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Feds Charge Get-Rich-Quick Pitchman Bilked Consumers

Promoters claimed big profits lurked in promissory note business

Feds Charge Get-Rich-Quick Pitchman Bilked Consumers Promoters claimed big profits lurked in promissory note business...

photoThe Federal Trade Commission has charged Russell Dalbey, the CEO and founder of the company behind the “wealth-building” program “Winning in the Cash Flow Business,” with defrauding consumers, in some cases out of thousands of dollars, with phony claims that they could make large amounts of money quickly and easily by finding, brokering, and earning commissions on seller-financed promissory notes.

A consumer who allegedly provided a misleading testimonial was also charged.

The FTC’s complaint against Dalbey and others involved in marketing the program, filed jointly with Colorado Attorney General John W. Suthers, alleges that the defendants misled consumers about how much money they could make using the program and how quickly and easily they could make it.

“‘Winning in the Cash Flow Business’ was a real loser for hundreds of thousands of consumers nationwide,” said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “When someone is selling a program designed to help people make money, they have to accurately describe how much consumers can expect to make and be truthful about how quickly they will be able to do so. None of that happened in this case, and people who bought the program paid the price.”

Millions of consumers nationwide saw infomercials for the “Winning in the Cash Flow Business” program, which were hosted by TV personality Gary Collins. The program supposedly teaches consumers how to find, broker, and earn commissions on seller-financed promissory notes – privately held mortgages or notes that are often secured by the home or land that is the subject of the loan.

The FTC complaint alleges that consumers spent approximately $40 to $160 on the initial program, and were later encouraged to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars more on additional products or services, such as multi-day seminars, coaching sessions, and promissory note holder lead lists.

Few successes

Few of these consumers made the money that Dalbey promised them. The FTC and the State of Colorado seek a court order to stop Dalbey, his wife, and the corporate entities they control from making the allegedly misleading claims, and to obtain money for consumer refunds.

According to the complaint, since at least 1996, Dalbey has used various corporate entities to market his program. Beginning as early as 2002, he has done so mainly through a 30-minute infomercial. Along with pitches on the Internet and through direct mail, the infomercial claimed that consumers could successfully earn substantial income brokering promissory notes in three easy steps – “Find ‘Em,” “List ‘Em,” and “Make Money.”

[Y]ou’ll be amazed at just how easy it is to generate a stream of extra income every month. Build financial freedom and a better quality of life in just minutes a day. Or even retire earlier than you ever dreamed possible. Order now and you’ll be ready to profit in minutes,” an infomercial allegedly claimed. 

These claims allegedly were supported by “testimonials” from consumers who claimed to have made “$1.2 million in 30 days,” “$79,000 in a few hours,” and “$262,216 part time,” for example. “In less than 30 days, I closed two transactions and I netted 1 point – a little bit over $1.2 million,” a testimonial by “Don B.” from New York stated.

Unfortunately, according to the FTC and Colorado Attorney General, this was far from the typical consumer experience. The complaint charges that Dalbey and the other defendants violated the FTC Act and Colorado law by making false and unsubstantiated claims that consumers are likely to quickly and easily find, list, and broker promissory notes and earn substantial amounts of money; and that defendants’ additional products and services, such as coaching programs, workshops, seminars, note holder leads, and other resources, will meaningfully increase the likelihood that consumers will succeed in the note business.

The complaint also alleges that while Dalbey claimed he has earned substantial money finding, listing, and brokering promissory notes himself, most of his note-related income for the past two decades has come from marketing and selling products and services supposedly to teach consumers how to find and broker such notes. In addition, the complaint alleges that consumer testimonials in the defendants’ advertising are inaccurate and do not reflect the results that customers are likely to achieve if they buy the program. For example, some testimonialists, the complaint charges, stated earnings claims that were total earnings figures accumulated over several years, rather than in one year.

Sales calls

The complaint also charges the defendants with violating the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule by making similar misrepresentations to consumers during sales calls.

Finally, the FTC and Colorado Attorney General charged Marsha Kellogg – one of the consumers who provided a testimonial in an infomercial – with falsely claiming that she earned $79,975.01 from one promissory note transaction using Dalbey’s program, and that her total earnings were more than $134,000. The complaint alleges that Kellogg made this statement even though she earned $50,000 less than what she claimed.

Kellogg has agreed to an order settling the FTC charges against her. The order is the FTC’s first against a consumer charged with making misrepresentations in a product or service testimonial. It prohibits Kellogg from making several types of misrepresentations in the future. In addition, Kellogg has agreed to cooperate with law enforcers in their case against the remaining defendants.

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Horizon Hobby Recalls Model Helicopters

The blade can come off and strike bystanders

Horizon Hobby Recalls Model Helicopters. The blade can come off....

Horizon Hobby Inc. is recalling about 18,000 model helicopters because the main blade grips and main rotor blades can release from the main rotor head, posing an impact and laceration hazard.

The recall affects the Blade mCP X Bind-N Fly and Ready to Fly Remote Control Model Helicopters and replacement Blade mCP X Main Blade Grips with Bearings.

Horizon Hobby has received 312 reports of the rotor blades releasing from the rotor head, including 34 reports of a blade striking a user, resulting in 12 laceration injuries.

photo

Blade ultra-micro indoor/outdoor helicopters have red and blue canopies with the name "Blade mCP X" printed on both sides. The model numbers are printed on the underside of the products' boxes with the bar code. The following are recalled:

Product NameSizeModel Number
Bind-N-Fly HelicopterLength 9.65 inchesBLH3580
Ready to Fly Helicopter (transmitter included)Length 9.65 inchesBLH3500
Main Blade Grips with Bearings (replacement part)Rotor Diameter .6 inchesBLH3514

Retailers nationwide sold the helicopters during March 2011 for $180 to $220 for the model helicopters and $10 for the replacement part. They were made in China.

Consumers should contact Horizon Hobby for free replacement of main rotor grips and do-it-yourself instructions.

For additional information, contact Horizon Hobby Support Team toll-free at (877) 504-0233 between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. CT on Saturdays, and between 12 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Sundays, or visit the website at www.bladehelis.com/MCPX

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Suit Alleges Heartgard Plus Cover-Up

Drugmaker knew product was losing effectiveness in battling heart worm, fired scientist charges

Suit Alleges Heartgard Plus Cover-Up Drugmaker knew product was losing effectiveness in battling heart worm, fired scientist charges...

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What's On Your Mind? Nationwide, Payday Loan Scam, Vonage

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Nationwide, Payday Loan Scam, Vonage, Dangerous scam and Not my plan....

logoSo, your insurance company canceled your policy? You're not alone. Even a former insurance agent says his policy was pulled. Michael, of Spanish Fork, Utah says he was once an agent with Nationwide Insurance and has just learned the company canceled his policy. And he's not happy with the way it was handled.

“This happened more that seven months ago without any notification,” Michael told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Normally if a policy is non-renewed the agent would call and inform the client so that other insurance could be put into place in a timely manner. Not only did I not receive any calls regarding the termination but did not receive any termination notice from the company despite their claims that they sent one to me.”

Michael says he is still at a loss as to why he was canceled. He says he's had the same policy in effect for the last four years. We have received other reports of canceled policies, especially in the wake of weather disasters.

Dangerous scam

Over the last week ConsumerAffairs.com has seen an increase in reports from consumers reporting contact by the scammer who claims to represent Fast Cash USA. The the sound of it, it's the same operation, they just keep changing the name of the payday lender they supposedly represent.

“I received a phone call from a financial Fraud Claims stating they were calling on behalf of USA Fast Cash,” said Kim, of Newport News, Va. “He stated that they were taking charges out against due to a payday loan I took out, canceled and they could not get back.”

Kim didn't recognize this for the scam that it is, but fortunately she didn't fall for it either. The name, who threatened to have her arrested, demand that she fax a copy of her drivers license and financial information. She refused, but is worried.

What she should be worried about is this character has her personal information. Where he got it is the million dollar question. The fact that most of the targets of this scam did, at one time, apply for a payday loan might be an indicator that the information was stolen from, or sold by, a payday loan company. This seems ripe for a Federal Trade Commission investigation.

If you get one of these calls, hang up immediately. Then, contact all three credit reporting agencies and place a fraud alert on your account.

Not my plan

Jane, of New York, feels like she has been a victim of bait and switch at the hands of Vonage.

“I signed up with Vonage for a $17.99 for 500 minutes of VoIP service,” Jane told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They have informed me that they are now charging me $19.99 for more minutes, which is not what I want. They are refusing to offer me the initial baited offer but have now switched me to higher rate.”

Communications companies routinely have wording in their terms of service that say they are allowed to substitute your plan with another, if they discontinue the plan you are on. It does seem unfair, especially since they require you to commit to a two-year contract.

 

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Where Are Gas Prices Headed, Up Or Down?

Wall Street giants predict coming price surge

It remains to be seen if consumers will continue to enjoy falling gasoline prices....

photoAs the summer driving season officially got underway, motorists were getting a little relief at the gas pump. The national average price of gasoline Monday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey, was $3.795 a gallon, 20 cents a gallon less than its May 5 peak.

But will the downward trend continue? It depends on who you ask.

Most analysts agree that in the short term, prices at the pump are headed still lower. The price of crude oil for June delivery has been dropping like a rock, meaning gasoline prices may look even better for consumers in the early part of the summer.

July price surge predicted

But both Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase are predicting oil prices will surge come July, with Goldman predicting oil at more than $135 a barrel. That would likely push gas prices back over $4 a gallon in much of the country, and even $5 a gallon in some of the more expensive areas.

But it should be pointed out that both Wall Street firms might have a lot to gain from higher oil prices. And if they have already placed their oil bets for the summer, they could certainly have a lot to lose if oil and gasoline prices continue their slide.

What would make oil prices suddenly reverse course and head higher again? It's hard to see that anything, short of a catastrophic supply shortage, would do that. Currently, there is plenty of oil and demand, in the U.S. at least, is not rising. In fact, consumers confronted with sky-high prices have trimmed their gasoline consumption for eight straight weeks.

High gasoline prices also have the effect of slamming the brakes on the economy. Economists say that every time gasoline goes up 50 cents a gallon, it sucks $70 billion out of the economy. That's money that doesn't get spent at the grocery, at retailers, or at tourist attractions.

A weak economy requires less energy, reducing demand even more. So, assuming the supply situation doesn't change, it's hard to see where the two Wall Street giants are finding the basis for a surge in prices.

OPEC's role

Then there's this. Oil suppliers, countries that really have nothing to offer the world other than their oil, do not want to see oil get too expensive.

In a candid interview with CNN, Saudi Arabian Prince Alaweed said his government does not want to see oil get so expensive that the U.S. and other countries start looking for alternatives. He said the kingdom would like to see oil prices stay in the $70 to $80 a barrel range, which should translate into $3 a gallon gas.

And in fact, industry analysts point out that one reason oil supplies are rising is because the Saudis and other OPEC countries pumped more oil in May. According to a Reuters survey, the increase has more than compensated for the recent drop in Libyan oil output.

Oil discovery

In more hopeful news for motorists, geologists have discovered a huge new oil field in Texas that could be adding to the nation's oil output within just a few years, without offshore drilling.

“It’s the one thing we have seen in our adult lives that could take us away from imported oil,” Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, told the New York Times.

So, if things are looking positive for consumers, why does Wall Street think they are about to turn negative in a big way? Do they know something we don't?

 

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Furnishing a Closet by the Sea

Truman conducts a real-world test of the companies often pilloried by our readers

Furnishing a Closet by the Sea Truman conducts a real-world test of the companies often pilloried by our readers...

photoIf you spend your time, as I do, reading and editing consumer complaints and reporting about misfortunes that befall consumers, you fall prey to a condition similar to agoraphobia (fear of the outdoors).

After more than 12 years at ConsumerAffairs.com, you might expect that I would have an advanced case of consumerophobia (fear of buying stuff). But in fact, I don't and it's not because I'm a particularly careful consumer. Rather the opposite in fact: I expect things to go wrong and am therefore not surprised or disappointed when they do. When things go right, it's a pleasant surprise.

Thus, when a relative purchased a tiny but pleasant waterfront apartment (photo) on Great South Bay in Sayville, N.Y., I volunteered to handle the set-up chores, figuring this would give me an excuse to buy lots of toys while also conducting a real-world test of companies our readers frequently complain about.

Transport

Since Sayville is way out East on Long Island and I live way down South (comparatively speaking) in Northern Virginia, the first thing I did was conduct a comprehensive study of my transportation situation. After all, I would be running up and down the New Jersey Turnpike and blasting out the Belt Parkway through Brooklyn, a grueling test of car and driver.

photoThe little two-seater that lolls around my garage was, as it is for most things, useless. Too small. My long-suffering spouse's Saturn Vue wouldn't do. Too old and not nimble enough for chaotic high-speed East Coast traffic.

So after extensive research, consisting mostly of poring through old car magazines at the dentist's office, I stopped into Fairfax Volkswagen on my way to a concert one night.

“Got any all-wheel drive (AWD) Tiguans in stock?” I asked. They had one, all decked out with big alloy wheels, GPS, 87-speaker stereo (or something like that), nuclear headlights and so forth.

“Good, wrap it up and write me a 36-month lease. I'll be back after the concert.”

It wasn't quite ready that night but was all washed up and ready to roll when I dropped by a few days later. The lease deal was just as described – a few thousand down and a monthly payment of about $400, including maintenance. Like many consumers, I don't like to dicker over price and, realistically, as the dealership had only one AWD in stock, my chances of chipping at the price seemed minimal.

The Tiguan, a “crossover,” is everything the VW Touareg is not. It's small where the Touareg is big and economical where the Touareg is boastfully expensive. Cargo room is not great but with the back seats down, it's big enough to jam in two big chairs and a few lamps or end tables.

Its 2-liter turbocharged engine and 6-speed electronic transmission make for a very lively little package. Cargo space is big enough for most chores and gas mileage on several trips up and down the Turnpike and around Long Island worked out to 24.9 miles per gallon. Handling and acceleration are excellent and the all-wheel-drive makes this overgrown Jetta feel like it's nailed to the road.

Verdict: No worries. Great little car, a bit more expensive than comparable crossovers from Honda, Hyundai and Toyota but a lot better-looking and much more fun to drive.

Macy's Furniture

OK, so at that point we had the condo and a car but not much else. The task of furnishing the condo turned out to be relatively easy.

We started at Macy's where we picked out a queen-sized leather sleeper couch for the living room. It cost a few bucks under $1,000 and seemed to be well put together if weight is any indication. The leather was fairly thick and seemed sturdy. Furniture in a beach house takes a lot of wear so we wan't something durable.

But what about delivery? Our complaints about Macy's Furniture would fill a good-sized moving van, and many of them are beefs about botched or missed deliveries.

We began to quake in trepidation, first because we had to cancel a scheduled delivery owing to a blizzard. I motored north a few days before the replacement date and spent the next couple of nights sleeping on a cot that I believe once had something to do with the Boy Scouts. My physicians expect me to regain partial movement later this decade.

The dread day approached. A Macy's computer called to confirm the date and three-hour window. As the day dawned, a cold and very blustery wind blew in off the Atlantic, making it difficult to walk along the narrow outside walkway that leads to the condo after one ascends some narrow, winding stairs and navigates several doors that tend to slam without warning.

Right on time, the men from Macy's showed up – three rather skinny little guys who didn't look as though they could lift the couch much less carry it up the stairs and along the gangplank through the gale-force winds.

But a few minutes later, the couch was set up and unwrapped and the lads were removing the little red booties they had donned before entering the condo and were rolling up the red Macy's carpet. A bit later, we filled out the online survey from Macy's, giving the delivery team an A+.

photo

Not being one to shirk our duties, we slept on the thing a few times and also lounged around on it. No problems found. The leather seems durable but is soft enough to keep couch potatoes comfortable.

Verdict: No worries. Good value and quality, excellent delivery.

IKEA

The IKEA experience also involved delivery, except that this time it was up to me and Mr. Tiguan. My spouse had furnished me with a list of chairs, tables, etc., complete with the IKEA stock numbers. This meant I could ignore the IKEA showroom and go directly to the self check-out.

photoThe first day I bought two leather tulip chairs. They came in two huge boxes, which fit nicely into the Tiguan. I wrestled the chairs up the stairs, screwed the legs on, plopped down on one and put my feet up on the other while enjoying an adult beverage.

The chairs are comfortable but have the rather dangerous habit of tipping over if you lean on them or even tilt a little to the side. The legs need to a bit farther out towards the edge of the chair and perhaps a little bigger. This is actually not a small defect, as it could cause personal injury.

photoMy next trip to IKEA netted an odd chair I would describe as a sort of Norwegian version of the bentwood rocker, minus the rockers, and a couple of small end tables. These came in small boxes, a tip-off that “minor assembly” lay ahead.

The tables were simple enough but the chair remained in a desultory state for more than a week. The three layers of fabric which fit over the metal frame were – to put it simply – too damned small. Whenever I had some spare time, I would stop by the disassembled chair and tug vigorously on the various fabrics, sort of like trying to squirm into a uniform or suit that fit just great 30 years ago.

I finally got everything stretched into shape on my last day. The chair looks OK and is quite comfortable, though I have my doubts that it would withstand extended use by a person of size.

Verdict: I wish I liked IKEA's stuff a bit more. It is always a little disappointing. I can't honestly say I think any of this stuff will wear very well and the chairs are actually a safety hazard.

UPS

photoOne of the crucial elements in this project was the bed – ordered by my spouse from some company in Canada, the name of which I have unfortunately lost. It is a platform bed with drawers in the bottom and storage space in the headboard, designed for tight spaces.

Customers are warned that the thing weighs about as much as Mars and is delivered by freight, so delivery dates are approximate. We were given a 10-day window, the first day being a Thursday.

On Thursday, I pulled into the condo parking lot after running an errand around noon and saw Big Brown pulling out. We exchanged waves and I made my way upstairs, where – lo! – outside the condo door (up all those stairs and through all those doors) were three roughly eight-foot-long, very heavy cardboard cartons, along with a “Sorry we missed you note” from UPS.

It took quite a bit of blundering around, with lots of help from the family's resident handyman, to get the thing put together. Not the least of the problems was that the bedroom was just big enough to hold the bed – which makes it kind of hard to spread out all the pieces and put the bed together.

The next time I saw the UPS guy, I thanked him profusely for lugging the stuff up there. He smiled and said that he got the best part of the bargain since he didn't have to assemble it.

Verdict: Big Brown comes through again. Accidents do happen (there was that unfortunate incident when a front-end loader rolled over a laptop I had sent myself) but all things considered I have had excellent service from UPS and its great drivers for many years.

Sleepy's

Long Island is Sleepy's home and there seem to be more Sleepy's stores than Starbucks. My biggest problem in buying a mattress was figuring out which of four or five Sleepy's stores in the area was the most convenient.

photoI picked one at random and walked in. No one else was there except for the salesman. Before he could speak, I told him I wanted a queen-sized Serta Perfect Sleeper, firm. Many retail salesmen would be unable to resist launching into their customary sales pitch despite the customer having already stated his decision but, not wanting to snooze past the close, the Sleepy's rep asked merely, “You sure you don't want to try one out?”

“I try one out every night,” I assured him. “It's fine.”

He ushered me to his computer, took down my info, traded a few tales and announced that the earliest delivery would be in two days between 10 and 2. He explained the warranty in great detail, including the conditions under which the mattress could be returned if it proved unsatisfactory.

Total price was in the $1,500 range, including box spring, liner and delivery. I may lose my membership in the Crusading Consumerist Club for saying this but I am not a big comparison shopper. The price seemed about right. Besides, I had my wife's credit card.

A couple of days later, when the gale force winds were once again blowing, two stout and chipper guys showed up on schedule, fought their way up the stairs and in two quick trips delivered the mattress, box spring and liner. They set everything up, invited me to flop down on it (I obliged this time), collected my signature and left. Elapsed time: 10 minutes.

Verdict: Nothing to lose any sleep over. Everything went like clockwork, as people used to say back when clocks were common.

Verizon

photoThings were coming together but not until Verizon's FiOS was installed would I consider the place truly livable. Fortunately, while waiting for the FiOS man, I was able to work by using my Verizon Wireless 3g broadband card, also called the MiFi. Service was very good – download speeds around 3 mbs, decent uploads. (Update: I have since upgraded to a 4g card and the difference is astounding. I use it regularly in Los Angeles, where it delivers download speeds that sometimes hit 20 mbs – cable modem speed.)

Verizon was busy taking over the world and I couldn't get an installation appointment until the following Tuesday. Monday night, therefore, entailed a wild drive up the Turnpike to get to Sayville before FiOS showed up the next day “between 8 .m. and 4 p,m.”

FiOS finally put in an appearance around noon. Hearing a knock, I opened the door to find a sight that has often greeted me in matters telephonic: a Verizon installer shaking his head and muttering, “Not going to happen.”

There were several reasons FiOS couldn't be installed, he said, some technical, others legal. I pointed out that I had filled out numerous online forms and been told installation would be a snap. Nope, he said. Muttering and shaking his head, the FiOS guy drove off, promising to speak to someone about it. He was at least true to his word. Some desk jockey from Verizon called a few days later to say it really was too bad I couldn't have their service, even though at least one other person in the condo complex has it. Something about not enough outlets available.

Verdict: It's amazing that Verizon has spent billions to build such an advanced product while doing such a terrible job of selling it, installing it and servicing it. We had our FiOS connection in Virginia taken out because it sped along at a crawl. It wasn't until after the service had been shut off and we had gone back to Cox Communications that Verizon offered to come out and try to fix it.

Cablevision

I then took the action I had tried to avoid. I called Cablevision. No one ever has a good word for Cablevision, which besides NBC Universal also owns Newsday, Long Island's only newspaper of any import. The customer service rep offered me a triple-play package (phone, TV, Internet).

Nope, I said, all I want is a 30 mps Internet feed. I'll use my cell phone, Skype and Netflix for the rest. He gave me no argument and signed me up for something around $40 per month.

Two days later (as opposed to the month or so it took to get Verizon to come out and do nothing), the Comcast installer arrived, hooked up a modem to the already-installed coax, tested it and left. Elapsed time: about ten minutes.

I hustled over to Best Buy, where a salesman fell into step beside me and asked what I wanted. “Wireless router,” I said. He handed me a dual-band Netgear that was the exact model I had in mind and, without breaking stride, I beat it over to the cashier line, grabbed a Blu-ray of the first season of “The Walking Dead” (strong family resemblance) and was soon back in the Tiguan.

As expected, setting up the router was a snap and in a few minutes, I was watching “Law and Order” via Netflix, checking out the latest FiOS complaints on my laptop and carrying on a rather trite conversation via Skype.

After a few months of occasional drop-ins to see how everything is going, I have heard no complaints about Cablevision, except that service disappears sporadically for no apparent reason.

Verdict: So far, so good. Better than expected, in fact.

Amazon

While we're on the subject of electronics, I wanted an easy-to-use DVD/streaming video system that was not too expensive and didn't take up too much room, as the property in question is truly tiny. Turning to Amazon.com, I ordered a 26-inch ASUS computer monitor and an LG Blu-ray DVD player/streaming video receiver.

photoWanting to avoid having lots of wires, I looked for an all-in-one audio system to replace the built-in monitor speakers and provide a little more oomph. I settled on the ZVOX 525 low-profile sound system, $329 from Amazon. You've heard of a black box? This amazing unit is just that – a short but deep black box that slips in underneath the monitor. It uses phase-shifting (or something) and a bunch of small speakers to create a surround-sound effect that is quite convincing.

The sound quality is quite good. A little fiddling will get you something that lends just the right degree of crispness to dialogue without blasting your next-door neighbors out of bed.

Verdict: Amazon never disappoints. Selection is outstanding, prices competitive and things show up on schedule.

Final Grade

It pains me to say it, but things went pretty well, with the exception of Verizon and IKEA. Back in 1998, when we started ConsumerAffairs.com, there was a widespread attitude among consumers that retailers and product manufacturers didn't much care whether their customers were satisfied.

Whether or not this was true is open to question but certainly, consumers had fewer ways of making their complaints and compliments public and businesses had fewer communication channels at their disposal.

Now, nearly every transaction is followed up by a survey of some kind, asking the customer to rate the product, service and the sales and delivery process. Do I want to take some of the credit for this? Sure, why not? Certainly there are still lots of problems with consumer goods (and everything else) but as this little experiment showed, it is possible to conduct a number of treacherous tasks in a short period of time and come out with a pretty good outcome.

I had a good time doing this and, more importantly, I plan to make frequent return visits to the Closet By the Sea this summer, just to make sure everything remains ship-shape.

 

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HP Expands Recall of HP, Compaq Laptop Computers

Batteries can overheat and start a fire

HP Expands Recall of HP, Compaq Laptop Computers. Batteries can overheat and start a fire...

HP is expanding its recall of lithium-ion batteries used in HP and Compaq laptop computers. About 124,000 batteries were recalled over the last two years.

The batteries can overheat and rupture, posing fire and burn hazards to consumers.

Since the May 2010 recall expansion, HP has received 40 additional reports of batteries that overheated and ruptured, resulting in seven burn injuries, one smoke inhalation injury, and 36 instances of property damage.

The recalled lithium-ion rechargeable batteries are used with various model series of HP and Compaq notebook computers and include batteries that consumers were informed were not included in previous recalls. The chart below includes all notebook model numbers associated with batteries recalled to date. The computer model number is located at the top of the service label on the bottom of the notebook computer. Not all batteries matching the bar codes are being recalled.

 

Notebook Model NumberBattery Bar Codes (^ in the code
can be any letter or number)
HP Paviliondv2000, dv2500, dv2700, dv6000, dv6500,
dv6700,dx6000, dx6500, dx6700
62940^^AXV^^^^, 65035^^B7U^^^^, 65035^^B7V^^^^, 65035^^BGU^^^^, 65035^^BGV^^^^
dv9000, dv9500, dv970065033^^B7U^^^^, 65033^^B7V^^^^, 65033^^BGU^^^^, 65033^^BGV^^^^
Compaq PresarioA900
C700
F500, F700
V3000, V3500, V3700, V6000, V6500, V6700
62940^^AXV^^^^, 65035^^B7U^^^^, 65035^^B7V^^^^, 65035^^BGU^^^^, 65035^^BGV^^^^
HPG6000, G700062940^^AXV^^^^, 65035^^B7U^^^^, 65035^^B7V^^^^, 65035^^BGU^^^^, 65035^^BGV^^^^
HP Compaq6510b, 6515b, 6710b, 6710s, 6715b, 6715s65000^^B5V^^^^
6520s67150^^AXU^^^^, 67150^^AXV^^^^
6720s67059^^V8U^^^^, 67059^^V8V^^^^

The computers and batteries were sold by computer and electronics stores nationwide, hp.com and hpshopping.com from July 2007 through July 2008 for between $500 and $3,000. The battery packs were also sold separately for between $100 and $160. They were made in China.

Consumers should immediately remove the batteries from their notebook computer and contact HP to determine if their battery is included in this recall. Consumers who had previously checked their batteries and were informed they were not included in previous announcements are urged to check again. Consumers with recalled batteries will receive a free replacement battery. After removing the recalled battery from their notebook computer, consumers may use the AC adapter to power the computer until a replacement battery arrives.

For additional information, visit the HP Battery Replacement Program website at www.hp.com/support/BatteryReplacement or call (888) 202-4320 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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Keeping Your Dog Safe In The Car

Restraining harness is equivalent of canine seat-belt

If you're traveling by car with your dog this summer, here are some ways to keep them safe....

photoWe've gotten increasingly safety conscious about car travel. Fifty years ago few vehicles had seat belts. Now cars come equipped with all manner of safety equipment to keep its human occupants from getting injured in an accident.

But what about non-human passengers? It turns out there are equipment and procedures designed to protect dogs that are traveling by car.

Many pet owners might prefer to keep the dog in a crate, and while that's not a poor alternative, it does have its drawbacks. In the event of an accident, the dog could be slammed into the side of the crate; and if the crate is not properly secured, it may not hold in place.

We've had it drummed into us for a generation or two how important it is for adults to buckle up and for children to be properly restrained in age-appropriate car seats. So it should come as no surprise that the safest way for your dog to travel is in a harness and seatbelt.

Restraining harness

Keeping the dog in a restraining harness isn't just safe for the pet, but for the driver as well. An unrestrained dog can become a dangerous projectile in the event of an accident or even a short stop.

A survey by AAA last year found that nearly one-third of dog-owning drivers admitted they'd been distracted by their dogs in the car. One pet safety advocacy group has put the number of car accidents caused by dogs at 30,000 annually.

Experts consulted by Edmunds.com also warn drivers not to let dogs ride with their heads out the window. As much as they might enjoy it, they could be at risk of getting injured by flying debris.

Open trucks

Likewise, it's even more unsafe for dogs to travel in the flatbed of a pickup truck, where they could jump or be ejected at high speeds. Some states even have specific laws regulating how dogs can be transported in an open area of a vehicle.

The car doesn't have to be in motion to pose a threat to your dog; leaving your pet in an unattended vehicle can also be very harmful. Experts say that even on a 60-degree day, the temperature in a car exposed to the sun can rise to over 100 degrees.

Prolonged exposure in that type of heat can cause seizures or central nervous system problems in the short term and organ function problems in the long term. The best advice from experts is to simply leave your dog at home when you're out running errands.

 

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Drugged Livestock Endanger Public Health, Suit Argues

Scientists sue feds for failing to crack down on antibiotics in animal feed

Drugged Livestock Endanger Public Health, Suit Argues Scientists sue feds for failing to crack down on antibiotics in animal feed...

photoA group of scientists and consumer activists say that a deadly oubreak of untreatable infections in the U.S. is just around the corner because federal agencies have failed to crack down on the use of antibiotics in animal feed.

Low doses of antibiotics in animal feed over a long period of time contribute to the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can be transferred to humans and is a greater risk to public health than anyone wants to admit.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen, and the Union of Concerned Scientists sued the U.S. FDA and its Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, the Center for Veterinary Medicine and its Director Bernadette Dunham, and the Department of Health and Human Services and its Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

The watchdog groups say the FDA first approved feeding of "preventative" antibiotics to healthy livestock in the 1950s. 

But in 1977, the FDA found that found that "subtherapeutic" doses of penicillin and tetracyclines - at levels too low to treat disease - contributed to development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could be transferred to humans.

"This litigation does not concern targeted, short-term uses of antibiotics to treat animals that are already sick," the complaint states but rather deals with the constant and habitual use of antibiotics in all animals, even those that are not sick.

Findings confirmed

The FDA never retracted its 1977 study, and later research confirmed its findings, the suit says. It notes that drug resistance is a fact of life for virologists and public health workers, who, for example, must design new forms of influenza vaccine each year to try to counter the diseases' ability to survive old forms of vaccines and drugs.

"The misuse and overuse of antibiotics has given rise to a growing and dangerous trend of antibiotic resistance," the complaint states. "Increasingly, bacteria are resistant to not one but multiple antibiotics, resulting in infections that are difficult to treat, require longer and more expensive hospital stays, and are more likely to be fatal. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences has warned that '[t]he specter of untreatable infections - a regression to the pre-antibiotic era - is looming just around the corner.'"

In 1999, four of the plaintiffs submitted citizen petitions asking the FDA to withdraw its approvals for nontherapeutic uses of antibiotics in livestock if the antibiotics are also important in human medicine.

The fifth plaintiff, the Natural Resources Defense Council, joined the others in 2005. 

The nonprofits say the FDA "unreasonably delayed ruling on" these petitions, and "has never issued a final response to either petition" even though the scientific evidence is overwhelming, the groups say.

80 percent

"Approximately 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States today are used in livestock. Most of these drugs are not used to treat disease. Instead, they are given to healthy animals in their feed or water, both to promote faster growth and to prevent infections that tend to occur when animals are kept in cramped, unsanitary conditions,” the suit says.

“Research has shown that the use of antibiotics in livestock leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can be - and have been - transferred from animals to people through direct contact, environmental exposure, and the consumption and handling of contaminated meat and poultry products."

The FDA's failure to act violates the Administrative Procedure Act and the Food and Drug Act, the groups say. They want the FDA ordered to withdraw its approval of subtherapeutic uses of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed. 

 

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Illinois Widens Robo-Signing Probe

Attorney General appeals to whistle-blowers

The state of Illinois has widened an investigation into robo-signing practices by major mortgage servicers....

photoWe haven't heard much lately about robo-signing of foreclosure documents in the mortgage industry, but the issue is still on the radar screen in Illinois.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has expanded her investigation, issuing subpoenas to two national mortgage servicing support providers. The subpoenas were issued to Lender Processing Services Inc. and Nationwide Title Clearing Inc., two Florida-based corporations that provide “document preparation services” and other loan management services to mortgage lenders for use against borrowers who are in default, foreclosure or bankruptcy.

“Foreclosure became a rubber-stamping operation that robbed many homeowners of the American Dream without a fair and accurate process,” Madigan said. “I will not relent in my investigation into the fraudulent practices by lenders and others that caused and exacerbated the mortgage crisis and the resulting massive foreclosure crisis.”

Major players

Madigan said Lender Processing Services (LPS) provides loan servicing support for more than 50 percent of all U.S. mortgages. More than 80 financial institutions use LPS to service more than 30 million loans. These loans have an outstanding principal balance exceeding $4.5 trillion.

Nationwide Title Clearing (NTC) provides a range of mortgage loan services to eight of the top 10 lenders and mortgage servicers in the country. NTC specializes in creating, processing and recording mortgage assignments, which are often needed for a lender to foreclose on a borrower.

Madigan said she is looking into reported allegations that LPS and NTC engaged in the practice of “robosigning” legal documents filed with the court to foreclose on borrowers. Robosigning occurs when an individual has no knowledge of the information contained in the document and often doesn’t even read or understand the document that he or she is signing.

The use of robosigned documents was pervasive as lenders foreclosed on borrowers’ homes. The probe will also include a complete review of the accuracy of the systems and services that LPS and NTC provide to the large lenders including servicing platforms, foreclosure attorney interaction with these platforms and the assignment of mortgage process.

Looking for whistle-blowers

Madigan also took the unusual step of publicly appealing to former employees of LPS, NTC, or former employees of any residential mortgage servicer or bank who have knowledge of any unlawful practices relating to mortgage servicing or the execution of documents, to contact her office.

The robo-signing scandal first came to light last year when a Florida attorney, deposing a GMAC Mortgage official, learned that the official, who was required to read and affix a notarized signature to thousands of foreclosure documents, employed a robo-signer.

It was later determined that several large mortgage servicers, to cope with the crush of foreclosure documents, did the same thing.

 

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Report: Commercial Seafood Often Mislabeled

Environmental group finds something fishy about seafood

A report says much of the commercial seafood consumers buy is mislabeled....

photoYou may think you are buying mahi-mahi, but chances are it's really yellowtail. The red snapper you order in a restaurant could be talapia.

Seafood consumers are being exploited by mislabeled fish products, according to the environmental group Oceana, which has released a report entitled Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Wallets and Our Health.

“We can track organic bananas back to packing stations on farms in Central and Latin America, yet consumers are given little to no information about one of the most popular foods in the United States – seafood,” said Dr. Michael Hirshfield, senior vice president for North America and chief scientist for Oceana. “With imports representing the vast majority of the seafood eaten in the United States, it’s more important than ever to know what we are eating and where, when and how it was caught.”

Minimal inspection

The report says that while 84 percent of the seafood eaten in the United States is imported, only two percent is currently inspected, with almost no thought given to potential fraud. In fact, the report says recent studies have found that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70 percent of the time for fish like red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod, disguising species that are less desirable, cheaper or more readily available.

“We’ve tested well over 1,000 fish fillet samples over the past four years, from more than 50 cities across the country,” said William Gergits, co-founder and managing member of Therion International, LLC, a worldwide leader in DNA testing of seafood. “Results from our DNA lab show that about half the time the fish you are eating is not the species listed on the menu.”

Consumers shortchanged

The report maintains that consumers are frequently shortchanged, served a cheaper fish than the one they've paid for. With about 1,700 different species of seafood from all over the world now available in the U.S., the report says it is unrealistic to expect consumers to be able to independently and accurately determine what fish is really being served.

“Seafood fraud puts consumers and restaurants trying to make honest, eco-friendly choices at a disadvantage,” said Ellen Kassoff Gray, general manager and co-owner of top-tier D.C. restaurants Watershed and Equinox. “We need the U.S. government to provide us with the tools to make good decisions for our oceans, our pocketbooks and our health. It’s just good business.”

Oceana says the technology now exists to accurately identify different species of fish and that these tools should be put into action to stop what it calls seafood fraud. It says the government should implement existing laws, increase inspections, and improve coordination and information sharing among federal agencies.

The group said it is also working to ensure that the seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legal and honestly labeled, including requiring a traceability scheme where information such as when, where, and how a fish is caught follows it throughout the supply chain – from boat to plate – allowing consumers to make more informed decisions about the food they eat.

 

 

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What's On Your Mind? BB&T, Hertz, Dish Network

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: BB&T, Hertz, Dish Network, Not in the driver's seat and Any change changes the terms....

logoThe economic crash of 2009 hit a lot of small businesses very hard. Elizabeth of New Market, Md., said her husband's construction company, an LLC, was forced to close its doors, with creditors placing a lien on the business property. One creditor, 84 Lumber, asked for a lien against all of Elizabeth's husband's bank accounts.

“The only checking accounts and savings accounts that he had was a personal BB&T joint checking and savings account with myself,” Elizabeth told ConsumerAffairs.com. “In the state of Maryland it is illegal to put a hold on a joint account. I was not named on the any lawsuits and I was never an owner or stake holder in the business. We spoke with the garnishment department about this and they said there was nothing they could do.”

That was 2009. Elizabeth says the accounts are still frozen but 84 Lumber hasn't gotten any money.

“So if BB&T never sent the money, why are they still holding it,” Elizabeth asked. “The lawsuit has been dropped and still they won't release our money.”

If Elizabeth is correct that Maryland law forbids putting a hold on a joint account, then she needs to contact Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler's office. However, if Elizabeth's husband was using their joint bank accounts for the business, that might give the bank an out.

Not in the driver's seat

logoCarrie, of Homestead, Fla., says she reserved a car through Hertz and told them she would be paying with a debit card because she had no credit.

“I called them and asked them if this could be possible and they said it was no problem,” Carrie said. “When I arrived at the airport they noticed I had no credit at all. They denied me, making me sit in the airport from 3pm to 11pm that day. Every other car rental place was booked.”

Rental companies want you to have a credit account because, if something happens to the car, they want to have a way to hold you responsible for damages. According to the Hertz website, you can pay cash for a rental, but you are required to have what they call a “cash deposit ID card.” The customer service rep should have explained that to Carrie when she called.

In or out?

Under new federal debit card rules, bank customers cannot be automatically enrolled in the bank's overdraft “protection.” The customer must “opt in.” You would think that by “opting in,” a customer would be aware they were doing so. Michelle, a Wells Fargo customer from San Francisco, says apparently not.

“The telephone customer service agent told me that on one of my 10 accounts I had opted IN to have overdraft protection, so they could charge me $35.00 for each and every check card purchase I made,” Michelle told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I didn't want this so I did not opt in. They say I did and refuse to provide me proof. Over the last six months it has cost me $1200.00.”

Presumably, Michelle has changed the option on that account, so she will no longer be subjected to fees. A Center for Responsible Lending survey indicates that most consumers do not want high-cost overdraft coverage for their checking accounts, and that most of the opt-ins so far are largely based on aggressive and misleading marketing, rather than clear and accurate information from banks.

Any change changes the terms

Parag, of Richardson, Tex., was preparing to travel to India on a religious pilgrimage, so she called Dish Network to see if she could suspend her account for a few weeks. She had recently signed up for a special Dish Network promotion, getting America's Top 120 for $24.99 for 12 months and $39.99 for the second 12 months.

“Dish Network advised that Dish Pause was the best option, stating that it would only cost us a $5.00 monthly charge for Dish Pause duration,” Parag said. “The account would remain active and resume when we returned.”

Parag said she was shocked when she returned two months later and found that, by using Dish Pause, she has “forfeited” her promotional rate.

“My monthly bill now was almost doubled from $24.99 now to $44.99 for Americas top 120 package,” she said. “They knowingly omitted this key piece of information.”

It's possible the customer service rep Parag spoke with didn't know about that particular wrinkle. It's also possible that, as Parag suspects, they let her give up the promotional rate without informing her that she was doing so. However it went down, it's good to keep in mind that anytime you change the terms of a subscription contract in any way, you may be in danger of losing any kind of special deal you enjoy.

 

 

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'Free Vacation' Scam Targeted Spanish-Speaking Consumers

Every contestant ‘won’ but vacations weren't delivered

‘Free Vacation’ Scam Targeted Spanish-Speaking Consumers. Every contestant ‘won’ but vacations weren't delivered ...

The Federal Trade Commission has filed two court actions against five companies and their owners for allegedly tricking consumers into paying fees for vacation packages they supposedly won in contests, and then failing to provide the promised vacations.

At the FTC’s request, the court halted the defendants’ allegedly deceptive practices and froze their assets pending further litigation.

VGC Corporation of America

In the first case, the FTC charged that the defendants used Spanish-language radio and TV ads nationwide to offer a vacation package they claimed was worth thousands of dollars as a prize to callers who answered a simple trivia question.

For instance, the defendants ran television ads proclaiming “Attention! This program has been interrupted. It’s time to win for the first thirty people that dial the number that appears on the screen and can tell me correctly how that famous Mexican comedian (Mario Moreno) was also known ... If you know the answer ... you are going to go to Disneyland ...”

Callers were told they had won a prize, and that if they paid a fee of up to $400 they would receive their promised vacation package.

However, according to the complaint, when the “winners” tried to redeem their prize, they were almost uniformly denied. Many consumers who called the defendants to book their vacations were told they were not eligible because they did not meet previously undisclosed conditions, limitations, and restrictions, including age, income or marital-status requirements, or required attendance at a timeshare presentation.

Others were told the promised vacations were no longer available or that they had to pay more to redeem their prize. Some consumers could not reach the defendants to claim their prize, and those who did reach them and asked for their money back were told there were no refunds and they were simply out of luck.

The FTC charged the defendants with violating the FTC Act. The State of Florida charged them with violating the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.

The defendants in this case are VGC Corporation of America, also doing business as All Dream(s) Vacations, All Dreams Travel, Five Star(s) Vacations, 5 Star(s) Vacations, Total Tours, and Travel & Tours Corp.; All Dream Vacations Corp., also doing business as All Dreams Vacations; and several individuals.

Holiday Vacations Marketing Corp.

The defendants in the second case also targeted Spanish-speaking consumers in a similar scam.

According to the FTC’s complaint, when consumers called to accept the “prizes,” the defendants’ telemarketers took their credit or debit card numbers, charged their accounts a fee of up to $400, and mailed them a payment invoice, a vacation brochure, and instructions to call 30 days or more before the desired vacation date to make reservations.

The defendants sometimes mailed terms and conditions stating that consumers had to make reservations within 18 months of purchase, pay their own air fare, present two forms of ID at the hotel, and be 21 or older.

The complaint also alleges that consumers often could not reach a live operator to schedule vacations, or managed to make reservations but could not reserve as many nights as they were promised. Some consumers learned, after arrival, that they had to attend timeshare presentations and meet income and marital-status requirements to receive free hotel stays.

At least one person, who traveled from Texas to Florida, was charged for the hotel because she could not attend a timeshare presentation scheduled for the day after her departure. Consumers who complained or demanded refunds had trouble reaching anyone by phone, and others were promised a refund that was never provided, according to the complaint.

In addition, the defendants allegedly re-charged consumers’ accounts up to $400 without their authorization, and without disclosing that they would be charged a second time.

When consumers reported the unauthorized charges to their banks or credit card companies as fraudulent, the defendants used certified mail to send those consumers a new invoice and brochure that was nearly identical to those sent after the initial charge. The defendants then sent the consumers’ banks or credit card companies a copy of the consumers’ signatures from the certified mail receipt and a copy of a false invoice. This led some banks and card companies to refuse consumer requests to cancel or reduce charges to their accounts.

The FTC charged Holiday Vacations Marketing Corp., Happy Life Carribbean Corp., Happy Life Corporation of America Inc., and several individuals, with violating the FTC Act.

 

 

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FTC Nails Bogus Debt Reduction Businesses

Multi-million-dollar settlements imposed on several businesses and their owners

FTC Nails Bogus Debt Reduction Businesses. Multi-million-dollar settlements imposed on several businesses and their owners. ...

Two purported debt relief firms that claimed they could help consumers lower their credit card balances have been put out of business.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had charged Advanced Management Services NW LLC (AMS) and PDM International with making deceptive telemarketing calls, calling consumers on the Do Not Call Registry, and using illegal robocalls. The settlements will ban all of the defendants from selling debt relief services.

The FTC charged that AMS soaked clients up to $1,590 and promised a refund if they failed to deliver at least $2,500 in interest rate savings. But, instead of arranging reduced interest rates, the defendants sent consumers instructions to pay down their credit card debts early to save money on interest.

Consumers who demanded refunds allegedly were denied outright, got the runaround, or had a $199 “nonrefundable fee” deducted from their refund.

Under two settlement orders, all of the Advanced Management Services defendants are banned from selling debt relief services. The defendants, who were based in Washington and Texas, are also prohibited from misrepresenting material facts about any good or service, selling or using customers’ personal information, failing to properly dispose of customer information, and collecting payments from their debt relief customers.

The order against PDM International Inc., also doing business as Priority Direct Marketing International Inc., and William D. Fithian, also bans them from telemarketing and from violating the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule, and imposes a $13.8 million judgment.

The order against Advanced Management Services NW LLC, also doing business as AMS Financial, Rapid Reduction Systems, and Client Services Group; Rapid Reduction System’s LLC; Ryan David Bishop; and Michael L. Rohlf; imposes an $8.1 million judgment.

Both judgments, which represent the total amount of money consumers lost, will be suspended when the defendants have surrendered virtually all of their assets, including several luxury cars, a boat, jet skis, and ATVs. The full judgments will become due immediately if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

Dynamic Financial

In a second case, the FTC alleged that Dynamic Financial Group and other defendants told consumers that, for an up-front fee of up to $1,995, they could save consumers thousands of dollars by reducing their credit card interest rates, and help them pay off their debts faster. The FTC further charged that the defendants promised, falsely, a full refund if consumers did not save a “guaranteed” amount – typically $2,500 or more. However, the defendants allegedly did not negotiate lower interest rates for consumers or failed to provide refunds.

Under five settlement orders in this case, all of the defendants are banned from selling debt relief services.

The order against 2145183 Ontario, Inc., also doing business as Dynamic Financial Resolutions Inc.; The Dynamic Financial Group (U.S.A.) Inc.; R&H Marketing Concepts Inc.; America Freedom Advisors Inc.; Joseph G. Rogister; and Christopher M. Hayden also bans them from robocalling and imposes an $8.3 million judgment that will be suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay.

The order against Thriller Marketing LLC, Dwayne J. Martins, and John L. Franks Jr. imposes a $4.9 million judgment that will be suspended when Martins has surrendered the proceeds from selling a 2005 BMW 645 and Franks has surrendered the proceeds from selling two business condominiums in Tampa.

The order against Frank Porporino Jr. also bans him from robocalling and imposes an $8.3 million judgment that will be suspended when he has surrendered certain assets. In each instance, the full judgment will become due immediately if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

The orders against Michael Falcone and Sean Rogister also ban them from robocalling and impose judgments of $93,137 and $90,473, respectively, which must be paid immediately.

 

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Bank of America Pays $410 Million to Settle Overdraft Suit

Millions of customers hit with fees because of debit-card transaction may see partial refunds

Bank of America Pays $410 Million to Settle Overdraft Suit. Millions of customers hit with fees because of debit-card transaction may see partial refunds...

logoBank of America will be putting $410 million into an escrow account to be divided among its customers who were charged overdraft fees because of checking and debit-card transactions dating back to 2001.

The payment is part of a federal court settlement tentatively approved by a federal judge this week. All of the bank's customers will be eligible, not just those involved in the suit.

The law firm that brought the class-action lawsuit says that about 1 million customers will be eligible for payments, although legal fees are likely to eat up about 30% of the amount.

Randy of Yonkers, N.Y., might be one of them.

Last fall, he overdrew his checking account by writing an $80 check when there was only $53 in the account. Then the bank applied overdraft fees to three debit card charges that Randy said had already been paid.

“They manipulated those $35 fees to be deducted from my account” and made it appear there was no money in the account when in fact the account was not overdrawn at the time the transactions occurred, he said.

“All they tell me is they can't change it,” Randy ruefully told ConsumerAffairs.com last October.

'Resequencing'

The suit was one of several that challenged the way banks treated debit transactions. The suits accused the banks of “resequencing” debit transactions, recording the largest one first rather than in chronological order – thus causing the customer's balance to dwindle faster than it might have otherwise.

Bank of America and about 30 other banks named in the action have denied they did anything wrong but a Bank of America spokesman was quoted as saying the bank was “pleased to reach a resolution” and hoped the settlement was produce “a standard solution that would ensure a consistent posting order approach across the industry.”

Other banks named in the suit, which was consolidated from several individual suits, include J.P. Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank and SunTrust. Fifth Third Bank settled last year.

Federal regulations now prohibit banks from charging overdraft fees on debit card purchases unless they first get customers' approval to do so. Some banks have been aggressively urging customers to opt-in to overdraft protection but Bank of America no longer covers overdrafts on debit cards, simply rejecting the transaction at the point of purchase.

 

 

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Suit Charges Fox Car Rental Fleeces Customers for Tolls

Washington woman paid $100 service fee for two $3 highway tolls

Suit Charges Fox Car Rental Fleeces Customers for Tolls. Washington woman paid $100 service fee for two $3 highway tolls ...

logoA consumer class action claims Fox Rent A Car and Violation Management Services run an "illegal scam" by charging customers a bogus "service fee" of as much as 16 times the amount of automatically charged highway tolls.

The lead plaintiff, Averil Rothrock, says she was charged $100 for two $3 highway tolls.

The suit, filed in King County Court in Seattle, says that Fox does not alert drivers to the fees and offers them no way to pay the toll without also paying the “service fee.”

Many toll roads have automated their toll collection systems so that drivers no longer have the option of paying cash, the suit notes. Instead, drivers proceed at highway speeds through the toll plaza and the owner of the car is later billed for the amount of the toll.

Other rental car companies, the suit says, give their customers the option of having the tolls billed to their credit cards or furnish the renter's information to the toll authority, which then bills the customer directly.

But Fox and Violation Management Services, the suit says, have “conspired to turn Fox customers' tolls into an illegal profit center for themselves.”

Violation Management processes the tolls and bills them directly to the customer's credit card, along with the service fee “sometimes exceeding 1600% of the actual toll,” the class action suit alleges.

The 'service fee' is nothing other than an illegal scam to collect from customers amounts they do not owe,” the suit charges.

In the suit, Rothrock, a Washington resident, says she rented a vehicle from Fox's Denver Airport location on February 18, 2011. During her travels in the Denver area, she drove on Highway E-470, an unmanned toll road that uses an automatic toll collection system. She ran up two $3 tolls.

Six weeks later, she received two letters informing her that she was being charged for each of the $3 tolls plus a $50 service charge for each toll.

The suit charges that Fox's actions violate the Washington Consumer Protection Act and seeks treble damages, attorneys' fees and an injunction.

 

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Foreclosures Still Weighing Down the Real Estate Market

Three-year supply of foreclosures drives down prices, slows sales

Foreclosures continue to provide a strong headwind for any potential housing recovery....

photoFor over a year, between one-quarter and one-third of all U.S. home sales have been foreclosures, according to RealtyTrac, an online foreclosure marketing firm. As you might expect, that is having a depressing effect on values.

In it's report on the first quarter of 2011, RealtyTrac said the average sales price of properties in some stage of foreclosure — default, scheduled for auction or bank-owned (REO) — was $168,321, down 1.89 percent from the fourth quarter of 2010 and down 1.46 percent from the first quarter of 2010.

Homes in foreclosure were 27 percent cheaper than homes not in foreclosure, making it much harder for homeowners to sell their homes. Still, overall prices appear to be more stable than in quarters past.

Delaying the recovery

“While foreclosure sales continue to account for an unusually high percentage of all residential home sales, sales volume is well off the peak we saw in the first quarter of 2009, when nearly 350,000 foreclosure properties sold to third parties,” said James J. Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac. “While this is probably helping to keep home prices relatively stable, it is also delaying the housing recovery. At the first quarter foreclosure sales pace, it would take exactly three years to clear the current inventory of 1.9 million properties already on the banks’ books, or in foreclosure.”

Some cities, of course, have more foreclosures than others. These tend to be markets where home prices escalated during the housing bubble.

Nevada, California still hard hit

In Nevada, for example, foreclosure sales accounted for 53 percent of all residential sales in the first quarter, the highest percentage of any state but down from nearly 54 percent of all sales in the previous quarter and down from 59 percent of all sales in the first quarter of 2010.

The average foreclosure sales price in Nevada during the first quarter was nearly 18 percent below the average sales price of homes not in foreclosure. Bank-owned properties that sold in the first quarter had been repossessed by the bank an average of 130 days prior to sale, while properties that sold in the earlier stages of foreclosure were in foreclosure an average of 135 days before selling.

California foreclosure sales accounted for 45 percent of all residential sales in the state during the first quarter, up from 43 percent of all sales in the fourth quarter but down from nearly 48 percent of all sales in the first quarter of 2010.

The average foreclosure sales price in California was nearly 34 percent below the average sales price of homes not in foreclosure. California bank-owned properties that sold in the first quarter had been repossessed by the bank an average of 164 days prior to sale, while properties that sold in the earlier stages of foreclosure were in foreclosure an average of 156 days before selling.

Some optimism

Despite the negative numbers, some analysts in recent days have begun to sound a note of optimism about housing. This week, for example, Yahoo! ecnomics editor Daniel Gross offered the contrarian view that we could be on the cusp of a “housing boom.” He points to demographic data that suggest household formation alone will require construction of more than one million new homes a year over a ten year period.

“Unless we start picking up the pace of new-home construction, and soon, the U.S. could face a housing shortage in the not-too-distant future,” Gross writes. “That's the line coming from one of the most sober, data-driven, non-ideological sources I know: Macroeconomic Advisers.”

Investors, many of whom are making all-cash purchases, appear to be driving the housing market at the moment, and they are also among the more optimistic about the sector.

A recent survey by the online real estate firm Move Inc., showed investors are among the most bullish about the outlook for housing. The reasons they give? You can buy and fix up a home for very little money, and there's little competition from traditional buyers, who are either uninterested or can't get the financing.

 

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What's On Your Mind? Classmates.com, Grant Scams, Capital One

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Classmates.com, Grant Scams, Capital One, Dialing for dollars and The case of the missing payment....

photoClassmates.com is now known as Memory Lane. The name has changed, but complaints from members who have been auto-renewed, haven't.

“I have repeatedly attempted to cancel this subscription to no avail,” Grace, of Miami Florida told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Every three months they charge my bank account. I need them to stop it.”

First, let's be clear. Any subscription service will make it as difficult as possible for you to cancel. That's why, when you sign up, it automatically defaults to an auto renewal. You have to go into your account and make sure it's set to manual renewal. Sending them an email telling them you are canceling your membership doesn't work.

According to PC Magazine, if you go into “My Account,” you should find the renewal setting. If that doesn't work you can call 425-917-5000, hit 1 for customer support, then 2 for a question about the Web site, and wait to speak to an operator. Ask the operator for instructions for returning to a free membership.

Dialing for dollars

The government grant scam is still victimizing consumers because, especially in these times, there is a great desire to believe you are about to get a lot of money out of thin air. J., of Brown Mills, N.J., recently got a call out of the blue from a man with good news.

“The man said he had called to tell me that I was chosen to receive a $7000 dollar grant from the US government because my family pay their taxes on time and does not have a criminal background,” J. said. “He said that the money would be transferred to me in 45 minutes. He needed my account information, he could have the money deposited through any debit or credit card or I could give him my savings account number, I would then receive a confirmation number before we ended the call and he would give me call back information in case I needed anything.”

J. said she suspected it was a scam but decided to play along.

“I asked him if he could transfer the funds to the school I am attending,” she said. “I assumed if it was a grant I was eligible for it because I was a student and therefore he should have no problem giving the money to my school. He seemed confused as to why I would even consider having the money transferred to my school and then told me no.”

J. said she sent us the story because she wants others to be aware of these kinds of scams and not to give out personal information to a stranger who claims the government is willing to give you free money. A good reminder for us all.

The case of the missing payment

Kristin, of Stone Mountain, Calif., had what many would say is a low credit card balance of $300, but for a college student, she said it was hard to pay it off.

“I was only paying the minimum due, which was like putting money in a bucket with a hole in it,” Kristin told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Towards the end of 2010, I was unable to pay anything on the balance, and late charges and interest began to accrue. In February after I received my tax return, I paid $300 towards the past due balance. I never heard from Capital One again.”

But she did hear from a collection agency, telling her she owed $521. What happened to the $300 payment?

“I called Capital One and asked them what happened to my payment, and basically they said they didn't know,” she said. “My bank states that Capital One received the $300, but Capital One made it seem as if my money went into the abyss, and they had no way of retrieving it.”

If Kristin has proof from her bank that her check for $300 to Capital One cleared, then she should present that evidence to both Capital One and the collection agency. She may still owe a small amount on her balance, but a $300 payment should have taken it down quite a bit.

Not so green thumb

Lots of spring gardens are sprouting, but not at the home of Jimmy, of Lehigh, Fla. He says he ordered about $129 worth of plants from Gardenerschoice.com. First, he says, they didn't arrive in the mail when they were supposed to. When they did arrive, he said, they looked dead.

“They all look dead but Gardeners Choice said they may still live,” he said. “Weeks later they are still all dead.”

Unfortunately, complaints about Gardeners Choice appear to sprout annually. The company advertises a money back guarantee and Jimmy should insist on it. When he gets the money, he should go to a local nursery and buy his plants. Maybe they'll cost a little more but they'll be a lot healthier.

 

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AG: Bank of America In Default On Its Duty to Customers

Connecticut AG demands action, says bank “can and should do more”

AG: Bank of America In Default On Its Duty to Customers Connecticut AG demands action, says bank “can and should do more” ...

logoLots of homeowners are in default on their mortgages and now Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen says Bank of America is defaulting on its obligation to help borrowers who are having trouble paying or seeking mortgage modifications.

I express these concerns on behalf of the thousands of distressed Connecticut borrowers who continue to experience significant difficulties due to Bank of America’s failure to devote adequate resources to loss mitigation,” Jepsen wrote to Brian T. Moynihan, president and chief executive officer of Bank of America. “Bank of America can and should do more.”

Given that Bank of America is apparently poised to lift its moratorium on Connecticut foreclosures, I do not see that it has any credible plan to deal with the inevitable increase in … requests” from borrowers seeking loan modifications,” Jepsen wrote. The letter followed a recent meeting with bank representatives.

The Office of the Attorney General, the state Department of Banking and the non-profit Connecticut Fair Housing Center continue to receive “numerous complaints” from consumers whose loans are serviced by the bank, Jepsen said.

Those complaints include:

  • the bank losing documents repeatedly;

  • lack of communication;

  • conflicting and contradictory instructions from bank employees;

  • receiving foreclosure notices at the same time the borrower is under consideration for a loan modification;

  • failure to honor a loan modification the bank has already agreed to, and

  • lack of any single employee who is familiar with a customer’s file.

Hundreds of similar complaints

The complaints listed by Jepsen mirror those received by ConsumerAffairs.com, which has heard from 953 Bank of America customers complaining about difficulties in dealing with mortgage problems in recent years.

A recent complaint came from Liz of Wilmington, Mass., who said Bank of America offered her a mortgate modification that would save her $300 a month, “guaranteed” her she would get it and told her to start deducting the $300 from her payments immediately.

Well I did, then 6 months later I was denied the modification and I was told I owe late fees. I said why do I owe late fees -- I did what you told me to do. They said well you didn't pay your full mortgage amount!! Can you believe that?”

This sounds familiar to Cathy of Chicopee, Mass. She said Countrywide Mortgage offered her a modification back in 2009. Like Liz, she began making the new, lower payment only to learn a year later that the paperwork had never been processed and that her account had been accruing interest and penalty fees and that the bank had reported to the credit rating agencies that she was delinquent on her mortgage.

Cathy took action. She appealed to her Congressman, Richard Neal, who wrote to the bank. A short time later, she heard from someone in the “office of the president” of Bank of America.

Result: none

The result? “Nothing,” fumed Cathy. They could not fix their mistake and can't explain why, They can't just unlock my loan and let me make my payments. They can't correct the damage they did to my credit.”

Jepsen has also been hearing these complaints and from the sound of his letter to BofA is getting a little tired of it.

Despite having had more than two years to ‘right-size’ your staff and establish effective procedures and systems, Bank of American has so far not prevented even the most common consumer complaints,” Jepsen wrote.

Jepsen said he was told the bank plans to establish 40 new customer assistance centers nationwide, including one in Dedham, Mass. to serve New England. Establishing one center staffed by a dozen people to cover all of New England is simply not enough, Jepsen wrote. Bank of America is the largest bank in New England.

Nor is it enough for the bank to change its customer service policies, Jepsen said. Bank of America needs to bolster its resources “so that distressed Connecticut borrowers receive fair and honest treatment,” he wrote.

Jepsen is a member of the Executive Committee of the National Association of Attorneys General multistate task force which is seeking to hold major loan servicers, including Bank of America, accountable for the unfair and deceptive default servicing practices they have engaged in across the country.

 

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eDebitPay Found in Contempt, Fined $3.7 Million

Company offered a bogus "$10,000 credit line," FTC charged

eDebitPay Found in Contempt, Fined $3.7 Million. Company offered a bogus "$10,000 credit line," FTC charged...

eDebitPay LLC has been found in contempt of court and fined $3.7 million. A federal judge found that the company had violated the terms of a 2008 court order.

The 2008 order prohibited eDebitPay and its officers from making any misrepresentations or unauthorized debits and required them to pay more than $2.2 million to settle deceptive marketing charges.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleged that the defendants targeted consumers who were unemployed or had poor credit, selling a bogus “$10,000 credit line” that was really an online shopping club membership and a “no cost” prepaid debit card with hidden fees.

But in marketing the “$10,000 credit line,” the FTC alleged that the defendants violated the order and misrepresented that they were offering a general line of credit, when they were actually offering a shopping club membership with a credit line that could be used only to buy merchandise from the club.

Instead of clearly disclosing what they were actually selling, the defendants buried the truth in fine print, the FTC said. The FTC also charged the defendants with marketing a “no cost” prepaid debt card that carried a variety of fees they failed to disclose.

The court held the defendants in contempt of the 2008 order and imposed a $3.7 million judgment. The defendants have filed a notice of appeal of the order.

 

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Unlike That Loaf of Bread, the Glass of Wine Has Gotten Cheaper

A good wine hard to find? Not anymore. They're everywhere. Salud

Unlike That Loaf of Bread, the Glass of Wine Has Gotten Cheaper. A good wine hard to find? Not anymore. They're everywhere. Salud ...

photoWant to drink like a millionaire? No problem. Just make your way to the nearest Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Costco or just about any other large retailer and pick up a bottle of one of their house wines, preferably in the $10 to $20 range. Even Dollar General now has its own house wine.

When times get tight, those who get tight by consuming the grape tend to shift down a little. Oenophiles and just plain wine lovers who would normally be guzzling $30 or $40 wines move downscale to the $20 neighborhood.

And what happens then? The wine starts to come back on the top-notch vineyards who normally command a good price for their product. Hey, the stuff is heavy and it takes up a lot of room so you can't let too much of it sit around for too long.

But the snooty vineyards have a problem: they can't suddenly cut their prices. What would happen to their cachet? You think Audi cuts its prices when sales get slow? Nope, they just make more Volkswagens.

Same thing in the wine business. The stuff that normally gets bottled and crated up with the vineyard's oh-so-prestigious name instead gets pumped into tankers and trucked off to an anonymous bottler who slaps on a house label – Kirkland for Costco, 365 Everyday for Whole Foods and so forth.

Trader Joe's seems to make up names at random. Imbibers find wines on the Trader's shelf with names they have never seen before – and most likely will never see again.

The upshot is that you can uncork just about any of these house brands in the $10 to $20 range and be drinking the same dreck that just a few years ago would have cost you big bucks.

We're not recommending you start drinking but if you occasionally have a glass or two of wine, it may be some comfort to know that with the price of everything else going up, the price of a decent bottle of wine has actually come down. And that ought to go down really nicely.

 

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Republicans Accuse Warren of Lying, Democrats Apologize

Taxpayers' time, money wasted, Public Citizen declares

Republicans Accuse Warren of Lying, Democrats Apologize. Taxpayers' time, money wasted, Public Citizen declares...

photoElizabeth Warren and the fledgling Consumer Financial Protection Bureau endured a day of tough questioning and rude insinuations on Capitol Hill yesterday as GOP House members sought to discredit Warren and hamstring the new agency before it even begins operations.

Consumer advocates were not amused.

David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division, said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) “waste[d] taxpayer money on a hearing that apparently has no purpose but to harass professor Elizabeth Warren and hamper the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) efforts to protect Americans from abuses in the financial sector.”

“These attacks on the CFPB may be good for Wall Street, but they are certainly bad for consumers,” said U.S. PIRG Consumer Program Director Ed Mierzwinski.

Show trial

Mierzwinski said the Congressional show trial was motivated by the success of the CARD Act, which studies say has been successful in reducing interest rates and fees paid by credit-card users. He said the CARD Act “shows that consumer protection works when it's not diluted or defanged by the banks.”

At yesterday's contentious Oversight and Government Reform Committee meeting, McHenry accused Warren of lying to Congress and of drafting a “superclass of administrative elites” to run the agency she helped create.

McHenry claimed Warren had misled the committee in her last appearance in March. He claimed she had not fully disclosed her role in providing advice to the state attorneys general who are negotiating a settlement with mortgage servicers.

Not one to be intimidated, Warren responded forcefully that, “I have been told that if you say anything in Washington often enough, it is eventually treated as fact — regardless of whether it is true or false.

“Shrewd tactics”

“While making baseless claims might be shrewd tactics for those who want to undermine the bureau’s work, they are flatly wrong,” she said.

Public Citizen's Arkush said it is McHenry who is being untruthful.

“[His] opening statement includes falsehoods about the CFPB,” Arkush said. “He writes, for example, that the bureau will have 'virtually unchecked discretion' to identify products and services that are unfair, deceptive or abusive. But in addition to Congress’ 'check' on the CFPB – Congress can pass legislation altering or even abolishing the agency at any time – the bureau suffers from an unprecedented lack of discretion: It can be overruled by other financial regulators,” Arkush said..

“Rep. McHenry also says that the CFPB’s 'budgetary authority' is 'unparalleled' because the agency’s budget derives from the Federal Reserve rather than congressional appropriations. It is comically false to call the absence of annual appropriations 'unparalleled' when the Federal Reserve’s budget isn’t appropriated by Congress either,” Arkush added.

An apology

The relentless attacks on Warren led one committee member, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), to apologize to her.

“I apologize to the witness, Dr. Warren, for the rude and disrespectful behavior of the chair,” Yarmuth said. “The snarky comments about a Senate race, and the questioning of your veracity when there is documented evidence that you are being totally truthful indicates to me that this hearing is all about impugning you because people are afraid of you and your ability to communicate in very clear terms the threats to our consumers and the threats to our constituents and possibly very, very effective ways to combat them.”

“I congratulate you for instilling such fear in the committee,” Yarmuth said.

 

 

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A New Look For Barnes & Noble's Nook

Bookseller updates its e-reader and lowers the price

Barnes & Noble says its Nook e-reader has been improved and will carry a lower price tag....

photoBook retailer Barnes & Noble has introduced a new, lighter version of its Nook e-reader, at a lower price.

The new Nook will have a price tag of $139 and will be available next month. It features a six-inch touchscreen display, weighs just 7.5 ounces and has a reported two-month battery life. For readers who prefer large-print books, the font size can be adjusted.

Barnes & Noble said its new Nook will be able to hold up to 1,000 books.

The company first unveiled the Nook in 2009 as part of its strategy to transition itself as a digital book seller. The results with consumers have been uneven.

Complaints

“I ordered the Nook e-book and was unhappy immediately, as the screen display was garbled and unreadable,” Gloria, of Las Vegas, Nev., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I called Nook customer service, and they sent me a new Nook. This second Nook also experienced problems with freezing up.”

“The Nook and Nook Color e-readers work great except for network access,” said Mike, of Tumwater, Wash. “They claim that the device will 'completely connect' to any 801 b/g/n wifi. However, it only works with certain routers and networks. Support will put you through a series of resetting and power on and off. Then, they want me to reset the router. I informed them that I am unable to reset the routers at my favorite coffee joint or the Free Berkeley Wifi at the public library.”

The current Nook models have a 2 GB hard drive and both Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity. It debuted at a price of $259.

Competition

The new Nook will have even more competition than when it was introduced less than two years ago. Then, only the Amazon Kindle provided real competition. Now, it will be up against Apple's iPad and other tablets, not to mention smartphones.

Playing in the background of the new Nook roll-out is a takeover battle for ownership of Barnes & Noble. Liberty Media has offered to buy the company for $1 billion, motivated some observers say, by getting its hands on the company's e-reader.

 

 

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What's On Your Mind? New Millennium, AT&T, Cheap Tickets

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: New Millennium, AT&T, Cheap Tickets, Slight disconnect and A year is actually 10 months....

photoIn theory, a secured credit card should be ideal for a person with limited credit. The consumer deposits several hundred dollars into an account that is used to secure the credit line. The bank has no risk because the consumer is borrowing their own money. Unfortunately, these arrangements hardly ever work out to the consumer's benefit.

“I opened up a $300.00 New Millennium credit card with my own money, paid off the balance and contacted them to see when I would receive my initial deposit,” Genna, of Phoenix, Ariz., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was told that they had closed my account back in October on their own accord.”

Genna said she has no idea why New Millennium Bank closed her account or why she's not getting her $300 back. She should certainly demand some answers. Our guess is that along the way, the bank assessed a number of hefty fees that eventually added up to $300. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with most of these secured credit cards.

It's interesting to note that, according to USA Tolday, last year the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation forced New Millennium to suspend its credit card activities because of its consumer disclosure and compliance program. If Genna doesn't get satisfactory answers, we suggest she lodge a complaint with FDIC.

Slight disconnect

Jennifer, of Bishop, Calif., was a happy Alltel customer required to switch over to AT&T last year. She says she and her family were very unhappy with AT&T, especially since she asked for, but did not receive, a replacement phone for her daughter. So, she switched to Verizon Wireless.

“On December 24th, after making the switch, FedEx shows up at my door with my daughter's new phone from AT&T,” Jennifer said. “Mind you, I had left them and taken my numbers with me, so they knew I was gone. I returned that phone and all other equipment that belonged to them as I no longer needed it. I have now received a collections statement due to Alltel stating that I owe them $530, and three months of billing from AT&T.

We're assuming that Jennifer went through the process of canceling her AT&T account. If so, there should be a record. It's not enough, however, to simply open an account with another carrier and move numbers.

A year is actually 10 months

Travel sites don't allow many cancellations, but nearly all make an allowance for a medical emergency. Azalia, of New York, says just such an emergency prevented her from using airline tickets she purchased through CheapTickets.

“I provided two documents from two different doctors stating I was not able to fly,” Azalia told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was told I could not receive a refund, however, I had a year to use the credit.”

Now, two months shy of what she thought was the deadline, she learns the credit is no longer valid. What happened?

“I was informed the credit deadline is based on the time of booking, not travel date.”

Azalia thinks the policy is unfair, and we agree that it seems a bit arbitrary. But it underscores the need to carefully read terms and conditions with things like this, especially with a company that has the word “cheap” in its name.

Disposable lawnmowers?

Lawnmowing season is in full swing, but D., of Walnut Grove, N.C., is watching his grass grow these days.

“My John Deere L120 has less than 300 hours on it and has been serviced regularly, D. said. “Every time I mow it throws off the drive belt. I first thought it was the PTO so I quit going in reverse at all...now it ONLY goes in reverse.”

D. took the mower to a repair shop and was told it was leaking transmission fluid. Not an easy fix, as it turns out.

“James River Equipment, where I purchased the mower, informed me today the transmission is a 'sealed, non-repairable' part costing $750, not including labor,” he said.

D. says he can't justify spending that on a repair and will simply buy a new one. He's not alone in experiencing these kinds of problems.

 

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Missouri Warns Of Joplin Tornado Aid Scams

Feds declare public health emergency in Missouri

Missouri's Attorney General is warning Americans who want to aid Joplin relief efforts to be careful of scams....

photoThe lethal and destructive tornado that flattened a good part of Joplin, Mo., this week has brought out the best in people, who want to support relief efforts for the devastated community.  Meanwhile federal officials have declared a public health emergency in the state.

At the same time, it has also brought out the worst in people who want to exploit that good will with phony relief scams. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster is warning consumers to be aware of these scams and to avoid them.

“Unfortunately, there are people who see opportunity in disaster,” Koster said. “Scam artists will show up, pose as charities, and fraudulently solicit donations from people who are anxious to help those in need.”

No on-the-spot donations

Koster advises potential donors to be cautious of anyone wanting on-the-spot donations or refusing to provide written, verifiable information about the charitable organization represented.  He also said to use a credit card or check for donating so that you have a record of the expense.

Anyone considering a donation to a relief effort can use Check-a-Charity on the Attorney General’s website to make sure the charity uses donations wisely.  The site lists viable charities and provides information about how much of a charity’s donated money actually goes to the cause as opposed to administrative expenses. 

Koster said those wishing to make donations to help the Joplin relief effort can feel safe doing so through established charitable organizations that are already working on the ground in Joplin such as: American Red Cross, Salvation Army and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief.

In the meantime, if you encounter a solicitation you believe to be a scam, Koster said he would like to hear about it. You can call his Hotline at 1-800-392-8222 or file a consumer complaint online at online.

Public health emergency

U.S Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has declared a public health emergency for Missouri in the aftermath of severe storms and tornadoes which struck the state Sunday night. The action will enable the Secretary to ensure that beneficiaries of the Medicare, Medicaid, and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), continue to receive services during this emergency.

“Our hearts go out to the people of Joplin and the surrounding communities affected by last night’s tornadoes,” said Secretary Sebelius. “We are working closely with our state partners and community organizations to provide the support needed to respond to this disaster and in the ongoing flood recovery in the region.”

 The public health emergency is declared under section 319 of the Public Health Service Act and is necessary so that HHS may waive or modify certain Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP requirements under section 1135 of the Social Security Act. The state can submit waiver requests through Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Regional Office.

Under section 1135, HHS may permit affected health care facilities in Missouri to relax certain operating procedures temporarily so health care services can be delivered, such as allowing critical access hospitals to take more than the statutorily mandated limit of 25 patients and not count the expected longer lengths of stay for evacuated patients against the 96-hour average.

HHS agencies are working with state agencies and regional networks to respond to public health and medical needs of impacted communities. The HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response is providing National Disaster Medical System assets to support the state and local health agencies in responding to the disaster.

A Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Assessment Team has deployed to Missouri to work with the state and local coroners and medical examiners in determining the full extent of federal mortuary resources that may be needed. A Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team and a Family Assistance Center Team will provide assistance to coroners, medical examiners and families in identifying victims and returning remains to their loved ones. In addition, ASPR will provide a Disaster Portable Morgue Unit to support local mortuary operations.

An incident management team from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working with state and local health departments to assist with inspections of FDA-regulated industries, such as food processing facilities and pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers, impacted by the tornadoes to ensure the safety of FDA-regulated products.

An Incident Response Coordination Team will make sure federal public health and medical teams have what they need to assist the state at this critical time. This team is the “on the ground” command-and-control for federal public health and medical assets.

Information on steps to protect health immediately after a tornado or to prepare for disasters is available at http://www.phe.gov.

 

 

 

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Toyota Supersizes the Prius

Prius V is a tall hybrid wagon with lots of cargo room

Toyota Supersizes the Prius Prius V is a tall hybrid wagon with lots of cargo room...

photoPorsche owners fumed when Porsche A.G. began churning out the big Cayenne SUV. Heresy, they harrumphed. Now, of course, the Cayenne is Porsche's biggest seller in the United States, followed by the equally gargantuan Panamera four-door sedan.

Since Prius is to greenies as Porsche is to those locked perennially in mid-life crisis mode, might we expect a similar reaction to the introduction of the Prius V, a tall hybrid hatchback with more cargo space than most crossovers and compact SUVs?

The V adds about 230 pounds of weight as well as six inches of length and three inches of height to the diminutive dimensions of the original, and that equates to a fuel economy loss of about 16 percent, for an overall 42 mpg rating.

That still puts it well ahead of nearly any of its gas-powered competitors, which would have to strain some to hit 30 mpg. Despite the bigger bulk, Toyota promises the V will display acceleration equal to a standard Prius.

The "V?" It stands for "versalitility," Toyota tells us.

The Prius brings leading-edge hybrid technology to customers who need more room and provides more cargo space than 80 percent of all small SUVs,” said Toyota Division Group Vice President and General Manager Bob Carter. “And because it’s a Prius, it produces 66 percent fewer smog-forming emissions than the average new vehicle and will have the best mileage ratings of any SUV, crossover, or wagon sold in America. We think that’s a win-win for everybody.”

Of course, it comes with an AM/FM/CD audio system with Bluetooth, USB and iPod connectivity. It will also feature the optional EnTune "telematics" system, which means it can connect to Bing, pandora, OpenTable and so forth, just in case the driving gets too dull.

Speaking of sound, the Prius V automatically generates what Toyota calls a "low whirring noise" at around-town speeds, alerting pedestrians and wandering hounds to its approach.

If that's not enough, the car features what Toyota calls "anti-porpoise" technology. It is said to modulate the throttle to keep the car from undulating over those pesky freeway expansion joints. Reviews who've driven the car give it overall high marks but warn that the extra height and a 60-40 front-to-rear weight balance make it ill-suited to any funny stuff in the curves.

The Prius V is expected to make its debut in American showrooms this fall.

 

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Google Buys, Closes Sparkbuy

Comparison shopping site focused on laptops

Google Buys, Closes Sparkbuy Comparison shopping site focused on laptops...

Google has made some pretty big acquisitions in its day, but that doesn't mean it can't make a little one now and then.

Thus, the search giant announced the purchase of a search lilliputian – Sparkbuy.com, a year-old comparison shopping site that specialized in laptops.

What's unusual about the deal, aside from its presumably small size, is that Google bought the company and immediately closed it down, saying that its three-member staff would be joining Google's Kirkland, Wash., office.

What's this all about? Is Google pulling the old newspaper industry trick of buying the competition and closing it down?

Not likely, say industry observers, who speculate that the gods of the Googleplex were taken with the elegant design and user-friendly nature of the site and will be putting the three Sparkbuy creators to work improving Google Product Search.

Of course, no one is saying anything for the record.

photo

In a "swansong" posted on its home page, the Sparkbuy trio said it was "pleased as punch" to be joining the Big G.

"When we built Sparkbuy way back in the waning days of 2010, we wanted to make it really easy to find the gadget that's perfect for your needs," a task the crew admitted could be "crazy hard."

"But when people started actually using Sparkbuy, we started to see that the opportunity was bigger," they said, adding, "We're stoked about the opportunity to share our vision for search with a broader audience."

 

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Financial Site Lists 'Worst Credit Cards On The Market'

What's in your wallet?

CardHub.com has listed what it calls the worst credit cards on the market....

photoThe credit card marketplace is constantly changing, especially in the wake of Congress's recent credit card reform legislation, that has forced lenders to be more creative to make up lost revenue.

This can be a problem for many consumers, who admit to having little financial knowledge to begin with. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling’s 2011 Financial Literacy Survey found that 69 percent of U.S. consumers who use credit cards fail to keep all the credit card offers straight. Forty-one percent of consumers gave their personal finance knowledge a grade of C or worse.

In an effort to offer some guidance, the financial website CardHub.com has published a list of what it calls “the worst credit cards on the market.” The cards on the list were singled out for their high annual fees and interest rates. Some were described as having no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

According to CardHub.com, consumers should avoid these credit cards:

The Visa Black Card

This product has a $495 annual fee and a 14.99% APR, and the only benefits it provides are 1% cash back on all purchases, airport lounge access, and the vague promise of “luxury gifts.” Needless to say, says CardHub.com, it doesn’t even compare to the famous American Express “black card.”

The Wells Fargo Business Platinum Credit Card

This is unquestionably the worst business credit card on the market, according to the site. Not only does it come from one of the least transparent business credit card issuers, but it also has an interest rate between 9.24% and 18.24% and does not provide rewards or protect users from arbitrary interest rate increases.

The First PREMIER Bank Credit Card

This partially-secured credit card requires that you place a $95 security deposit to get a $300 credit line, and has a 49.9% APR, a $75 first-year annual fee, and $120 in membership fees each year thereafter.

Over the years, ConsumerAffairs.com has received hundreds of complaints about this particular card. Most recently, consumers have complained the company makes it impossible to make payments.

“First Premier Bank stopped sending me statements, cut off my online services, and effectively made it impossible to pay on 2 accounts,” Roxanne, of Apache Junction, Ariz., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “For two years, I have tried to contact this credit card company to get a statement, get online services back or the name of a collection company to clear this debt. All this while, the amount of the debt is rising.”

Barclaycard Visa

This card is simply mediocre across the board, says CardHub.  While it doesn’t have an annual fee, it also doesn’t offer any rewards or a traditional introductory interest rate.  Instead, it has a 22.99% regular APR and a curious deferred-interest feature, which gives you a chance to get no interest for 6-12 months on your first Apple purchase.  If you miss a payment or fail to pay down your balance in full before the introductory period concludes, however, interest is retroactively applied from the time of purchase.

How do you find a good credit card? According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, make sure you read and fully understand the credit card offer before applying. Understand the terms and what fees apply.

Shop around. Don't just take the first offer that comes in the mail. Also, be leery of credit cards that offer triple miles and other extravagant rewards. They have to pay for those perks somehow.

 

 

 

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New York, California Launch Anti-Fraud Task Forces

Attorneys general vow to battle evil-doers on behalf of consumers, taxpayers

New York, California Launch Anti-Fraud Task Forces. Attorneys general vow to battle evil-doers on behalf of consumers, taxpayers....

photoSince last fall's elections, there's been a big change in the news flowing out of state attorneys general offices. States where the AGs cast themselves as consumer crusaders and responded with ferocity and speed to consumer complaints suddenly seem more like Tea Party outposts, with the AGs suing to block the Affordable Care Act, pontificating on private morality and having their pictures taken with a wide assortment of law enforcement officers.

But in the nation's two largest states, it's business as usual, even though the players have changed.

In California, Attorney General Kamala Harris is launching a crackdown on mortgage fraud, scams and fraudulent lending practices. Harris, the former San Francisco District Attorney who succeeded Gov. Gerald Brown in the AG's office, says she is assembling a 25-person task force that will tackle mortgage fraud ranging from small operators who preyed on individuals and giant corporations that bundled and sold risky loans as safe investments.

Harris said the mortgage fraud that led to the housing crash is still echoing through California's economy, causing foreclosures, job loss and lagging tax revenues.

"We are looking at a situation of up to $640 billion in wealth having been lost because of this wave of foreclosures that has hit the state," Harris told theLos Angeles Times.

She and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa were holding a press conference this afternoon to officially announce creation of the Mortgage Fraud Strike Force.

photoIn New York, Attorney General Erich Schneiderman, occupying the office once held by fallen consumer hero Elliot Spitzer, is going after three large Wall Street banks as part of a wide-ranging probe of the mortgage crisis.

Not content to pursue corporate evil-doers Schneiderman today announced he is forming a "sweeping new initiative" to crack down on public corruption, a commodity of which there is no shortage in the Empire State.

As stewards of the public trust, we are all responsible for doing our part to crack down on public corruption with every tool at our disposal. We need to be smarter, faster and more efficient than what current law allows,” said Schneiderman. “That is why it is critical we close every loophole that exists in current law as part of comprehensive ethics legislation."

The new initiative will also expand the Attorney General’s jurisdiction to the state’s public authorities – agencies like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Schneiderman called such agencies "a shadow government that operates out of the public eye and often without accountability."

New York and California are certainly not the only states where aggressive consumer protection is on the agenda.

Perhaps the "dean" of Attorneys General is West Virginia's Darrell McGraw, whose website slogan says it all: "Targeting consumer fraud by educating West Virginians." Hardly a week goes by that McGraw does not sue the stuffing out one or more scam artists, effectively running them out of the state.

Illinois, Iowa, Texas and Oregon also continue to regularly take on crooked contractors, loan sharks, deceptive web merchants and other evil-doers.

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Surprise! American Families Are 'Financially Fragile'

Study finds middle-class families in weaker position than expected

Surprise! American Families Are 'Financially Fragile' Study finds middle-class families in weaker position than expected...

photoA new study finds what many of us have known for quite some time: the American middle class is in guarded condition, just one paycheck or unexpected expense away from disaster.

The survey on which the study is based asked respondents a simple question – if they had an unexpected $2,000 expense in the next month, would they be able to get the funds?

Nearly half said they "definitely" or "probably" would not be able to come up with the money.

While it's not news that chronically low-income consumers are short of financial resources, the researchers said they were surprised to learn that a large subset of middle-class families judged themselves to be financially fragile.

As for how the respondents would go about raising that hypothetical $2,000, the researchers said nearly 20% would resort to "what might be seen as extreme measures," including taking out a payday loan, pawning their possessions or selling their home.

The $2,000 figure was chosen because it is approximately what it might take to replace a transmission, meet a large copayment on a medical expense or unexpected home repair.

The researchers found that, all things considered, 46.5% – nearly half – of all respondents "are living very close to the financial edge."

The study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, was based on the 2009 TNS Global Economic Crisis survey.

The U.S. was not the only developed nation with a large number of financially embattled citizens. In both the U.K. and Germany, 50% of households said they would probably or certainly be unable to come up with the emergency funds. The countries with the healthiest middle class were Canada, Netherlands and Italy. In all three countries, fewer than one-third of households said they would have trouble raising the money.

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New 'Obamacare' Rule Limits Health Insurance Rate Hikes

Premium increases of 10% will trigger a review process

New 'Obamacare' Rule Limits Health Insurance Rate Hikes. Premium increases of 10% will trigger a review process...

photoLittle noticed in last week's media frenzy over the private life of a certain former governor was the introduction of new regulations to protect consumer against large increases in their health insurance premiums.

Effective Sept. 1, premium increases of 10 percent or more in individual and small-group health plans must be reviewed by state officials. If they are unwilling or unable to do so, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will step in.

 “For too long, insurers have been able to hit consumers with double-digit premium increases, with no guarantee that the hikes were justified. By giving consumers more information about what’s behind premium hikes and requiring insurers to justify rate increases, these new rules will help protect consumers from rising costs," said U.S. PIRG Health Care Advocate Larry McNeely.

With premiums continuing to rise, consumers deserve to know if their insurer is ripping them off. Strong rules in states like Oregon have already saved consumers millions of dollars. With these new rules in place, it’s time that other states follow Oregon’s example.”

The regulation is part of the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare.

HHS has awarded $44 million in Affordable Care Act grants to states to help strengthen their oversight capabilities. An additional $200 million will continue to be available to states under the Act.

Starting September 2012, the 10-percent threshold will be replaced by state-specific thresholds that reflect the insurance and health care cost trends in each state. The final rule clarifies that HHS will work with states in developing these thresholds.

Effective rate review works – it does so by protecting consumers from unreasonable rate increases and bringing needed transparency to the marketplace,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “During the past year we have worked closely with states to strengthen their ability to review, revise or reject unreasonable rate hikes. This final rule helps build on that partnership to protect consumers.”

Publication of the final rule comes as health insurance companies have reported some of their highest profits in years. One cause for these profits is that actual medical costs are growing more slowly than what insurance companies projected when they set their 2011 rates last year. However, many of the rates consumers and small employers pay today don’t reflect these lower costs, HHS said.

The rule requires insurance companies to provide consumers with easy to understand information about the reasons for unreasonable rate increases and post the justification for those hikes on their website as well as on the HHS Affordable Care Act websitewww.healthcare.gov .

Strong and transparent rate review processes are necessary to help bring down costs for consumers,” said Steve Larsen, director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight. “Rate review will ensure that increases are based on reasonable estimates and real-time data on medical cost trends and health care utilization.”

The regulation finalizes proposed rules issued in December 2010. It has several additions to the proposed rule, including a requirement that states provide an opportunity for public input in the evaluation of rate increases subject to review. This will strengthen the consumer transparency aspects of the new rule. HHS is also requesting comment from the public on applying the rule to individual and small group coverage sold through associations, which is sometimes exempt from state oversight.

 

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Justice Sues to Block H&R Block Acquisition of TaxACT

Says company is trying to remove a competitor

The Justice Department is suing to block H&R Block's proposed acquisition of a tax preparation software company, saying it would be bad for consumers....

logosAnti-trust lawyers at the U.S. Justice Department have filed suit in federal court to block H&R Block from purchasing a company that makes TaxACT, a popular tax-preparation software.

In a conference call with journalists today, Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney said there is not enough competition in the tax preparation field to allow the merger to go forward. H&R Block is the nation's largest tax preparer.

Making the case

Varney said H&R Block, in its public comments on the proposed deal, actually makes the government's case. She notes that Block said one of the primary reasons for the acquisition was to eliminate a competitor.

“In discussing the acquisition, H&R Block noted that one of the 'strategic opportunities' of the deal was to 'acquire TaxACT and eliminate the brand to regain control of industry pricing and further price erosion.'”, Varney said. “We believe that these statements clearly reveal that TaxACT is a formidable competitor that is being acquired in order to thwart competition in the tax software market.”

Over the years, H&R Block has produced a number of complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com, including complaints about tax preparation fees. Barbara, of New York, said she got into a heated argument with the manager of one H&R Block store after she said she caught the store double-billing.

“The manager lowered the fee from $800 to $660. still almost $200 more than I paid last year,” Barbara told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I have a simple return.”

Millions use tax preparation software

An estimated 35 to 40 million taxpayers use software products to prepare and file their federal and state income taxes. Varney said three companies account for 90 percent of all sales of consumer tax software products. Combining H&R Block and TaxACT, she said, would destroy the head-to-head competition between these two companies, leaving only one other major competitor.

According to the government, TaxACT is known as a maverick in the industry.  Its conduct over the past several years has significantly disrupted the market and forced its competitors, including H&R Block, to lower prices, increase quality and continue to innovate.

In other words, it has been good for consumers. TaxACT was the first company to offer all taxpayers the ability to prepare and electronically file their federal individual tax returns for free directly from its website.  Due to that competition, H&R Block felt significant pressure to offer a free product to consumers, Varney said.

Also, TaxACT has benefited consumers in another significant way – it offered lower prices at retail stores. Its desktop software is offered through a major retailer at a lower price than the comparable products from H&R Block and Intuit Varney said TaxACT did not charge an additional fee to its customers to e-file their state returns and did not attempt to sell users additional features after purchase.

 

 

 

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Panel: Toyota Hasn't Done Enough to Address Safety Issues

But panel says company has made a good start

Safety Panel Finds Toyota Hasn't Done Enough to Address Safety Issues. But panel says company has made a good start ...

photoA panel of experts appointed by Toyota says the automaker hasn't done enough to address the safety problems that have plagued the company and its customers.

The panel headed by former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said the recalls of more than 10 million vehicles since 2009 were largely attributable to Toyota's centralized decision-making process and the company "skepticism and defensiveness" towards consumers, Automotive News reported.

But the panel said it is optimistic about Toyota's future, noting that a federal investigation found no electronic causes for instances of unintended acceleration and crediting the company with being "eager to implement positive changes."

In its 60-page report, the panel said Toyota still needs to give local managers more authority. The company has said it will establish regional advisory committees for North America, Europe and Asia, but the panel said it doubts that will be adequate.

"Toyota needs to continue to adjust its balance between global and local control, giving weight to local control in order to improve its communications and speed in responding to qualify and safety issues," the panel said.

Toyota paid nearly $50 million in fines in the U.S. last year and millions more conducting recalls and fighting lawsuits, most of them related to alleged incidents of unintended acceleration.

Some critics have claimed that Toyota's electronic acceleration system is to blame for the incidents but federal investigators found no evidence to support that. Instead, misplaced floor mats and other mechanical causes were blamed for most of the incidents in which a cause could be found.

 

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What's On Your Mind? Toyota, Trilegiant, Magic Jack

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Toyota, Trilegiant, Magic Jack, Unauthorized charges, Not talking to each other and Lost points....

photoToyota has a pretty good reputation as a used car. However, the exception may be the poplar Prius. Apparently, the hybrid technology doesn't age all that well.

“My 2006 Prius was working fine,” Joan , of Rocky River, Ohio, told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The next morning, the hybrid drive started, but the car would not move. I tried it several times to go forward or to go backward with the same result. The wheels would not turn.”

Joan said she was told that the auxiliary battery was dead so the car would not move. In fact, the wheels wouldn't turn.

“There was no remedy except for the dealer to put in an expensive new battery, using an expensive installation process,” Joan said. “Toyota should have an easy power override for such times.”

That sounds like a good idea. In the meantime, with expensive gasoline prices, consumers should perhaps think twice about paying a lot for a used Prius. A used gasoline-powed Corolla might be a better buy when repairs are factored in.

Unauthorized charges

Trilegiant, infamous for placing unauthorized charges on credit cards, has begun using telemarketers instead of pop-up Internet ads. But sometimes the result is the same.

“I got a phone call from them after purchasing something on the Amazon web,” said Michael, of Koppel, Pa. “I told them I was not interested. Well, ever since then they been taking $19.99 out of my account.

Michael said he had to close his credit card account to get rid of them. Actually, he didn't have to do that. He could have reported it as an unauthorized charge to his credit card company, which would then demand a proof of purchase from Trilegiant. They're probably very familiar with the drill by now.

Not talking to each other

Telephone systems are supposed to be fully compatible with one another. But William, of Las Vegas, Nev., says they aren't.

“My mother uses an AT&T cell phone and for the last two weeks she has not been able to call my phone, which uses Magic Jack,” Willian told ConsumerAffairs.com. “AT&T claims that it is a Magic Jack problem caused by a change Magic Jack made to their system. After my mother had no luck dealing with AT&T, I tried to work with Magic Jack using their online live help. That person ended up telling me it is AT&T's problem and Magic Jack would not get involved in trying to solve the issue.”

It seems William has a legitimate issue here. Perhaps he would lodge a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission and let the federal regulatory agency get to the bottom of it.

Lost points

Since the credit crisis three years ago, credit card companies have unilaterally closed customer's credit card accounts on a more frequent basis.

Bank of America froze my account and when I called to inquire they told me my account had been closed, even though I had been a good customer and my account was in perfect standing,” Abbee, of Naples, Fla., said.

Annoyed, Abbee said she paid off the balance and figured she had only lost a credit card. But it turns out she had lost something more.

“Today I went to redeem my 110,000 WorldPoints and was told that my points have been 'forfeited' because THEY closed my account,” Abbee said. “I did nothing wrong and my account was in good standing when they closed it. How can they steal my points?”

Good question. For consumers who have rewards cards, it might be advisable to use the awards as you get them and not let them pile up. You never know when they'll just fly away.

 

 

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AT&T Sued Over Data Charges

Company accused of over-billing 20 million consumers

A class action suit accuses AT&T of overcharging iPhone and iPad uses or data....

photoA law firm that commissioned a study of AT&T customers' data charges says the results show the wireless carrier routinely overbills for data services.

The firm of Thornton, Davis & Fein has filed a suit in federal court against AT&T, accusing the company of overcharging iPhone and iPad customers by as much as 100 kilobytes of data per 50-kilobytes charged.

In a test, the firm said an iPhone left unused for 10 days logged 35 data transactions.

AT&T says there is nothing improper about its billing. The company says there are data transactions running in the background on most smartphones. Just because consumers might not be aware of them, the company says, doesn't mean they aren't needed.

The class action suit was filed on behalf of 20 million consumers who own AT&T iPhones and iPads.

Focusing on apps

Kris, of Folsom, Calif., says she has encountered this issue before and believes apps are the reason.

“I have seriously audited and deleted non-essential apps, which happened to be most of them,” Kris told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I am also self-imposing a moratorium on any app purchases I do not absolutely need until the scandal is resolved.

Kris said she first noticed the problem about two months ago, noting that her data allotment is quickly exhausted.

“AT&T states the fix is to upgrade the data plan for $20 more a month,” she said. “This a a scam and a ripoff.”

While AT&T expressed confidence it will prevail in the suit, the timing couldn't be worse. AT&T is seeking regulatory approval for its merger with T-Mobile, which would make it by far the largest wireless carrier.

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Family Data Plans May Be Next Wireless Push

Pooling plans may offset resistance to tiered pricing

Family Data Plans May Be Next Wireless Push Pooling plans may offset resistance to tiered pricing ...

photoRemember when cell phones became so popular that it was almost impossible to make a call? It took awhile for the carriers to build out their networks to provide at least minimal service some of the time.

One way they paid for that was to start charging by the minute. Family plans helped spread the pain and made the metered pay plan more palatable.

Then smartphones came along and started burning up wireless broadband as well as talk channels. This is all great when it works but as more people discover that, the carriers find themselves again facing demand that quickly exceeds supply.

One solution would be to be spend even more money building ever bigger networks but with only so much spectrum to work with, there are limits that eventually exert themselves.

Besides, the problem (as the carriers see it) is not the occasional user who sends in his money each month and goes online or makes a call a few times a day. No, the problem is what carriers and the editorial page editors at the Wall Street Journal are now calling bandwidth hogs – consumers who actually spend a lot of time consuming the product they're paying for.

After all, the carriers have been selling bandwidth by its speed rather than quantity, the clear implication being that customer can watch videos and cruise the Web 24/7.

So we're back where we were a few decades ago. The carriers have created another monster. They're spend big bucks promoting wireless data and they're been so successful that the next goal is to stop people from using quite so much of it.

Verizon Wireless is said to be steeling itself for the transition, preparing to announce this summer that it will eliminate smartphone plans that allow unlimited wireless data, replacing them with tiered pricing that will force heavy users to pay more.

To soften the blow, the company will offer options like family plans for data, a Verizon Wireless executive told the Reuters Global Technology Summit.

We have individual minutes for individual users. Then we eventually got to what we call family share where everyone in the family shares the same minutes,” said Verizon Wireless Chief Financial Officer Fran Shammo.

Shammo said it would be a “logical progression” to have family plans that allow a family to share their bandwidth allocation among a number of devices – smartphones, tablets, laptops and so forth. But Shammo said there was no firm timetable for the transition.

 

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Class Action Charges Michaels Was Negligent in Data Thefts

Crafts chain failed to safeguard data, was late warning of customers of the thefts

Class Action Charges Michaels Was Negligent in Data Thefts. Crafts chain failed to safeguard customer data, was late in warning them of the thefts....

photoCustomers of Michaels say in a federal class action that their bank accounts were looted because the crafts retailer failed to safeguard against card skimming and then failed to give its customers timely notice.

In the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, Brandi F. Ramundo of West Chicago, Ill., charges that Michaels knowingly violated federal and state law by failing to take reasonable steps to safeguard its customers' personal financial data, including credit and debit card numbers and PINs.

In essence, Michaels' security failure enabled cyber-pickpockets to steal customer financial data from within the retailer's stores and subsequently loot the customers' bank accounts from remote [ATMs],” the suit alleges.

The data thefts occurred between February 8 and May 6 and affected customers who shopped at 80 Michaels stores but the company did not alert any of its customers to the problem until May 5, when it sent an email alert saying Michaels “may have been” a victim of PIN-pad tampering and that some customer data “may have been” compromised, the suit charges.

The email alert advised customers to contact their banks and credit card companies and to seek advice on how to protect their account.

Based on the email Alert, Michaels apparently expects its victimized consumers to bear the fallout form its security breach, thereby thrusting upon the consumers a continuous burden of monitoring their bank accounts and credit histories,” the suit charges.

Further, the suit alleges that Michaels failed to send the email alert to all of its customers, including Ramundo.

Ramundo says she used her Fifth Third Bank debit card to buy $19.35 worth of merchandise from a Michaels store on April 18. On May 3, her card when rejected when she tried to use it at a Costco store.

Ramundo telephone the bank and was told that the card had been suspended because of “suspicious activity,” specifically three withdrawls from the account to which the card was linked.

The first withdrawal, for $303, occurred on May 2 at an ATM in Los Angeles, the second, for $503 at an ATM in Woodland Hills, Calif., and the third from another ATM in Los Angeles for $503.

Ramundo contacted her local police precinct and learned that numerous other Michaels customers had filed similar complaints.

The class action seeks to represent all U.S. Residents who made an in-store purchase at Michaels and used a debit or credit card that was swiped through a PIN pad.

The suit accuses Michaels of negligence, violation of the Federal Stored Communications Act, the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Practices Act and breach of contract.   

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Price of Gasoline Down A Dime In Last Week

States with highest prices see most relief

The average price of gasoline is down 10 cents a gallon in the last week....

photoFor motorists, the price of gas is at least moving in the right direction. The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.886, down almost 10 cents from last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey.

The price of diesel fuel is $4.080, down from $4.137 a gallon last week.

Gasoline prices have been dropping around two cents per day over the last three days as gasoline distributors adjust to lower crude oil prices. Oil has dropped from its lofty heights of early May, but remains around $100 a barrel. Many market analysts believe it will eventually settle in between $80 and $90 over the course of the summer.

Oil and gasoline supplies remain plentiful and there are enough concerns about sluggish economic growth that there should be no supply shortages in the weeks ahead. Even the rising Mississippi River is less of a concern.

“As the week progressed, concerns of potential refinery outages from flooding began to abate as all 11 refineries in the region continued to operate normally and reported that they did not anticipate disruptions from the flooding,” said Avery Ash, AAA's Manager of Federal Relations.

The biggest drop in prices came in states with the highest prices. For example, Hawaii trimmed 20 cents a gallon off its price in the last seven days. Last Friday 17 states had average gas prices above $4 a gallon. This week only 10 states fall into that category.

The states with the most expensive gasoline today are:

  • Hawaii ($4.304)
  • Alaska ($4.280)
  • Connecticut ($4.226)
  • California ($4.158)
  • Illinois ($4.144)
  • Washington, DC ($4.128)
  • New York ($4.118)
  • West Virginia ($4.009)
  • Washington ($4.007)
  • Rhode Island ($4.010)

The states with the least expensive gasoline today are:

  • South Carolina ($3.661)
  • Wyoming ($3.679)
  • Mississippi ($3.706)
  • Alabama ($3.706)
  • Tennessee ($3.707)
  • Arizona ($3.713)
  • Missouri ($3.714)
  • Utah ($3.725)
  • Arkansas ($3.736)
  • Oklahoma ($3.752)

 

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Tobacco Company CEO: Smoking Is Addictive

Altria chief reportedly makes admission in talk with shareholders

The CEO of Altria has told shareholders smoking is addictive and hard to quit....

photoFor decades people have been saying cigarettes are addictive. Now, even the heads of tobacco companies admit that it is true.

Michael E. Szymanczyk, Chairman and CEO of Altria, parent company of Philip Morris USA, addressed shareholders this week and said smoking is addictive and can be very hard to quit. His comments were reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

According to the newspaper, his remarks came during a presentation to shareholders about the company's 2010 results. They came in a context of an explanation of the company's efforts to curb youth smoking.

“Because tobacco use is addictive and it can be very difficult to quit, our tobacco companies help connect adult tobacco consumers who have decided to quit with cessation information from public health authorities,” Szymanczyk reportedly told the group.

Szymanczyk's comments follow those of Philip Morris International CEO Louis Camilleri, who said smoking is addictive but “not that hard to quit.” Szymanczyk said he was doing nothing more than stating Altria's official position, as outlined on its website.

Altria owns three tobacco companies - Philip Morris USA, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company and John Middleton.com. Altria says these companies design their marketing programs only to enhance brand awareness, recognition and loyalty among their adult tobacco consumers to grow their market share.

“Each tobacco company has practices in place to focus their marketing activities towards adult tobacco consumers while limiting reach to unintended audiences,” Altria said on its website. “Each of our tobacco companies have programs in place designed to connect with their intended audience while helping to prevent underage access to tobacco products.”

 

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FDA Pulls Diabetes Drug Avandia from Retail Sales

The "blockbuster" drug has been linked with increased heart attack risk

FDA Pulls Diabetes Drug Avandia from Retail Sales. The "blockbuster" drug has been linked with increased heart attack risk....

photoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is putting new restrictions on the sale of the diabetes drug Avandia (rosiglitazone), used to treat Type 2 diabetes in millions of Americans, after years of consumer complaints, petitions and public appeals that it take action against the drug which many consumers say made their conditions worse rather than better.

"During its use there was chest pain, shortness in breathing, itching, muscular weakness, fatigue and yellow color of skin and bone pain," said Sharma of Foley, Ala., who said the drug amounted to "[waste] of money to buy an early death."  David of Ft. Myers, Fla., said he had a stress test after he stopped taking the drug and "the doctor pointed out had I still been on the drug I would have died! Wonderful eh?"

Beginning in November, the controversial drug will no longer be sold at retail pharmacies. It will only be available to patients who have been using it without complications, patients who have had no luck with drugs and those who choose to continue taking the drug after being informed of the risks.

"Under the Avandia-Rosiglitazone Medicines Access Program, rosiglitazone medicines will only be available to enrolled patients by mail order from certified pharmacies participating in the program," the FDA said. "The drug manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline, will withdraw rosiglitazone medicines from the current supply chain and will provide pharmacies with instructions on returning the medicines."

Rosiglitazone is also sold under the names Avandamet and Avandaryl when it is combined with other drugs. The new rules apply to those combination drugs as well.

The consumer group Public Citizen petitioned the FDA in 2008 to ban the drug, saying it is dangerous and can cause death from liver failure and many other life-threatening risks.  

Avandia prescriptions fell sharply following a May 2007 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine connecting the drug with increased heart attack risk. In 2006, the number of people taking the drug peaked at 13.2 million. Since then, that number has dropped to 4.6 million for the last full year. This means that about 10,000 prescriptions a day are still being filled for this dangerous drug.

"The scientific consensus against Avandia is overwhelming," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, in a statement issued in October 2008. "The timing of these findings should give the FDA the momentum it needs to act swiftly to prevent further needless deaths and health damage by banning this drug."

Cover-up?

In an article published in April 2010, The New York Times said it had obtained documents that show SmithKlineBeecham -- the firm's name in 1999 -- buried a disastrous study that suggested Avandia posed greater heart risks than a competing drug.

As evidence of a smoking gun, the Times points to this 2001 email from Dr. Martin I. Freed, a GSK executive: "This was done for the U.S. business, way under the radar. Per Sr. Mgmt request, these data should not see the light of day to anyone outside of GSK," the email states. 

The Times report said the documents it uncovered demonstrated the company was sitting on incriminating data that surfaced soon after Avandia's introduction. In one document cited by the newspaper, GSK tried to add up the lost sales that would result if Avandia's heart safety risk became established. The document put the cost at $600 million over a two-year period.

 

 

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Court Certifies Class Action Case Against Chase

Bank promised permanent low interest rates, then increased minimum payment

Court Certifies Class Action Case Against Chase. Bank promised permanent low interest rates, then increased minimum payment...

logoA federal judge has certified a class-action lawsuit against Chase Bank that alleges the company promised consumers permanent low interest rates on "check loans" and later forced them to make increased minimum payments or accept higher interest rates.  

U.S. District Court Judge Maxine M. Chesney certified the class and denied a motion by Chase to strike the complaint.

The plaintiffs in the case, which was filed in 2009, allege that they each had a Chase credit card that carried a minimum monthly payment of 2% of the outstanding balance, and that the card included a “credit card check” option which provided a loan with a fixed annual percentage rate (APR) until the balance is paid in full.

In November 2008, Chase advised some of the plaintiffs that it was raising the minimum monthly payment from 2% to 5% of the balance on their account. Others were not notified until June 2009.

The plaintiffs charge that Chase's intent was to forced the class members to accept higher APR loans or make a late payment a trigger a “penalty APR” as high as 29.99%.

The suit charges that Chase breached the “implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing implicit in the Cardmember Agreement.”

Chase had argued that the case should not be granted class action status because of differences in the form letters various plaintiffs received. But Judge Chesney disagreed and said the plaintiffs' situations were “materially similar.”

The court's finding defines the class as all persons who entered into a loan agreement with Chase, whereby Chase promised a fixed APR until the loan balance was paid in full and (I) whose minimum monthly payment was increased by Chase to 5% of the outstanding balance or (ii) who were notified by Chase of a minimum payment increase and subsequently closed their account or agreed to an alternative change in terms.

 

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Judge Dismisses Doctor's Suit Over Online Posting

Patient's son complained neurologist was insensitive

Judge Dismisses Doctor's Suit Over Online Posting. Patient's son complained neurologist was insensitive ...

A Minnesota judge has thrown out a lawsuit filed by a neurologist who objected to online criticisms posted by a patient's son. Dr. David McKee of Duluth sued Dennis Laurion for defamation after Laurion posted critical comments about McKee's bedside manner.

But St. Louis County District Court Judge Eric L. Hylden said the statements were “nothing more or less than one man's description of shock at the way he and in particular his father were treated by his physician” and said there was no reason to treat online comments any differently than more traditional means of expression.

Laurion said in his postings that McKee had been brusque and insensitive while examining Kenneth Laurion, 83, who had been hospitalized with a stroke. McKee reportedly said in front of the patient that 44 percent of hemorrhagic stroke victims die within the first 30 days.

“I guess this is the better option,” McKee said, according to Laurion. McKee also told the elder Laurion that when he could not find Laurion in intensive care, it took him a while to track him down to the regular room to which he had been moved.

McKee said he had “spent time finding out if you were transferred or died,” Laurion's postings said.

McKee denied making the statements and sued Laurion for $50,000. After Judge Hylden said he found “no defamatory meaning” in Laurion's posts, McKee was quoted as calling Laurion “a liar, a bully and a coward,” Courthouse News Service reported.

Doctors are famously thin-skinned and frequently react without outrage, threats and lawsuits when patients dare to complain about the treatment they receive. So far, courts in various states are reacting differently to such cases.

 

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Dangerous Alzheimer's Drug Should Be Pulled: Public Citizen

Higher dose of Aricept has serious adverse effects, isn’t effective

Dangerous Alzheimer’s Drug Should Be Pulled: Public Citizen Higher dose of Aricept has serious adverse effects, isn’t effective...

photoA drug used to treat moderate to severe cases of Alzheimer’s disease should be removed from the market immediately because of its risk of serious adverse effects and its lack of effectiveness, Public Citizen said today in a petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Donepezil, also known as Aricept, has been approved by the FDA in a dose of 5 to 10 milligrams (mg) for patients with mild to moderate cases of Alzheimer’s disease and in a dose of 10 or 23 mg for patients with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s. Public Citizen is calling for the 23-mg dose to be immediately pulled from the market.

“Data show that the 23-mg dose of donepezil is significantly more toxic than the 10-mg dose,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “Combined with its lack of improved clinical benefits, this leads to only one conclusion: that the 23-mg dose should be immediately withdrawn from the market.”

Public Citizen is also asking the FDA to warn doctors and patients against taking 20 mg of the drug (two 10-mg pills) a day, even if Aricept 23 is removed from pharmacy shelves.

Desperation

Dr. Thomas Finucane, professor of medicine in the Division of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and staff physician at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, stated that “Cholinesterase inhibitors such as Aricept have gained multibillion-dollar success due primarily to two factors: the understandable desperation of those who care for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, and a relentless promotional campaign by drug companies.” Finucane is a co-petitioner with Public Citizen to ban Aricept 23.

“When clinicians consider whether to initiate a therapeutic trial of a largely ineffective drug, the risk of harm should be a prominent consideration,” Finucane said. “The clearly increased risk of harm from Aricept 23-mg compared to Aricept 10-mg is so great, coupled with the lack of any evidence of improved benefit, that I believe it should not have been approved for sale to the families and caregivers of Alzheimer patients.”

The only clinical trial of donepezil submitted to the FDA for approval of the 23-mg dose compared it to the 10-mg dose and failed to prove that the higher dose was more effective.

In three of four tests, on either a cognitive or functional level, there was no significant difference between the 10- and 23-mg doses. In the fourth test, the improvement over the 10-mg dose was only two points on a 100-point scale, which is not clinically important, Wolfe said.

Adverse effects

Increased adverse effects of the 23-mg dose of donepezil compared to the 10-mg dose include a slowed pulse rate, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, urinary incontinence, fatigue, dizziness, agitation, confusion and anorexia.

Vomiting – which occurred more than 3.5 times as often in patients taking the 23-mg dose than those taking the 10-mg dose – is a particularly dangerous side effect for patients with Alzheimer’s disease because it can lead to pneumonia, massive gastrointestinal bleeding, esophageal rupture and even death, Wolfe said.

Overall, patients taking the 23-mg dose stopped taking the drug because of adverse effects more than twice as often as those taking the 10-mg dose. Additionally, because of the drug’s very long half-life, it can stay in patients’ systems for about two weeks after they stop taking the drug. So, those who suffered adverse effects may not have immediate relief after they stop treatment, Wolfe said.

“With no evidence of an added advantage in benefit to patients, the clear increase in risk should have been more than adequate grounds for denying approval, a conclusion reached by both the FDA medical officer and statistician,” Wolfe said. “It is inexcusable that the FDA approved this higher dose. Its prompt removal would belatedly fulfill the agency’s mission to allow only drugs whose benefits outweigh their risks to be marketed.”

 

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Business Credit Cards Put Millions at Risk

Business cards lack protections of Credit CARD Act

Business Credit Cards Put Millions at Risk. Business cards lack protections of Credit CARD Act...

photoThe Credit CARD Act of 2009, signed into law two years ago, made consumer credit cards safer and more transparent. But there's a huge loophole that very few American consumers are aware of: The CARD Act and its rules do not apply to cards labeled for business or commercial use, placing millions of individuals and small business owners at risk.

Practices the Federal Reserve deemed “unfair” or “deceptive,” such as hair trigger interest rates and unpredictable rate increases, remain widespread in business credit cards that are regularly offered to American households, according to a report by the Pew Health Group’s Safe Credit Cards Project. 

As noted in the research, 40 years ago business credit cards were excluded from federal consumer protections because policymakers concluded that business owners were in the position to analyze risk.

However, Pew found that between January 2006 and December 2010, American households received over 2.6 billion offers in the mail for these financial products. Whether the respondent to these solicitations is a large company, an owner of a small company, an employee or an individual, they are personally liable for all charges and are not protected by the key provisions in the Credit CARD Act.

“Every month more than 10 million business credit card offers are mailed to households at all income levels. The sheer number of offers that are sent to homes all across the nation represents a risk to millions of American families,” said Nick Bourke, director of Pew’s Safe Credit Cards Project.

“To better protect individuals, families and small business owners we urge that the safeguards found in the Credit CARD Act be extended to any card on which the cardholder is personally liable,” Bourke said.

A Pew study released earlier this week found that the CARD Act was doing a good job of protecting consumers from some of the more objectionable practices of the past.

 

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Inside A Short Sale: A Homeowner Hits A Brick Wall

Second lien-holder has all the power

A desperate homeowner finds little give from his second lien-holder in an attempted short sale....

photoThe latest report on foreclosures shows that foreclosure filings have dropped in recent months. But it's not because things have suddenly gotten better.

Many homeowners, like Paul, of Jersey City, N.J., are still struggling to hang on, but aren't finding much help. His story is a revealing glimpse at what some people are going through in a heart-rending effort to avoid foreclosure.

“Due to a loss of my business and income I am trying to sell my home in a short sale rather than face foreclosure,” Paul told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I have an arms length buyer at a fair market price. The holder of the first lien, Hudson City Savings Bank has been compassionate and has worked well with us and our short sale negotiator and has signed off.”

A second lien complicates things

The problem he's encountered, Paul says, is with PNC, who holds the second mortgage. He says the bank insists on 10 percent of the balance at closing, which he was able to scape together with the Realtors and the short sale negotiator kicking in and the signing of a deficiency agreement to repay the full amount, or a flat settlement.

“I was able to look at closing out my retirement account, which is my last remaining asset, and borrowing from my 92-year-old widowed mother to offer $60,000 in return for full forgiveness,” Paul said. “They refuse.”

There was another problem, Paul says. As soon as you agree to the deficiency judgment, he says the bank puts you on a recorded line, where you must agree to the deficiency judgment and make a payment on the spot.

“I explained that I have no money and can't make a payment today and am not sure when I can make a payment,” Paul said.

The answer is no

Paul said the PNC rep berated him, asking him how he could sign a deficiency judgment when he didn't know when he could repay it. She told him the bank would not release the lien for short sale.

“She talked to me with such disgust, like I was a wad of gum she scraped off the bottom of her shoe,” Paul said. “There have been no Christmas or birthday gifts in our house for three years. When I visit family and friends they send me home with bags of groceries.

Paul says he paid his mortgage faithfully for many years, before the economy crashed and took his livelihood. Why can't the bank understand, he wonders, that if he made his payments before, there must be a reason he can't do it today, and that no amount of berating, belittlement and verbal harassment is going to make him able to do so.

“I offered them the absolute best settlement that I could,” Paul said. “I am 57 years old and am absolutely broke. I have worked for 40 years, paid my taxes and have never taken a penny of assistance or entitlement. The government has instituted the short sale process to help people. Why do I feel like I have no right to live?”

It should be pointed out that Paul is trying to do the right thing by arranging a short sale. It might actually be in his best interest to let the house go to foreclosure. Either way, Paul loses his home.

But in a foreclosure, he at least keeps his retirement money. And the second lien-holder would likely get nothing.

 

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What's On Your Mind? Ford, Hotels.com, Maytag

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Ford, Hotels.com, Maytag, Unintentional world traveler, Fed up and Your baby can read, but you can't cancel....

photoA few year ago ConsumerAffairs.com routinely heard from Ford truck owners about their vehicles spitting spark plugs out the exhaust pipe. We don't get as many complaints now, but we still get them

“My 2002 Ford Expedition has had three blown spark plugs in five months,” Jeff, of Mobile, Ala., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The cost to repair exceeded $2,000, not to mention lost time and inconvenience. The last two times I reported it to Ford and heard nothing in return.”

In 2007 ConsumerAffairs.com heard from a reader who said he was a Ford dealer technician.

“I would like to address the Ford spark plug blowout issue," the technician wrote as he was working on a Ford vehicle that had blown a spark plug out of its aluminum head. "I would like the customers to know that it is Ford's defective engine design and not the fault of the technicians or dealerships," said the technician, who asked that his name and hometown not be used for fear that he would be fired if his identity was made public.

The technician said the 5.4-liter engines are particularly susceptible to the problem.

Unintentional world traveler

There can be many pitfalls to using online travel sites to book hotels. For example, you have to pay close attention to what country the hotel is in. Debra, an attorney in Richmond, Va., said she was booking hotel rooms for herself and her investigator in Massena, N.Y., where she had a case.

“I saw a hotel at Hotels.com, but did not know it was in Canada,” Debra told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I only found that out after I booked the hotel. My investigator did not have a passport, thus we could not use that hotel. I canceled the reservation within minutes and they sent me a confirmation number. Imagine my surprise when Hotels.com charged my credit card $896.40, and got very ugly when I asked them to remove it from my credit card charge. To date, they refuse to issue me a credit.”

Debra may have a valid point. While the hotel probably had an address with the listing, it might not be too much to ask for a Web site to alert a consumer they are about to book a room in another country.

Fed up

“I purchased a Maytag Neptune front load washer and have had to replace the drain pump numerous times and now have to replace it again,” Trish, of Chester, N.H., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “This pump retails for $200.00 + at retail stores. I am sick of paying for new pumps and will never purchase another Maytag product again.”

We hear from a lot of consumers frustrated by constant problems with their washing machines. Our advise is to save all the service records and submit a claim under a state or federal lemon law. If companies have to start replacing out of warranty products, maybe that will be incentive to step up the quality a bit.

Your baby can read, but you can't cancel

Kimlan, of Brooklyn, N.Y., reports a frustrating experience trying to cancel her order of Your Baby Can Read. After receiving the product on March 23, she said she called to cancel.

“They informed me that they will give me a 30 day extension for free,” Kimlan said. “Then I called on April 7, 2011 to cancel again but they told me that they will give me another 30 day extension. I called on May 15, 2011 to cancel but the representative told me there was no information under my name.”

Canceling became a moot point the next day, Kimlan said, when the company called and said her credit card had been declined, and could she please supply another one. For future reference, whenever you are trying to cancel a subscription and the company offers you another 30 days free, always decline. By accepting the free extension, you are wiping out your cancellation.

 

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Circle K Stores Agree to Help Curb Teen Smoking

Stores will step up efforts to stop tobacco sales to underage consumers

Circle K Stores Agree to Help Curb Teen Smoking. Stores will step up efforts to stop tobacco sales to underage consumers....

photoA group of convenience stores throughout the United States have agreed to step up efforts to stop underage tobacco sales. The Assurance of Voluntary Compliance agreement (AVC) includes 40 state attorneys general and the stores operating under the names of Circle K, Dairymart, and On The Run.

Under the agreement the convenience stores will adopt specific procedures to reduce the sale of tobacco products to minors.

“This agreement will make it harder for teens to get tobacco and will keep them from a product that creates a lifelong addiction,” said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. “Circle K should be commended for their efforts to protect our children.”

The Circle K agreement covers 4,000 stores in 32 states. The terms include checking the ID of anyone who appears under 30 years old, restrictions on in-store advertising, and employee training that emphasizes eliminating underage tobacco sales and the health risks of tobacco use.

The agreement also acknowledges that the majority of adult smokers began smoking before 18 and that young people are less likely to be able to quit smoking. Signs of addiction begin to show after only smoking a few cigarettes. 

“Fortunately the number of retailers agreeing to take a strong stand against underage tobacco sales is growing,” said Assistant Attorney General Kathy Kinsman, who worked on the agreement. The agreement is part of an ongoing, multi-state enforcement effort to implement practices that were developed by public health experts and tobacco control officials. 

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Feds Charge Canadian Scam Artists Raked in $450 Million

Consumers were lured into "free" and "risk-free" offers that were anything but

Feds Charge Canadian Scam Artists Raked in $450 Million. Consumers were lured into "free" and "risk-free" offers that were anything but...

photoThe Federal Trade Commission has brought a law enforcement action against an online operation that allegedly raked in more than $450 million from consumers in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand by luring them into “free” or “risk-free” offers, and then charging them for products and services they did not want or agree to purchase.

The FTC seeks to stop the operation’s illegal practices and make the defendants repay injured consumers.

“The defendants used the lure of a ‘free’ offer to open an illegal pipeline to consumers’ credit card and bank accounts,” said David C. Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “‘Free’ must really mean ‘free’ no matter where the offer is made.”

The FTC worked closely with Canadian law enforcement to track down the defendants, most of whom are located in Alberta.

According to the FTC’s complaint, Jesse Willms and 10 companies he controls used deceptive tactics in offering “free trials” for various products online, including acai berry weight-loss pills, teeth whiteners, and health supplements containing resveratrol (the supposedly healthful ingredient in red wine), as well as for a work-at-home scheme, access to government grants, free credit reports, and penny auctions. (Penny auctions are online auctions in which consumers must purchase bids, usually for $0.50 to $1 each.

Regardless of whether a consumer actually wins a penny auction, the consumer has paid for each bid he or she placed during the auction. However, each bid that is placed raises the price of the auctioned item by a penny.)

Bogus offers

According to the FTC, Willms and his companies obtained consumers’ credit or debit card account numbers, by enticing them with bogus “free” or “risk-free” trial offers that supposedly required only small shipping and handling fees, and also promised phony “bonus” offers just for signing up.

Consumers had no reason to believe they would be charged for the trial product or the extra bonus products, but they were often charged for the “free” trial plus a monthly recurring fee, typically $79.95. Consumers were also charged monthly recurring fees for the so-called bonus offers.

Although the defendants offered a money-back guarantee, consumers were often unsuccessful in canceling the charges or obtaining refunds, and the process involved time-consuming phone calls and other steps that made the deals far from risk-free, the FTC complaint alleged.

The defendants allegedly contracted with affiliate marketers whose banner ads, pop-ups, sponsored search terms, and unsolicited e-mail led consumers to the defendants’ websites, and the defendants paid the affiliates for each consumer whose credit or debit card was charged. The defendants allegedly made false claims about the total cost of products, recurring charges, and the availability of refunds. They also buried important terms and conditions in fine print, the FTC alleged.

The complaint charges that the defendants’ penny auction offers falsely indicated consumers would receive free “bonus” bids, but those who provided credit or debit card numbers to facilitate future auction buying were hit with charges they did not know about, including $150 for introductory “bonus” bids and $11.95 per month for ongoing “bonus” bids.

The FTC also charged that Willms and his companies made false weight loss and cancer cure claims for their products, and touted bogus endorsements by Oprah Winfrey and Rachael Ray.

The FTC further alleged that the defendants provided merchant banks with false or misleading information, in order to acquire and maintain credit and debit card processing services from the banks in the face of mounting chargeback rates and consumer complaints. Willms and his companies also allegedly violated the Electronic Fund Transfer Act and Regulation E (issued by the Federal Reserve System’s Board of Governors) by debiting consumers’ bank accounts without their signed written consent and without providing consumers with a copy of the written authorization.

Businesses named in the FTC complaint include Just Think Media, Credit Report America, eDirect Software, eDirect Software; 1524948 Alberta Ltd., Terra Marketing Group, SwipeBids.com, and SwipeAuctions.com; Circle Media Bids Limited, Selloffauctions.com; Coastwest Holdings Ltd.; Farend Services Ltd.; JDW Media LLC; Net Soft Media LLC, Sphere Media LLC, and True Net LLC.

 

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Gold Marketer Faces Federal Fraud Charges

FTC shuts down profitable gold telemarketing operation

The Federal Trade Commission has shut down American Precious Metal's telemarketing operation and frozen their assets....

photoOver the last year few years, the worse the economic news got the more commercials you saw on cable TV for companies selling gold and silver. Now, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says at least one of those companies hawking gold tricked senior citizens into investing in gold on credit.

The FTC says it has obtained a court order forcing American Precious Metals LLC to shut down its telemarketing sales operation. According to court documents, the sales campaign has raked in $37 million from consumers, many of whom the FTC says didn't understand the transaction.

Get rich quick

The FTC says the company's sales personnel promised consumers they could earn large profits quickly by investing in precious metals such as silver, gold, platinum, and palladium. Using high-pressure sales tactics, telemarketers allegedly led consumers to believe that they were offering low-risk investments that would double or triple in value in a short time.

The company told consumers that precious metals are low-risk investments because they are tangible, physical assets – bars, bullion and coins. While that might be stretching the truth, it's a fact that many people have seen their money grow over the last two or three years be investing in precious metals.

However, the FTC maintains American Precious Metals did not use consumers’ money to buy precious metals. Instead, after taking fees and commissions that were not clearly disclosed to consumers, they deposited consumers’ money in the account of a clearinghouse that recorded the investments but did not buy or handle metals.

Buying on margin

The make matters worse, the FTC says the consumers were often not told their investments were leveraged, that is, that they were agreeing to take out a loan and pay interest for up to 80 percent of the purchase price of the metal investment. They didn't know that, if the price of gold fell, they would be forced to put up even more money to prevent their positions from being liquidated.

Because consumers’ leveraged investments were opened with low equity levels and incurred hefty interest charges, the investments were vulnerable to equity calls even if prices remained constant.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) also charged American Precious Metal with violating federal law by using the mails and other means of interstate commerce as part of a scheme to defraud consumers in the sale of precious metals contracts.

The FTC and CFTC are part of the South Florida Securities and Investment Fraud Initiative, a multi-agency task force spearheaded by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida to combat white collar fraud.

The court has ordered a stop to the defendants’ allegedly deceptive practices pending a trial, and has frozen their assets and appointed a receiver to oversee the business.

 

 

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A Good Story Is Key To Getting A Peer-To-Peer Loan

Investors willing to listen if you have a credit blemish

Peer-to-peer lending is becoming more of an option for consumers who can't get a bank loan....

photoYou need a loan but the bank has turned you down. It happens a lot these days. Banks have raised lending standards and any little blemish on your credit history can blow you out of the water.

But this is the Internet age, and where there is a need, there is usually someone online, willing to meet it. So it is with peer-to-peer lending.

In peer-to-peer lending, a group of investors acts as the bank. They loan their money to borrowers and receive interest payments in return. But how do you find a peer-to-peer lender and, more importantly, how do you persuade them to make a loan if the bank won't do it?

Tell your story

While the bank looks strictly at your credit score, and wants it to be very high, researchers at Rice University and the University of Delaware say a peer-to-peer lender is more interested in your story. If you have a credit blemish or two, but can explain the reason, they'll listen.

In two new studies, researchers analyzed data from Prosper.com, America's first peer-to-peer lending marketplace with more than a million members; borrowers and lenders can connect there without going through a bank or institution.

Borrowers choose a loan amount, purpose and post a loan listing. Then investors review loan listings and invest in those that meet their criteria. Once the process is complete, borrowers make fixed monthly payments and investors receive a portion of those payments directly to their Prosper account.

In the first study, the researchers – Scott Sonenshein and Utpal Dholakia from Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business and Michal Herzenstein from the University of Delaware -- found that micro-lenders were more likely to offer loans to borrowers who explained, and then admitted or denied, the details of their credit history.

Be honest

For instance, a borrower increased her/his perceived trustworthiness and chance of securing a loan by telling a lender, "I missed several payments on my car loan, which led to an increased interest rate, but I'm paying on time now and have learned from my mistakes" even though there was no evidence to support the claim that the borrower learned from past mistakes. Indeed, 65.3 percent of all loan requests that included such similar statements were funded, compared with only 45.8 percent of the loans that did not include such statements.

"Despite a poor credit grade, the social accounts that borrowers give and identities they create can increase their chances of securing a loan," said Sonenshein, lead author of one of the studies and assistant professor of management.

In the second study, Sonenshein and his co-authors analyzed the six different identities – trustworthy, successful, economic hardship, hardworking, moral and religious – that borrowers constructed for themselves in the loan application's optional essay. They found that borrowers in their sample could lower their costs by almost 30 percent and saved about $375 in interest charges by using a "trustworthy" identity.

'Trustworthy' is best

By presenting themselves as "trustworthy" or "successful," applicants had a much better chance of getting the loan. Those who described themselves as "religious" were less likely to get a loan.

When selecting an identity, researchers say it's better to choose just one. Presenting yourself as a mix of identities – “hardworking” and “economic hardship,” for example, tends to be confusing. Statistics also show that applicants who had multiple identities tend to be more likely to default, making investors more wary.

Still, for a growing number of consumers, peer-to-peer lending makes it possible to get a loan, in large part by adopting many of the ways banks did business in the past.

"By analyzing the reasons borrowers give and the identities they construct, we can predict payback status over and beyond more objective factors such as credit scores," Sonenshein said. "In a sense, it offers a way of assessing borrowers in ways that hark back to the earlier days of community banking when lenders knew their customers."

 

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Indiana Do Not Call Law Now Covers Cell Phones

State allows consumers to block telemarketing calls to mobile numbers

The State of Indiana has expanded its Do Not Call list law to include cell phone numbers....

photoAs more and more consumers – especially young consumers – avoid land line telephones and use only cell phones, it poses a dilemma for telemarketers. How can they sell things to these consumers?

In Indiana, at least, they may not be able to call them on their cell phones. The state has passed a new law allowing residents to register cell phone numbers on the state's Do Not Call List. The national Do Not Call list already allows you to register mobile numbers.

The measure, signed into law late last week, clarifies current state law by extending the protections of Indiana's telephone privacy laws to include cell phone numbers, prepaid wireless calling and Internet-enabled VOIP services.

"I want to thank the General Assembly for taking action to update the state's telephone privacy laws and the Governor for signing the bill," Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said. "Extending the protections of the Do Not Call list for cell phones and VOIP phones will shield more Hoosiers from intrusive solicitors and potential scams."

Deadline today

In Indiana the Do Not Call list is updated four times a year and today happens to be the latest deadline. Phone numbers placed on the list by 11:59 PM (ET) May 17 will begin receiving benefits of the law starting July 1, 2011. Out of state area codes can also now be registered as long as the billing address is located in Indiana, which Zoeller emphasized is particularly relevant for out-of-state college students studying in Indiana.

"Thousands of students come to Indiana to attend college every year and only have a cell phone,” he said. “As long as their bills come to an Indiana mailing address, they can add their number to the list. This will reduce the number of unwanted marketing calls as well as text-based solicitations."

Currently more than 1.8 million phone numbers are registered on Indiana's Do Not Call list, however, it is estimated that one third of eligible phone numbers are not registered. Registering on the list not only reduces the number of telemarketing calls, it also helps to the attorney general's office investigate and prosecute those telemarketers who violate the law and scammers looking to defraud consumers over the phone.

No robo-calls

Indiana law also forbids the use of auto-dialers to deliver pre-recorded messages without a live operator obtaining consent to deliver the message. These calls are often referred to as “robo-calls."

Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which administers the national Do Not Call list, is asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to hold companies responsible when telemarketers violate the Do Not Call law on their behalf.

In comments filed with the FCC, the FTC said the agency should not allow such sellers to escape liability from federal telemarketing laws designed to protect consumers and their privacy when others place telemarketing calls on their behalf.

“The Do Not Call Registry is important to the FTC, but is absolutely critical to consumers who want a stop to the telemarketing and robocalls that interrupt their dinner hour,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “We hope that the FCC acts quickly to resolve this issue.”

 

 

 

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What's On Your Mind? Dish Network, Whirlpool, AllState

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Dish Network, Whirlpool, AllState, Still not fixed, Doesn't cover everything and Not infallible....

photoRoger, of Athens, Ga., reports a recent frustrating experience when he was setting up his Dish Network service. He says nearly everything the customer service rep told him was wrong.

“I was told my monthly bill would be $27.04, but it went up to 30.04 on the first bill and was told package just went up,” Roger told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was told I would receive HDTV for life and then received an email telling me my package did not qualify for HDTV. They said installation was free but first the electric company had to check for wires. They said they would finish the installation after the electric company notified them. The electric company came out and Dish never showed up, and when I called, they sent out a tech and charged me 150 dollars, saying the I only had two months after signing up to have this completed.”

The lesson here is to basically disregard any promise a customer service, or sales associate makes verbally. Instead, read the contract or the customer agreement. If what the sales person tells you conflicts with the contract, the contract is what will prevail.

Still not fixed

ConsumerAffairs.com gets lots of complaints about washers and driers, like the one from Pamela, of East Hampton, Conn.

“I purchased a Whirlpool duet washer in 2010 and the drum and bearings went before the year was over, making it sound like a freight train,” Pamela said. “It was under warranty, it was fixed but the problem returned two months later and now it's out of warranty and the repair is costly. Whirlpool doesn't warranty the replaced parts.”

Pamela, like other customers is frustrated that her appliance seemingly can't be repaired. She can either junk it now, or have it repaired a few more times. At that point, she might be able to have it declared a “lemon” under the lemon law, which applies to appliances as well as automobiles.

Doesn't cover everything

It sometimes pays to have renter's insurance, to protect against the loss of the contents of a rented home. But not all policies cover everything.

The apartment above me had a leak in their bathroom and it came down the wall and caused mold on the back of all my pictures so bad that it ate through the pictures,” Patti, of Ashburn, Va., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The apartment company repaired the walls immediately but AllState has refused to reimburse for my damages. Mold is not covered they tell me.”

Not infallible

In this day an age, no one seems to use a map anymore. Instead, they rely on GPS. But keep in mind these machines can sometimes make mistakes.

“We have used a Garmin Nuvi 360 GPS for many years with no significant problems,” James, of Portland, Ore., said. “But today, as we drove down Arizona Highway 67 to the north rim of Grand Canyon National Park, we encountered problems with the GPS routing that make us wonder how much to trust Garmin.”

For about 46 miles, James said he got at least 20 route misdirections--some to the left, some to the right-- that tried to put onto unpaved National Forest roads, such as NF 610, leading from the highway.

“Had we followed the directions and the weather was bad or it was dark, we could have been in serious danger,” James said. “In the news, we have heard of other drivers who have been injured or even perished from following GPS directions. Garmin needs to check its data relative to Arizona Highway 67 and issue a correction immediately.”

This is a good reminder to use a GPS with some caution. While they are great inventions, you shouldn't invest them with blind trust. A little common sense is also helpful.

 

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Massachusetts Probing University of Phoenix

Pressure on for-profit schools increases on both state and federal level

Massachusetts Probing University of Phoenix Pressure on for-profit schools increases on both state and federal level...

logoMassachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is investigating the recruiting and financial aid tactics used by the University of Phoenix and has asked the school to produce documents dating back to 2002, a Phoenix newspaper reports.

The Arizona Republic said the probe was disclosed in a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing by the school's parent corporation, Apollo Group.

The report said the Massachusetts probe was thought to be part of a “coalition” of state agencies that are looking into the activities of for-profit universities and trade schools.

Apollo Group, among the largest education institutions in the world, has more than 405,000 students.

Florida's attorney general last year said the state was investigating several for-profit schools. Oregon officials sued Apollo Group last year for allegedly misleading investors in its financial statements.

Congress has also been investigating and holding hearings after the Obama Administration floated a proposal to regulate federal aid to for-profit schools and their students.

The General Accountability Office (GAO) was sharply critical of recruiting practices at some for-profit colleges, saying recruiters lie and urge aid applicants to committee fraud.

 

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Suit: Hain Celestial Misrepresents Products as Organic

Facial wash labeled as organic contains only one organic ingredient out of 19

Suit: Hain Celestial Misrepresents Products as OrganicFacial wash labeled as organic contains only one organic ingredient out of 19...

photoA federal class action claims The Hain Celestial Group misrepresents its Jason and Avalon Organics brand "personal care products" as organic when they actually contain less than 70% organic ingredients.

In the suit, filed in Alameda County, Calif., Superior Court, Rosminah Brown alleges that in September 2009, she purchased a Jason Ester-C Super-C Cleanser Facial Wash at a Whole Foods Market.

She said the front label of the product prominently stated that it was “Pure, Natural & Organic.” But, she said, of the 19 ingredients listed, only one was actually organic, as revealed when one closely studies the ingredients listed on the back of the “pure, natural, organic” product.

By the company's own admission, only Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Vera) leaf gel is organic and it is not among the most prominent of the 19 ingredients, ranking ninth on the ingredient list, excluding water.

The products at issue are all intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled or sprayed onto or otherwise applied to the human body and are, therefore, “cosmetics” under California law, the suit argues, and thus are governed by state laws regarding labeling of cosmetics.

photoState law requires that cosmetic products sold as organic must contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients.

The suit cites other Hain Celestial products as having similar shortcomings:

  • Jason Aloe Vera Soothing Body Scrub is labeled as organic yet lists only two of its 23 ingredients as organic.

  • Baby Avalon Organics Silky Cornstarch Baby Powder is labeled as organic, yet only two of the seven ingredients are organic, according to the label.

  • Jason Thin to Thick Extra Volume Conditioner is labeled as organic, as only four of the 32 ingredients are organic.

The suit seeks an injunction to prohibit future violations, a corrective advertising campaign, consumer redress, damages and legal fees.

Joining Brown in the suit is the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), an Oakland-based non-profit advocacy group. 

 

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Credit CARD Act Doing Its Job, Study Finds

Interest rates and fees are stable, overlimit charges eliminated

Credit CARD Act Doing Its Job, Study FindsInterest rates and fees are stable, overlimit charges eliminated...

photoThere's been a lot of bad press lately about new bank charges and fees that are supposedly the result of new rules that limit how much banks can charge to process debit card transactions. But while the debit card rules may have some unintended consequences, the Credit CARD Act of 2009 is doing what it was supposed to do, a new study finds.

Credit card holders are seeing stabilized interest rates, the elimination of overlimit penalty charges, a reduction in late fees charged by banks and minimal changes in annual fees since the Credit CARD Act of 2009 took effect, according to new research by the Pew Health Group’s Safe Credit Cards Project.

Pew data show that the median advertised interest rates for purchases on bank credit cards remained unchanged from 2010. Meanwhile, bank cash advance and penalty rates held firm. Additionally, the percentage of cards with annual fees held steady for credit unions, at 14 percent, and increased for banks, from 14 percent in 2010 to 21 percent in 2011. The amount charged for annual fees remained unchanged.

“Pew’s research shows that predictions that the legislation would spark new charges and long-term interest rate growth have not materialized,” said Nick Bourke, director of Pew’s Safe Credit Cards Project. “Whatever increases in advertised interest rates we saw going into 2010 have not continued into 2011. The Act created a new equilibrium where interest rates have flattened, penalty charges have declined and a number of practices deemed ‘unfair or deceptive’ have disappeared. Consumers are enjoying safer, more transparently priced credit cards – and banks and credit unions are able to compete on a more level playing field.”

The study, “A New Equilibrium: After Passage of Landmark Credit Card Reform, Interest Rates and Fees Have Stabilized,” is the latest in a series of reports from the Pew Safe Credit Cards Project that has examined all consumer credit cards offered online by the nation’s 12 largest bank and 12 largest credit union issuers. Together, these institutions control more than 90 percent of the nation’s outstanding credit card debt. For this latest report, which measures how the industry has changed since the passage of the Credit CARD Act, Pew collected data in March 2010 and January 2011. 

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Abusive Online Eyeglasses Merchant Enters Guilty Plea

Used consumers negative comments to game the search engine results

The strange case of online merchant Vitaly Borker is a step closer to conclusion....

photoA Brooklyn eye glasses merchant who yelled at, cursed and threatened customers has pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud and one count of wire fraud. But it's his behavior with consumers that brought him to the attention of law enforcement.

Back in November the New York Times published a story about Vitaly Borker, who owns and operates DecorMyEyes.com out of his home. He admitted to a Times reporter he threatened customers who complained about his products or service.

In the article, he also bragged that he didn't mind it when consumers complained about his company on sites like ConsumerAffairs.com, since even negative comments helped him show up higher in Google searches.

Google reacts

Immediately after the story appeared, Google announced it was changing its algorithm so that sites would not benefit from bad behavior.

Lacey, of San Jose, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com last November that Borker was abusive to her when she called to complain that he had lost an expensive pair of glasses she had sent him to have repaired.

“He said 'you know what, you are stupid,” Stacey told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Other consumers reported that Borker threatened to kill them when they complained. He allegedly told one consumer, “I know where you live,” and emailed her a picture of her house he got from Google Streetview.

Gaming the system

In Borker's ill-advised interview with the Times last year, he said he intentionally abused customers, so they would go online and write about their experience. When they did so, he said, it elevated his site's traffic from search engines.

In the end, the government didn't charge Borker with making threats, but with selling counterfeit eyeglasses. The judge ordered him confined and barred him from using the Internet, pending sentencing.

Sentencing is scheduled for September 16. Prosecutors say Borker could face maximum of six years in prison.

 

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What's On Your Mind? Charmglow, Chevy Malibu, Equifax

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Charmglow, Chevy Malibu, Equifax, Losing control, A suspicious request....

photoSummer's nearly here and consumers are cleaning off their grills for a new season of barbecuing. Some are in for an unpleasant surprise.

“I bought a Charmglow from Home Depot two years ago and spent over $500 for it,Tara, of Coventry, R.I., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I thought I was buying a quality product and chose to buy stainless steel to prevent rusting. I went to start up the grill and found out it was completely rusted out! There is absolutely no reason for this to have happened. I take very good care of the product and thought it would last us a long time.”

Tara is not the first consumer to lodge such a complaint about rust. In 2005 the parent company, Nexgrill, recalled Charmglow grills because of a design flaw that allowed the gas hose to overheat.

Losing control

Some owners of mid-2000 Chevy Malibus have begun to report problems with the power steering in their cars. Michael, of Bellville, Mich., is one of them.

“I have a 2004 Chevy Malibu Maxx with 105k miles and it is experiencing steering problems,” Michael said. “It is the same locking up issues as countless other Malibu owners have complained against. While driving for no reason it locks up at any speed, and almost crashes the car!”

Michael says his dealer won't touch it and his wife won't drive it. He wants to know why there hasn't been a recall. We can't answer that, but it does sound like something the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should be looking into, if it isn't already.

A suspicious request

Traci, of East Orange, N.J., is concerned that an identity thief may have intercepted her communication with Equifax.

“I went to the FreeCreditReport.com site to get my report,” Traci told ConsumerAffairs.com. “On May 14, 2011 I received a letter from Equifax requesting that I send in proof of address, with photocopies of any of the following 2 pieces of info: Social Security number, W-2, utility bill, driver's license, pay stub or lease. No fax, but they want this info sent to a P.O. box. I have great security concerns with this method and believe this could be a form of identity theft.”

This does, in fact, seem strange and Traci is correct in being suspicious. However, she has another, better alternative that using Equfax's FreeCreditReport.com site, which requires enrolled in a credit monitoring service. Instead, she can go to www.annualcreditreport.com once each year and get a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies.

Unlimited, but...

You can access the Internet all you want with your smartphone and with most carriers, there's no overage fee. But if you have a plan that connects your computer using your cell phone – usually marketed as “mobile broadband” - there are limits on how much bandwidth you can use in a billing cycle.

“I recently ordered T-Mobile's Web Connect 2.0 stick for mobile broadband,” Migna, of North Bergen, N.J., said. I was told that I get 5GB in the plan with unlimited use and that there is no overage fee. The problem is that when I go over the 5GB my Internet access becomes extremely slow and I am not able to listen to music or do anything on the Internet without an excruciating headache.”

Migna thinks she was deceived about the limitations of the plan but, when we checked the T-Mobile website, it clearly states that “after 5GB, data speeds may be reduced.” Migna's options are to ride out her two year contract by carefully limiting her data use, or paying the early termination fee and going to another provider. Verizon Wireless, for example, provides a 5B data package but charges extra when you go over. However, Verizon charges $20 a month for the service while T-Mobile charges nearly $50.

 

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Chantix Left Four Children as Orphans, Suit Charges

Murder-suicide blamed on side effects of Pfizer's anti-smoking drug

Chantix Left Four Children as Orphans, Suit ChargesMurder-suicide blamed on side effects of Pfizer's anti-smoking drug...

photoPfizer has faced hundreds of complaints that its anti-smoking drug Chantix caused suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. Now a federal lawsuit claims the drug is responsible for a murder-suicide that left four children orphans.  

On May 17, 2009, a Beaver County, Pa., man and his wife were found dead by a newspaper delivery woman in the front yard of their home. Police said Sean Wain, 34, shot and killed his wife, Natalie, 33, before shooting himself.

Sean Wain was found lying on his shotgun, police said. Three of the couple's four children, then aged 10-14, were home at the time.

A suit filed this month in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh alleges that Sean Wain was prescribed Chantix in October 2007 and had been using it for only a few weeks before his death. It was not until after the deaths of the Wains that Pfizer began including “black box” warnings that Chantix could cause violent behavior, rage, suicidal ideation and death.

The Wains are survived by four children: Zachary, Cassidy, Amy and Melissa. The suit, filed on behalf of the children, seeks damages to provide for their financial loss, emotional suffering and legal expenses.

Chantix (varenicline) was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in May 2006 and quickly became Pfizer's fastest-growing product, with sales of more than $60 million in 2008.

Consumer watchdog groups have criticized Pfizer's aggressive promotion of the drug, which included a “consumer education” effort called mytimetoquit.com.

The company also launched a widespread program promoting Chantix to doctors while downplaying or omitting information about the drug's potential side effects, the suit charges.

The suit also alleges that several clinical trials demonstrated the increased risk of serious injury and death among Chantix users. In the fourth quarter of 2007, the drug accounted for 988 serious injuries reported to the FDA, more than any other drug during that time period.

By July 2009, the FDA had reports of 4,762 reports of serious psychiatric events, including 98 suicides, among patients taking Chantix.

The suit charges Pfizer was negligent in its design, testing and promotion of the drug.

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Racketeering Suit Alleges ILD Teleservices Defrauds Millions

Billing aggregator doesn't have the information required by law to process bills, suit claims

Racketeering Suit Alleges ILD Teleservices Defrauds Millions of Consumers Billing aggregator does not possess the information required by law to process b...

logoKaren of Okemos, Mich., was puzzled a few weeks ago to find two charges on her telephone bill that made no sense to her. The charges were identified only as “Totaltel Media Monthly Service Fee” and were placed there by something called ILD Teleservices.

“ILD said they would issue me a check, but I had to pay my phone bill. There is also taxes charged, but I don't know how that will be reimbursed. I'd like to know how in the world did this happen?” she asked in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com.

The short answer is that what happened to Karen happens millions of times a year, usually to consumers who, just like Karen, are baffled by what the charges may be, if they notice them at all.

The problem is not a new one. Back in 2006, ConsumerAffairs.com published a lengthy report titled “Congress, Feds Sleep While Cramming Charges Afflict Thousands: Congress Created the Problem, Won't Life a Finger to Solve It.”

Not much has changed since then, although a federal class action filed yesrterday claims ILD Teleservices "and hundreds of third-party service providers" conspired to bill nearly one million Indiana telephone customers falsely, using "intentionally false affidavits and other documents." 

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis on behalf of all Indiana residents who have been wrongfully billed by ILD.

It relies on an Indiana law which requires that ILD have five pieces of information about a customer before submitting a payment request to the local telephone companies which then include the charge on the customer's monthly bill.

The law requires that ILD possess the following information for every charge it submits to local telephone companies:

  • The name of the customer requesting the service;

  • A description of the service rendered;

  • The date on which the customer requested the service;

  • The means by which the customer requested the service;

  • The name, address and telephone number of all sales agents involved in the transaction.

The suit claims that ILD submitted fraudulent affidavits to the local telephone companies claiming that it had the required information for each transaction, and charges that the actions violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as RICO.

ILD, based in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., is what is known as a “billing aggregator.” Third-party vendors contract with ILD to handle the billing for their services and ILD, in turn, submits the billing information and supporting affidavits to local telephone companies.

Billing aggregators were created as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1980, which broke up AT&T and established local exchange carriers (“LECs”).

The theory was that hundreds of innovative service providers would compete to offer low-cost services to consumers, who would be billed by the LECs. No one quite knew what those innovative services might be but assumed they would be long-distance plans, voice-mail and message-forwarding services and other communications-related products.

Instead, the Indiana class action alleges, the charges that appear on consumers' bills often have little or nothing to do with legitimate telephone services. And it charges that ILD “never” has the information required by Indiana law, because it allows the third-party providers to retain the information.

The suit states that the only information ILD receives from the service providers is a data string that contains the consumer's telephone number, the amount to be billed and a brief description of the service provided.

ILD billed Indiana consumers more than $50 million between 2003 and 2009, the suit states.

The named plaintiff in the case is the Gold Seal Termite and Pest Control Company. In February, March, May and June of 2009, Gold Seal's monthly AT&T bills included a charge of $49.97 described as an Online Yellow Pages charge. Gold Seal, like many other customers, paid the charges even though, the suit alleges, neither ILD nor AT&T had any of the required five pieces of information to confirm that the charges were valid.

The suit accuses ILD of operating a “common and uniform scheme to defraud” and asks the court to award customers their actual damages, legal expenses and punitive damages.

The suit was filed on behalf on Indiana consumers by Cohen & Malad, LLP, an Indianapolis law firm.

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Incentives Returning to Many Toyota, Nissan Dealers

Cash, interest-rate, lease incentives being unveiled in time for Memorial Day

Incentives Returning to Many Toyota, Nissan Dealers Cash, interest-rate, lease incentives being unveiled in time for Memorial Day...

photoToyota and Nissan are trying to get back into the game after suffering sharp drops in sales attributed to inventory shortages resulting from the Japan earthquake and tsunami. Both companies are restoring regional sales incentives as the Memorial Day weekend approaches.

Both companies will be rolling out cash-back, cut-rate interest and special leasing deals on a regional basis.

This is good news for consumers, who for the last few months have been largely at dealers' mercy. With demand for new cars exceeding the supply, manufacturers have cut incentives and dealers have stopped sharpening their pencils, putting consumers in a weak bargaining position.

Demand for new cars is strong, with overall sales up 20% over the last month but Toyota turned in a weak 9% while Nissan sales were up 22%.

Many automakers, not just the Japanese, have cut back on sales incentives as parts shortages caused production delays that have left many dealers with fewer cars than usual on their lots.

But with Hyundai-Kia, Volkswagen and many American brands running at full production, the Asian carmakers fear they're being left in the dust.  Hyundai sales were up a stunning 37%, many of them coming at the expense of Toyota and Honda.

Toyota has also said it is battling back to full production more quickly than it expected and hopes to be at nearly full capacity over the next 30 days.

Nissan claims to be in better shape than its Asian competitors and has been telling its dealers to “rev the Nissan engine and grow market share” through Memorial Day tent sales and cut-rate lease days on Altimas and Maximas.

 

 

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MacLaren Repeats Stroller Recall After More Fingertip Amputations

More than one million strollers were recalled in 2009

MacLaren Repeats Stroller Recall After More Fingertip Amputations More than one million strollers were recalled in 2009...

photo

MacLaren USA is repeating a recall of about one million strollers sold prior to November 2009.  The stroller's hinge mechanism poses a fingertip amputation and laceration hazard to the child when the consumer is unfolding/opening the stroller.

Maclaren has received a total of 149 reported incidents with the strollers, including 37 reported injuries that occurred after the stroller was recalled in November 2009. These reported injuries include five additional fingertip amputations, 16 additional lacerations and 16 additional fingertip entrapments/bruising. At the time of the original recall, there were 15 incidents, including 12 reports of fingertip amputations in the United States.

This reannouncement involves all Maclaren single and double umbrella strollers sold prior to November 2009. The word "Maclaren" is printed on the stroller. Maclaren strollers sold after May 2010 have a different hinge design and are not affected by this announcement.

Juvenile product and mass merchandise retailers sold the strollers nationwide from 1999 through November 2009 for between $100 and $360. They were made in China.

Consumers who have not installed the hinge covers should immediately contact Maclaren USA to receive the free repair kit.

Consumers who have not received or installed the hinge covers should contact Maclaren USA at hingecovers@maclaren-usa.com to obtain the free repair kit. Consumers also can call Maclaren toll-free at (877) 688-2326 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

 

 

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Study: Healthcare Costs Have Doubled in Nine Years

Workers carrying larger share of the burden than employers

Study: Healthcare Costs Have Doubled in Nine Years Workers carrying larger share of the burden than employers...

Everyone knows healthcare costs have been going up, but a new study adds some specifics – finding that healthcare costs for a typical American family of four have doubled in less than nine years and that employees are carrying a largerr share of the costs than in previous years.

The Milliman Medical Index finds the total cost of healthcare for a family of four in 2011 is $19,393, an increase of 7.3% over 2010.

graph

That's the lowest annual rate of increase in more than a decade but it is the highest increase in total dollars – $1,319 in 2011 – in the history of the study, which is conducted annually by Millman, Inc., a consulting and actuarial firm.

In 2002, American families had healthcare costs of $9,235 and those costs have now doubled in fewer than nine years,” said Lorraine Mayne, Milliman principal and consulting actuary. “As costs continue to grow – and even as the cost trend decelerates – the total cost of care for American families constitutes a larger and larger portion of the household budget.”

Employees paying more

The study also found that American workers are paying a larger share of the cost. Of the $1,319 total cost increase, employers bore $641 while employees shouldered the rest – $403 in payroll contributions and $275 in additioanl cost sharing.

As has been the case in four of the last five years, employees are paying a larger share of the increase than their employers,” said Scott Weltz, consulting actuary at Millman. “That said, in absolute dollars, both employers and employees have shouldered approximately the same amount of additional costs since 2006, with employers absorbing $3,023 and employees absorbing $2,988.

The study also looked at geographic differences. Six of the 14 cities studied exceeded $20,000 in total costs while several others, including Phoenix, Atlanta and Seattle, had less than $19,000 in total costs for the typical family.

The cost differences result from variations in local practice patterns and from differing costs for healthcare goods and services, the Milliman report said.

 

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Foreclosure Activity Drops Sharply In April

But that doesn't mean things are getting better, analysts say

Foreclosure activity fell in April, mainly because banks are slowing the foreclosure process....

photoForeclosure filings — default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions — fell nine percent from March and were down 34 percent from April 2010, according to RealtyTrac, a foreclosure marketing firm.

But that doesn't mean the housing market is recovering or that fewer homeowners are in trouble. Other evidence suggests otherwise. Instead, says RealtryTrac, it means the process has simply slowed down.

“Foreclosure activity decreased on an annual basis for the seventh straight month in April, bringing foreclosure activity to a 40-month low,” said James J. Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac. “This slowdown continues to be largely the result of massive delays in processing foreclosures rather than the result of a housing recovery that is lifting people out of foreclosure.”

Delays

The first delay occurs between delinquency and foreclosure, when lenders and services are no longer automatically pushing loans that are more than 90 days delinquent into foreclosure but are waiting longer to allow for loan modifications, short sales and possibly other disposition alternatives. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association shows that about 3.7 million properties are in this seriously delinquent stage.

The second delay occurs after foreclosure has started, when lenders are taking much longer than they were just a few years ago to complete the foreclosure process. According to RealtyTrac, foreclosure actions were reported on 219,258 U.S. properties in April, with one in every 593 U.S. housing units receiving a foreclosure filing during April.

In 2007, it took an average of only 151 days for a foreclosure process to be completed and a repossessed home to be placed back on the market. In April, the average time lengthened to 400 days.

Mortgage servicers have slowed the process in the wake of last year's “robo-signing” scandal, when several big firms were caught taking illegal short-cuts. Not only are they now being more deliberate, they are slowing the number of distressed properties coming on the market, which may prove to be helpful in stabilizing the housing market.

Nevada, Arizona, California still the hardest hit

Though the process has slowed, the states with the highest number of foreclosures remains pretty much the same. Nevada posted the nation’s highest state foreclosure rate for the 52nd straight month in April, with one in every 97 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing during the month. Overall foreclosure activity in Nevada decreased nine percent from the previous month and was down 27 percent from April 2010.

Arizona repossessions decreased three percent from March but were still up 22 percent from April 2010, helping the state maintain the nation’s second highest foreclosure rate for the fifth consecutive month. One in every 205 Arizona housing units received a foreclosure filing during the month, and overall foreclosure activity decreased 15 percent from March and was down 17 percent from April 2010 despite the year-over-year jump in REOs.

Overall, foreclosure activity in California was down monthly and annually in April, but a 22 percent month-over-month jump in REOs helped keep the state’s foreclosure rate at the third highest among all states for the sixth consecutive month. One in every 240 California properties received a foreclosure filing in April.

 

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Michaels Reports Widespread Debit Card Fraud At 80 Stores

Thieves apparently attempted to steal debit card data

Craft store chain Michaels reports debit card readers at 80 stores have been compromised....

photoMichaels, a chain of craft stores, reports the debit card readers at 80 of its stores in 20 states show signs of tampering. That means consumers who used debit cards in those stores may have exposed their bank information to criminals.

Michaels said the 80 stores are located in Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia and Washington.

The company said the compromised swipe pads have been removed and it will replace all 7,200 of its debit card key pads at all its stores. While the transition is taking place over the next two weeks, stores will accept only cash, credit cards orsignature-based debit cards.

Allowing criminals access to debit card data is much more dangerous than giving them access to credit cards. With information from debit cards, crooks can empty a bank account. With credit card data, they can only make purchases, which the credit card company can disallow once they are shown to be fraudulent.

Electronic transactions have raised potential fraud to a whole new level in recent years. Key pad “skimmers” have become more common at gas pumps and ATMs. A “skimmer” is a keypad device that is placed over the real keypad by a scammer. The device captures the consumer's debit card information and PIN when they enter it.

It's not clear how the Michaels keypads were compromised, because neither the store nor the police are providing any details.

Security experts say keypads could have been replaced with “skimmers” by criminals posing as repair personnel. It's also possible the pads weren't replaced at all, but the network that linked them together was infected by malware, allowing the thieves to effectively take control of the devices.

Consumers who have recently used debit cards at a Michaels store in the above states should immediately contact their bank's fraud department and report it. By issuing a new card and PIN, the bank may be able to thwart attempts to break into consumers' bank accounts.

 

 

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What's On Your Mind? Paula Deen Cookware, Vizio,Unwanted Texts

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Paula Deen Cookware, Vizio,Unwanted Texts, Another flaming TV, Getting the message and Disappearing money....

photoOn Mothers Day Karen, of Hebron, Ky., was delighted to receive two Paula Deen copper-bottom two-quart sauce pans as a gift.

“I decided to warm a can of green beans in one of the saucepans,” Karen told ConsumerAffairs.com. “When the green beans were hot, I went to remove the pan from the stove burner and the copper bottom disintegrated into molten metal and flew all over the stove, kitchen counter, floor and floor mat. I also was struck by a piece of the metal and suffered a burn on my right hand when lifting the pan.”

As a result, Karen says she is having to replace, at her expense, the entire kitchen counter top as well as the kitchen floor and the stove's drip pan and burner in her rented condo. She should try to return the pan because copper-bottom pans aren't supposed to melt. It sounds like a manufacturing defect. And, oh by the way, just because a celebrity slaps her name on a product doesn't necessarily mean it's of high quality.

Another flaming TV

We've had a few reports lately of flat screen TVs catching fire. Here's another one.

“I have had my 42" Vizio LCD flat screen for about three years,” said Kellie, of Stockton, Utah. “Monday May 9, 2011 we were watching TV when all of a sudden there was a loud pop and the screen went black. We unplugged the TV and plugged it back in turned it on and it started shooting flames out the back.”

Kellie said she's just glad someone was home when it happened. We've had similar reports of Polaroid and Phlilps TVs catching fire. Seems to us the Consumer Product Safety Commission ought to be looking into this.

Getting the message

With most cell phone plans you pay for individual text messages that are sent and received, so getting unsolicited texts isn't just annoying, it can also be expensive. Amy, of San Francisco, says she is getting unwanted text messages from MediaSolutions.com, despite having asked them to stop.

“Just today they texted me eight times after asking them to stop,” Amy said. “I have a limited number of text messages that I can use each month and they are taking away texts that I use. I get charged extra when I go over.”

If she hasn't already, Amy should complain to her cellphone provider. Verizon, for example, recently sued a company it said was defrauding its customers be sending spam texts. She should also contact California Attorney General Kamala Harris' office. 

Disappearing money

It's always distressing to hear from consumers who think they have been scammed, especially if their life savings is at stake.

“On april 10, 2008 I invested my personal money into Genesis Onnovation,” Terry, of San Francisco, told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I took a $25,000.00 cashiers check and handed over to the manager of the company.”

Terry had a financial setback recently and wrote a letter asking for his money back. He said he got no response and is now worried.

Unfortunately, he should be. According to news reports, the owner and manager of Genesis Innovations was arrested in Sacramento, Calif., last fall and charged with running a Ponzi scheme. Terry should immediately contact the Sacramento district attorney's office to find out the status of the investigation. In fact, the office may want Terry's testimony. As the Bernie Madoff case has shown, there may be assets that can be recovered, so all may not be lost.

 

 

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Should Children Have Gastric Bypass Surgery?

No, say a majority of parents

More obese adults are opting for bariatric surgery, but it remains controversial for children....

photoWe know childhood obesity is a problem. But do we know the answer? Or more importantly, what the answer isn't.

First Lady Michelle Obama has an exercise program for kids. So does the National Football League, and other organizations. But some children are opting for a more direct route to weight loss -- bariatric, or “gastric bypass,” surgery.

While a growing number of adults are undergoing this procedure, it remains controversial for children. A new poll by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital shows most parents believe it should not be available to children under 18.

Just as cases of childhood obesity have skyrocketed in number over the last 40 years, so has children’s risk for obesity-related illness such as diabetes, high blood pressure, liver disease and other illnesses. Research shows a multitude of issues that contribute to the problem, but no single solution is clear.

Physicians tend to agree. They say that despite its benefits, bariatric surgery carries potential risks, which are not fully defined for adolescent patients. There is no standard age at which bariatric surgery is presented as an option for severely obese adolescents.

Minority parents more receptive

Overall, fewer than one-third of parents thought bariatric surgery should be an option for adolescents younger than 18. Black and Hispanic parents were more likely than white parents to consider bariatric surgery for younger adolescents.

In contrast, 13 percent of parents felt bariatric surgery should not be an option at any age – including one in five African-American parents. Among all groups, the most common viewpoint was that bariatric surgery should be delayed until the adolescent is 18 or older.

“Further research is required to explore why low-income and non-white parents were more accepting of bariatric surgery for adolescents, but it might be because these populations are disproportionately affected by obesity and are more familiar with the challenges faced by the severely obese,” said Susan J. Woolford, M.D., M.P.H., medical director of the Pediatric Comprehensive Weight Management Center at the University of Michigan Health System.

Longer pre-surgery weight loss period

The poll also showed that for parents who believe bariatric surgery should be reserved for those over 18, most also prefer that adolescents participate in a weight loss program for at least one year before considering bariatric surgery – six months longer than the minimum time generally required by doctors.

“Pediatric guidelines say bariatric surgery should be performed on adolescents only after at least six months of participation in an intensive weight-loss program," Woolford said.

The waiting period patients and their parents have the opportunity to implement lifestyle changes that are important for success after surgery.

“But parents in this study suggest a longer period,” said Woolford, who is also a clinical assistant professor with the Child Health Evaluation and Research unit in the Division of General Pediatrics.

Guidelines include adopting a low-fat, low-calorie diet, and implementing a regular exercise routine. Continuing these behaviors and taking regular supplemental vitamins and proteins following surgery are required to avoid serious complications.

 

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Study: Congressional Staffers Fear Powerful Lobbyists

Corporate lobbyists flex their muscles on Capitol Hill

Study: Congressional Staffers Fear Powerful LobbyistsCorporate lobbyists flex their muscles on Capitol Hill...

photoThe U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has left many congressional staffers fearing retaliation against their bosses if they displease lobbyists,  an informal study by Public Citizen finds.

Public Citizen asked 3,401 congressional chiefs of staff, legislative directors and legislative assistants who work on Capitol Hill if they believe that Citizens United, which permitted corporations to spend unlimited sums to influence elections, has strengthened the influence of lobbyists in the policymaking process and if they personally feel a need to respond differently to lobbyists in the wake of the opinion.

Eighty staffers responded. Forty-one percent said Citizens United has “strengthened the influence of lobbyists in the policymaking process.”

There was a stark contrast between the responses of Democrats and Republicans. Of Democratic respondents, nearly three in five (57 percent) said Citizens United has strengthened the influence of lobbyists, while 16 percent said they feel “a need to respond differently to lobbyists’ requests.” None of the Republican staffers said they believed that Citizens United has strengthened lobbyists’ influence or that they personally feel a need to respond differently to lobbyists.

The results of this survey are concerning, although not surprising,” said Taylor Lincoln, research director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “The notion that unlimited outside expenditures would not corrupt the policymaking process was fanciful from the start. This is not a scientific survey, but it shows that outside spending does in fact intimidate congressional staff – and that’s very troubling.”

Of the staffers who reported a need to respond differently to lobbyists, most chose the explanation that they “worry about preventing electioneering expenditures against the member for whom I work.”

Chilling effect

One Democratic legislative director, in response to the survey’s open-ended question, wrote, “The prospect of a massive donation to an outside organization that would run ads against my boss and not have any identifying information about who is behind them has a chilling effect on our decision-making.”

In Public Citizen’s analysis, the survey results undercut a key rationale underlying Citizens United: The court dismissed the prospect that expenditures by outside organizations would have a corrupting effect on the policymaking process. But the court also said there would be “cause for concern” if lawmakers put “expediency before principle,” and the court acknowledged its obligation to give weight to “the appearance or the reality” of improper influences of independent expenditures.

The survey puts the lie to current arguments against disclosure of political spending by government contractors,” said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, referring to a proposed executive order to require disclosure of campaign spending by corporations that accept government contracts.

Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce claim that disclosure of political contributions would intimidate government contractors. What’s really going on is that big businesses want to be able to bribe and intimidate government officials who grant lucrative contracts, without the public knowing about it. Americans deserve to know who’s underwriting our elections, and who’s potentially buying off and intimidating public officials,” he said.

 

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Prepaid Cards Can Deal Unemployed Workers a Losing Hand

Report reviews 40 states’ unemployment compensation prepaid cards

Prepaid Cards Can Deal Unemployed Workers a Losing HandReport reviews 40 states’ unemployment compensation prepaid cards...

photoA report finds that many of the 13 million Americans who are unemployed are getting stung with unnecessary and poorly disclosed fees in the 40 states that use prepaid cards for unemployment compensation.

At the same time, the best cards may benefit “unbanked” consumers – those who don't have banking accounts -- and save states money, according to the survey conducted by the National Consumer Law Center.

Prepaid cards can help states eliminate the costs of paper checks and help unbanked workers avoid check cashing fees and the risks of carrying cash,” said Lauren Saunders, managing attorney of the center and the primary author of the report. “Yet prepaid card junk fees stack the deck against jobless Americans who need every dollar during a financially stressful time.”

The center's report analyzes the payment options, fees, and access to account information available to workers in every state that uses the prepaid cards. It also surveys the laws that do (or do not) protect workers and offers recommendations for how states can design a card that works well for both the state and its unemployed workers.

The report singles out as especially problematic the $10 to $20 overdraft fees that U.S. Bank has on prepaid cards in five states: Arkansas, Idaho, Nebraska, Ohio, and Oregon. No other bank’s prepaid card charges overdraft fees, which the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has found are “inconsistent with federal law.”

The Tennessee card (issued by JP Morgan Chase) draws the two of clubs for the card with the most junk fees, including ATM, PIN debit, denied transaction, and balance inquiry fees.

Winning hand

So who holds the winning hand? California and New Jersey currently have the best cards (both issued by Bank of America), although both could benefit from fees more clearly and prominently displayed on websites. The State of California loses one trick for not offering direct deposit.

The report urges the new U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which starts work in July, and DOL to work together to ban overdraft fees and other unfair fees and to improve transparency and competition by posting all fee schedules in one place so that states and consumers can compare who has the best hand.

The report cautions states not to see prepaid cards as a payment panacea. Workers with bank accounts should first be offered the choice of direct deposit, but they do not have that option in six states: California, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Nevada and Wyoming.

This report adds to the body of research that National Consumer Law Center has done on banking and payment systems, including prepaid debit cards.

It took months of research to obtain this information, so now that we’ve laid the cards on the table, it should help states to cut a better prepaid card deal,” said Saunders. “This issue also reinforces the need for the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which will help safeguard consumers from unfair fees on prepaid cards, credit cards and other financial products.”

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FBI Warns of Charity Scams Following Southern Tornadoes

Tornadoes spawn cluster of fraudulent appeals

FBI Warns of Charity Scams Following Southern Tornadoes...

photoThe FBI is warning that the recent tornadoes in several Southern states have spawned a cluster of scams that take advantage of consumers' desire to be helpful.

Unfortunately, criminals can exploit these tragedies for their own gain by sending fraudulent e-mails and creating phony websites designed to solicit contributions,” an FBI press release said. The FBI said it has already received complaints alleging fraudulent schemes.

Tips should be reported to the National Center for Disaster Fraud, (866) 720-5721. The line is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Additionally, e-mails can be sent to disaster@leo.gov, and information can be faxed to (225) 334-4707.

The FBI reminds the public to perform due diligence before giving contributions to anyone soliciting donations or individuals offering to provide assistance to those affected by the tornadoes. Solicitations can originate from e-mails, websites, door-to-door collections, flyers, mailings, telephone calls, and other similar methods.

Before making a donation of any kind, consumers should adhere to certain guidelines, including:

  • Do not respond to any unsolicited (spam) incoming e-mails, including clicking links contained within those messages, because they may contain computer viruses.

  • Be skeptical of individuals representing themselves as members of charitable organizations or officials asking for donations via e-mail or social networking sites.

  • Beware of organizations with copy-cat names similar to but not exactly the same as those of reputable charities.

  • Rather than follow a purported link to a website, verify the legitimacy of nonprofit organizations by utilizing various Internet-based resources that may assist in confirming the group’s existence and its nonprofit status.

  • Be cautious of e-mails that claim to show pictures of the disaster areas in attached files because the files may contain viruses. Only open attachments from known senders.

  • To ensure contributions are received and used for intended purposes, make contributions directly to known organizations rather than relying on others to make the donation on your behalf.

  • Do not be pressured into making contributions; reputable charities do not use such tactics.

  • Be aware of whom you are dealing with when providing your personal and financial information. Providing such information may compromise your identity and make you vulnerable to identity theft.

  • Avoid cash donations if possible. Pay by credit card or write a check directly to the charity. Do not make checks payable to individuals.

  • Legitimate charities do not normally solicit donations via money transfer services. Most legitimate charities’ websites end in .org rather than .com.

Consumers can also report suspicious e-mail solicitations or fraudulent websites to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, www.ic3.gov

The National Center for Disaster Fraud was created by the Department of Justice to investigate, prosecute, and deter fraud in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when billions of dollars in federal disaster relief poured into the Gulf Coast region. Its mission has expanded to include suspected fraud from any natural or manmade disaster.

More than 20 federal agencies, including the FBI, participate in the National Center for Disaster Fraud, which allows the center to act as a centralized clearinghouse of information related to disaster relief fraud.

 

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Feds Warn 'Slim Xtreme' Weight-Loss Supplement is Dangerous

It contains a substance withdrawn from the market for safety reasons

Feds Warn 'Slim Xtreme' Weight-Loss Supplement is Dangerous It contains a substance withdrawn from the market for safety reasons...

photoThe Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is advising consumers not to purchase or use “Slim Xtreme Herbal Slimming Capsule,” a product for weight loss sold on various websites and distributed by Globe All Wellness.  The company falsely claims on the label that the product is “100% natural.”      

The FDA says its laboratory analysis confirmed that “Slim Xtreme Herbal Slimming Capsule” contains sibutramine.  Sibutramine is a controlled substance that was withdrawn from the U.S. market in October 2010 for safety reasons. 

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

This product may also interact in life-threatening ways with other medications a consumer may be taking.

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

 

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Gas Prices Edge Up Again

Is it the end of a recent downward trend?

Gas prices went up today after five straight days of declines....

photoAt the midway point of a pivotal week for gasoline, the price of the fuel has edged up again. That ends a string of five days in which the price declined.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.962 a gallon, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's up from $3.951 per gallon Tuesday but is two cents lower than the price seven days ago.

The national average gas price peaked last Thursday at $3.985 before beginning small incremental declines through Tuesday. Prices reversed direction after the crude of crude oil tumbled last week, with the price on the New York Mercantile Exchange falling below $100 a barrel.

However, crude oil prices have recovered this week to around $102 a barrel. How prices behave for the rest of the week could provide a strong indicator for the future of gasoline prices. Will prices at the pump head down from here, or will they surge past $4 a gallon?

Many analysts have said market fundamentals do not support oil prices above $100 a barrel – that traders have bid up the price, speculating that a worsening political situation in the Middle East and a recovering economy that needs more oil will lead to supply shortages.

Gasoline prices, they say, may have already peaked. Normally, gas prices peak around Memorial Day but level off over the summer, then begin to go down in the fall and winter.

The fact is, there really is no shortage of oil. The American Petroleum Institute reports that U.S. stockpiles of crude oil rose last week by nearly three million barrels. That's a lot more than analysts expected. Stockpiles of gasoline went down again last week, but that's not necessarily a function of increased demand. Refineries may have just produced less.

For motorists, it's a waiting game. Prices may go higher, or they could start coming down in the coming weeks. The only near certainty is, if prices do start falling, it won't be by a lot.

 

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What's On Your Mind? DishNetwork, Target, Sirius XM

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: DishNetwork, Target, Sirius XM, You can't assume anything and Nearly $3000 in fees....

photoWhen Tim, of Columbia, Tenn., contacted Dish Network to cancel service, he knew they would require him to return all the leased equipment. But he said he was surprised when a customer service rep told him he would be assessed a $15 fee for each return label he used.

“I was told that this was clearly stated in the terms and conditions I signed for my service,” Tim told ConsumerAffairs.com.

However, Tim went back and read the company's terms and conditions.

“Dish Network's RCA Page 7, Item 5, Part B states you must 'contact our customer service... to schedule the return of your leased Equipment.' It says nothing about the customer being responsible for return shipping charges. Nor does it say anything about Dish Network paying the return fees.”

Tim also doesn't like the idea that Dish Network keeps your credit card information on file, saying they maintain it even after you request it to be deleted.

Let's see some ID, please

 Some might find this next story humorous. Albert, of Clinton, N.Y., certainly does not. Shopping Monday at his local Target, the 80-year old retired colonel picked up some Pepsi and a Smirnoff ICE six-pack and headed for the checkout counter.

“When he scanned the Smirnoff I was asked for an ID card,” Albert said. “Now I am almost 80 years and infirm enough to look my age. However still interested in trying the product, I provided my readily available Military retired ID card which had my photo and birth date clearly marked. The cashier refused it and asked for a driver license.”

Albert said he fumbled around through assorted papers until he found his drivers license.

“I produced it in its clear plastic envelope,” he said. “The cashier returned it and told me to remove it from the envelope so he could scan it. At this time I cancelled my purchases and told him why. Rudely he replied he just worked there and blame Target not him.”

Albert says he thinks Target's policy of combining a consumer's name and phone number with a credit card purchase increases the risk of identity theft. Beyond that, he says there is no reason an 80 year old man should have to produce proof that he's over the age of 21. We have to agree with Albert on that one.

You can't assume anything

We get a lot of complaints about Sirius XM satellite radio and other subscription services that use automatic renewal. Consumers end up making wrong assumptions, thinking they have cancelled when they haven't.

“This February my one year contract was due to end,” Jim, of Springfield, Mo., said. “The first week of February I received my renewal notice for $161.83. The contract was up at the end of February. I chose not to continue the XM car radio service, therefore I did not send in the money for continuation of the service.”

Jim thought he had cancelled the service, but he hadn't. He was surprised in March when he got a bill.

“I called XM radio customer services and was informed that I had the statement of $28.65 for March and a pending bill of $28.65 for the month of April,” he said. “I tried to explain to the customer service representative that I did not want to continue their services, because I did not sent in my money for the renewal of services.”

But the customer service rep explained to Jim that Sirius XM Radio Inc. automatically renewed the service. The representative explained that the policy was on their web sight and also in their billing statement.

Consumers should understand that subscription services like satellite radio make it as hard as possible to cancel, because they do not want to lose customers. You must go to great lengths, it seems, to cancel any service.

To cancel a service, you must speak to a customer service representative and get a confirmation number for your cancellation order.

Nearly $3000 in fees

GM Money Bank offers a credit service to help pay medical bills that, all too often, health care providers push on their patients.

“In 2006 I went to the dentist and had a bill for $1500,” Elaine, of Indianapolis, Ind., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They requested I talk with these people. I've had nothing but trouble.”

Elaine said she got hit with late charges every month, even though she paid on time. She said they took money out of her checking account, sometimes twice a month. She said she got discouraged and stopped making payments.

“Now after all this time I get another bill from the law office of Michael Sipes telling me I now owe $4,223.40” Elaine said. “I paid $1215. The total loan was $1500 to start. I am willing to pay the 285.00 i have left on the loan.”

What should Elaine do? In this case she should hire a lawyer to present her settlement offer. Ordinarily, the company might not be inclined to take it, but since GE Money bank's relationship with health care providers in other states has resulted in fraud investigations and lawsuits, a smart attorney should be able to get the message across that it would be better to settle this matter with an Indiana consumer, lest another investigation begin in the Hoosier state.

 

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Microsoft To Buy Skype For $8.5 Billion

Will the service remain free?

Microsoft have announced it is buying Skype for $8.5 billion...

logoMicrosoft is buying Skype, which millions of consumers use to hold peer-to-peer conversations and video conferences. The price tag is the biggest ever for a Microsoft acquisition - $8.5 billion.

“Skype is a phenomenal service that is loved by millions of people around the world,” said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. “Together we will create the future of real-time communications so people can easily stay connected to family, friends, clients and colleagues anywhere in the world.” 

Division of Microsoft

Skype will become a new business division within Microsoft, and Skype CEO Tony Bates will assume the title of president of the Microsoft Skype Division, reporting directly to Ballmer.

Skype is basically communications software. With an Internet-connected device, families, friends and colleagues can use it for free with messaging, voice and video, in a peer-to-peer connection. For a small charge, they can also also call landlines or mobile phones. The company recently introduced group video, allowing groups of more than two people to do things together whenever they're apart.

Founded in 2003 and based in Luxembourg. Skype can be downloaded onto computers, mobile phones and other connected devices for free. It counted over 170 million users and logged over 207 billion minutes of voice and video conversations in 2010.

The deal should help Microsoft where it needs it most; in the areas of video and voice communication. Microsoft also expects to use Skype technology on several platforms, including Xbox 360 and outlook.

Still free?

The question for Skype users is this; will Skype remain a free service under Microsoft? The company has struggled to make a profit, mainly because it receives no revenue from much of its services.

Microsoft, not known for giving things away, may be looking for new ways to create revenue with the acquisition. After all, it is staking $8.5 billion on the deal.

“Microsoft has a long-standing focus and investment in real-time communications across its various platforms, including Lync, Outlook, Messenger, Hotmail and Xbox LIVE,” the company said in a release.

Skype will support Microsoft devices like Kinect, Windows Phone and a wide array of Windows devices, and Microsoft will connect Skype users with Lync, Outlook, Xbox Live and other communities.

 

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Feds Expand Probe Of Ford F150 Gas Tanks

Owners report straps rust and break

Federal safety investigators are looking into reports that metal straps holding Ford F150 gas tanks are rusting and breaking....

In late April, Rebbecca of Lorain, Ohio, wrote to ConsumerAffairs.com complaining that the fuel tank on her 1999 Ford F150 pick-up fell off while she was driving it.

“Eleven years old isn't that old of a vehicle for it to be okay to die in,” Rebbecca told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Luckily we were breaking for a red light when it happened. The entire family was in the vehicle. Called Ford, they don't care, gave me a line about no recalls at this time. Filed a complaint with NHTSA.”

Whether it was Rebbecca's complaint, or one of dozens of others, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has decided to take a closer look at the problem. Agency officials said they had already begun an investigation, but now the probe is being expanded to include vehicles in the model years 1997 through 2001.

According to NHTSA investigators, one or both steel straps holding the gas tank to the trucks frame could weaken over time and eventually fail. That would cause the tank to slip down and make contact with the pavement, or in Rebbecca's case, fall off altogether.

The friction with the pavement could open holes in the tank, spilling gasoline all over the highwayand creating a fire hazard. No injuries have been reported, but the agency says fires have been reported in two of the incidents.

Meanwhile, a mechanic posted a video on YouTube showing what he said was a completely rusted, and leaking, F150 fuel tank.

Last month Ford expanded its recall of F150 pick-ups to address another problem; front seat airbags have reportedly gone off by themselves. Ford has recalled 1.2 million of the vehicles from the 2004 to 2006 model years.

 

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Study: CARD Act Making A Positive Difference

Pew researchers say skeptics were wrong

A Pew study says the CARD Act has made positive changes in the credit card environment...

photoWhen Congress passed the CARD Act two years ago, to curb some of the worst credit card industry abuses, there were plenty of skeptics who said the measure would backfire, creating other problems for consumers.

But new research by the Pew Health Group's Safe Credit Cards Project says that hasn't happened. In a study, the group says the CARD Act appears to be doing its job. Credit card holders are seeing stabilized interest rates, the elimination of over-limit penalty charges, a reduction in late fees charged by banks and minimal changes in annual fees since the Credit CARD Act of 2009 took effect.

Stability

For example, the data shows that median advertised interest rates for purchases on bank credit cards remained the same as in 2010. Bank cash advance and penalty rates held firm.

The percentage of cards with annual fees held steady for credit unions, at 14 percent, and increased for banks, from 14 percent in 2010 to 21 percent in 2011. The amount charged for annual fees remained unchanged.

One of the biggest changes stops credit card companies from raising the interest rates on existing balances. When a lender increases the rate now, it only applies to new purchases. In the past, consumers with large balances found their payments rose sharply when lenders significantly raised the interest rate on their account, which at the time applied to existing balances.

"Pew's research shows that predictions that the legislation would spark new charges and long-term interest rate growth have not materialized," said Nick Bourke, director of Pew's Safe Credit Cards Project. "Whatever increases in advertised interest rates we saw going into 2010 have not continued into 2011.”

Positive changes

Bourke says the legislation has created what he calls “a new equilibrium” where interest rates have flattened, penalty charges have declined and a number of practices considered unfair or deceptive have disappeared.

“Consumers are enjoying safer, more transparently priced credit cards - and banks and credit unions are able to compete on a more level playing field," Bourke said.

The Credit CARD Act, signed on May 22, 2009, is a comprehensive law that aims to protect consumers by restricting when interest rates can be raised on existing balances and banning "unfair or deceptive" practices. It also allowed new rules to be created to ensure that late charges and other penalties charged by issuers are "reasonable and proportional." The bill passed with bipartisan support by both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

"The Credit Card Act is an excellent example of how bipartisan legislation can be enacted that both protects consumers from potentially harmful practices while simultaneously creating a marketplace where banks and credit unions are able to compete based on clear and predictable pricing," said Eleni Constantine, director of the Financial Security Portfolio at the Pew Health Group. "Congress should take a similar approach to make other financial products, such as checking accounts and short-term, small-dollar loans, safer and more transparent."

 

 

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When Did Debt Become The American Way?

Carrying a large credit card balance now considered normal

Consumers are increasing their use of credit again, but why is that a good thing?...

photoAmerican consumers increased their borrowing for a sixth straight month in March, according to the Federal Reserve. The Fed notes borrowing increased for car loans, as well as credit card purchases.

This, of course, was almost universally greeted as good news. But not too long ago, it might not have. Taking on significant debt has become "normal"—and even patriotic—to some consumers, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

"How did America, a country once so indelibly marked with Puritan principles of self-discipline and thrift, become a nation so awash in personal debt?" ask authors Lisa Peñaloza and Michelle Barnhart.

Normal

The researchers interviewed 27 white, middle-class Americans before the 2008 financial crisis and found that even though consumers believe that they should limit their debt, they take on debt because doing so has become normal.

"As one participant put it, taking on debt is 'the American way,'" the authors write.

For many participants, the disconnect between what consumers say they should do and what they actually do begins in young adulthood.

"When their parents did talk about credit and debt, it was to counsel them to use credit only in emergencies," the authors write. "In contrast, these study participants viewed debt as acceptable and necessary for middle class Americans who 'have to' buy a house, furnishings, a college education, and a car—items most cannot afford without credit."

Participants recognized the value of a good credit history and understood that they needed to use credit to build one.

Punished for living within her means

"The only one who had avoided credit in an attempt to live within her means found it impossible to be a 'normal consumer' without it, recalling that she had been denied a cell phone and had difficulty when traveling because she did not have a credit card," the authors write.

Although consumers generally tried to use credit responsibly, some participants "gamed" credit by taking out multiple cards, rolling over balances, and amassing large debts.

"So long as these consumers consistently paid at least the minimum amount required, financial agents rewarded them with higher credit limits and even mortgages," the authors write.

In recent decades, economic growth has been based in large part on credit. If consumers can spend more than they earn, they are able to increase consumption, thereby creating more wealth. That's the theory, at least.

In the fall of 2008, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered a credit crisis, consumers found it much harder to get credit. Not surprisingly, the economy began to contract into the Great Recession.

"Spurred on by tax rebates, prominent among which is the mortgage tax deduction, ambition to get ahead, and social pressure to build wealth, study participants accumulated debt to demonstrate financial independence and express freedom, and some participants even cast their credit use as a patriotic duty to boost the national economy," the authors conclude.

 

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Facebook a Magnet for Underage Users, Survey Finds

Consumer Reports estimates 7.5 million Facebook users are under 13

Facebook a Magnet for Underage Users, Survey Finds Consumer Reports estimates 7.5 million Facebook users are under 13...

logoIf you think it's hard to keep underage kids from buying booze and cigarettes, just try keeping them off line. Need evidence? Look no further than the latest Consumer Reports State of the Net survey.

The magazine's projections indicate that 7.5 million of the 20 million minors who used Facebook in the last year, 7.5 million were younger than 13, even though Facebook's trms of service require users to be at least 13.

Not only were many young users under 13, the magazine found that more than 5 million were 10 and under, and most of their accounts were largely unsupervised by their parents, exposing them to malware or serious threats such as predators or bullies. 

The report on Internet security, which includes the full survey results and advice for parents of Facebook users, is featured in the June issue ofConsumer Reportsand on www.ConsumerReports.org.

Despite Facebook’s age requirements, many kids are using the site who shouldn’t be,” says Jeff Fox, Technology Editor forConsumer Reports.  “What’s even more troubling was the finding from our survey that indicated that a majority of parents of kids 10 and under seemed largely unconcerned by their children’s use of the site.”

Using Facebook presents children and their friends and family with safety, security and privacy risks. In the past year, the use of Facebook has exposed more than five million online U.S. households to some type of abuse including virus infections, identity theft, and — for a million children — bullying, the survey shows.

Social media is just one of the many ways consumers expose themselves and make themselves vulnerable to becoming a victim of identity theft or having to replace their computer. Earlier this year,Consumer Reportssurveyed 2,089 online households nationwide and found that one-third had experienced a malicious software infection in the previous year.Consumer Reportsestimates that malware cost consumers $2.3 billion last year and forced them to replace 1.3 millions PCs.

Increasing dependence on mobile phones has made consumers more susceptible to threats as well. Using data from the survey,Consumer Reportsprojects that millions of people jeopardize bank information, medical records, and other sensitive data by storing it on their mobile phones. Almost 30 percent of respondents who said they use their phones in such ways didn’t take precautions to secure their phonesCyber.

 

 

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CyberDefender Faces Class Action Suit

Suit charges RegistryCleaner, other products don't do the job

CyberDefender Faces Class Action Suit. Suit charges RegistryCleaner, other products don't do the job...

photoA class action claims CyberDefender Corp. sells bogus software that claims to clean viruses and speed up computers, but it "cleans" bogus errors and makes computers slow down and crash.

The suit charges that the company's RegistryCleaner ( "RC") and Early Detection Center ( "EDC") fail to live up the company's claims for them.

Far from speeding up computers, ridding them of viruses, pop-ups and spam, the suit claims the products do next to nothing and may even be harmful in some circumstances.

The plaintiffs say they hired an independent computer expert to analyze the CyberDefender products and found that, if anything, the products actually slowed computers down and made them more prone to crashes.

The suit also alleges that the company does not always honor its money-back guarantee and claims that many consumers have been unable to cancel the subscriptions after completing the initial test period.

The suit also charges that the one-year subscriptions are automatically renewed without notice and without the customer's consent.

CyberDefender's marketing practices are also challenged. The suit says the company cites favorable reviews which are in fact written by its marketing partners, inaccurately cites user ratings on consumer sites and categorically claims that its software improves computer speed when actual results depend on a number of factors.

The suit was filed in Cook County Court in Chicago.

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What's On Your Mind? JustFlowers, Disney Cruises, GE

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: JustFlowers, Disney Cruises, GE, Bag check, Not cool and Payday loans, no....

photoMothers Day is a busy time for florists, and not all of them, it seems, are able to deliver the goods. Carmen, of Cleveland, Ariz., said he ordered flowers through JustFlowers.com for his wife on May 3, asking that they be delivered last Thursday, May 5.

“I was contacted by customer service verifying my order was going to be delivered, and I did not understand why they called until I got a call from my wife saying she received four calls from the florist saying they could not deliver over county lines,” Carmen told ConsumerAffairs.com.

So Carmen called JustFlowers and was told there was a mix-up, the flowers would be delivered after all. Only now, the surprise was no longer a surprise. And Thursday and Friday came and went, with no flowers.

“Today is the Monday after Mothers Day and my order was never delivered, and every attempt to contact customer service goes unanswered,” Carmen said.

Carmen isn't the only consumer with a frustrating Mothers Day experience with an online florist. Holidays can be an overwhelming time for these businesses, that essentially act as “middle men.” At especially busy holidays, you may have much better luck dealing directly with a local florist.

Bag check

Travelers know all to well that airlines can lose your luggage. But what consumers might not expect is a cruise ship to misplace your bag.

“We took a cruise on the Disney Dream,” Cheryl told ConsumerAffairs.com. “We tagged our bags with the disney luggage tags they sent us, gave our bags to the their porter. Disney took my bag onboard and then never couldn't locate it.”

Cheryl thought surely the bag would turn up before long. And it finally did – once she got off the ship!

“The day we disembarked, my bag was unloaded with the rest of the luggage,” she said. “It had been on the ship the entire time and they never found it!”

Cheryl, meanwhile, had spent her entire cruise with no change of clothes or toiletries. Her only compensation was two $50 Disney gift cards.

Not cool

For some reason, today's modern, sophisticated refrigerators seem to cause more problems than the old fashioned models. Stacie, of Marathon, Fla., reports trouble with her GE Monogram side-by-side fridge.

“The freezer will not hold a temperature,” Stacie said. “Set on zero, actual temp 16. Won't make ice. Have spent $700 in service calls, replaced computers and it still won't work.”

Hmmm. Maybe the fact that today's modern refrigerators have onboard computers could be part of the problem. More things to break down.

Payday loans, no

We hate to say it, but George, of Buffalo, N.Y., is a good example of why you should steer clear of payday loans. George obviously didn't realize what he was getting into.

“On March 28 I applied online for a loan for $1,500 from Payday Loans, Yes,” George said. “After being asked what minimum amount I would accept I said $1,000.”

George then faxed his financial information, as instructed and heard nothing. He assumed the loan was denied. Big mistake.

“Today I was paying some bills online when I notice a extra $291.00 in my checking account,” he said. “I went to Payday Loan Yes website and put in my name and found that I owe $450.00. “I am on a fixed income and can't afford $150.00 interest payment on $300.00 for 7 days.”

With that last sentence, George has very succinctly stated the case against payday loans. Unfortunately for George, he figured it out too late.

 

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Bed Handles for Elderly Can Be Lethal

Public Citizen wants rails recalled and banned

Bed Handles for Elderly Can Be Lethal Public Citizen wants rails recalled and banned...

photoA variety of bedside handles intended to help elderly or ill patients get into and out of bed, sit up or roll over in bed pose a huge danger: They can trap and strangle or suffocate people, Public Citizen said in a petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The consumer organization is urging the FDA to order Blue Springs, Mo.-based Bed Handles, Inc. to recall all Bedside Assistant bed handles, ban the marketing of these devices.

Public Citizen always wants the FDA to investigate the link between similar bed handles (also known as bed rail devices) made by other companies and the risk of life-threatening injury or death due to entrapment and subsequent strangulation or suffocation.

The bed handles are used in patients’ homes and in nursing homes; they are rarely used in hospital settings.

Contrary to the manufacturer’s claim that the Bedside Assistant bed handles make any bed a safer bed, data previously provided to the FDA demonstrate that these devices can turn a bed into a death trap for patients who are physically weak or have physical or mental impairments,” said Dr. Michael Carome, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

On its website, the company claims the Bedside Assistant is safer than regular deb rails because it does not to be raised and lowered. To get out of bed, users swivel sideways and put their legs through the space between the handles, using the handles for support.

Death trap

Because of the way the handles are designed and installed, they can slip out of place and create a gap between the edge of the patient’s mattress and the vertical bars of the device. The patient can slip into this gap, becoming entrapped.

Even a small gap, particularly when such devices are used with soft or worn mattresses, can trap people, who then can die when their tracheas or chest walls are compressed against the horizontal support bars.

Public Citizen’s review of FDA records found that since 1999, four patients have died after being trapped by Bedside Assistant bed handles. In three of these cases, it appears as though the patients were strangled or suffocated.

In a fifth life-threatening incident, the bed rails trapped a hospital patient. Public Citizen believes that the number of people killed or injured by bed handles is higher; these incidents generally aren’t reported because people don’t realize bed handles are medical devices overseen by the FDA.

Similar to cribs

The petition compared the need to recall the bed handles to the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s 11 recalls involving more than 7 million drop-side baby cribs that posed a similar risk of strangling or suffocating infants and toddlers to death. Hundreds of thousands of this variety of bed handles were sold between 1994 and 2009, the petition said.

Although the patients jeopardized by the bed handles are primarily at the opposite end of the age spectrum than those exposed to dangerous drop-side cribs, it is important that federal agencies responsible for protecting the public health act consistently to protect the health and safety of both the young and old alike,” Carome said.

 

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What's On Your Mind? Gift Cards, DIRECTV, Hotels.com

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Gift Cards, DIRECTV, Hotels.com, Direct contradiction, Mistaken identity and No shield against inconvenience....

Francis, of Plainview, N.Y., recently discovered one of the downsides to using a gift card to buy gasoline. She just got an American Express $100 gift card for Mother's Day and immediately purchased $25 worth of gasoline at a Hess station. When she tried to use the card again the following day, she was in for a surprise.

“I was so embarrassed in the store as they told me the card was declined,” Francis told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I will not be able to use this card according to Am Ex for two or three days until they get the clear from the station.”

Even though there was $75 left on the gift card, the gas station placed a freeze on the entire amount. Some bars and restaurants – places where “pre-authorized” debit purchases are accepted – do it too.

The reason is simple. It can take two or three days for the transaction to clear. The gas station wants to make sure there is still money left on the card when the transaction goes through. It's something to keep in mind when you are shopping with a gift card.

Direct contradiction

When you subscribe to any service, the provider has to be able to deliver it to you, or you shouldn't be bound by the agreement, right? Eric of Mount Pleasant, S.C., cancelled his DIRECTV service when he moved to a new apartment and DIRECTV coiuldn't get a direct line of sight to establish service.

“They said they'd let us out of our fees because it was not our fault,” Eric said. “They then hit our checking account for a full months service and billed us for $300 more for early cancellation.”

Eric is trying to work things out with DIRECTV but still hasn't been reimbursed.

Mistaken identity

It's one thing when you know you are booking travel through a travel site like Hotels.com, but often, when you are searching for the name of a particular hotel or location, you can be on a travel site's web page while you think you are on the hotel's site.

“I called and spoke to a person who did not identify himself as a Hotels.com representative, so I proceeded with my reservation thinking I was speaking with someone at the Mariott,” V., of Philadelphia, told ConsumerAffairs.com. “ I booked a room for one night May 7th. After they got my credit card info he mumbled some disclosures and wished me a nice evening. To my understanding he said to call the day before if I wished to cancel my room, no specific time was mentioned. Our plans fell through and we decided to stay home that weekend so I call at 7:20PM on the 6th and was told that I will be charged the full fee!”

V. doesn't really have much of an argument, since she booked the site through Hotel.com and has to abide by their rules.

“I work very hard and long hours, don't have time to fool around online,” V. said. “I trusted people to take care of me on the phone with clarity.”

Sorry, V., but in the Internet age careful attention to detail is a requirement, and sometimes old fashioned trust is misplaced.

No shield against inconvenience

Many people purchase home warranties, or service contracts, thinking it protects them in the event of a major system failure. But getting satisfactory service when something goes wrong isn't always easy.

“We contacted American Home Shield regarding our residence hot water heater that was not working,” said Michael, of Phoenix, Ariz.

AHS sent its contract plumber out the next day and relit the burner on the water heater that Michael says had been working fine for six years. But the pilot would not stay lit, and Michael found the service company less and less responsive.

“I would think that with all the 24-hour plumbing service companies in Phoenix that AHS could have someone available for us,” Michael said.

True, but that's not how these service contracts work. The warranty company strikes the best deal possible with a local contractor, who may be paid less than the normal rate for the service call. At any rate, they are likely to be less enthusiastic about your emergency than a contractor that you hire directly. It's something to keep in mind when someone tries to sell you a service contract.

 

 

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When Self-Esteem Falls, People Pay With Credit Cards

A bad day often results in a visit to the mall

Psychologists warn consumers to put away the plastic when they are feeling blue....

photoWhen you suffer a hit to your ego, it might be a good idea to postpone any shopping trips. A new psychology study suggests people are more likely to use their credit cards when their self-esteem is low.

Why credit cards and not cash? Researchers Niro Sivanathan of the London Business School and Nathan Pettit of Cornell University say actually parting with cash can be psychologically painful

The researchers had people work on an ambiguous computer test, and then told half of them that their "spatial reasoning and logic ability was in the 12th percentile," which is a scientific-sounding way of telling them they're not very smart.

They told the other half that they were in the 88th percentile, a perfectly fine performance.

When asked how they might pay for "a consumer product that you have been considering purchasing," people who'd had their ego threatened were substantially more likely to say they were planning on paying on credit.

In a follow-up study, Sivanathan and Pettit asked 150 college students to think about buying a pair of jeans. Half were told to consider a pair of exclusive, high status designer jeans, while the rest were told to think about normal, everyday jeans. The students then went through the same computer test, and were told they had done poorly or well.

The self-esteem threat made people willing to pay almost 30 percent more for the luxury jeans, and were more than 60 percent more likely to intend to purchase the jeans with a credit card.

Does threat make any purchase look good, or are luxury items particularly good at repairing self-esteem? The students who thought about everyday jeans did not increase how much they would pay for regular jeans when threatened, and the threat did not change their willingness to use credit over cash.

Luxury items are especially effective at reassuring us of our value, the researchers say.

The lesson for consumers is, when you're feeling blue, stay away from the mall.

 

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Dermatologists Make Another Push To Regulate Tanning Salons

Worried that consumers aren't being properly warned about dangers

Dermatologists want consumers to be cautioned about the dangers of indoor tanning....

photoDermatologists consider tanning salons a public health hazard, saying they pose a significant risk of skin cancer. Despite that, a survey suggests many of those most at risk are unaware of these concerns.

The survey by the American Academy of Dermatology (AADA) found that 43 percent of indoor tanners reported that they have never been warned about the dangers of tanning beds by tanning salon employees. When asked if they were aware of any warning labels on tanning beds, 30 percent of indoor tanners said no.

By age group, younger tanning bed users (age 14-17) were more likely to be unaware of any warning labels on tanning beds than older tanners (age 18-22) – 42 percent vs. 25 percent, respectively.

Significant health risk

“Indoor tanning poses a significant health risk, especially for Caucasians because of their fair skin. Studies have found that UV radiation from indoor tanning beds increases a person’s risk of developing melanoma by 75 percent,” said dermatologist Ronald L. Moy, MD, FAAD, president of the Academy. “Contributing to this problem is the fact that tanning bed facilities currently are not required to verbally warn patrons of the known health risks of ultraviolet (UV) radiation and, in some cases, they may be misleading the public by falsely promoting artificial UV light as safer than natural sunlight.”

AADA said it supports the Tanning Bed Cancer Control Act (TBCCA), which calls on the FDA to examine the classification of indoor tanning beds and implement enhanced labeling requirements. The measure was introduced in the last session of Congress but died in committee.

The Academy’s survey

Despite the fact that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer have classified UV radiation from tanning devices as cancerous and in the same category as cigarettes, a number of younger tanning bed users still think tanning beds are safer than the sun, according to the survey.

Specifically, younger tanning bed users age 14-17 are more than twice as likely to think tanning beds are safer than the sun than older tanners age 18-22 and more than three times as likely to think that tanning beds do not cause skin cancer.

“The FDA currently ranks tanning beds as a Class I medical device, which provides a minimal level of regulation and oversight similar to bandages, tongue depressors, gauze and crutches,” Moy said. “That is why it’s important that the FDA change the classification of indoor tanning devices to reflect the significant health risks that they pose, often unknowingly, to tanning salon patrons.”

The Tanning Bed Cancer Control Act (TBCCA) was re-introduced this week by Representatives Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Charlie Dent (R-Pa.).  

 

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New 'Do Not Track' Bill Would Protect Kids Online

Bipartisan measure updates Children's Online Privacy Protection Act

New 'Do Not Track' Bill Would Protect Kids OnlineBipartisan measure updates Children's Online Privacy Protection Act...

photoCongress will be considering a bipartisan “Do Not Track” bill that would prohibit companies from tracking children on the Internet without parental permission. Itwould update landmark Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, provide new protections for teens in mobile environment

The measure – sponsored by Reps. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) -- would also restrict online marketing to minors and require an “Eraser Button” that would let parents eliminate children's personal information that is already online.

The Internet presents a wide array of opportunities to communicate and access entertainment that were unimaginable only a few years ago,” Markey said. “But kids growing up in this online environment also need protection from the dangers that can lurk in cyberspace. Unfortunately, ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ can apply to the 21st century Internet and the beloved children's book.”

The bill, which is still in draft form, would require companies to clearly explain what kinds of information it was collecting on children, how that information is used and who else has access to it.

"We have reached a troubling point in the state of business when companies that conduct business online are so eager to make a buck, they resort to targeting our children," said Barton. "I strongly believe that information should not be collected on children and used for commercial purposes."

The “Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011” strengthens privacy protections for children and teens by:

  • Requiring online companies to explain the types of personal information collected, how that information is used and disclosed, and the policies for collection of personal information;
  • Requiring online companies to obtain parental consent for collection of children’s personal information;

  • Prohibiting online companies from using personal information of children and teens for targeted marketing purposes;

  • Establishing a “Digital Marketing Bill of Rights for Teens” that limits the collection of personal information of teens, including geolocation information of children and teens;

  • Creating an “Eraser Button” for parents and children by requiring companies to permit users to eliminate publicly available personal information content when technologically feasible.


 

 

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Watch Out for Mother's Day Scams

Scam artists are always looking for a plausible-sounding way to get their hands on your money

Watch Out for Mother's Day Scams. Scam artists are always looking for a plausible-sounding way to get their hands on your money....

photoYou don't normally think of Mother's Day as a precarious time, but Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine says that's no reason to let your guard day.

"It's very important to take time to honor the mothers in our lives," Attorney General DeWine said. "Scam artists realize that this a busy time, and they may try to lure consumers with online scams related to Mother's Day. It's important for consumers not to let their guard down."

Consumers who shop online for Mother's Day gifts or flowers should beware of scams including: 

  • Phishing scams – Cyber-crooks may send e-mails claiming to be from a flower company and saying the flowers you ordered will not be delivered unless you log in and re-enter your credit card information. If you receive an e-mail that makes these claims, contact your florist directly to see if there really is a problem.  

  • Fake eCard scams – Scam artists could send fake eCards directing you to a website that looks similar to Hallmark or American Greetings. The fake site prompts users to download new software, which actually installs a virus on your computer.  To protect yourself, beware of spelling errors, or generic e-cards that do not include the sender's name in the subject line.

DeWine offered consumers the following tips to protect themselves:

  • Stick to a reputable online retailer. Do your research and check the company with the Ohio Attorney General's Office and Better Business Bureau to see if other consumers have had problems with the business.  

  • Verify delivery dates and make sure you get a detailed description of what you order. For flower orders, the description should include the type of flowers, arrangement size, total cost, and message on the card.

  • Go to a company's website directly to order flowers or gifts; do not click on links in e-mails or social websites.  

  • Make sure you have up-to-date security software installed on your computer.

  • If a website asks for your Social Security number at check-out, beware: it is probably "phishing" for your private information.

  • Ensure that the website is secure. When entering any type of credit card or payment information, you should see a "lock" icon on the bottom right of your screen (location varies among browsers). You also should look for the "s" in the web address (https).


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Consumers Getting $11.8 Million in Q-Ray Bracelet Refunds

FTC mailing checks to consumers who submitted a claim form

Consumers Getting $11.8 Million in Q-Ray Bracelet Refunds FTC mailing checks to consumers who submitted a claim form...

photoAn administrator working for the Federal Trade Commission is mailing 248,931 refund checks to consumers taken in by false claims for the Q-Ray bracelet.

More than $11.8 million is being returned to people who purchased the Q-Ray bracelet and filed a claim form. Purchasers will receive an average of about $47. Consumers who receive the checks should cash them by mid-June 2011.

The FTC never requires consumers to pay money or provide information before redress checks can be cashed, so consumers should disregard any calls, emails or letters asking them to submit any kind of payment prior to getting their refund.

The FTC filed its case in May 2003, alleging that QT Inc., Q-Ray Company, and Bio-Metal, Inc., located in Illinois, and their owner, Que Te Park, also known as Andrew Q. Park, made false and misleading advertising claims that the Q-Ray bracelet provided immediate and significant pain relief and deceptively advertised their refund policy, in violation of the FTC Act.

In September 2006, the federal district court in Chicago found in favor of the FTC.

In November 2006, the court required the defendants to turn over a minimum of $22.5 million in net profits and up to $87 million in refunds to consumers who bought the bracelets between January 1, 2000 and June 30, 2003, when the bracelet was advertised on infomercials and Internet Web sites, and at trade shows.

The district court later reduced the minimum disgorgement amount to $15.9 million, which an appellate court later upheld.

Q-Ray consumers with questions should call the redress administrator, Analytics Inc., at 800-269-0056 or visit the FTC’s Q-Ray bracelet webpage.



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What's On Your Mind? Auto Service Warranty, Botox, GE, Trilegiant

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Auto Service Warranty, Botox, GE, Trilegiant, Pain in the neck, Kitchen menace and Playing hardball....

There are many reasons not to busy an extended car warranty. One of the reasons is, the company that sells you the warranty can go out of business.

“I purchased an extended warranty from Auto Warranty Service  in November 2010,” Michael of West Hills, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “In April I called the company to see if they had withdrawn the monthly fee of $49.92 All I got was a busy signal for two hours so I went to the website and there was a different telephone number.”

Michael says he eventually learned the company had gone out of business.

“Now I'm out $1400 and have no warranty on my car and have no more money to get one so if I have a breakdown I'm screwed,” Michael said.

Michael wants to know if any other consumers have had a similar experience, or knows the ultimate fate of Auto Warranty Service.

Pain in the neck

More and more aging Baby Boomers are turning to Botox to keep that youthful appearance. While it will help iron out those wrinkles, it can have some side effects. Sherri, of Harrisburg, Pa., says she knows that first hand.

“I received Botox Injections by a Neurologist and the side effects were severe.,” she told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I had experienced muscle spasms in my left shoulder, lazy eye, and severe neck pain.”

Botox side effects are usually noticeable one to two days after the procedure and can last up to six months. The common side effects include nausea, flu syndrome, respiratory infection, forehead and eyelid drooping, and headache.

Kitchen menace

The microwave oven should be a trouble-free kitchen appliance. L, of Richmond, Ind., says her GE Spacemaker gave her four years of great service. But then...

“The other day, I was home alone and heard a loud vibrating noise coming from the kitchen,” she said. “I went to the kitchen to find the microwave had turned on by itself and now had a small fire inside. I unplugged the microwave and threw it outside. If I would not have been home at the time, or this would have happened in the middle of the night- the outcome could have been devastating.”

This is something that GE should probably hear about. Also, the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Playing hardball

Trilegiant is well known to consumers as the company that, in the past, slipped those unauthorized charges on your credit card. These days, they seem to be more upfront and direct. Karen, of Billings, Mont., says Trilegiant called her on the phone and offered her a $100 gas card if she signed up for a 30-day “trial membership” in their Great Fun promotion.

 "If I cancelled within 30 days, I would not be charged, otherwise it was $29.95 per month,” Karen said. “The gas card never arrived. I called them today and insisted that both their Great Fun and Shopper's Advantage memberships be closed. They agreed without argument.”

That certainly doesn't sound like the Trilegiant we know, but maybe they've changed. But in case they haven't, Karen is prepared.

“If more charges are posted to my card, they'll get a surprise,” she said. “I tape recorded the conversations including today's date and confirmation number. Guess time will tell.”  

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Defunct Movie-Rental Chains Agree to Rewrite the Final Scene

Vampires reached from beyond the grave to bleed their customers

Defunct Movie-Rental Chains Agree to Rewrite the Final Scene Hollywood Video, Movie Gallery dinged former customers unfairly...

photoThere was no Hollywood ending for Hollywood Video and Movie Gallery stores. No sooner had the credits rolled than former customers of the defunct movie-rental chains started getting collection notices for supposed overdue-film fees.

Many consumers claimed they didn't owe the fees at all and others said they weren't given a chance to return their movies because the chains collapsed suddenly, as we reported back in 2010.

Attorneys general from around the country heard the complaints and have reached a settlement with the liquidating trustee for the stores. Among the agreement’s terms is a requirement that negative information be removed from consumers’ credit reports.

Collection laws require that consumers have a chance to pay or dispute their debts,” said Washington Assistant Attorney General Mary Lobdell, who helped lead the multistate investigation and settlement negotiations. “But starting in October, we received a flurry of complaints from Washington residents who told us they didn’t owe the fees or were never informed of these debts before they were reported to the credit bureaus.”

Complaints to the Washington Attorney General’s Office show that a young woman was turned down for her first credit card because of the negative mark. A man said his credit card limit was slashed from $8,700 to just $600. And yet another consumer blamed the late charge for preventing him from obtaining a mortgage.

The problems started after Hollywood Video and Movie Gallery filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010. Hollywood’s approved plan created a liquidating trust to collect an estimated $244 million in outstanding debts reportedly owed by 3.3 million customers. The trust contacted with Credit Control Services, Inc. in Massachusetts, which subcontracted to National Credit Solutions of Oklahoma.

The agreement was filed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Richmond Division. Under the settlement, the trustee agreed to:

·       Rescind all negative information submitted to any credit agency or bureau related to the accounts of customers in participating states. Additionally, no further credit reports will be submitted.

·       Not collect any fees or interest charges that were added to the principal debt amount.

·       Not bill customers for both a late fee and the full price of items that were supposedly not returned. For accounts that include both a late fee and a charge for a damaged, late, or never-returned product, the collection agency will only pursue the lesser charge.

·       Comply with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

·       Assist the attorneys general in any effort to recover collection fees that were improperly paid by customers.

Attorneys general for the following states and the District of Columbia participated in the settlement: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

 

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Investment Income, Retirement Savings at Risk in Budget Battle

Sacred cows won't be safe as Congress looks for revenue

Investment Income, Retirement Savings at Risk in Budget Battle. Sacred cows won't be safe as Congress looks for revenue...

It's a bad time to be a sacred cow. With Congress and the White House looking for ways to at least appear to be addressing the nation's deficit, favorable tax treatment of retirement savings and investment income is likely to be at risk.

Last year's deal between President Obama and Congress extended favorable treatment of capital gains and dividends, but only through the end of 2012 – after the fall election that will decide the make-up of the White House and Congress, it just so happens.

What that means is that the real battle won't be fought until 2013, when Democrats are expected to continue their tax-the-rich campaign while Republicans argue that higher-income Americans carry a disproportionate share of the tax burden.

“[T]he real action is likely to come in 2013, and you'll see a macro effort to deal with the reform of the tax code,” said James Delaplane, a partner at Davis and Harman LLP, speaking at the Investment News Retirement Income Summit. “At some point, action is going to be forced onto the policy makers. I think it's just a matter of time before the grand deficit reduction legislation happens.”

“Presuming the economy is more solid and the deficit pressures are starker, then that's a recipe for tax cuts not being extended,” he added.

Retirement savings

And what about retirement savings? With all the talk of Social Security and Medicare being on the ropes, you'd think the tax code would be modified to encourage Americans to save more for retirement.

Don't bet on it.

Delaplane noted that the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission proposed capping tax-deferred savings in defined-contribution plans to the lesser of $20,000 or 20% of income in an attempt to shore up the nation's budget. The commission didn't specifically comment on the treatment of tax-free inside build-up for life insurance and annuities, but it may be limited in some way, he warned.

Delaplane advised his audience of personal financial advisors to put clients on notice that tough times may lie ahead, especially as the nation keeps bumping up against the federal debt ceiling. Each time Congress is called on to raise the ceiling, it increases pressure to cut spending on raise taxes.

“It's going to get down to the last minute, and it won't be what the Treasury will prefer or what the markets want,” he said. “Put on your seatbelts.”

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Suit: Aaron's Rent To Own Spies on Customers

Does rental chain install spyware on computers it rents to consumers?

Suit: Aaron's Rent To Own Spies on Customers Does rental chain install spyware on computers it rents to consumers?...

photoOne of the nation's largest rental chains spies on customers by equipping rent-to-own computers with secret software that remotely snaps their photos, takes screen shots, tracks keystrokes, and snoops on private communications, a class action claims in Federal Court.

Aaron's Rent To Own, the lead defendant, has more than 1,500 outlets in the United States and Canada.

In the suit, filed in Pittsburgh Federal Court, Crystal and Brian Byrd of Casper, Wyoming, charge that computers rented by Aaron's are loaded with software called “PC Rental Agent,” manufactured by DesignerWare, LLC.

The software enables Aaron's to spy on its customers, the complaint alleges, in violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Computer Fraud Abuse Act.

The suit says that DesignerWare designed and assembled the computers containing the spy software and sold them to Aaron's.

The alleged spying began as early as 2007 and enables Aaron's and its agents to capture screen images, keystrokes and images from computers rented and sold to the firm's customers.

The PC Rental Agent device is soldered onto the computer's motherboard and cannot be detected, accessed or controlled by the computer user, the suit charges, saying it can only be deactivated by a special wand which is not provided to consumers.

In the suit, Crystal Byrd says she rented a Dell Inspiron laptop computer on a rent-to-own agreement from Aaron's in July 2010. She paid off the lease in October 2010.

But, according to the suit, the manager of the Aaron's store in Casper, Christopher Mendoza, mistakenly claimed the Byrds were in default on their lease and demanded the compujter be returned.

Mendoza showed Brian Byrd a photo of Byrd using the computer, the suit says. When Byrd demanded to know how Mendoza had obtained the photo, Mendoza allegedly said he was not supposed to disclose that information.

Byrd contacted local law enforcement agencies and investigators allegedly identified the spyware and learned that it was routinely installed on computers rented by Aaron's.

While investigators were at the Casper Aaron's store, the suit charges, they observed at least one other unauthorized photo of a consumer using an Aaron's machine.

The suit seeks class action status.

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UBS Settles Fraud Charges With Feds, States

Charged with bid-rigging in muni bond market

UBS has agreed to a $160 million settlement of charges it rigged the municipal bond derivatives market....

Swiss-owned bank UBS has reached a settlement with federal regulators and several states, resolving charges that UBS employees tried to rig the bidding process in the municipal bond derivatives market.

The U.S. Justice Department, Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service and 25 states brought the action, claiming UBS' actions from 2001 to 2006 corrupted the competitive process and hurt municipalities, as well as taxpayers.

The complaint says several former UBS employees constantly manipulated the bidding process in which local governments invested the revenue raised from the sale of municipal bond offerings.

The bank has agreed to pay $160 million in fines and restitution.

On-going investigation

“This settlement is part of our ongoing effort to return taxpayer money to those whom it was intended to benefit – the state agencies, municipalities, school districts, and not-for-profit entities that purchased the derivatives rather than the providers and brokers who engaged in this illegal scheme,” said Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. “I also want to thank UBS for doing the right thing by cooperating with our investigation and providing meaningful restitution to those harmed.”

Municipal bond derivatives are contracts that tax-exempt issuers use to reinvest the proceeds of bond offerings until the funds are needed, or to hedge interest rate risk. In 2008, a group of states began an investigation of allegations that certain large financial institutions, including national banks and insurance companies, and certain brokers and swap advisors, engaged in various schemes to rig bids and commit other deceptive, unfair, and fraudulent conduct in the municipal bond derivatives market. That investigation is ongoing.

Holding banks responsbile

“Bid rigging and other fraudulent conduct is illegal, and we will hold banks and brokers responsible for their actions,” said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. “I am pleased that we were able to reach a resolution that will repay those entities harmed by the fraudulent activity.”

UBS is the second large financial institution to settle bid-rigging charges in the municipal bond derivatives market. Late last year, Bank of America agreed to a $137 million settlement.

UBS issued a statement saying it was glad to have the matter resolved, noting that the underlying transactions were entered into a business that no longer exists within the company.

In addition to Florida and Missouri, Alabama, California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee and Wisconsin also took part in the settlement.

 

 

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Sony, Epsilon Are No-Shows Before Congress

Companies say they're too busy to testify about collossal privacy breaches

Sony, Epsilon Are No-Shows Before CongressCompanies say they're too busy to testify about collossal privacy breaches...

photoSony executives were absent today as members of a House committee took turns lambasting the company for the way it handled breaches of its Sony PlayStation Network and Sony Online Entertainment, breaches that exposed personal data of more than 100 million consumers.

In a letter submitted to to the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade, the company said it is a victim in the scheme, not the perpetaror.

Sony "has been the victim of a very carefully planned, very professional, highly sophisticated criminal cyberattack designed to steal personal and credit card information for illegal purposes," said Sony Computer Entertainment chief Kaz Hirai.

But lawmakers blasted Sony for its slow response to the beaches, which committee chair Mary Bono Mack (R.-Calif.) called “half-hearted, half-baked” and also blasted Epsilon, the email marketing firm that lost control of millions of consumers' names and email addresses last month. Epsilon had also been invited to testify at today's hearing but did not bother to show up.

“I am deeply troubled by these latest data breaches, and the decision by both Epsilon and Sony not to testify today. This is unacceptable,” Bono Mack said. She said Epsilon claims it “did not have time to prepare for our hearing — even though its data breach occurred more than a month ago. Sony, meanwhile, says it’s too busy with its ongoing investigation to appear. Well, what about the millions of American consumers who are still twisting in the wind because of these breaches? They deserve some straight answers, and I am determined to get them.”

In the letter, Hirai concedes that, although Sony first learned of the PlayStation Network breach on April 19, it did not shut down the network until the next day and did not inform users until six days later that their personal information and possibly credit card account numbers had been compromised.

Bono Mack noted that the company first disclosed the data breach on a company blog, “putting the burden on consumers to search for information instead of accepting the burden of notifying them.”

Unpatched

Sony and Epsilon also took heat from academicians and computer scientists who pointed to weak spots in the companies' security.

Dr. Gene Spafford of Purdue said key parts of Sony's PlayStation Network ran on Apache servers that "were unpatched and had no firewall installed." This was reported in a forum known to be frequented by Sony employees, he said, though no changes were made in the months leading up to the attack.

The Federal Trade Commission noted that it has been asking Congress to give it civil penalty authority to go after companies that lose data through carelessness; in the last 10 years, the FTC has brought cases against 34 such companies, though it is currently limited in the penalties it can seek.

Data security is of critical importance,” said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “If companies do not protect the personal information they collect and store, that information could fall into the wrong hands, resulting in fraud and other harm, and consumers could lose confidence in the marketplace.”

The FTC is committed to a comprehensive, three-pronged effort to promote data security that includes law enforcement, consumer education, and data collection and analysis, Vladeck said. Since 2001, the agency has brought 34 cases against businesses that allegedly failed to protect consumers’ personal information, including two cases earlier this week involving Ceridian and Lookout Services, Inc.

Bono Mack was not the only lawmaker sharpening her pencil.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D.-N.C.), the commerce panel's ranking member, called it "alarming" that more than 100 million customers' personal details were compromised in the hack. Rep. Henry Waxman (D.-Calif.) said "companies have an obligation to inform those individuals whose information was lost or stolen."

 

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NYC Postal Workers Stole Millions in Phony Tax Refunds

Mail carrier convicted in complex scheme to generate, then steal refund checks

NYC Postal Workers Stole Millions in Phony Tax Refunds Mail carrier convicted in complex scheme to generate, then steal refund checks...

A New York City postal worker has been found guilty of participating in a massive tax and mail-theft scheme involving Postal Service letter carriers and co-conspirators in the Dominican Republic. A U.S. District Court jury found Robert A. Warren guilty following a one-week trial.

Prosecutors said Warren and his accomplices fraudulently generated millions of dollars in federal tax refund checks, then stole the checks from the U.S. mail.

According to evidence presented at the trial, co-conspirators operating out of the Dominican Republic electronically filed thousands of fraudulent federal tax returns, seeking tens of millions of dollars in tax refund checks.

The fraudulent returns were filed using Social Security numbers and other identifying information stolen from residents of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Participants in the scheme targeted Social Security numbers assigned to residents of Puerto Rico because they are generally not required to file federal tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), so long as their income derives solely from Puerto Rican sources.

Each of the tax returns at issue falsely represented that the taxpayer on the return resided at an address in the Bronx, where the refund check requested in the return would be sent. The checks were then collected by mail carriers assigned to the mail routes where the checks were sent. The mail carriers participating in the scheme were paid a kickback for each check they collected.

The carriers passed the checks on to other co-conspirators, who cashed them at various banks and check-cashing businesses located in the United States and the Dominican Republic.

Warren has been a mail carrier employed by the U.S. Postal Service at Tremont Post Office in the Bronx. He was recruited into the tax scheme in 2007, prosecutors said. From July 2007 until May 2008, Warren collected at least 256 fraudulent refund checks that were sent to his mail route as part of the scheme. He was paid a $100 kickback for each check that he stole. Each check was worth, on average, close to $10,000.

In all, Warren helped steal over $2.5 million worth of fraudulent tax refund checks, according to evidence presented at the trial. He made at least $25,000 in kickbacks from the scheme.

Warren, 46, of the Bronx, New York, is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Denny Chin on September 13, 2011, at 10 a.m. He faces a maximum term of 20 years in prison.

In this way, the fraudsters minimized the risk that legitimate federal tax returns were already filed by the owners of the Social Security numbers they were using in the scheme.

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Don't Fall For Bin Laden Hit Video Scam

The scam is beginning to show up on Facebook

it didn't take scammers long to capitalize on the death of Osama bin Laden....

photoOne of your Facebook friends breathlessly posts on your wall, “Osama Dead – Censored Video Leaked.” You are then invited to click a link to see video footage of the terrorist mastermind being killed.

But hold on. It's just the latest in a series of scam exploiting the news story that has riveted the world since Sunday evening, according to security experts at Sophos Security.

The message reads as follows:

Watch the Osama Shoot down video

Osama Dead - Censored Video Leaked on.fb.me
Osama is dead, watch this exclusive CNN video which was censored by Obama Administration due to level of violence, a must watch. Leaked by Wikileaks.

If you click the link, you won't see the video because, there isn't a video. However, you will be asked to take an online survey. That, of course, is the whole point of the scheme.

The scammer makes money for every survey that's filled out. Promising sensational footage of Osama Bin Laden getting whacked by Navy Seals is just the latest way to get people to click on a link.

“What's most interesting about this scam is that they trick you into cutting-and-pasting a line of JavaScript into your web browser's address bar,” writes Graham Cluley, Sophos' Senior Technology Consultant, in his blog. “Not that you'll realize that you're doing that, of course. As far as you know all you're doing is following a sequence of instructions and keyboard presses before you watch the video.”

Whenever you paste a script into your browser's address bar, you're actually running code written by the scammers without the safety net of protection. Why is that a problem?

Because before long, your computer will be sending out news of the exciting Osama shoot-down video to all your Facebook friends. That's how the thing spreads.

In the days ahead there are likely to be many more scams built about the news of Osama bin Laden's death. Make sure you don't fall for them.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) urges computer users to not open unsolicited (spam) e-mails, including clicking links contained within those messages. Even if the sender is familiar, the public should exercise due diligence. Computer owners must ensure they have up-to-date firewall and anti-virus software running on their machines to detect and deflect malicious software.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) recommends the public do the following:

  • Adjust the privacy settings on social networking sites you frequent to make it more difficult for people you know and do not know to post content to your page. Even a “friend” can unknowingly pass on multimedia that’s actually malicious software.
  • Do not agree to download software to view videos. These applications can infect your computer.
  • Read e-mails you receive carefully. Fraudulent messages often feature misspellings, poor grammar, and nonstandard English.
  • Report e-mails you receive that purport to be from the FBI. Criminals often use the FBI’s name and seal to add legitimacy to their fraudulent schemes. In fact, the FBI does not send unsolicited e-mails to the public. Should you receive unsolicited messages that feature the FBI’s name, seal, or that reference a division or unit within the FBI or an individual employee, report it to the Internet Crime Complaint Center atwww.ic3.gov.

 

 

 

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Companies Warned About Promoting Unproven STD Remedies

FDA, FTC send warning letters to companies peddling fraudulent products

Companies Warned About Promoting Unproven STD Remedies FDA, FTC send warning letters to companies peddling fraudulent products...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are warning companies to stop making unproven claims that their products can treat, cure, and prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), saying the products violate federal law.

Among the products targeted are Medavir, Herpaflor, Viruxo, C-Cure, and Never An Outbreak.

The products, sold online and in retail outlets, have not been evaluated by the FDA for safety and effectiveness. The joint action is the first step in keeping these unproven items from being sold to the public and preventing consumers from being misled. 

photo

The companies that received the warning letters claim that their products treat a range of STDs, including herpes, chlamydia, genital warts, HIV, and AIDS. While some of the companies market these products as dietary supplements, they are all drug products under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, as they are offered for the treatment of disease and may not be introduced into interstate commerce without an FDA-approved new drug application.

These products are dangerous because they are targeted to patients with serious conditions, where treatment options proven to be safe and effective are available,” said Deborah M. Autor, director of the Office of Compliance in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Consumers who buy these products may not seek the medical attention they need and could spread infections to sexual partners.”

Further, under the Federal Trade Commission Act it is illegal to make such unsubstantiated treatment claims.

These companies are on notice that advertising health benefits that are not supported by rigorous scientific evidence violates the FTC Act,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “They also should know that health scams that endanger public health will not be tolerated.” 

Consumers should be aware that there are no over-the-counter or online drugs or dietary supplements available to treat or prevent STDs. Appropriate treatment of STDs can only occur under the supervision of a health care professional. There are many FDA-approved medications available for treating these conditions, but they do require a prescription.

Our Warning Letters give these firms time to voluntarily comply with the law,” said Dara Corrigan, the FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. “The FDA will continue to take aggressive enforcement action against firms that market false treatments or cures that may lead to significant public health consequences.”

The Warning Letters inform the companies that they have 15 days to notify the FDA of the steps they have taken to correct the violations cited. Failure to do so may result in legal action, including seizure and injunction, or criminal prosecution.  

 

 

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Suit Claims Muscle-Building Supplement Caused Liver Damage

Magna Drol was recalled prior to victim's purchasing it online, suit alleges

Suit Claims Muscle-Building Supplement Caused Liver Damage Magna Drol was recalled prior to victim's purchasing it online, suit alleges...

photoA Massachusetts man claims he got hepatitis, jaundice and liver damage from Magna Drol, a "dietary supplement/muscle enhancer" made, sold and distributed by Flex Appeal LP, Bodybuilding.com, and BOSC Enterprises. 

Matthew Jordan, of Wilmington, Mass., says in the suit that he suffered hepatitis, jaundice and liver damage after he purchased Magna Drol from Bodybuilding.com in January 2010.

Bodybuilding.com, which calls itself the “World's #1 Supplement Store,” no longer offers Magna Drol for sale, listing it as “discontinued.”

On the site, which features profiles of its customers, one user – known as “Ditrone” – rates Magna Drol a “10/10” product and says it produced “Great gains in strength and in really lean mass.”

What the site doesn't say is that on November 3, 2009 Bodybuilding.com and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued an urgent, nationwide recall of BOSC Enterprises Magna Drol because it contains ingredients that the FDA consider to be steroids.

Acute, permanent liver damage is one of the most common effects related to using steroids. According to the Injury Help Network, other potential consequences include male infertility and breast enlargement, elevated cholesterol, mood swings, and an increased risk for a heart attack or stroke.

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Average Gas Price Poised To Hit $4 A Gallon This Week

We're closing in on that psychological price-point

The price of gasoline continues to rise and is now a few pennies away from $4 a gallon....

photoThe psychological price-point of $4 a gallon is looming straight ahead, and will likely be hit before the end of the week, based on the rate of recent price escalation.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.967 a gallon, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's nearly a dime a gallon more than seven days ago.

Already, motorists in many parts of the country are paying well in excess of $4 a gallon. For example, the average price of gas has hit an all time high in Chicago, $4.39 a gallon. The average price is over $4 a gallon now in 14 states; Alaska, California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

Falling stockpiles

Despite the rising price, U.S. Gasoline stockpiles have been falling, though it's far from clear that is due to increasing use. Rather, anecdotal evidence suggests demand destruction is taking place.

“The latest Department of Energy report showed a tenth consecutive week of drawdown in U.S. gasoline supply,” said Andrew Delmege, AAA's manager of regulatory affairs. “While a decline is not unusual at this time of year, as suppliers lower stocks during the switch from winter- to summer-blend gasoline, this most recent report has stocks at 205.6 million barrels — 18.1 million barrels below the same period last year. It is worth noting that these numbers came alongside data that showed a slight week-over-week increase in gasoline demand.”

But some analysts have suggested that slight uptick in demand was related to Easter holiday travel and may be masking the extent of demand destruction taking place.

Deja vu

Three years ago, the average price of gasoline peaked at $4.17 a gallon in mid July 2008. From that point on a recession that began seven months earlier began to accelerate. Some economists think the cost of gasoline was a major contributor to the Great Recession, which hit in full force that October.

Meanwhile, consumers are bracing themselves for even more pain at the pump. Gasoline prices don't usually start rising until the beginning of the summer driving season, which begins less than four weeks from now.

 

 

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Does It Cost Too Much To Be Healthy?

Researchers find high costs cause many to delay treatment

Researchers say rising health care costs are causing families to put off trips to the doctor and taking medicine....

photoWhile the rising prices of gasoline and food get all the attention, health care costs have been rising for years, and a new study suggests the results are taking a toll on public health.

Regardless of income, consumers aren't taking their children to the doctor or buying prescription medicine as much as they once did, and University of Wisconsin researchers trace the change to the belief that “it costs too much to be healthy.”

Previous research has shown that families who have difficulty paying their medical bills may delay or forgo needed care. In this study, researchers tried to determine factors that affect families' decisions to put off or go without care, including the cost of health care relative to a family's income and having a child with a physical, social, behavioral or cognitive limitation such as asthma, autism or obesity.

Investigators, led by Lauren E. Wisk, a doctoral student and graduate research assistant in the School of Medicine and Public Health at University of Wisconsin, Madison, examined data from the 2001-2006 Medical Expenditure Panel Surveys on 6,273 families with at least one child.

Health costs exceeding 10 percent of income

Excessive financial burden was defined as insurance premiums and out-of-pocket health care expenses exceeding 10 percent of family income. Delayed or forgone care was defined as putting off or going without medical care or prescription medications for a parent or child due to cost and/or insurance-related reasons.

Results showed that experiencing excessive financial burden, having a child with an ongoing activity limitation and a parent having intermittent insurance all increased the likelihood that families would delay or go without care. However, when the parent and child had the same insurance, they were more likely to get the care they needed.

There were also significant disparities when it came to race and income, the researchers found. For example, non-Hispanic black families were less likely to report delayed or forgone care than non-Hispanic white families.

Meanwhile, families whose income was less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level were more likely to delay or go without care than families with incomes at or above 400 percent of the poverty level.

Just so much money

"Every U.S. family has a finite amount of resources available to them, and every day they have to make decisions about how to allocate those resources,” Wisk said. “This is especially true in today's economy where you hear people talk about 'feeling the pinch.' This study shows the unfortunate reality of the situation. Families aren't choosing to spend their money on going to the doctor when someone is sick because of how much it cost them to see the doctor last time. They're sacrificing their health because it costs too much to be healthy."

What does that mean for the future? Wisk and fellow researchers say they are planning to study how delaying or forgoing care affects health down the road.

"We expect that if people aren't getting the care they need, they'll be sicker as a result," Wisk said. "When you put this all together and look at the big picture, the cost of health care in the U.S. could actually be causing Americans to be sicker."

 

 

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What's On Your Mind? Extended Warranties, Priceline.com, Bank ofAmerica

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Extended Warranties, Priceline.com, Bank ofAmerica, The disappearing extended warranty and Jumping to conclusions...

What's the purpose of an extended warranty? The consumer, and the seller of the warranty, may have two different ideas.

“On April 11,2011 I called Home Depot Extended Warranty for service on my ice-maker, they told me they were having trouble locating service for my area,” Joy of Sopchoppy, Fla., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They said someone would call me back within 24-48 hours.”

But Joy says they didn't call. She said she called again on April 13 and was told they were still having trouble locating service in her area. They would call her back, they said.

“On April 15 I called and they told me they could not find anyone and that I could find my own service and they would reimburse 250 dollars. I declined that offer,” Joy said.

On and on it went. Finally, in late April, Joy said someone was found to service her refrigerator under the extended warranty. But getting them there was another thing entirely.

“On Monday, April 25, the service guy from A & E called me at work around 10 and said he would be at my home in approx. 30 minutes,” Joy said. “That was done with out any contact with me. I work in a hospital and cannot just leave when I want to. The service guy said he would reschedule me for the next Monday.”

Joy said she called on Friday, April 29 to confirm the service call and learned the wouldn't be coming until May 2.

“I called customer relations to see what had happened and she said she would check into it and get back to me,” Joy said. “No call back! Not one person has ever called me back!”

The last we heard, the guy didn't show up on May 2, either.

The disappearing extended warranty

While we're on the subject of extended warranties, here's a story from Jennifer, of Pompano Beach, Fla., who purchased two air conditioners from Ubid.com back in September of 2009.

“I was told by the sales person that if I purchased the three year extended warranty for them that they would be covered for anything,” Jennifer said. “When I left there, I was given only a sales receipt and a pamphlet for the extended warranty through Banker’s Warranty Group.”

When one of the units broke down, Jennifer called the number listed on the receipt, getting in touch with Ubid.com, who told her she needed to contact Banker's Warranty Group.

“I contacted them, but they have absolutely nothing on me nor my purchase,” Jennifer said. “BWG even told me that they canceled warranties from them and refunded Ubid, but I never saw anything back from them! When I called Ubid back, they say that their hands are tied and there is nothing they can do.”

Jennifer paid for two extended warranties and has absolutely nothing to show for it. If Ubid.com collected money from Jennifer and failed to follow through on the warranty purchase, that could easily be construed as fraud. Jennifer needs to have a chat with someone in Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office if she can't get her money back from Ubid.com.

Jumping to conclusions

We'll say it again. If you use one of those online travel sites, you better be sure your plans aren't subject to change. In the case of Janet, of Seattle, Wash., it wasn't that her plans changed, but the travel site made a mistake.

“I did 'name your own price' on Priceline on April 29 but the dates I put it were changed to the next day, April 30/May 1,” Janet told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I did not catch it until after my bid was accepted. I was not worried because I had paid the extra $5 for trip insurance 'because plans change.'”

Within minutes of receiving the email confirmation that her offer had been accepted, Janet began to try to file a claim with the travel insurance.

“The Priceline website asks you to contact them first then file a claim, so after searching and calling the numbers listed, I have been unable to speak with a live customer service representative,” she said. “I did request a claim form from the Travel Insurance and followed it up with a call. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the only reason I could get a refund using the insurance was if I had a medical issue and that had to be verified by a doctor's note.”

Janet says she made the mistake of “jumping to the conclusion” that the phrase “because plans change” meant something it didn't. Pretty reasonable assumption, if you ask us. Meanwhile, she says she has been unable to talk to anyone who can explain the policy and why it wasn't spelled out more clearly.

“I am frustrated with the lack of help or information available once Priceline gets your money,” she said.

Read your statements carefully

Most of us probably fail to read our bank and credit card statements are carefully as we should. Fortunately, Christopher, of Dixon, Calif., reads his.

“In January 2011, I changed my Bank of America checking account from MyAccess to eBanking to avoid monthly maintenance fees if my checking account were to go below a certain dollar amount,” Christopher said. “There is no minimum balance for eBanking. The only caveat is that you will only be charged with a fee if the account ever deals with a teller.”

But on April 13, he says he was charged with a monthly maintenance fee of $8.95.

“I called Bank of America, BOA, as to why they charged me and they could not give me a reason,” he said. The phone representative told me that there should have been no reason for them to charge me any fee. The refunded me $8.95.”

Christopher doesn't think it was a simple error. He thinks it was purposeful, in hopes he wouldn't notice. He wants to know how many others are charged a wrongful fee and don't catch it, and urges other consumers to read their statements carefully each month. Good advice.

 

 

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Sony Shuts Down Another Game Network After Hackers Attack

Information on nearly 25 million Sony Online Entertainment users swiped

Sony Shuts Down Another Game Network After Hackers AttackInformation on nearly 25 million Sony Online Entertainment users swiped...

photoIt's happened again. Sony has temporarily shut down one of its online computer game networks, saying that hackers may have gained access to personal information for nearly 25 million users.

The latest disruption involves Sony Online Entertainment, which provides multiplayer games for computers. It shut down its service late Monday amid concerns that hackers may have hijacked information including names, addresses and birth dates.

In a notice to its customers today, Sony said: "Our ongoing investigation of illegal intrusions into Sony Online Entertainment systems has discovered that hackers may have obtained personal customer information from SOE systems.  We are today advising you that the personal information you provided us in connection with your SOE account may have been stolen in a cyber-attack."

On April 20, the company shut down its PlayStation Network after hackers lifted information on some 77 million users.

The company insists that the latest shutdown is not due to a second hacking incident, and says it believes that the additional 25 million users' data may have been stolen during the same break-in as the one reported earlier.

The latest shutdown affects “EverQuest,” one of the more popular online games.

Under attack

Sony executives apologized Sunday for the original breach and said the company is working to increase security. Sony says its online services have been under attack for at least six weeks. The company is working with the FBI to try to identify the attackers. Sony is not being so forthcoming with Congressional investigators, though.

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R.-Calif.) sent a letter to Sony last week asking executives to testify before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The company declined but said it would provide written answers by Tuesday.

I am deeply troubled by this latest data breach.  It reinforces my long-held belief that much more needs to be done to protect sensitive consumer information,” Rep. Bono Mack said in a statement.  “Most importantly, Americans should be quickly informed when their personal information has been hacked, especially in instances like this where there is an obvious potential for large scale identity theft.”

It has not been entirely clear when Sony learned of the intrusions. It shut down the PlayStation Network on April 20. It has said the attack occurred on April 16 and 17.

Clearly, consumers need additional safeguards, and I will soon introduce legislation designed to provide it.  In addition, I have directed subcommittee staff to begin a thorough investigation into this latest incident to determine if hearings are needed”, she said.

What to do

Sony customers who think their data may have been breached should put a fraud notice on their credit records at the three major credit bureaus:

Experian: 888-397-3742;www.experian.com; P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013
Equifax: 800-525-6285;www.equifax.com; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
TransUnion: 800-680-7289;www.transunion.com; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790

The Federal Trade Commission offers extensive information for consumers who believe they may have been the victims of identity theft.

 

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Ticketmaster Settles Deceptive Sales Practices Charges

Maryland objected to ticket resale operation

Ticketmaster has settled charges with Maryland that it engaged in deceptive ticket sales practices....

A consumer searches for concert tickets on Ticketmaster's website, only to find the event is “sold out.” But they might then be invited to continue searching on the company's resale site, TicketsNow.

Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler says it happened plenty before a 2009 Bruce Springsteen concert at the Verizon Center, and that Ticketmaster failed to disclose that TicketsNow was a resale site where tickets were brokered at inflated prices.

Gansler says his Consumer Protection Division has entered into a settlement with Ticketmaster Entertainment, Inc., Ticketsnow.com, Inc. and TNOW Entertainment Group, Inc., settling charges stemming from complaints.

The Ticketmaster companies agreed to pay the State $10,000, which may be used to pay damages to consumers who purchased, but did not receive, tickets to the 2009 Bruce Springsteen Verizon Center concert if the consumers were not already fully compensated by Ticketmaster. The Ticketmaster companies will also pay the State costs in the amount of $25,000 as well as a $90,000 civil penalty.

Misled consumers

“Ticketmaster misled consumers when it offered tickets without informing them that they were being sold by brokers at inflated prices, and then, even at the inflated prices, it failed to provide the purchased tickets,” Gansler said. “Under this settlement, Ticketmaster must be more transparent when it steers consumers to its resale website so that consumers understand what they are purchasing.”

The Ticketmaster companies denied that they violated the Consumer Protection Act. But, under the terms of the settlement, the Ticketmaster companies agreed to inform consumers who opt to continue searching for tickets on the TicketsNow website after they are unable to purchase tickets on Ticketmaster's primary site, that they are being transferred to a resale website where tickets are being offered at prices that exceed their face value.

The settlement also requires the Ticketmaster companies to clearly describe the tickets that are being offered for resale, including, where applicable, that the tickets are not in hand, but rather, are being offered by a reseller who is speculating that it will be able to provide the tickets.

Speculative tickets

Speculative tickets must also be displayed differently on the TicketsNow website so that consumers can easily distinguish them from actual tickets. The settlement also requires the Ticketmaster companies to cease using deceptive guarantees, including a statement that tickets are “guaranteed” or “100% guaranteed,” unless Ticketmaster will guarantee to deliver the tickets.

Ticketmaster and its related companies settled similar charges with the State of New Jersey in 2009.

 

 

 

 

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Southwest Completes Acquisition of AirTran

Merger opens up lucrative East Coast markets to Southwest

Southwest Completes Acquisition of AirTranMerger opens up lucrative East Coast markets to Southwest...

photoSouthwest Airlines today completed its acquisition of AirTran for about $1 billion, eliminating a low-fare rival and giving itself an opening into lucrative East Coast markets and, if history is any indication, forcing incumbent carriers to lower their fares.

AirTran has routes and airport gates in key markets including New York and Washington, where Southwest has been underrepresented. It also gets Southwest into Atlanta, where it does not now operate.

The carriers will continue to operate separately while operational details of the merger are worked out.

In an email to its Rapid Rewards frequent flyer program this morning, Southwest said the AirTran A+ Rewards program will be merged into Rapid Rewards over time.

“With a larger and stronger combined network, including new international destinations, and the recent launch of the All-New Rapid Rewards, the unification of the two programs will create a superior experience for all Members.,” said Kevin Krone, Southwest's vice president for marketing.

“Both Southwest and AirTran are about low fares and great Customer Service. As a combined company we intend to strengthen and expand low-fare competition,” Krone said. “While we will operate separately for a time, Southwest and AirTran are now one family and our commitment to creating the best customer experience is stronger than ever.”

It's the third major U.S. airline merger in recent years. Delta acquired Northwest in 2008 and United acquired Continental last year.

Based on current operations, the combined airlines would have nearly 43,000 employees and serve more than 100 million customers annually from more than 100 different airports in the U.S. and near-international destinations. In addition, the combined carriers' all-Boeing fleet consisting of 685 active aircraft would include 401 Boeing 737-700s, 173 Boeing 737-300s, 25 Boeing 737-500s, and 86 Boeing 717s.

Southwest says the average age of the aircraft is approximately 10 years, making it one of the youngest fleets in the industry. Southwest also announced, previously, that it is evaluating the opportunity to introduce the Boeing 737-800 into its domestic network.

 

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Survey: Overdraft Opt-Ins Being Sold with Scare Tactics

Banks succeeded in confusing and wearing down their customers

Survey: Overdraft Opt-Ins Being Sold with Scare Tactics Banks succeeded in confusing and wearing down their customers...

photoA survey by the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) finds that banks are using misleading and aggressive marketing to sell their consumers on overdraft protection.

The Federal Reserve issued its rule requiring banks to obtain customer consent before approving debit and check transactions that would overdraw their accounts. The Fed was trying to protect consumers from unwittingly subjecting themselves to $34 fees for each overdraft incident.

But the survey found instead of providing customers with simple and informative explanations about the program, banks instead launched hard-sell campaigns to sign consumers for the high-profit overdraft protection, which is more accurately described as a high-interest, short-term loan.

 

The center's survey found that marketing materials often created the false impression that emergency action was needed on the account. For example:

We Need to Hear From You . . . To keep your account operating smoothly . . .  To avoid any interruptions in how we service your account, we need to hear from you.

Your Debit Card May Not Work the Same Way Anymore Even If You Just Made a Deposit.

Please keep in mind that this option [not opting in] may prevent you from completing everyday transactions including Any store and gas station purchase, Emergency home and car repair...Purchases when traveling, Medical or health emergencies.

Banks also conflated the treatment of checks and debit cards, implying that opting in would protect them from bounced check fees:

Save money by avoiding retailers’ returned check fees

Relax and protect yourself from the inconvenience of an overdrawn account and retailer fees

The Bounce Overdraft Program was designed to protect you from the cost and embarrassment of having your transactions denied. (emphasis added).  

You can protect yourself from the inconvenience of declined transactionsand additional fees normally charged to you by merchants for returned items. (emphasis added)

Survey Shows Low Opt-ins, Misperceptions

Even given misleading marketing, only 33 percent of accountholders opted-in to overdraft coverage, and most who did based their decision on information that was deceptive.  The survey found:

  • Sixty percent (60%) of consumers who opted in stated that an important reason they did so was to avoid a fee if their debit card was declined. In fact, a declined debit card costs consumers nothing.

  • Sixty-four percent (64%) of consumers who opted in stated that an important reason they did so was to avoid bouncing paper checks. The truth is that the opt-in rules cover only debit card and ATM transactions.

  • For almost half of those who opted in, simply stopping the bank from bombarding them with opt-in messages by mail, phone, email, in person, and online banking was a factor in their decision.

These findings strongly suggest that an opt-in rate of 33 percent exaggerates interest in high-cost overdraft coverage for debit card transactions. Rather, the 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.

 

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Florida Sues Three Foreclosure Rescue Firms

State continues to be hard-hit by foreclosures

Florida has sued three more foreclosure rescue firms it says broke the law....

The crackdown on consultants promising desperate homeowners they can “rescue” them from impending foreclosure continues. The State of Florida has sued three South Florida companies allegedly charging upfront fees for their services.

It's against the law in Florida to charge upfront fees for services to modify mortgages or otherwise mitigate a foreclosure.

Home Owner Protection Economics, Inc., DC Financial Group, Deleverage America, Inc. and owners Dennis Fischer, and Christopher S. Godfrey purportedly collected thousands of dollars monthly in upfront fees for loan modification services that were never provided, according to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Assets frozen

As a result of the lawsuit filed by the Attorney General’s Office, the Palm Beach County Circuit Court ordered the defendants’ assets be frozen. In addition, they are forbidden from operating until further order of the court.

According to an investigation conducted by the Attorney General’s Economic Crimes Division, these companies, located in Delray Beach, were allegedly charging upfront fees ranging from $495 to $2,000 for foreclosure-related loan modification services that were never rendered.

The complaint charges the defendants falsely represented to homeowners that they would work with lenders to reduce the homeowners’ debt and prevent foreclosure, when in reality the lender banks were never contacted on the homeowners’ behalf. The companies were allegedly soliciting hundreds of homeowners nationwide via telemarketing, direct mail, e-mail and Internet, print and TV advertising.

Restitution

Based on the court order, the businesses and individuals are prohibited from engaging in loan modification services or accepting any upfront fees while the litigation is pending. The lawsuit seeks to force the companies to return homeowners' money and asks for civil penalties of $15,000 for each violation of the Foreclosure Fraud Prevention Act, and reimbursement for fees and costs related to the investigation.

Florida is among the states waging an ongoing battle with foreclosure rescue outfits. The state has been fertile territory for these schemes because it has suffered so many foreclosures.

Minnesota, Texas, New York, California, Nevada and Ohio are among the states that have also sued foreclosure rescue firms over the last couple of years.

 

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Medical Technology Students Sue Tri-State Institute

Students complete their studies, only to learn the school was not accredited

Medical Technology Students Sue Tri-State Institute Students complete their studies, only to learn the school was not accredited...

Five students say the Tri-State Institute, Birmingham, Ala., lied about its ability to qualify them to take the national exam to be health information technologists.

The students say that admissions counselors told them the field of medical record processing and other medical and health related fields was “wide open” and offered an abundance of jobs in the Birmingham area.

The students agreed to enroll and school employees helped them fill out the application forms and apply for federally-insured student loans, the suit alleges.

Upon completing their studies, the five applied to the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) to take the examination required to become a Registered Health Information Technologist, but were told that because Tri-State was not accredited, they would not be eligible to take the exam.

The students say they “now have exhausted certain available student loans and have expended an enormous amount of time that is essentially useless in the furtherance of their expected careers. ”

The suit, filed in Jefferson County, Ala., Circuit Court, asks the court to award appropriate damages for the students' loss of time and money.

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Government Begins Phasing Out Social Security Checks

New enrollees must use direct deposit

The government this week officially began phasing out the paper Social Security check....

Starting this week, anyone signing up to receive Social Security benefits will have only one option – direct deposit. New recipients will no longer be able to receive a paper check, delivered through the mail.

“Getting your Social Security or Supplemental Security Income payment by direct deposit or Direct Express is safer and more reliable,” said Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security. “You don’t have to worry about your check being lost or stolen and your money is available immediately on your payment date There is no need to wait for the mail to arrive.”

For consumers, the government says there is added security and speed in receiving their money. Last year, the Treasury Department says, more than 540,000 Social Security and Supplemental Security Income checks were reported missing or stolen and had to be replaced.

Saving money

For the government, there is a big cost savings. The cost of printing and mailing checks will eventually disappear as new recipients begin receiving their benefits electronically.

The Social Security Administration estimates the cost to generate and mail each paper check at around 92 cents. More than 18 million Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age over the next five years and every day 10,000 people become eligible for Social Security benefits. The savings, the government says, will add up.

The new Treasury Department rule will eventually phase out paper checks for federal benefit and non-tax payments by March 1, 2013. Anyone applying for benefits from now on will receive their payments electronically, while those currently receiving paper checks will need to switch to direct deposit by March 1, 2013.

How to make the switch

Consumer who currently receive paper checks, but would like to switch to direct deposit, are encouraged to do so. You'll need your routing transit number and type of account (checking or savings). If you don't have a bank account, you can have your money put onto a pre-paid debit card.

The switch can be made online at www.GoDirect.org, calling the U.S. Treasury Electronic Payment Solution Center at 1-800-333-1795 or by speaking with a representative from your bank or credit union.

 

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What's On Your Mind? JC Penny, Toshiba, Prado

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: JC Penny, Toshiba, Prado, Big help, Another 'free' trial and Avoid debt settlement schemes....

For more than a year, federal and state safety officials have been trying to stop of the use of certain drop-side cribs, because of the danger of infant suffocation. A year ago the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recalled all Simplicity drop-side cribs because of the problem. But Tim, of Sacramento, Calif., reports a problem trying to return his crib.

“As per the CPSC Simplicity Crib Recall and confirmed by JC Penney's own recall web page I attempted to return my recalled Simplicity Vienna Crib and Changer Combo for a refund or store credit,” Tim told ConsumerAffairs.com. “However, JCP refused to honor the recall because we were not the 'original purchasers' of this crib/combo set, therefore we lacked an invoice or receipt. It was actually a baby shower gift from former co-workers, emphasis on former as I no longer work there and neither do the people who likely purchased the crib for my baby shower gift. After hours trying to get JCP to read their own press release - they actually had the nerve to tell us they would refund $5.97.”

Here is the CPSC's original recall notice. Nowhere in it does it say a consumer has to be the “original purchaser.” Since the manufacturer is no longer in business, retailers like Penney's have to eat the cost, and may be looking for ways to have consumers like Tim eat some of the cost as well. Tim should report this to the CPSC.

Big help

It's bad enough that a company can't repair a problem with their product, but what if they return it to you in worse shape? That's what Adrianne, of West Chester, Pa., says happened with her Toshiba laptop.

“I sent my laptop in for warranty repair as some of the characters on the Keyboard were not registering,” Adrianne said. “They called and stated it was spill damage not covered under warranty, and they would return the laptop to me.”

When she got her computer back, Adrianne said the keyboard was not reattached.

“They also, neglected to include the black strip they removed above keyboard to secure it down,” she said. “They sent me back the laptop with pieces missing on it and not put back together as I sent it to them. I asked for the pieces back they said no.”

Andrianne said Toshiba told her that once technicians see damage they immediately stop work on the product and return it to customer as-is.

“Their policy states, they will return it to me as they received it,” Adrianne said. “That was not the case here.”

Adrianne isn't arguing with Toshiba's decision not to repair her computer. She simply wants all the parts back. We have to agree, this doesn't seem like an unreasonable request.

Another 'free' trial

All kinds of products that are offered on a 'free' trial basis usually end up costing consumers a lot more.

I was offered a "free trial" for Prado's electric cigarettes on the Internet through my hotmail account,” Nancy, of Laguna Beach, Calif. , told ConsumerAffairs.com. “ All I had to pay was $12.95 for the shipping.”

But Nancy reports a few weeks later two unauthorized charges of $149 and $69 appeared on her credit card statement.

“I never agreed to these charges, nor was I ever aware they existed,” she said. “I promptly returned the merchandise unopened to Prado and I have the tracking numbers.”

But Nancy encountered fierce resistance when she tried to get her money back. Though Prado had charged over $200 to her card, Nancy said they would only agree to refund $40. She ended up cancelling her credit card.

It's just another reason to never agree to pay a small “shipping and handling fee” with your credit card to get a “free trial.” Once any company has your credit card, nothing will be “free.”

Avoid debt settlement schemes

We continue to get a lot of complaints from consumers about debt settlement companies. These firms promise to help consumers reduce their credit card debt or other bills, but it hardly ever works out.

“I hired Impact Debt Settlement to help with debt reduction but they took $4200 and did nothing but increase my debt,” Stephen, of Franklin, Mass., said. “Stay away from this company.”

Actually, the best advice is to stay away from any company that charges an upfront fee with the promise of providing relief from debts. That is no longer allowed under federal law.

Debt settlement companies usually advise consumers to stop paying their creditors and to instead set up a special account to build savings that will be used in the future to negotiate a settlement. As the consumer deposits savings into the account, the debt settlement company withdraws money to cover its fees even though it hasn't reached a settlement with creditors. By stopping payments to creditors, the consumer ends up with a worse credit score, additional penalty fees and more interest charges.

 

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Obama Urges An End to Oil-Gas Subsidies as Gas Price Nears $4

Cutting subsidies might not cut pump prices but would help the federal budget

Obama Urges An End to Oil-Gas Subsidies as Gas Price Nears $4 Cutting subsidies might not cut pump prices but would help the federal budget...

photoGas prices are within a few whiffs of $4 per gallon and President Obama is urging Congress to end the $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies that the oil and gas industry enjoys each year.

When oil companies are making huge profits and you’re struggling at the pump, and we’re scouring the federal budget for spending we can afford to do without, these tax giveaways aren’t right,” Obama said in his weekly radio address and on his White House blog. “They aren’t smart. And we need to end them.”

In their weekly response, Republicans blamed Obama for high gas prices, saying he hasn't done enough to open up other domestic oil sources.

Americans are looking for leadership to tackle the rising gas prices, but President Obama has only offered a tax increase on energy and the prospect of reduced supply,” Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said. 

Senate Democrats are likely to introduce legislation cutting the gas and oil subsidies this week but it's unlikely the bill will go anywhere in the Republican-controlled House, at least initially. For that matter, it's not clear that cutting the subsidies would do anything to reduce prices at the pump and might actually increase them.

In his address, Obama turned aside GOP proposals that he cut spending on alternative energy.

I refuse to cut things like clean energy that will help America win the future by growing our economy and creating good-paying jobs; that will help make America more secure; and that will help clean up our planet in the process,” he said. “An investment in clean energy today is an investment in a better tomorrow.”

Surging prices

The average price of self-serve regular gas was $3.909 a gallon Friday, up from $3.846 the previous week, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. The price is up more than 31 cents a gallon in the last month.

Diesel fuel prices rose a penny a gallon, with the average price at $4.146.

Crude oil flirting with $115 per barrel coupled with the change from winter-blend to summer-blend gasoline taking place in many parts of the country means drivers have seen the price of gasoline at the pump continue to rise,” said Andrew Delmege, AAA's manager of regulatory affairs.

Surging profits

Oil companies’ reports of surging profits couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Exxon Mobil Corp.’s report that its first-quarter earnings surged 69% came just as Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke said shoppers are running out of money and buying less as their family budgets are depleted by higher gas and food prices – and just as the U.S. Commerce Department said economic growth slowed more than expected in the first quarter, to 1.8%, sharply below the previous quarter’s 3.1%.

Republicans have been quietly warning the oil companies that, with an election approaching, they may not be able to take the political risk that would be involved in publicly opposing repeal of the oil and gas subsidies.

House Speaker John Boehner (R.-Ohio) took the first step late last week, expressing he was open to discussing ending the subsidies. Obama said he was “heartened” by that.

Our political system has for too long avoided and ignored this important step, and I hope we can come together in a bipartisan manner to get it done,” Obama said. 

 

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Five More Banks Fail - 39 So Far This Year

Fall-out from real estate collapse continues to claim victims

Five More Banks Fail - 39 So Far This YearFall-out from real estate collapse continues to claim victims...

Add five more to the list of failed banks:

  • Community Central Bank, Mount Clemens, MI
  • The Park Avenue Bank, Valdosta, GA
  • First Choice Community Bank, Dallas, GA
  • Cortez Community Bank, Brooksville, FL
  • First National Bank of Central Florida, Winter Park, FL

 

The closings bring the total for the year to 39. The failures drained $643.2 million from the FIDC deposit-insurance fund.

At the current rate, the number of closures for the year could reach 117. In 2010, there were a total of 160 banks that went into receivership, were merged with another financial institution, or closed their doors entirely.

Currently, there are over 800 banks and other financial organizations on the troubled list due to mortgages, derivatives, and bad investments.

Community Central Bank, Mount Clemens, Mich., was closed Friday by the Michigan Office of Financial and Insurance Regulation, which appointed the FDIC as receiver. The FDIC entered into a purchase and assumption agreement with Talmer Bank & Trust, Troy, Michigan, formerly known as First Michigan Bank, to assume all of the deposits of Community Central Bank.

The four branches of Community Central Bank will reopen as branches of Talmer Bank & Trust. Depositors of Community Central Bank will automatically become depositors of Talmer Bank & Trust. Deposits will continue to be insured by the FDIC, so there is no need for customers to change their banking relationship in order to retain their deposit insurance coverage up to applicable limits. Customers of Community Central Bank should continue to use their existing branch until they receive notice from Talmer Bank & Trust that it has completed systems changes to allow other Talmer Bank & Trust branches to process their accounts as well.

First Choice Community Bank, Dallas, Ga., and The Park Avenue Bank, Valdosta, Ga., were closed by the Georgia Department of Banking and Finance, which appointed the FDIC as receiver.

All 19 branches of the two closed banks will reopen during their normal business hours beginning Saturday as branches of Bank of the Ozarks, Little Rock, Ark. Depositors of the two failed banks will automatically become depositors of Bank of the Ozarks. Deposits will continue to be insured by the FDIC, so there is no need for customers to change their banking relationship in order to retain their deposit insurance coverage up to applicable limits. First Choice Community Bank had seven branches in Georgia; and The Park Avenue Bank had eleven branches in Georgia and one branch in Florida.

Customers of the two failed banks should continue to use their former branches until they receive notice from Bank of the Ozarks that it has completed systems changes to allow other branches of Bank of the Ozarks to process their accounts as well.

“We are considered one of the strongest and best capitalized community banks in the country,” Bank of the Ozarks Chairman and Chief Executive Officer George Gleason said today in a statement. “We have a long-term commitment to growing our customer base in our Georgia and Florida communities.”

First National Bank of Central Florida, Winter Park, Fla., was closed by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which appointed the FDIC as receiver. Cortez Community Bank, Brooksville, Fla, was closed by the Florida Office of Financial Regulation.

All eight branches of the two closed banks will reopen on Monday as branches of Florida Community Bank, a division of Premier American Bank, N.A., Miami. Depositors of the two failed banks will automatically become depositors of Florida Community Bank. Deposits will continue to be insured by the FDIC, so there is no need for customers to change their banking relationship in order to retain their deposit insurance coverage up to applicable limits. First National Bank of Central Florida had six branches; and Cortez Community Bank had two branches.

Customers of the two failed banks should continue to use their former branches until they receive notice from Premier American Bank, N.A. that it has completed systems changes to allow other branches of Premier American Bank, N.A. to process their accounts as well..

 

 

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