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Current Events in April 2011

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    'Wal-Mart Shopping Spree' Scam Victims Getting Checks

    Most consumers will get about $18; checks should be cashed promptly

    Refund checks are being mailed to more than 172,000 consumers nationwide who were defrauded by a scam in which consumers were falsely promised free gifts such as shopping sprees, movie passes, and gas vouchers and wrongfully paid monthly fees for “program memberships” in discount buying and travel clubs.

    Consumers who were victims of the “Wal-Mart Shopping Spree” scam will receive a total of more than $3 million in refunds. These are legitimate checks, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) urges consumers to cash them.

    In this 2006 case,the court banned Brian K. McGregor, the architect of the scheme, from telemarketing and selling program memberships. McGregor and Membership Services Direct, Inc., also known as Continuity Partners, Inc., were ordered to pay $28.2 million.

    The amount of money consumers receive from the redress administrator will vary, depending on how much they lost in the scam. The average check will be for about $18 per consumer. The redress administrator will mail checks directly to eligible consumers.

    The refund checks must be cashed within 60 days of receipt, or they will become void. Consumers should call 1-866-783-5589 with any questions or click on the Internet link here. The FTC never requires the payment of money up front, or the provision of additional information, before consumers cash refund checks issued to them.

    'Wal-Mart Shopping Spree' Scam Victims Getting ChecksMost consumers will get about $18; checks should be cashed promptly...
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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, 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

    Primerica 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.

    Primerica Finds Qualified Sales Agents In Short SupplyThe giant insurer has no trouble recruiting agents, but many fail licensing tests...
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    Government Issues Guidelines On Marketing Food To Children

    Guidelines are still voluntary, however

    The 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.

    The U.S. Government has issued guidelines for marketing food to children, in an effort to reduce obesity....
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      What's On Your Mind? Identity Theft, National CreditSolutions,Humana

      Our daily look at consumer reviews

      This 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?”

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

      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. 

      States Want Feds to Crack Down on Underage Drinking FTC needs to limit alcohol advertising aimed at teens, attorneys general argue...
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      CEO: Wal-Mart Shoppers 'Running Out Of Money'

      High gas prices taking a huge toll

      On 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.

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

      Well, 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.

      Class Action Suit Claims Sony Was Negligent in PlayStation HackSony failed to maintain adequate security to protect its customers, suit alleges...
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      Pew Study Finds Banks Still Rake In Overdraft Fees

      Calls for more transparent account disclosures

      Regulatory 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.

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

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

      Someone 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?

      Sony PlayStation Network Hack Hits 70 Million UsersCrooks get a treasure-trove of data in one of the biggest hacks ever...
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      Chemical Flame Retardants Show Up In Dogs

      Chemicals remain in environment after discontinued use

      Indiana 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."

      Indiana University researchers find chemical flame retardants in the blood of dogs at much higher levels than humans....
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      Lousy Economy Still Influencing Consumers' Diets

      Can have beneficial effect, up to a point

      The 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. ”

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

      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. 

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

      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.

      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

      "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.

      Larger, 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.

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





















      "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

      AJ Crib

      Austin Crib

      Cabana Crib

      Campaign Crib

      Parker Crib


      ducduc Cribs Recalled Fall and entrapment hazards...
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      Storm Victims Warned of Common Scams

      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.

      States 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.

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

      Surgical 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.

      Latex Medical Gloves Should Be Banned, Public Citizen Tells FDA The gloves are a danger to patients and medical workers alike, the group argues...
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      What's On Your Mind? Fisher & Paykel, Tom Tom, AT&T

      Our daily look at consumer reviews

      D.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.


      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.

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