January 1st and April 5th were due to malicious attacks on computer systems.

Double the targeted attacks

This is more than double the amount of targeted attacks reflected in the 2010 ITRC Breach List.

The numbers do not include the recent hackings of huge quantities of email addresses from companies.  Email addresses alone do not pose a direct threat as long as consumers realize that they are more susceptible to phishing scams, according to ITRC.

Paralleling the ITRC breach report finding is the recently released Symantec Internet Security Threat Report, disclosing that over 286 million new threats were identified during 2010. Additionally, the Symantec report said they witnessed more frequent and sophisticated targeted attacks in 2010.

Rogue employees

Also, a new survey by McAfee found that the most significant threat to businesses was data leaked accidentally or intentionally by employees. The latter category is considered a malicious attacker.

“At first it may be difficult to know if a hacking was perpetrated by an insider or outsider,” said Linda Foley, founder of the ITRC and data breach report manager. “ITRC does not have access to the Secret Service’s forensic information has so we can only report on situations when information is released. As of April 5, 11.6 percent of 2011 breaches with known forms of leakage were insider theft. When these events are added to known hacking attacks, ITRC’s breach database report indicates that 48.2 percent of published breaches are some form of targeted attack.”

The conclusion, says ITRC, is that the hackers are winning. Not only are hackers winning, but so are the thieves who steal unattended laptops and dig into dumpsters behind companies for paper data.

While businesses are often the targets of these attacks, it's usually consumers who suffer. If sensitive data is used to steal identities, it can take the victims months to correct the damage.

 

 

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Suit Says Nexium Caused Multiple Fractures

Ohio woman was "simply walking" when a bone in her leg broke

Suit Says Nexium Caused Multiple Fractures Ohio woman was "simply walking" when a bone in her leg broke...

An Ohio woman claims that long-term use of AstraZeneca's Nexium, a heartburn drug, caused such severe bone deterioration that she "was simply walking when a bone in her leg suddenly broke in half." 

Nexium is AstraZeneca's best-selling drug and the third largest-selling drug in the world, bringing in $5.2 billion in 2008.

In her suit filed in U.S. District Court in Houston, Ginny Begin of Toledo says she suffered severe bone deterioration resulting in numerous fractures after taking Nexium, a popular prescription-strength drug used to treat heartburn, acid reflux and other digestive problems.

However, while Nexium reduces acid in the stomach, it also prevents calcium absorption, which casues bone deterioration and eventual fractures, her suit charges.

The suit noted that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a safety alert warning of the risk of osteoporosis and fractures in March 2011 but says that the risk of fractures had been demonstrated as early as 2006.

In particular, the suit notes, studies found that the risk of fracture increases significantly for patients over 50. Begin, 58, took Nexium every day from 2003 until 2011, she said.

On July 11, 2005, Begin was "simply walking" when a bone in her leg suddenly broke in half. In June 2007, the same bone broke again and three bones in Begin's ankle shattered.

"Despite knowing Nexium causes bones to deteriorate and break, Defendants marketed and sold Nexium without warning consumers of the significant risks of bone deterioration and fractures," the suit charges.

The suit seeks an award for pain, suffering, loss of employment, medical expenses and punitive damages.

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California Seeks Jail Time for 'Tax Lady' Roni Deutch

Deutch destroyed documents, failed to pay refunds despite court orders

California Seeks Jail Time for 'Tax Lady' Roni Deutch Deutch destroyed documents, failed to pay refunds despite court orders ...

photoCalifornia's attorney general has asked a judge to imprison "Tax Lady" Roni Deutch for shredding millions of pages of documents in violation of a court order. The state claims Deutch began shredding the day after a court ordered her not to destroy evidence in a $34 million lawsuit that accused her of swindling tax clients.  

The lawsuit was filed last August and charged Deutch with engaging in "a heartless scheme that swindled people with tax problems," according to then-Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. "She promises to significantly reduce their IRS tax debts, but instead preys on their vulnerability, taking large up-front payments but providing little or no help in lowering their tax bills."

On Wednesday, Brown's successor, Kamala D. Harris, filed an application in Superior Court asking that Deutch, an attorney, be held in contempt, charging that she has repeatedly violated the court's orders.

"Deutch is an officer of this Court and a member of the Bar, which only serves to magnify the seriousness of Deutch's violations of the Court's orders. If anyone can be expected to respect and follow this Court's orders, it should be those licensed to practice as attorneys before the Court. The harm caused by Deutch's contempt is worthy of the most severe sanction," Harris said in her court filing.

Harris noted that Deutch had been ordered to "take reasonable steps to preserve every document" that might have a bearing in the case. Instead, said Harris, "the very next dayafter the [court issued the order],Deutch conducted a purge of law firm documents that resulted in the shredding of nearly 2,000 pounds of the firm's documents, or about 200,000 pages."

"The millions of pages that Deutch shredded while the document preservation order was in effect are permanently destroyed because the shredding company double shreds the documents and then bales them for resale to the recycling industry.There is absolutely no way for the People to know, much Jess recover, what Deutch shredded," Harris charged.

No refunds

Deutch also ignored a preliminary injunction that requires her to return all unearned fees to clients within 60 days" and admitted that she has over $400,000 in refund requests that are older than 60 days, Harris said.

Even more disturbing, said Harris' filing, is that Deutch allegedly gave at least $12,000 to her brother, Scott Juceam, which he used to launch a tax debt resolution company, called the Juceam Group, which he allegedly runs from one of the Roni Deutch Tax Center locations.

Harris asked the court to fine Deutch $1,000 and imprison her for five days for "each and every separate contempt" -- $1,000 and five days in jail for each of the millions of pages of documents destroyed and each refund not issued, in other words.

Manufactured credibility

Deutch manufactures credibility by boasting that her tax resolution law firm, which has annual revenues of at least $25 million, is the largest of its kind in the nation. She spends $3 million a year on advertising, much of it on late-night cable TV, and frequently offers tax advice on NBC's Today Show, CNN, and CNBC, Brown's August lawsuit charged.

Desperate debtors turn to Deutch based on her misleading ads that feature fictional testimonials claiming she secured large reductions in the featured clients' federal tax debts, Brown said.

For example, her ad entitled "It's Your Turn" features three clients whom Deutch claims to have "saved" from having to pay thousands of dollars to the IRS. In fact, those clients still owe the IRS the full amount of their taxes, plus interest and penalties.

When potential clients call Deutch's boiler room, sales agents employ high-pressure sales tactics plus a series of misrepresentations and false promises to persuade them to retain her firm, Brown charged. The sales agents claim Deutch's success rate in dealing with the IRS is as high as 99 percent. But the percentage of clients whose tax bills Deutch actually reduces is a mere 10 percent.

 

 

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Attorneys General Blast Pabst for Selling 'Binge In a Can'

One can of Blast can make a person legally drunk

Attorneys General Blast Pabst for Selling 'Binge In a Can'One can of Blast can make a person legally drunk...

photoUtah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and 17 other top law enforcement officials are calling on Pabst Brewing company to stop selling flavored malt liquor containing nearly five servings of alcohol in single can. A 23.5 ounce can of Blast by Colt 45 has 12% alcohol by volume and comes in four fruit flavors.

Pabst has sunk to a new low by selling highly alcoholic drinks aimed at the youngest drinkers,” says Shurtleff.  “Blast is irresponsible for making one drink that can cause someone to be legally drunk.”

Shurtleff and the attorneys general from Arizona, California, Connecticut, Guam, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa,  Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Washington and the city attorney from San Francisco sent a letter to Pabst today asking the company to stop making Blast.

The beverage has been called “binge in a can” because anyone who consumes a can within an hour or so will have engaged in binge drinking as defined by the federal government. 

The attorneys general are also taking Pabst to task for using hip hop artist Snoop Dogg to promote Blast to young people.  Pabst created a promotional YouTube video showing the singer drinking Blast and Colt 45 while partying with scantily clad models.  The rap star has also promoted Blast to millions of his followers on Facebook and Twitter.

"I hope our letter to Pabst to take swift and responsible action is also heeded by other companies who produce these super-sized ‘alcopops,’" adds Assistant Attorney General Thom Roberts, who is working with other states to stop Blast and similar drinks.

Shurtleff is the chair of the Youth Access to Alcohol and Drugs Committee for the National Association of Attorneys General.  

 

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A Realtor's Plea To Banks: Please Make Loans

Sales rise in March, but are below year ago levels

Sales of Existing Homes rose slightly in March but remain anemic....

Another month, another anemic home sales report from the National Association of Realtors.

In March, sales of existing homes rose 3.7 percent from February, but were down 6.3 percent from March 2010. And March 2010 sales were below those of March 2009, when the home buyer's tax credit was in place.

But one area where sales appear to be brisk is in the “distressed property” segment, where foreclosures and short sales have driven prices down, drawing eager bargain hunters who are actually bidding up the prices in some cases.

Bottom feeding

Distressed homes – typically sold at discounts in the vicinity of 20 percent – accounted for a 40 percent market share in March, up from 39 percent in February and 35 percent in March 2010.

Despite historically-low interest rates, more homes are being purchased with cash. All-cash sales were at a record market share of 35 percent in March, up from 33 percent in February; they were 27 percent in March 2010. Investors accounted for 22 percent of sales activity in March, up from 19 percent in February; they were 19 percent in March 2010. The balance of sales were to repeat buyers.

Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist, thinks the modest increase in home sales would gather momentum if more people who want to buy houses could get loans.

Where are the loans?

“Although home sales are coming back without a federal stimulus, sales would be notably stronger if mortgage lending would return to the normal, safe standards that were in place a decade ago – before the loose lending practices that created the unprecedented boom and bust cycle,” Yun said.

Part of the problem, he says, are requirements for 20 percent or more as a down payment. He says low-down payment programs have been shown to be successful.

“Given that FHA and VA government-backed loan programs turned a modest profit over to the U.S. Treasury last year, and have never required a taxpayer bailout, we believe low-down payment loans should continue to be available for those consumers who have demonstrated financial responsibility and are willing to stay well within their budget. Raising the down payment requirement would unnecessarily deny credit to many worthy middle-class families and veterans,” Yun said.

Banks have other priorities

While banks may still be skittish about risks involved in real estate – after all, the median home value is still going down – it also has other options for making money. For example, banks can borrow money from the Federal Reserve for next to nothing and buy bonds. Good for bank shareholders, but it doesn't do much for the housing market.

Still, Yun is hopeful.

“With rising jobs and excellent affordability conditions, we project moderate improvements into 2012, but not every month will show a gain – primarily because some buyers are finding it too difficult to obtain a mortgage. For those fortunate enough to qualify for financing, monthly mortgage payments as a percent of income have been at record lows,” he said.

NAR’s housing affordability index shows the typical monthly mortgage principal and interest payment for the purchase of a median-priced existing home is only 13 percent of gross household income, the lowest since records began in 1970.

 

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What's On Your Mind? John Hancock, FedEx, Mortgages

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: John Hancock, FedEx, Mortgages, Calendar issues and We've seen this movie before....

Long-term care insurance is expensive. It's expensive for the policyholder who has to make monthly payments. It's also expensive for the insurance company when it has to pay off.

Robin, of Gilroy, Calif., says her mother purchased a comprehensive individual long term Care insurance policy in 2002. She paid her premiums in full on time annually. But after her mother suffered a massive stroke last summer, Robin said she has had trouble getting John Hancock to pay for the 24-hour care her mother requires.

“The first check we received was issued February 16, 2011 in the amount of 2520.00,” Robin told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I have made numerous phone calls with wait times in the range of 45 minutes. I have left over 15 voice mails. I have sent several emails to management who responds that some one will call me. That has still not happened. I have re-submit billing. I made up my own excel spreadsheet to send and help explain why they owe us much more money. I have sent the spreadsheet and re-submitted billing twice. They have not responded once. No calls, no correspondence. Nothing.”

As of this date Robin estimates the insurance company owes $22,860.00 and wants to know what she should do.

Because she has not gotten satisfaction from John Hancock, or an explanation for non-payment, Robin should probably have an attorney fluent in insurance matters review her policy. If she has misunderstood the terms of the policy, it can be explained to her. If she is correct in her estimate of what is owed, an attorney can advise a proper course of action.

Calendar issues

Daisy, of New York, N.Y., thinks Federal Express is having trouble keeping up with the days of the week.

“Our office is located in midtown Manhattan. We have been using Fedex sending packages for years,” Daisy told ConsumerAffairs.com. “But, lately, Fedex keep billing me $15 Saturday Pickup, but packages were pickup on Friday.”

From January 21 to April 8, Daisy says FedEx wrongly billed 16 packages.

“I had to dispute this $15 every time I received invoice,” she said. “Even though I got my $15 back it still bothers me that I have to do it again and again, every week.”

It sounds like Daisy has a standing pick-up order with FedEx for Friday. Somehow, perhaps, that got entered into FedEx computers as a standing Saturday pickup. Maybe if she canceled her standing order, then re-established it, they would get it right.

Count your blessings

Ruth, of Starke, Fla., hopes to buy a home and needs a mortgage. She said she found on online lender called closeyourownloan.com that advertised loans even if you have bad credit and can't verify your income. Ordinarily, that's when alarm bells should start to go off.

“Close your own loan denied my application because they said I didn't have credit history that's not the case,” Ruth said.

Ruth is miffed that she was denied credit, but honestly, she may have dodged a bullet. It's likely Ruth, who says her credit scores are in the mid 600 range, would do better by going to a community bank in her area. She could also join a credit union and perhaps get a loan there.

We've seen this movie before.

The case of the Hollywood Video late fees might make a good mystery movie. We continue to get complaints from former members of the now-defunct movie rental chain.

“Like so many others, I too received a letter from National Credit Solutions saying I owed $103.50 for one late movie over a year and a half ago,” Kathy, of Ankeny, Iowa, said. “Our local Hollywood Video had long since been closed. I called NCS confused what the charge could be for and spoke with an extremely rude representative who in the end hung up on me. She did however offer to close my case for a reduced payment of $40.00. I refused to pay for anything since I knew of nothing I ever owed to Hollywood Video, I never once received a bill or phone call from them.”

Kathy said she resolved the issue by writing a letter to NCS requesting any and all information that pertained to the amount owed including all charges, payments and write-offs to her account. She's heard nothing from them since.

We find it interesting that nearly every consumer who reports this experience seems to owe an amount more than $100, and that the NCS rep always seems very willing to bargain the amount down to something less.

 

 

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Gold Hits $1,500 as U.S. Credit Rating is Questioned

“Rush to quality” set off by natural disasters, high oil prices, financial fears

Gold Hits $1,500 as U.S. Credit Rating is Questioned“Rush to quality” set off by natural disasters, high oil prices, financial fears...

photoGold futures hit $1,500.50 yesterday, as investors reacted to Standard & Poor's Monday warning that the United States' AAA debt rating is in danger,and were above $1,502 at midday today.

Oddly, many investors dumped their stocks and headed for Treasury notes – normal behavior, except when it's Treasuries that are being threatened.

Gold futures for June delivery settled back below $1,500 by the market's close yesterday, dipping to $1,495.10 per ounce but are likely to remain on an upward trend, thanks to debt worries and high oil prices, which are contributing to inflation fears.

Standard & Poor's warning that there is a 33% chance the U.S. debt rating may be cut could be the beginning of the end of a near 30-year rally that began when the 10-year Treasury peaked at 15.84% in September 1981.

Gold hasn't done badly either. In March 2008, the price of gold first broke the $1,000 level.

"For over 70 years the United States has been widely considered AAA top-notch "benchmark sovereign risk". Standard & Poor (S&P)'s decision to impose a negative outlook now puts this status under question for the first time, reflecting the unsustainable debt trajectory and risks of policy response gridlock,"IHS Global Insight Director of Sovereign Risk Jan Randolph commented.

Randolph went on to say the S&P statement was “primarily a warning shot to Washington D.C., aimed at a political and policymaking audience” and should not have come as a surprise to the financial community which is “fully aware of the United States' double-percentage-digit fiscal deficit, which is driving the public debt trajectory above 100% of GDP.”

For consumers looking to add gold or other precious metals to their portfolio, an exchange traded fund, or ETF, may be the way to go. ETFs allow smaller investors to get in on the gold rush without having to actually store the metal or run the risks inherent in buying futures and options, which are best left to experts.

 

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Investment Adviser Pleads Guilty to Bank and Wire Fraud Charges

Adviser was counsel to municipalities, credit unions, school districts

Investment Adviser Pleads Guilty to Bank and Wire Fraud ChargesAdviser was counsel to municipalities, credit unions, school districts...

Dante DeMiro, 43, of Milford,Mich., pled guilty Tuesday to five counts of bank and wire fraud, United States Attorney Barbara McQuade announced.

According to court documents, DeMiro was an investment adviser to various municipalities, credit unions, school districts, and trade unions through his Southfield-based companies MuniVest Financial Group and MuniVest Services LLC.

From August 2007 to September 2010, DeMiro used the MuniVest entities to operate a bank and wire fraud Ponzi scheme. DeMiro falsely promised investor clients that he would invest their funds in various certificates of deposit.

He did not invest their funds as promised, but instead, used their funds to purchase personal items and real property, to gamble, to make payments to other investors in the same scheme, and to make loans to several individuals and a local jewelry store. DeMiro stipulated that the loss caused by his fraud exceeds $7 million, and that he abused a position of trust in his fiduciary capacity as an investment adviser.

We have seen more and more of these investment schemes, which prey upon school districts, municipalities, and unions," McQuade said. "Our hope is that cases like this one will deter other investment advisors from stealing from these vulnerable investors.”

FBISpecial Agent in Charge Arena stated,"Today's swindlers artfully conceal their greed with sophisticated marketing and numerous misrepresentations. Investors and pension plan participants must remain diligent in following their money.”

Sentencing is scheduled for July 12, 2011.

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White House Declares 'Epidemic' of Prescription Drug Abuse

Multi-agency effort aims to reduce misuse of opioids

White House Declares 'Epidemic' of Prescription Drug Abuse Multi-agency effort aims to reduce misuse of opioids...

 The White House on Tuesday unveiled a multi-agency plan aimed at reducing the?pidemicof prescription drug abuse in the U.S. including anFDA-backed education program that zeros-in on reducing the misuse and misprescribing of opioids.

The toll our nation'sprescription drug abuse epidemic has taken in communities nationwide is devastating, said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.We share a responsibility to protect our communities from the damage done by prescription drug abuse.”

The plan is aa collaborative effort involving agencies of the departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, Defense, and others and is intended to provide a national framework for reducing prescription drug abuse and the diversion of prescription drugs for recreational use.

FDA Opioid Strategy

In concert with the White House plan, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is announcing a new risk reduction programcalled a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategyfor all extended-release and long-acting opioid medications.

Opioids are synthetic versions of opium that are used to treat moderate and severe pain.

FDA experts say extended-release and long-acting opioids?ncluding OxyContin, Avinza, Dolophine, Duragesic, and eight other brand names?re extensively misprescribed, misused, and abused, leading to overdoses, addiction, and even deaths across the United States. FDA says a 2007 survey revealed that more than half of opioid abusers got the drug from a friend or relative.

Opioids such as morphine and oxycodone?re used to treat moderate and severe pain. Over the past few decades, drug makers have developed extended-release opioid formulas to treat people in pain over a long period.

Widespread Problem

FDA estimates that more than 33 million Americans age 12 and older misused extended-release and long-acting opioids during 2007?p from 29 million just five years earlier. And in 2006, nearly 50,000 emergency room visits were related to opioids.

"Opioid drugs have benefit when used properly and are a necessary component of pain management for certain patients, but we know that they pose serious risks when used improperly?ith serious negative consequences for individuals, families, and communities," says FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.  

FDA will also require the risk management plan to include a way to determine if the education programs are helping to reduce problems associated with long-acting and extended-release opioids, as well as allowing patients who need opioids to get them.

 

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FDA Approves Drug to Treat Two Rare Disorders

Rituxan shown to help patients with blood vessel inflammation

FDA Approves Drug to Treat Two Rare Disorders Rituxan shown to help patients with blood vessel inflammation...

TheU.S. Food and Drug Administrationhas approved Rituxan (rituximab) to treat patients with Wegenergranulomatosis (WG) and microscopic polyangiitis (MPA), two rare disorders that cause blood vessel inflammation (vasculitis).

Rituxan will be usedin combination with steroids.

Vasculitis in patients with WG and MPA can lead to tissue damage. WG mostly affects the respiratory tract (sinuses, nose, trachea, and lungs) and kidneys, while MPA commonly affects the kidneys, lungs, nerves, skin, and joints.

Both of these diseases affect people of all ages and ethnicities, and both genders. The causes of these disorders are unknown, and both are considered orphan diseases because they each affect less than 200,000 people in the United States.

This new indication for Rituxan provides the first approved therapy for these two orphan diseases,said Curtis Rosebraugh, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Office of Drug Evaluation II in the FDA?Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

Rituxan is an antibody that is manufactured through biotechnology methods. The drug works by greatly reducing the number of specific immune cells in the blood, known as B cells. 

The safety and effectiveness of Rituxan was demonstrated in a single controlled trial, in which 197 patients with WG or MPA were assigned at random to receive either Rituxan plussteroids once a week for four weeks or oral cyclophosphamide plus steroids daily to induce remission. After six months, 64 percent of patients treated with Rituxan had complete remission compared to 53 percent of patients treated with cyclosphosphamide. 

Retreatment with Rituxan was not formally evaluated; therefore, the safety and efficacy of retreatment with subsequent courses of Rituxan has not been established. More data are needed to determine the safety of more than one course of Rituxan and long term safety of use of Rituxan in patients with WG and MPA. These questions will be further evaluated in a required post-marketing study.

Rituxan carries a Boxed Warning for infusion reactions, which can occur during infusion or within 24 hours afterwards. Other Boxed Warnings for Rituxan include rashes and sores in the skin and mouth (severe mucocutaneous reactions); and progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, a brain infection that generally is fatal. Rituxan is not recommended for use in patients with severe, active infections.

The most common side effects in study participants with WG and MPA included infection, nausea, diarrhea, headache, muscle spasms, and anemia.

Rituxan, which has been marketed since 1997, is also indicated for the treatment of patients with non-Hodgkin'slymphoma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Rituxan is manufactured by San Francisco-based Genentech, a member of the Roche Group.


 

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Louisiana Suit Seeks Clean-Up of 'Fracking' Damage

Exco well blew out in Caddo Parish, contaminated groundwater

Louisiana Suit Seeks Clean-Up of 'Fracking' Damage Exco well blew out in Caddo Parish, contaminated groundwater...

A federal class action claims Exco Resources contaminates groundwater by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking-- injecting water and toxic chemicals into the ground to extract natural gas, which blew out a well. 

David L. Andre filed the suit on behalf of himself and other residents of Caddo Parish in U.S. District Court in Shreveport, La., claiming that Exco's actions have contaminated the groundwater in the area DeBroeck Landing.

The suit argues that the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer system was polluted on April 19, 2010, by a well blow-out involving Exco natural gas wells operating nearby.

Following the blow-out, class members had to evacuate their homes and were advised by public health officials that the water represented a continuing health and safety hazard so severe it could not even be used for washing clothing or bathing.

Government officials have also warned the residents against smoking or having any kind of open fire near water systems that obtain water from the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer.

The suit says that natural gas and other pollutants now contaminating the water supply are not naturally found in the aquifer and are there only because of the well blow-out.

The suit asks that Exco be required to pay for a “full and complete evaluation and remediation” of the groundwater underlying the class members' property.

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New York Wants Study of 'Fracking' Hazards

State threatens to sue federal government if it doesn't take action

New York Wants Study of 'Fracking' Hazards State threatens to sue federal government if it doesn't take action...

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is threatening to sue the federal government if it doesn’t commit within 30 days to conducting a full environmental review of proposed regulations that would allow natural gas drilling – including the potentially harmful "fracking" technique – in the Delaware River Basin. 

The basin includes the New York City watershed and provides approximately 50 percent of the drinking water used by over nine million New York residents and visitors every day. 

Both the law and common sense dictate that the federal government must fully assess the impact of its actions before opening the door to gas fracking in New York,” said Schneiderman.  “New Yorkers are correctly concerned about fracking's potential dangers to their environment, health and communities, and I will use the full authority of my office, including aggressive legal action, to ensure the federal government is forced to address those concerns.”

The Delaware River Basin includes the federally-designated Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River (and its tributaries), a nationally-significant fishing, boating and recreational destination. In addition, roughly 58 percent of the land area of New York City's West-of-Hudson watershed is within the Basin. 

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to conduct a full review of the environmental impacts of actions that may cause significant environmental impacts. 

Fracking poses numerous risks to the environment, health, and communities, including withdrawing large volumes of water from creeks and streams, contamination of drinking water supplies, generation of harmful wastes, increased noise, dust and air pollution, and harms to community infrastructure and character from increased industrial activity.  

Due to the potential for significant impacts from gas fracking within the Basin, the relevant federal agencies are obligated to comply with NEPA by performing a full review of the impact of the Delaware River Basin Commision's (DRBC) proposed natural gas development regulations.   

Schneiderman's demand is contained in a letter sent to agencies that decide policy for the federal government as a member of the DRBC.  Led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agencies include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Parks Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

 

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Arthritis 'Miracle' Drug Caused Breast Cancer, Suit Charges

Abbott Labs accused of not adequately warning Humira users

Arthritis 'Miracle' Drug Caused Breast Cancer, Suit Charges. Abbott Labs accused of not adequately warning Humira users...

photoA woman claims that 5 years of bimonthly injections of Abbott Laboratories' Humira, a "blockbuster" arthritis drug, caused her breast cancer. 

In a case filed in U.S. District Court in Boston, Maureen Calisi says she began taking the drug in late 2003 and continued taking it through February 2008. She was later diagnosed with breast cancer.

The suit charges that Abbott labs failed to provide adequate warning of the drug's cancer risks and that the injections of Humira caused her cancer.

The lawsuit says that Humira is a “biologic” drug, which means that it is a medicine that has been constituted or reconstituted from natural substances in the body. Launched in 2003 for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, it was the first such drug in its class that was derived from actual human cells.

TNF

Humira is believed to bind specifically to Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF), a naturally occurring substance in the human body that is related to the workings of the body"s immune system. Humira blocks TNF's interaction with certain cell surface receptors, thereby interfering with TNF activity.

TNF blocks have been heralded as a “miracle” drug for rheumatoid arthritis but Calisi's suit charges that Abbott has downplayed the risk of side effects, including the development of lymphoma and other forms of cancer.

Humira has been approved in 83 countries and is currently being used to treat nearly 500,000 patients worldwide, generating revenue of about $6.5 billion, according to published reports.

Clinical trials

The suit charges that during clinical trials prior to the drug's 2002 approval, a number of the 2,070 patients on whom it was tested developed lymphoma and other cancers.

While the cause of cancer is generally elusive, the suit claims that the rate of cancer was higher in those patients who receive Humira than in patients who received a placebo.

By the close of 2003, when Humira was prescribed for Calisi, there were a total of 365 serious adverse event reports in the FDA database. Of the 365 serious reports, 25 – or 7% – involved some form of malignancy. This should have put Abbott on notice that it needed to issue a stronger warning, the suit argues.

But, the suit says, Abbott did nothing to warn patients directly until the FDA required it to do so in 2009.

In February 2008, Calisi discovered a lump in her breast that was subsequently identified as a primary diffuse large B-cell lymphoma of the breast. She immediately stopping taking Humira and her cancer is now in remission.

 

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Mystery Shoppers Find Problems With Paid Tax Preparers

Studies find shoddy work, high fees, problems with refund anticipation loans

Mystery Shoppers Find Problems With Paid Tax Preparers. Studies find shoddy work, high fees, problems with refund anticipation loans...

photoEvery year, Americans undertake one of the most important and complicated financial tasks imaginable – filing their tax returns.  Some will fill out a form with pen & paper, others will use a software program or website, and some will be helped by nonprofit programs.  About 58% of taxpayers will pay a commercial preparer to complete  their tax return. 

The rate is an even higher 66% among recipients of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a refundable credit intended to boost low-wage workers out of poverty. All told, almost eighty million Americans put their trust, their legal liability for taxes, and their financial health in the hands of paid preparers. 

Are they getting their money's worth?

As a follow-up to “mystery shopper” testing conducted in 2008 and 2010, advocacy groups in New York and North Carolina conducted limited tests of paid tax preparers. The results? As in previous years, some tax preparers:

  • provided shoddy work and/or engaged in tax fraud

  • violated state laws in offering refund anticipation loans or refund anticipation checks

  • failed to disclose estimated tax preparation fees

  • charged surprisingly high fees, including a fee of $540 this year

“Taxpayers put their trust, their financial health, and their liability for taxes in the hands of commercial preparers,” noted Chi Chi Wu, Staff Attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “Unfortunately, that trust may not always be well placed.”

Fraud

Some preparers even encouraged their clients to commit fraud.

In one particularly glaring case, a preparer in New York “fixed” income from a 1099 form for discharged credit card debt, and also wrongfully claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit for one of the tester’s children. Another preparer advised a tester who owed money to the IRS that she should “get a kid” in order to get a bigger refund.

RALs

In New York, none of the paid preparers that offered refund anticipation loans (RALs) and refund anticipation checks (RACs) was in full compliance with the New York City RAL law, as they did not have the proper wall poster.

The three preparers who sold or attempted to sell a RAC made misleading statements as they failed to orally disclose the nature of a RAC and two of them failed to disclose the fees.

In fact, all three presented a RAC as an automatic default option. In North Carolina, the written disclosures for Jackson Hewitt fail to include two additional fees, as required by North Carolina regulations.

Fees

As in 2010, preparers often failed to provide adequate information about tax preparation fees. Testers were not provided with estimates of tax preparation fees, which sometimes were extremely high.

Several preparers charged $300 to $500. The highest fees were charged to the testers with the biggest refunds, all of whom received the Earned Income Tax Credit. Other testers with smaller refunds were charged lower tax preparation fees, after being given “discounts.”

 

 

 

 

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'Jane Doe' Comes Forward in Match.com Case

Dating site says it will start screening for sex offenders

Match.com will reportedly begin screening for sex offenders among its members....

photoThe “Jane Doe” in the Match.com sexual assault case has revealed her identity, with her very own public relations agent praising her “heroic” action.

Jane Doe, it turns out, is Carole Markin, who appeared on NBC's “Today” and ABC's “Good Morning America” today. Markin, a Harvard graduate and sometime screenwriter files suit against Match.com, alleging she was raped by a man she met on the dating site.

An Associated Press report says Match.com will begin screening its members against a list of sexual predators but Match.com's media relations page contains nothing but bubbly press releases on other topics.

Markin's claim against Match.com is seen as weakened by two factors, legal observers told ConsumerAffairs.com:

  • The alleged assault occurred in Markin's home on her second date; and

  • Match.com's Terms of Use clearly state that the site does not vet its members against lists of known sex offenders.

Markin alleges in her suit that after the assault, she found her alleged assailant's criminal record by checking Internet databases, an action that more appropriately might have been taken prior to that critical second date, the legal observers noted.

While Markin may have been unprepared initially, she is now well represented by Hollywood publicists who are papering the Internet and fax machines nationwide with press releases congratulating her for taking a stand.

"Taking on a huge corporate giant like Match.com is a daunting task. I faced many naysayers, but I believed that Match.com could change their policies to protect their paying customers from convicted sexual predators," saidMarkinin one such press release. "I will continue to be vigilant in monitoring the rollout of Match.com's online sexual predator screening. "

She said the lawsuit will remain open until Match.com makes good on its promise to implement the online sexual predator screening process.

Consumer complaints

While most complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com about Match.com have been about the company's marketing and auto-renewal policies, there have been complaints about the people clients have been matched with.

"I thought of the usual precautions to take on a dating website, but was totally unaware that Match.com was frequented by multi level international scam artists," Kathleen, or Iron Mountain, Mich., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Sure enough, one 'winked' at me the first week I was on Match.com."

It wasn't long, she said, before he started asking for money, always with a plausible reason.

"The professional scammers could not exist if it wasn't for the dating websites that give them a ready-made list of victims to entrap," Kathleen said."

Kimberly, of Laguna Beach, Calif., said she read the complaints about the type of people who were submitted as dates and really didn't believe it until she experienced it herself.

"The matches I get sent to me look like they just got out of prison," Kimberly said. "I mean oh my God, I cannot believe the freaks I am sent."

Last week, attorney Mark Webb told a news conference in Los Angeles that he had filed a civil action against Match.com on behalf of a Hollywood film executive, identified only as "Jane Doe."  Webb at the time said his client might seek a temporary restraining order to prevent Match.com from signing new clients until sexual predatory screening was in place.

Webb said his client was brutally sexually assaulted by another Match.com member who had been convicted six times for sexual battery. Felony charges are currently pending against the man in Los Angeles Superior Court.

 

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Scam Alert: Don't Pay to Join Mortgage 'Relief' Lawsuits

Watch out for lawyers promising guaranteed results, big damage awards

Scam Alert: Don't Pay to Join Mortgage 'Relief' Lawsuits. Watch out for lawyers promising guaranteed results, big damage awards...

It's a sad day when consumer protection officials find it necessary to warn consumers about lawyers but it looks like that day has arrived. The Washington state attorney general is cautioning homeowners about paying to participate in a “mass joinder” lawsuit promising mortgage relief.

The lawyers and marketers pushing these suits charge upfront fees and frequently promise fast results. In reality, litigation is time-consuming and even a qualified attorney can’t guarantee the outcome of a case. Moreover, representatives of a legitimate class-action suit would not ask consumers for money to be a part of the suit.

Homeowners should be especially skeptical of solicitations from out-of-state firms, which may not be familiar with the laws in other states and may not be licensed to practice there – or anywhere, for that matter.

The Federal Trade Commission recentlybanned mortgage relief companies from collecting fees until homeowners have received an acceptable written offer from a lender or servicer. Attorneys are generally exempted from the rule but are required to place any fees they collect in a client trust account and abide by state laws and regulations covering such accounts.

he Washington attorney general’s Office is also seeing companies pushing forensic mortgage loan audits and services with titles like “pre-litigation monetary claims program.” So-called loan auditors, often backed by attorneys, offer to review your loan documents to determine whether your lender complied with state and federal laws. They claim they can use the audit report to avoid foreclosure, accelerate the loan modification process or reduce your loan principal.

The Federal Trade Commissionwarnsthat there is no evidence that forensics loan audits will help a homeowner obtain a loan modification or other foreclosure relief, even if the audit is conducted by a licensed, legitimate and trained auditor, mortgage professional or lawyer.

The FTC also notes that some federal laws allow you to sue your lender based on errors in your loan documents. But even if you sue and win, your lender is not required to modify your loan simply to make your payments more affordable.

 

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Woman Sues Match.com After Her Date Allegedly Raped Her

Suit seeks an injunction requiring the dating site to check its members' backgrounds

Woman Sues Match.com After Her Date Allegedly Raped Her. Suit seeks an injunction requiring the dating site to check its members' backgrounds. ...

More problems for Match.com. This time it's a Hollywood executive, identified only as Jane Doe, who says a man she met through Match sexually assaulted her. She has filed suit seeking an injunction to bar the dating site from signing up any more members until it can accurately screen them for sexual predators.

It's just the latest in a series of suits and complaints from consumers who had experiences on Match.com that didn't quite match their expectations.

In February, a class action suit in San Francisco claimed Match.com is “little more than a scheme” to bilk consumers and that more than 60 percent of the profiles on the dating site are “either inactive former users or fake or fraudulently posted by scammers and others.” A similar case was filed in Dallas in January.

The San Francisco suit claims that many of the photos attached to profiles on Match.com are of “pornographic actresses and models, seemingly stolen from independent websites.”

Because of “the danger associated with Match allowing male registered sexual predators to become its members,” the Jane Doe complaint says, the court should issue an injunction compelling it “to institute basic inexpensive screening processes.”

Doe said in the suit that after her date attacked her, she went online and learned he had six convictions for sexual battery.

In its Terms of Use, Match.com limits its liability and says that members are “solely responsible” for their interactions with other members.

“You understand that Match.com does not in any way screen its members, nor does Match.com inquire into the backgrounds of its members or attempt to verify the statements of its members,” the terms state.

But Doe says in her suit that the clause is “one-sided” and should be invalidated. Her attorneys would be expected to argue that the limitations do not extend to negligence.

Doe also alleges that Match.com “breached its duty to provide services” under California's Consumer Protection Act because, despite being aware that sexual predators use the service, it has not adopted “a basic screening process that disqualifies from membership anyone who has a documented history of sexual assault.”

“As a result of this breach, defendant exposes numerous members of its dating service to a grave risk of harm,” the suit says.

On the other hand, Match.com would be expected to argue that its Terms of Use very clearly state that users are not vetted and that customers should exercise their own due diligence. If Jane Doe, for example, had checked her date's background before she went out with him, instead of afterwards, the alleged injury would presumably have been avoided.

Doe has said that she did not know her date's last name when she agreed to go out with him. However, read far enough through her complaint and one discovers that the alleged rape occurred on the second date she had with the gentleman in question.

The law is still evolving in this area. An Ohio federal judge upheld a waiver of liability provision in the case of a man who sued an online adult dating service for failing to verify that all its members were over the age of 18.

“[G]iven the nature of Defendants' adult dating website (i.e., SexSearch cannot control its member's actions when they meet), the extent of potential liability is unpredictable and potentially astronomical,” U.S. District Judge Jack Zouhary said in a 2007 case.

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Why Do Credit Card Companies Lower Your Credit Limit?

Ideally, creditors like you to keep your balance at 30 percent or below your limit

Trying to pay down your credit card balance can result in your credit limit being reduced....

When you receive a credit card, you are given a limit on the balance you can put on that account. The difference between the limit and your actual balance plays a role in your credit score.

The credit reporting agencies like to see a low balance to limit ratio. So do the credit card companies. If you have a limit of $5,000 and a balance of $4,000, it makes them nervous, even though they are earning interest on what you owe.

"I have a Gap Visa account with GE Money Bank that I have been making consistent payments to since I opened this account," Tanya, of Brooklyn, N.Y., told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Balance reduced by more than half

Hoping to buy a home, Tanya said she made a $1,000 payment on her balance last month, which cut her balance by more than half. Normally, this kind of payment looks good to credit agencies and credit card companies. In Tanya's case, it apparently didn't.

"GE Money lowered my available credit to $700 for no good reason," Tanya said. "Now on my credit report it appears as if my available credit is maxed out which affects my credit score."

A couple of years ago, in the wake of the credit meltdown, there were wholesale reductions in credit card limits. The reason was simple. The credit card companies were worried that many of their creditors would not be able to pay off their balances. Even consumers with high credit scores were not immune.

Possible reasons

As Tanya's experience shows, credit card companies are still reducing credit limits, and they could be doing it for many reasons. For one, they may have more cash needs right now, and don't want as much credit on their books.

They could also be looking at customers like Tanya, who have been carrying a balance of more than half their credit limit. Though it wasn't intended as punishment, when she took the positive step of making a big payment against her balance, the credit card company lowered her limit, meaning she won't be able to use that credit in the future.

It also has the unfair effect of making it appear that she has used all but $28 of her credit limit, making her look risky to future creditors. Even though she had taken a step to pay down her balance, Tanya feels as though she is being treated as if she doesn't pay her bills on time and has a poor credit history. She says if she had known what was going to happen, she would have hung on to her $1,000.

To the bank, it's probably a simple business decision. Banks and credit reporting agencies prefer that consumers don't use more than 30 percent of their available credit and when Tanya gave them the opportunity to reduce her limit, by making a big payment, they did.

Tanya, meanwhile, feels like the rules have been changed. As a result, she may now be less likely to buy a home.

 

 

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FDA Approves New Device to Treat Brain Cancer

NovoTTF uses electrical fields to interrupt tumor growth

FDA Approves New Device to Treat Brain Cancer NovoTTF uses electrical fields to interrupt tumor growth...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a new device to treat brain cancer that that recurs or progresses after chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

The NovoTTF-100A System is designed to treat adults with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the most common primary brain cancer. GBM tumors are highly resistant to standard treatments such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

Using the NovoTTF-100A System, a health care professional places electrodes on the surface of the patient’s scalp to deliver low-intensity, changing electrical fields called “tumor treatment fields” (TTFs) to the tumor site. The unique shape and electrical characteristics of dividing tumor cells make them susceptible to damage when exposed to TTF, which could stop tumor growth. 

The device is portable and can be powered with batteries or plugged into an electrical outlet. Patients can use the device at home, allowing them to continue their normal daily activities. 

Recurrent glioblastoma multiforme is a devastating form of brain cancer that often eludes standard treatments,” said Jeffrey Shuren, M.D., J.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health.

Brain tumors are the growth of abnormal cells in the brain tissue. According to the National Cancer Institute, each year about 19,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with primary brain cancers. In 2010, there were 13,140 deaths from brain and other nervous system cancers in the United States.

The FDA based its approval of the NovoTTF-100A System on results from a single international clinical study in 237 patients with recurrent GBM or with GBM that hadn’t responded to traditional therapy. Patients in the study were randomly assigned to receive either the NovoTTF-100A System or chemotherapy treatment. 

The study showed comparable overall survival rates between patients treated with the NovoTTF-100A System and those who underwent chemotherapy.

Patients treated with the NovoTTF-100A System experienced a slightly higher incidence of neurological side effects including convulsions and headaches compared to patients receiving chemotherapy. However, they did not experience the significant side effects associated with chemotherapy, including nausea, anemia, fatigue and serious infections. 

A survey of patients in the study suggested an improved quality of life in the NovoTTF-100A recurrent 

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What's On Your Mind? Refunds, Credit Repair, Junk Mail, Timeshares

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Refunds, Credit Repair, Junk Mail, Timeshares, Credit where credit is due and Junk mail overload....

photoWhen a consumer pays for a purchase but then cancels the order, how quickly should they receive their money back? If you said within a week, you might be surprised to learn it hardly ever happens that quickly.

Valerie of Stafford, Va., purchased a mattress at Mattress Warehouse but, after frustrating delays in having her order arrive at the store, she canceled the order. Keep in mind she had paid for the mattress but never taken delivery.

"The salesman told me it would take about a week to get my money back," Valerie told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Based on that promise, I went out and bought a mattress at their competitor's store for the same price and took the mattress home that day."

But Valerie's refund didn't arrive a week later, as promised.

"After a week, I called the corporate office, who told me it could take another three weeks before I get my money back," Valerie said. "Seriously? They get to hold my money for two months and I get absolutely nothing in return?"

It is, indeed, a bad deal. Some businesses hate to write checks. It seems to us this is a fertile area for the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Agency to look into.

Credit where credit is due

Many consumers are in need of solid, objective advice when it comes to dealing with their credit, but you must be careful where you seek that advice. Hanley of Phoenix, Ariz., said he was taken aback when Consumer Credit Group called to offer its help.

"No one should have to pay $995.00 to help clear their credit," Hanley said. "I notified my banking institution and had my account closed. I collected as much information as I could from them just in case."

Any company asking for a large fee in advance to help you with a credit matter should make you wary. Reputable agencies do not keep the first month's payment, demand a contribution or charge high fees. You should also avoid any agency that advertises on television, solicits you by phone or s ends you spam.

To get good advice about credit and debt matters, look for an agency that is a member of the National Foundation of Credit Counseling, a 50-year-old organization with strict accreditation guidelines. 

Junk mail overload

Thomas of Meansville, Ga., has had it with all the fliers, catalogs and sales pitches crammed into his mail box each day.

"I still receive unwanted mailings from businesses that I have repeatedly contacted demanding they quit sending there solicitations," Thomas said. "I have phoned, emailed, written, and recorded for way more than the average six months of time to be removed. I want it stopped. No more junk mail!"

Thomas isn't alone, and in fact some environmental groups encourage consumers to opt out of these mailings to conserve paper. Global Stewards has a handy "how-to" guide on their website for those who are interested.

A timeshare, really?

Why would anyone buy a timeshare, you ask? Left to their own devices, they probably wouldn't.

"My husband was told that he won a vacation, but that he had to go listen to the pitch and he was not going to be pressured to buy anything," Alehandra, of Los Angeles, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Well they accompany you to the restroom, they even accompany you to the bank. I did not get a chance to discuss it with my husband because we were being watched over by the sales guy from Pacific Monarch Grand Vacations."

Alejandra said she and her husband were told one thing, but the contract said something else. They thought they were being offered a week's stay at a Las Vegas resort, but it turned out to only we one or two days.

"I think $2,300 a year is a major rip off for 1- 2 nights every two years, Alejandra said.

An of course, that doesn't include maintenance fees. If you are ever tempted to purchase a timeshare, stop and consider that you could rent a suite in a very nice luxury hotel for less money. And in Las Vegas, we wouldn't be surprised if you couldn't buy a condo for the same price as a timeshare, considering how that real estate market has been hammered.

 

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Match.com Reportedly To Start Screening For Sex Offenders

Dating site sued last week by member who said she was sexually assaulted

Match.com will reportedly begin screening for sex offenders among its members....

The popular online dating site Match.com has announced in a statement to a news agency that it will begin cross-checking site users against national sex offender databases.

The reported change in policy follows a lawsuit by a Los Angeles woman who claimed she was attacked by one of her Match.com dates. In a statement to the Associated Press, the company said it is taking this step, despite reservations about the accuracy of the databases.

While most complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com about Match.com have been about the company's marketing and auto-renewal policies, there have been complaints about the people clients have been matched with.

"I thought of the usual precautions to take on a dating website, but was totally unaware that Match.com was frequented by multi level international scam artists," Kathleen, or Iron Mountain, Mich., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Sure enough, one 'winked' at me the first week I was on Match.com."

Scammers and freaks?

It wasn't long, she said, before he started asking for money, always with a plausible reason.

"The professional scammers could not exist if it wasn't for the dating websites that give them a ready-made list of victims to entrap," Kathleen said."

Kimberly, of Laguna Beach, Calif., said she read the complaints about the type of people who were submitted as dates and really didn't believe it until she experienced it herself.

"The matches I get sent to me look like they just got out of prison," Kimberly said. "I mean oh my God, I cannot believe the freaks I am sent."

Last week, attorney Mark Webb told a news conference in Los Angeles that he had filed a civil action against Match.com on behalf of a Hollywood film executive, identified only as "Jane Doe."  Webb at the time said his client might seek a temporary restraining order to prevent Match.com from signing new clients until sexual predatory screening was in place.

Webb said his client was brutally sexually assaulted by another Match.com member who had been convicted six times for sexual battery. Felony charges are currently pending against the man in Los Angeles Superior Court.

 

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Feds Deal Bad Hand to Poker Sites

Major sites shut down, owners indicted, assets seized

FFeds Deal Bad Hand to Poker Sites. Major sites shut down, owners indicted, assets seized...

photoThe federal government has ended a longtime stand-off with the online poker industry, indicting the founders of the three largest Internet poker companies doing business in the U.S – PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker – shuttering their sites and freezing their assets.

Although some states have considered legalizing online gambling, the federal government has long contended that online gambling of all kinds, including poker, is illegal.

The District of Columbia recently legalized online poker as long as the players are within the geographic confines of the District.

The Poker Players Alliance, a Washington-based lobbying group, denounced the crackdown.

Millions of Americans across the country today are outraged over the U.S. Department of Justice’s clear attack on internet poker,” said John Pappas, the group's executive director. “While the government’s focus may be on the companies who operate these games, this is plain and simple a declaration of war on poker players and poker players’ freedoms.

That argument didn't carry much weight with the feds, however.

Foreign firms that choose to operate in the United States are not free to flout the laws they don’t like simply because they can’t bear to be parted from their profits," Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said.

Bharara and Janice Fedarcyk, the Assistant Director in Charge of the New York Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), announced the unsealing of an indictment charging 11 defendants with bank fraud, money laundering, and illegal gambling offenses.

The United States also filed a civil money laundering and in rem forfeiture complaint against the poker companies, their assets, and the assets of several payment processors. In addition, restraining orders were issued against more than 75 bank accounts utilized by the companies and their payment processors, and five Internet domain names used by the companies to host their poker games were seized.

These defendants concocted an elaborate criminal fraud scheme, alternately tricking some U.S. banks and effectively bribing others to assure the continued flow of billions in illegal gambling profits,” Bharara said. “Moreover, as we allege, in their zeal to circumvent the gambling laws, the defendants also engaged in massive money laundering and bank fraud.

These defendants, knowing full well that their business with U.S. customers and U.S. banks was illegal, tried to stack the deck,” Fedarcyk said. “They lied to banks about the true nature of their business. Then, some of the defendants found banks willing to flout the law for a fee. The defendants bet the house that they could continue their scheme, and they lost."

 

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Beware The 'Your Facebook Password Is Not Safe' Scam

Spam email contains dangerous Trojan

The latest scam targeting Facebook users tries to convince them their password has been changed....

photoMillions of people are getting a spam email designed to look like it's from Facebook (complaints about Facebook), warning that the user's password has been compromised.

Graham Cluley, senior technology expert at Sophos Security, says it's just the latest Facebook scam. The email message is as follows:

Dear User of FaceBook:

Your password is not safe!

To secure your account the password has been changed automatically.

Attached document contains a new password to your account and detailed information about new security measures.

Thank you for attention,

Administration of Facebook.

Alarm bells

"Your alarm bells should be ringing instantly when you receive this message for a number of reasons, not least that it can't decide if it's 'Facebook' or 'FaceBook,' but also because why would Facebook ever email you an attachment," Cluley writes in his blog. "And why are they being so impersonal and not using your name?"

There may be a couple of versions of the subject line for this email. One says "Facebook: Your password has been changed!" Another is "Facebook support. Personal data has been changed!"

Cluley says the purpose of the email is to is to infect your computer with Mal.Zbot-AV malware, a Trojan that falls in the spyware-virus category.

"Perhaps the easiest thing to do if you're told your Facebook password has been changed, is try to log into Facebook to see if it's true or not," Cluley writes.

And make sure you don't open the email's attachment. Simply delete the email from your inbox.

 

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Revolutionary Road: DC Motorists Protest Toll Road Taxes

Dulles Airport's rulers are unelected and not empowered to extract taxes, suit charges

Revolutionary Road: DC Motorists Protest Toll Road Taxes Dulles Airport's rulers are unelected and not empowered to extract taxes, suit charges...

photoWashington, D.C., motorists can choose license plates that bear the motto “Taxation Without Representation.” There is good reason for this, as District residents are not empowered to vote in federal elections.

But the practice of taxing citizens who have no vote is not confined to the relatively tiny District. It extends throughout the Washington area, which seems to regard elected governing bodies as anathema. Virginia only recently began electing school boards, a few hundred years after the rest of the country.

It is also in Virginia that the latest taxation/representation struggle is brewing. This one involves a toll road, specifically the Dulles Airport Toll Road, originally built to speed busy bureaucrats and pompous potentates to and from the international airport roughly 30 miles from D.C.

Back in the day, no one was allowed to use the airport road unless they were going to and from the airport. Only in the Washington area would taxpayers stand for such an outrage but stand for it they did and now it may be too late, although a class action lawsuit seeks to rouse the dozing citizenry.

Eventually, scofflaws emerged and began tying up the highway, slowing the potentates' stately processions. Additional lanes were then built and opened up – at a price – to the federal drones and military contractors who now line the Dulles Corridor.

MWAA MWATA?

Initially operated by the relatively benign Commonwealth of Virginia, the highway charged token tolls of 25 to 75 cents. Ah, but this was before the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) – not to be confused with the Metropolitan Washington Area Transit Authority (MWATA) -- became imbued with the power and the glory that accompany unelected taxing bodies.

The members of these authorities are appointed by elected politicians from the jurisdictions over which they rule but the taxpaying public has no say whatsoever in the matter.

Thus, when it came to pass that MWAA and MWATA decreed that a Metro subway line should be extended to Dulles Airport, Virginia washed its hands of the entire affair and deeded the road to MWAA so that MWAA could extract the cost of building the subway line from the hides of those using the toll road.

Tolls, needless to say, are no longer 25 cents. They are currently $2.00 for those who travel the entire 13.5-mile length of the highway and rising regularly.

This, say John B. Corr and John W. Grigsby in their class action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., has changed the very nature of the tolls extorted from motorists crawling along the congested eight-lane highway (while the bureaucrats and potentates zip by on four lanes still reserved only for those going to and from the aerodrome.)

Corr, a resident of Great Falls, Va., says in the suit that he has used the Dulles Toll Road from time to time for the last 15 years, paying his tolls in cash. Grigsby, a resident of Hillsboro, Va., has commuted daily on the toll road, paying his tolls via EZPass transponder.

No longer a toll

The toll, say Messrs. Corr and Grigsby, is no longer a toll, since it is no longer used simply to pay for the upkeep of the highway. They argue it is now a tax, being collected to pay for the construction of the Metro rail line.

And as a tax, it can only be levied by duly-elected representatives of the people, their suit argues.

The suit argues that, under the Virginia Constitution, the setting of rates or fees for a public service cannot be delegated to unelected, non-governmental bodies. As an interstate compact run by an unelected board, MWAA lacks the constitutional authority to tax the Commonwealth's citizens, says the suit.

The suit seeks to halt MWAA's continued collection of tolls that exceed the amount needed to maintain the highway and asks for a refund of all “excess” tolls collected since 2005. 

 

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Suit Charges Capital One Used Robo-Signing to Collect Debts

The bank and its lawyers cited non-existent and incorrect documents, suit charges

Suit Charges Capital One Used Robo-Signing to Collect Debts The bank and its lawyers cited non-existent and incorrect documents, suit charges...

Have robo signers invaded the credit card collections arena?

A federal class action claims Capital One Bank and the Goldman & Warshaw law firm use "false information and documentation" in credit-card collections.

In the suit, Charles Fratz of Warrington, Pa., charges that Capital One and its attorneys cited documents and contracts that did not apply to the case at hand.

For example, in a collections letter to Fratz, Capital One referred to a credit application supposedly signed by Fratz in November 2002. But a closer look at the application finds a copyright notice dated 2005 at the bottom.

The attached Agreement significantly post-dates the dates that the credit card was allegedly issued and could not have been the operative Agreement,” the suit charges, alleging that the apparently random substitution of documents violates the Federal Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).

Fratz' suit cites previous, similar lawsuits against Capital One as evidence the bank was aware that it was using false documentation.

The suit seeks class action status on behalf of all consumers who have been the subject of collection lawsuits brought by the bank and its attorneys. It asks for compensation for consumers' legal costs, punitive damages and interest.

 

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What's On Your Mind? Toro, AARP, Anchor Hocking, Capital One

Our daily rundown of consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Toro, AARP, Anchor Hocking, Capital One, A little too eager and If you can't stand the heat....

Mike, of Seabrook, Tex., said he had his Toro lawn mower less than a year when it stopped working. With two months left on the manufacturers warranty, he thought getting it repaired would be no problem.

"Toro will not repair the mower because they cannot warranty a product that uses gasoline with ethanol as an additive," Mike told ConsumerAffairs.com.

We did some checking and some engine manufacturers do indeed have an issue with ethanol, but from what we can see they void warranties if the gasoline has a greater than 10 percent ethanol content. Mike correctly points out that all gasoline you buy at the pump now has 10 percent ethanol. We assume Mike didn't purposefully add ethanol to the 90 percent blend gas he bought, so we wonder if some gasoline distributors are adding a bit more alcohol, or if Toro's measurements are off.

The larger issue may arise if Congress approves legislation to increase the ethanol content in all gasoline to 15 percent. What will engine manufacturers do then?

A little too eager

It seems that no sooner do you subscribe to a magazine than the magazine starts sending you monthly appeals to renew early. Some membership organizations do it too, and at least one consumer finds it confusing.

"Rather than a standard magazine renewal notice, which provides your expiration date and maybe a customer number, AARP sends out what looks like 'membership' cards with every renewal letter," Fran, of Santa Barbara, Calif., said. "They do bear a date and a number, but the tiny print says 'reply by' next to the date, and 'authorization code' next to the number. Nowhere on the mailing does the actual expiration date or the member's real membership number appear.

As a result, Fran says it's easy to pay several times for your membership.

If you can't stand the heat...

We've had plenty of complaints about tempered glass baking dishes shattering while in, or right after being removed from a hot oven. But apparently some of these products can't stand the heat of another kitchen appliance.

"My Anchor Hocking one-quart. measuring cup exploded in the dishwasher," Vicki, of Jamestown, R.I., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I never use the hot dry cycle on my dishwasher, and the cup was room temperature when it went in to the dishwasher. There should have been no reason for this."

These days, all kinds of tempered glass, even glass tabletop, appear to be vulnerable to temperature changes.

Warning sign?

There can be many reasons you are declined when you apply for credit. Leticia of Somerville, Mass., said her credit score is good to excellent with no blemishes in the past 10 years. So she was miffed when Capital One denied her application for a credit card.

"The letter from Capital One stated it was due to past delinquent payments," Leticia said. "I have none. In fact, I use to have a Capital One auto loan in which I paid it off early! I still have no idea why I was denied."

Leticia needs to go to www.annualcreditreport.com immediately and download copies of her credit report. If she has no late payments but Capital One is seeing that in her credit history, it's possible she has unknowingly become a victim of identity theft. Someone could be using her identity to open credit accounts and run up unpaid bills.

It's also possible there is incorrect information in one of her credit reports. By checking it out online, she will know for sure.

 

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Feds Probe Toyota Airbag Problems

It's the latest safety headache for Toyota

Feds Probe Toyota Airbag Problems It's the latest safety headache for Toyota...

photoToyota may be facing a new safety-related crisis. Federal safety regulators are looking into a motorist's report that the airbags in his 2008 Toyota Corolla failed to deploy when he hit a deer at 55 miles per hour.

The case involves Fred and Susan Maynard, who said the deer bounded in front of their car in Pennsylvania. The impact totaled the Corolla, Fred Maynard said but the airbags did not deploy.

Why the Maynards' experience caught the eye of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) isn't clear. ConsumerAffairs.com has received more than 170 complaints involving Toyota airbags either failing to deploy or deploying at the wrong time. Here area few complaints from recent months:

  • Maria of Costa Mesa, Calif., was driving her Toyota Tundra when the airbags deployedfor no apparent reason.

  • Oscar, of Laredo, Texas, said the airbags failed to deploy when his Toyota hit a tree at 35 miles per hour.

  • Stephanie of Millcreek, Ind., was in a head-on collision with a truck while driving her 2002 Camry. The airbags failed to deploy and she wound up in the hospital, she said.

  • David of Farmersburg, Inc., ran off the road and hit a ditch, causing his 2010 Prius to roll over. Although the car was totaled and at least one airbag sensor was hit, the airbags did not deploy, David said.

  • Leslie of Lake Placid, NY, said she hit black ice, her car went off the road at 40 miles per hour, hit a culvert and flipped over. No airbags deployed and she suffered serious injuries.

  • Kerry of Newport News, Va., said she t-boned another vehicle while driving her 2008 Camry. The front end of the car was “totally mangled,” she said, but no airbags deployed.

  • In Hope Valley, South Africa, Alta said the airbags failed to open when his Toyota was involved in an accident. He was injured and a child was killed.

The Corolla probe could affect as many as 170,000 vehicles. Corolla has been Toyota's second-best-selling model after the Camry in recent years.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said this week that the airbag probe could affect as many as 170,000 vehicles. The Corolla has been Toyota’s second-best selling model, after the Camry, in recent years.

Since the fall of 2009, Toyota has recalled 19.2 million vehicles worldwide and more than 13.7 million in the United States to address safety complaints, most involving reports of unintended acceleration.

 

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Injected Gel Could Spell Arthritis Relief

Could also be used to treat other diseases, researchers say

Researchers say a gel injected into arthritic joints could provide effective relief....

photoWhen osteoarthritis strikes your knee, or other joint, about the only option currently available is joint replacement surgery, a costly and painful procedure.

Now, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) report an injectable gel could spell the future for treating this disease and others.

Among its advantages, the gel could allow the targeted release of medicine at an affected joint, and could dispense that medicine on demand in response to enzymes associated with arthritic flare-ups.

"We think that this platform could be useful for multiple medical applications including the localized treatment of cancer, ocular disease, and cardiovascular disease," said Jeffrey Karp, leader of the research and co-director of the Center for Regenerative Therapeutics at BWH.

Aging population

Joint replacement surgeries are becoming more common, and are expected to increase in the years ahead as Baby Boomers age.

Arthritis is a good example of a disease that attacks specific parts of the body. Besides surgery, conventional treatments for largely involve drugs taken orally.

Not only do these take a while to exert their effects, they can have additional side effects. That is because the drug is dispersed throughout the body, not just at the affected joint. Further, high concentrations of the drug are necessary to deliver enough to the affected joint, which runs the risk of toxicity.

Targeted delivery

"There are many instances where we would like to deliver drugs to a specific location, but it's very challenging to do so without encountering major barriers," said Karp, who also holds appointments through Harvard Medical School (HMS), Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI), and the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST).

If such a gel were practical, what would it be made of? To cut the time involved in bringing a new technology to market, the research team focused only on materials already designated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as being generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for use in humans.

After a series of tests with the gel, the team is convinced it works. Among other promising results, the researchers found that gel injected into the healthy joints of mice remained stable for at least two months. Further, the gel withstood wear and tear representative of conditions in a moving joint.

Additional tests in mice are underway. The technique has yet to be demonstrated in humans, but the researchers write that it "should have broad implications for the localized treatment of many...diseases" caused by the enzymatic destruction of tissues. For an aging population with stiff, aching joints, it just might provide an alternative to joint replacement.

 

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Wells Fargo Testing Micro-Chip Credit Card

Experimental card is being offered to frequent overseas travelers

Wells Fargo has become the first U.S. bank to offer a credit card with an embedded microchip....

For years, Europeans have used credit cards embedded with a tiny microchip. Now, these electronic cards are coming to the U.S. Wells Fargo said it is testing the "chip" cards with frequent travelers, especially those who travel abroad.

The bank said it decided to try to new cards after receiving complaints from customers who reported difficulty using their standard credit cards overseas.

"U.S. issuers and merchants rely primarily on magnetic stripe technology," said Eric Schindewolf, vice president of product development for Wells Fargo Consumer Credit Card. "However, many parts of the world have adopted chip-enabled payment cards as a primary means of authentication, which has been problematic for customers who travel abroad and were unable to use their credit card. By combining traditional magnetic stripe along with the EMV chip technology, we hope our customers will have the convenience to use their credit card no matter where they are in the world."

Last to adopt

In fact, the U.S. is among the last of the developed countries that still relies on the magnetic strip on the back of credit cards to transmit information. Countries that have adopted the chip technology say it is much more secure, resulting in fewer unauthorized transactions.

Wells Fargo is partnering with Visa for the pilot project, whose product is called the Visa Smart Card. It will include both the traditional magnetic strip, as well as the chip. Wells Fargo scanned its database of customers and selected about 15,000 who frequently travel out of the country. They will be offered the Visa Smart Card, which should be available by mid-year, the bank said.

"This initiative will enable Wells Fargo customers to have their Visa card payments accepted anywhere in the world," said Beth Robertson, Director of Payments Research at Javelin Strategy & Research. "EMV technology is important to creating the widespread global acceptance that cardholders expect."

 

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What's On Your Mind? Shopper Discounts, Collect Calls, Empire Today

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Shopper Discounts, Collect Calls, Empire Today, Costly conversation, Dissatisfied customer and Still looking for ...

Buying products online is a lot easier than fighting a crowd at the mall, but consumers need to be careful about "free" or "trial" offers that are often part of any transaction.

"After making an online purchase, the company offers you a $10 coupon," Robert, of West Deptford, N.J., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "At which time, consumers are not given notice that you are enrolling for a discount program from Shopper Discounts that automatically debits your account $12 per month."

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires that these kinds of offers carry "clear and conspicuous" notice that the consumer is being enrolled in an ongoing membership program. For the record, Robert should contact Shopper Discounts here if he wants to cancel. In the future, it's a good idea to ignore offers of discounts or free item. They almost always come with strings attached.

Costly conversation

With almost everyone carrying a cell phone these days, "collect" calls from a landline have almost become a thing of the past. But believe it or not, not everyone has a cell phone.

"My husband was traveling from North Carolina to Atlanta one night and called me collect, as his calling card would not work and he does not have a cell phone," Elizabeth, of Graham, N.C. said. "I accepted the call when I heard his name and by doing so immediately, apparently bypassed the recorded message telling me of the exorbitant rate we would be charged for the call! Wouldn't you do the same if it was your spouse or child on the road far from home and you got a collect call?"

Elizabeth said she was shocked when she got her phone bill and there was a $55 charge from Zero Plus Dialing for the six-minute call. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for the varying levels of collect call expense. It seems to depend on the third-party provider. Keep in mind that the bulk of collect calls these days are made from prison. When a provider has a "captive" audience, so to speak, they can charge whatever they want.

Dissatisfied customer

Flooring and installation can be a major purchase, so when things don't turn out quite right, consumers understandably get upset.

"My mother purchased laminate floors from Empire Today for my home," Sheri, of Wellington, Fla., said. "The floors were installed improperly and subsequently are coming up at the seams and buckling. I have had 2 inspectors look at the floors that will attest to this. Empire insists since I have a dog the damage was caused by urine, which is not true."

Sheri should be able to find someone at Empire Today who can resolve this issue, but she will need those two inspectors she mentioned to provide written statements. Companies need things in writing. From the sound of it, the installers did not leave enough of a gap between the flooring and the wall. Laminate flooring expands and contracts, so a small gap between it and the wall is necessary.

Still looking for peace of mind

Nereyda, of Killeen, Tex., is the wife of a U.S. serviceman who is upset after receiving a notice from the Internal Revenue Service that they underpaid last year's taxes by $1,400. Since she and her husband had purchased "Peace of Mind" insurance from H&R Block, she assumed they would take care of it.

"I immediately contacted the local office where I live, and I was accused of failing to include a W2 form, because they hadn't stapled it to the folder like the others," she said.  "H&R Block declined my claim after four weeks."

Nereyda may not have much recourse. She says H&R Block has a form she and her husband signed listing the tax documents they provided and the missing W2 is not on it. The insurance policy covers mistakes H&R makes. If they didn't have all the needed information, the company says, it is not at fault.

It appears that H&R Block heavily marketed the "Peace of Mind" contracts to U.S. service personnel on active duty. Nereyda, at least, clearly didn't understand what exactly she was buying.

 

 

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Feds Shut Down Huge Botnet

2 million computers infected with keylogging software

Feds Shut Down Huge Botnet 2 million computers infected with keylogging software...

The Department of Justice and FBI today announced the filing of a civil complaint, the execution of criminal seizure warrants, and the issuance of a temporary restraining order against a huge international “botnet.”

The botnet is a network of hundreds of thousands of computers infected with a malicious software program known as Coreflood, which installs itself by exploiting a vulnerability in computers running Windows operating systems.

Coreflood allows infected computers to be controlled remotely for the purpose of stealing private personal and financial information from unsuspecting computer users, including users on corporate computer networks, and using that information to steal funds.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Connecticut filed a civil complaint against 13 "John Doe" defendants, alleging that the defendants engaged in wire fraud, bank fraud, and illegal interception of electronic communications. In addition, search warrants were obtained for computer servers throughout the country, and a seizure warrant was obtained in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut for 29 domain names.

Finally, the government obtained a temporary restraining order (TRO), authorizing the government to respond to signals sent from infected computers in the United States in order to stop the Coreflood software from running, thereby preventing further harm to hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting users of infected computers in the United States.

"The seizure of the Coreflood servers and Internet domain names is expected to prevent criminals from using Coreflood or computers infected by Coreflood for their nefarious purposes," said U.S. Attorney David B. Fein for the District of Connecticut. "I want to commend our industry partners for their collaboration with law enforcement to achieve this great result."

"Botnets and the cyber criminals who deploy them jeopardize the economic security of the United States and the dependability of the nation's information infrastructure," said Shawn Henry, Executive Assistant Director of the FBI's Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch. "These actions to mitigate the threat posed by the Coreflood botnet are the first of their kind in the United States and reflect our commitment to being creative and proactive in making the Internet more secure."

Particularly harmful

According to court filings, Coreflood is a particularly harmful type of malicious software that records keystrokes and private communications on a computer. Once a computer is infected with Coreflood, it can be controlled remotely from another computer, known as a command and control (C & C) server.

A computer infected by Coreflood and subject to remote control is referred to as a "bot," short for "robot." According to information contained in court filings, the group of all computers infected with Coreflood is known as the Coreflood botnet, which is believed to have been operating for nearly a decade and to have infected more than two million computers worldwide.

Coreflood steals usernames, passwords, and other private personal and financial information allegedly used by the defendants for a variety of criminal purposes, including stealing funds from the compromised accounts. In one example described in court filings, through the illegal monitoring of Internet communications between the user and the user's bank, Coreflood was used to take over an online banking session and caused the fraudulent transfer of funds to a foreign account.

In the enforcement actions announced today, five C & C servers that remotely controlled hundreds of thousands of infected computers were seized, as were 29 domain names used by the Coreflood botnet to communicate with the C & C servers.

As authorized by the TRO, the government replaced the illegal C & C servers with substitute servers to prevent Coreflood from causing further injury to the owners and users of infected computers and other third parties.

While this enforcement action completely disabled the existing Coreflood botnet by seizing control from the criminals who ran it, this does not mean that Coreflood malware or similar forms of malware have been removed from the Internet entirely. Nor does it mean that criminals will not attempt to build another botnet using a different version of the Coreflood malware or other malware. The best defense against such malware, and botnets in general, is for users to ensure their computers are protected by regularly-updated anti-virus security software.

Computer users should ensure they are using security software on their computers and that users regularly update their security and routinely scan their computers for viruses. 

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Alcohol May Sharpen Subconscious Memory, And That's Not A Good Thing

A Texas researcher says he may have unlocked a major clue to addiction

A Texas researcher says he may have unlocked a major clue to addiction....

Some people drink to forget. But medical researchers say drinking alcohol may make it easier to remember.

That's not to say doctors think you should increase your alcohol consumption to sharpen your brain. It doesn't work like that.

Hitoshi Morikawa, of the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research at The University of Texas, says the common view that drinking is bad for learning and memory isn't wrong. But, he says, it highlights only one side of what ethanol consumption does to the brain.

Conscious and subconscious memory

"Usually, when we talk about learning and memory, we're talking about conscious memory," said Morikawa, whose results were published last month in The Journal of Neuroscience. "Alcohol diminishes our ability to hold on to pieces of information like your colleague's name, or the definition of a word, or where you parked your car this morning. But our subconscious is learning and remembering too, and alcohol may actually increase our capacity to learn, or 'conditionability,' at that level."

What's the significance of this conclusion? Morikawa says it's just more evidence toward an emerging consensus in the neuroscience community that drug and alcohol addiction is fundamentally a learning and memory disorder.

When we drink alcohol or use drugs, our subconscious is learning to consume more. But it doesn't stop there. According to the study, we become more receptive to forming subsconscious memories and habits with respect to food, music, even people and social situations.

Addicted to memories

In an important sense, says Morikawa, alcoholics aren't addicted to the experience of pleasure or relief they get from drinking alcohol. They're addicted to all the memories and cues that are reinforced when alcohol triggers the release of dopamine in the brain.

"People commonly think of dopamine as a happy transmitter, or a pleasure transmitter, but more accurately it's a learning transmitter," said Morikawa. "It strengthens those synapses that are active when dopamine is released."

Morikawa's long-term hope is that by understanding the brain's connection to addiction better, he can develop anti-addiction drugs. If he can do that, he would be able to erase the subconscious memory of addiction.

"We're talking about de-wiring things," says Morikawa. "It's kind of scary because it has the potential to be a mind controlling substance. Our goal, though, is to reverse the mind controlling aspects of addictive drugs."

 

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Free Software Makes Using A Mouse Easier

Designed for people with motor disabilities

New, free software makes using a computer mouse easier....

For most people, using a computer mouse comes second nature, after a little practice. But for those with motor disabilities, it can be a frustrating experience.

The number of people affected by this may be increasing, as the population ages. But a University of Washington team has invented two mouse cursors that make clicking targets a whole lot easier.

Neither requires additional computer hardware - just some free, downloadable software. The researchers hope that in exchange for the software, users offer feedback.

Pointing Magnifier

One set of software, The Pointing Magnifier, combines an area cursor with visual and motor magnification, reducing need for fine, precise pointing. Getting near the target is all that's required. 

The UW's AIM Research Group, which invented the Pointing Magnifier, learned that users can much more easily acquire targets, even small ones, 23 percent faster with the Pointing Magnifier. http://depts.washington.edu/aimgroup/

The magnifier runs on Windows-based computer systems and replaces the conventional cursor with a larger, circular cursor that can be made even larger for users who have less motor control. To acquire a target, the user places the large cursor somewhere over the target, and clicks.

The Pointing Magnifier then magnifies everything under that circular area until it fills the screen, making even tiny targets large. The user then clicks with a point cursor inside that magnified area, acquiring the target. Although the Pointing Magnifier requires two clicks, it's much easier to use than a conventional mouse, which can require many clicks to connect with a target.

Angle Mouse

Another AIM technology, the Angle Mouse, also is designed to help people with disabilities. Like the Pointing Magnifier, it may be downloaded, and two videos, one for general audiences and another for academic ones, are available as well.

When the Angle Mouse cursor initially blasts towards a target, the spread of movement angles, even for people with motor impairments, tends to be narrow, so the Angle Mouse keeps the cursor moving fast.

However, when the cursor nears its target and the user tries to land, the angles formed by movements diverge sharply, so the Angle Mouse slows the cursor, enlarges motor space and makes the target easier to get into. The more trouble a user has, the larger the target will be made in motor space.

"It's less expensive to create computer solutions for people who have disabilities if you focus on software rather than specialized hardware, and software is usually easier to procure than hardware," said Jacob O. Wobbrock, an assistant professor in the Information School who leads the AIM Group.

Try them both

Wobbrock suggests that users try both the Pointing Magnifier and the Angle Mouse before deciding which they prefer.

"Our cursors make ubiquitous mice, touchpads, and trackballs more effective for people with motor impairments without requiring new, custom hardware," Wobbrock said. "We're achieving accessibility by improving devices that computer users already have. Making computers friendlier for everyone is the whole point of our work."

The Pointing Magnifier work was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

 

 

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What's On Your Mind? Scams, Hollywood Video, Verizon

Our daily rundown on consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Scams, Hollywood Video, Verizon, Late fees, Storm clouds and He said, she said....

photoTo paraphrase a famous general, old scams never die. They keep coming back because they fool enough people to make them profitable. Such is the venerable "government grant scam."

"They called my home phone and cell phone, claiming I was picked to receive a $7,000 federal grant," Wilson, of Klamath Falls, Ore., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I just had to have $215 in a bank account before the so called grant would be transferred."

The scammer, of course, was hoping Wilson would provide his bank account information, so that he could take whatever money was in the account. Wilson would be left waiting for the $7,000 "grant" that would never arrive. Fortunately, Wilson didn't fall for it.

"I informed them I was reporting them to the authorities and hung up," he said.

And that's exactly what you should do if you get a call like that. For the record, the government doesn't just hand out grants without a lengthy and difficult application process.

Late, late fees

Soon after Hollywood Video went out of business, former customers began getting calls from a collection agency, telling them they owed $100 or more in late fees. Most customers professed they were never late, or paid the fees before the stores closed.

"I read my Transunion credit report to find I had a collection of $138.00 from Hollywood Video," Darin, of Amsterdam, N.Y. said. "I know I don't owe this and have rented two videos from that store in my lifetime. On your website I see tons of complaints that state the same thing."

We're not sure what's behind this, but keep in mind any debt collector is obliged to provide some documentation of the debt. A simple telephone call isn't enough.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, "every collector must send you a written validation notice telling you how much money you owe within five days after they first contact you. This notice also must include the name of the creditor to whom you owe the money, and how to proceed if you don't think you owe the money." Darin, and many other consumers, say they have received no such notice from Hollywood Video's debt collector.

He said, she said

Many consumer problems stem from a mistake. Unfortunately, it almost always falls to the consumer to try to correct it. Esther of Boynton Beach, Fla., said she called Verizon Wireless last year and was told she could end her service in December 2010 without an early termination fee.

"I paid my balance in full and cancelled service," Esther said. "I then received a bill for ending the contract early. I made sure I could cancel without penalty. Verizon is the one who told me I could cancel in December 2010.I called Verizon numerous times to question this and they said it was a mistake and that I didn't cancel early and I don't owe anything. But yet I still get a bill and now it's in collection."

Our advice is for Esther to go to a local Verizon Wireless store when they aren't busy and try to find a sympathetic employee who can help her. She needs someone to actually remove the charge from Verizon's system, and that might not be easy to do. If she's successful, she should send a copy of whatever documentation Verizon provides to each of the credit reporting agencies and ask that the collection notice be removed.

Storm clouds

Virginia, of Durham, N.C., has found herself a former AllState Insurance policyholder after 22 years. She's not exactly sure how it happened.

"In March 2011, we called the claims department to see if the damage that we found after removing a commode was covered," Virginia told ConsumerAffairs.com. "We were informed that they were not responsible for the repairs. We then suggested that we would speak to our attorney to better understand the 'insurance' dialogue.

A month later, Virginia says she received a letter stating that her policy would not be reinstated at the end of the contract. She wondered why.

"We called our agent of 22 years and he swore that it was not personal but that Allstate was dropping a lot of their customers in North Carolina because of the 2011 storm predictions," she said. "I believe that they cancelled us because of our threat to contact an attorney."

That may well be, but we find it interesting Virginia's agent told her the company is canceling insurance policies in advance of hurricane season. According to our maps, Durham is a good 200 miles from the coast.

 

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Cisco Systems Pulls The Plug On Flip Camera

A victim of smartphones?

In a sign that smartphone technology may have eclipsed it, Cisco is discontinuing the Flip camera....

photoIn case you needed a reminder about just how fast the pace of consumer technology is moving, Cisco Systems provided it today.

Cisco, which purchased Digital Technology, the maker of the Flip video camera in 2009, announced today it's discontinuing the device.

When it was introduced in 2006, the Flip Cam was indeed revolutionary. It was pocket-sized and shot remarkably high-quality video. Consumers loved it because it was easy to use and transfer video to either a computer or the Internet.

New meaning to ‘killer app’

But then, along came smartphones - the iPhone in particular - with built in video capability. Consumers began to ask themselves, "why do I need another device that just shoots video, when my phone can do it?"

Not only do smartphones now shoot high-def video, many phones come with video editing software, so you can produce a movie, right on your phone. All of a sudden, the Flip didn't look so revolutionary.

Will still provide support

Though it will stop making the Flip camera, Cisco said it will still support its FlipShare video-sharing services, at least for the time being.

Cisco is currently wrestling with other business issues, so outdated technology may not have been the only factor in Flip's demise. The company is cutting costs and laying off 550 employees with the move.

Still, the Flip's story is a sobering one for technology developers, underscoring the "here today, gone tomorrow" aspect of today's consumer technology world.

 

 

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Apple Sued for Soaking Children with Smurfberry Charges

Class action says Apple callously exploits minor children with game currency sales

Apple Sued for Soaking Children with Smurfberry Charges. Class action says Apple callously exploits minor children with game currency sales...

photoApple lets children download a free game app, which they then use to rack up hundreds of dollars in charges for "game currency" without their parents' knowledge, a federal class action lawsuit charges. (read more complaints about Apple).

In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Plaintiff Garen Meguerian says Apple targets children with free "apps" which are "designed to induce purchases of what Apple refers to as 'In-App Purchases' or 'In-App Content,'" the suit charges.

The purchases are usually "currency" of some kind – either game cash or supplies such as fruits and vegetables, ammunition, etc.

In one celebrated case, children were spending $99.99 for a wagon of Smurberries.

Meguerian, of Phoenixville, Pa., said his 9-year-old daughter downloaded a number of free gaming apps from iTunes, including "Zombie Cafe," "Treasure Story" and "City Story" and within a few weeks spent $200.

Highly addictive

"These games are highly addictive, designed deliberately so, and tend to compel children playing them to purchase large quantities of Game Currency, amounting to as much as $100 per purchase or more," the suit alleges.

Players, even though they are minors, were enticed to buy currency in one-click sums of $99.99 or more, "causing Apple to pocket millions of dollars from such … transactions with minors and without the authorization of their parents, whose credit cards or PayPal accounts are automatically charged for the purchases."

Because the passwords used for game currency purchases are the same ones required for any Apple purchase, minors who know the password can buy game currency without authorization from their parents, the suit notes.

The suit says that after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) inquired into its practices, Apple recently began requiring the entry of a password for all individual transactions and began warning users that "free" games may contain in-app content for sale but continues selling game currency to minors.

However, says Maguerian, "Apple has not offered to return to its account holders any of the millions of dollars it received from their minor children's purchases" even though such purchases "constitute voidable contracts because they were entered into with minors."

The suit seeks refunds, damages, interest and legal fees.

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Chevy Cruze Loses Steering Wheel In Traffic

GM recalls 2,100 of the cars

GM is recalling 2,100 Chevy Cruzes after a driver reports the steering wheel came off in his hands....

photoA motorist driving a new Chevrolet Cruze says he was driving down a highway when the steeling wheel came off in his hands. Seriously.

General Motors said it believes it was an isolated incident, but is recalling 2,100 of the cars nonetheless. The carmaker reported the incident, which happened in March, in documents filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Here's what GM says it thinks happened: when this particular car was in production, the wrong steering wheel was installed. Inspectors caught the mistake and the correct wheel replaced the incorrect one, but it was not properly secured. It was just a matter of time before it came off the steering column.

According to GM, the driver was able to slow the car and get it safely to the side of the road. There were no injuries connected with the incident.

GM introduced the Cruze with the 2011 model year and has sold more than 50,000 of the cars through March. The Cruze replaced the Chevrolet Cobalt and is a direct competitor with the Toyota Corolla.

The 2,100 Cruzes subject to recall will be inspected at Chevrolet dealers to make sure the steering wheels are properly attached. The recall is expected to begin immediately and owners may contact Chevrolet at 1-800-630-2438.

 

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Suit: Facebook Failed to Remove Phony Posting

St. Louis woman tried in vain to have an unauthorized listing taken down

Suit: Facebook Failed to Remove Phony Posting. St. Louis woman tried in vain to have an unauthorized listing taken down....

photoA St. Louis woman has sued Facebook for failing to remove a false profile containing her name and photo.

Brieanna Weber said that when she discovered the phony profile, set up under the name "Brie Weber," she had her lawyer send a letter to Facebook asking that it be removed and that she be furnished with the identity of the perpetrator.

That was on March 10. Nothing happened.

On March 17, Weber's lawyer, Jeffrey J. Lowe, received "what appear to be an automated response from Facebook thanking him for the report but stated [sic] that for security reasons, Facebook would not be able to respond with the additional information … and to please have the account owner view the security section of our help center," the suit states.

Lowe responded: "How can the account holder respond, it is not her profile. She is not the account holder, an imposter is."

On March 30, Lowe contacted Facebook again, noting that he had received no response.

The suit, filed in St. Louis City Court, seeks an injunction ordering Facebook to remove the fake profile, photos and content.

As of this writing, Facebook lists three Brie Webers. One of them is identified as living in St. Louis and has 51 "friends." The listing includes several photos, including one of a scantily-clad blonde woman astride a motorcycle. Another is a private listing with a single murky photo of a blonde woman who resembles the first "Brie." The third is someone else entirely, swept into the mystery by accident.

 

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Law Firm's Robo-Signers Defrauded Thousands, Class Action Charges

Suit says Virginia law firm illegally foreclosed on "potentially thousands" of Maryland homes

Law Firm's Robo-Signers Defrauded Thousands, Class Action Charges. Suit says Virginia law firm illegally foreclosed on "potentially thousands" of Maryland....

A federal class action claims that thousands of Maryland homeowners lost their homes because of the illegal robo-signing operation of the Shapiro & Burson law firm, with offices in Baltimore, Md., and Fairfax, Va., and six of its attorneys.  The suit also charges the firm charged excessive fees.

The suit notes that the State's Attorney in Prince George's County, Md., has opened a criminal inquiry into the firm's practices and has received statements from a former employee who said he was told to sign thousands of affidavits without seeing any evidence that the statements in the affidavits were true.

The plaintiffs, Charles Smalley and Pamela Ball, lost their homes in foreclosure actions involving the Shapiro & Burson firm, even though the firm allegedly did not have possession of the documents necessary to justify the actions.

Ms. Ball said that she lost her home in Bowie, Md., which she had purchased in November 2006 with an adjustable rate mortgage for $355,700. She lost her home in a foreclosure action little more than a year later, even though none of the defendants had possession of the note, although they swore in affidavits that they did, the suit alleges.

"Defendants sold Ms. Ball's home without ever seeing the promissory note," the suit alleges.

Jose Portillo, an employee of the law firm, signed the affidavits that resulted in the foreclosure and Ball's subsequent eviction. Portillo later exposed practices he said he was forced to undertake and described "an elaborate robo-signing operation whereby each Defendant financially benefitted from fees and commission in carrying out foreclosures tainted by fraud," the suit alleges.

Portillo also stated that he witnessed attorneys forging other attorneys' signatures to foreclosure documents.

Smalley bought his home in District Heights, Md., in June 2006 for $430,000, financed entirely with two mortgages. When he began falling behind in his payments in late 2007, he tried to modify the mortgages but was unsuccessful and in May 2009, Shapiro & Burson filed foreclosure motions against him.

The lawsuit charges that, "under penalty of perjury," employees of the law firm signed an affidavit certifying that Barclays Capital Real Estate was the holder of the note, even though the note was payable on its face to Fremont Investment & Loan.

Smalley's property was sold at auction in April 2010.

The lawsuit is filed on behalf of all Maryland residents whose residential property was foreclosed by Sharpiro & Burson during the last four years. It estimates there are at least 250 members of the class and "potentially thousands," based on Portillo's statements. It seeks an award of triple damages for each class member.

 

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States Wary Of Roll-Your-Own Cigarette Machines

Arkansas moves to outlaw them

States are concerned about consumers making their own cigarettes, as it will cut into tax revenue....

Ever-rising state and federal taxes on cigarettes, designed to discourage use but also generate government revenue, have made a pack of smokes very, very expensive. A pack of cigarettes can cost anywhere from over $6 to over $11, depending on the state.

That leaves smokers three alternatives; pay the price, quit, or find a cheaper way to feed their habit. Increasingly, smokers are buying machines to roll their own cigarettes, much to the consternation of some state officials.

Smokers can purchase cigarette machines or cigarette injectors. These are devices used to roll tobacco into a fairly professional-looking cigarette.

Two types of machines

There are two types of cigarette machines: the hand-held and the table-top models. They require cigarette tubes and replicate the store bought cigarettes.

Table-top cigarette injectors are reportedly able to produce the best homemade cigarette possible. Nearly all tubes have the filters in the tube. There are available from a variety of retail sources, as well as on eBay, where ConsumerAffairs.com found models for around $50.

Arkansas, among the states worried about this consumer trend, has taken the first step, approving a law that effective bans their use in the state. Act 836 of 2011, signed into law last week, was part of Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDanial's legislative package. The Act bans commercial cigarette rolling machines, effective Jan. 1, 2012.

Same health risks

"Cigarettes from these machines may have a lower cost to smokers because of tax differences, but they carry the same high health risks. We don't want these machines in our state." McDaniel said. "I'm grateful to the General Assembly for also recognizing the potential harm to public health and providing broad, bipartisan support for this Act."

Besides consumers, McDaniel said some retail cigarette vendors operate these machines to exploit the tax discrepancies between "roll-your-own" cigarette tobacco, pipe tobacco and cigarettes. Because of the tax differences, the lower costs for "roll-your-own" cigarettes appeal to youth and an already-addicted adult population of smokers. He said he was not aware that any stores in Arkansas had offered that service.

McDaniel said that without Act 863, the tax discrepancies would hamper the Arkansas' long-term public health efforts.

Last summer the State of New Hampshire reclassified tobacco shops that installed cigarette-rolling machines as cigarette manufacturers, prompting a lawsuit by tobacco vendors.

$5 billion a year in lost tax revenue

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that roll-your-own cigarettes cost states more than $5 billion annually. The Act allows the state to revoke the Arkansas business licenses of those manufacturers or wholesalers who act unlawfully in other states. Companies which pose an elevated risk of noncompliance with Arkansas law could also be required to post a bond as a condition of doing business there.

Licensed wholesalers must also provide more information about in-state sales to the Attorney General, Department of Finance and Administration and Arkansas Tobacco Control. The information will allow the agencies to target tax avoidance by retailers and consumers.

 

 

 

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USDA Pushes Ethanol While Congress Eyes Natural Gas

Rising gasoline and food prices making natural gas look more attractive than ever

USDA Pushes Ethanol While Congress Eyes Natural Gas. Rising gasoline and food prices making natural gas look more attractive than ever ...

photoFood and fuel costs are going through the roof lately, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is pushing ahead with a plan to spend $200 million to finance the installation of gas pumps that can dispense fuel with higher ethanol content.

Critics are skeptical of the program, noting that the price of corn is already at record highs, thanks partly to the increasing use of ethanol, which is made from corn.

Farmers are happy about that, of course, but environmentalists aren't so sanguine. They say that ethanol is a less efficient fuel than gasoline and that using more ethanol doesn't necessarily save fuel.

Nevertheless, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is pressing ahead with his plan to offer grants and loans to service stations that want to install so-called "blender" pumps, which let motorists choose how much ethanol they want to mix in with their gas.

Most modern cars can burn up to 10% ethanol but "FlexFuel" vehicles can burn an 85% ethanol blend, known was E85.

Less efficient

While it's true that ethanol is cleaner-burning and thus produces less air pollution, it is also less efficient, meaning that a tank of E85 won't take you as far as a tank of 10% ethanol/90% gas. Add to that a higher per gallon price for E85 and critics say it will be hard to convince consumers to, in effect, pay more for less, DC Insider reported.

While popular with the farm lobby, corn and ethanol subsidies are likely to run into strong headwinds as Congress continues its push to reduce the deficit and eliminate unnecessary spending.

Already a bipartisan effort is underway to shift the focus to natural gas. A bill introduced last week seeks to jump start the use of natural gas fuel in cars by offering limited tax credits and regulatory changes to encourage the production and purchase of natural gas vehicles.

The legislation would offer tax credits to consumers who purchase new cars manufactured to run on natural gas. However, it's possible to retrofit existing vehicles to run on the fuel. Either way, the lawmakers say, it will help produce jobs.

"Natural gas is a cleaner, cheaper, more abundant alternative to foreign oil, and it is in both our economic and national security interest to use the vast reserves we have right here in our own backyard as the bridge fuel towards energy security," said Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.), vice chair of the House Energy and Power Subcommittee.

"Currently, 69 percent of the oil consumed in America is used for transportation, two-thirds of which we import from foreign nations - with gas prices approaching $4 to $5 per gallon, there is no time like the present to incorporate more natural gas vehicles into our transportation portfolio."

Plentiful and cheap

Natural gas is both plentiful and cheap, and estimates suggest there is enough in the U.S. to meet present energy consumption for nearly a century. The equivalent cost, compared to gasoline, is about $1.25 a gallon.

"It is important to know that the Natural Gas Act contains zero government mandates and zero subsidies," Sullivan said. "What we offer are incentives in the form of limited tax credits to give American businesses and families fueling options in light of 30 month high gas prices."

Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) says natural gas could quickly remove American dependence on OPEC oil, stopping the flow of billions of dollars out of the country. The bill promotes both the economy, he says, and national security.

"It is supported by some of the most progressive, as well as by some of the most conservative, members of Congress," Boren said.

 

 

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Suit: Wells Fargo Forced Borrowers to Take Out Too Much Insurance

Bank overcharged home-loan customers for insurance, then pocketed the commissions, suit charges

Suit Charges Wells Fargo Forced Borrowers to Take Out Too Much Insurance. Bank overcharged home-loan customers for insurance, then pocketed the commissions...

photoA federal class action claims Wells Fargo Bank forces borrowers to take out too much flood insurance on their homes, then takes kickbacks and commissions on the insurance it takes out on their behalf. 

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh on behalf of Desiree Morris, of Washington, Pa., who said Wells Fargo acquired a $115,000 mortgage on her home in 2009. She currently owes about $113,000.

Upon taking out the loan, Morris said she bought flood insurance in the amount of $118,000. In November 2010, the policy was renewed and the coverage was increased to $129,800, a 10% increase from her previous level.

Morris argues that the higher amount exceeds federal requirements by more than $14,000.

She notes that federal law requires that homes which, like Morris', are in a flood plain must have insurance “in an amount at least equal to the outstanding principal balance of the loan or the maximum limit of coverage ...whichever is less.”

But that was only the beginning.

The month after her insurance was increased to $129,800, Morris received a letter from Wells Fargo which claimed that her flood insurance coverage was "less than the coverage required" and claimed that she was required to have insurance that would provide the full replacement cost for her home, up to $250,000.

Wells Fargo said in the letter that if Morris did not take out more insurance, the bank would do so for her, taking out a "lender-placed policy" and charging her for it. The letter said Wells Fargo had purchased $94,000 worth of additional flood insurance on a 90-day binder and said it would bill her escrow account for the $893 cost.

The demands in the letter were "fraudulent, deceptive and misleading," Morris' suit claims and it charges that Wells Fargo was "unfairly, unjustly and unlawfully enriched by the kickbacks, commissions or other compensation."

The suit seeks class action status on behalf of anyone who had a loan or line of credit with Wells Fargo who was required to purchase flood insurance.

It charges Wells Fargo with violating the Truth in Lending Act, breaching its agreement, violating the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act and misappropriating funds held in trust, among other allegations.

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How To Avoid Buyer's Remorse

Researching a purchase provides peace of mind, researcher says

By researching a major purchase, a researcher says consumers are more likely to avoid buyer's remorse....

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Oreck's Health Claims Challenged; Company to Pay $750,000

FTC said claims for vacuum cleaner and air cleaner are not scientifically supported

Oreck's Health Claims Challenged; Company to Pay $750,000. FTC said claims for vacuum cleaner and air cleaner are not scientifically supported...

photoOreck has agreed to stop making allegedly false and unproven claims that two of its appliances can reduce the risk of flu and other illnesses, and eliminate virtually all common germs and allergens.  The company also has agreed to pay $750,000 to the Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC had objected to Oreck's claims for the Oreck Halo vacuum and the Oreck ProShield Plus air cleaner. 

The Halo is an upright vacuum cleaner with a light chamber that generates ultraviolet light onto the floor while vacuuming.  The ProShield Plus is a portable air cleaner that filters air particles using an electrostatic charge.  The Halo retailed for $599.95, while the ProSheiled Plus cost as much as $399.95.

During the 2009 holiday season, Oreck's online ads pictured the Halo and the ProShield Plus side by side under the headline “Introducing the Oreck Flu Fighters, Help Reduce the Flu on Virtually any Surface and in the Air in Your Home” and claimed that the Prosheild Plus “captures and destroys many airborne viruses like the flu.” 

An infomercial for the Oreck Halo claimed: “The Oreck Halo has killed up to 99.9 percent of bacteria exposed to its light in one second or less,” and that the vacuum’s light chamber “has been tested and shown to kill up to 99.9 percent of certain common germs, plus dangerous pathogens like E. Coli and MRSA.”

The FTC charged Oreck Corporation with making these allegedly false and deceptive claims about the Halo vacuum cleaner:

  • The Halo and the ProShield Plus prevent or substantially reduce the risk of flu.

  • The Halo and the ProShield Plus prevent or substantially reduce the risk of other illnesses or ailments caused by bacteria, viruses, molds, and allergens – such as the common cold,  asthma, and allergy symptoms.

  • The Halo eliminates all or almost all common germs and allergens found on the floors in users’ homes, and is scientifically proven to do so.

  • The Halo’s ultraviolet light is effective against germs, bacteria, dust mites, mold, and viruses embedded in carpets.

  • The ProShield Plus eliminates all or almost all airborne particles from a typical household room under normal living conditions, and is scientifically proven to do so.

The complaint also alleges that Oreck provided deceptive advertisements to its franchised stores for their use in marketing the Halo and the ProShield Plus.  According to the FTC, by doing so, Oreck provided the means and instrumentalities to its distributors to deceive consumers.

Under the terms of the administrative settlement, Oreck is barred from making any of the allegedly deceptive claims it challenged in the complaint for any vacuum cleaner or any air cleaning product – unless it has competent and reliable scientific evidence to support the claims. 

The company also is prohibited from making any claims about a product’s comparative health benefits without competent and reliable scientific evidence, and from misrepresenting the results of any scientific test, study, or research.

 

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Consumers Continue To Voice Frustration With Maytag

Some consumers want their old appliances back

Consumers continue to report problems with Maytag washers and dryers, refrigerators and dishwashers....

Maytag has a long history as an appliance manufacturer, starting as a washing machine company in 1893. Since 2006, the company has been a division of rival Whirlpool, and some consumers have noticed a difference.

"I have been a loyal customer in the past with Maytag because their products lasted forever," Carol, of Smyrna, Ga., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "However, I purchased a Maytag dryer in 2005 and the control board has gone out twice since then, costing me $270 for the first visit to have it repaired."

Down the tubes

Carol thinks Maytag's product and service has "gone down the tubes," as she puts it, and she isn't alone. Laurie, of Port Saint Lucia, Fla., says she purchase a 5.0 cubic foot Maytag Bravos washer in January and is less than satisfied with the results.

"The machine tangles clothing into such a mess everything has to be put in the dryer prior to hanging up to dry," she said. "Even with the use of pre-treatment many stains remain on our clothing and there are pin holes in cotton garments. This washer is now leaving what appears to be streaks of rust on our clothing."

Tracey of Henderson, Nev., said she did extensive online research last summer before selecting a Maytag Bravos. She saw plenty of reviews from people who were happy with the machine, but also from consumers like Laurie.

Should have paid more attention to complaints

"I guess I should have given more weight to the individuals who indicated issues with the product," Tracey said. "Because the majority of the reviews were positive or mostly positive, I went with this product. However, some of the reviews I read indicated that the washer was rough on clothes (I agree) and that the washer balled up the clothes into tight wads producing many wrinkles (it does). Some of the reviews also indicated that the dryer takes a long time to dry (it does) and that it does not get out the wrinkles that the washer causes."

Tracey said she wishes she could get her old washer and dryer back, even if they were less energy and water efficient.  Ryan, of Bullard, Tex., thinks new efficiency standards are why washing machines in general are giving consumers so much grief.

"Washing machines built these days, which have to live up to governmental restrictions on water usage, aren't worth the price you could get for scrap metal for them," Ryan told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I've owned a Maytag front loader for five years and spent more than it is worth to fix it on multiple occasions. There is no way any modern day washing machine will ever work as well as older units because of governmental water restriction laws."

Other appliances too

Consumers also seem to have some issues with Maytag refrigerators. Kenneth of Katy, Tex., said he bought a Maytag French Door Refrigerator from Home Depot a little over four years ago.

"About five months ago it started making a humming noise off and on, then the temperature started rising and everything was thawing out," Kenneth told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Multiple service calls failed to locate the problem, though technicians ruled out a faulty compressor, saying a relay might be at fault.

"Finally we were advised that it might be a fire hazard so we are leaving it unplugged," Kenneth said.

Recalls

Interestingly, Maytag recalled 1.6 million refrigerators in 2009 because of an electrical failure in the relay that turns the compressor on and off. The failure can cause overheating and pose a fire hazard.

A year later, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced the recall of 1.7 million Maytag dishwashers, saying an electrical failure in the dishwasher's heating element could pose a fire hazard.

Like many U.S. manufacturers, Maytag in recent years has closed some of its American plants and shifted operations to Mexico. However, the company still operates a significant number of U.S. manufacturing plants.

Regardless of the source of the problems, consumers seem increasingly frustrated that appliances that once worked extremely well in the past, don't always seem to now.

"My husband and I purchased a Maytag Neptune washer and dryer in Oct. 2005," Mary, of Highland, Ind., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "The washing machine is shot. The repairman told us that the bearing assembly and seal, along with the stabilizer for the drum, needs to be replaced. The repairs would cost more than the $700 we spent on the washer. I spoke with Maytag, all they could do was offer an apology."

 

 

 

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FDA Approves Drug to Treat Restless Legs Syndrome

New GlaxoSmithKline drug is taken once a day

FDA Approves Drug to Treat Restless Legs Syndrome. New GlaxoSmithKline drug is taken once a day...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a new GlaxoSmithKline drug to treat restless legs syndrome (RLS).

The drug, Horizant Extended Release Tablets (gabapentin enacarbil), is taken once a day to treat the the disorder, which causes a strong urge to move the legs.

The urge often occurs with unpleasant feelings in the legs. People who have RLS describe feeling pulling, itching, tingling, burning, or aching in their legs, and moving the legs temporarily relieves these feelings.

The urge to move often happens when a person is inactive, and the symptoms typically are worse in the evening and early morning.

People with restless legs syndrome can experience considerable distress from their symptoms,” said Russell Katz, M.D., director of the Division of Neurology Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Horizant provides significant help in treating these symptoms.” 

The effectiveness of Horizant was studied in two 12-week clinical trials in adults. The trials showed that people taking the medication had an improvement in their RLS symptoms, compared with people taking an inactive pill (placebo).

Horizant will be dispensed with an FDA-approved Medication Guide that explains the drug’s uses and risks. Horizant may cause drowsiness and dizziness and can impair a person’s ability to drive or operate complex machinery.

Horizant contains gabapentin enacarbil that becomes gabapentin, a drug used to treat seizures in people with epilepsy, when absorbed into the body. All drugs used to treat epilepsy carry warnings that they may cause suicidal thoughts and actions in a small number of people. Horizant will have the same warning.

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Class Action Challenges Sensa Weight-Loss Crystals

Despite claims, "sprinkles" do nothing to help users shed pounds, suit charges

Class Action Challenges Sensa Weight-Loss Crystals. Despite claims, "sprinkles" do nothing to help users shed pounds, suit charges....

photoAfederal class action accuses Sensa Products and Dr. Alan R. Hirsch of selling snake oil: "magic" "tasant" "crystals," a "new, clinically proven method of losing weight," with "no food restriction, and no change in lifestyle."

In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Jeannette McClendon of Contra Costa County, Calif., says she was tricked by Sensa's sales pitch into purchasing Sensa crystals, only to learn that the claims were without scientific foundation.

Instead of offering pills, liquid or specially-formulated food, Sensa sells what it describes as “sprinkles” – or crystals – that overweight consumers can sprinkle on their food, causing a weight loss of 30 pounds or more, all without dieting or exercise.

Moreover,” the complaint notes, “This strange approach to weight loss is 'Doctor Formulated' and 'Clinically Proven.'

According to the sales pitch, Sensa crystals work with your sense of smell to stimulate an area of your brain called the “satiety center,” which “tells your body it's time to quit eating.” The suit alleges the sales pitch is false, misleading and unsubstantiated and says there is no competent scientific evidence to support it.

The lawsuit concedes that Dr. Alan R. Hirsch, M.D., who appears in promotional materials for Sensa, is a broad-certified neurologist but refers to him as a “particularly sophisticated hustler, one with a medical degree and a thick stack of junk science to support the claim his magic crystals are 'clinically proven.'”

Dr. Hirsch has been able to get by with this, the suit charges, only because over-the-counter weight-control products have not been regulated as drugs since 1994, when Congress bowed to pressure from the dietary supplement industry and largely removed supplements from FDA regulation.

The suit charges that Sensa has violated various California laws, including those dealing with false advertising and unfair business practices.

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New AstraZeneca Thyroid Cancer Drug Approved

Vandetanib treats patients who aren't eligible for surgery

New AstraZeneca Thyroid Cancer Drug Approved. Vandetanib treats patients who aren't eligible for surgery...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today approved vandetanib, a new drug for adult patients with late-stage medullary thyroid cancer who are ineligible for surgery and who have disease that is growing or causing symptoms.

Vandetanib targets medullary thyroid cancer’s ability to grow and expand. There are currently no FDA-approved treatments for this type of cancer. Vandetanib is administered orally on a daily basis.

Vandetanib’s safety and effectiveness were established in a single, randomized international study of 331 patients with late-stage medullary thyroid cancer. Patients in the study were selected to receive vandetanib or placebo (sugar pill).

The study was designed to measure the length of time a patient lived without the individual’s cancer progressing. Patients who received vandetanib had a longer period of time without disease progression when compared to patients receiving placebo.

Common side effects occurring from vandetanib use include diarrhea, rash, nausea, high blood pressure, headache, fatigue, decreased appetite, and stomach (abdominal) pain. Serious side effects reported during the study resulted in five deaths in patients treated with vandetanib. Causes of death included breathing complications, heart failure, and a bacterial infection in the blood.

Vandetanib was shown to affect the electrical activity of the heart, which in some cases can cause irregular heart beats that could lead to death. Vandetanib is being approved with a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) to inform health care professionals about these serious heart-related risks.

Thyroid cancer is a cancerous growth of the thyroid gland, which is located in the neck. Medullary thyroid cancer involves specific types of cells that are found in the thyroid gland and can occur spontaneously, or be part of a genetic syndrome.

About 44,600 new thyroid cancer cases were diagnosed in the United States during 2010, and about 1,690 people died from the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute. Medullary thyroid cancer is estimated to represent 3 to 5 percent of all thyroid cancer; its estimated incidence in the United States for 2010 is about 1,300 to 2,200 patients, making it one of the rarer forms of thyroid cancer.

Common symptoms of medullary thyroid cancer may include coughing, difficulty swallowing, enlargement of the thyroid gland, swelling of the neck, a lump on the thyroid, and changes in a person’s voice or hoarseness.

 

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What's On Your Mind? Pet Pills, Bally's Total Fitness, Belkin

Our daily rundown of consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Pet Pills, Bally's Total Fitness, Belkin, A little too friendly, They don't want you to go and Caught short....

photoYou pick up a bottle of pills in a reputable store and have no reason to doubt that what the label says is true, right? Lynn, of Manhattan Beach, Calif., seems to have her doubts.

"My vet said that most glucosamine chondroitin supplements are merely placebos," Lynn told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I have been giving my dog these pills for five years. Has this all been for nothing? How do I know that this is real since its not regulated by the FDA? The vet said over half of the products are not glucosamine chondroitin. How do I find out?"

Frankly, this sounds a bit like an urban legend. If a manufacturer is packaging a placebo and selling it as a supplement, it's clearly fraud. What Lynn's vet may have said is that some studies have suggested glucosamine chondroitin provides no benefit, you might as well be giving the dog a placebo. If Lynn wants to check out her suspicions, however, she could take the product to a testing lab. Oh, and if it is a placebo, we'd like to know about it.

A little too friendly

It's always nice when you talk to a company's customer service rep and they're friendly and helpful. Up to a point.

"I called Belkin technical support to help me change the password on my mom's wireless router," Joanne, of Irvington, N.J. told ConsumerAffairs.com. "After everything was set and done, I was pleased and ended the call. A few minutes later, I get a text from Facebook and the worker that I spoke to had used my information to look me up and send me a friend request. I was mortified. I couldn't believe it."

That does sound a little creepy. Joanne said she called back and talked with a manager and filed a complaint. But clearly, company employees shouldn't be using privileged information for personal purposes.

They don't want you to go

It's hard to part company with a health club. Once you're a member, they don't like to see you walk out the door. Thomas, of Littleton, Colo., only wanted to signed up for a year at Bally's Total Fitness so he wrote them a check instead of using a credit card. But a year latter, he says Bally's hit his bank account for another annual fee.

"I never agreed to an annual auto draft," Thomas told ConsumerAffairs.com. "And when asked them to provide the documents confirming such, the rep said 'they don't do that.'"

The only other option might be to try and pay the fee in cash. Meanwhile, Thomas should have paperwork from when he joined. He needs to review the terms and condition of the contract he signed.  Most likely, Bally's was within its rights under the contract.  If not, Thomas could complain to Colorado Attorney General John Suthers or file suit in Small Claims Court to get his money back.

Caught short

Viviana of Eatontown, N.J., was busy with her two daughters when Ikea delivered the items she ordered, which came in 78 pieces.

"I was trustworthy of the guy and asked him if everything is there he assure me that everything was there and no need to count," Viviana told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Unfortunately, not everything was there, and because she signed off on the delivery, Viviana said she was told there's nothing that can be done. She says she's out $778. The lesson here, of course, is to check the delivery before signing.

 

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TSA's Behavior Profiling Lacks Scientific Basis, GAO Finds

Individuals implicated in six terrorist plots made their way through checkpoints, report says

TSA's Behavior Profiling Lacks Scientific Basis, GAO Finds. Individuals implicated in six terrorist plots made their way through checkpoints, report says...

photoComplaints about the full-body scans conducted byTransportation Security Agency (TSA) agents are common. But most of us pay little attention to something that's almost as important to airline security – the TSA's behavior detection program, known as SPOT. (Read more consumer complaints about airlines).

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found in May 2010 that the TSA had deployed the program without determining whether there was a scientifically valid basis for it, and the latest report finds not much has changed, DC Insider reports.

Using SPOT, TSA agents are supposed to be able to spot potential hijackers and terrorists using "behavior detection principles." But the GAO found that there is no scientific consensus on whether behavior detection principles can be reliably used for counterterrorism purposes.

In other words, no one can really say whether the program works. Oh well, there were those six terrorist plots.

Say what?

Yes, GAO says that individuals allegedly involved in six terrorist plots successfully made their way through SPOT airports. No other information about those plots was provided but GAO noted that it recommended in May 2010 that TSA study the feasibility of using airport video recordings of the behaviors exhibited by persons transiting airport checkpoints who were later charged with or pleaded guilty to terrorism-related offenses.

GAO said such recordings could provide insights about behaviors that may be common among terrorists or – on the other hand — could demonstrate that terrorists do not generally display any identifying behaviors.

TSA agreed and in March 2011 reported that it is “exploring ways to better utilize such recordings.” No word yet on the results of that exploration.

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Phishing Scams Expected to Increase Following Epsilon Data Breach

Companies minimize danger but consumers must be extra alert ... forever

Phishing Scams Expected to Increase Following Epsilon Data Breach. Companies minimize danger but consumers must be extra alert ... forever...

photoConsumers need to be on the alert following last weekend's data breach at one of the nation’s largest email marketing companies, Epsilon Interactive.  As a result of the data breach, potentially millions of names and email addresses are in the hands of online hackers. (Read more consumer complaints about privacy).

The very hackers who stole the data will likely send phishing emails asking for your personal information.  Phishing emails often appear to be from legitimate companies, but are in fact crafted to solicit your personal banking information and social security number.

Affected companies have been notifying consumers that their information may be compromised and consumer protection officials around the country are urging consumers to take the warnings seriously – not only now but for many months to come.

Soothing language

Many of the warnings being sent by companies are written in language seemingly intended to lull consumers into a false sense of security. Capital One, for example, said: “Capital One has been informed that the compromised files did not include any personally identifiable or customer financial information,” the credit card company said in a statement Sunday. “Capital One is actively investigating the incident and Epsilon is conducting its own comprehensive investigation in cooperation with the appropriate authorities.”

In an email to its customers, Ameriprise Financial said: "Epsilon sends marketing and service emails on our behalf but does not have access to sensitive client data such as social security numbers. They have assured us that only names and email addresses were obtained. We take your privacy very seriously and want you to be aware of this."

Assuming it is true that only names and email addresses were stolen, that is still a very valuable starting point for criminals, online security experts noted. Just the ability to match full names and email addresses gives scam artists a headstart on chipping away at the rest of an individual's private information.

Once the information has been compromised, it is likely to be widely distributed in the black market and used by numerous scam artists for many years to come.

Companies that use Epsilon for email marketing include:

  • US Bank

 

  • Lacoste

  • Best Buy

 

  • Target

  • JP Morgan Chase

 

  • Tivo

  • Barclays Bank

 

  • Walgreens

  • Citibank

 

  • Visa

  • Hilton Worldwide

 

  • Capital One

  • Kroger Groceries

 

  • American Express

Consumer warnings

A typical warning came from Oregon Attorney General John Kroger, who reminded his constitutents that legitimate companies will never ask you for a bank account or social security number or username and password in an email. Common examples of phishing emails including fake “package delivery confirmation” and “bank account” emails.  Attorney General Kroger offers the following tips to stay safe from online hackers.

  • Never respond to an email soliciting personal information.  If you suspect it might be legitimate, pick-up the phone and call the company directly.

  • Do not click on any links embedded in phishing emails.  They may contain viruses or malware designed to steal your personal information.

  • Make sure your computer has up to date anti-virus software. 

 

 

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Social Security Even More Important Now

Uncertain economy makes recipients depend on it more

Despite the presence of pensions and retirement accounts, one expert says Social Security is taking on more importance....

At a time when private pension plans are running out of money and retirement investment accounts are trying to make up for a decade of stagnant growth, people nearing retirement are becoming more dependant on Social Security.

"Private-defined benefit pensions -- already a disappearing breed -- buckled further under the stock market meltdown," said Merton Bernstein, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. "The newly dominant 401(k)s plans lost, on average, a quarter of their value during the four years starting in 2008."

But Bernstein says Social Security, not dependent on market performance, didn't miss a beat as the principal source of retirement income. Indeed, with the faltering of private plans, he says it contributed an even larger share than ever to retirees and survivors.

Paper trust fund

According to Bernstein, Social Security is on course to provide full benefits to its expected beneficiaries through 2036 due to its multi-trillion dollar trust fund. However, that trust fund is only on paper.

Congress has "borrowed" the surplus funds over the years and now, facing huge budget deficits, has no way to repay the money. Social Security, starting this year, will now draw money from general revenue to meet current obligations. Had Congress not spent the money, there would be plenty left in the "trust fund."

Much of the budget battles taking place in Washington have so far carefully avoiding encroaching on "entitlements," a euphemism for Social Security and Medicare, whose spending will rise even more as the Baby Boomers retire. But policymakers and economists increasingly express doubts the government can keep looking the other way.

Misplaced budget battles?

John Mauldin, CEO of Millennium Advisors, says the amount of budget cuts Republicans and Democrats and now fighting over is barely a drop in the bucket.

"If  they are to balance the budget, the government needs to raise taxes and cut $150 billion per year or $1.2 trillion over the next five or six years," Mauldin said in an interview with the Daily Ticker, a Wall Street webcast. "You can't cut it all at once, you cut it all at once you throw us into a depression."

Bernstein believes raising Social Security taxes quickly will help keep the system on its feet. Currently, there is a cap on earnings subject to Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) withholding. Bernstein says raising, or even removing that cap entirely, could pump more money into the Social Security, providing an increased measure of security for Americans who are increasingly depending on it.

 

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Jury Duty Scam Resurfaces

Caller claims you failed to appear and says a warrant has been issued

Jury Duty Scam Resurfaces. Caller claims you failed to appear and says a warrant has been issued...

Mississippi-Attorney General Jim Hood says the long-standing jury duty scam has resurfaced in his part of the country.

In his scam, someone calls and claims to be a court officer, alleging that you failed to appear for jury duty. The caller may even say a warrant has been issued for your arrest.

It's easy to see why this works," Hood said.. "The victim is clearly caught off guard and understandably upset at the possibility of being arrested.”

After alarming the victim, the caller then seeks to “confirm” the victim’s Social Security number and other personal information.  The victim is often told that the entire matter can be instantly dismissed by paying a fine. All the victim needs to do is provide a credit card or checking account routing number. By the time the call ends, the scammer has all the information  necessary to open lines of credit under the unsuspecting victim’s name.
“Often, these identity thieves are actually thousands of miles away and in other countries,” said Hood.  “Under this scheme, criminals may simply go through the phone book hoping that sooner or later someone will provide the sensitive information they need to steal an identity.”

This scam's simplicity could be what makes it so effective.  The victim reacts immediately out of fear, rather than taking the time to reflect about the information being requested. In reality, court workers will never call you to ask for social security numbers and other private information. In fact, most courts follow up via United States mail and rarely, if ever, will call prospective jurors.
Consumers who receive such a call can verify whether they must appear for jury duty by calling their circuit and justice court clerks.
“Protecting yourself is the key.  Consumers should never hand over personal information in response to an unsolicited telephone call or e-mail, no matter how legitimate it might appear,” said Hood.

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What's On Your Mind? Texcote, T-Mobile, Maytag

Our daily rundown of consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Texcote, T-Mobile, Maytag, Shifting terms, That repairman's pretty busy now and Don't pay upfront....

photoTexcote is a "green" product manufactured by Textured Coatings of America, for the exterior of buildings. Steven, of San Bernardino, Calif., says he authorized the company to apply Texcote to his home, after being told the product would not crack, chip or fade for 65 years.

"It's doing everything it's not supposed to do after only four years," Steven told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Since Textured Coatings of America recommended the local contractor who applied the product, Steven felt the company was obligated to do something about it.

"We paid out $9,800.00 on the first go around," he said. "We don't feel we are responsible for paying for this twice when we were told that its a one time deal for 65 years."

Steven probably has little recourse in this case, though you could certainly argue that logic is on his side. When purchasing a product directly from a manufacturer, and then hiring a contractor to apply it, the terms and conditions are required reading. Make sure who is responsible for what.

Shifting terms

Mobile phone customers are well aware of early termination fees, so Maria, of Yonkers, N.Y. was concerned when her husband accepted a new job in Europe.

"We called T-Mobile, to inquire whether we would still be bound by our contract, even though we would be overseas," Maria told ConsumerAffairs.com. "T-Mobile informed us that, if we produced documentation supporting our relocation, then we would be released from our contractual obligations."

But Maria says a few months later, after she had gathered all the necessary documentation, she called T-Mobile and learned the policy had changed and that she was contractually bound, regardless of circumstances.

"How can policy changes effect agreements that predate the changes?" she asked.

Terms of a contract can't be changed, but a company's policies can. The terms and conditions usually carry the fine print disclaimer "subject to change without notice." But Maria may have a chance. She should read "How To Avoid Early Termination Fees."

That repairman's pretty busy now

Years ago, Maytag's advertising revolved around the theme of "the lonely Maytag repairman." Lonely, because no one ever called him since their Maytag appliances never needed repair. You don't see that ad so much anymore.

"I have been a loyal customer in the past with Maytag because their products lasted forever," Carol, of Smyrna, Ga., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "However, I purchased a Maytag dryer in 2005 and the Control Board has gone out twice since then costing me $270 for the first visit to have it repaired. I called Maytag and asked about ordering the part the second time it went out and they were going to charge more than what I could order online from a parts company."

Carol says she's thinking about letting the Maytag repairman go back to playing solitaire and buy a new dryer.

Don't pay upfront

State and federal consumer authorities continue to crack down on advance-fee mortgage modification consultants, but still these company continue to plague troubled homeowners. After hearing a radio ad for the Modification Group early last year, David, of Twinsburg, Ohio made an appointment.

"We had to pay $500 up front to get the lawyers that works with our mortgage company to get our loan reduced," David told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Then we had to send in three payment of $600 + dollars to hold their services. I have paperwork and it looked legit to us."

After more than a year, David said he can't get anyone to return his calls and say he feels like he's been scammed. David may be dealing with a company that is in violation of the law.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued a rule with nationwide effect that bans providers of "mortgage assistance relief services", which includes residential mortgage foreclosure rescue, loan modification, short sale, and deed-in-lieu of foreclosure services, from requesting or collecting fees before they successfully secure a modified mortgage.

 

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JK Harris Pays $1.2 Million to Settle Texas Charges

State says firm misrepresented its ability to help taxpayers

JK Harris Pays $1.2 Million to Settle Texas Charges. State says firm misrepresented its ability to help taxpayers....

JK Harris & Company has agreed to pay $1.2 million in penalties and refunds to Texas consumers, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced.

The judgment also applies to two related companies, JKH Financial Recovery Systems, LLC and Professional Fee Financing Associates. In April 2009, the State charged the defendants with materially misrepresenting their ability to help Texans resolve their unpaid federal income tax obligations.

“Under the court order, JK Harris and its related companies must reform the way it does business – and provide restitution to Texas taxpayers who were harmed by the defendants’ unlawful conduct,” Abbott said. “Taxpayers from across the state complained to the Attorney General’s Office about the defendants’ misconduct. The agreement seeks to resolve past problems, reimburse Texans who paid for services that were not actually rendered, and prevent additional misconduct in the future.”

In addition to the agreement’s financial penalties, the court ordered the defendants to reform several of their business practices and to improve disclosures to their clients:

  • The defendants must clearly disclose, in writing, the fact that very few taxpayers qualify for the Internal Revenue Service’s Offer in Compromise (OIC) program.

  • The defendants must also acknowledge that a taxpayer’s future earning potential and equity holdings factor into taxpayers’ eligibility for the OIC program – and thus decrease the likelihood that certain taxpayers will quality for OIC treatment.

  • JK Harris must also provide its clients written notice that the IRS is likely to continue collection efforts – including liens, levies and garnishment procedures – unless and until an OIC is approved.

The judgment stems from the state’s April 2009 legal action against the defendants for misrepresenting their ability to help delinquent taxpayers resolve their unpaid obligations to the IRS. According to the state’s enforcement action, JK Harris failed to provide promised services, overstated its ability to reduce taxpayers’ debts to the Internal Revenue Service, and accepted large, prepaid fees from customers whose tax liabilities the firm knew – or should have known – it could not actually reduce.

Former Texas clients of JK Harris & Company, JKH Financial Recovery Systems, LLC, or Professional Fee Financing Associates who believe they were misled by the defendants’ conduct should contact the Attorney General’s Office at (800) 252-8011.

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Colorado Suit Claims Multi-State Mortgage Modification Scam

Company accused of exploiting desperate homeowners

Homeowners should not believe a private company changing an advance fee can help them obtain a mortgage modification....

As statistics from the government's HAMP program attest, it isn't easy to get a mortgage modification. Loan servicers seem uninterested in helping, often requiring homeowners to jump through a frustrating series of hoops.

But that doesn't mean consumers should turn to a private company that makes big promises and charges a big upfront fee for help. In fact, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers says that's almost always a big mistake.

Suthers' office has filed suit against Colorado-based Loan Modification Solutions on suspicion the company defrauded consumers in search of home loan modifications and foreclosure relief, both in Colorado and nationwide.

$2,995 fee

According to the complaint, Loan Modification Solutions and its principals collected $2,995 upfront fees from homeowners in exchange for loan modification services (read more complaints about loan modification). The company is suspected of taking in more than $1 million since January 2009. 

In Colorado, and many other states, companies cannot demand an upfront fee for loan modification or foreclosure relief services.

Suthers says the company also is suspected of using deceptive advertisements to attract customers, including promises of a 100 percent money-back guarantee and a more than 90 percent success rate. The complaint says the company largely ignoring consumers' requests for refunds when they failed to secure modifications.

‘Skilled’ and ‘professional’

Many homeowners were undoubted attracted by the company's ads that said it employed "skilled" and "professional" negotiators to secure mortgage modifications. According to the complaint, the company did little more than collect documents from homeowners and fax them to their lenders, something homeowners could have done themselves.

"Loan-modification scams prey on distressed homeowners' desire to save their homes and to find any means to help fix their dire financial situations," Suthers said. "As is the case with most loan-modification operations, consumers who dealt with Loan Modification Solutions lost not only their upfront fee, but also crucial time they could have used to secure a modification through their lenders."

Be skeptical

Before turning to a private company to help secure a modification or head off impending foreclosure, homeowners need to employ a healthy dose of skepticism. A company that asks for a fee in advance should serve as a huge red flag. In fact, many states now have laws making that illegal.

Consumers should also be wary of any company that tells you to stop making your loan payments or to stop working with your lender. Failing to make payments could result in a foreclosure.

Finally, keep this in mind: the bigger the promise, the more likely it is to be a scam. Suthers says if a company promises to get rid of your debt, they are making a promise they cannot keep.

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What's On Your Mind? Gold Run Investments, Pyrex, Toyota

Our daily rundown of consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Gold Run Investments, Pyrex, Toyota, A new one, Déjà vu, Unexplained, the economy and airplanes....

photoThe economy in recent years has been plenty scary, and some companies that sell precious metals have played on that fear to sell physical gold and silver. Their clients are people who are worried about hyperinflation and other economic calamity. Some recent ad campaigns have encourage consumers to add gold and silver to their retirement accounts.

Without judging whether these concerns are well-founded, we will suggest that investors exercise extreme caution.

"I wired $19,810 to Gold Run Investments from my retirement account for the purchase of 500 silver coins. But I can't get hold of anyone at this company since a week ago," George, of Sunland, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com.

George said he found Gold Run Investments on the Internet when searching for a place to buy silver. He thought he was offered a good value so he wired the money. Now, he says he can't reach the company and apparently never received his 500 silver coins.

According to Hoovers, Gold Run Investments LLC is located at 1314 Durango Ridge Road, Durango, Colo. The telephone number is 970-375-0539. If George does not get satisfaction, he should contact Colorado Attorney General John Suther's office. And it goes without saying, before investing your retirement savings in gold or silver, seek qualified advice from a trusted and impartial financial advisor.

A new one

There have been numerous complaints in recent years about glass baking dishes shattering when placed in a hot oven. Barbara, of Bay Shore, N.Y., has a complaint we hadn't heard before.

"My Pyrex casserole exploded in my refrigerator," Barbara told ConsumerAffairs.com. "It had been in there for over 24 hours when I opened the door it exploded sending glass flying. I have read about this happening with a change of temperature from oven or freezer but this happened to me by opening the refrigerator door!"

The reason for these explosions remains a mystery. The companies that manufacture these baking dishes insist there has been no change in the manufacturing process.

Déjà vu

Last year at this time we were flooded with complaints about sudden acceleration incidents in Toyotas. After extensive tests, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the problem was not related to the vehicles' electronics, and the cause remains pretty much a mystery. But the problem doesn't seem to have gone way entirely.

"Sudden acceleration of the vehicle despite pressing on the brakes," James, of Martinez, Ga., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "The brakes went soft and the vehicle crashed into a sign post and a vacuum cleaner system at the car wash. I was trying to pull into a parking space with one foot on the brake when the vehicle accelerated beyond control. I used both feet on the brakes to no avail."

Millions of Toyotas were recalled to replace accelerator pedals, which were suspected of sticking.

Unexplained

With airlines charging up to $50 to check bags, lots of travelers are shipping their clothes to their destinations. But even that can have unexpected drawbacks.

"I mailed my clothes from Littleton, Colo. to Jacksonville, NC," Kathy, of Jacksonville, N.C. told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Box arrived at the local Post Office and at some point between Colorado and North Carolina, the box either broke open or was opened and taped back up."

But that's not the odd part.

"Several items were missing from my box and one shoe and five ladies tops were in my box that were not mine," Kathy said. "Figure that one out!"

 

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Five Newly-Discovered Genes Linked To Alzheimer's Risk

Could speed development of preventive measures

Genetic research has proved promising in efforts to prevent Alzheimer's disease....

Scientists may be a step closer to unraveling the mysteries of Alzheimer's disease and finding a cure for the dreaded affliction that robs the aging of their memory.

Researchers say they have identified four more genes that may serve as triggers for the onset of the disease. With this information, they say, they may be able to devise a drug, or therapeutic lifestyle, that can prevent more than have the cases.

Four of the new genes are linked to late-onset Alzheimer's disease. Each of these genes adds to the risk of developing this most common form of the disease, and together they offer a portal into the causes of Alzheimer's.

New pathways

"A significant aspect of our research is that these genes clarify three new pathways," said Richard Mayeux, one of the lead scientists in the study and Chairman of the Department of Neurology of Columbia University Medical Center.

The genes are related to the accumulation of amyloid in the brain. These new genes are involved in inflammatory processes, lipid metabolism, and the movement of molecules within cells.

"Therefore, we may now have four pathways that are critically related to the disease and that could really make a difference in how we study and potentially prevent and treat it," ssaid Mayeux.

Intriguing results

The study also revealed other intriguing results.  Dr. Michael Boehnke, a professor at the University of Michigan and an outside advisor to the study, says researchers found that injuries that cause an inflammation of the brain --  such as strokes and head injuries  -- increases the risk of Alzheimer's.

He also says that the study found that some of the newly discovered genes appear to be affected by cholesterol, leading researchers to conclude that people with high levels of cholesterol are more at risk for Alzheimer's disease.

The study is one of the largest of its kind. It was led by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, the University of Miami, Boston University School of Medicine and Columbia University. It analyzed more than 11,000 people with Alzheimer's and a nearly equal number of elderly people with no symptoms of dementia. In all, it studied about 54,000 individuals.

"This is the culmination of years of work on Alzheimer's disease by a large number of scientists, yet it is just the beginning in defining how genes influence memory and intellectual function as we age. We're all tremendously excited by our progress so far, but much remains to be done, both in understanding the genetics and in defining how these genes influence the disease process," said Gerald D. Schellenberg, a University of Pennsylvania researcher.

Objectives

The research had two main objectives. First, identification of new Alzheimer's disease genes will provide major clues as to its underlying cause. Scientists say the knowledge gained from this study will lead to development of more effective drugs.

Second, the gene discovery will help physicians predict who is at greatest risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. This, researchers say, will be important as preventive measures become available. Identification of these risk genes will also help researchers to determine the disease-initiating steps that begin in the brain long before any symptoms of memory loss or intellectual decline are apparent.

Eventually, it is hoped that researchers will be able to describe the events that lead to the destruction of large parts of the brain and, ultimately, complete loss of cognitive abilities.

 

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Car Prices Rise as Inventories Slump

The effects of the Japanese earthquake are just beginning to reach U.S. shores

Car Prices Rise as Inventories Slump. The effects of the Japanese earthquake are just beginning to reach U.S. shores....

The March 11 Japanese earthquake and subsequent disasters has put a big crimp in the production of cars and trucks, creating shortages that are likely to stretch into next year.

But as always, there's a flip side to the coin: automakers and dealers are gaining new pricing power as supplies dwindle. Automakers have been moving quickly to slash incentives and dealers are less eager to wheel and deal on prices as they contemplate delays in delivery of new inventory.

J.D. Power and Associates estimates that even in March, dealers and automakers netted an extra $300 on every new vehicle than a year ago, thanks to lower incentives, Automotive Age reported, a trend that's likely to become more pronounced in the months ahead.

TrueCar.com, meanwhile, estimated the average new-car incentive at $2,432 in march, down $366 from last year. Prices, meanwhile, remained flat even as consumers switched to less expensive vehicles – meaning they were generally paying more for less even as actual dollar amounts held steady.

So how long is this all expected to last?

The more optimistic observers think that production may get back to normal by May. But other industry insiders say the quake's effects could hang around until next year – affecting not just Japanese cars but also American and European brands that rely on key Japanese parts.

Many of the high-tech parts in today's cars are produced in Japan and it's not a simple matter to move production somewhere.

One after-shock that's just beginning to be felt is the effect on Japanese cars that are made in America. Although most Japanese cars are assembled here, many of the parts come from Japan but it only takes the lack of a single critical component to shut down an assembly line.

There are still a few cargo ships en route on their three- to four-week voyage to the United States from Japan, but once they arrive and offload, there will be no more for months.

Most dealers have enough cars on hand to last through April but beyond that, it's anybody's guess.

Toyota cuts back

Toyota sales have been slumping but the automaker is trimming back some of its incentives and marketing programs. Why? The answer's fairly obvious: inventories are getting slim as Japan struggles to recover from the recent earthquake and related disasters.

Slightly less obvious is the effect of higher gas prices on U.S. auto sales. While you might think of Toyota as a "green" company that produces mostly fuel-sippers, the truth is that a large part of its sales involve SUVs and light trucks. Both categories are selling sluggishly as gas prices continue their climb towards $4 and beyond.

Last year at this time, Toyota was pulling out all the stops, with massive marketing and advertising campaigns, generous rebates and ultra-cheap financing deals, all part of its effort to recover from the massive recalls occasioned by reports of unintended acceleration.

But this year, Toyota has discontinued a 2.9 percent APR program on the Prius hybrid and has put its traditional spring promotions on hold. Some parts of the country may see regional promotions, however.

Toyota insists it's not in danger of running out of Priuses. It is said to have about 12,250 in its U.S. inventory, 43,000 worldwide. That's about a 55-day supply.

 

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Sirius XM Faces Anti-Trust Charges in Class Action Suit

Merged company has abused its monopoly power to raise rates, suit charges

Sirius XM Faces Anti-Trust Charges in Class Action Suit. Merged company has abused its monopoly power to raise rates, suit charges....

Sirius XM Radio face an antitrust class action claim that it runs a monopoly to the tune of $89 million a year through small increases in fees and services for its nationwide satellite radio service.

A federal judge in New York granted class-action status for a group of plaintiffs alleging anti-trust violations but denied certification for other groups charging breach of contract and violation of consumer protection laws. Judge Harold Baer Jr. also denied a motion for an injunction against the company.

The plaintiffs claim that since the July 2008 merger of Sirius and XM, which eliminated significant competition in the satellite radio market, Sirius XM has made multiple increases in the charges it levies on consumers, including:

  • increase in the monthly charge per additional radio for multi-radio subscribers from $6.99 per month to $8.99;

  • initiating a $2.99 monthly fee for internet streaming;

  • charging a “U.S. Music Royalty Fee” between 10% and 28%; and

  • increases in various administrative fees.

The plaintiffs allege that these price increases are the result of Sirius XM's abuse of monopoly power, while the company claims that the price increases simply reflect increases in its costs and the higher quality of service provided.

Contradicts a promise

If true, the allegations would contradict pre-merger promises made by Mel Karmazin, who was CEO of Sirius and later became CEO of the combined company.

"No consumer will pay more than what they pay now," Karmazin said at a National Press Club appearance in July 2007. Then-XM Chairman Gary Parsons agreed, saying in a press statement that "the merger would enable us to deliver more choices and lower prices for consumers."

Rate increases are not the only source of complaints about Sirius XM. One of the more perplexing comes from Joseph of N. Massapequa, NY, who told ConsumerAffairs.com he bought a "lifetime" subscription to Sirius in March 2009 and was told that he would be able to transfer the membership when he bought a new vehicle.

So when Joseph bought a new 2011 Hyundai Sonata that came equipped with XM Radio, he assumed he would be able to use his "lifetime" subscription to Sirius, since the two companies had merged.

"Boy, was I wrong!" Joseph said. "The customer service woman assisting me was lovely. But did explain to me that Sirius lifetime subscriptions ($400.00) could not be transferred to a XM Radio vehicle. …I escalated this to a manager and they also would not budge."

Most other consumer beefs about Sirius XM revolve around unexpected renewals.

"Itried to cancel my service, with no luck. My credit card information was out of date and should not have been put through. Sirius changed the good through date to 2011 ( which is not the correct year) and put the charge through anyway," said Mark of Lawrenceville, GA.

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Feds Green Lights Artificial Food Colors

FDA advisory panel doesn't recommend hyperactivity warning labels

An FDA advisory panel says there is no evidence food dyes cause hyperactivity in children....

photoThere's not enough evidence that artificial food coloring causes hyperactivity in children, according to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel that probed the issue last week.

As a result, the panel declined to recommend that the FDA require warning labels on food products containing synthetic dyes. Though the FDA is not required to follow an advisory panel's advice, it usually does.

The food dye review was triggered by petitions from the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other groups that argued the presence of artificial colors in foods was a major contributor to the increase in behavioral disorders in children.

'No useful value'

CSPI maintains that Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and other dyes have no useful nutritional or preservative value, claiming their only function is cosmetic, making colorless food more attractive.

The food industry hailed the decision.

"The safety of artificial colors has been affirmed through extensive review by the Food & Drug Administration, via the food additive review process, and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and neither agency sees the need to change current policy," the Grocery Manufacturers Association said in a statement.  "All of the major safety bodies globally have reviewed the available science and have determined that there is no demonstrable link between artificial food colors and hyperactivity among children."

GMA said its member companies devotes "enormous resources" to making sure its products are safe, and continuously review and monitor scientific studies on the issue. Even so, at least one grocery chain is putting distance between itself and artificial food dyes.

Banned at Whole Foods

"In light of increased public awareness of and FDA hearings about artificial food dyes, Whole Foods Market reminds shoppers that its strict quality standards have prohibited artificial food colorings since the 1980s," the company said in a statement.

Whole Foods Market said it offers products that are not only free of artificial colorings, but also free of artificial sweeteners, preservatives, hydrogenated fats and other prohibited additives in the company's 304 stores.

"Our quality standards prohibit artificial colors because of our deep commitment to selling the highest quality natural and organic foods," said Joe Dickson, global quality standards coordinator. "Our shoppers rely on us to set high standards so they can shop with peace of mind, and artificial colors are not consistent with our vision for natural and organic food."

 

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Massive Data Breach Reported Over The Weekend

Millions of names and email addresses accessed

A company providing email marketing services for major companies reports a massive data breach....

photoIt could be the largest security breach in U.S. history. A virtual who’s who of U.S. companies have begun notifying consumers that their names and email addresses, held in a vast database, may be been illegally accessed.

What the companies, including Citigroup, Capital One,Kroger and Tivo, all have in common is doing business with Epislon, a provider of email marketing services.

“On March 30th, an incident was detected where a subset of Epsilon clients' customer data were exposed by an unauthorized entry into Epsilon's email system,” the company said in a statement. “The information that was obtained was limited to email addresses and/or customer names only. A rigorous assessment determined that no other personal identifiable information associated with those names was at risk. A full investigation is currently underway.”

Limited threat?

Affected companies began notifying their customers over the weekend that hackers may have accessed their email addresses, though there appears to be no way the hackers can actually access the accounts themselves.

“Capital One has been informed that the compromised files did not include any personally identifiable or customer financial information,” the credit card company said in a statement Sunday. “Capital One is actively investigating the incident and Epsilon is conducting its own comprehensive investigation in cooperation with the appropriate authorities.”

While consumers often receive spam emails sent at random, security experts say the ability of scammers to put names with email addresses may make these phishing expeditions more effective.

Ignore emails

“Customers are reminded to ignore emails asking for confidential account or log-in information and remember that familiar looking links in an email can redirect to a fraudulent site,” Capital One said. “If you get an e-mail that claims to be from us but you aren't sure, or you think it's suspicious, don't click any of the links.”

In warning its customers, Tivo sought to reassure them that the information, is actually obtained by unauthorized personnel, would not compromise sensitive data.

We were advised by Epsilon that the information that was obtained was limited to first name and/or email addresses only,” Tivo said. “Epsilon does not have access to service information or credit card details and all such personally identifiable information remains secure.”

Epsilon, a unit of Alliance Data Systems, sends out an estimated 40 billion email ads each year. Law enforcement authorities are said to be investigating how the breach occurred, and just how many names and email addresses might have been accessed.

 

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Feds: Radioactivity From Japan 'Miniscule'

Consumers get more radioactivity from watching TV than from Japanese nuke plants

Feds: Radioactivity From Japan Miniscule. Consumers get more radioactivity from watching TV than from Japanese nuke plants...

photoThe discovery of some slightly radioactive milk in Spokane, Wash., and San Luis Obispo, Calif., has rekindled fears that Americans will fall prey to harmful radiation from the damaged Japanese nuclear power plants.

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration say amounts found so far have been "miniscule" compared to the levels of radiation consumers encounter everyday.

“Radiation is all around us in our daily lives, and these findings are a miniscule amount compared to what people experience every day. For example, a person would be exposed to low levels of radiation on a round trip cross country flight, watching television, and even from construction materials,” said Patricia Hansen, an FDA senior scientist.

State and local health officials agreed.

"I really want to reassure the public. It is safe to drink milk. It is safe to consume our dairy products," said Dr. Penny Borenstein of the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department.

Increased monitoring

The EPA and FDA say they have increased the level of nationwide monitoring of milk, precipitation, drinking water, and other potential exposure routes but so far have found nothing of significance.

EPA conducts radiological monitoring of milk under its RADNET program, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has jurisdiction over the safety, labeling and identity of milk and milk products in interstate commerce. States have jurisdiction over those facilities located within their territory.

Results from a screening sample taken March 25 from Spokane, WA detected 0.8 pCi/L of iodine-131, which is more than 5,000 times lower than the Derived Intervention Level set by FDA.

These types of findings are to be expected in the coming days and are far below levels of public health concern, including for infants and children, the agencies said. Iodine-131 has a very short half-life of approximately eight days, and the level detected in milk and milk products is therefore expected to drop relatively quickly.

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Obama's Government Transparency Websites on Chopping Block

Administration's effort to make government data more accessible falls victim to budget-cutting

Obama's Government Transparency Websites on Chopping Block Administration's effort to make government data more accessible falls victim to budget-cuttin...

In what's being called a budget technopocalypse, Congress is cutting the funding for one of President Obama's pet projects, a group of websites intended to make government data more accessible to the public and show how federal funds were spent.

Congress is slicing funding for the eight sites from $34 million to $2 million, according to the Center For Public Integrity.

The affected sites include public sites likeData.govUSASpending.gov,PaymentAccuracy.govand five similar sites, as well as internal sites like FedSpace, an intranet site that's supposed to facilitate cross-agency collaboration and information sharing.

"The detrimental effect of [the budget cuts] on so many areas of government is clear—and perhaps no more so than on the efforts to ensure the government's IT infrastructure upgrades are proceeding on schedule and on budget," said Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, according to the Sunlight Foundation, which works for more openness in government..

"We cannot have a more streamlined, efficient and open government without using the best technology available. Unfortunately the cuts in H.R. 1 to e-government fund will have the unintended consequence of making government less accountable and transparent," he said.

Sunlight asked organizations and grassroots advocates to support its efforts by contacting their lawmakers to ask Congress to maintain current funding levels for these initiatives.

Other security efforts related to cloud computing, which would streamline security authorizations for federal agencies, are expected to be cut as well. Funding for some of the websites is expected to run out as early as April 20.

 

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High-Fat Fast Food And Coffee A Bad Comination

Especially bad if you have Type 2 diabetes

It may be best to avoid caffeine when you have a high-fat meal....

photoEating fast food with a high fat content is never healthy, but having a cup of coffee along with it is even worse, according to researching writing in the Journal of Nutrition.

But why would coffee be unhealthy? After all, it has no fat and no calories, if you drink it black. That’s not the point, say researchers from the University of Geulph, in Ontario, Canada.

The unhealthy part is the caffeine, and what that does when it interacts with the fat. Even a healthy person’s blood sugar levels jump after eating a high-fat meal. But the levels are nearly off the chart when caffeinated coffee is added to the mix. (Read consumer complaints about fast food chains).

Can’t clear blood sugars

"The results tell us that saturated fat interferes with the body's ability to clear sugars from the blood and, when combined with caffeinated coffee, the impact can be even worse," said Marie-Soleil Beaudoin, a PhD student who conducted the study with U of G professors Lindsay Robinson and Terry Graham. "Having sugar remain in our blood for long periods is unhealthy because it can take a toll on our body's organs."

The study on a select group of healthy men found that drinking a high-fat cocktail spiked blood sugar levels an average of 32 percent. But the results showed blood sugar levels increased by 65 per cent compared to what they were when participants had not ingested the fat and caffeinated coffee.

An hour or two apart can be a problem

Not only that, the fat and the coffee didn’t necessarily have to be consumed at the same time. Researchers noticed the increase in blood sugar levels when the meal and the coffee were consumed an hour or two later.

"This shows that the effects of a high-fat meal can last for hours," said Beaudoin. "What you eat for lunch can impact how your body responds to food later in the day."

Typically when we ingest sugar, the body produces insulin, which takes the sugar out of the blood and distributes it to our muscles. But the researchers found that the fatty meal affected the body's ability to clear the sugar out of the blood.

The researchers say they believe the combination of fat and caffeine disrupts the communication between the gut and the pancreas, which could be playing a role in why participants couldn't clear the sugar from their blood as easily. Beaudoin says the results of the study are particularly important for people at risk for metabolic diseases and Type 2 diabetes.

Limit caffeine

"We have known for many years that people with or at risk of Type 2 diabetes should limit their caffeine intake,” she said. “Drinking decaffeinated coffee instead of caffeinated is one way to improve one's glucose tolerance.”

And it goes without saying, it’s best to avoid foods high in fat, especially if you are at risk for Type 2 diabetes.

 

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Dish Network Among Bidders for Bankrupt Blockbuster

Satellite TV network is a consumer complaint magnet

Dish Network Among Bidders for Bankrupt Blockbuster. Satellite TV network is a consumer complaint magnet....

photoOnce-powerful Blockbuster, currently languishing in bankruptcy court, may soon fall into the hands of Dish Network Corp., which operates Dish TV and Echostar. Dish has submitted a bid for Monday's bankruptcy court auction of Blockbuster's asserts, as has takeover king Carl Icahn and assorted others.

Dish is the subject of nearly 3,000 consumer complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com, many concerning unexpected charges, contract disputes and disputed termination charges. That's nearly twice as many as DirecTV, which provides a similar service.

Hawa of Pullman, Wash., complained recently that he spoke to a Dish representative and insisted on a complete list of charges before signing up. When he received his first bill, there was an extra $49.99. A customer representative would say only that the charge was explained at the end of a long list of disclaimers.

Tim of Palm Bay, Fla., said he switched to Dish after more than 20 years of trouble-free but increasingly expensive service with DirecTV. He said the multi-room Dish installation was not what he ordered and after weeks of haggling, Dish finally sent a technician to install the missing equipment and levied three installation charges that he had not agreed to.

“In 20 years with DTV not one issue..within 3 weeks with DISH its been NOTHING BUT headaches, lies, additional charges, 'I'm sorry's,' nothing we can do...” Tim said.

It's not obvious what good a chain of has-been video-rental stores would be to Dish, which competes with DirecTV in the satellite TV market. The Wall Street Journal speculated that Dish TV chief Charlie Ergen thinks the Blockbuster name would help Dish's video-on-demand service.

He's also reported to think that he could use the cobweb-ridden Blockbuster stores to sell Dish TV subscriptions, although skeptics asked why anyone would want to spend a lot of money on storefronts for something that can be – and is – sold cheaply online and through telemarketers.

Bids for the chain were due last night and are all expected to be around $290 million, the minimum needed to qualify. A second round will be held if no clear winner emerges.

 

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Having A Job May Not Be Enough To Make Ends Meet

Millions 'underemployed,' group claims

The jobs picture is improving but that doesn't mean it's easy to make ends meet....

The nation's unemployment rate dipped slightly in March to 8.8 percent, as the economy added more than 200,000 jobs during the month.

But despite the improvement, a new report says millions of Americans are struggling to make ends meet, and we're talking about people who have jobs.

A group called Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) has developed a formula that suggests the average single worker needs to earn $30,012 a year - nearly twice the federal minimum wage - to cover basic expenses. Single parents require nearly twice the income ($57,756) to support two children, while dual-income households with children require $67,920. (Read consumer complaints about employment companies).

The poverty line

A family of four earning $22,050 a year is living below the federal poverty line. And many, in fact, are. Data from the U.S. Census bureau found 14.3 percent of Americans in that category in 2009.

"Too few American families are living in economically secure households, with most workers unable to stretch their incomes over basic expenses and savings," said Joan Kuriansky, WOW's Executive Director. "The American Dream of working hard to support your family is being re-written by the growth of low-paying industries and rising expenses."

Inflation and deflation

In other words, the U.S. is struggling against both inflation and deflation at the same time. Prices of commodities like gasoline and food are rising rapidly. Salaries - at least those outside certain industries like financial services and health care - are going down.

WOW's Basic Economic Security Tables for the United States report includes the comprehensive BEST Index that calculates the monthly income necessary for families to cover their basic expenses, including childcare, housing, health care, transportation, savings and retirement.

The report suggests things won't change anytime soon. The report finds that jobs created in the coming years will not provide economic security wages to the majority of workers who do not have four-year college degrees.

More low-paying jobs

Fewer than 13 percent of jobs the U.S. Department of Labor expects to be created by 2018 are likely to provide economic security to a single parent raising two or more children, the report says. A small majority of new jobs are expected to pay economic security wages for single workers without children, and approximately 43 percent of the new jobs will pay economic security wages for two workers raising two young children.

A single-parent with two young children requires an hourly wage of $27.35 an hour to cover childcare and other expenses.

"Quality, affordable childcare is becoming the greatest threat to many working families," Kuriansky said.

 

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What's On Your Mind? Hotels.com, Scams, GE, AT&T

Our daily rundown of consumer complaints

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Hotels.com, Scams, GE, AT&T, Nasty Scam, Making lemonade and Against the merger....

If you use one of the third-party travel booking sites, you had better be very sure about your plans. Changing plans with one of these sites rarely goes well.

"I called Hotels.com to make a change in my reservation," Ernest, of Columbia, S.C., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I was told that I would be charged over $100.00 for the change."

Ernest said the agent explained that Hotels.com would be assessed a $100 cancellation fee and there was no way to avoid it. Frustrated, Ernest cancelled his reservation.

"I called the hotel directly and they informed me that the agent was not telling the truth," he said. "I called back five minutes later to keep my reservation. I was told by Hotels.com that I would not be allowed to keep my reservation and must pay the $169.00. Interestingly enough, the cost of the hotel for one night is $89.00."

Travel booking sites make their money by negotiating a low rate with the hotel and charging the consumer a bit more. However, by dealing directly with the hotel yourself, you can often get as good - or better - discount.

Nasty Scam

The scam in which a criminal calls a consumer pretending to be a debt collector, making all manner of illegal threats, is still going strong. Alvina, of Stone Mountain, Ga., says she and her sister have been targets off and on since last October. The bogus claim is familiar - Alvina was accused of not paying back a payday loan and was told she was going to jail.

"When I spoke to him he told me to fax a copy of my bank statement from September showing the money was not deposited into my account and he would have the matter resolved," Alvina told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I did this, however I periodically would receive these calls again from other agents claiming no one name Peter worked there."

Alvina made a huge mistake. By faxing her bank statement to a scammer, she delivered personal information, including her address, the name of her bank and her account number. In many cases, from other complaints we've received, the scammers already have sensitive information about the victims, including social security numbers. There needs to be an investigation into this scam to learn where criminals are getting this information.

Making lemonade

We tend to get a lot of complaints about major appliances, like this one from Bonnie, of Monroe, N.C.

"I purchased a GE Profile Refrigerator approximately three years ago," Bonnie told ConsumerAffairs.com. "It has been nothing but problems. I am looking at about 10 or 11 calls. At this time the repairs are out of hand. I would have taken what they have spent and gotten me a workable refrigerator that is not a lemon.

Bonnie may have recourse. We understand that North Carolina has a lemon law that not only covers motor vehicles, but major appliances too. To qualify, however, some of those multiple repairs must have occurred while the product was under factory warranty. If Bonnie wants to check into this, she should contact North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper's office.

Against the merger

We are finally beginning to hear from some of our readers who don't like the idea of AT&T and T-Mobile joining forces.

"I am writing re: AT&T takeover of T Mobile USA," wrote William, of El Paso. "I strongly oppose allowing this merger as it will certainly reduce consumer options and reduce choice. See The Economist, March 26, 2011. I have personally experienced the problems with AT&T services and they are already - pre-merger - an issue from a customer perspective. I just recently had an issue with AT&T services and they were completely inflexible in the response."

William isn't alone, though it's mostly T-Mobile customers who are against the merger. Opponents have set up a website to rally opinion against the deal.

 

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