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California Adds Sales Tax To Internet Sales

New law targets Amazon.com and other out-of-state retailers

California has become the seventh state to tax out-of-state online sales...

PhotoCalifornia is the latest state to pass a law requiring out-of-state Internet retailers to collect sales tax on purchases by California consumers. California Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law Wednesday.

California, struggling to fill a widening budget gap, sees the measure as a way to recoup lost revenue. With one of the highest sales tax rates in the nation, state officials say the law will probably bring in $317 million in new revenue.

Officials say taxing sales on out-of-state websites is only fair, since California-based retailers must charge the tax. The current situation, they say, put California businesses at a competitive disadvantage. California retail trade groups supported the measure.

The law was written to get around a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that exempted online retailers from collecting sales tax unless they had a physical presence in the state. Under the new law, that presence has been interpreted to include not only property and employees, but contractors and affiliates.

In the case of Amazon.com, the largest online retailer, its use of California-based affiliates, who refer traffic to Amazon and are paid commissions for click-through purchases, make it fall under the new law. But maybe not for long.

So long

In a message to affiliates in California Wednesday, Amazon told them they would have to move outside California's borders if they want to remain affiliates. However, that in itself might not be enough to exempt Amazon from the new law. The statute also says any online retailer with other business operation in the state falls under its jurisdiction. Amazon has an operation in Silicon Valley that makes the Kindle and a movie unit in Los Angeles.

For California consumers, however, there will be no escaping the sales tax on Amazon purchases, at least in the short run. It will add 7.75 percent to the price of an online purchase – 8.75 percent if the consumer lives in Los Angeles.

California becomes the seventh state to pass a law to subject online sales to taxation.

 

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Don't Leave the Sunscreen at Home This Weekend

Environmental group reviews 57 more sunscreen products

Just in time for the July 4th weekend, there's more information from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) about which sunscreens offer the best protection...

PhotoJust in time for the July 4th weekend, there's more information from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) about which sunscreens offer the best protection.

The group released its 2011 Sunscreen Guide in May and since then, says it has received dozens of requests from companies and supporters alike asking to add more of their favorite products to the database rating more than 1,700 sun protection products.

EWG researchers analyzed 57 new products including 45 beach and sport sunscreens, eight moisturizers with SPF (Sun Protection Factor) ratings, three SPF-rated lip balms and one low-SPF product. These include common brands like Aveeno, The Body Shop and Hawaiian Tropic. Click to see the updated list of sunscreen products.

Of the new products 23 are added to EWG’s recommended list because they offer broad-spectrum protection from both UVA and UVB rays and don’t contain harmful ingredients that can penetrate the skin, such as oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, a derivative of vitamin A.

The remaining 34 are flagged for safety or efficacy concern.

Earlier this month, after nearly 33 years – yes, years -- of deliberation, the federal Food and Drug Administration issued new sunscreen labeling rules. Unfortunately, says EWG, the federal agency has established the weakest standards for UVA protection in the world, and did not address the use of hazardous ingredients.

“Because the FDA has failed to offer good guidance to consumers on sunscreen safety, EWG has stepped in once again,” said EWG senior scientist Sonya Lunder. “Search our guide of more than 1,700 products and see how your favorite fares. Using safe and effective sunscreen is paramount when heading outdoors, especially during the summer months.”

With skin cancer affecting millions of Americans every year, consumers should consider sunscreens as only a part of their overall sun protection routine. Check out EWG’s sun safety tips for sound advice.

 

 

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Google Exposes Government Demands for Personal Information

Consumers worry about advertisers, but government spying is on the rise too

While consumers tend to worry more about advertisers tracking their Web surfing, a new report finds that government surveillance of Americans is also on th...

PhotoWhile consumers tend to worry more about advertisers tracking their Web surfing, a new report finds that government surveillance of Americans is also on the rise.

Google's new transparency report  reveals that U.S. government demands for the personal information of Google's users, like chat records or emails, continue to rise, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported.

The report serves to emphasize the heightened importance of increased transparency about how often the government is accessing sensitive information about who we are, where we go, what we do and why, the ACLU said.

According to Google, between July and December of 2010, government agencies worldwide asked Google to disclose personal information over 14,000 times. The country with by far the greatest number of requests — 4,601 — was the United States (Google complied with 94 percent of these requests). Brazil was second with 1,804.

Government secrecy

"And yet our government itself doesn't reveal the number of requests it makes to companies like Google for information about its citizens and residents," said ACLU's Sandra Fulton. "In a country that prides itself on the democratic principles of protecting free expression and access to information, secretly demanding records of its citizens' online surfing, reading or location information is unacceptable.

"We applaud Google for continuing to report such abuses and encourage other companies to follow their lead," Fulton said.

The Google numbers likely just the tip of the iceberg. Law enforcement is increasingly taking advantage of technologies, like the Internet and cell phones, in order to monitor Americans.

In just one year, Sprint Nextel provided law enforcement agencies with the specific whereabouts of its customers more than 8 million times . And according to Sprint, the law requires neither a warrant nor probable cause to access this information.

Thanks, Sprint

Fulton said Sprint even set up a website for law enforcement agents so they could access these records from the comfort of their desks. "The tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement," said Sprint's Manager of Electronic Surveillance.

Fulton said Americans are increasingly reliant on private companies to protect them from unwarranted government spying.

"Demands for our online information go to companies, not to us. Therefore, we have to rely upon those companies to stand up to law enforcement and resist overbroad requests," Fulton said. "Where the law is outdated and full of loopholes, and where law enforcement is under no obligation to reveal how often it demands information about users, we need these companies to do more than just resist. We need them to step up and provide the transparency and accountability that users deserve."

 

 

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Chevy Impalas Burn Through Tires, Suit Charges

GM recalled 2007-8 Impalas used as police cars but ignored others

A federal class action claims General Motors' 2007-8 Chevrolet Impalas have defective rear spindle rods that cause wheel misalignment and premature tire we...

PhotoA federal class action claims General Motors' 2007-8 Chevrolet Impalas have defective rear spindle rods that cause wheel misalignment and premature tire wear, and though GM issued a recall bulletin for Impalas that "operated as police vehicles," it won't honor warranties for identical cars owned by customers who don't happen to be police. 

In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, Donna M. Trusky of Blakely, Pa., says that the fact that GM moved to fix some of the vehicles indicates that it knew of the defect, yet continued to either recall or repair affected models that weren't used as police cars.

Many Impala owners have found that they have had to replace their tires within the first 10,000 miles of use.

Trusky says that she bought a new Impala in February 2008 and found that within 6,000 miles of travel, the Goodyear tires that came with the car were unserviceable because the tread had worn away.

Trusky took her car back to the dealer, Allen Hornbeck Chevrolet. The dealer paid Kost Tire to replace the tires and realign the rear wheel but made no mention of any defect in the rear spindle rods.

Less than two years later, on November 30, 2010, Trusky's car – then with 24,240 on the odometer, failed to pass its annual inspection because her rear tires were worn. She paid $289.77 for a set of replacement rear tires.

Trusky notes in her suit that when she bought her car, she was given a written “Bumper-to-Bumper” warranty, which included tires, for the first three years or 36,000 miles but the company still refused to make any concessions to her or, presumably, other Impala owners.

The suit quotes numerous online complaints from other Impala owners with similar problems.

 

 

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Suit Charges AOL Worked Around Privacy Controls to Stalk Consumers

Says companies repurposed Adobe Flash when consumers disabled cookies

A federal class action demands that AOL stop intruding on millions of people's privacy by tracking their Web browsing and selling the information to third-...

PhotoA federal class action demands that AOL stop intruding on millions of people's privacy by tracking their Web browsing and selling the information to third-party advertisers. Co-defendants ScanScout and Brightcove also are accused of overriding privacy controls on private citizens' computers to stalk them as they browse the Web.

In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Boston, Sandra Person Burns, of Hinds County, Mississippi, says that she and other Internet users are fed up with web sites and tracking companies watching every move they make and then bombarding them with “behaviorally targeted” ads for mortgage assistance, weight loss products and political candidates.

Tracking companies observe where consumers click, whether on a Website or in a commercial e-mail message. They track consumers from the moment of seeing but not clicking on a product ad to the consumers’ purchase of the product many days later, Burns charges.

“Many Tracking Companies claim their tracking and profiling is anonymous when, in fact, they merge consumer profiles with purchased profile data about the individual consumers’ online Web activities and offline shopping, as well as details about income, education, family status and number of children, type of vehicle driven, and location of residence and work,” she said.

The constant surveillance has created a huge market in consumer information, the suit notes.

Profiles for sale

“Consumer profiles are up for sale, affecting not only what product advertisement a consumer sees but also her credit card line for buying it, all based on inferences from where she browses on the Web or who her social network friends are,” Burns charges.

Burns was sufficiently upset by all of this that she tried to evade the trackers by turning off her browser's ability to take “cookies” – the small text files used by tracking companies – assuming she would be able to browse under the radar, so to speak.

But Burns was surprised to find that she was still receiving ads for products and services that she had examined in her online sessions.

“Defendants wanted to ensure they could track Plaintiff, regardless of her browser controls, so they simply worked around them. Defendants commandeered Plaintiff’s computer, repurposing its software and using her computer storage and her Internet connection to bypass her browser controls. Defendants created a shadow tracking system on her computer, effectively decommissioning the browser cookie controls she had explicitly set,” the suit alleges.

“Defendants did so repeatedly, for years, for a significant part of Plaintiff’s Web-browsing, and did likewise to millions of consumers, for years.”

Burns says the defendants worked their magic by repurposing the Adobe Flash software on her computer: “They used her Flash software for an unintended purpose—to create back-ups and substitutes for browser cookies, so they could track her in ways she could neither see or control.”

The suit charges that the companies violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (Wiretapping Act); the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act; the federal Video Privacy Protection Act; the Massachusetts Privacy Act; the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act; and based on tort claims of Trespass to Chattel; and equitable claims of Unjust Enrichment.

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Retailers Stunned By Fed's Final 'Swipe Fee' Decision

Fed raises cap from 12 to 21 cents

The Federal Reserve has raised the cap on the debit card swipe fee from 12 cents to 21 cents...

PhotoThe way retailers see it, what the Federal Reserve giveth, the Federal Reserve taketh away.

It has to do with the debit card interchange fee that Congress required to be set at a lower rate, under last year's financial reform legislation. In December, the Fed set the rate at 12 cents per transaction, down from 44 cents.

The banks protested but retailers cheered. They cheered again a few weeks ago when the Senate turned back an attempt by bank lobbyists to delay implementation of the new swipe fee.

But in a move that seemed to take both banks and retailers by surprise, the Fed has set the swipe fee at 21 cents, not 12 cents.

“It is beyond disappointing that after fighting for months to bring fairness and transparency to debit card swipe fees in order to give hard-working Americans a much-needed break, the Fed has given in to the pandering of Wall Street,” said Dennis Lane, 7-Eleven Franchisee and National Spokesman for Reform Swipe Fees NOW.

“Today’s final regulations are even more generous than the Fed’s proposed rules, guaranteeing the nation’s biggest banks and credit card companies a more than 400 percent profit per transaction. Take it from someone who works on an average of a one to two percent profit – that is just outrageous!” Lane said.

What does it mean for consumers?

It remains to be seen what, if any, impact this has on consumers. During the debate of the fee, retailers insisted they will pass the savings onto consumers while banks said the lower fees will simply go to retailers' bottom line. Lane served notice the fight isn't over.

“Wall Street should expect that small business owners are going to continue to fight until we see that the relief Congress intended – meaningful reform that will provide important savings to small businesses and consumers across the country that are struggling to make ends meet – is implemented once and for all,” Lane said.

The new fee goes into effect July 21.

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What's On Your Mind? Polaroid, Sprint, Fios

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Polaroid, Sprint, Fios, Holding cell phone companies accountable, Glitch and No relief....

PhotoOnce upon a time, Polaroid was  known as a maker of instant cameras. But that image faded and the name was sold to a new company that now slaps it on TVs. 

Sad to say, the cameras produced a better picture.

“My three-year new Polaroid 32-inch flat screen TV was working perfectly until last night, when the screen went black, there was a sizzle noise and smoke poured out of the back of the TV,” Paula, of Columbus, Ohio, told ConsumerAffairs.com. “It is now fried, toast, roached, history. Ironically eight days post warranty. Can you say class action lawsuit?”

Actually, there are plenty of Polaroid TV owners who have already acted on that thought. Earlier this month consumers filed a class action suit against Polaroid, claiming its TVs are a fire hazard.

Holding cell phone companies accountable

Unless you have a pre-paid cell phone account, you probably have a contract with one of the major carriers. That contract is for two years, and automatically renews for another two years any time you make a change to your account, including the purchase of a new phone. The cell phone company will hold you to the terms of that agreement, and you will be required to pay an early termination fee if you break it.

But what about holding the cell phone companies to their end of the deal? It's a question posed by Scott, of North Myrtle Beach, S.C., who recently switched from Verizon Wireless to Sprint and claims Sprint violated the terms of the contract.

“I bought the phones but never received the promised rebates,” he said. “The service is terrible, all phone calls go to voice mail and some show up five days late.”

Fed up, Scott paid $360 in early termination fees to get out of his contract but doesn't see why he should have to pay, since he didn't cause the problem.

“As far as I am concerned, they did not provide the service and were in default on the contract,” he told ConsumerAffairs.com.

It's an interesting idea, but unfortunately Scott probably won't get very far with it if he decides to take it to court. In April the Supreme Court upheld a cell phone company's right to force complaints into arbitration.

Glitch

Cindy, of Tracy's Landing, Md., says she has a frustrating computer problem, and blames Verizon Fios.

“When linking or searching for a webpage, Verizon's Search Assistant keeps popping up claiming 'sorry, the term we received,www.contest.sandypuc.com, couldn't be resolved. Did you mean: contest sandy puc?' These are legitimate websites which I am being directed away from to Verizon's search assistant,” Cindy said. “We have Fios in our office and this just started today. Not sure why, but it is making it hard to use the computer efficiently.”

There are ways to fix this but it's a little too lengthy to go into here. Sandy needs to change her DNS settings to Google's Public DNS

No relief

Peggy, of Adelanto, Calif., decided she needed some help with her creditors, and signed up with New Life Financial Services, a company that promised to make arrangements with four creditors – for an upfront fee.

“They have taken money out of my checking account for two months and have not made any arrangements with the four creditors,” Peggy told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I have left numerous phone messages to call me and have heard nothing. The creditors were caught up when I signed now they are behind and telling me they will sue me. I suspect this company isn't that great and I want my money back and out of the contract.”

Hiring a company to work things out with a creditor almost never turns out well for the consumer. In Peggy's case, if the company sold her debt relief services over the phone, they may be in violation of the law. Last year the Federal Trade Commission adopted an amendment to the Telemarketing Rule, banning companies promising debt relief from collecting a fee before they had done any work. She should file a complaint with the FTC and California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

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Sinus Sufferers Protest Proposed Sudafed Snooping

California wants to keep track of all those pill-popping snifflers

Anyone who suffers from occasional or, as is more common, chronic sinus congestion already knows the drill only too well. Because the primary ingredient in...

PhotoAnyone who suffers from occasional or, as is more common, chronic sinus congestion already knows the drill only too well. Because the primary ingredient in Sudafed and other decongestants can be used to manufacture methamphetamine, anyone buying the highly-effective drug is now treated like a prospective drug-dealing criminal.

Although it is still technically an over-the-counter (OTC) drug, pseudoephedrine is now kept, well, behind the counter. To buy a few weeks' worth, a consumer must produce a driver's license or other identification and the purchase is recorded, either electronically or in a ledger kept by the pharmacy.

Presumably, anyone who buys too much of the stuff will someday be hauled away by the constabulary after they arrive in their black helicopters.

This absolutely infuriates the chronically congested among us, who note that sinus congestion is not only painful and debilitating but can also lead to sinus infections that are potentially serious, even life-threatening in consumers with other health problems.

Sniffle sheriffs

But now, as it so often does, California is ready to go one step further. The state that is unable to produce a budget that does not invoke gales of laughter alternating with oceans of tears is considering legislation that would spend big bucks to create a centralized database of all California consumers who buy Sudafed and other drugs containing pseudoephedrine.

A bill pending in the state senate would funnel users' data into a privately-owned, centralized electronic database of information about cold and allergy sufferers for easy law enforcement access.

Unlike stronger laws meant to safeguard the medical privacy of Californians, the measure doesn’t clearly specify that a warrant is required for law enforcement access to this privately held database. Opponents say the measure raises serious concerns around consumer privacy and constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure.

On the other hand, law enforcement officials say the bill is vital to public safety.

“Our state is in the midst of a serious methamphetamine crisis, and as the sheriff of Sonoma County, I know that we need a real solution to fight back,” said Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas in a recent op-ed column in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.

“While we want to do the right thing and fight meth, we want to do it the right way. And that's what Assembly Bill 1280 does. It will establish a real-time, stop-sale system by harnessing electronic technology that links every attempted sale in the state on a 24-7 basis and blocks a sale if the purchaser of the product has exceeded the legal limits,” Freitas said.

Opponents of the bill are organizing online petition drives and fuming that a country that prohibits police from keeping track of who has guns in their home can nevertheless seriously consider keeping track of who keeps decongestant tablets lying around. 

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What Ever Happened To MySpace?

Social networking site reportedly going for fire sale price

News Corp. is reportedly selling MySpace for $35 million...

PhotoRemember when MySpace was the hot social networking site? It was the online place to see and be seen, peaking at more than 73 million users in 2008. But as fast as you can say “Facebook,” it was yesterday's news.

The struggling site, purchased by News Corp. for $580 million in 2005, will be sold to Specific Media for $35 million in cash and stock. News Corp. will reportedly retain a small stake in the company.

Looking for a niche

As consumers flocked to Facebook, MySpace struggled to find a niche, eventually becoming more of an online meeting place where fans could interact, based on musicians and show biz personalities.

In its heyday, MySpace was constantly in hot water with authorities, who scolded it about its privacy and other policies.

In 2006, for example, the State of Massachusetts demanded that MySpace make dramatic changes to its web site to ensure the safety of minors.

In a letter to company officials, the state's attorney general demanded that MySpace increase its minimum user age from 14 to 18 after an investigation he launched revealed that MySpace did not have sufficient safeguards in place to protect children from sexually explicit and other inappropriate content.

Child predators

Other officials raised concerns that potential child predators use MySpace to locate and communicate with possible victims and that MySpace is also used to post violent images or content to bully or threaten children.

A year later, under pressure from a group of states, MySpace removed thousands of convicted sex offenders from its membership rolls. In many ways, the site cleared the way for Facebook, which was able to avoid some of the problems MySpace encountered, though it still comes in for its share of complaints about privacy.

Many of the scams and spam emails that routinely show up on Facebook pages once used MySpace as a main launching pad. But not so much any more.

In perhaps a telling sign, the last complaint about MySpace received at ConsumerAffairs.com was last December. It was from Beverly, of Houma, La. In the complaint, Beverly complained about recent changes to the site.

“Everyone I have talked to on Facebook is complaining, and yes, that's where they are going,” Beverly said.

 

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Credit Card Scam Targets Hotel Guests

Someone calls your room and asks you to confirm your card number

Don't let this keep you awake at night, but it's worth remembering that while you're snoozing, scam artists are wide awake, thinking up new ones to separat...

PhotoDon't let this keep you awake at night, but it's worth remembering that while you're snoozing, scam artists are wide awake, thinking up new ones to separate you from your money.

The Better Business Bureau of East Texas has alerted us to a new scam that's plaguing hotels and their guests in that part of the world.

It seems the scammers are waking up hotel guests in the middle of the night and agetting their credit card information over the phone.

The caller typically calls a slumbering guest and indicates he's a hotel employee and the hotel computer system has crashed. In order to complete the nightly hotel audit, the caller says, he must have your credit card number.

Many times, the caller also offers a discount on the room for the inconvenience. These callers are very convincing, and many hotel guests fall for this scam. 

Whether the scam artist is actually a guest in the hotel or whether the calls are coming from outside the hotel and has obtained the direct number to each room has not yet been determined.

So next time you're staying in a hotel, remember not to provide credit card information over the phone during your stay. If there is ever a problem with billing, the hotel staff will handle it at the front desk and not over the phone. 

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Reps. Frank, Paul Introduce Marijuana Legalization Bill

Legislation would end federal prohibitions against marijuana use and production

They don't have much in common but Barney Frank and Ron Paul agree on one thing: marijuana laws should be set at the state, not federal level....

PhotoThey don't have much in common but Barney Frank and Ron Paul agree on one thing: marijuana laws should be set at the state, not federal level. Perhaps surprisingly, a group of judges and police officers agree with them.

The liberal Massachusetts Democrat and conservative Texas Republican yesterday introduced legislation in Congress that would prohibit the federal government from prosecuting adults who use or possess marijuana.

Their “Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011” (HR 2306) is the first legislation that seeks to decriminalize marijuana since the Marijuana Tax Act was enacted in 1937.

Joining Frank and Paul as co-sponsors were Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

"The federal government shouldn't be spending its time on marijuana," Lee said.

Cops agree

"Clearly the 'war on drugs' has failed, and nowhere is that more clear than with respect to marijuana," said Neill Franklin, a former Baltimore narcotics cop and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "Making marijuana illegal hasn't prevented anyone from using it, but it has created a huge funding source that funnels billions of dollars in tax-free profits to violent drug cartels and gangs. More and more cops now agree: Legalizing marijuana will improve public safety."

The measure's a long way from being enacted, however.  Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who heads the House Committee on Judiciary, has already said he "would not even consider" scheduling a hearing on the bill.  

End of Prohibition

Language in the bill is similar to that used to repeal the federal prohibition of alcohol. It would remove the conflict between federal law and the laws of the 16 states that allow for limited use of marijuana under a physicians' supervision.

It would also allow states to fully legalize and regulate possession, use, production and distribution without federal interference.

PhotoNORML, an organization that has lobbied for legalization of marijuana since the lkate 1960s, was understandably euphoric.

"The federal criminalization of marijuana has failed to reduce the public's demand or access to cannabis, and it has imposed enormous fiscal and human costs upon the American people,” said NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre. “It is time to end this failed public policy and to provide state governments with the freedom to enact alternative strategies -- such as medicalization, decriminalization, and/or legalization -- without running afoul of the federal law or the whims of the Department of Justice."

 

 

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Pending Home Sales Jump In May

It's another hopeful sign, but probably not a turnaround

Pending home sales rose more than expected in May...

PhotoA day after a report showed a one-month increase in home prices, the real estate industry got more encouraging news today. The National Association of Realtors' (NAR) Pending Home Sales Index rose 8.2 percent in May.

Pending sales reflect the number of sales contracts signed in a particular month. Those sales closed in June or will close in July, and the 8.2 percent increase was significantly higher than most analysts expected.

Not only did pending sales increase from April to May, but the May 2011 number was 13.4 percent higher than May 2010. This is the first time since April 2010 that contract activity was above year-ago levels, and the monthly gain was the strongest increase since last November when the index rose 10.6 percent.

Some markets recovering faster than others

“Absorption of inventory is the key to price improvement, and this solid gain in contract signings implies that home values in many localities are or will soon be stabilizing as inventories get absorbed at a faster pace,” said NAR's chief economist, Lawrence Yun. “Some markets have made a rapid turnaround, going from soft activity to contract signings rising by more than 30 percent from a year ago, including areas such as Hartford, Conn.; Indianapolis; Minneapolis; Houston; and Seattle.”

Pending home sales have trended up unevenly since bottoming last June, rising in seven of the past 11 months.

Who is buying homes?

The data does not contain a breakdown of sales to investors, and sales to buyers who plan to pay in cash. That breakdown is normally provided when NAR reports final closings in its monthly existing home sales report.

That data will be telling, since investors so far this year have accounted for nearly one third of home purchases. In many cases, these investors pay with cash rather than take out a mortgage. Yun says the lack of mortgages is holding the market back.

“Home sales still could be 15 to 20 percent higher,” Yun said. “If banks would simply return to normal sound underwriting standards and begin lending to more creditworthy borrowers, we’d get a much faster recovery in the housing sector.”

Chicken and egg

That may be true, but lenders are faced with something of a chicken and egg quandary. In many cases, lenders have increased the minimum down payments for mortgages because home values do not yet appear to have bottomed. They are fearful of financing 90 or 95 percent of a home purchase if there is a strong likelihood that the value of the home could fall another 10 percent.

But Yun is correct when he notes that the lack of mortgage money is holding back sales, which puts even more downward pressure on prices.

“In addition, a nonsensical situation has developed recently in some states with HUD unable to complete foreclosure deals because of insufficient funds to pay attorney fees at closing, even with buyers offering the full listing price,” Yun said.

According to NAR, pending sales rose the most in the Western states, where the Index was up 12.9 percent over Arpil and 13.5 percent over May 2010. The Midwest also had a double-digit increase, rising 10.5 percent over April and 17.2 percent over May 2010. 

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Michigan Attorney General Targets Medical Marijuana Law

Says it sanctions criminal activity

Michigan's attorney general says he plans to push for changes in the state's medical marijuana law...

PhotoMichigan is one of the states with medical marijuana laws on its books, but the state's attorney general says the law is poorly written and having unintended consequences.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, joined by two Republican state legislators, has announced his plans to revise the law in the next session of the legislature.

"Michigan voters didn't count on pot shops springing up across from their schools and churches," said Schuette.  "That's why I'm taking action today to support local governments' authority to protect their communities."

Schuette filed a brief today in support of the City of Livonia in the case, Linda Lott and Robert Lott v City of Birmingham, City of Bloomfield Hills, and City of Livonia. The case involves a legal challenge brought by the ACLU regarding the authority of communities to prohibit medical marijuana use or sales on the grounds that marijuana possession violates federal law.

'Illegal activity'

In a brief filed with the court, Schuette sides with Livonia, arguing that the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act is preempted by federal law and that local communities should not be forced to sanction criminal activity. The case is scheduled for oral argument on June 30, 2011 at 11:00 A.M.

Schuette said that conservative estimates suggest there are hundreds of dispensaries across the state, with eighty-four in the Lansing area alone.

While state courts complete their review of cases involving the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act, Schuette is working with legislators to make changes to the law.

"I welcome legislative reforms that will give prosecutors and law enforcement the tools they need to crack down on criminals who exploit the loopholes of this law," said Schuette.

Also today, Schuette issued an Attorney General's Opinion, declaring that the law allows no more than 12 marijuana plants to be cultivated in a single location. He further declared that each set of plants grown by a caregiver is required to be in a separate, enclosed and locked facility, accessible only to the caregiver and a single patient.

Out of control

Calling medical marijuana “out of control,” Schuettte said the Michigan law did not legalize marijuana, but criminals are exploiting it to sell the drug.

This week in Washington, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) introduced legislation that would remove the federal prohibition against marijuana. The measure would essentially leave it up to the states to make their own laws with regard to the drug.

 

 

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Infiniti G35, Nissan 350Z Recalled

Clutch may cause car to move unintentionally

Nissan is recalling about 200 Infiniti G35s from the 2003-2004 model years and 350Zs from the 2003-2005 model years.  The cars may have an oversized c...

Nissan 350Z
Nissan 350Z

Nissan is recalling about 200 Infiniti G35s from the 2003-2004 model years and Nissan 350Zs from the 2003-2005 model years.  The cars may have an oversized clutch disc.

The oversized disc could cause the vehicle to move unintentionally on start-up if the driver does not have the hand brake applied. 

The recall is expected to start during June 2011.  Owners may contact ZF Service at 1-800-321-0784.

 

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Purina Recalls Dry Cat Food in Three States

Cat Chow, Friskies Grillers may be contaminated with Salmonella

Nestlé Purina PetCare Company (NPPC) is voluntarily recalling approximately 870 bags of dry cat food shipped to Colorado, Idaho and Oregon. This is ...

Nestlé Purina PetCare Company (NPPC) is voluntarily recalling approximately 870 bags of dry cat food shipped to Colorado, Idaho and Oregon. This is being done as a precautionary measure, as the product has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella. Only the following products with both the "Best By" date and production codes shown are included in this voluntary recall:  

Product NameBag Size"Best By" Date & Production Code*Bag UPC Code
Cat Chow Naturals Dry Cat Foot6.3 lb.AUG 2012 10331083 1317800 11320
Friskies Grillers Blend Dry Cat Food3.15 lb.AUG 2012 10381083 0650000 08450
Friskies Grillers Blend Dry Cat Food16 lb.AUG 2012 10381083 0650000 57578

 

 *"Best By" Date and Production Code is found on the back or bottom of the bag.

The bags of dry cat food in this recall were distributed in error in February, 2011 to a small number of customers in Colorado, Idaho and Oregon, which may have further distributed the product to other Western states. There have been no consumer complaints and no reports of illness.

No additional Purina cat or dog products are involved. Only products which match the "Best By" date and production codes above are involved.

Consumers who have purchased any of these dry cat food products with these "Best By" Dates and Production Codes should discard it.

Salmonella can affect animals eating the product and there is a risk to humans from handling contaminated products. People handling contaminated dry pet food can become infected with Salmonella, especially if they have not thoroughly washed their hands after having contact with surfaces exposed to this product. Healthy people infected with Salmonella should monitor themselves for the following symptoms: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramping and fever. Rarely, Salmonella can result in more serious ailments including arterial infections, endocarditis, arthritis, muscle pain, eye irritation and urinary tract symptoms. Consumers exhibiting these signs after having contact with this product should contact their healthcare providers.

Pets with Salmonella infections may exhibit decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain. If left untreated, pets may be lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever and vomiting. Infected but otherwise healthy pets can be carriers and infect other animals or humans. If your pet has consumed the recalled product and has these symptoms, please contact your veterinarian.

For further information or to obtain a product refund, please call NPPC toll-free at 1-800-982-6559 weekdays 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Central Time, or visit www.purina.com.

 

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Physicians Dropping More Privately Insured Patients

Doctors increasingly turning down private health insurance plans

Researchers say U.S. doctors appear reluctant to accept new patients with private insurance...

PhotoThanks to the new health care law passed last year, millions of people now without health insurance will be required to get it. But some health researchers say that doesn't necessarily mean more people will get better health care.

Since 2005, U.S. doctors have been accepting fewer and fewer patients with health insurance, according to the research team, which reports its findings in the June 27th issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

As a result, says Dr. Tara Bishop, assistant professor of public health at Weill Cornell Medical College, and lead author of the study, insured patients could face new obstacles to receiving the medical attention they need, and overall access to health care could actually contract.

Bishop, who is also a practicing physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, and her fellow investigators looked at survey data from a national survey run by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics and found an overall decline in physician acceptance of several types of insurance.

First, they noted a modest drop in acceptance of Medicare patients, from 95.5 percent in 2005 to 92.9 percent in 2008. Doctors also turned more and more Medicaid patients away over the four-year period -- a phenomenon the authors attribute to Medicaid's historically low reimbursement rates.

Privately-insured patients fall from favor

But the most surprising decline of all was seen in doctors' acceptance of new patients with private insurance.

"Given the medical profession's widely reported dissatisfaction with Medicare, we expected to find hard evidence that Medicare patients were being turned away," Bishop said. "Instead, we saw only a modest decline in doctors' acceptance of patients on Medicare. The survey data showed a more significant decline in their acceptance of patients with private insurance."

Physician acceptance of patients with traditional fee-for-service private insurance declined from 93.3 percent in 2005 to 87.8 percent in 2008.

What's behind the change?

This change could be traceable to two major factors, she explains: inadequate reimbursement levels that have not kept pace with medical practice expenditures; and the tangle of administrative issues that go hand in hand with private health insurance.

"At a moment when the country is poised to achieve near-universal coverage, patients' access to care could be a casualty of the collision between the medical profession and the insurance industry," said Bishop.

The researchers say they hope their study will alert policymakers to potential problems in health care access, exacerbated by current shortages in primary care, an aging population, the growing prevalence of serious chronic diseases, and the imminent expansion of health insurance coverage as mandated under health care reform.

"Consumers and health advocacy groups, too, should be aware of these early warning signs so that they can work to ensure access to quality medical care," Bishop said.

 

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Evergreen Produce Alfalfa Sprouts May Contain Salmonella

At least 20 cases of illness reported so far

The Food and Drug Administration FDA is warning consumers not to eat alfalfa sprouts or spicy sprouts from plastic bags labeled “Evergreen Produce” or “Eve...

PhotoThe Food and Drug Administration FDA is warning consumers not to eat alfalfa sprouts or spicy sprouts from plastic bags labeled “Evergreen Produce” or “Evergreen Produce Inc.”

The sprouts are possibly linked to 20 reported cases, including one hospitalization, of Salmonella Enteritidis in Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota and Washington State.

The elderly, infants and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to have a severe illness from Salmonella infection.

Consumers, retailers and others who have alfalfa sprouts or spicy sprouts in plastic bags labeled “Evergreen Produce” or “Evergreen Produce Inc.” should discard them in a sealed container so people and animals, including wild animals, cannot eat them.

The pathogen associated with this outbreak is different from the pathogen associated with the outbreak in Europe.

Symptoms

Most persons infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts four to seven days, and most persons recover without treatment. However, some individuals may require hospitalization from severe diarrhea. 

Salmonellainfection may spread from the intestines to the blood stream and then to other body sites. It can cause death unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics. The elderly, infants and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to become severely ill from Salmonella infection.

At risk?

The elderly, infants and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to become severely ill from Salmonella infection. The bacterium can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in these vulnerable populations. Most healthy individuals recover from Salmonella infections within four to seven days without treatment.

Consumers should not eat alfalfa sprouts or spicy sprouts from plastic bags labeled “Evergreen Produce” or “Evergreen Produce Inc.” Consumers, retailers and others who have sprouts in plastic bags labeled “Evergreen Produce” or “Evergreen Produce Inc.” should throw them away in a sealed container so people and animals, including wild animals, cannot eat them. 

Consumers who think they may have become ill from eating possibly contaminated sprouts should consult their health care providers.

Known source

Sprouts are a known source of foodborne illness. Since 1996, there have been at least 30 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with different types of raw and lightly cooked sprouts. Most of these outbreaks were caused by Salmonella and E. coli.

The FDA advises that children, the elderly, pregnant women, and persons with weakened immune systems should avoid eating raw sprouts of any kind (including alfalfa, clover, radish and mung bean sprouts). To reduce the chance of foodborne illness, FDA advises consumers to cook sprouts thoroughly and to request raw sprouts not be added to your food.

The possibly contaminated alfalfa sprouts and spicy sprouts are sold in plastic bags labeled “Evergreen Produce” or “Evergreen Produce Inc.”

The alfalfa sprouts are packaged in 4-ounce and 16-ounce plastic bags with pre-printed labels. They are also packaged in 1-pound and 5-pound plastic bags with stick-on labels.

The spicy sprouts are packaged in 4-ounce plastic bags with pre-printed labels and 1-pound plastic bags with stick-on labels.

Consumers with questions about sprout safety should contact 1-800-SAFEFOOD.

 

 

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Google Offers May Deal Groupon a Bad Hand

Search giant prepares to invade the daily deals market

Groupon, LivingSocial and other daily deal sites may be dealt out of the game if their newest competitor keeps upping the ante....

PhotoGroupon, LivingSocial and other daily deal sites may be dealt out of the game if their newest competitor keeps upping the ante.

Reports from Portland, Ore., say that Google Offers, the newly-launched daily deals service from search giant Google, is offering very attractive terms to businesses, most notably including quicker payments to merchants.

Portland has been the test market for Google Offers, which is set to go live soon in both New York and San Francisco.

Besides paying merchants more quickly – no small consideration for cash-starved small businesses – Google Offers reportedly is also building consumer demand through channels including search ads, display ads local company listings and the company's forthcoming “Wallet” mobile payments service.

Google should also be able to capitalize on its 1 billioin unique visitors and tens of millions of Gmail accounts to target Google Offers deals to consumers who are likely prospects.

On the other hand, Groupon and LivingSocial both have large, well-established local sales staffs, something Google lacks.

Groupon's warts

Some of the shine is off Groupon lately, as merchants begin to tally up the true cost of giving huge discounts on goods and services while also paying a fat commission to Groupon and then having to wait for Groupon to pay – all without any assurance that the daily promotions will result in repeat sales.

The daily deals sites are also said to be affecting morale in restaurants and other service establishments, where the wait staffs complain that the huge discounts cut into their tips.

Some marketing experts are going so far as to suggest that the coupon mania can't last much longer. The improvements Google Offers is making may make it more palatable to merchants, especially if more precise targeting results in building repeat visits by coupon holders.

 

 

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West Virginia Sues 'Modeling Agency'

Photographer, supposed agent made big promises but suit says he didn't deliver

Citing numerous complaints of failure to deliver photographs, portfolios, modeling jobs, a pageant, and other services to customers, West Virginia Attorney...

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Credit Agency to Pay $1.8 Million for Privacy Violations

Company sold private information for marketing purposes

Teletrack, Inc. has agreed to pay $1.8 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it sold credit reports to marketers, in violation of the Fai...

PhotoTeletrack, Inc. has agreed to pay $1.8 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it sold credit reports to marketers, in violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The settlement seeks to protect consumers’ privacy by ensuring that their sensitive credit report information is not sold for marketing purposes.

According to the FTC’s complaint, as part of its business Teletrack sells credit reports and other services to businesses – such as payday lenders, rental purchase stores, and non-prime rate auto lenders – that mainly serve financially distressed consumers. These businesses use Teletrack’s credit reports to decide whether and on what terms to provide credit to their customers.

The complaint alleges that Teletrack created a marketing database of information that it gathered through its credit reporting business. It then sold the information in this database – including lists of consumers who had applied for non-traditional credit products – to marketers.

For example, Teletrack sold lists of consumers who previously sought payday loans to third parties that wanted to use this information to target potential customers. The FTC’s complaint alleges that these marketing lists were credit reports under the FCRA because they contained information about a consumer’s creditworthiness.

The FTC charges that Teletrack violated the FCRA, which makes it illegal to sell credit reports without a specific “permissible purpose” under the statute; marketing is not a permissible purpose.

“The fact that a consumer has applied for a payday loan is credit report information protected by the FCRA,” said FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection Director David Vladeck. “The FCRA says a credit reporting agency like Teletrack can’t sell a consumer’s sensitive credit report information for mere sales pitches.”

The settlement order resolving the FTC’s charges requires Teletrack to furnish credit reports only to those people that it has reason to believe have a permissible purpose to receive them under the FCRA, or as otherwise allowed by the FCRA. It also requires Teletrack to pay a civil penalty of $1.8 million, and contains reporting and record-keeping requirements to ensure the company’s compliance with the decree.

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Cloud Site Dropbox Drops the Ball

Popular data storage site accidentally unlocked users' accounts, suit charges

The Dropbox data hosting service introduced a bug that unlocked its 25 million users' accounts and data for everyone to see, a class claims in California's...

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Cable Boxes Consume 'Startling' Amount Of Electricity

U.S. boxes consume annual output of nine power plants

A new study says cable and satellite TV set-top boxes are among the biggest energy users in your home...

PhotoWhat's the biggest energy hog in your home? Your refrigerator? Your microwave? Not even close, says the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

In a report, NRDC says the cable TV set-top box, present in about 80 percent of U.S. homes, consumed approximately 27 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2010. That's equivalent to the annual output of nine average coal-fired power plants.

If you get your television signals from a cable, satellite or telephone company, you probably have a set-top box. There are about 160 million of them in use in the U.S., according to NRDC and its partner, Ecos.

'Startling' findings

The groups say their findings were startling. The electricity required to operate all U.S. boxes is equal to the annual household electricity consumption of the entire state of Maryland, results in 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and costs households more than $3 billion each year.

How can such a relatively small appliance use so much electricity? Today’s set-top boxes operate at near full power even when the consumer is neither watching nor recording a show. As a nation, we spend $2 billion each year to power these boxes when they are not being actively used.

Boxes equipped with digital video recorders (DVRs) use even more electricity. DVRs typically use around 40 percent more energy per year than their non-DVR counterparts, the study says.

How to reduce energy consumption?

Is there any way to reduce this electricity consumption, aside from unplugging set-top boxes when they aren't in use? The study says there is.

Better designed pay-TV set-top boxes could reduce the energy use of the installed base of boxes by 30 percent to 50 percent by 2020, the groups say.

The big opportunities include: a) shifting to whole-home solutions that include a main box connected to the primary TV with either TVs specially designed to access the video content stored on the main box or low-power thin client boxes that serve the same function, and b) having the boxes automatically power down to much lower power levels when not in use, much like a programmable thermostat controls heating and cooling costs.

How likely is that to happen? The cable and satellite providers control set-top box installation, configuration, software updates, repair, refurbishment, retirement, and resale. The consumer, who pays the electric bill, has little choice about what box the service provider installs and how much energy it uses. Since the cable company doesn't pay the electric bill, they have no incentive to make the boxes more energy efficient, NRDC says.

New TV sets that are able to stream video content directly from the Internet may be one solution. According to the study, streaming devices use significantly less power than set-top boxes. The most efficient of the streaming devices studied is AppleTV, which drew just three watts in “on” mode and less than one watt in “sleep” mode. 

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Illinois Sues Heart Check America

Says firm sells medical imaging many patients don't need

A firm that markets medical imaging scams is being accused of using high pressure to sell long-term imaging contracts that many patients don't need....

PhotoA firm that markets medical imaging scams is being accused of using high pressure to sell long-term imaging contracts that many patients don't need.

The company claims its scans can detect dangerous heart conditions and other health problems but doctors say many people the company pitches aren't likely to need the scans. And even for patients who are at risk, some experts say there's no medical evidence that the test's benefits outweigh its potential risks.

Regulators in Nevada and Colorado earlier cited one Heart Check America location and shuttered another, saying they lacked adequate medical supervision and had not taken proper precautions to avoid exposing patients to excessive radiation.

The latest suit was field by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who accused the business of using “unfair and deceptive business practices” to manipulate consumers into signing up for expensive 10-year body scan contracts costing up to $7,000 plus annual dues.

The complaint, filed in Chicago, charges:

  • Multiple scans may not be medically appropriate, and sales are based on a false premise that early detection of disease always leads to better outcomes.

  • The people selling the scans were not medically trained, and no medical provider evaluated patients before they received the scans.

  • Consumers were not informed of risks, including radiation exposure, false-positive tests and a false sense of security from false-negative tests.

  • Some test results were inaccurate.

Cancer Check

The suit also names Sheila Haddad, the owner of Heart Check America, and her son David Haddad.

The Haddads previously owned Cancer Check America which ceased operating in May after questions about its connection with Heart Check America, according to the Island Packet newspaper. The paper said the Cancer Check center in Hilton Head, S.C., offered free lung or heart CT scans in the hopes people would sign up for a package of examinations.

Madigan's complaint says the Illinois Attorney General's office has received 25 complaints against Heart Check since June 2010. The Federal Trade Commission, Better Business Bureau, Colorado and Nevada state regulators also have received complaints.

The suit seeks to halt the company's activities and requests civil penalties up to $50,000 per violation if the court determines there was intent to defraud. It also seeks restitution for consumers and asks to have their contracts voided.

"Minor" violations

The Chicago Tribune said David Haddad earlier characterized any regulatory violations as minor.

“People come back and say, ‘Thank you, my wife will be (alive) because we found this,’” Haddad said. “I made my mom and sister go. People hug and kiss us goodbye in these clinics.” 

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Android Smartphones Have Highest Failure Rate, Blackberry the Lowest

Too many manufacturers, not enough oversight, spells hardware trouble for Androidf

A study finds what many smartphone addicts already know but may not want to admit: Androids have a much higher rate of hardware problems than their competi...

PhotoA study finds what many smartphone addicts already know but may not want to admit: Androids have a much higher rate of hardware problems than their competitors.

The survey, conducted by British telecom consulting firm WDS, tracked 600,000 support calls over a 12-month period and found that of the support calls seeking help with Android handsets, 14% were for hardware issues.

Windows Phone 7 had a 9% rate for hardware-related support calls, Apple iPhone 8% and Research In Motion's BlackBerrys 3.7%.

The study found that instances of hardware faults varied between OEM deployments, with some brands showing a propensity to display failures, others keypad/button failures and some battery issues. Unfortunately, it didn't name the manufacturers associated with each type of failure.

Runaway success

“Android has been a runaway success and has been instrumental in bringing smartphone technology to the mass-market,” said Craig Rich, Chief Marketing Officer at WDS. “Its open nature, coupled with the greater availability of hardware components and a reduction in manufacturing costs has seen some manufacturers bring the price-point of Android smartphones down below US$100.”

“However, the Android ecosystem is not without its faults. Many of the factors that have led to Android’s success are driving varying levels of hardware quality into the market, in turn delivering an inconsistent customer experience,” Rich said.

Why the high Android failure rate? Isn't Android software made by the almighty Google? Yes, but as a semi-open-source platform, Android can be used by just about any manufacturer. WDS included 35 different Android manufacturers in its study.

The other major platforms all maintain tight control over their hardware. Windows Phone 7 licensed to only five manufacturers while both the iPhone and Blackberry have just one manufacturer each. In fact, both Apple and Blackberry-maker Research In Motion manufacture their own phones and thus control every step of the design and manufacturing process. 

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Kids Face Heightened Identity Theft Threats in Summer

More time online means more opportunities for foul play

Now that summer is in full-swing, many children are spending extra hours in front of a computer or on their cell phone with Internet access. Unfortunately,...

PhotoNow that summer is in full-swing, many children are spending extra hours in front of a computer or on their cell phone with Internet access. Unfortunately, this also makes them ideal targets for identity thieves.

“The younger the victim, the more time these thieves have to exploit the child’s identity,” said Sandy Chalmers, Administrator of the Wisconsin Division of Trade and Consumer Protection. “Identity theft against a child can go undetected for years and do a lot of damage to their good name.”

The Office of Privacy Protection, part of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, reminds parents to tell their children not to give out personal information unless it's vitally important and exchanged with a reliable source.

The Federal Trade Commission enacted a rule in 2000 called COPPA, or Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. It requires websites directed at children, or that knowingly collect information from kids under 13, to post a notice of their information collection practices that includes:

·         Types of personal information they collect from kids – for example, name, home address, e-mail address, or hobbies.

·         How the site will use the information – for example, to market to the child who supplied the information, to notify contest winners or to make the information available through a child’s participation in a chat room.

·         Whether personal information is forwarded to advertisers or other third parties.

·         A contact at the site

“In many cases, a site must obtain parental consent before collecting, using, or disclosing personal information about a child,” added Chalmers. “Parents should review the privacy policy on any website aimed at children.”

In addition to talking to children about potential online dangers, the Bureau of Consumer Protection’s Office of Privacy Protection also encourages parents to occasionally check their child’s credit report. If a report exists, that is a red flag, and often the first sign of identity theft.

“The credit reporting agencies do not knowingly maintain credit files on children,” Chalmers explained. “A check of your child’s credit should turn up nothing until the age of 18 unless they are the victim of identity theft or a secondary user on a credit card authorized by a parent.” 

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Study Calls Menthol Cigarette Marketing 'Predatory'

Stanford researchers claim menthol smokes pushed hard in minority communities

Stanford researchers claim tobacco companies target minority teens with menthol cigarettes...

PhotoAlthough cigarette makers have denied using race or ethnicity to target customers, researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine say their data suggests otherwise.

According to their study, tobacco companies increased the advertising and lowered the sale price of menthol cigarettes in stores near California high schools with larger populations of African-American students. The lead researcher for the study said the data shows a "predatory" marketing pattern geared to luring young African Americans into becoming smokers.

"The tobacco companies went out of their way to argue to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) that they don't use racial targeting," said Lisa Henriksen, PhD, senior research scientist at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. "This evidence is not consistent with those claims."

The study is published online in Nicotine & Tobacco Research and comes at a time when the FDA is gathering information on whether to ban menthol as a flavoring agent in cigarettes.

Menthol not included in flavorings ban

A federal law passed in 2008 banned 13 candy flavorings in cigarettes but allowed for the continued use of menthol. Menthol makes the smoke from tobacco smoother and less harsh; even non- menthol cigarettes often have low levels of the substance.

A draft report by the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee, which the FDA asked to investigate the harms from the use and marketing of menthol cigarettes, found that the use of menthol cigarettes is highest among minorities, teenagers and low-income populations. When these products are advertised, the copy often emphasizes the "freshness" of menthol cigarettes, and the report said many smokers mistakenly believe that the addition of menthol makes cigarettes less of a health risk.

The committee's report says that "removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States." The FDA may, or may not, follow that recommendation.

The committee is scheduled to meet July 21 in Rockville, Md., to discuss final changes to the document. An FDA spokesman said the edited version of the report will be posted soon on the agency's website, but there is no timeline yet as to when the FDA will make a decision on menthol.

"The committee was charged with considering a broad definition of harm to smokers and other populations, particularly youth," said Henriksen. "We think our study, which shows the predatory marketing in school neighborhoods with higher concentrations of youth and African-American students, fits a broad definition of harm."

Teens prefer menthol

In the Stanford study, Henriksen and her colleagues note that the preference for menthol cigarettes among teenage smokers increased from 43.4 percent in 2004 to 48.3 percent in 2008. Menthol cigarettes were also most popular among African-American smokers ages 12-17 (71.9 percent), compared to Hispanics (47 percent) and non-Hispanic whites (41 percent) of the same ages.

To find out how the leading brands of menthol and non-menthol cigarettes were promoted near California high schools, the researchers randomly selected convenience stores, small markets and other tobacco retailers within easy walking distance of 91 schools. The researchers then rated how the cigarettes were marketed in those stores. The data were collected in 2006.

The researchers found that for every 10-percentage-point increase in the proportion of African-American students at a school, the proportion of advertisements for menthol cigarettes increased by 5.9 percentage points. Additionally, the odds of an advertised discount for Newport, the leading brand of menthol cigarettes, were 1.5 times greater.

Prices of menthol and non-menthol cigarettes

When it came to price, the average per-pack price for Newport was $4.37 at the time of the study, with Marlboro - the leading non-menthol brand - averaging $3.99. It also found that for every 10-percentage-point increase in the proportion of African-American students at the nearby school, the per-pack price for Newport was 12 cents lower. Advertised discounts and prices for Marlboro, however, were unrelated to school or neighborhood demographics.

"That's important because lower prices tend to lead to increased cigarette use," Henriksen said.

In addition, the study found that for each 10-percentage-point increase in the proportion of neighborhood residents ages 10-17, the proportion of menthol advertisements increased by 11.6 percentage points, and the odds of an advertised discount for Newport was 5.3 times greater.

Although the study was limited to California high schools, the authors believe the findings would be similar throughout the country.

 

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What's On Your Mind? State Farm Insurance, Premier Savings, Cuisinart

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: State Farm Insurance, Premier Savings, Cuisinart, Paying to be rejected, Hot coffee and Counting pesos....

PhotoWayne, of Front Royal, Va., says he had been a State Farm Insurance policyholder for seven years, when he purchased a new car and was notified that his policy was being canceled.

“The reasoning on the non-renewal letter I received stated because there were two accidents in the last few years,” Wayne told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I called and spoke to the corporate underwriting department and they advised me that State Farm suffered significant loss. If they are basing it on the two accidents they had listed, the total cost was less than $5,000.”

Wayne said he spoke with an attorney and a state official and was told State Farm is within its rights to cancel his policy.

“I know the driving record of two other individuals with State Farm and I know their records are far worse than mine so why was I dropped,” Wayne asked. “Perhaps it is because I now have a new car? Because I am a single male?”

It could be all those things. Insurance companies have to play the odds in order to “win,” which is what they have to do to stay in business. In recent years, with the need to increase profits and support stock prices, insurance companies have been even more conservative to keep the odds in their favor.

Paying to be rejected

If a telemarketer calls you and asks if you would like to apply for a pre-paid credit card over the phone, politely decline.

“As many consumers have reported, Premier Savings contacted me in August of 2010 with the promise of helping to build my credit and lower credit card bills,” said Shirley, of Bear, Del. “They took three minutes to take payment from my account while advising me of upcoming information that would help the process along. After receiving the information which included filling out all of my credit card information pertaining to other accounts, Premier savings never returned any of my calls.”

Shirley said she she finally did reach someone at Premier, they tried to sign her up for another credit card, for use to consolidate bills.

“Within a few days I received a letter stating that I had been rejected,” she said. “Upon getting this information I called Premier Savings again and was told that I would receive a refund minus the percentage that they would take out for their services. I was told that a refund would be mailed out within thirty days.”

By April 2011, Shirley said she still hadn't gotten her refund. Despite repeated calls, as of this week she she hadn't gotten it. Even if she does eventually get her refund, she will still have paid Premier to consider her for a credit card, even though they turned her down. Not a very good deal.

Hot coffee

Sheila, of Fallbrook, Calif., like a hot cup of coffee in the morning, but not this hot. She says her Cuisinart DCC 1200 coffee maker burned up yesterday.

“Right after making coffee with it, I noted a burning smell in the house,” Sheila told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Went to the coffee maker where I found all the lights off on the unit but the warming plate was burning up and the coffee in the carafe was boiling. I immediately unplugged the unit, took it outside. This product is a fire hazard!”

Sheila is not alone in her complaint. Several consumers have reported the problem with their Cuisinart coffee makers. Many of these complaints have also been filed with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which we can only assume is investigating.

Counting pesos

Maybe this is nothing new, but we seem to be getting more complaints about rental car companies, from consumers who feel they are being nickeled and dimed. Mark, of Jefferson City, Mo., said he rented a car from Thrifty in Cozumel, Mexico for 10 days and held out for a price of $339.88, down from the initial price of $381.79.

“When I checked out on June 2, 2011 the amount on the receipt was in pesos and a notation in dollars for $339.88,” Mark said. “I told the manager that if the charge was more than $339.88 that I would dispute the bill and he told me that due to the rate of exchange the amount would not be for $339.88, the amount I agreed to. Once home I checked my credit card account and found the charge was for the original amount of $381.79.”

Interestingly, Mark said the amount in pesos worked out exactly to $381.79, but the notation in dollars was for the lower amount they had agreed to.

“My feeling is that the manager never intended to rent me the car for $339.88, knowing I wouldn't check the exchange rate when I dropped off the car,” Mark said. “Thrifty Car Rental denied my claim stating they don't intervene when dealing with currency exchanges.”

Before renting a car in Mexico, Mark suggests you brush up on the peso to dollar exchange rate.

 

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Ford Takes a Tumble, Toyota Surges Back in J.D. Power Survey

Complex infotainment systems, fuel-saving technology confuse consumers

Ford slipped and Toyota recovered somewhat in the latest J.D. Power and Associates survey that tracks buyer satisfaction with new cars and trucks....

PhotoFord slipped and Toyota recovered somewhat in the latest J.D. Power and Associates survey that tracks buyer satisfaction with new cars and trucks.

Ford fell to No. 23 this year, far down from last year, when it was No. 5, making it the highest-ranking mass-market brand in the Initial Quality Study, which measures problems reported by new car owners during the first 90 days of ownership.

Problems reported by Ford owners in the first 90 days rose to 116 per 100 vehicles, up from 93 last ywear.

Power said one element that affected Ford and other manufacturers is consumer discomfort with complex new infotainment features and fuel-saving power train refinements that sometimes make automatic transmissions seem to hesitate while shifting.

Toyota rebounded to No. 7, with 101 problems per 100 vehicles, a big gain from the previous survey when it dropped below the industry average for the first time.

Lexus topped all brands with 73 problems per 100 vehicles. It was followed by Honda, Acura, Mercedes-Benz, Mazda and Porsche, which placed first in 2010.

Dodge finished last, with 137 problems per 100 vehicles. Suzuki, Mitsubishi, Volkswagen and Mini also placed at the bottom of the survey.

 

J.D. Power and Associates 2011 U.S. Initial Quality Study
2011 ranking (problems per 100 vehicles)
Lexus73
Honda86
Acura89
Mercedes-Benz94
Mazda100
Porsche100
Toyota101
Infiniti102
Cadillac103
GMC104
Industry Average107
Hyundai108
Subaru108
BMW109
Chevrolet109
Volvo109
Chrysler110
Lincoln111
Audi113
Kia113
Buick114
Jaguar114
Ram114
Ford116
Nissan117
Jeep122
Land Rover123
Scion123
MINI131
Volkswagen131
Mitsubishi133
Suzuki136
Dodge137 
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FCC Seeks $12 Million in Fines Against Crammers

Companies sell services most customers never use and don't know they have

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is proposing fines totaling nearly $12 million against four companies that allegedly charged thousands of custo...

PhotoThe Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is proposing fines totaling nearly $12 million against four companies that allegedly charged thousands of customers for long-distance services without authorization — a practice known as “cramming.”

The FCC says that Main Street Telephone, VoiceNet Telephone LLC, Cheap2Dial Telephone LLC and Norristown Telephone added “dial-around” long-distance services to customers' bills even though the customers may not have requested or used the servcie.

Dial-around services bypass a customer's regular long-distance carrier and usually require the customer to dial a “10-10” access code before placing a long-distance call.

The FCC's Enforcement Bureau said its investigation found that only one-tenth of one percent of the affected customers actually used the services for which they were charged over a period of months and sometimes years.

That's what happened to Mariann of Los Angeles.

“I was enrolled and billed for telephone long distance service for over a year without my knowledge,” she told ConsumerAffairs.com in July 2010. “The company refuses to issue a refund for services never utilized or authorized.”

The charges are often handled by an intermediary, like ILD Teleservices.

Bill of Grass Valley CA, said he noticed a $17.06 unauthorized charge on his At&T bill. He called VoiceNet telephone and said, “They claimed a Nicole submitted a web form authorizing the service. … Yep a charge for NOTHING. Never heard of her.”

Bill said he asked AT&T to flag his account to prohibit third-party billing but was told that was not an option.

It may be in the future. The FCC says it will be more aggressively enforcing rules banning cramming, a practice that has produced huge volumes of consumer complaints for decades but little action.

 

 

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Ice Cream Shops in Meltdown Over Fox 5 Report

D'Lites Emporium sues after being inducted into "Hall of Shame"

A dispute over "overrun" - the air pumped into ice cream - has led a franchisee of a low-calorie ice cream chain to accuse Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and ...

PhotoA dispute over "overrun" - the air pumped into ice cream - has led a franchisee of a low-calorie ice cream chain to accuse Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and Fox 5 News of defaming it in a "disparaging" broadcast "assault."  

The suit was brought by Matthew Prince, a restaurateur who invested in three D'Lites Emporium franchises on New York's Long Island, only to become enraged when Fox 5 News “inducted” the sweet shops into its “Hall of Shame,” reporting that independent tests had found higher levels of fattening substances than the stores claimed.

In his lawsuit, Prince says the D'Lites ice cream is lower in sugar, fat, carbohydrates and cholesterol, and is a healthier alternative to traditional ice cream.

“Since it’s [sic] founding in 1982, in Plantation, Florida, DEI has provided diet friendly ice cream that is just as creamy and tasty as traditional ice cream products,” the typo-infested suit states. “DEI products are designed to be attractive sweets for diet conscience [sic] shoppers.”

Prince said he had invested more than $1 million in the healthy ice cream business only to see it melt away as Fox 5's Arnold Diaz featured D'Lites on his eight-minute “Shame, Shame, Shame” segment, telling viewers that D'Lites was “selling a lie.”

Liquidity an issue

Prince's suit argues that ice cream is “made up of three components – the ice cream mix (formula), air, and refrigeration.”

It makes the indisputable assertion that, when it melts, ice cream becomes a liquid. When that happens, air escapes and the melted ice cream takes up less space than it did when it was frozen.

Prince argues that in its testing of his stores' ice cream, Fox 5 used a quantity of melted ice cream that did not correspond to the appropriate volume of frozen ice cream. 

“The only fair way to accurately measure the nutritional value of D’Lites’ ice cream is to measure by the volume of the ice cream product in its frozen state as served to the customer,” the suit argues.

Prince also claims that ice cream, because it contains milk, is “in a constant state of change.”

“In recognition of the extraordinary difficulty in serving a product who’s [sic] properties are in a constant state of flux, the FDA allows nutritional labels for ice cream to be off by as much as 20%,” the suit states.

News Corporation owns The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and numerous other media outlets.

 

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Report: Congress To Consider End Of Marijuana Ban

Bi-partisan bill expected today

Political odd couple plan to introduce legalization bill...

PhotoFor the first time, Congress may consider a measure to remove federal penalties for possession and use of marijuana, a news agency reported late Wednesday.

In a dispatch from Washington, AFP, the French news agency, said Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), lawmakers from opposite ends of the political spectrum, plan to introduce the legalization bill sometime today. AFP based its report on comments from unnamed officials in organizations promoting the legalization of the drug.

According to the report, the sweeping bi-partisan bill would limit the federal government's role to stopping smuggling. People would be free to grow and use marijuana in states that choose to legalize it.

Controlled substance

It would effectively end the federal sanction against cannabis, which is outlawed under the Controlled Substances Act. Prior to the federal prohibition, a number of states outlawed the drug in the early 20th century.

Ironically, it has been states in recent years that have been inching toward legalization. Fifteen states now have medical marijuana laws, making it legal for health care professionals to prescribe marijuana for treatment.

However, recreational use of marijuana, which gained widespread popularity among Baby Boomers during the 1960s and 70s, remains outlawed. The AFP report mentioned no specific details of the expected bill.

State by state efforts

Meanwhile, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) reports A coalition that includes former U.S. Attorney John McKay, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes and travel guide Rick Steves is launching an initiative that would legalize marijuana in Washington state.

The group, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, reportedly decided to push the initiative after Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed most of a medical-marijuana bill that had passed the state Legislature.

The initiative would regulate the recreational use of marijuana in a way similar to how the state regulates alcohol.

It would legalize marijuana for people older than 21, authorize the state Liquor Control Board to regulate and tax marijuana for sale in “stand-alone stores” and extend drunken-driving laws to marijuana, with blood tests to determine how much of the substance’s active ingredient is present in a driver’s blood.

 

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AAA Gets Ready to Handle Stalled Electric Vehicles

Auto club is deploying fast-charging EV trucks

AAA has for decades been the first choice of many motorists when they have a flat tire or dead battery. Now the nationwide motorist service organization i...

PhotoAAA has for decades been the first choice of many motorists when they have a flat tire or dead battery.

Now the nationwide motorist service organization is getting ready to handle another kind of dead battery – the ones found in electric vehicles (EV), like Nissan's Leaf.

AAA says it will be testing fast-charging EV trucks in September. It plans to have at least six of the trucks in states including California, Oregon, Washington, Florida, Tennessee and Georgia.

"We know electric vehicles are coming and we've got to be ready for them," spokeswoman Christie Hyde said.

She declined to provide details on the cost or makers of the units and said AAA will test chargers from multiple suppliers.

More to come

There aren't many EVs on the road yet but Nissan and Tesla Motors are already producing sedans and roadsters and more automakers are set to follow, so the demand is certain to grow.

It's not a matter of just plugging your car in when the battery runs down. Power companies and others are beginning to offer “charging stations” for home and business use. They use a special transformer to deliver the oomph that's needed to recharge batteries quickly.

The Leaf gets about 70 miles on a charge in combined city and highway driving. The Tesla Roadster, a $109,000 high-performance sports model, gets about 200.

 

 

 

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The IUD: Safe After All?

Gynecologists now recommend it for healthy women

The IUD has on an official recommendation from a gynecologists group....

PhotoYears ago the intrauterine device, or IUD, fell from favor as a means of birth control because of its reported side effects. But now the IUD may be making a comeback of sorts, winning an endorsement from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

In an official position, the ACOG now says the IUD is a suitable birth control device for all healthy adult and adolescent women.

Many women stopped using the IUD after many health experts blamed it for raising the risk of pelvic inflammatory disease, which can result in serious complications. The device was blamed for infertility in some women.

Benefits

But new recommendations published in the ACOG Practice Bulletin say the risks are very small. Other benefits, doctors say, outweigh those risks.

According to Dr. Adam Jacobs of the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York, the biggest benefit of an IUD is that it is safe and cost effective. He says the new view of the IUD is the result of a rethinking of ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Currently, only an estimated five to six percent of women use an IUD, but the ACOG says in the future, it expects gynecologists will begin recommending it to more of their patients.

Up front cost

The upfront cost of an IUD can be expensive, but once inserted by a health care provider, the small T-shaped device will last a decade or more. According to Planned Parenthood, it works by affecting the way sperm move, preventing them from joining with an egg. If sperm cannot join with an egg, pregnancy cannot happen.

“Certain conditions increase the risk of side effects,” Planned Parenthood said on its website. “Talk with your health care provider about your health and whether an IUD is likely to be safe for you. There are many other methods of birth control that may be safe for you if you cannot use an IUD.”

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Suit: Payday Lenders Conspire to Forge Checks on Consumers' Accounts

Defendants steal money "from those who need it most," suit charges

A federal class action claims Internet payday lenders EDebitPay and Platinum Online Group take information from loan applicants "and use it to forge checks...

PhotoA federal class action claims Internet payday lenders eDebitPay and Platinum Online Group take information from loan applicants "and use it to forge checks on behalf of the applicants ... without the applicants' knowledge or consent."

eDebitPay was recently found in contempt of court and fined $3.7 million after a federal judge found that the company had violated the terms of a 2008 court order that prohibited it from  taking money out of consumers' bank accounts without authorization.

The suit alleges that the defendants routinely forge checks payable on the personal checking accounts of consumers who apply for online payday loans, without the knowledge or consent of the consumers.

Through the unauthorized use of loan applicants' personal information, the defendants steal money “from those who need it most,” the suit charges.

Similar complaints

The allegations in the suit are similar to complaints received by ConsumerAffairs.com from consumers nationwide.

"They withdrew $99 out of my checking account without my authorization. I have overdrawn fees out of this world," said Lashawn of Petersburg, Va., in a complaint about eDebitPay. "I have several children -- we are on a fixed income that was all the money we had and I don't have money to just be giving to the bank."

In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Deborah Deffenbaugh of San Francisco and Allan Wyatt of Malibu, Calif., recount how their checking accounts were raided after they applied online for payday loans on different websites.

Deffenbaugh said that in May 2011, when she applied for an online payday loan the website asked if she wanted to enroll in various unrelated offers and she declined. She then proceeded to enter the information required to get the loan, including her bank routing number and checking account number.

She later discovered a remotely-created $99.49 check had been paid from her account to “Platinum Online Group – SavingPays99,” a company and service she had never heard of and had never authorized to access to her checking account.

Wyatt says in the suit that he also applied for an online payday loan in May 2011 from the website www.paydayloans.com. He also declined all unrelated offers but entered his bank and checking account numbers as requested and, like Deffenbaugh, soon found that a check had been created and used to withdraw $99.49 from his account.

“These checks are fakes,” the suit charges. “They are created without the applicants' consent or knowledge. These checks supposedly pay for Defendants' coupon service, though no applicant ever agreed to buy such services.”  The suit seeks actual and punitive damages.

Long history

It's hardly the first time eDebitPay has faced charges of taking money out of consumers' bank accounts without authorization.  In January 2008, the company setlled Federal Trade Commission charges that it made unauthorized debits from consumers bank accounts and engaged in deceptive marketing practices.

The company was ordered to pay $2,258,000 for consumer redress and in May 2011 was found in contempt of court and ordered to pay $3.7 million for violating hte earlier order.

Under the FTC settlement, the defendants were prohibited from debiting a consumers account or causing billing information to be submitted for payment without first obtaining the consumers express informed consent.

The order also prohibited the defendants from misrepresenting any fact material to a consumers decision to apply for or purchase any product or service.

Despite its history, eDebitPay remains an active player in the online world and in 2008 was named an "Inc 500" company in the financial services sector by Inc Magazine.

On its website, the company today trumpets its forthcoming appearance at "Affiliate Summit East" in New York City August 21-23. 

 

 

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Mystery Ingredient In Coffee Protects Against Alzheimer's

Coffee has powers other caffeinated beverages don't

Researchers are trying to figure out why coffee seems to help prevent Alzheimer's disease...

Something in coffee seems to protect against Alzheimer's disease. Scientists just don't know what it is.

If they did, it might lead to a breakthrough in treatment and prevention of the dreaded disease of aging.

A new Alzheimer's mouse study by researchers at the University of South Florida found that something in coffee interacts with the caffeine to boost blood levels of a critical growth factor that seems to fight off the Alzheimer's disease process.

The findings appear in the early online version of an article to be published June 28 in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

Coffee seems to be special

Using mice bred to develop symptoms mimicking Alzheimer's disease, the USF team presents the first evidence that caffeinated coffee offers protection against the memory-robbing disease that is not possible with other caffeine-containing drinks or decaffeinated coffee.

Previous studies in humans reported that daily coffee/caffeine intake during mid-life and in older age decreases the risk of Alzheimer's disease. The USF researchers' earlier studies in Alzheimer's mice indicated that caffeine was likely the ingredient in coffee that provides this protection because it decreases brain production of the abnormal protein beta-amyloid, which is thought to cause the disease.

The new study doesn't challenge that. Instead, it shows that caffeinated coffee induces an increase in blood levels of a growth factor called GCSF (granulocyte colony stimulating factor). People with Alzheimer's have less GCSF. The substance is has also been demonstrated to improve memory in Alzheimer's mice.

Looking for the reason

A just-completed clinical trial at the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute is investigating GCSF treatment to prevent full-blown Alzheimer's in patients with mild cognitive impairment, a condition preceding the disease. The results of that trial are currently being evaluated and should be known soon.

"Caffeinated coffee provides a natural increase in blood GCSF levels," said USF neuroscientist Dr. Chuanhai Cao, lead author of the study. "The exact way that this occurs is not understood. There is a synergistic interaction between caffeine and some mystery component of coffee that provides this beneficial increase in blood GCSF levels."

The researchers would like to identify this mystery component so that coffee and other beverages could be enriched with it to provide long-term protection against Alzheimer's.

 

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Vehicle Theft Worst In California, Survey Finds

State has eight of top ten vehicle theft cities

California leads the nation in car theft, according to a new study...

PhotoParking your car in California may be riskier than in most other states. The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) reports the Golden State claims eight of the top ten cities with the highest per capita vehicle theft rates.

The survey found that Fresno, Calif., led the nation in vehicle thefts per capita in 2010., with 7,559 stolen vehicles. That's up from 5,875 in 2009.

Other California cities making the top ten list were Modesto at number two, Bakersfield in third, Vallejo at fifth, Sacramento at number six, Stockton at number seven, Visalia at number eight, and San Francisco at number nine.

The only other two cities making the dubious top ten list were in Washington State – Spokane in fourth place and Yakima at number ten. In all, the West Coast accounted for more than 64,000 vehicle thefts last year.

State College, Pa., had the fewest vehicle thefts last year, according to the report.

“While improved anti-theft technology and law enforcement efforts have had a significant impact on thefts, professional criminal rings and gangs are active in parts of the country and stopping them is the ongoing challenge,” said NICB CEO and President Joe Wehrle.

NICB said the best deterrent to vehicle theft is common sense. You should always:

  • Remove your keys from the ignition
  • Lock your doors /close your windows
  • Park in a well-lit area

 

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Former Taylor, Bean CEO Gets 40 Months

$2.9 billion fraud scheme led to failure of major mortgage lender

The former CEO of Taylor, Bean & Whitaker (TBW), was sentenced today to 40 months in prison for his role in a more than $2.9 billion fraud scheme that cont...

PhotoThe former CEO of Taylor, Bean & Whitaker (TBW), was sentenced today to 40 months in prison for his role in a more than $2.9 billion fraud scheme that contributed to the failure of TBW, at one time one of the largest privately held mortgage lending companies in the United States.   

Paul Allen was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema in the Eastern District of Virginia. 

Allen, 55, of Oakton, Va., pleaded guilty in April 2011 to one count of making false statements and one count of conspiring to commit bank and wire fraud.   Co-conspirator Sean Ragland, a former senior financial analyst at TBW who reported to Allen, was also sentenced today by Judge Brinkema to three months in prison.   

“As TBW’s chief executive officer, Mr. Allen served as an accomplice to Lee Farkas and his massive fraud scheme,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer.  “He concealed TBW’s staggering deficits through false financial reports, which ultimately caused investors to lose more than $1.5 billion.  Today’s sentence sends a strong message that corporate fraud by senior executives will not be tolerated.  At the same time, it demonstrates that substantial assistance in the government’s investigation and prosecution of corporate fraud will be taken into account at sentencing.” 

Well-respected

“Paul Allen was a well-respected mortgage executive hired by Lee Farkas to be TBW’s chief executive officer.  Working from Oakton, Va., Mr. Allen led Ocala Funding, a TBW multi-billion dollar lending facility that was used to defraud investors of more than $1 billion,” said U.S. Attorney MacBride.  “Mr. Allen’s sentence reflects his ultimate cooperation with this investigation, but also sends the message that unless executives expose and stop fraud when they first learn of it, they will be punished.”

Ragland, 37, of San Antonio, pleaded guilty in March 2011 to one count of conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud.   Allen and Ragland both admitted to conspiring with Lee Bentley Farkas, the former chairman of TBW, and others, to defraud financial institutions that had invested in Ocala Funding LLC, a facility wholly-owned by TBW.       

Farkas was convicted on April 19, 2011, on 14 counts of fraud for his role in masterminding the scheme, which was one of the largest bank frauds in the country.   Farkas is scheduled to be sentenced on June 27, 2011.   The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has a civil action pending against Farkas in the Eastern District of Virginia.

Co-conspirators

Co-conspirators Catherine Kissick, a former senior vice president of Colonial Bank and head of its Mortgage Warehouse Lending Division (MWLD); Teresa Kelly, a former operations supervisor in Colonial Bank’s MWLD; Raymond Bowman, the former president of TBW; and Desiree Brown, the former treasurer of TBW, have also pleaded guilty for their participation in the scheme.   

Earlier this month, Kissick was sentenced to eight years in prison, Brown was sentenced to six years in prison, Bowman was sentenced 30 months in prison and Kelly was sentenced to 3 months in prison.

According to court documents and information presented at trial, Allen and Ragland participated in the scheme from early 2005 through August 2009 by distributing materially false documents to investors in Ocala Funding that misrepresented the financial condition of the facility.   The fraud scheme ultimately caused investors in Ocala Funding to lose more than $1.5 billion and Colonial Bank to lose $900 million.

Overdrafts 

According to court documents and information presented at trial, TBW began running overdrafts in its master bank account at Colonial Bank because of TBW’s inability to meet its operating expenses, which included payroll, servicing payments owed to third-party purchasers of loans and/or mortgage-backed securities and other obligations.   

In or about 2002, Farkas and other co-conspirators engaged in a series of fraudulent actions to cover up the overdrafts, first by sweeping overnight money from one TBW account with excess funds into another, and later through the fictitious “sales” of mortgage loans to Colonial Bank, a fraud scheme the conspirators dubbed “Plan B.”   

The conspirators accomplished Plan B by selling Colonial Bank mortgage loans that did not exist or that TBW had already committed or sold to other third-party investors.   As Plan B evolved, co-conspirators at TBW also caused TBW to engage in sham sales of groups of mortgage loans, known as “pools,” that other entities already owned to Colonial Bank.   

As a result, false information was entered on Colonial Bank’s books and records, giving the appearance that the bank owned interests in legitimate pools of mortgage loans, when in fact the pools had no value and could not be securitized or sold.   Neither Allen nor Ragland participated in the effort to cover up TBW’s overdrafts or Plan B.  

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Suit Blames Toyota 'Smart Key' for Carbon Monoxide Death

Woman left her car idling and was asphyxiated in her apartment

A woman blames Toyota for her daughter's death by carbon monoxide poisoning, because its Smart Key system let her Lexus keep running silently without a key...

PhotoA woman blames Toyota for her daughter's death by carbon monoxide poisoning, because its Smart Key system let her Lexus keep running silently without a key in the ignition. Toyota faced a similar complaint in New York last October.

On the evening of August 25, 2010, Chastity Glisson returned to her home in Boca Raton, Fla., and parked her 2006 Lexus IS 250 in the garage beneath her three-story apartment.

The car, like many newer model vehicles, was equipped with a Smart Key system, which uses a remote-control key fob to lock, unlock and start the engine. The driver does not have to remove the fob from pocket or pursue – merely entering the car and pushing a “Start/Stop” button to start and stop the engine.

The suit alleges that the fobs require a change in consumer behavior, as most motorists are accustomed to inserting a key to start their car and removing the key to stop it.

Engine continued running

Glisson either forgot to turn off the engine or perhaps did not push the “Stop/Start” button hard enough, the suit says. In any case, the engine continued running after Glisson entered her apartment with the key fob in her purse.

Glisson and another occupant of the apartment, Timothy Maddock, retired for the evening, unaware that her car continued running in the garage, emitting deadly carbon monoxide, which seeped into the apartment above.

Friends and family members became concerned when they did not hear from either Glisson or Maddock the next day. Police went to check on the victims' welfare and found Glisson dead and Maddock unconscious.

Tests found a dangerously high level of carbon monoxide in the apartment and an autopsy found that Glisson had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Maddock was severely injured.

In the suit, Glisson's mother, Kimberlin Nickles, argues that Toyota should have known that the fob system was dangerous and could result in a consumer's accidentally leaving the engine running, even though the key fob had been removed from the vehicle. The suit argues that Toyota and its sales agents are guilty of negligence.

 

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Synthetic Fat Substitutes Might Make You Gain Weight

Researchers say they confuse the body, causing you to eat more

Researchers say synthetic fat substitutes like Olestra might make you gain even more weight...

PhotoConsumers trying to shed a few pounds instinctively reach for low fat products at the grocery store, but maybe they shouldn't. A new study says synthetic fat substitutes used in low-calorie potato chips and other foods could backfire and contribute to weight gain and obesity.

The study, by researchers at Purdue University, was published by the American Psychological Association. It challenges the conventional wisdom that foods made with fat substitutes help with weight loss.

“Our research showed that fat substitutes can interfere with the body’s ability to regulate food intake, which can lead to inefficient use of calories and weight gain,” said Susan E. Swithers, PhD, the lead researcher and a Purdue psychology professor.

For the experiment, lab rats were fed either a high-fat or low-fat diet of chow. Half of the rats in each group also were fed Pringles potato chips that are high in fat and calories.

Olestra

The remaining rats in each group were fed high-calorie Pringles chips on some days and low-calorie Pringles Light chips on other days. The Pringles Light chips are made with olestra, a synthetic fat substitute that has zero calories and passes through the body undigested.

For rats on the high-fat diet, the group that ate both types of potato chips consumed more food, gained more weight and developed more fatty tissue than the rats that ate only the high-calorie chips. The fat rats also didn’t lose the extra weight even after the potato chips were removed from their diet.

“Based on this data, a diet that is low in fat and calories might be a better strategy for weight loss than using fat substitutes,” Swithers said.

However, she warned that it can be difficult to extrapolate laboratory findings about rats to people, even though their biological responses to food are similar. The study was conducted by Swithers along with Purdue psychology professor Terry L. Davidson, PhD, and former Purdue undergraduate student Sean Ogden.

Confusing the body

Why would a fat substitute confuse the body? Food with a sweet or fatty taste usually indicates a large number of calories, and the taste triggers various responses by the body, including salivation, hormonal secretions and metabolic reactions. Fat substitutes can interfere with that relationship when the body expects to receive a large burst of calories but is fooled by a fat substitute.

Olestra is no longer used in foods in Canada and the United Kingdom. In the U.S., the Center for Science in the Public Interest has waged a long campaign to have it banned, saying that it is unhealthy.

 

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Graphic Warnings Intended to Scare Smokers Into Quitting

All cigarette packs and advertising will soon display the gruesome images

Graphic Warnings Intended to Scare Smokers Into Quitting. All cigarette packs and advertising will soon display the gruesome images...

Photo

Nine graphic images, including a man blowing cigarette smoke out of a tracheostomy hole in his neck, have been chosen as to be used in new health warnings on cigarette packs and advertising.

Under legislation passed in 2009, the warnings must be placed on all cigarette packs, cartons and ads no later than September 2012.

Despite decades of warnings and education efforts, about 20% of Americans still smoke cigarettes, leading to about 443,000 deaths each year in the U.S.

Smoking is considered the leading cause of premature death.

“These labels are frank, honest and powerful depictions of the health risks of smoking and they will help encourage smokers to quit, and prevent children from smoking,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “President Obama wants to make tobacco-related death and disease part of the nation’s past, and not our future.”

The warnings, which were proposed in November 2010, were required under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act which was passed with broad bipartisan support in Congress and signed into law by president Obama on June 22, 2009.

Nine images

photoThe FDA selected nine images from the originally proposed 36 after reviewing the relevant scientific literature, analyzing the results from an 18,000 person study and considering more than 1,700 comments from a variety of groups, including the tobacco industry, retailers, health professionals, public health and other advocacy groups, academics, state and local public health agencies, medical organizations and individual consumers.

Each warning is accompanied by a smoking cessation phone number, 1-800-QUIT-NOW, which will allow it to be seen at the time it is most relevant to smokers, increasing the likelihood that smokers who want to quit will be successful.

When implemented in September 2012, all cigarettes manufactured for sale or distribution in the United States will need to include the new graphic health warnings on their packages. The introduction of these warnings is expected to have a significant public health impact by decreasing the number of smokers, resulting in lives saved, increased life expectancy, and improved health status.

“The Tobacco Control Act requires FDA to provide current and potential smokers with clear and truthful information about the risks of smoking – these warnings do that,” said Commissioner of Food and Drugs Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

 

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Feds Offer $1 Billion Bailout For Homeowners

Struggling homeowners eligible for interest free loans to make payments

The federal government has launched a new program to help struggling homeowners...

photoHomeowners who have watched the nation's banks get bailed out over the last two and a half years are now getting their turn.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has announced the Emergency Homeowners’ Loan Program (EHLP), to help homeowners who are at risk of foreclosure. The program is being offered in 27 states and Puerto Rico.

Under EHLP program guidelines eligible homeowners can qualify for an interest free loan which pays a portion of their monthly mortgage for up to two years, or up to $50,000, whichever comes first.

"Working with our community partners across the nation through NeighborWorks America, we are pleased to launch this program today in 27 states and Puerto Rico to help families keep their homes while looking for work or recovering from illness," said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan.

Part of financial reform legislation

The $1 billion was approved last year as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The program will assist homeowners who have experienced a reduction in income and are at risk of foreclosure due to involuntary unemployment, underemployment, due to economic conditions or a medical condition.

The EHLP program will pay a portion of an approved applicant’s monthly mortgage, including missed mortgage payments or past due charges including principal, interest, taxes, insurances, and attorney fees. EHLP is expected to aid up to 30,000 distressed borrowers, with an average loan of approximately $35,000.

The program follows in the footsteps on the Making Homes Affordable Program (HAMP), which encouraged loan servicers to modify mortgages of struggling homeowners. That program, in the two years is has operated, has been deemed less than successful, with many homeowners saying there were worse off after starting a modification and then being denied.

The EHLP program will be offered in the following states: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming and Puerto Rico. Five states operating substantially similar programs are administering EHLP directly: Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. With today’s launch, mortgage assistance is now available for unemployed and underemployed homeowners in every state.

How to apply

Contact information for participating agencies, the Pre-Applicant Screening Worksheet and more information on the EHLP program and its eligibility requirements can be found online or by calling toll free at 855-FIND-EHLP (346-3345).

 Homeowners should be vigilant against scammers who will likely take advantage of the program by pretending to be affiliated with it. Homeowners must apply for the assistance. The participating agencies will not call you.

If a telemarketer calls and says he or she represents the program and can help you get assistance, in return for an advance fee, rest assured that it will be a scam.

 

 

 

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Consumers Cautioned About Credit Insurance

Maryland Attorney General calls it 'overpriced'

Maryland's Attorney General has cautioned consumers about credit insurance, calling it notoriously overpriced...

photoWhen consumers borrow money for almost any purpose, they are often offered the option of purchasing credit insurance.

That's a policy that insured repayment of the loan, even if the borrower dies, becomes disabled, or loses their income. Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler says it's notorious for being one of the most overpriced insurance products and consumers should go into any purchase with their eyes wide open.

“Consumers need to know what they are buying and how much it will cost before they commit to paying for credit insurance,” Gansler said. “Before you sign any contract, understand all the terms and costs.”

Rarely required

Gansler said credit insurance may be sold under the pretense of being mandatory, but rarely is. In Maryland, for example, lenders cannot require the purchase of most types of credit insurance. Lenders can require credit property insurance on loans secured by a piece of property, or a destructible possession, but a consumer is allowed to choose the insurance company.

There are three types of credit insurance:

  1. Credit Life Insurance, which pays off an outstanding loan if a consumer dies;
  2. Credit Disability Insurance, which makes payments on a loan if a consumer is disabled; and
  3. Credit Involuntary Unemployment Benefit Insurance, which makes payments on a loan if a consumer is involuntarily unemployed.

Credit insurance really only benefits the lender. While it protects the consumer from default, any benefit is paid directly to the lender.

Consider the alternatives

If consumers wish to purchase insurance, they should consider a few alternatives, Gansler says, including checking to see if their current homeowners or life insurance policy provides adequate coverage.

As with other forms of insurance, it is important for the consumer to check the policy closely before agreeing to its terms. Some good questions to ask include the length of any waiting period, limitations, cancellation terms, coverage length, financing and comparability to other similar policies.

Mortgage insurance is a type of credit insurance that is often required on some home loans, to protect the lender in the case of default. Mortgage insurance is usually required on loans where the consumer is borrowing more than 80 percent of the purchase price.

 

 

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What's On Your Mind? Ethanol, Jenn-Air, Sally Hanson Nail Polish

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Ethanol, Jenn-Air, Sally Hanson Nail Polish, Breaking glass, Extremely fine print and An inspection could save yo...

photoGo just about anywhere these days to buy gasoline and it will have at least 10 percent ethanol in it, part of a federal mandate to stretch gasoline supplies. Unfortunately, most small engines don't react very well to it.

“The ethanol based gas sold here is ruining small engines such as my Mantis tiller,” Doris, of Longansport, Ind., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I had to take it to a repair shop twice. The man told me the gas is ruining them by the droves. He shook a small vial of gas and set it on the table. He told me to watch it. I could see the gas separating from the ethanol or water, whatever it was. He said it is the ethanol in the gas that is ruining our small engines. I feel we should be reimbursed for the repairs we have had to do because of ethanol in our gas."

Well, don't count on it. But in an interesting vote last week, the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to kill the tax subsidy for ethanol. A lot of people argue that the U.S. should drop its experiment with ethanol, not so much because of what it does to small engines, but because they say using corn to make fuel runs up the cost of food. The ethanol industry denies that's the case.

Breaking glass

We've gotten reports of glass baking dishes exploding in the oven, and even in the dishwasher. Now we're getting this report of the glass in an oven doing the same thing.

“The glass in the top oven of my Jenn-Air double wall oven exploded all over my kitchen,” Kathy, of Garnet Valley, said. “Glass was on the counter top, on my cook top, had gone into the family room and a shard of glass embedded itself in my toaster.”

In addition to the damage, Kathy is very concerned about the safety issue exploding glass represents. Says says if one of her grandchildren had walking by at the time, it would have been a disaster.

Extremely fine print

Bunny, of New York City, tells us she bought Sally Hansen Hard As Nails polish and, when she went to read the list of ingredients on the label, was unable to with the naked eye.

“It was impossible even with a magnifying glass,” Bunny told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The letters are extremely tiny and white - this on a pink polish and I could not read one word.”

Bunny is concerned that there could be chemicals in the polish that she doesn't want to use. Nail polish bottles are small and therefore, so are the labels. Still, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) probably does have minimum standards for font sizes for ingredients. Bunny should file a complaint with the FTC.

An inspection could save you later

When we hit the car rental counter at the airport, we tend to be in a rush and want to get on our way. But make sure you take a good look at the car before you leave the lot. Shipa, of Irving, Tex., says he was confronted at the Alamo check-in counter with what he said was old damage to the car.

“The lady at check in showed me some old scratch marks at the rear bumper near trunk, and started yelling at me,” Shipa said. “When I told her I was not aware of the marks, she said good luck to you and made a claim ticket.”

Shipa said the scratches were already on the vehicle but he checked it out, but he has no way to prove it. Always thoroughly inspect the vehicle with a rental car representative and have them sign on to note any pre-existing damage. Otherwise, refuse to take the car.

 

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New Safety Standards Outlaw Drop-Side Cribs

U.S. hadn't updated crib safety standards for 30 years

New Safety Standards Outlaw Drop-Side Cribs. U.S. hadn't updated crib safety standards for 30 years...

photoSetting aside objections from retailers and manufacturers, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is implementing new safety standards for baby cribs later this month.

Effective June 28, anyone who manufactures or sells cribs will be required to meet the new standards, although day care centers, crib rental companies and hotels will have until December 28, 2012 to update their cribs.

I am very pleased that the new mandatory crib standards will stop the manufacture and sale of dangerous traditional drop-side cribs and will vastly improve the structural integrity of cribs,” said CPSC chair Inez M. Tenenbaum, noting that crib safety standards have not been updated in nearly 30 years.

Detaching drop-side rails were associated with at least 32 infant suffocation and strangulation deaths since 2000, according to the CPSC. Additional deaths have occurred due to faulty or defective hardware.

Manufacturers and retailers had objected that the new rules would cause an economic hardship, particularly on smaller stores but the commission voted 3-2 to impose the new standards on schedule.

The new standards will:

  1. stop the manufacture and sale of dangerous, traditional drop-side cribs;

  2. make mattress supports stronger;

  3. improve slat strength,

  4. make crib hardware more durable; and

  5. make safety testing more rigorous.

The standards aim to keep children safer in their cribs and prevent deaths resulting from detaching crib drop-sides and faulty or defective hardware. The tougher standards were mandated by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.

Tenenbaum said the commission granted the delays to child care centers, crib rental stores and hotels and motels were necessary not only to minimize the economic impact but also to prevent shortages of new cribs. She estimated that replacing all of the cribs already in use at such locations would create a demand of approximately 935,000 cribs, which would amount to nearly $467 million in replacement costs.

In order to ensure sufficient availability of compliant cribs and ensure an orderly and successful transition to the use of complaint cribs by child care providers and places of public accommodation, the Commission adopted a two-step phase in of the rule,” Tenenbaum said.

Retailers unhappy

Any cribs not meeting the current standard must be destroyed if they’re not sold by June 28. Industry estimates put the number of unsold cribs between 10,000 and 20,000. Some retailers, hoping to clear out their stock, have offered steep discounts to consumers.

“Overregulation is going to lead to the destroying of thousands of cribs that are perfectly good — many that are better than what will come out after the new regulations,” Gene Francis, a South Dakota-based retailer and member of the National Independent Nursery Furniture Retailers Association, told Kids Today.

But Commissioner Thomas Moore showed little sympathy for that argument.

"We expect companies to comply with the Commission’s rules," he said. "It appears that the vast majority of retailers did plan and are ready to comply by the June 28th date.  In a rule of this magnitude, it is expected that there will be 
some market disruption and that some companies will experience economic loss."

Moore said it was impractical to ask the CPSC to allow retailers to continue selling cribs that do not meet the new standard.

"There is little that we know about the noncomplying cribs these retailers want to sell or about the reasons the retailers find themselves with noncompliant inventory.  However, there is much that we don’t know.  When were these cribs made?  Who made them and where?  Who tested them and when?  What standard were they tested to?  When were they ordered?  Did the quantity ordered take into account the looming effective date of the new crib standards?"

"Were retailers buying imported noncomplying cribs at fire sale prices to try to make a profit before they had to start buying more expensive cribs that met the new standards?" Moore asked.  "Will retrofit kits be available to bring the cribs into compliance?  We simply do not know."

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Expert: To Help Housing, Stop Delaying Foreclosures

Efforts to protect homeowners may be backfiring

Banks have slowed down the foreclosure process, but one expert says that's not really helping...

photoSometimes the best way to get the pain over with is to rip off the bandage. When it comes to resolving the housing crisis, a Kansas State University professor says delaying foreclosures, as the banks are doing now, isn't helpful.

Foreclosures have dropped dramatically in recent months as banks continue negotiations with attorneys general over a settlement that looks at foreclosure practices. K-State finance professor Eric Higgins says some of the settlement proposals may backfire and do more harm than good.

Higgins co-authored the studies with Charles Calomiris, a professor at Columbia Business School, and Joseph Mason, finance professor at Louisiana State University, in response to current negotiations that have delayed many foreclosures from occurring.

Making matters worse

Because the terms of the proposed servicer settlement call for banks to do more on forgiving mortgages, the studies say it would only encourage more homeowners to strategically default on their loans. Delaying or prolonging the foreclosure process doesn't help either because it prevents the market from recovering.

"In no way do our studies suggest that foreclosure is a good thing," said Higgins. "It is very unfortunate, but to delay the foreclosure process doesn't help anybody. It doesn't help the homeowner who is in debt and can't get out of debt. It's not helping the economy because we can't find the bottom of the housing market. And it's not helping neighborhoods because you have neglected houses."

While housing has officially entered a double-dip recession, in which sales and prices fell, rose, then fell again, Higgins says that's a bit misleading. Higgins said it is not so much a double dip in the market, but rather the market never hit bottom.

Not exactly a double dip

"The reason it appears to be a double dip is because foreclosures stopped due to the uproar over robo-signing practices," Higgins said. "So, what we were seeing for home prices at that time wasn't really a true price. Once a true regulatory settlement was reached with mortgage servicers, the foreclosure process began again, the inventory of houses increased and prices dropped."

Completing foreclosures and clearing bad mortgages is the best way to help the market improve, Higgins said. It takes an average of 17 months for a foreclosure to happen, and during that time, the home can be sitting, becoming run down and declining in value.

Over the weekend the New York Times reported that so many homes with bad loans clog the pipeline, that it would take years for foreclose and dispose of them all. For example, in New York State, lenders will need 62 years to repossess the 213,000 homes that are now in severe default or foreclosure, longer than any other state. New Jersey's backlog is 49 years while Florida, Massachusetts and Illinois are at least a decade behind, the paper quoted LPS Applied Analytics as estimating.

 

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Study: Portable Pools Pose Drowning Risk

Most accidents occur at child's home

A study in the journal Pediatrics warns that portable backyard pools are a growing danger to children...

photoPortable backyard swimming pools, the kind that are readily available at discount stores, pose a very real drowning risk for young children, according to a report published in the journal Pediatrics.

The study looked at the number of incidents involving children under 12 in portable pools. Using Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Data from 2001 through 2009, the researchers found that 209 children drowned in the pools, some of which are only about 12 inches deep.

In 94 percent of the accidents, the victims were five years old or younger.

“The use of portable pools in residential settings poses a significant risk of submersion-related morbidity and mortality to children, especially in the under 5-year-old age group,” the authors write.

Noting the accidents mostly took place at the child's home and often occurred in very shallow water, the study concludes that no single strategy will prevent all submersion deaths and injuries. It says there should be layers of protection.

Advice for industry

“Industry is advised to engage in development of protective devices that are effective and affordable for portable pools, including isolation fencing, pool alarms, and safety covers,” the report said. “A strong and pervasive consumer education campaign is needed to make consumers aware of the dangers of portable pools, because these small, inexpensive, consumer-installed pools may not generate the same sense of risk as an in-ground pool.”

The report is timely, since most drowning deaths and injuries occur during the summer months. Also, the authors note that the number of families using these portable, often inflatable pools, has grown in recent years.

The study notes that modern, in-ground pools come with a number of safety features, including pool covers, alarms, ladders and fencing. Portable pools, on the other hand, don't come with these features. Homeowners who purchase a portable pool, for example, are not likely to erect a fence around it, since the fence would be much more expensive than the pool itself.

For very young children, the authors said a portable pool may not be a good idea. Before purchasing one, they said parents should commit to strict supervision during their use. For very young children, they say a lawn sprinkler is a much more effective – and safer – way to keep toddlers cool during the summer.

 

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What's On Your Mind? Enterprise, Hydroxatone, Comfort Inn

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Enterprise, Hydroxatone, Comfort Inn, Even death doesn't end the contract and Modification mirage....

logoMost car rental agencies will allow you to drop off the vehicle after hours, which helps if you're on a tight schedule. But it can be risky, as Mark, of Hammond, Ind., discovered with Enterprise, which he uses on a regular basis.

“Lately, I've been dropping the car off and using the lock box on Friday because they are not open late enough to accommodate my work schedule,” Mark said. “The next day I get a call that there is damage to the car. Someone either opened a car door against it or keyed it aggressively enough to crease the metal. As I was looking at the paperwork they wanted me to sign I noticed it said the car was dropped off damaged. Nothing happened when I was driving the car and I did not notice the damage while I had it or when I dropped it off.”

Mark says he knows the damage occurred after he dropped off the car.

“The benefit of dropping off the rental car after hours is a trap,” Mark said. “All it does is create a situation where the car is not in a secure lot, and you have no control over it whatsoever. However, Enterprise will still hold you responsible for it until they check it in during the next morning. From 7pm to 7:30am is a lot of time for something to happen.”

Mark's advice – and we agree – it's best to not use the night box to check in a rental car.

Even death doesn't end the contract

A woman in Columbus, Ohio ordered some product from Hydroxatone last year. No one disputes that. But the woman died shortly afterward. For a while, the automated monthly payments were made from the woman's checking account, but once the estate was settled and the account was closed, her husband John began getting the bills.

“Their explanation is that the order was placed on a telephone that is in my name and therefore I am responsible,” John told ConsumerAffairs.com.” I never ordered this product and they had no right to send the product or bill to me.”

John is correct. And interestingly, when John said they could life a claim against his late wife's estate, he said the company said it had no intention of doing that. They've probably been down that alley before.

Floating rate

Dwayne, of Homosassa, Fla., reports an experience at a Comfort Inn in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, that's a new one on us. He says he booked a two-night stay online of $95.61 and paid with his Visa debit card when he checked in. Online rates are often less that what you'd pay for a walk-in without a reservation.

“When I checked my bank account a few days later they had also charged me an additional $140.63 a total of $236.24 for two nights,” Dwayne said. “When I contacted the motel they gave me the runaround and finally told me the motel was full on Thursday June 9, 2011 so they had to charge me extra because they had to turn people away.”

So, let's get this straight. The motel agreed on a rate and accepted payment from Dwayne, only to go back later and unilaterally raise the rate a few days later, after Dwayne had already completed his stay. And this is legal?  Not likely.

Modification mirage

As many struggling homeowners have discovered, it isn't easy to get a mortgage modification, even through a legitimate process. But homeowners should be extremely wary of companies offering aid in exchange for an upfront fee.

“During October 2010, I was contacted by and individual who indicated he was from Federal Modification Group,” LaToya, of Anapolis, Md., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was told that I could modify my current loan. I began the procedure of modifying my loan by “processing paperwork” and paying a fee of $1250.00. Approximately, one month later, I had received nothing from the company.”

In fact, despite her repeated calls, LaToya says she has received nothing from Federal Modification Group and her demand for a refund was rejected. Last November, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) adopted new rules banning companies offer mortgage modification assistance from collecting an advance fee before any assistance had been provided.

 

 

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Using More Olive Oil May Cut Stroke Risk

But people who use olive oil may just eat healthier food

A French study suggests consuming more olive oil cuts the risk of stroke...

photoIf you cook with more olive oil and less vegetable oil, you may be less likely to suffer a stroke. That's the conclusion of new researched published this week in the online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. 

“Our research suggests that a new set of dietary recommendations should be issued to prevent stroke in people 65 and older,” said study author Cécilia Samieri, PhD, with the University of Bordeaux and the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) in Bordeaux, France. “Stroke is so common in older people and olive oil would be an inexpensive and easy way to help prevent it. 

For the study, researchers looked at the medical records of 7,625 people ages 65 and older from three cities in France. They categorized them by the amount of olive oil they used. After a little over five years, there were 148 strokes.

More olive oil, less stroke

Drilling down through the numbers, and accounting for diet, physical activity, body mass index and other risk factors for stroke, the study found that the more you consumed olive oil, the less likely you were to suffer a stroke. Those who regularly used olive oil for both cooking and as dressing had a 41 percent lower risk of stroke compared to those who never used olive oil in their diet.

Why would olive oil be healthier than other non-animal oils? In fact, it might not be. It could be that people who use a lot of olive oil just tend to eat healthier foods in the first place.

In an accompanying editorial, Nikolaos Scarmeas, MD, of Columbia University, say the linkage could be indirect. Olive oil makes other healthy food taste better, so those who use olive oil tend to eat healthier foods.

Potential health benefits

On the other hand, there may be something about olive oil that makes it intrinsically healthy. Donald Hensrud, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic, says the main type of fat found in all kinds of olive oil is monounsaturated fatty acids, which are actually considered a healthy dietary fat. If your diet emphasizes unsaturated fats, such as MUFAs and polyunsaturated fats, instead of saturated fats and trans fats, you may gain certain health benefits, he says.

But like other fats, olive oil is high in calories, so should be used in moderation. Also, Hensrud says consumers should be aware that heat, light and air can affect the taste of olive oil and possibly its health-promoting nutrients. Store olive oil in a dark, room-temperature cupboard, or even in the refrigerator.

 

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Levaquin Lawsuits: Inadequate Warning of Tendon Damage

The risk of injury triples in older consumers, lawsuits charge

Levaquin Lawsuits Charge Manufacturer Didn't Adequately Warn of Tendon Damage. The risk of injury triples in older consumers, lawsuits charge...

photoFourteen more lawsuits have been filed against the manufacturers of Levaquin, a popular antibiotic that has been linked to severe tendon problems, especially in older users.

The latest suits were filed in St. Clair County, Ill., Circuit Court on behalf of consumers who said they did not know at the time they took Levaquin that itcauses a higher incidence of tendon injuries, including tendon rupture, in people who are older than 60 or who are on corticosteroid therapy.

The consumer group Public Citizen has for years been seeking more federal action to warn the public about the problems associated with the drug, which is normally prescribed for upper respiratory infection, urinary tract infections, prostatitis and other bacterial infections.

In August 2006, Public Citizenfiled a petitionwith the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asking that it require a “black box” warning on Levaquin, Cipro and otherfluoroquinolone antibiotics.

Black box

"The numbers are startling. Tendon ruptures associated with these drugs continue to occur at a disturbing rate but could be prevented if doctors and patients were more aware of early warning signals, such as the onset of tendon pain, and switched to other antibiotics," Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, said then. "The FDA must act and require black box warnings and patient information guides."

A black box warning was issued in July 2008, but the lawsuits charge that the revised Levaquin label still fails to warn about its higher risk of tendon toxicity compared to other similar antibiotics.

Fluoroquinolones were introduced into the U.S. in 1997 and warnings about tendon side effects were required on all labels, but were buried in a long list of potential adverse reactions, the lawsuits claim.

Injury rate tripled

In addition, the warnings did not advise that tendon injury was tripled with fluoroquinolone use in people older than 60 and in those who are on corticosteroid therapy, according to the complaints.

In fact, Levaquin manufacturers marketed the drug toward the elderly, especially those with upper respiratory infections who were likely to be chronic corticosteroid users, the suits allege.

After worldwide studies revealed the tendon risks to Levaquin users, the defendants updated their label for the antibiotic but the plaintiffs said the new warning only included information about the risks to people who were on corticosteroid therapy and contained no warnings about risks to the elderly, according to the complaints.

"Accordingly, despite the 2002 label change, Levaquin prescriptions only increased and tendon injuries mounted," the suits state.

Levaquin was responsible for 1,044 reports of tendon injuries and 282 reports of tendon ruptures from 1997 through 2005, according to the complaints. Injuries continued to soar as Levaquin's popularity increased, the suits state.

Companies named in the suits are Johnson and Johnson, Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical and Johnson and Johnson Pharmaceutical Research and Development.

 



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U.S. Fidelis Founders Facing Hard Time

Missouri brings criminal charges against bankrupt brothers

U.S. Fidelis Founders Facing Hard Time. Missouri brings criminal charges against bankrupt brothers...

photoTwo Missouri brothers who founded the U.S. Fidelis auto warranty business are facing hard time after being indicted on charges of consumer fraud, stealing and illegally selling insurance.

Darain Atkinson, 46, and Cory Atkinson, 41, appeared before St. Charles County, Mo., Judge Lucy Rauch Wednesday. They were each released from jail on $250,000 bond.

A 14-count indictment accuses the Atkinsons of keeping refunds that were owed to customers who canceled their coverage, charged customers more than their contracts allowed, lied in their sales pitches, falsely suggested that U.S. Fidelis was affiliated with auto manufacturers and dealers, and sold insurance without a license.

The criminal prosecution of the Atkinson brothers follows numerous civil actions, including a lawsuit brought by 11 states that was settled last November. That suit was settled with an agreement that the brothers will never again sell motor vehicle service contracts in the 11 states and required them to turn over millions in assets to the bankruptcy court.

"It is extremely disappointing when those who obviously have a good head for business choose to use their skills to break the law," said Richard Cordray, who was then Ohio's attorney general. "In this case, these two individuals built a multimillion dollar business selling 'extended warranties' that were actually service contracts.Service contracts do not meet the same standards of a warranty and as a result, consumers spent millions of dollars on a product that did not do what they were led to believe it would."

Criminal charges

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster's office is handling the criminal prosecution, which is unusual because local prosecutors usually handle violations of state law. But state law allows the attorney general's office to enforce the state's primary consumer protection law, the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, through civil suits or criminal prosecution, Courthouse News reported.

Prosecutors say life was sweet for the Atkinsons until their business imploded in 2009 under the weight of consumer complaints, lawsuits and actions by state officials. Their company at one time led the nation in the sale of auto service contracts.

The Atkinsons lived an exorbitant lifestyle complete with mansions, fleets of exotic cars and more than 1,100 employees but their property was auctioned or put up for sale as part of the bankruptcy proceedings. The brothers' wives were allowed to keep $500,000 plus $75,000 in jewelry, but can not turn those assets over to their husbands.

High stakes

The stakes are high for both brothers in the criminal action. Due to a 1986 conviction for theft, burglary and forgery and a 1987 conviction for manufacturing counterfeit Federal Reserve notes, Darain Atkinson could be considered a persistent felony offender and could face life in prison if convicted.

Cory Atkinson, who has a 1987 felony conviction for trespassing, faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

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Don't Fall For Cell Phone Radiation Scams

Best solution is to talk less, use the speakerphone feature

Don't Fall For Cell Phone Radiation ScamsBest solution is to talk less, use the speakerphone feature...

photoAmid concerns about possible health risks associated with cell phones, the Federal Trade Commission advises consumers to avoid products that supposedly “shield” users from cell phone emissions.

According to the FTC, there is no scientific proof that so-called shields significantly reduce exposure from cell phone emissions.

In fact, products that block only part of the phone, such as the earpiece, are totally ineffective because the entire phone emits electromagnetic waves. By interfering with the phone’s signal, phony shields may cause it to draw even more power and possibly emit more radiation.

Health studies about any relationship between the emissions from cell phones and health problems are ongoing. But for those consumers who want to limit their exposure to cell phone emissions, the FTC offers these tips:

  • Use an earpiece or the speakerphone feature.

  • Consider texting more, and keep calls brief.

  • Wait for a good signal. When you have a weak signal, your phone works harder and emits more radiation. Phones emit more radiation when transmitting than when receiving, so tilt the phone away from your head when you’re talking.

  • Before you buy a phone, research its specific absorption rate (SAR), which tells how much radiation the body absorbs while using the phone. Different phones emit different amounts of radiation. In the U.S., a phone’s SAR cannot exceed 1.6 watts per kilogram. The Federal Communications Commission has SAR information for cell phones produced and marketed within the last two years. It’s accessible using the phone’s FCC ID number (usually found on the phone’s case) and the FCC’s ID search form.

For more information on cell phone use and health issues, see the National Cancer Institute’s fact sheet, Cell Phones and Cancer Risk. To avoid scams, read the FTC’s consumer alert, Listen Up: Tips to Help Avoid Cell Phone Radiation Scams

 

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Scam Artists Discover the MoneyPak

Consumers being swindled when they give out their MoneyPak number

Scam Artists Discover the MoneyPak. Consumers being swindled when they give out their MoneyPak number...

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FDA Warns of Heart Attack Risk for Chantix Users

Smoking-cessation drug is effective but carries some risk

FDA Warns of Heart Attack Risk for Chantix Users. Smoking-cessation drug is effective but carries some risk...

photoEveryone knows that smoking is bad for you. Among other things, it can contribute to heart disease. And now it turns out that the smoking-cessation drug Chantix may cause problems for consumers who have cardiovascular disease.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it has determined that Chantix (varenicline) may be associated with a small, increased risk of heart attacks and other "cardiovascular adverse events" in patients who have cardiovascular disease.

New warnings will be added to the drug's labeling and medication guides.

The FDA said it reviewed a randomized clinical trial of 700 smokers with cardiovascular disease who were treated with Chantix or placebo.

The good news is that Chantix was effective in helping patients quit smoking and remain abstinent from smoking for as long as one year.

But while cardiovascular adverse events were infrequent overall, certain events, including heart attack, were reported more frequently in patients treated with Chantix than in patients treated with placebo.

Benefits vs. risk

Healthcare professionals should be aware that smoking is an independent and major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and smoking cessation is of particular importance in this patient population. The known benefits of Chantix should be weighed against its potential risks when deciding to use the drug in smokers with cardiovascular disease.

Patients taking Chantix should contact their healthcare professional if they experience new or worsening symptoms of cardiovascular disease.

Additional information

The FDA offers these tips to patients:

  • Smoking is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and Chantix can help you quit smoking.

  • If you have cardiovascular disease, taking Chantix may increase your risk of certain cardiovascular adverse events.

  • Contact your healthcare professional if you experience new or worsening symptoms of cardiovascular disease while taking Chantix, for example:

    • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing

    • New or worsening chest pain

    • New or worse pain in legs when walking

  • Read the Medication Guide you get along with your Chantix prescription. It explains the risks associated with the use of Chantix.

  • Talk to your healthcare professional if you have questions or concerns about Chantix.

  • Report side effects from the use of Chantix to the FDA MedWatch program.

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Coming Soon: TV You Can Smell

Researchers say they added smell to the senses media can stimulate

Researchers says they have proven it is possible to coordinate smells with TV programs...

photoForget 3-D TV. If you really want to impress your friends, hold out for Smell TV, which could be coming soon to living rooms as set designers continue to press the envelope of sensory stimulation.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, conducted in collaboration with Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Korea, have published a paper they say demonstrates that it is possible to generate odor, at will, in a compact device small enough to fit on the back of your TV with potentially thousands of odors.

The objective would be to match smells with images on the screen, to give the viewer a more complete sensory experience.

“For example, if people are eating pizza, the viewer smells pizza coming from a TV or cell phone,” said Sungho Jin, professor in the departments of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and NanoEngineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. “And if a beautiful lady walks by, they smell perfume. Instantaneously generated fragrances or odors would match the scene shown on a TV or cell phone, and that’s the idea.”

Wake up and smell the coffee

Advertisers could also jump of the bandwagon as well. Think about a commercial for coffee, with an actor inhaling the aroma of a freshly brewed cup. At the same instant, the viewer would also get a whiff of coffee smell.

Whether advertisers – or even viewers – would respond favorably to Smell TV is the subject for another study. Jin and his team say they've only shown that it is technically feasible. The scent comes from an aqueous solution such as ammonia, which forms an odorous gas when heated through a thin metal wire by an electrical current. The solution is kept in a compartment made of non-toxic, non-flammable silicone elastomer. As the heat and odor pressure build, a tiny compressed hole in the elastomer is opened, releasing the odor.

“It is quite doable,” said Jin.

Next steps

Next steps in the research would include developing a prototype and demonstrating that it is reliable enough to release odors on cue and scalable to the size needed for consumer electronics like TVs and cell phones. And there are a few other considerations.

For example, perfume companies could let you sample new scents through TV, but your TV’s odor-generating device would have to carry that particular perfume meaning the device probably needs to be upgradable like software for your home computer. And TV producers will probably want scents that are tailored to match the personalities of their characters.

“That’s a logistics problem,” said Jin. “But in specific applications one can always think of a way.”

 

 

 

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2011 Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep Models Recalled

Rivet may be missing from steering column

2011 Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep Models Recalled. Rivet may be missing from steering column...

photoChrysler is recalling about 11,000 vehicles from the 2011 model year to fix a problem with the steering column. Affected models are:

Vehicle Make / Model:

   

Model Year(s):

     CHRYSLER / 200

   

2011

     CHRYSLER / 200 CONVERTIBLE

   

2011

     CHRYSLER / TOWN AND COUNTRY

   

2011

     DODGE / AVENGER

   

2011

     DODGE / CALIBER

   

2011

     DODGE / GRAND CARAVAN

   

2011

     DODGE / JOURNEY

   

2011

     DODGE / NITRO

   

2011

     JEEP / COMPASS

   

2011

     JEEP / LIBERTY

   

2011

     JEEP / PATRIOT

   

2011

     JEEP / WRANGLER

   

2011

The company said an incorrectly installed rivet could compromise the steering column's ability to support occupant loads in the event of a crash, decreasing the effectiveness of the frontal impact safety system.

Dealers will inspect the rivet and make any necessary repairs free of charge. Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-853-1403.

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What's On Your Mind? Cub Cadet, Barnes & Noble, State Farm

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Cub Cadet, Barnes & Noble, State Farm, When a gift card isn't enough and Privileged information....

photoKris, of Walton, Ore., says she considered her 2008 purchase of a Cub Cadet tractor mower as an investment. She says it's turned out to be a bad one.

“In 2008, after 23 hours of mowing, it was into the shop for five weeks at the most critical mowing time,” Kris said. “The muffler came loose and melted the lift-up hood. The PTO blades would not engage and the repair cost ws more than $300.”

And that was just the first year. After another 20 hours of mowing in 2009, she said there was another $300 in repairs. Last year, more repairs, including a cracked engine block that Cub Cadet agreed to replace, even though the machine was out of warranty.

“I will never have the money to purchase a replacement mower,” Kris said. “Guess I'll get a goat.”

When a gift card isn't enough

Michelle, of New York City, went shopping for her 12 year old grandson's birthday and settled on a Nook e-reader from Barnes And Noble. She asked the clerk how she could put money on the reader for her grandson to pay for downloads.

“I was told just buy a Nook gift card and he could do it himself,” Michelle told ConsumerAffairs.com.

But it didn't work out that way. Michelle got a call from her grandson, who said he couldn't use the gift card without also having a credit card.

“They advertise this as a great gift for children, but they don't tell you that you have to turn over your credit card to a kid,” Michelle said.

Privileged information

Stephanie, of Lockport, N.Y., wants to know how State Farm Insurance arrives at her premium amount. She's had coverage for decades and recently noticed a change in her Customer Rating Index.

“I called my local agent for an explanation and she hemmed an hawed before telling me I would have to call the headquarters for an explanation,” Stephanie said. “I called the main office of my policy, Ballston Spa, NY, and spoke with several representatives and supervisors. I was flatly told they will not tell me the formula used to calculate my insurance premium, that it is private.”

Stephanie's point is this: when her premium goes up, how does she know whether it's a rate hike or is based in information about her – information that may not be correct. She would simply like some transparency. It doesn't seem all that unreasonable.

An iphone with legs?

This economy has a way of putting priorities in perspective. Lynae, of La Jara, Colo., had two iPhones but was having trouble feeding her children, so she returned the phones to AT&T for a refund.

“I tracked the two phones to the warehouse,” Lynae told ConsumerAffairs.com. I received one refund but not the other. I faxed them information showing them that the warehouse received both iPhones but they say they never received it. They will not refund me my money that I paid for the iPhone.”

It's not clear how the AT&T warehouse could say they did not receive the second iPhone if Lynae has documentation of delivery. But if both phones were shipped in the same box, the delivery confirmation might only note that a box was received, not what it contained. It sounds like the second iPhone could have grown legs and wandered home with someone.

 

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Foreclosure Filings Hit Four-Year Low

But the housing crisis is far from over

The number of foreclosure filings in May hit its lowest level in four years...

photoLast month's foreclosure filings, as counted by foreclosure marketer RealtyTrac, hit the lowest point in four years. Is the housing crises over?

Hardly.  Banks are still overloaded with bad loans, but RealtyTrac says they are simply waiting before beginning the foreclosure process.

“Foreclosure processing delays continue to mask the true face of the foreclosure situation,” said James J. Saccacio, RealtyTrac’s CEO. “Even at a significantly lower level than a year ago, the new supply of REOs exceeds the amount being sold each month.”

By RealtyTrac's count, a total of 214,927 properties received default, auction or repossession notices last month. That's the lowest number since November 2007. Filings dropped 33 percent from a year earlier and 2 percent from April. One in 605 households got a notice in May.

This is part of a year-long trend. Foreclosure filings have fallen in the last eight straight months, following revelations that loan servicers broke rules by using robo-signers to process foreclosure documents. Banks began slamming on the brakes as they retooled their in-house processes.

Weak demand

Something else may be a work. There is such weak demand from buyers, banks may feel it is self-defeating to place even more foreclosed properties on the market. At some point, however, most industry analysts expect these homes to be put up for sale.

Meanwhile, an estimated 28 percent of mortgage-holders are now underwater on their loans, meaning they owe more than the house is worth. These homeowners are in the greatest danger of foreclosure, since they have little motivation to hold on.

High unemployment is also putting added pressure on homeowners, many of whom find they can no longer afford to make their payments.

As real estate is all about location, the foreclosure crisis continues to be centered in the same handful of states. Nevada had the highest rate of foreclosure per household again last month, with one in 103 getting a notice. Arizona was second, followed by California, Michigan, Utah, Georgia, Idaho, Florida, Illinois and Colorado.

 

 

 

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A New Way to Find a Parking Space

Streetline's "Parker" is a free parking app (not a free-parking app)

A New Way to Find a Parking Space Streetline's "Parker" is a free parking app (not a free-parking app)...

graphicThe idea of charging highway tolls based on traffic has been around for awhile but how about an app that matches the price of a parking spot to how many drivers are competing for it?

That's the idea behind Streetline, a start-up firm that yesterday raised $15 million from investors including a venture firm co-founded by Ford Motor Co. chairman Bill Ford.

"Streetline's pioneering real-time smart parking technology will be instrumental in improving personal mobility across the globe," Ford said.

Streetline, based in parking-deprived San Francisco, says it will use the $15 million to expand its "suite of sensor-enabled mobile and web-based smart city and smart parking solutions," which it says are "revolutionizing how cities reduce congestion and emissions by tackling a key, but often overlooked source: drivers searching for parking."

Experts estimate that 30 percent of urban traffic is caused by motorists looking for parking, the company says. Additionally, vehicle emissions resulting from drivers looking for parking are so closely linked that a year-long study found that drivers in a 15 block district in Los Angeles drove in excess of 950,000 miles, produced 730 tons of carbon dioxide and used 47,000 gallons of gas searching for parking.

Wireless sensors

Streetline's "smart parking platform" promises to detect the presence of a car through a network of ultra-low power wireless sensors located in individual parking spaces. By downloading the free app dubbed "Parker" onto a smartphone or compatible tablet, consumers can access real-time parking availability – with icons noting more than four spaces available (plenty of parking), more than two spaces available (some parking), or less than two spaces available (limited parking).

The app also delivers information about parking space time limits, pricing, whether meters take credit cards or coins, and space capacity for select off-street parking facilities including structures and lots.

Besides San Francisco, the company is deploying its sensors in other California cities and in Maryland, New York, Texas, Utah, and Washington D.C. 

To download the free Parker app, visit the Android Market or the iTunes Store.

Yes, that's right -- the app is free.  Not the parking, though.  Although Parker promises to help you find a space, it also promises its municipal customers that it will help them sell their available parking spaces for the best possible (i.e., highest) price.

 

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Lawyers Seek to Tie Zoloft to Birth Defects

Studies have shown the popular antidepressant carries a slight risk of malformations

Lawyers Seek to Tie Zoloft to Birth Defects. Studies have shown the popular antidepressant carries a slight risk of malformations....

photoLaw firms are drawing a bead on Zoloft and other popular antidepressants, shopping for women who have given birth to infants with serious birth defects.  Stories planted around the Web say various law firms are "reviewing claims," legal jargon for shopping for plaintiffs.

Zoloft is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), the same class of drug as Paxil. Studies have indicated such drugs may carry a slight risk of contributing to serious birth defects and Zoloft is especially vulnerable because it is so widely-used.

What's complicating the situation is that the risk occurs as early as the first trimester, when many women do not know they are pregnant. By the time the pregnancy becomes known, the damage may have been done.

Tapering off

There is then the problem of tapering off Zoloft when the pregnancy is discovered. The drug has a half-life of about one day – meaning that for every day that passes without taking the medication, the level in the blood falls by 50%.

If one stops taking the drug too rapidly, discontinuation syndrome may develop, with symptoms of weakness, anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain and lightheadedness.

Tapering off Zoloft should be done only under a doctor's supervision. Women who are clinically depressed then face the problem of finding another drug that effectively treats their depression without undue risk of birth defects.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises women who are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant should not stop any antidepressant without first consulting their physician and says the decision to continue medication or not should be made only after there has been careful consideration of the potential benefits and risks of the medication for each individual pregnant patient.

A 2006 study published in JAMA reported that women who stropped taking their meds during pregnancy were five times more likely to have a relapse of depression during the pregnancy than women who continued to take their medications.

No warning?

Law firms readying litigation against Zoloft are likely to argue that the drug's manufacturer, Pfizer, does not adequately warn women about the risk of birth defects, although in November 2006, the FDA added warnings about the risks, which include heart defects, persistent pulmonary hypertension in newborns (PPHN), lung defects, abdominal defects, cranial defects and other malformations.

In June 2007, studies found an association between the use of antidepressants like Zoloft early in the pregnancy and a risk of abnormal skull development, gastrointestinal abnormality and brain defects.

In September 2009, a study published in the British Medical Journal found that SSRI antidepressants like Zoloft increase the risk of heart defects when taken during the first trimester, a time when many women do not know they are pregnant.

 

 

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Lower Gas Prices Keep May Inflation Down

But core rates rises at fastest pace in three years

The May inflation rate looks tame, until you look more closely...

The prices consumers pay for products and services rose in May, but not by much. The Labor Department reports May's Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose 0.2 percent, led by food, new cars and apparel.

The decline, the first in six months, was mostly made possible by a one percent decline in the price of gasoline. Fuel costs, which had risen for several straight months, peaked in early May and have been falling ever since.

When the volatile food and energy sectors are excluded from the equation, however, the so-called “core” inflation rate rose 0.3 percent, the biggest jump in nearly three years. That causes economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa., to view inflation – not as slowing down – but as picking up speed.

“I am not exactly sure what Ben Bernanke is looking at but my view of the inflation situation is it is on a clear upward trend,” Naroff said. “The core will likely reach if not exceed the Fed Chairman?s desired level by the end of the year.  And if the economy does recovery as energy prices decline, look for the core to keep on rising.”

Last month vehicle and clothing costs soared, medical care was, as usual, more expensive, education expenses jumped and the cost of entertainment climbed. The increases may have been modest, but Naroff says prices rose almost across the board.

There was also an indication of what is happening with real estate values. The bottom line, he says, is that the Fed is not likely to raise rates anytime soon.

 

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Target Expands Recall of Child Booster Seats

Restraint buckle can open unexpectedly

Target Expands Recall of Child Booster Seats Restraint buckle can open unexpectedly ...

photoTarget is recalling about 375,000 Circo child booster seats. The booster seat’s restraint buckle can open unexpectedly, allowing a child to fall from the chair and be injured.

Target recalled 43,000 of the seats in August 2009. The current recall was launched after additional reports of injuries and mishaps.

Target has received 10 additional reports of booster seat buckles opening unexpectedly, including three reports of bumps and/or bruises when a child fell forward out of the booster seat, hitting an object or the floor.

The expanded recall involves all Circo Booster Seats, including those sold as early as 2005. The plastic booster seats are blue with green trim and a white plastic restraint buckle. They attach to an adult chair to boost a child to a table. “Circo” and “Booster Seat” can be found on a green label located in the front of the booster seat.

Target stores sold the seats nationwide from January 2005 through June 2009 for about $13. They were made in China.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled booster seats and return them to any Target store for a full refund.

For additional information, contact Target at (800) 440-0680 between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm’s website at www.target.com

 

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A New Wrinkle In Fake Payday Loan Scam

Copy cat scammer claims to be police officer threatening arrest

The fake payday loan scam continues, and is attracting copy cats...

photoFor a couple of years now, a scammer, described as “having a thick accent” has been terrorizing consumers, posing as a debt collector for a payday loan company and making all sorts of abusive threats. The objective is to frighten victims into paying a phony debt with their debit or credit cards.

While this particular scam has continued unabated over the months, it appears to have spawned at least one copy cat scam, which has shown up in North Carolina and perhaps other states as well. In North Carolina, consumers have reported phone calls from a scammer claiming to be a police officer, prepared to arrest the victim for an unpaid debt. Of course, nothing like that is legal.

“Don’t let scammers intimidate you into paying debts you don’t owe,” said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. “These calls come from crooks, not real law enforcement officers.”

The callers say they are from the “Federal State Bureau of North Carolina,” a completely fictitious, and nonsensical agency. The callers tell people they owe a debt and must pay it now or go to jail. The telephone number is a Google Voice number that Cooper says could be coming from anywhere in the world.

If you receive a similar call:

  • Don’t give out your personal information, particularly your bank account and credit card information.
  • Check your credit reports for free at www.annualcreditreport.com or 1-877-322-8228 to spot any unauthorized credit cards or loans taken out in your name.
  • Consider a free security freeze to block unauthorized use of your credit. For information about how to get place a security freeze on your credit.
  • Remember that legitimate debt collectors will provide you with written proof of a debt. They are not allowed to use profanity or threaten you with violence or arrest, and they must follow rules about when and how they contact you.
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What's On Your Mind? Verizon Wireless, Sears, Expedia

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Verizon Wireless, Sears, Expedia, Out in the cold, Your word against theirs and online travel sites....

logoGot the latest smartphone? Jodi, of Centereach, N.Y., doesn't. She says she has just an ordinary “old” phone that allows her to talk and send text messages through Verizon Wireless.

“My plan is for $59 per month, however, with all of the hidden fees it always comes in around $83,” Jodi told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I still paid it early this month but they slapped me with a $167 bill for overage charges!”

Jodi said the company was willing to credit her $41, but she thinks that's not nearly enough. Our advice is for Jodi to take her bill to a Verizon Wireless store and ask a customer service rep to explain to her why her bill is so high. If she doesn't have an unlimited text package on her account, text messages can really add up.

Out in the cold

Randy, of Honolulu, Hi., is another consumer having problems with a new, high-tech refrigerator.

“Our Kenmore Elite Trio Refrigerator, model number 59676593600, is stuck in defrost mode for the third time,” Randy said. “Sears replaced the touchpad twice, the defrost sensor and thermostat sensor once. We're waiting the two weeks till they come and the fridge is starting to stink. Any diagnostic codes so as to not be at the BlueGuy’s mercy, and actually know what’s failed?”

If anyone has a clue, let us know and we'll pass it on. If we were in the market for a new fridge, we think we would look for a stripped-down model with no bells and whistles. That way, there are fewer things to go wrong.

Your word against theirs

If you use an online travel site to book your travel, you might save a few dollars. Then again, you might not.

“I booked a vacation package, a trip for two to Las Vegas,” Jason, of Campbell River, British Columbia, told ConsumerAffairs.com. “One week before we were to travel my wife broke her ankle. I called to cancel the trip. The agent at Expedia told me that I would get a refund for the hotel because I called early enough. I was told I would receive a credit with the airline for the flight. I asked the agent if there was a reference number for the call and was told I didn't need one -- everything was canceled.”

Two months later Jason said he still had not received the credit. He called back and said he was told that he no longer would get a refund because he did not cancel the trip.

“After being on hold for 45 minutes, then being disconnected, I called back,” he said. “The new agent could not find a record of my call and we started over. After explaining again I was put on hold for 30 minutes then disconnected. I eventually was able to speak to an agent in the escalation department.”

But not only was there no recorded transaction, Jason said the agent told him the notes in the file said he didn't cancel. It's worth remembering that most discounted travel is not fully refundable.  That's one of the reasons it's discounted.  Next time, Jason should  look into optional trip insurance, which can pay all or part of the cost if you have to cancel your plans.

 

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Latest Scam Email Claims to be From the FBI

Recipients are instructed to send $350 immediately

Latest Scam Email Claims to be From the FBI. Recipients are instructed to send $350 immediately....

One of the latest email scams claims to be from none other than the FBI, according to the Oregon Department of Justice, which says it has received numerous complaints.  So far, we've seen no alerts from the U.S. Department of Justice or the FBI.

The fake email(image below) claims to be from the FBI and requests $350 from the recipient to obtain a “Clearance Certificate.” The email threatens to send an agent to the recipient’s home for questioning, and/or other legal sanctions if they fail to contact the Department of Homeland Security within 24 hours in order to obtain their “Clearance Certificate.”

The email also lists contact information for the FBI in WashingtonD.C., and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in Lagos, Nigeria.

What to do 

Do not respond to these emails. They are being sent by scam artists to a large number of people with the intent of obtaining personal or financial information.

Fake email solicitations – also commonly known as Nigerian email scams – are among the most common scams reported

To avoid the FBI email scam, Oregon Attorney General John Kroger offers the following advice:

  • Be wary of unsolicited emails.

  • A government agency will never request your contact information, Social Security Number, banking information, or credit card numbers in an email.

  • A government agency does not threaten people with legal action such as investigation, jail, or prosecution for failure to respond to an email solicitation. 

  • Consider any email solicitation that lists multiple offices as a red flag.

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Formaldehyde Added to List of Carcinogens

Chemical industry opposes action, which has been pending for years

Formaldehyde Added to List of Carcinogens. Chemical industry opposes action, which has been pending for years...

photoThe U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has, after years of prodding, added formaldehyde to its list of known cancer-causing agents, along with a botanical known as aristolochic acids.

Six other substances were added as possible human carcinogens.— captafol, cobalt-tungsten carbide (in powder or hard metal form), certain inhalable glass wool fibers, o-nitrotoluene, riddelliine, and styrene.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has for years been trying to update its risk assessment for formaldehyde but has been stymied by resistance from the chemical manufacturing industry.

The chemical industry was quick to criticize HHS' decision.

“We are extremely disappointed that HHS has moved forward with listing formaldehyde ... as a ‘known human carcinogen.’ By doing so, HHS ignored the recently released, independent, peer-review report from the National Research Council, which strongly questioned whether the scientific evidence supports the claim of human carcinogen for leukemia. Also, the World Health Organization indicates that normal human exposures do not present a risk of cancer,” said Cal Dooley, President and CEO, American Chemistry Council.

The Report on Carcinogens is a congressionally mandated document that identifies agents, substances, mixtures, or exposures in two categories: known to be a human carcinogen and reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.

A listing in the Report on Carcinogens does not by itself mean that a substance will cause cancer. Many factors, including the amount and duration of exposure, and an individual’s susceptibility to a substance, affect whether a person will develop cancer.

"Reducing exposure to cancer-causing agents is something we all want, and the Report on Carcinogens provides important information on substances that pose a cancer risk," said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of both the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program (NTP).

The process

Once a substance is nominated by the public or private sector and selected for consideration, it undergoes an extensive evaluation with numerous opportunities for scientific and public input. There were at least six opportunities for public input on each substance, HHS said. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) used established criteria to evaluate the scientific evidence on each candidate substance under review and drew upon the scientific expertise of several federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, HHS said in a statement.

"The strength of this report lies in the rigorous scientific review process," said Ruth Lunn, Dr.P.H., director of the NTP Office of the Report on Carcinogens. "We could not have completed this report without the significant input we received from the public, industry, academia, and other government agencies."

Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde was first listed in the 2nd Report on Carcinogens as a substance that was reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen, after laboratory studies showed it caused nasal cancer in rats.

There is now sufficient evidence from studies in humans to show that individuals with higher measures of exposure to formaldehyde are at increased risk for certain types of rare cancers, including nasopharyngeal (the nasopharnyx is the upper part of the throat behind the nose), sinonasal, as well as a specific cancer of the white blood cells known as myeloid leukemia, HHS said.

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical that is widely used to make resins for household items, such as composite wood products, paper product coatings, plastics, synthetic fibers, and textile finishes. Formaldehyde is also commonly used as a preservative in medical laboratories, mortuaries, and some consumer products, including some hair straightening products.

Aristolochic acids

Aristolochic acids have been shown to cause high rates of bladder or upper urinary tract cancer among individuals with kidney or renal disease who consumed botanical products containing aristolochic acids. Aristolochic acids are a family of acids that occur naturally in some plant species.

Despite a warning issued in 2001 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that advised consumers to discontinue use of any botanical products containing aristolochic acids, they can still be purchased on the Internet and abroad, and may be found as a contaminant in herbal products used to treat a variety of symptoms and diseases, such as arthritis, gout, and inflammation.

 

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Study: Doctors Prescribe Too Many Drugs

Fewer drugs would save lives and money, researchers say

Researchers say Americans would live longer and save money by taking fewer drugs...

photoAmericans would not only save money, but might be in better health if they didn't take so many prescription drugs. That's the conclusion of researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy.

Their study appears in the online edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine as part of the journal's "Less is More" series.

Several studies over the past decade have concluded that the use of many new and frequently-prescribed medications was either harmful or not beneficial to patients, says Bruce Lambert, co-author of the paper and professor of pharmacy administration.

Using the prior research as a guide, 24 principles were developed that can help prescribers avoid excessive and harmful prescribing, said Lambert, who is director of UIC's Center for Education and Research on Therapeutics.

Radical, but conservative

"None of these principles are particularly novel, nor should they be terribly controversial," he said. "But taken together they represent a radical shift in the way clinicians think about and prescribe drugs."

Ironically, the radical shift is known as "conservative prescribing," and if adopted by every prescriber, could save many lives and dollars, Lambert said.

Dr. Gordon Schiff, co-author of the report, says physicians need to move away from the mindset that leads them to heavily prescribe the "latest and greatest" new drugs, to "fewer and more time tested is best."

24 principles

The report identified 24 principles of conservative prescribing, including the consideration of non-drug therapies such as diet, exercise or physical therapy. The report says doctors should look for and treat underlying causes rather than just masking symptoms with drugs; emphasize prevention rather than treatment.

Physicians are also urged to avoid frequent drug switching and be vigilant for side effects when a patient begins a new drug therapy.

Americans spend more than $307 billion on medication in 2010, according to the consulting firm IMS Health. The most-prescribed drugs are those that lower cholesterol and fight depression.

 

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Fixing A Big Company's Mistake Is Rarely Simple

One consumer's descent into customer service hell

When a big company makes a mistakes, it can be nearly impossible to find someone who can resolve it....

photoForgive Tammy, of Barre, Vermont, if she feels a bit like Don Quixote, but tilting at windmills is nothing compared to trying to straighten out a mistake in a major corporation's customer service department.

Her saga began on March 31, when her mother stopped by her home and asked if she could use her daughter's credit card to order service from DIREC TV.

“She does not have a credit card and one is required in order to set up an account,” Tammy told ConsumerAffairs.com. “We called their number and carefully explained, at least three times, that the phone number we were calling from was not my mother's. We gave them her number several times.

After a lengthy conversation, Tammy said the order was placed. The installation cost of $21.15 was charged to her VISA card on that date, and was subsequently paid.

Signs of trouble

The first sign that this relatively simple transaction had gone horribly wrong was when Tammy got a call two days before the scheduled install, verifying that the equipment was being installed at her home.

“I explained, again, that they were calling the wrong number,” Tammy said. “The staff person assured me she would take care of that. One day before the scheduled visit, DIREC TV called me again to verify the site. Again, I gave them my mother's number.”

But it still wasn't straightened out, Tammy says. On the day of the installation, she says the dish installation person called her to make sure someone was home for the install. Once again, she says she explained the whole thing again and gave him her mother's number.

“Two hours later, the driver called me again to say he was running late,” Tammy said. “By that time I had given up any hope that they could get the correct phone number on their records so I just said OK and called my mother to make sure she was home.”

Somehow, the equipment was installed at the correct location and Tammy breathed a sign of relief. But her ordeal was just beginning.

Mystery charge

“On May 28th, I opened my Visa bill to make the payment,” Tammy said. “On it is an April 11, 2011 charge from DIREC TV in the amount of $862.66!”

Tammy said she called the DIREC TV customer service line and went through the lengthy process of getting a live person on the line, only to be told that there was no record of the charges anywhere. She said she was told to complete the dispute form that was emailed to her and fax it back to the fax number provided. She said she do so within the hour.

“According to the instructions and to the lady I was speaking with, they needed to get back to me within 10 business days, which put the date at June 10, Tammy said. I called on June 9 in hopes that perhaps it had been taken care of, but it had not.”

Once again, Tammy said she had to go through the lengthy process of getting a live person on the line. Even after that, there was more confusion.

“The system obviously doesn't recognize my mother's phone number, and would only repeat my number as being the one that they 'see I am calling from.' When I finally got a live person, she had no idea what I was talking about and I had to explain it all again.”

Tammy said she called again the following day and had to explain everything one more time.

We'll get back to you

“I was told that it is a matter for the Financial Department and that they would return my call on that day,” Tammy said. “I asked if there was a job number, or anything, that I could refer to in case I didn't hear from them and had to call back. She said there was not. Needless to say, they never called.”

On June 11, Tammy said she tried again, calling the DIREC TV number listed for her area. The recording said they were closed on weekends. She called another toll-free number and told the automated system she was calling about “billing questions.”

“There was a lot of squealing on the line, then another recording that said 'We're sorry, your call was unable to be completed. Please hang up and dial the toll free number again.' I did call again and got the same results,” Tammy said.

She called back and this time, said she pushed the button for “new service.” Almost instantly, she was connected with a customer service rep.

“I explained most of it again before she agreed me that it was a matter for the billing department and that she would transfer me,” Tammy said. “After a while, the recording came back on and I was right back to the same beginning menu.”

Nothing we can do

After spending most of her Saturday morning making calls, navigating the phone tree and sitting on hold, Tammy said she was finally able to speak with a supervisor. After explaining her situation again, no doubt memorized by now, the supervisor told her what everyone else had told her.

There was no charge on her account, because she didn't have an account. There was also no charge on her mother's account. As for resolving the $862.66 charge on Tammy's credit card, she said the supervisor saw no way for his company to rectify it.

“He suggested that I simply go through my financial institution, 'which is the way they prefer it,'” Tammy said.

So Tammy's only recourse is to dispute the erroneous charge with her credit card company, letting them charge back the amount to DIREC TV. That may, in fact, resolve the issue, but won't compensate her for the hours she spent, away from her small business, dealing with the matter.

“I am quite angry at how absolutely impossible it seems to solve what I consider a simple matter,” Tammy said.

Why are large companies seemingly incapable of resolving mistakes? Maybe it's an over reliance on automated systems or too few people in positions of accountability. Whatever the reason, it is changing the way many consumers view the companies they do business with – or in Tammy's case, don't do business with.

And it all began when she did a favor for her mother. These days, it seems, no good deed goes unpunished.

 

 

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CitiGroup Presssed for More Answers on Data Breach

Connecticut attorney general says company has "failed to explain" the incident

CitiGroup Presssed for More Answers on Data Breach Connecticut attorney general says company has "failed to explain" the incident...

logoConnecticut Attorney General George Jepsen wants more information from Citigroup because he says the company’s disclosures about a recent data breach fail to explain how it occurred and what is being done to protect affected customers from potential financial fraud.

“As one of the largest lending institutions in the country, Citigroup must assiduously protect the personal information it collects from its customers and employ the highest levels of data security. I expect Citigroup to fully compensate and protect any Connecticut consumers harmed as a result of this breach,” Jepsen wrote in a letter Monday to the corporation’s chief executive officer and general counsel.

Citigroup said last week that account information – name, account number and contact information, including e-mail address -- of approximately 1 percent of its Citi North America bankcard customers was viewed as a result of “unauthorized access” to Citi’s Account Online.

Delayed warning

It turns out, however, that the attack occurred nearly a month before the bank got around to telling anyone about it.

“Unfortunately, critical facts about the intrusion remain unclear, including details concerning the number and characteristics of impacted accounts, the cause of the breach, the steps taken to notify and protect the affected individuals, and the nature of any procedures adopted to prevent future data breaches,” Jepsen said.

Citi says it took all appropriate measures.

“Citi immediately rectified the data breach upon discovery, while also placing internal fraud alerts and monitoring on all accounts at risk,” a spokesman said. “Simultaneously, we began analysis to determine the precise accounts and type of information accessed, which resulted in roughly 1 percent of North America Citi-branded credit cards. Within three weeks -- June 3 precisely -- we began sending notification letters to clients, the majority of which included re-issued credit cards.”

 

 

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Not All Sunscreens Are Created Equal

Using the wrong sunscreen can result in sunburn, or worse

Not All Sunscreens Are Created Equal. Using the wrong sunscreen can result in sunburn, or worse...

photoSlathering on sunscreen before you venture out is a good idea but it's only effective if you pick the right sunscreen.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has come up with some new measures that are supposed to make it easier to find an effective sunscreen. They include:

  • final regulations that establish standards for testing the effectiveness of sunscreen products and require labeling that accurately reflects test results

  • a proposed regulation that would limit the maximum SPF value on sunscreen labeling to “SPF 50+”

  • a data request for safety and effectiveness information for sunscreen products formulated in certain dosage forms (e.g., sprays)

  • a draft guidance for sunscreen manufacturers on how to test and label their products in light of these new measures.

These measures are necessary, says Lydia Velazquez, PharmD, in FDA’s Division of Nonprescription Regulation Development, because “our scientific understanding has grown. We want consumers to understand that not all sunscreens are created equal.”

“This new information will help consumers know which products offer the best protection from the harmful rays of the sun,” Velazquez says.  “It is important for consumers to read the entire label, both front and back, in order to choose the appropriate sunscreen for their needs.”

Everyone is potentially susceptible to sunburn and the other detrimental effects of exposure to UV radiation.

FDA's final regulations

The final regulations, which become effective in one year, establish a standard test for over-the-counter (sold without a prescription) sunscreen products that will determine which products are allowed to be labeled as “Broad Spectrum.” 

Products that pass this test will provide protection against both ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) and ultraviolet A radiation (UVA).  Sunburn is primarily caused by UVB.  Both UVB and UVA can cause sunburn, skin cancer, and premature skin aging.  A certain percentage of a broad spectrum product’s total protection is against UVA. 

Under the new regulations, sunscreen products that protect against all types of sun-induced skin damage will be labeled "Broad Spectrum" and “SPF 15” (or higher) on the front.

The new labeling will also tell consumers on the back of the product that sunscreens labeled as both “Broad Spectrum” and “SPF 15” (or higher) not only protect against sunburn, but, if used as directed with other sun protection measures, can reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. For these broad spectrum products, higher SPF (Sun Protection Factor) values also indicate higher levels of overall protection.

By contrast, any sunscreen not labeled as “Broad Spectrum” or that has an SPF value between 2 and 14, has only been shown to help prevent sunburn.

Reynold Tan, a scientist in FDA’s Division of Nonprescription Regulation Development, notes that FDA has been developing testing and labeling requirements for sunscreen products for decades. However, only recently have the data become sufficient to establish an accurate and reliable test for broad spectrum UV protection, he says.

To help consumers select and use sunscreens appropriately, the final regulations include these additional labeling provisions:

  • Sunscreen products that are not broad spectrum or that are broad spectrum with SPF values from 2 to14 will be labeled with a warning that reads: “Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert:  Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.” 

  • Water resistance claims on the product's front label must tell how much time a user can expect to get the declared SPF level of protection while swimming or sweating, based on standard testing. Two times will be permitted on labels: 40 minutes or 80 minutes.

  • Manufacturers cannot make claims that sunscreens are “waterproof” or “sweatproof, or identify their products as “sunblocks.”   Also, sunscreens cannot claim protection immediately on application (for example, “instant protection”) or protection for more than two hours without reapplication, unless they submit data and get approval from FDA.

Sun safety tips

Spending time in the sun increases the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging.  To reduce this risk, consumers should regularly use sun protection measures including:

  • Use sunscreens with broad spectrum SPF values of 15 or higher regularly and as directed.

  • Limit time in the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are most intense.

  • Wear clothing to cover skin exposed to the sun; for example, long-sleeved shirts, pants, sunglasses, and broad-brimmed hats.

  • Reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours, more often if you’re sweating or jumping in and out of the water.

 

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What's On Your Mind? Time Warner, Michigan Bulb Company, Sirius

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Time Warner, Michigan Bulb Company, Sirius, Late Spring, Put the debit card away and Play hardball....

logoCable TV companies now offer phone service and phone companies now offer cable TV service. Different companies have different policies, but Time Warner's seems a bit odd, at least the way Darlene of Coronado, Calif., tells it.

“For the past several month’s Time Warner has blocked my international phone service saying that I am past due,” Darlene told ConsumerAffairs.com. I explained that my last statement was in May, and have not received another statement. The rep. said my statement would be mailed out next week, but I would not have service until it was paid.”

So, was Darlene's account past due? Darlene said she checked her account online and it shows a balance due of $376 on June 27.

“If my payment is not due until June 27, then why are my calls being blocked, Darlene asks?

If part of that $376 is past due from an earlier month, that could be the reason. Otherwise, this seems am odd policy.

Late Spring

We get lots of complaints about Michigan Bulb Company and other mail order plant retailers.

“Sent this company an order for tulips on May 9th,2011,” Shirley, of Streator, Ill., said. “My check was cashed on May 14,2011. Needless to say no bulbs! Can't reach them by phone, get a recording saying number is disconnected.”

Michigan Bulb Company is owned by Gardens Alive, of Lawrenceburg, Ind. Complaints about mail order garden centers include not receiving the order, as Shirley has noted, and receiving dead plants. Consumers would be much better off buying locally.

Put the debit card away

Consumers should avoid using their debit cards for online and telephone transactions. Too many mistakes can happen, with very unpleasant consequences. Dominick, of Islip Terrace, N.Y., has a lifetime subscription to Sirius Satellite Radio. Earlier this month he called and added a feature to allow him to listen on his smartphone. He gave his debit card to pay the $32.26 annual charge.

“The next day I checked my account and found out they billed me $906.75 for a second Lifetime subscription which I never agreed to,” Dominick told ConsumerAffairs.com. “This transaction put my account negative $500.00. With overdraft fees from bills being paid from this checking account I'm now negative $700.00.”

Dominick should ask Sirius to pull the audio recording of the transaction. If the company is not cooperative, he can sue them in small claims court, since the amount is less than $1,000. Often this is a good way to make a big company take you seriously.

Play hardball

A lot of subscription services won't budge when consumers feel they were unfairly charged and call for a refund. Marilyn, of Kinmount, Ontario, says two can play that game.

“Classmates charges my VISA without my permission,” Marilyn said. “I contacted my credit card company they told me to phone Classmates at 206-301-5900. I phoned them and they told me too bad. I told them I had already flagged the charge with the credit card company and was giving them a chance to fix this without me escalating it further.”

Marilyn said Classmates (now Memory Lane) then agreed to refund a portioin of the $439, but she said no.

“I said no, it will be the whole amount or I will be calling back my credit card company and escalating this,” she told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was told my refund for the full $39 would be processed today. Lets hope so, so please follow the same formula and do not take no for an answer.”

Playing hardball with Classmates seemed to work for Marilyn. Maybe you should give it a try.

 

 

 

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Five Bad Ideas for Father's Day

There are lots of things Dad will like. Here are some he won't.

Five Bad Ideas for Father's Day. There are lots of things Dad will like. Here are some he won't....

We all want dear old Dad to have a great time on Father's Day but finding just the right gift or special event isn't always easy. We don't want to encourage any bad habits so whiskey and fast cars are out.  We won't even mention what could go wrong with a new minicam and Twitter account but here are some other great ideas that have proven to be a bust for many of our readers.

Flat-Screen TV

photoMost dads like to grab the remote and park themselves in front of the TV, but finding a flat-screen TV that will last more than a few years and won't burn the house down isn't easy.

Tracy of St. Louis bought her husband a nice new 32-inch Polaroid TV a few years ago. The first one turned out to be defective. So did the second one. The third one was OK for awhile but then the screen went black and the thing started to smoke.

Polly of Cedar Park, Texas, shelled out $1,895 for a 42-inch Panasonic plasma TV for for her husband. It worked for two years before the picture blinked out and Polly paid $135 to learn that it would cost another $600 to fix i.

"This is a major disappointment for my husband who now has Alzheimer's disease. His main interest is watching TV all day and now it is impossible," Polly said.

Ann bought her husband a 32-inch Vizio TV. " He was quite pleased with the appliance until this morning when he went to turn it on. Instead of a program all he heard was a popping sound," she reported.

If this doesn't dissuade you from buying a flat-screen TV, take our advice and buy a back-up power supply to go with it. This will protect the delicate electronics from surges more effectively than a simple surge protector. Also, don't put the TV in a cabinet. LCDs generate lots of heat and need adequate ventilation.

So does Dad, for that matter. Get him something that will get him outside more often, as long as it's not a gas grill.

Gas Grills

photoAll right, it's hard to get those charcoal grills started, but at least they're cheap and pretty simple to use, which you can't say for a lot of gas grills.

Deborah of Virginia Beach bought her husband a Charmglow grill as a Father's Day gift. As Dad stood proudly by holding the couple's two-year-old daughter, the propane hose sprung a leak and set fire to the grill.

"My grill is half black and I spent a lot of money on this," Deborah complained.

Things didn't turn out much better for Jennifer of Corning, NY. "I purchased my Perfect Flame SLG2008A from Lowe's fourteen months ago as Father's Day present for my husband. Today it decides the burn up for no reason at all," she wrote.

"The third burner igniter appeared to have started the problem. It caught the gas line on fire, disintegrating the line, it also caught the inside of the grill on fire bubbling up the black coating and making it peel," she said.

Outdoor Furniture

OK, ladies, we know you like to decorate the deck, backyard and so forth with tables, umbrellas and whatnot, but pause for a second and ask yourself if Dad wants to spend his special day putting this stuff together and dealing with all the things that can and often do go wrong.

umbrella photoTake Barbara of Dracut, Mass., for example. She bought a Hampton Bay outdoor umbrella for Father's Day last year. The first one failed when the tilt adjustment failed. So did the second one.

"This is not a cheap umbrella it cost almost $300.00. Home Depot is kind enough to return them with out a sales slip but how many times is this going to happen?" she asked. Answer: Most likely, it will keep happening until Dad refuses to set up one more of the infernal contraptions.

Now listen to Pam of Tampa: "Purchased Hampton Bay Portachi 5 piece patio table and chairs June 2007 for Father's Day gift for my husband. My 2 stepsons and I really shopped and looked at many sets before we found one my husband liked. I'm talking about a 3 year quest here before we talked him into (emphasis added) this beautiful patio set. … Six months later, the first chair had a weld break and now if you sit in the chair you fall backward. Second chair broke the same way two months ago. We are not fat people and chairs were not abused."

Don't even mention Martha Stewart tables. Judi of Tonawanda, NY, had her family over for Father's Day around their Martha Stewart patio table. After everyone went in I went about my usual routine of putting away my umbrella and cushions. I went into the garage to get the cover to protect the table and before my eyes suddenly the entire table top shattered."

Gift Cards

imageHere's the thing wives and children don't understand about men: We don't like to go shopping. If you give us a gift card, it will go into the sock drawer where it will be found someday by our heirs.

If we do try to use it, chances are things will turn out about as well as they did for Rod of Fox Island, Washington: "My daughter purchased a [Home Depot] gift card for me on Father's Day for $40. I lost the card, but had the receipt that she was given at the time of purchase. Two separate service employees said that there was no way that they could verify that the gift card had not been used and that they could not issue me another card."

Rod even sent a certified letter to Home Depot's CEO explaining the situation but got no response.

Getting Up Too Early

photoDad gets up early all year round to go to work. He doesn't want to get up early on Father's Day. All kinds of bad things can happen if he does. Gerri of Merrick, N.Y., got her husband up bright and early on Father's Day and made him take her to the AT&T Wireless store.

But they got there before the store was open, so they parked in the store lot and went for a stroll. When they came back, their car was gone. Towed away, actually, just as the "Parking For Customers Only" sign warned.

So Dad wound up hitching a ride to the car pound and shelling out $300 cash to get his car back. Gerri didn't come out of it too well either. She said her blood pressure rose so high she passed out on the floor and got a nasty bump on her elbow.

What's Left?

So what should you get Dad for Father's Day? If your Dad's anything like this one, we'd recommend a good cigar, a bottle of cheap red wine and his favorite dinner, preferably cooked inside using reliable and time-tested kitchen appliances. Add spice as needed.

 

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Study: Just Working Longer Not Enough To Cover Retirement Expenses

Some people might have to work into their 80s

A new study finds that working past age 65 won't be enough for most people to cover the costs of retirement....

photo You know you haven't saved enough for retirement and stock losses have made your mediocre retirement portfolio worse. “No problem,” you think to yourself, “I'll just work a few years longer than I planned.”

 You might still have a problem. A new study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) finds that if Baby Boomers and Gen Xers work past age 65, they would still experience a retirement shortfall unless that otherwise save and invest.

 Even delaying retirement into your 80s might not be enough to provide an adequate nest egg, the study finds.

High health care costs

As you might expect, the complicating factor is health care. As costs skyrocket, it's hard to keep up. Assuming that Medicare survives, the cost of supplemental coverage, to pay for what Medicare doesn't, will become ever more expensive.

“Our research finds that many people may have to delay retirement far beyond age 65 to increase the probability that they will have enough money to cover their retirement at a comfortable level,” said Jack VanDerhei, EBRI's research director and co-author of the report.

Just to be clear, we're not talking about having enough money in retirement to raise horses, start a vineyard or travel the world. We're talking basic living expenses.

Current income a factor

How much money you make now also makes a difference. The report found that of those in the lowest income group, only 29.6 percent would have enough money to avoid running short in retirement 50 percent of the time. Delaying retirement to age 69 only adds 13 percent more households to the group that will be adequately funded.

But the outlook is not hopeless.

 “What really makes a positive difference, we found is if people who continue to work after age 65 also continue to contribute to a defined contribution retirement plan,” VanDerhei said.

The analysis is based on data of EBRI's Retirement Security Projection Model, designed to provide an assessment of national retirement income prospects. This year, for the first time, the analysis included an assumption that individuals would continue working past age 65.

 

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Walmart Express Makes Its Debut

Smaller stores go after dollar stores, convenience outlets

Walmart Express Makes Its Debut Smaller stores go after dollar stores, mom-and-pop convenience outlets ...

logoWalmart has unveiled its new smaller-format store concept, dubbed Walmart Express, opening its first store in Gentry, Ark., last week with two more opening this week in Prairie Grove and Gravette, Ark.

The stores are targeting dollar stores, convenience stores and, in some cases, pharmacies. They emphasize food, pharmacy and limited general merchandise.

The new store – less than a tenth the size of a Walmart superstore – is a no frills affair with bare concrete floors and an open rafter ceiling and the merchandise mix is heavily oriented toward food along with an emphasis on Walmart’s Site-to-Store service where it ships merchandise ordered online to stores for free.

Bill Simon, president and CEO, Walmart, U.S., said the company has several formats it will be testing -- some with pharmacies, some without. 

“The aim here, folks, is to get the right model so that we can rapidly roll these things out. At our peak we built about 350 supercenters in a year, so when we get this thing right, these are going to come real fast and we’re real excited about this format,” Simon said at a recent investors' conference.

The first stores are a stone's throw from Walmart's corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. But not all of the Express stores will be out in the boondocks. The company has snagged a site in the West Englewood area of Chicago, according to Drug Store News, a trade journal.

West Englewood is an underserved community with very few retail outlets.

Dollar stores have been enjoying strong revenue growth while Walmart stores have posted declines for eight straight quarters. High fuel prices are seen as partly to blame: consumers not only have less to spend but are also more likely to look for a store closer to their home.

 

 

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Richmond Students Charge Medical Tech School Is a 'Sham'

Lawsuit says school lures students with promises of jobs but fails to deliver

Richmond Students Charge Medical Tech School Is a 'Sham' Lawsuit says school lures students with promises of jobs but fails to deliver...

logoA federal class action accuses the for-profit Richmond School of Health and Technology (RSHT) of targeting poor and black students and using their student loans as its "source for cash."

The suit calls the Richmond, Va., school - which got 86 percent of its income from financial aid programs in 2008-2009 - "a sham," which "exists to make money without any regard for the education its students receive in exchange."

The suit charges that the school makes its money by enrolling almost exclusively students who receive federal financial aid, mostly consisting of student loans.

Most students leave RSHT "saddled with large debts … without the prerequisites and knowledge to obtain a license and/or a job in their field of study," the class action charges.

This, the suit says, often leads to students defaulting on their student loans, which destroys their credit ratings and impairs their ability to get credit and to pass workplace background checks in the future.

School earns an 'F'

"RSHT does well in earning money off its students, but it earns an 'F' in serving their educational interests because it is concerned only with profit, not education," the complaint alleges.

In the suit, Mary Morgan, 49, of Richmond says she was a student in the school's Community Home Health program. Amanda Smith, 28, was a student in the Surgical Technology program.

Morgan paid $10,000, most of it with federal student loans and Pell Grants after the school persuaded her that taking the home health program would qualify her for a "license in community home health" and that this credential would be "higher" than the Certified Nurse Aid (CNA) license she had previously held, the suit says. In fact, no such certification in community home health exists in Virginia.

Smith received $20,000 iin federal financial aid, all of it student loans, based on the school's allegedly telling her the course would enable her to become a license surgical technician, but Smith said the training she received "was not remotely sufficient" to prepare her for the written exam. She was able to pass only through self-study, she said.

Smith said RSHT also failed to arrange the surgical internship she needed to be licensed. She arranged an internship at a surgical center on her own but RSHT failed to follow through and, as a result, Smith did not get the internship and cannot get her license, she said.

Tougher rules

RSHT is one of about 2,000 for-profit colleges in the country that will soon be facing tougher regulations if they want to continue receiving federal funds.

The U.S. Department of Education recently issued a new rule that sets a standard for these schools: their programs have to ensure graduates can earn enough to pay off the hefty student loans they must carry to pay for their enrollment.  But consumer advocates say the rule doesn't go far enough.

The RSHT suit charges the school with violating the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Virginia Consumer Protection Act, breach of contract and fraudulent inducemnt. It was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., by attorneys John Relman and Glenn Schlactus.

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Bad Apples: USDA Finds Pesticide Residues

Grapes, strawberries also make the "Dirty Dozen" list

Bad Apples: USDA Finds Pesticide Residues Grapes, strawberries also make the "Dirty Dozen" list...

photoIf apples are, well, the apple of your eye, you may be shocked to learn that they're also at the top of the "dirty dozen" list of fruits and vegetables contaminated with pesticide residues, followed closely by grapes and strawberries.

A U.S. Agriculture Department survey found that nearly 100 percent of the samples tested were contaminated with presticide residue – even after they were washed under cold water for 10 seconds.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzes the USDA findings each year to find the both the "Dirty Dozen" and the "Clean 15" fruits and vegetables.

Notable changes this year included apples’ rank as the most contaminated produce, jumping three spots from last year to replace celery at the top of the “Dirty Dozen” list. According to USDA, pesticides showed up on 98 percent of the more than 700 apple samples tested.

Nevertheless, most experts agree the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure, and EWG said it strongly recommends that everyone follow USDA’s recommendation to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

“Pesticides are toxic,” said Sonya Lunder, Senior Analyst at EWG. “They are designed to kill things and most are not good for you. The question is, how bad are they?”

Cilantro

chartMaking an appearance in the guide for the first time is the herb cilantro, which had never been tested by USDA until now. The data showed 33 unapproved pesticides on 44 percent of the cilantro samples tested, which is the highest percentage of unapproved pesticides recorded on any item included in the guide since EWG started tracking the data in 1995.

Also appearing in the guide for the first time are green onions, cranberries and mushrooms. Mushrooms made the “Clean 15” list, while honeydew was the only item to drop off that list this year. Cherries dropped off the “Dirty Dozen” list, but lettuce, which has made the list in previous years, was back on.

“Though buying organic is always the best choice, we know that sometimes people do not have access to that produce or cannot afford it,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “Our guide helps consumers concerned about pesticides to make better choices among conventional produce, and lets them know which fruits and vegetables they may want to buy organic.”

Pesticides can be extremely toxic to human health and the environment. U.S. and international government agencies alike have linked pesticides to nervous system toxicity, cancer, hormone system disruption and IQ deficits among children.

"I really worry that pesticides on food are unhealthy for the tender, developing brains and bodies of young children," said Dr. Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP, creator of the book/DVD The Happiest Baby on the Block. "Parents don't realize they're often feeding their little ones fruits and veggies with the highest pesticide residues. Studies show even small amounts of these chemicals add up and can impair a child's health when they're exposed during the early, critical stages of their development."

When pesticide sprayers have to bundle up in astronaut-like suits for protection, it's clear parents want to feed their families food containing as little of these toxic chemicals as possible."

Toxic substances

"Pesticides, while designed specifically to kill certain organisms, are also associated with a host of very serious health problems in people, including neurological deficits, ADHD, endocrine system disruption and cancer," said Andrew Weil, MD, Founder and Director, Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. "My advice to consumers is to whenever possible avoid exposure to pesticides, including pesticide residues on food."

Consumers who choose five servings of fruits and vegetables a day from EWG's Clean 15 list rather than from the Dirty Dozen can lower the volume of pesticides they consume by 92 percent, according to EWG’s calculations. They will also eat fewer types of pesticides. Picking five servings of fruits and vegetables from the 12 most-contaminated products would result in consuming an average of 14 different pesticides a day. Choosing five servings from the 15 least contaminated fruits and vegetables would result in consuming fewer than two pesticides per day.

EWG’s Shoppers Guide is available as a PDF download at http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/. An iPhone app will be available in the near future. For a small donation, consumers can also have a version of the guide sent to them as a bag tag that can be attached to reusable shopping bags.

 

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While Real Estate Declines, Timeshare Sales 'Hold Steady'

But resales by individual owners may be another matter entirely

The timeshare industry says sales of units are steady, but individual owners are literally giving their units away...

The real estate market may be in a double-dip recession, but sales of timeshares are “holding steady,” according to a report prepared for the American Resort Development Association.

But the report also shows rentals have become a larger area for timeshares, as 10 percent of the timeshare occupancy rate was comprised of renters as more timeshare developers expanded their rental program offering in the last year.

As for buyers, the report says 55 percent were first-time buyers while the remainder owned one or more properties.

Started in Europe

The timeshare concept originated in Europe in the 1960s, when an enterprising developer came up with a bold idea. Instead of building a condominium and selling each unit, why not sell each unit to 52 different owners, who would each have use of it one week each year?

Each owner would pay fees for the upkeep and management of the property, freeing the developer of that financial responsibility. The owners would feel the status of owning a piece of a beautiful and well-manicured resort. In a deeded property sale, the owner woould own the unit until they sold it, like any other piece of real estate. As long as they owned it, they would be required to pay the maintenance fees.

The concept quickly caught on in the United States, when Conrad Hilton and some partners built a timeshare in Hawaii. Each unit owner paid several thousand dollars upfront for the timeshare, then paid the management company a monthly maintenance fee to cover the costs of operating and maintaining the building and all the units.

Trading system

Other hotel chains, like Marriott, quickly got into the game. To meeting buyers' objection that they didn't necessarily want to vacation in the same spot each year, a system of trading weeks with owners of timeshares in other locations was quickly established. Today, RCI and Interval International handle swaps for the estimated 155,000 timeshare units in the U.S.

But if the market for new timeshare units is, as the industry says, stable, what about the timeshare resale market? There, the evidence suggests that more than a few owners are encountering difficulty.

The Great Recession has changed circumstances for millions of people and flooded the timeshare market with units for sale by owners desperate to get out from under the expense. It's led to a rash of scams in which timeshare resellers contact owners with great news. They have a buyer for their timeshare unit. They just need an upfront fee from the owner to get things started.

“We got a call from TimeShare Solutions out of Florida,” Dennis, of Galveston, Tex., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They had buyers ready to buy our Wyndham property. We paid an upfront fee of $598 expecting to hear in the next day or so that our timeshare had been sold. So far, we have not received on phone call back. When we call them, they are not available to talk.”

States crack down

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

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

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

Take my timeshare, please

The fact is, with the collapse of the real estate market, there is even less of a market for timeshare resales. Some owners are so desperate that there are now companies that offer to simply take the unit off the owner's hands. These companies have begun advertising on cable television, obviously believing there there is a large number of people interested in their solution.

The solution calls for the timeshare owner to sign over the unit. The owner gets no money for the unit, and in fact is required to pay closing costs, which can be as high or higher than if they were actually receiving payment for the unit.

Rather than do that, owners should check into donating the timeshare to a charity. There are some charities that will accept the donation of a timeshare. They will usually handle the paperwork and at least you'll get a tax deduction.

 

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Scientists Find Genes Related To Migraine Headaches

Second study finds migraine treatment still lacking

Researchers report a promising discovery about migraine headaches, but another study suggests patients and doctors need better communication....

photoWhy do some people get migraine headaches and some don't? Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston believe genetics has a lot to do with it.

Writing in the British journal Nature Genetics, researchers said they found variations in three genes that showed up more frequently in migraine patients. Two of them, known as PRDM16 and TRPM8, were specific to migraines.

A migraine is a severe, almost “sick” headache in which the sufferer sometimes has clouded vision, or sees an aura around objects. While the specific cause is unknown, scientists describe it as a brain disorder in which brain cells respond abnormally.

About 20 percent of the population is said to suffer from migraine headaches and most are women. In the new research, the scientists said at least one of the problem genes is exclusively found in women.

"While migraine remains incompletely understood and its underlying causes difficult to pin down, identifying these three genetic variants helps shed light on the biological roots for this common and dibilitating condition," said lead author Dr. Daniel Chasman.

Communication breakdown

Meanwhile, a study commissioned by the National Headache Foundation (NHF) and GlaxoSmithKline suggests migraine sufferers could be getting more relief from doctor visits.

The survey, conducted online in November 2010 by Harris Interactive, included 1,218 diagnosed migraine patients taking prescription medications for their migraine attacks as well as 533 physicians who treat between five and 10 migraine patients per week. The findings revealed disparities between what patients and physicians each reported typically discussing during office visits.

According to the survey, migraine sufferers see their doctor an average of six times per year, but most of the visits are to deal with another health issue, not the headaches.

“The survey results show patients and physicians are having important conversations about migraine management; however, these conversations are not always robust or the primary purpose of a patient’s visit, making discussion priorities unclear,” said Robert Dalton, executive director of the National Headache Foundation. “For example, patients may not always recall key pieces of information from these conversations or physicians may be misinterpreting what is being emphasized to the patient or the time doctors devote to a particular topic during these discussions.”

 Forty-one percent of patients ajnd 61 percent of physicians also said they wished they could have more discussions with each other about patients’ satisfaction with prescription migraine medications. Nearly half of physicians and more than one-quarter of patients, however, said that having more pressing health issues to discuss prevented them discussing prescription migraine medication options.

 

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P&G Settles Pampers Suit With Token Payment to Parents

Parents get $1,000, lawyers get $2.7 million, P&G insists parents were wrong

P&G Settles Pampers Suit With Token Payment to ParentsParents get $1,000, lawyers get $2.7 million, P&G insists parents were wrong...

photoProcter & Gamble has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit over its Pampers Dry Max diapers, which parents said caused severe rashes on their children's skin. But the 59 parents who filed the suit will be getting a token payment of only $1,000 each, a payment P&G says is for their time and trouble, not compensation for any actual injuries or damage.

The company has always steadfastly maintained that the problems some parents experienced with the Dry Max diapers, saying the new, thinner diapers use materials that have been common since the 1980s.

The settlement, which would pay up to $2.7 million in legal fees, must still win court approval. It also calls for P&G to spend $400,000 on training programs about pediatric skin care.

P&G also said it will add a paragraph to the Pampers packaging that includes a reference to the Pampers website and a toll-free number that parents can call for more information.

P&G introduced the new diapers last year, adding the so-called Dry Max construction to two of its diaper varieties, Swaddlers and Cruisers, promoting them as thinner yet more absorbent than regular Pampers.

Parents soon began complaining of problems with the new formulation.

"After purchasing Pampers Cruisers Size 4 diapers with Dry Max, my daughter Isabel began to get a very severe diaper rash with open sores and burns," Kathryn, of Woodbury, Minn., told ConsumerAffairs.com in May 2010. "It caused so much discomfort that she screamed at changing time and began to hold her urine and bowel movements."

Lorea of Paso Robles, Calif., said that her six-month-old son recent developed "this burn-like rash that looks as though it is melting his skin off." Lorea said that she has "always loved Pampers Swaddlers and would recommend them to anyone" but now warns her friends against them.

Harsh reaction

P&G reacted harshly to the complaints, essentially calling the parents liars.

"For a number of weeks, Pampers has been a subject of growing but completely false rumors fueled by social media that its new Dry Max diaper causes rashes and other skin irritations," said Jodi Allen, P&G Vice President for Pampers. 

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) investigated the complaints but didn't pinpoint the cause of the complaints.

[T]the review has not identified any specific cause linking Dry Max diapers to diaper rash," the CPSC said last September.. The agency said that from April through August 2010, it received nearly 4,700 incident reports about diaper rash. Nearly 85 percent of these complaints came in May and then dropped off significantly.

Complaints may have fallen off but they have not gone away. ConsumerAffairs.com continues to hear from parents experiencing the same problem.

We purchased Pampers diapers for my grand-daughter born Dec 10/10. At 2 weeks old she developed a rash. At 3 weeks old she developed blisters even though her Mom changed her constantly and creams were ineffective. A change in diaper brand to Huggies and the rash and blisters cleared right up,” said Sandy of Lakefield, Ontario, earlier this year..

P&G greeted news of the tentative settlement by again blaming consumers. "This agreement allows us another opportunity to educate our consumers on important issues regarding their babies' health," said Fama Francisco, P&G North America's general manager for baby care.

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New Energy Efficiency Standards Should Save Consumers 'Billions'

New regional standards make air conditioners, furnaces, heat pumps more efficient

New Energy Efficiency Standards Should Save Consumers 'Billions' New regional standards make air conditioners, furnaces, heat pumps more efficient...

photoNew energy efficiency standards for air conditioners, furnaces and heat pumps should save consumers billions of dollars in reduced energy costs, according to a coalition of consumer, manufacturing, and environmental groups.

The new energy efficiency standards just released by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) establish the first-ever regional standards for central air conditioners and furnaces, as well as strengthened national standards for heat pumps.

“Climates as different as those of Minneapolis and Miami need different furnace and AC standards,” said Andrew deLaski, Executive Director of the Appliance Standards Awareness

Project (ASAP). “Until now, we’ve had one-size-fits-all national standards. These new, regional standards are a major breakthrough that will benefit consumers and the environment.”

Once the latest updated standards take effect, a typical new air conditioner in the South will use about 40% less energy, and a typical new furnace in the North will use about 20% less than before national standards were established in the late 1980s.

According to DOE’s analysis, the improvements to the air conditioner and heat pump standards announced today will save 156 billion kilowatt hours of electricity over 30 years, or about enough to meet the total electricity needs of all the households in Indiana for three years, while delivering net savings of more than $4.2 billion to U.S. consumers. The new furnace standards will save 31 billion therms of natural gas, or about enough natural gas over 32 years to heat all the homes in New York State for more than 11 years and save consumers $14.5 billion.

Major step

“The agreement on which the new DOE rule is based is another great example of industry and advocacy groups collaborating to save energy and improve the environment,” said Stephen Yurek, President and CEO of the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), one of the organizations that negotiated the agreement. “It represents a major step forward in the nation's drive to increase energy efficiency. It will save energy and will provide industry with greater certainty in the marketplace, which enables more investment, enhances global competitiveness, and preserves jobs,” he said.

The energy savings from the new DOE standards also will deliver benefits for the electric system, the environment, and public health. Improved air conditioner efficiency will reduce hot summer-day electric demand by about 4,000 megawatts, or roughly the output of 13 large, gas-fired power plants. Global warming carbon dioxide emissions will be cut by up to 143 million metric tons over 30 years, an amount about equal to the annual emissions of 25 million passenger vehicles. Power plant emission of mercury and smog-forming nitrogen oxides will also be cut.

"These standards are a triple win: a win for consumers, a win for public health, and a win for the environment," said David Goldstein, Energy Program Co-Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "Under the new standards, air conditioners will still keep homes cool on hot summer days but will use less electricity, particularly during high demand days. This will lower electricity bills and the potential for brownouts and blackouts and will also reduce the amount of deadly air pollution that causes 'ozone alert' or 'red alert' days that can lead to serious health problems and even premature death. Furnaces and heat pumps that meet the new standards will heat homes using less energy, while lowering energy prices for all consumers due to decreased demand."

These standards will also protect low-income households, most of whom are renters dependent on their landlords to provide the heating system. “These new regional furnace standards will ensure that landlords install efficient systems, which will make tenants’ heating bills much more affordable,” said Charlie Harak, Managing Attorney of the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) in Boston.

 

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Researchers Find Brain Receptor that Responds to Nicotine

Targeting the receptor could reduce weight gain after the smoke clears

Researchers Find Brain Receptor that Responds to Nicotine Targeting the receptor could reduce weight gain after the smoke clears...

photoStop smoking? Sure, but what if you start packing on the pounds? That's been the curse of smoking cessation for many, but now a new study holds out hope of being able to stop smoking without gaining weight.

Researchers funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) say they've found a brain mechanism – called a nicotonic receptor -- that's involved in nicotine's ability to reduce food intake in rodents.

In the study, to be published in the June 10 issue of Science, researchers found that a nicotine-like drug, cytisine, specifically activated nicotinic receptors in the hypothalamus — a brain center that controls feeding.

This resulted in the activation of a circuit that reduced food intake and body fat in a mouse model. This effect was very specific, since a drug that prevented cytisine from binding to its hypothalamic receptors blocked the reduction in food intake.

Prior research shows that the average weight gain after smoking is less than 10 pounds, but even so, fear of weight gain can discourage some people who would like to quit even though smoking is much worse than being a few pounds overweight.

Through the use of tobacco, nicotine is one of the most heavily used addictive drugs and the leading preventable cause of disease, disability, and death in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking results in more than 440,000 preventable deaths each year — about 1 in 5 U.S. deaths overall. Despite the well-documented health costs of smoking, many smokers report great difficulty quitting.

Mouse model

"These mouse models allow us to explore the mechanisms through which nicotine acts in the brain to reduce food intake," said Dr. Marina Picciotto, of Yale University, New Haven, Conn. and senior author for the article. "We found that nicotine reduced eating and body fat through receptors implicated in nicotine aversion and withdrawal rather than reward and reinforcement."

"These results indicate that medications that specifically target this pathway could alleviate nicotine withdrawal as well as reduce the risk of overeating during smoking cessation," said NIDA Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow. "Although more research is warranted, such a highly selective compound might be more effective than drugs that act on more than one type of nicotinic receptor."

For information on tips to maintain a healthy weight while quitting smoking go to Forever Free: Smoking and Weight, a publication of the National Cancer Institute.

 

 

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Sitting Is As Unhealthy As Smoking, Study Says

Cardiologists say body doesn't work as well after long periods in a chair

A new study from the American College of Cardiology says prolonged sitting is as unhealthy as smoking cigarettes....

photoIf you spend most of your day sitting at a desk, getting up and moving around from time to time not only relieves the tedium, it could extend your life.  That's the conclusion of a report from the American College of Cardiologists that declares too much sitting is as harmful as smoking cigarettes.

The research shows that prolonged periods of sitting increases the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer and early death.

Cardiologists say your body doesn't burn as many calories when you are seated. Your body goes into storage mode and stops working at peak efficiency. Standing up, even if you aren't moving about, helps.  Standing desks, like the one shown at right, at increasingly popular among the desk and cubicle crowd.

It's no secret that the rise in obesity has coincided with more sedentary jobs, prompting some workplaces to offer on-site health sites where workers on break can exercise.

Still others have begun offering stand-up workstations, that sit astride a slow moving treadmill. A worker standing at their desk can slowly walk several miles during an average workday.

The video news report below shows how it works.

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Feds Close Down JCT Motor Coach

Bus company an "imminent hazard," Transportation Department charges

Feds Close Down JCT Motor CoachBus company an "imminent hazard," Transportation Department charges...

photoThe U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has declared Georgia-based JCT Motor Coach, Inc. an imminent hazard to public safety and ordered the bus company to immediately cease all intrastate and interstate transportation services.

FMCSA found that the company, which provided charter bus service in the southeast, was attempting to evade a previous out-of-service order by operating under a different name, JT’s Travel & Charter. The imminent hazard order applies to all officers and future companies affiliated with both JCT Motor Coach, Inc. and JT’s Travel & Charter, Inc.

"Safety is our number one priority," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "If you are an unsafe, illegal bus company attempting to dodge federal safety standards and place passengers at risk by operating under a different name, we will find you and shut you down.”

FMCSA can declare a commercial motor carrier, including a bus company, to be an imminent hazard if it finds that the carrier's operations pose a substantial likelihood of serious injury or death.

Several accidents

There have been several high-profile bus accidents lately, most recently one near Richmond, Va., that killed four passengers. The driver of that bus, Kin Yiu Cheung, was jailed after prosecutors said he was "a serious flight risk" because of discrepancies in his address and questions about his passport.

Police said Cheung was fatigued when the Sky Express bus bound for New York City swerved off the highway and overturned with 58 people aboard.

FMCSA’s original out-of-service order issued to JCT Motor Coach, Inc. was the result of a comprehensive compliance review that found numerous significant safety violations by the company. These included intentionally falsifying vehicle maintenance records, failing to ensure its vehicles were regularly inspected, repaired and maintained, using drivers with positive drug and alcohol testing results, using medically unqualified drivers and failing to comply with federal hours-of-service requirements for drivers.

"This case is an example of FMCSA’s zero-tolerance approach to bus companies that try to mislead the public and violate the law by reincarnating under different names,” said FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro. “These bus companies and their owners have no place operating on our roads.”

Surprise inspections

Last month, FMCSA and its state and local law enforcement partners conducted more than 3,000 surprise passenger carrier safety inspections over a two-week period that resulted in 442 unsafe buses or drivers being removed from the nation's roadways. The strike force issued out-of-service citations to 127 drivers and 315 vehicles during the unannounced inspections that took place from May 1 - 15, 2011.

On May 5, the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) issued a new final rule that requires anyone applying for a commercial driver's license (CDL) to first obtain a commercial driver's learner's permit, and requires all state licensing agencies to use a standardized CDL testing system. It also prohibits the use of foreign language interpreters to reduce the potential for testing fraud.

The U.S. DOT also unveiled a "Think Safety: Every Trip, Every Time" pre-trip safety checklist that helps consumers review a bus company's safety record, safety rating and U.S. DOT operating authority before buying a ticket or hiring a bus company for group travel. The checklist is available online at FMCSA's Passenger Bus Safety Web site: http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/safety-security/pcs/Index.aspx. FMCSA encourages consumers to report any unsafe bus company, vehicle or driver to the agency through a toll free hotline             1-888-DOT-SAFT       (            1-888-368-7238      ) or FMCSA's consumer complaint Web site: http://nccdb.fmcsa.dot.gov/HomePage.asp.

Other steps the U.S. DOT has taken to improve passenger safety include a new rule to ban commercial drivers from texting behind the wheel, and a proposed rule to prohibit hand-held mobile phone use. Further, in a wide-ranging Motorcoach Safety Action plan, the Department has proposed rules that will require buses to have seat belts and electronic on-board recorders to replace easily falsified paper records of driver hours. Finally, the Department launched a new s

 

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IRS Revokes Tax-Exempt Status of 275,000 Organizations

Contributions to the organizations will no longer be deductible

IRS Revokes Tax-Exempt Status of 275,000 Organizations Contributions to the organizations will no longer be deductible...

logoBefore you make a tax-deductible gift to your favorite charity, make sure it's still a charity.  The Internal Revenue Service has announced that about 275,000 organizations have automatically lost their tax-exempt status because they did not file legally required annual reports for three consecutive years.

Consumer protection officials around the country have been warning consumers that contributions to these organizations will no longer be deductible and taxpayers could face penalties if they mistakenly claim deductions.

“Ohioans are very generous and support a wide variety of charitable organizations and causes,” said Ohio Attorney General DeWine. “It is important that Ohio charitable donors check if a non-profit has lost its tax-exempt status to know for sure if their gift will be tax deductible or not.”

The IRS said it believes the vast majority of these organizations are defunct, but it also announced special steps to help any existing organizations to apply for reinstatement of their tax-exempt status.

Congress passed the Pension Protection Act (PPA) in 2006, requiring most tax-exempt organizations to file an annual information return or notice with the IRS. For small organizations, the law imposed a filing requirement for the first time in 2007. In addition, the law automatically revokes the tax-exempt status of any organization that does not file required returns or notices for three consecutive years.

For several years, the IRS has made an extensive effort to inform organizations of the changes in the law through multiple outreach and education avenues, including mailing more than 1 million notices to organizations that had not filed.

In addition, last year the IRS published a list of at-risk groups and gave smaller organizations an additional five months to file required notices and come into compliance. About 50,000 organizations filed during this extension period.

Most are in compliance

Overall, the IRS believes the vast majority of small tax-exempt organizations are now in compliance with the 2006 law.

“During the past several years, the IRS has gone the extra mile to help make tax-exempt groups aware of their legal filing requirement and allow them additional time to file,” IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman said. “Still, we realize there may be some legitimate organizations, especially very small ones, that were unaware of their new filing requirement. We are taking additional steps for these groups to maintain their tax-exempt status without jeopardizing their operations or harming their donors.”

The list of organizations whose tax-exempt status has been revoked for failing to meet their filing requirement, available on the IRS website at www.IRS.gov, includes each organization’s name, Employer Identification Number (EIN) and last known address. It is searchable by state. It also includes the effective date of the automatic revocation and the date it was posted to the list. The IRS will update the list monthly to include additional organizations that lose their tax-exempt status.

This listing should have little, if any, impact on donors who previously made deductible contributions to auto-revoked organizations because donations made prior to the publication of an organization’s name on the list remain tax-deductible. Going forward, however, organizations that are on the auto-revocation list that do not receive reinstatement are no longer eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions, and any income they receive may be taxable.

 

 

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Publishers Clearing House Warns of Sweepstakes Scams

Sweepstakes "winners" should never send money to "claim their prize"

Publishers Clearing House says scammers are increasingly using its name in fake sweepstakes schemes....

photoThe phony sweepstakes scam is one of the older schemes designed to separate consumers from their money.

The premise is very basic. The victim is told they have won a sweepstakes and usually are sent an immediate check for several thousand dollars as a partial payment. They are then told they need to send a similar amount back to cover taxes or fees in order for the full amount to be sent.

Of course, the check they deposit in their account in counterfeit, but it's such a good forgery the local bank branch usually doesn't catch it until days later. By then, the victim has wired cash to the scammer. There is almost no way to get it back.

Impersonation

Some consumers writing to ConsumerAffairs.com in recent years have claimed they were scammed in a Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes.

“Just wanted to say that Publishers Clearing House said I was a winner, to send my information in and of course I did, but I had to pay $501 for delivery,” Jennifer, of Philadelphia, told ConsumerAffairs.com.

But Jennifer was not dealing with Publishers Clearing House, it turns out.

“In the last couple of years, we have seen a huge increase in the number of scams that are using our Publishers Clearing House name, either alone or in combination with other well known brands, like Readers Digest and Oprah Winfrey,” Christopher Irving, Assistant V.P. For Consumer and Legal Affairs at Publishers Clearing House, told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Irving said scammers look for anything to make themselves appear legitimate. While some of the early fake sweepstakes scams used obscure, made-up names, Irving says today's scammers grab onto a name that consumers instantly recognize, and therefore trust.

Publishers Clearing House, which markets household and entertainment products, operates one of the better known sweepstakes in the U.S. Who hasn't seen the TV commercial of the Prize Patrol showing up at an unsuspecting winner's home and handing over a check?

Increasingly sophisticated scams

Irving says today's scammers go to great lengths to make it appear they are part of Publishers Clearing House. Not only do they misappropriate the company's logo, Irving says they have been known to use the names of actual employees in their communications with victims, and have even mimicked the company's voice mail tree, so that consumers who call in response to a mailing are lulled into thinking they are dealing with Publishers Clearing House.

How is the company defending itself? Irving says it's working to educate consumers and trying to help authorities with enforcement. For example, when the company receives a copy of one of the fake sweepstakes letters that lists a toll-free number, it moves immediately to get the number shut down.

Irving also says all complaints are forwarded to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for inclusion in a federal database on scams. A section on the Publishers Clearing House website warns consumers about the various scams.

Spotting a scam

How can consumers protect themselves from the fake Publishers Clearing House Scams? Irving says there is one, very simple way.

“If, at any point, someone claiming to be from the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes asks you to send in money, then you know it is a scam,” Irving said. “Our winners are never asked to pay anything.”

It should also be pointed out that you cannot win any sweepstakes unless you enter.

“Some people assume that they were automatically entered somehow, but it doesn't work that way,” Irving said.

Publishers Clearing House winners enter the contests either online, or by filling out and returning a direct mail entry form,” Irving said.

Legitimate winners

How are sweepstakes participants informed that they have won a prize? For smaller prizes, those under $10,000, the recipient gets a certified letter with specific details for claiming their prize, none of which involves paying a fee.

“If you win a big prize, one over $10,000, you'll know when the prize patrol shows up at your door,” Irving said. “That's not staged, that's exactly how we inform our big winners.”

 

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Groupon Expands Location-Based Deals to Five More Cities

Boston, LA, Phoenix, Seattle, DC can now access same-day-only deals

Groupon Expands Location-Based Deals to Five More CitiesBoston, LA, Phoenix, Seattle, DC can now access same-day-only deals...

photoGroupon has expanded its location-based deals platform, Groupon Now, with recent launches in the Boston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle and Washington D.C. markets.

"Unlike traditional Groupon deals that are purchased for future use, Groupon Now is an easy way to explore your neighborhood and save money on anything you need right now: somewhere to eat, something fun to do or a way to pamper yourself, among others," the company said in a news release.

Groupon Now deals are redeemed immediately and good for that day only. Merchants use Groupon Now to attract extra customers in the hours they need them most, managing the flow of business in real time.

“We’re excited to continue rolling out service nationwide and introduce people to this entirely new way to shop,” said Dan Roarty, VP of Groupon Now. “Groupon Now offers consumers deals on the go for everything their city has to offer, while driving business to local merchants at the time that’s best for them.”

Five cities

Boston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle and Washington D.C. consumers join Groupon subscribers in Chicago, New York City and San Francisco who currently have access to Groupon Now deals. Customers already using the Groupon app can download the updated version for full access to Groupon Now!.To download the free Groupon app featuring Groupon Now!, visit the iPhone App Store or the Android Marketplace.

Groupon, launched in November 2008 in Chicago, features a daily deal on stuff to do, eat, see and buy in 43 countries around the world. Groupon says it uses collective buying power to offer huge discounts and provide a win-win for business and consumers, delivering more than 1,000 daily deals globally.

 

 

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Ford Misrepresented Its SYNC Navigation System, Suit Claims

Chicago lawyer wanted voice-activated option but didn't get it

Ford Misrepresented Its SYNC Navigation System, Suit Claims. Chicago lawyer wanted voice-activated option but didn't get it...

photoA Chicago-area lawyer says Ford exaggerated and misrepresented the features in its factory-installed SYNC navigation system, which can't be upgraded to get the advertised features.

Steven Rouse, who has filed a class-action lawsuit against Ford in Cook County Court, says he started shopping for a new car in 2010 and wanted a high-end, voice-activated navigation system. He considered General Motors cars with the OnStar system and Ford cars with the SYNC system.

Rouse said he test-drove a 2010 Ford Edge SEL equipped with the SYNC system, and he said he also reviewed a Ford brochure and its website. Both stated that 2010 Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models equipped with SYNC can be updated to include the “Traffic, Directions and Information” (TDI) feature, which provides audible turn-by-turn directions.

The brochure also described the SYNC system as including “sophisticated speech-recognition software.”

Rouse wanted the voice-activated system so that he and his wife would be better able to safely transport their children to weekend sporting events and other activities.

Sounds of silence

After reviewing the material, Rouse bought a 2010 Lincoln MKT for $55,354. But when he went to the Ford website to register his new vehicle, he learned that the SYNC system in his car and all other 2010 Lincoln MKTs did not include the TDI package and thus would not provide audible turn-by-turn directions.

Rouse called his dealer and Ford's customer service department. Both told him that not only did his car not have the TDI feature but it was not available for that model and could not be installed.

Rouse's suit claims that since he bought his car, the Ford website has changed the language describing the SYNC feature to read: “... the traffic directions and information feature is not available on the Lincoln MKT or on vehicles with the optional navigation system.”

Rouse sent a letter to Ford but said he did not receive a satisfactory response.

The suit accuses Ford of violating the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act, breach of warranty, fraud, unjust enrichment It seeks to represent all consumers who purchased a similar Ford model based on Ford's representations.

 

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Study: Chevy, Nissan Models Most Deadly In Crashes

But electronic stability control appears to make vehicles more survivable

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has released its report on the most deadly vehicles in a crash....

Drivers of the Nissan 350Z and Titan pick-up, along with drivers of the Chevrolet Aveo mini and Cobalt, are more likely to die in auto accidents, according to research by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.

The group didn't specifically say why it thought those models were more susceptible to fatal crashes, but did note that none of the 26 vehicles that rated lowest on the survivability scale had standard electronic stability control (ESC), while almost all of the top rated models did. The safety feature will be required on all new vehicles next year.

Big change

This year's report, based on data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), is a sharp departure from previous years. In the past, sport utility vehicles were among the most deadly in a crash, because of their tendency to roll over.

This year, IIHS said SUVs are among the safest vehicles in a crash, precisely because the roll-over issue has been addressed.

Vehicles with the best record of survivability tend to be luxury models. The Audi A6 and Mercedes Benz E Class took top honors. Also making the list were the Toyota Sienna minivan, Ford Edge, Nissan Armada and two Land Rover SUV modes.

Toyota makes good showing

Despite last year's much publicized safety probe, Toyota placed three models on the list of 26 vehicles with the best survivability rating, including the Lexus GX 470.

ECS appears to be the biggest game changer in models analyzed in this year's IIHS report. ESC automatically applies brakes and reduces acceleration when the driver over or under-steers. Twenty-five of the 26 top rated vehicles had ESC.

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Citigroup Is Latest Big Company Hit By Hackers

Attack happened last month; company is just getting around to warning its customers

Citigroup has disclosed that hackers breached its security last month....

logoCitigroup is now the latest major company to disclose that its computer networks have been penetrated by hackers. It turns out the attack occurred a month ago, with the hackers apparently gaining access to some credit card data.

However, the company says other sensitive data, including customer's Social Security numbers, was not accessed.

Also last month Sony was the target of multiple attacks, including one that shut down its PlayStation network. In that attack, hackers also reportedly gained access to some users' credit card information.

Just last week Google revealed that hackers had hit its Gmail accounts, with the resulting exposure of user names and passwords. Google blamed the attack on hackers in China, though the Chinese Government denied it.

In case you're getting paranoid, fearing that hackers are focusing on U.S. targets, that doesn't appear to be the case. The BBC reports that hackers in China and Vietnam have begun launching attacks against each other. They're targeting hundreds of websites in what appears to be a territorial dispute – not cyber territory, but actual terra firma.

Why are hackers suddenly breaking into websites and computer networks all over the world? Maybe because they can. If hackers are out in front of the security teams assigned to hold them in check, maybe they just want to flaunt it. 

How can consumers protect themselves? By being very careful about responding to email. Chester Wisniewski, a senior security advisor at Sophos Software, says consumers should be especially leery of emails that look like they are from banks.

“Never accept incoming communications purporting be from financial institutions you do business with, whether by email or phone call,” Wisniewski writes in today's blog. “Call them back using only the phone numbers published on your cards or statements. When logging in to perform online transactions, always enter their website address directly in your browser. Never click links.”

 

 

 

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Don't Look Now, But Gas Prices Are Headed Higher Again

Oil traders see shortages ahead

Oil prices soared Wednesday after OPEC members failed to reach a new agreement on production quotas....

photoJust as motorists were finally breathing a sigh of relief at the gas pump, industry analysts predict prices will soon be headed higher again.

The latest reason is the unexpected disagreement among members of OPEC this week about how much oil to produce. Saudi Arabia led the faction that wanted to produce more. The reason, advanced by the Saudis, is that prices are now too high and will end up choking the economic recovery.

If that happens, the Saudis warned, oil prices will fall hard and fast, much like they did in late 2008. Also, an unstable energy environment will motivate big consumers like the U.S. to find alternatives to OPRC oil.

Resistance to producing more

But the resistance to producing more oil was led by Iran and Venezuela – two countries it should be pointed out generally hostile to the U.S. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told reporters he thinks prices are fair the way they are.

Absent an agreement, OPEC members are likely to produce as much or as little oil as they want, meaning there could be more oil in the months ahead, if Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries that favor increasing production actually go ahead and produce more. Or, the amount could remain the same.

But the oil futures market continues to see the glass as half-empty. The fact that OPEC couldn't agree was seen as a bad sign – or good sign if you are an oil speculator long on crude oil – and oil prices soared in Wednesday's trading.

Price jump

The price of U.S. light sweet crude, which had dropped below $98 a barrel, closed over $100 a barrel. Analysts say in this new environment, it could top out at $110 to $120 a barrel, pushing the price of gas well over $4 a gallon.

Also helping to push prices higher was Wednesday's weekly report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, showing U.S. stockpiles of crude oil fell in the previous week. The supply is still plentiful, but the fact that supplies were less than expected added to the upward pressure on prices.

By the same token, supplies of gasoline went up last week. However, that had little effect on the wholesale price of gasoline.

 

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New Jersey Sues Travel Company Owner (Again)

Charged a second time with deceptive marketing prices

The State of New Jersey has filed a second lawsuit against the operator of a vacation package company....

The State of New Jersey has filed a lawsuit against travel company owner Daryl Turner alleging deceptive marketing practices. The process was familiar because the state sued Turner and his company previously for the same reason.

In February New Jersey settled a multi-million dollar lawsuit alleging a pattern of deceptive business practices carried out by Turner's numerous vacation travel membership companies.

Failed to fulfill promises

The six-count complaint filed this week charges Turner, individually and d/b/a Reservations, his wife Robyn B. Bernstein, and their Marlton-based company, Travel Deals Limited Liability Company, as well as VIP Executives, LLC, with violating the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and Advertising Regulations, by failing to fulfill promises of complimentary cruises and airfare used to induce attendance at sales presentations, and failing to provide the luxury vacation packages at discounted prices represented during the sales presentations.

A judge temporarily enjoined the defendants from transferring or disposing of any assets related to the matter, and specifically enjoined Turner from any involvement in the business operations of Travel Deals or from otherwise engaging in the advertisement, offering for sale, and sale of vacation packages to consumers in and outside of New Jersey.

At the same time, the New Jersey attorney general is taking Turner back to court on the state's allegation that he is in violation of the recently agreed-to settlement.

Too-good-to-be-true offers

“As we allege in our lawsuit, Turner is in clear violation of his settlement with the State,” said Attorney General Paula T. Dow. “Every indication points to Travel Deals being yet another of Turner’s companies that dangles too-good-to-be-true offers of free cruises and international vacations in front of consumers, defrauds consumers of their hard-earned money, and then leaves them with little more than heartache and frustration.”

Dow's office says it has received complaints from 15 consumers, the majority of whom paid between $2,500 and $5,194 for vacation packages, which as alleged in the State’s new lawsuit, turned out to be essentially worthless.

Dow says the alleged scheme is similar to the one that was the subject of the previous lawsuit against Turner. According to that lawsuit, filed in 2009, Turner and his various vacation travel companies took payment from consumers and then repeatedly failed to provide the contracted-for vacation packages, or refund the money.

More than 670 consumers affected

The defendants also failed to deliver various promotional items promised to consumers in return for their attendance at promotional seminars. More than 670 affected consumers were identified in that lawsuit, which named Turner and his travel companies as defendants, namely Dreamworks Vacation Club a/k/a Dreamworks Vacations a/k/a Dreamworks, Five Points Travel Company, Bentley Travel, Modern Destinations Unlimited, Blue Water, Vacation Clubs LLC d/b/a La Bonne Vie Travel, Dream Vacations International, Inc., and Away We Go Promotions, LLC.

This week's lawsuit seeks to bar Turner from the travel business and require him to repay consumers nearly $2.2 million for vacation packages and/or complimentary items never provided.

 

 

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What's On Your Mind? Grasshopper, Target, Verizon, Vizio

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Grasshopper, Target, Verizon, Vizio, Our mistake, but your loss and More transparency, please....

logoGrasshopper advertises heavily on radio for its business telephone system, offering small businesses the opportunity to appear large, with toll-free numbers and voice mail. And while it may be a good fit for many independent operators, there may be a risk in making an external communications company your only link with the outside world.

“The telephone management system has been down nationwide over 24 hours now,” Ruth, of Palos Verdes, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I am an equine veterinarian, and my business is effectively shut down. I have no office for people to come to. I make house calls after speaking with clients when they call...IF they can call!”

Publishing a backup number for clients, or an email address, might be a good idea.

Our mistake, but your loss

Here is yet another report from a consumer who says she was wrongly charged, but appears to be getting a run around while attempting to get her money back.

“I purchased a dress from Target and during the check out I scanned my bank card and entered my pin,” said Dana, of Clarksville, Tenn. “Then the cashier asked if I would swipe it again because she hit the wrong button. I swiped the card again entered my pin once again. I asked her if I was going to be charged twice now. She insisted that it only went through once.”

But of course, Dana said she was charged twice – clearly a mistake since it was the same day, same time, and same price.

“I was told that I would have to call a 800 number, Dana said. “I called and they told me they will investigate it and call me back. Weeks passed until I finally called them, and still nothing! A few more weeks pass and I finally receive a letter in the mail stating that there is nothing that they can do about it. Basically, saying that I am a liar.”

Mistakes happen and unfortunately, it's usually the consumer who ends up paying for it.

More transparency, please

Matthew, of Livermore, Calif., said he was shocked when he received a letter from a collection agency acting on behalf of Verizon.

“Really? $26? I spend $2000+ on their wireless service and they send my closed DSL account to collections for a $26.66 trailing balance without so much as the common courtesy of a phone call or even an email,” Matthew told ConsumerAffairs.com. “How about sending me a freaking bill?”

As Matthew explains it, he closed his DSL account in February but has continued to check his Verizon account online to make sure there were no trailing charges.

“Turns out, they don't update the 'Account Summary' with those charges,” he said. “Apparently, to Verizon, 'Paid in Full! Thank You!' means "you're account is past due and we're sending you to collections for a measly amount of money!"

Matthew is understandably peeved. Businesses that allow things like this to fall through the cracks end up alienating good customers.

No sound, or too much

There certainly are a lot of problems with flat screen TVs. If they aren't catching fire, they develop lines or dots on the screen. Marlena, of New York, N.Y., reports a problem with her 47 inch Vizio that we had not heard before.

“About two weeks after using it, the volume would disappear and I am not able to use any function on the TV,” Marlena said. “In order to reset the TV to working order you have to manually unplug and replug the TV into the electrical socket. This happens about once to twice a week.”

That's not all. She said occasionally there is a loud piercing sound from the set, resembling a fire alarm. She reports Vizio has told her they can't help her because their record of her purchase of the TV is not the same date as she bought it.

 

 

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Senate Refuses to Delay Debit-Card Swipe Fee Cap

"A dark day" for banks but perhaps a bright one for consumers and retailers

Senate Deals Big Banks a Setback, Refuses to Delay Debit-Card Swipe Fee Cap. "A dark day" for banks but perhaps a bright one for consumers and retailers....

photoThe U.S. Senate dealt big banks a setback today, refusing to pass a plan to postpone new regulations that sharply reduce the fee that banks and card processors can impose each time a consumer swipes a debit card to make a purchase.

Shocked by the 54-45 vote, financial industry lobbyists said they would turn their attention to the Federal Reserve, which has the power to revamp the rule. (A supermajority of 60 votes was needed to pass the measure).

"It is within the Fed's power to mitigate the disastrous consequences that are sure to come from this policy initiative," said American Bankers Association President Frank Keating, who described himself as "deeply distressed" with the vote.

The fee caps "mark a dark day for every bank that issues debit cards and for consumers that have come to rely on them," said Keating. But not everyone agrees the vote is bad news for consumers.

"Public Citizen applauds the Senate for standing firm against bankers’ attempt to preserve their lucrative and unjustified debit card swipe fees, which have functioned as little more than a wealth transfer from the poor to the rich," said Public Citizen's financial policy advocate, Bartlett Naylor.

$16 billion

"Four banks alone account for $8 billion of the $16 billion in annual swipe fee profits. That oligopoly shows the need for the cap authored by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and approved last year as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act," Naylor noted.

"Will retailers pass on the savings, an average of 32 cents per transaction?" Naylor asked. "Retail markets are competitive and transparent enough that American consumers ought to recoup the savings in reduced prices."

Sen. John Tester (D-Montana), co-author of the bill that would have delayed the new regulations, said the Senate "missed an opportunity to stand up for consumers, small businesses and community banks in rural America."

"I fought for this measure because it puts the brakes on consolidation in the financial industry which has hurt Montana.  And it helps keep small businesses and community banks from getting wiped out by powerful Big Box retailers," said Tester who was quickly showered with nearly $60,000 in contributions from credit card companies and their allies when he introduced the measure.

What about Tester's claim that the fees will hurt small banks?

"Certainly not," said Public Citizen's Naylor. "Only banks with more than $10 billion in assets are subject to the cap."

"If debit swipe fees are capped, the bankers argue, they’ll be forced to make up the difference by increasing other fees. But bank profits aren’t a universal constant. When banks are stopped from profiting unfairly and can’t make up the difference by providing more value to customers, then they should simply profit less," Naylor said..

 

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Pfizer Suspends Sale of Arsenic-Containing Animal Drug

3-Nitro has been used by poultry producers since the 1940s

Pfizer Suspends Sale of Arsenic-Containing Animal Drug. 3-Nitro has been used by poultry producers since the 1940s....

Arsenic is not something you normally want in the food chain, so a subsidiary of Pfizer has agreed to suspend U.S. sales of the animal drug 3-Nitro (Roxarsone), a product used by poultry producers since the 1940s.

The move follows a recent study by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of 100 broiler chickens that detected inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen, at higher levels in the livers of chickens treated with 3-Nitro compared with untreated chickens.

FDA officials said the levels of inorganic arsenic detected were very low and that continuing to eat chicken as 3-Nitro is suspended from the market does not pose a health risk.

FDA detected increased levels of inorganic arsenic in the livers of chickens treated with 3-Nitro, raising concerns of a very low but completely avoidable exposure to a carcinogen,” said Michael R. Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods. “We are pleased to announce that the company is cooperating with us to protect the public health.”

Arsenic is in the environment as a naturally occurring substance or as a contaminant and is found in water, air, soil, and food.

Published scientific reports have indicated that organic arsenic, a less toxic form of arsenic and the form present in 3-Nitro could transform into inorganic arsenic. In response, scientists from the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine and the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition developed an analytical method capable of detecting very low levels of inorganic arsenic in edible tissue.

Using the new method, FDA scientists recently found that the levels of inorganic arsenic in the livers of chickens treated with 3-Nitro were increased relative to levels in the livers of the untreated control chickens.  

Alpharma, the Pfizer subsidiary that manufactures the drug, decided to voluntarily suspend sale of 3-Nitro and to facilitate an orderly process for suspending use of the product in the United States.

Alpharma’s plan provides for continued sales of 3-Nitro for 30 days from today. The company stated that allowing sales for this period will provide time for animal producers to transition to other treatment strategies and will help ensure that animal health and welfare needs are met.

In addition, the company is working with the FDA to examine all relevant scientific data regarding the use of 3-Nitro in animals.

In 1944, 3-Nitro became the first arsenic-containing new animal drug product approved by the FDA. It is used primarily in broiler chickens. Combined with other animal drugs, 3-Nitro has been used by some in the poultry industry to help control coccidiosis, a parasitic disease that affects the intestinal tracts of animals. It has also been used for weight gain, feed efficiency and improved pigmentation.

 

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FCC Set to Regulate Loudness of TV Commercials

Consumers have complained for more than 50 years about loud commercials

FCC Set to Regulate Loudness of TV Commercials. Consumers have complained for more than 50 years about loud commercials....

photoThink TV commercials are too loud? Almost everyone does and, although you would think it would have better things to do, Congress has passed a law about it.

The Commercial Advertisement Mitigation Act (CALM), enacted last December, directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to do something about it and the FCC is now preparing to do just that.

The CALM Act loudly assets that television commercials should not be “transmitted at louder volumes than the program material they accompany.”

The Commission has come up with a proposed rule that, if approved, will become effective will become one year after it's adopted.

The Commission concedes that the issue has been a sore spot for consumers for years. In fact, it says that loud commercials “have been a leading source of complaints virtually since the inception of commercial television, more than 50 years ago.”

One common complaint “is that a commercial is abruptly louder than the adjacent programming,” the Commission said, noting that the problems occurs in over-the-air broadcasts as well as in cable, satellite and other video programming.

Many complaints

The FCC's consumer call center has reported receiving 819 complaints since January 2008 and 4,582 “inquiries” from consumers about the issue.

The Commission notes that it has not previously tried to regulate the loudness of commercials because of the “subjective nature” of loudness.

In fact, in testimony before Congress, FCC officials said there is “no consistent method” to measure and control audio loudness, and said there problems “seems to have been exacerbated by the transition to digital television.”

“DTV's expanded aural dynamic range allows for greater variations in loudness” but also offers the opportunity to more easily manage loudness, FCC experts said.

The proposed new rule describes the procedure by which broadcasters can more accurately control the loudness of various program elements by using a “dialnorm” standard that will eliminate spikes in loudness during transitions from one program source to another.

 

 

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Study: Dieters Duped By Food Names

Clever marketers can make their products sound healthier

Researchers say people seeking a healthy diet put too much faith in a food product's name....

photoFood marketers who put “salad” or some other healthy-sounding word in the name of their product have a better chance of selling it to health or diet conscious consumers, according to a new study. 

University of South Carolina assistant professor of marketing Dr. Caglar Irmak found that that dieters eager to make good food choices are more at risk of being misled by food names than non-dieters.

His study found that dieters rate food items with healthy names such as “salad” as being healthier than identical food items with less healthy names such as “pasta.” Non-dieters made no such distinction.

He conducted the study with co-authors Beth Vallen of Loyola University and Stefanie Rose Robinson, a doctoral student in marketing at South Carolina.

Dieters vulnerable to 'naming traps'

“The fact that people’s perceptions of healthfulness vary with the name of the food item isn’t surprising,” Irmak said. “What is interesting is that dieters, who try to eat healthy and care about what they eat, fell into these ‘naming traps’ more than non-dieters who really don’t care about healthy eating.”

As part of his study, Irmak took identical candy and labeled half of it “fruit chew.” The other half was packaged as “Candy Chew.” He then offered it to his test group of dieters.

Not only did dieters perceive the candy named fruit chew as more healthful than the one named candy chew, but they ate more candies when the items were called fruit chews.

Why are dieters who want to eat well so easily duped by these labels?

What's in a name?

Dieters avoid forbidden foods based on product names, Irmak said. As they hone in on food names – salad versus pasta – they give less consideration to product information.

On the flip side, Irmak said, non-dieters tend to miss cues that imply healthfulness, including names, because of their lack of focus on healthy eating.

A salad in a restaurant may include items that dieters typically would avoid, such as meat, cheese, bread or pasta. Other examples Irmak gives are milkshakes listed as “smoothies,” potato chips called “veggie chips” and sugary drinks labeled “favored water.”

He says dieters should focus on reading nutritional information on food products and menus and not food names.

“These results should give dieters pause. The study shows that dieters base their food decisions on the name of the food item instead of the ingredients of the item,” Irmak said. “As a result, they may eat more than what their dieting goals prescribe.”

Irmak and his colleagues based their conclusions on surveys and experiments involving more than 520 participants.

 

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Facebook Weighs In Behind AT&T

Joins Microsoft, Yahoo, rural interests and organized labor in supporting T-Mobile takeover

Facebook Weighs In Behind AT&TJoins Microsoft, Yahoo, rural interests and organized labor in supporting T-Mobile takeover...

photoMost consumer organizations are solidly againstAT&T'sproposed $39 billion takeover ofT-Mobile, citing the usual arguments about fewer players, less competition and so forth and a surprising number of news outlets have parroted the argument that T-Mobile is a low-cost provider.

But several high-tech companies that are heavily invested in wireless communications have come out in support of AT&T. Facebook has became the latest, joining Microsoft, Yahoo, Blackberry manufacturer Research In Motion and a number of Silicon Valley venture-capital firms.

Why? In a filing with theFederal Communications Commission(FCC), the firms say they buy AT&T's argument that the deal will strengthen its network and make wireless broadband available to more of the nation.

"The challenge of keeping pace with consumer demand and continuing to lead globally in wireless broadband services and products requires that we tackle the issue on multiple fronts," the companies said in their filing. (Google and Apple are staying mum, at least for the moment).

Consumer friendly?

logoT-Mobile, owned byDeutsche Telekom, is often portrayed by those who oppose the deal as a consumer-friendly, low-cost player that gives customers a fairer break than AT&T and its fellow behemoth, Verizon Wireless.

Perhaps, but judging from the nearly 2,000 complaints filed about T-Mobile with ConsumerAffairs.com in recent years, its customers encounter the same glitches, dropped calls and billing disputes as customers of the bigger carriers while making do with a network that exists mostly in major population centers.

"I was on a Family Plan for over 10 years with T-Mobile. ... I had poor reception throughout the years and was told that they were erecting more towers in the area and that would solve the 'no service' problem," said Lisa of Langhorne, Pa."We got the Android Mytouch 3G phones because we were told that we would have better reception and less dropped calls. That did not happen in fact the phones had poor reception and more dropped calls especially after an upgrade to their system in the winter of 2010. In fact our phones went dead and all information was lost."

Nor did T-Mobile do anything for Phoenix, who lives in a low-income section of Boston.

"On 11/15/10 I moved from one location in Jamaica Plain, MA to another about 1.5 miles away in the same city. I had been a T-Mobile customer for over 5 years without coverage issues at my former location. However, I immediately discovered I had low/no coverage at my new location," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I called T-Mobile customer service to complain and was told a tech would investigate.

"Two weeks later, I was told a service tech visited the neighborhood and reported that I live in a low coverage area, but T-Mobile has no plans to improve coverage and I would be held responsible for the early termination fees if I closed the account," she said.

Rural non-service

T-Mobile customers hoping to make calls in rural areas must hope that T-Mobile has negotiated a favorable deal with another carrier to provide "roaming" service, whereas AT&T and Verizon Wireless both provide service on their own network in most of the country. No. 3 carrierSprintis somewhere in between.

It's worth noting that no law prevents T-Mobile from building out its network nationwide, just as nothing prevents it from developing and deploying a robust 4g network that truly matches the speeds attained by AT&T, Verizon and Sprint.

The only thing stopping either of these things from happening is that T-Mobile's German masters choose not to spend the money to make them happen. Instead, the parent company is investing heavily in the European markets where it is a much stronger player than in the U.S.

T-Mobile has been steadily losing customers in the U.S. It lost 99,000 in the first quarter of 2011, more than triple the number it lost in the fourth quarter of 2010.

T-Mobile USA CEO Rene Obermann has told regulators and Congress that his company lacks the spectrum space to deploy a true 4g network and has said that Deutsche Telekom is unable to cough up the financial assets available to acquire more spectrum, even if it was available.

Running out the clock

Instead, T-Mobile continues to hold its U.S. customers to rigid contract terms, milking them for monthly fees while basically running out the clock on its American venture.

This is perhaps why AT&T's bid also wins the support of many rural interests, labor unions and the governors of several thinly-populated states.

Vast sections of the country, after all, are without broadband service of any kind – no cable, no FiOS or Uverse and no wireless broadband. This is a blow to the economic, educational and cultural hopes of these areas and a particularly cruel one given all the advantages that were promised rural areas back in the days when the "Information Superhighway" was being rapturously promoted.

Oh it was built, all right. But like a real superhighway, there's no off-ramp to the small towns, farms and ranches that dot flyover country.

Nevertheless, antitrust law being what it is, it's likely the deal will be held up or, at the very least, AT&T will be forced to dismantle some or all of its business to satisfy the regulators and litigators who for much of the history of telecommunications have had more power than the lowly consumer.

Knowledgeable consumer advocates are hoping for at least a partial return to the days when telecommunications firms had to commit to provide service to their entire service area, not just the parts of it that were most profitable.

If AT&T is willing to commit to that, consumers might actually be the winners.

 

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What's On Your Mind? Michaels, Verizon, Polaroid

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Michaels, Verizon, Polaroid, Danny got scammed, Small charges add up and Smokin' TV....

logoThe tampering with Michaels' debit card readers last month is still having reverberations. We heard this week from Kathryn, of Buckeye, Ariz., who said she and her husband made a big purchase at Michaels last month and used their debit card.

“We are devastated to hear about the fraud that has happened and do not feel safe buying anything from Michael's stores anymore, knowing we could be at risk of identity theft,” Kathryn told ConsumerAffairs.com

Actually, the safest time to use a debit card may be after a store has gone through the experience Michaels has. Security has likely been beefed up significantly. It's the stores that haven't had the experience you have to worry about. But it certainly does point up the need to be very careful where you use a debit card, especially if you tend to keep a lot of money in your account.

Danny got scammed

We've written about this scam several times but obviously people still haven't gotten the message. It's the guy who calls and says he is collecting on an unpaid payday loan, and threatens the victim with jail. In a new wrinkle, the caller is now a female and she says she is calling for SGQ Processing. Danny, of Cassleberry, Fla., got the call at work.

“I didn't know what else to do so I called my wife back and told her what she said. My wife in turn had to borrow the money in fear I was going to jail and Western Unioned the money to them,” Danny said.

Of course, the money is now gone and there is no way for Danny to get it back. If he had been thinking clearly, maybe Danny wouldn't have acted in such haste, but then again, he had reason to be afraid.

“I have never taken out a payday loan but they had all my information, including last address, Social Security Number and my old bank account number,”he said.

That shows this scammer is not picking victims at random. They have sensitive data about these consumers. The question is, where did they get it? We have recently learned that federal law enforcement agencies are actively investigating this dangerous and growing scam. We hope it's true.

 Small charges add up

It's always a good idea to carefully review every bill you receive each month, to make sure the charges are correct. This has become a monthly ritual for Ronald, of Green Cove Springs, Fla., when he receives his Verizon Wireless bill.

“I have been getting billed monthly for data usage from $.20 to $1.99. I do not use text or any form of data and I have called them to remove this from my bill and stop any more charges,” Ronald told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They will credit my bill when I call them and they will state that they have stopped anymore charges, but the next time I get a bill there is a new charge for megabyte usage like my new bill for $1.99. I feel that they are doing this on a lot of their customer's who are not catching it on their bills.”

It's worth noting that back in October, Verizon agreed to pay $90 million in refunds to consumers who were wrongly charged for accessing the Internet with their mobile phones. 

Smokin' TV

photoIn recent weeks we've had an increase in reports from consumers that their Polaroid flat screen TV sets started smoking, and in some cases, actually caught fire.

“I have the same problem as a lot of others 32" set owners, said Shelia, of Middleburg, Fla. I heard sizzling and saw a puff of smoke come out of the TV. If anything happens with a law suit, I would love to know about it.

Funny Shelia should ask. A federal class action lawsuit filed this week claims that the sets have a known defect that Polaroid has failed to fix and that the company has failed to warn consumers that their TVs are a fire hazard. 

The suit claims that Polaroid knew as early as 2006 that its LCD TVs fail, smoke and catch fire, but actively concealed the defects. failed to warn customers before or after the sale, failed to recall the sets and failed to amend the warranties or reimburse customers for the cost of repairing or replacing the TVs.

 

 

 

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Report: Nearly A Quarter Of Mortgage Holders Still 'Underwater'

Not much change from the last quarter

CoreLogic reports 22.7 percent of homeowners with a mortgage owe more than their homes are worth....

photoThe news from the home front continues to be sobering. More than 22 percent of all U.S. homes with mortgages are “underwater,” according to new data from CoreLogic, a provider of business data.

That's a slight improvement from the fourth quarter of last year, when 23 percent of U.S. homes were in a negative equity situation. However, there was an increase of about 2.4 million homeowners whose equity was five percent or less. That's considered “near negative equity” because they are in danger of going underwater should home values continue their decline.

Nevada still leads

Not surprisingly, Nevada had the highest percentage of negative equity homeowners in the first quarter, with 63 percent of the mortgaged homes in the state owing more than the homes' value. Nevada, especially the Las Vegas market, has been one of the hardest hit areas in the nation in terms of foreclosures.

According to the data from CoreLogic, 50 percent of the mortgages homes in Arizona were underwater. Forty-six percent of Florida homes have negative equity, followed by Michigan at 36 percent and California at 31 percent.

Drilling down to specific metro areas, CoreLogic found Las Vegas to be the most underwater city with 66 percent negative equity, followed by Stockton, Calif., with 55 percent and Reno, Nev., at 54 percent.

Average negative equity of $65,000

According to the data, the average negative equity home was underwater by $65,000, although upside down homeowners in New York were an average $129,000 in the hole.

Economists worry that the extremely large negative equity numbers will make it hard for the housing market to recover because it fosters foreclosures. In addition to people who lose their incomes and can no longer afford their mortgages, homeowners in a negative equity situation are often tempted to default, even though they can afford to keep making the payments.

CoreLogic chief economist Mark Fleming says being underwater on a mortgage makes a homeowner much less willing to fight to save their home when they lose their job.

 


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Obesity Vaccine Reduces Food Consumption In Tests

Gave lab mice more energy, made them less hungry

Researchers in Portugal say they have developed a vaccine that makes obese people eat less....

photoWhat if you could roll up your sleeve and get a shot that would make you eat less? Such an idea is not that far-fetched, say researchers from Portugal.

“An anti-ghrelin vaccine may become an alternate treatment for obesity, to be used in combination with diet and exercise,” said Mariana Monteiro, MD, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Porto in Portugal and lead investigator in the study.

Currently, there are few drugs available to help combat obesity. Last October, Abbott Laboratories and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Meridia, also known as sibutramine, was being withdrawn from the U.S. market because of clinical trial data indicating an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

The popular weight-loss drug fen-phen was taken off the market in 1997 after clinical trials showed it to cause heart valve damage.

Suppresses appetite

The new obesity vaccine works by suppressing the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin. In tests, it decreased food intake and increased calorie burning in mice.

Ghrelin is a stomach hormone that promotes weight gain by increasing appetite and food intake while decreasing energy expenditure, or calorie burning. Recent research shows that bariatric surgeries, such as gastric bypass, suppress ghrelin.

“This suggests that there is a hormonal mechanism underlying the weight loss attained by the surgical procedures,” Monteiro said.

Monteiro’s group developed the vaccine using a noninfectious virus carrying ghrelin, which was designed to provoke an immune response—development of antibodies against ghrelin—that would suppress the hormone.

They then vaccinated normal-weight mice and mice with diet-induced obesity three times and compared them with control mice that received only saline injections.

More energy, less food

Compared with unvaccinated controls, vaccinated mice — both normal-weight and obese mice — developed increasing amounts of specific anti-ghrelin antibodies, increased their energy expenditure and decreased their food intake, the authors reported.

Within 24 hours after the first vaccination injection, obese mice ate 82 percent of the amount that control mice ate, and after the final vaccination shot they ate only 50 percent of what unvaccinated mice ate, Monteiro said.

The effects of each vaccination lasted for the two months of the study, which for the normal 18-month lifespan of mice, corresponds to four human years, she said.

 

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A Birth Control Pill For Men?

Columbia researchers say they are close

Researchers say they are closing in on a birth control pill for men....

photoThe invention of the birth control pill unleashed the sexual revolution of the 1960s, but it was up to women to buy the prescription and remember to take the pill every day. Now, a half-century later, could men soon be sharing the responsibility?

Perhaps. Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center say they are close to development of what may be the first non-steroidal, oral contraceptive for men. Tests of low doses of a compound that interferes with retinoic acid receptors (RARs), whose ligands are metabolites of dietary vitamin A, showed that it caused sterility in male mice.

The researchers found that low doses of the drug stopped sperm production with no apparent side effects. And crucial for a contraceptive, the effects were only temporary. The researchers say normal fertility returns soon after the drug is no longer used.

Long searach

Scientists have been on the trail of a male pill for quite some time. Earlier research led the investigators to the discovery that manipulating the retinoid receptor pathway could interfere with the process of spermatogenesis, which is necessary for sperm production.

Like many new drug discoveries, this one was the by-product of completely different drug research. Columbia's Debra J. Wolgemuth, Ph.D., stumbled across a paper by Bristol-Myers Squibb on a compound that was being tested for the treatment of skin and inflammatory diseases. The compound seemed to cause changes in the testis similar to the mutation that she and her team were studying.

Testicular toxin

According to the paper, Bristol-Myers dropped its interest when it found that the compound also was – in the company’s words – “a testicular toxin.” The paper did not elaborate on how the drug caused infertility, so Wolgemuth and her team tested the drug in mice to find out; they noted that the changes it caused were similar to the ones they were seeking.

“We were intrigued,” said Dr. Wolgemuth. “One company’s toxin may be another person’s contraceptive.”

The story is similar to the one involving Viagra, Pfizer's erectile dysfunction drug. It was originally developed to treat angina. It was adapted to its present use when researchers noted the side effects among healthy test subjects included erections.

Experimenting with mice

To investigate whether the Bristol-Myers compound prevented conception at even lower levels than those cited in the company’s study, Wolgemuth and her team placed the treated male mice with females and found that reversible male sterility occurred with doses as low as 1.0mg/kg of body weight for a 4-week dosing period.

One advantage of using a non-steroidal approach, the researchers say, is avoiding the side effects commonly associated with steroidal hormone-based methods. Male steroid-based options have been plagued with adverse effects, including ethnic variability in efficacy, as well as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and benign prostatic hyperplasia.

Another side effect of hormonal options for men has been diminished libido, which sort of defeats the entire premise of a male contraceptive. But the Columbia researchers say that drawback will also likely be avoided if a method involving manipulation of the retinoid receptor pathway proves successful.

“We have seen no side effects, so far, and our mice have been mating quite happily,” said Wolgemuth.

 

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Banks Hyperventilate at Possible Loss of $16 Billion inDebitCardFees

Last-minute Congressional arm-twisting may yet pull the banks' fat from the fire

Banks Hyperventilate at Possible Loss of $16 Billion in Debit Card Swipe Fees. Last-minute Congressional arm-twisting may yet pull the banks' fat from the...

photoSo how much does it really cost your bank when you "swipe" your debit card to make a purchase? It seems like a pretty simple question but with untold billions of dollars riding on the outcome, doesn't it seem a little odd that no one really knows the answer?

Banks have been furiously lobbying Congress to delay a new Federal Reserve rule that would cap swipe fees at 12 cents per transaction, instead of the current 44 cents.

But now, a study by the National Credit Union Association (NCUA) finds that large credit unions say the median cost to process a debit card transaction requiring a PIN or signature is just 2 cents.

The Fed's 12-cent figure came from a survey of banks and payment card networks. It found the median transaction cost was 7 cents. The Fed then set the cap at 12 cents to take into account "other costs that are more difficult to estimate."

But no sooner had the NCUA issued its findings than it began backtracking, saying that there is no doubt that the 2-cent figure is "not inclusive of card services program costs," according to the non-profit iWatchNews.org.

Say what?

To some extent, the problem is one of definition. Are we talking about the incremental cost of processing a single debit card transaction? Or are we talking about the total cost of setting up, promoting, protecting, operating and insuring a card-processing system?

If it's the former, then a couple of cents may be about right. If the latter, it's most likely much more, since all parties agree that there's a lot more to running a card network than just processing transactions. There are telephone lines, equipment costs, computer centers, promotion, legal fees, insurance, data security, fraud and, ahem, lobbyists, which as we know do not come cheaply.

Complicating the issue further is the fact that card networks run their debit card transactions over the same infrastructure as credit card transactions, making it nearly impossible to break out separate costs of each.

Gee, it's enough to take us back to the days when telephone companies had to go argue before public utility commissions about how much it cost them to process a single phone call. (Answer: not much).

So, to get back to the consumer's stake in all this: retailers say that if the swipe fees are lowered, they will pass much of the savings on to the consumers, while banks say that's nonsense (and banks, after all, have a little experience with the delirious profitability of charging high fees for activities that cost next to nothing).

Tester to the rescue

Sen. John Tester (D-Montana), a big-hearted guy from Big Sky Country (or is that Wyoming?) knows a pathetic victim when he sees one so he has come galloping to the aid of the big banks and introduced a bill to delay the debit cap for, oh, a couple of years so that there can be more time to "study" the issue.

Tester's efforts on behalf of the long-suffering banks are not going unnoticed. The Hill newspaper reported that Tester was quickly showered with nearly $60,000 in contributions from credit card companies and their allies, who stand to lose a huge piece of the $16 billion in swipe fees each year.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said that he plans to hold a vote this month on Tester's proposal to delay the fee cap, thus dispensing with the issue before election politics heats up.

 

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Critics: New For-Profit College Regulation Not Enough

Nearly half of all for-profit college students default on their loans

Critics: New For-Profit College Regulation Not Enough. Nearly half of all for-profit college students default on their loans ...

photoThe U.S. Department of Education, responding to intense criticism by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), has taken the first step in reining in abusive practices at for-profit colleges which pile deep debt onto their students in exchange for questionable credentials. 

It issued a new rule that sets a standard for these schools: their programs have to ensure graduates can earn enough to pay off the hefty student loans they must carry to pay for their enrollment.  But consumer advocates say the rule doesn't go far enough.

The activist group USPIRG said it was disappointed that the new standard “doesn’t go into effect soon enough, nor is it strong enough to adequately clean up the industry on behalf of student loan borrowers” and said it would continue pushing for further reform.

“The price tag for these colleges is so high that about half of all borrowers who default on their student loans attend for-profit colleges,” USPIRG said.  “The quality of the education is so weak that, in one survey, 57 percent of students departed without a diploma.”

Meanwhile, taxpayers are picking up the tab by underwriting billions in federal student loans and grant aid that pour into these colleges.  About one in ten college students attends a for-profit college, but these colleges absorb one in four federal loan and grant dollars.

Other groups responding to the new rule included:

  • American Association of University Women (AAUW) “This final rule will benefit women, minority, low-income, and veteran students, in particular. Together, these groups constitute a disproportionately large number of students at for-profit schools, where students accrue almost double the median debt compared with their peers at nonprofit institutions,” said executive diirector Linda D. Hallman.

  • American Federation of Teachers (AFT) “This regulation is a modest step to help protect students from inflated promises about job prospects and earnings by career education programs that often leave students with no gainful employment but a mountain of debt. This problem is particularly pernicious in the for-profit sector, where student debt and loan default rates are significantly higher than in the nonprofit sector,” said  AFT President Randi Weingarten.

  • Campus Progress “Given the overwhelming evidence that the worst for-profit colleges are abusing students and taxpayers, the rule isn't strong enough, but it's still an important reform that could, over time, help millions of students. We believe that, collectively, the rules issued by the Administration, ongoing investigations by state attorneys general, and increasing scrutiny by Congress and the media will ultimately compel for-profit schools to clean up their act or else shut their doors,” said David Halperin, Director of Campus Progress, the youth arm of the Center for American Progress.

  • National Education Association (NEA) “This rule advances the common-sense principle that federal financial aid should go to career education programs that consistently provide what they promise and don’t leave students buried in debt they cannot repay,” said Dennis Van Roekel, NEA president.

Harkin has said he will continue to investigate abuses in the private for-profit education sector despite vocal opposition from Republicans, including Republican members of the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, who boycotted the most recent hearings on the issue.

Harkin was criticized for inviting noted Wall Street short seller Steven Eisman to testify on the issue despite Eisman’s financial conflicts of interest, and over allegations from an internal GAO document he pressured investigators to include numerous details in a report on for-profit schools. GAO later corrected a slew of errors in that report.

 

 

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Things To Consider Before Getting A Student Loan

Rule #1: Student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy

In an uncertain economy, a bankruptcy attorney urges caution in taking out student loans....

photoCollege gets more expensive every year and paying for it isn't easy. But before signing up for student loans, you might heed some words of advice from Detroit-area bankruptcy attorney Michael Greiner.

If financial crisis strikes, you may be forced to declare bankruptcy. But student loans can't be charged off in a bankruptcy. By law they must be repaid.

With many parents applying for financial aid for their college-aged children, Greiner says this fact is rarely considered. And with the cost of college going up, and colleges expecting more and more of their expenses to be paid for with debt rather than grants, many parents and students are finding that most of their debt is non-dischargeable student loans.

"Every day I have someone come into my office with a mountain of debt," said Warren. "It is often heartbreaking to see that there is nothing I can do for these people."

Private loans

Greiner also pointed out that more and more of the student loans available are private student loans, not backed by the government. He says Sallie Mae has even gotten into the act of financing private student loans.

"The interest rates on these private loans are typically much higher than for government student loans,” he said.

When considering a student loan, Greiner says applicants must read the fine print and stay away from private student loans. Just because a loan is from Sallie Mae or similar entity, doesn't mean it is a lower interest loan, he says.

Check the fine print to make sure you're not getting a private student loan with high interest rates. In fact, student loans that are not financed by the U.S. Department of Education are likely higher interest, private student loans.

Greiner says a home equity loan, and even some credit cards, would be a better alternative to a private student loan. In a bankruptcy proceeding, they will be dischargeable while a student loan won't.

Don't delay repayment

One often-cited advantage of student loans is the ability to defer payments, but Greiner says the deferred repayment doesn't stop interest from increasing. In fact, even for relatively low-interest student loans, with compounding interest, deferrals can take a manageable debt load and make it unmanageable relatively quickly.

Greiner said that many students are graduating from college getting jobs that barely enable them to pay their student loans and nothing else.

"This is one of the untold stories about the economic crisis," Greiner said. "Though the government has taken steps to address this problem, it is still too little, too late."

 

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Another Study Links BPA With Lower Fertility

Indian researchers present findings to Endocrine Society

Indian researchers say they have found evidence that bisphenol A (BPA) reduces fertility in mice....

photoA number of studies have focused on bisphenol A's (BPA) effect on human reproduction. Now, a new study has added to the data, suggesting the widespread chemical causes lower fertility in mice. The study was presented over the weekend at the 93rd annual Endocrine Society meeting in Boston.

BPA is a chemical used in many food industry containers. It provides rigidity to plastics, such as water and soft drink bottles. It's also used in the plastic liners of food cans.

Lower sperm count

Researchers at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India, injected BPA daily into a group of mice. After two months, they said the mice had lower sperm counts than a control group that received injections of a saline solution without BPA. Compared with untreated controls, mice exposed to BPA produced litters that were 50 percent smaller.

The researchers say the same effects may be showing up in the human population.

“We are being exposed to BPA in our daily lives at a level much higher than the safe recommended exposure,” said the study’s principal author, Surya Singh, PhD, associate professor in the university’s biochemistry department. “In this study, we are trying to explore what the outcome can be if we are continuously exposed to BPA in our routine life.”

BPA-exposed mice received a dose that was twice the daily upper limit of safe exposure recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The mice in the experiment were considered “subfertile” after two months of exposure, but Singh speculates that exposure for more than two months might lead to complete infertility.

“Even short-term exposure to BPA could be dangerous to fertility, but we are still investigating this possibility,” he said.

Adds to evidence

These new research findings add to a growing body of scientific evidence that links exposure to BPA, an endocrine (hormone) disrupter, with numerous adverse health effects, including on reproductive function.

How do humans get BPA in their bodies? A 2009 study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that study participants who drank for a week from polycarbonate bottles, the hard plastic drinking bottles and baby bottles, showed a two-thirds increase in their urine of BPA. The study was the first to show that drinking from polycarbonate bottles increased the level of urinary BPA, and thus suggests that drinking containers made with BPA release the chemical into the liquid that people drink in sufficient amounts to increase the level of BPA excreted in human urine.

While the food industry has vigorously defended against attempts to ban or regulate BPA, Wal-Mart announced in 2008 that it would stop selling plastic baby bottles that contain BPA and many other retailers have followed suit.

 

 

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Florida Homeowners Foreclose On Bank Of America

The ultimate 'man bites dog' story

Florida couple forecloses on Bank of America branch for wrongly initiating foreclosure on their home....

logoWarren and Maureen Nyerges were shocked last year when Bank of America initiated foreclosure proceedings on their 2,700 square foot Naples, Fla., home. Shocked, because the Nyerges purchased the home in 2009 with cash – they never even took out a mortgage.

Rather than making their way through the customer service maze at the bank, the Nyerges simply hired an attorney to set the bank straight. Eventually, Bank of America realized its mistake and dropped the matter.

But there was the small matter of the Nyerges' lawyer's fees. The Nyerges made several requests to Bank of America to pay the fees and said they got nowhere. So the lawyer took the matter to the courts.

Court order

In court, a judge ordered Bank of America to reinburse the couple for the legal fees. The Nyerges claim Bank of America steadfastly ignored them and the judge's ruling. No check was forthcoming.

Refusing to let the matter drop, the Nyerges' attorney, Todd Allen, ratcheted up the confrontation. He returned to court and secured a foreclosure order against the bank branch for failure to pay.

For the local media, the “man bites dog” story was irresistible. When Allen arrived at the branch with sheriff's deputies in tow, cameras were rolling. Allen instructed the deputies to take computers, furniture, even the contents of the cash drawers at the teller windows.

Only then, apparently, did the local bank officials realize the Nyerges and their attorney meant business. Within the hour, the manager of the local branch handed over a check for $5,772.88 to cover the original costs – plus late fees, of course. There was also an apology.

“We apologize to Mr. Nyerges that there was a delay in receiving the funds,” said the bank in a written statement to the Naples News. “The original request went to an outside attorney who is no longer in business.”

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Privacy Groups Profit From Google Buzz Settlement

Class-action settlement rewards groups that work for privacy, freedom of expression

Privacy Groups Profit From Google Buzz Settlement Class-action settlement rewards groups that work for privacy, freedom of expression...

logoConsumer and academic groups that work on behalf of privacy and individual liberty will be receiving millions of dollars from Google as part of an $8.5 million class-action settlement that has won final approval by a federal judge.

San Jose U.S. District Court Judge James Ware gave final approval to the settlement, which had been reached last September.

The suit was brought on behalf of 31 million Gmail users who sued Google for exposing their personal information without their consent through a feature called Google Buzz.  

The Electronic Frontier Foundation will receive the largest payment – $1 million – and the American Civil Liberties Union will receive $750,000.

Other organizations receiving amounts ranging from $50,000 to $500,000 include:

  • Berkeley Center for Law & Technology

  • Berkeley Law School, Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic

  • Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University

  • Brookings Institution

  • Carnegie Mellon, Cylab Usability, Privacy & Security Lab

  • Center for Democracy & Technology

  • Indiana University, Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research

  • Stanford, Center for Internet & Society

  • YMCA of Greater Long Beach

  • The Electronic Privacy Information Center

  • The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

  • Santa Clara University

  • Youth Radio

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House Panel Unwinds Some Tobacco Oversight

Pediatricians protest as politicians limit FDA's power

The House Appropriations Committee has voted to limit the FDA's power....

photoLegislation passed in 2009 gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enhanced power to regulate tobacco products and provide more food safety oversight. But the House Appropriations Committee has voted to weaken that law.

The vote came this week on an amendment that would restrict the kinds of scientific evidence used as a basis for FDA action. The result, say critics, is that the FDA's newly-granted authority to regulate cigarettes would be weakened. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is one group taking the committee to task.

Doctors take issue

"The FDA's ability to regulate tobacco products, dangerous drugs, and unsafe foods is essential for the overall well-being of children and the American public,” said O. Marion Burton, MD, president of AAP. “The amendment, introduced by Representative Denny Rehberg (R-MT) during consideration of the fiscal year 2012 Agriculture Appropriations bill, limits existing FDA authority to assure the safety of the food and drug supply, prevents the overuse of antibiotics in livestock, and weakens the agency's ability to protect young people from dangerous tobacco products.”

Critics say should the amendment become law, it would be virtually impossible for the FDA to stop tobacco companies from adding ingredients that attract children, prevent unsafe food and drugs from entering this country, or stop antibiotic-resistant bacteria from causing human illnesses.

"The AAP strongly urges the U.S. House of Representatives to reject this dangerous proposal in the final version of the spending bill,” Burton said. 

Amendment called vague

The amendment states that the FDA will be prohibited from using funds to “propose rules and regulations that are based on factors other than science.” Critics say the wording is so vague that the agency could find itself unable to do much of anything.

The amendment passed 29-20, largely along party lines.

 

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Sony Hacked Again -- This Time it's SonyPictures.com

More than 1 million consumers' records were stored in plain text, hackers say

Sony Hacked Again -- This Time it's SonyPictures.com/ More than 1 million consumers' records were stored in plain text, hackers say....

logoSony has been hacked again. This time, it's not the PlayStation Network but SonyPictures.com that has managed to let hackers make off with more than 1 million users' personal data.

"We recently broke into SonyPictures.com and compromised over 1,000,000 users' personal information, including passwords, email addresses, home addresses, dates of birth, and all Sony opt-in data associated with their accounts," a group of hackers who call themselves LulzSec said. "Among other things, we also compromised all admin details of Sony Pictures (including passwords) along with 75,000 'music codes' and 3.5 million 'music coupons.'"

The same group was behind a recent PBS website breach.

"From a single injection, we accessed everything," said the group. "What's worse is that every bit of data we took wasn't encrypted. Sony stored over 1,000,000 passwords of its customers in plain text, which means it's just a matter of taking it."

It was just yesterday (Thursday) that Sony said it was fully restoring its PlayStation Network in the U.S., Europe, and parts of Asia. The service was shut down for several weeks after hackers stole customer data.

Sony shut down the network after a massive security breach that affected more than 100 million online accounts and embarrassed the tech giant. The company said last week that credit card companies have not reported any rise in fraudulent credit card transactions as a result of the attack.

Trust no one

What's this mean for consumers?

It means that no one should trust any website to securely manage its treasure trove of consumer information. Consumers should use a different user ID and password for each site and should be very cautious about sharing Social Security numbers, bank and credit card account numbers and any other information that could be used for financial gain.

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Gas Prices Change Direction This Week

Average price moved up when prices surged in the Midwest

The average gas price moved up a bit this week after prices surged in the Midwest....

photoAfter declining almost daily through the month of May, gasoline prices are moving up again, suggesting prices might have reached a bottom, at least for now. The reversal in average prices may also have been caused by sudden price spikes in three states.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.789 a gallon, down from $3.809 last Friday but higher than the last two days, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. The average price was $3.784 a gallon yesterday.

The price of diesel fuel is $4.005, down from $4.025 a gallon last week.

It may be that gasoline prices have finally caught up to the level of crude oil, which dropped sharply at the beginning of May and has since fluctuated around the 100 a barrel level. Some analysts believe oil prices could fall even farther over the course of the summer because of weakness in the global economy.

Prices surge in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois

This week's turnaround may also be explained by a sharp spike in gas prices this week in the industrial Midwest. The average price in Illinois, for example, surged nearly nine cents a gallon this week. The price jumped 16 cents a gallon in Michigan and 13 cents in Indiana. The price jumps reportedly stem from supply disruptions, caused in part by a pipeline shutdown.

The price at the pump has gradually come down amid a drop in oil and gasoline prices on the futures markets, where Wall Street traders have been taking profits and liquidating positions. Traders have been less bullish about the economic recovery in recent weeks, revising their estimates for the world's oil demand.

The U.S., meanwhile, continues to enjoy plentiful stockpiles of both crude oil and gasoline. The latest report from the Energy Information Administration shows supplies of oil increased by 2.9 million barrels in the previous week to 373.8 million barrels, which is 2.9 per cent above year-ago levels.

At the same time, gasoline supplies rose by 2.6 million barrels to 212.3 million barrels. That's about three percent less than what was on hand a year ago.

Driving less

“According to the Federal Highway Administration, the number of miles driven by Americans declined 1.4 percent in March compared to a year ago,” said Avery Ash, AAA's manager of federal relations. “This marks the first year-over-year decline in the number of miles driven in 13 months, suggesting expensive fuel prices may have caused Americans to curtail driving.”

The states with the most expensive gasoline today are:

  • Alaska ($4.270)
  • Illinois ($4.146)
  • Michigan (($4.139)
  • Connecticut ($4.086)
  • Hawaii ($4.057)
  • Washington, DC ($4.045)
  • Indiana ($4.039)
  • California ($4.017)
  • New York ($4.013)
  • Washington ($3.928)

The states with the least expensive gasoline today are:

  • South Carolina ($3.501)
  • Mississippi ($3.542)
  • Tennessee ($3.546)
  • Alabama ($3.561)
  • Arkansas ($3.591)
  • Missouri ($3.614)
  • Texas ($3.623)
  • Louisiana ($3.624)
  • Arizona ($3.646)
  • Oklahoma ($3.658)

 

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European "Super Bug" May Have Traveled To U.S.

Virulent E. coli has killed at least 18 people in Europe

There are reports that a nasty E. coli bug that hit Europe has made its way to America....

photoThat super E. coli bug that has hit Europe may have turned up in three patients in the U.S. In all three cases, the victims had just returned from a visit to Germany.

The previously rare form of E. coli bacteria has made hundreds extremely ill throughout Europe and 18 people have reportedly died from it. It's origin so far is unknown. Early reports from Germany that it had been traced to Spanish vegetables turned out to be incorrect.

Officially, the bacteria is known as Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) and the results have been severe. Victims have suffered what is called haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), which can be deadly. It can cause serious liver damage in its victims and so far, more than 500 people in Europe have been infected.

Little is known about the possible U.S. victims. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) told the French news agency AFP that it is still waiting for blood samples.

In Europe, cases have been identified in Germany, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, France, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Officials call the bacteria “highly infectious and toxic.”

Scientists say they aren't completely sure what they are dealing with. Chinese scientists say the strain of E. coli bacteria hasn't been seen before. However, officials at the CDC say the strain has appeared before, but is extremely rare.

While the source of the sickness is unknown, suspicion has focused on raw vegetables. Russian has imposed a ban in imports of vegetables from the European Union.

 

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What's On Your Mind? La-Z-Boy, Maytag, Mexicana

How long is a lifetime guarantee?

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: La-Z-Boy, Maytag, Mexicana, What's wrong with refrigerators, Same as cash and Bank Of America....

photoKathy, of Hudson, Fla., has a La-Z-Boy chair that was purchased back in the 1960s and has been kept, she says, in mint condition. Except, after a half-century of use, a spring in the foot rest broke. No problem, she thought, the chair has a lifetime warranty. But Kathy says the lifetime warranty seems to have run out.

 “The only way they will even look at it is if we ship it to their headquarters,” Kathy said. “We have spoken to several individuals and the response is the same. They indicate there is nothing they can do.”

Kathy said she tried to find out the name of the company CEO because she thinks her chair would make a great advertisement for La-Z-Boy. It's in great shape after 50 plus year and just needs a spring replacement, testament to its quality. If Kathy could talk with someone at La-Z-Boy with some PR savvy, she might be able to work something out. She should start by calling the Warranty Inquiries number, 1-734-241-2435. If that doesn't get her anywhere, the CEO's name is Kurt Darrow, and the company address is 1284 North Telegraph Road Monroe, MI 48162-3390. We think the company might actually like to hear about Kathy's chair.

What's wrong with refrigerators?

Teresa, of Longmont, Colo., is another unhappy refrigerator owner. She says she purchased a Maytag bottom-freezer-drawer fridge a little over a year ago online from HomeDepot.com for $1300 plus taxes.

“The top part stopped cooling 26 days past the one-year warranty date,” Teresa told ConsumerAffairs.com. “After waiting on hold for 30 minutes, I was simply told there was 'nothing we can do.'”

Teresa thinks you should get at least five years out of an appliance if you spend $1,300 for it. In the last few months we've received hundreds of complaints about all kinds of refrigerators – not just Maytag. We're not sure what we would recommend if someone were refrigerator shopping. We'd like to hear from consumers who are happy with their refrigerators, so we can pass it along.

Same as cash

Enriqueta, of Fontana, Calif., was planning a trip to Mexico and purchased four tickets on a Mexicana Airline flight, paying with her debit card. Before the scheduled flight, the company ceased operations.

“I called Bank Of America and I talked to customer service to see what I could do,” Enriqueta said. “They told me that I had to wait to see if the airline would return my money, and if not to call back to Bank Of America for them to help me recover my money. I tried three times with the airline to try to get my money back but they had filed for bankruptcy.” 

Enriqueta is unhappy with Bank of America, saying they should have done more to get her money back. In reality, there was probably little the bank could do. It's not like a credit card purchase. Using a debit card is almost like spending cash. Yes, the bank can request that the airline return the funds, but in all likelihood they had already spent it.

 

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Sony PlayStation Network Back Online

Massive security breach affected more than 100 million accounts

Sony PlayStation Network Back OnlineMassive security breach affected more than 100 million accounts...

photoSony Corp. says it is fully restoring its PlayStation Network in the U.S., Europe, and parts of Asia today. The service was shut down for several weeks after hackers stole customer data.

Sony said services are set to resume in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, excluding Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea.

Customers will also be able to download music again on their PlayStation3 consoles and PCs through Sony's Qriocity music service.

Sony shut down the network after a massive security breach that affected more than 100 million online accounts and embarrassed the tech giant. The company said last week that credit card companies have not reported any rise in fraudulent credit card transactions as a result of the attack.

On its official PlayStation Blog, Sony said, “The PlayStation Store is back online and thank you everyone for your patience.”

Sony said it has added to its lineup during the time the network was down.

“You will notice a huge lineup of new downloadable games, demos, add-on content, themes, avatars, and videos. Also, PlayStation Plus has been updated with new full game trials, free games, and DLC, free avatars and even more discounts,” the blog posting said.

 

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For-Profit Colleges Face Tougher Aid Rules

Government to require performance standards for graduates

The government has adopted tougher rules that may cut the amount of student aid flowing to for-profit colleges and universities....

logoThe Department of Education has released final regulations that place requirements on for-profit colleges not generally required of traditional public and private colleges and universities.

Over the next four years, for-profit institutions, such as University of Phoenix, Devry and ITT Technical Institute, must show that students getting degrees actually get jobs, in order to maintain access to student financial aid.

The new regulations are designed to address complaints from students who say they come out of school saddled in debt but have few job prospects. Carl, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says his wife graduated from the University of Phoenix, while racking up significant student loans over four and a half years.

The bill

“We just received loan statements from both CitiBank and FedLoans totaling $49,000.00 for a B.S. Degree,” Carl told ConsumerAffairs.com. “How could an online school cost so much? There are no classrooms, air conditioning or light bills as overhead.”

While many career college programs are helping to prepare America's workforce for the jobs of the future, the government says far too many students at these schools are taking on unsustainable debt in exchange for degrees and certificates that fail to help them get the jobs they need or were promised.

"These new regulations will help ensure that students at these schools are getting what they pay for: solid preparation for a good job," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. "We're giving career colleges every opportunity to reform themselves but we're not letting them off the hook, because too many vulnerable students are being hurt."

New requirements

To qualify for Federal aid, the law requires that most for-profit programs and certificate programs at nonprofit and public institutions prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.

Under the new regulations, a program would be considered to lead to gainful employment if it meets at least one of the following three metrics:

  • at least 35 percent of former students are repaying their loans (defined as reducing the loan balance by at least $1);
  • the estimated annual loan payment of a typical graduate does not exceed 30 percent of his or her discretionary income;
  • or the estimated annual loan payment of a typical graduate does not exceed 12 percent of his or her total earnings. While the regulations apply to occupational training programs at all types of institutions, for-profit programs are most likely to leave their students with unaffordable debts and poor employment prospects.

Excluded students

As admission standards for traditional non-profit colleges have risen, many of these excluded students have turned to for-profit schools for a degree. Also, students already in the workforce make up a significant portion of the enrollment, since many classes are in the evening or can be taken online.

According to the Department of Education, students at for-profit institutions represent 12 percent of all higher education students, 26 percent of all student loans and 46 percent of all student loan dollars in default.

The median Federal student loan debt carried by students earning associate degrees at for-profit institutions was $14,000, while the majority of students at community colleges do not borrow. More than a quarter of for-profit institutions receive 80 percent of their revenues from taxpayer-financed Federal student aid.

"While for-profit schools have profited and prospered thanks to Federal dollars, some of their students have not,” Duncan said. “This is a disservice to students and taxpayers, and undermines the valuable work being done by the for-profit education industry as a whole."

 

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Ice Cream Fans Suffer Melt-Down Over 'All Natural' Claims

Class action accuses Ben & Jerry's, Breyers of misleading customers

Ice Cream Fans Suffer Melt-Down Over 'All Natural' Claims. Class action accuses Ben & Jerry's, Breyers of misleading customers...

photoTwo classes of ice-cream buyers have standing to sue Ben & Jerry's and Breyers for using "all natural" labels on ice cream made with synthetic chemical processes, a federal judge ruled.

The plaintiffs in the case allege that Ben & Jerry's and Breyers misrepresented their ice cream containing “Dutch” chocolate as “all natural” when in fact it is processed with potassium carbonate, a man-made ingredient.

The suit notes that on August 12, 2010, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) sent a letter to the ice cream companies identifying about 50 products, including chocolate ice cream and frozen yogurt, that it said were mislabeled.

In September 2010, Ben & Jerry's agreed to phase out the use of the “all natural” phrase for products containing synthetic ingredients.

The suit, filed in federal district court in Northern California charged the companies with fraud, false advertising and unjust enrichment and raised the possibility that Ben & Jerry's might at some unknown time in the future begin using the “all natural” claim again.

No damage?

The companies had filed a motion seeking dismissal of the suits, claiming among other things that the plaintiffs had not shown any damages.

The ice cream companies also argued that the plaintiffs could not reasonably claim they had suffered economic injury since, by their own admission, they not only bought but also consumed the ice cream in question.

If they were dissatisfied with their ice cream-eating experience, the companies argued, they should have applied for a refund under the companies' “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back policy.”

The plaintiffs, on the other hand, concede that while they have indeed purchased and consumed many pints of the suspect ice cream, they did so under the false belief that the frozen confection was “all natural” and that it would never have passed their lips had they been apprised of its allegedly synthetic nature.

Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton denied the companies' motions, allowing the case to proceed.

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Law School Grads Sue Their Alma Mater

Unemployed and deeply in debt, jobless lawyers say they were misled

Law School Grads Sue Their Alma Mater. Unemployed and deeply in debt, jobless lawyers say they were misled...

logoIn a class action lawsuit, graduates of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego claim that "for more than 15 years, TJSL has churned out law school graduates, many of whom have little or no hope of working as attorneys at any point in their careers," and they say the school lures in new meat by misrepresenting the employment and salary records of its graduates.

The private law school, founded in 1995, was accredited in 2001 and enrolls about 680 students annually. Tuition is currently $38,700 annually.

In the suit, Anna Alaburda claims that the average Jefferson graduate is carrying student debt of $135,000 and that Jefferson graduates' bar passage rate is “consistently” below 50 percent, which she says is well below the average in California.

Alaburda alleges that to continue attracting students despite these dismal statistics, the school misrepresents its graduates employment statistics, claiming that its graduates enjoy an employment rate that typically exceed 70 percent, while concealing that these figures include part-time and non-law employment.

Working as waiters

A TJSL graduate would be considered employed if he worked as a waiter or convenience store clerk, she said.

“Prospective students are led to believe that they will be hired as full-time attorneys when they graduate, even though that is frequently not the case,” the suit alleges.

Alaburda speaks from experience. She graduated from TJSL with honors in 2008, having incurred more than $150,000 in debt from student loans but has been unable to find lucrative work as an attorney.

“Law schools are cranking out graduates at an unprecedented rate,” awarding more than 43,000 law degrees last year, up 11 percent from the previous decade, the suit notes.

Law schools inflate statistics and present misleading figures to U.S. News & World Report, whose annual ranking of law schools is used by many students as they review the schools available to them, the suit argues. It alleges that, for example, the dean of Villanova Law School recently admitted that the school “knowingly reported” false information to the American Bar Association.

Enron standards

The suit quotes one law school dean as saying “Enron-type accounting standards have become the norm.”

Alaburda graduated from New York University, one of the top undergraduate schools in the nation, in 2002 and, after reviewing U.S. News & World Report's law school rankings, applied to TJSL, relying on the school's claim that 80 percent of its graduates were employed nine months after graduation.

She graduated from TJSL with honors and passed the bar exam on her first attempt but has never been employed as a full-time attorney. She said she has had to seek “contract work” reviewing documents and working on a project-by-project basis for law firms.

In the suit, Alaburda said she has been told by many law firms that they do not hire TJSL graduates and that the school's reputation in the legal industry is well below average.

The suit, filed in San Diego Superior Court, seeks class action status on behalf of all TJSL graduates. It accuses the school of unfair business practices, fraud, false advertising and negligent misrepresentation. It seeks damages of $50 million.

Final indignity

Well, you might be saying to yourself, at least Ms. Alaburda got something from her expensive law school education -- she was able to file her own lawsuit. 

Wrong.

The suit was filed on behalf of Alaburda and her classmates by Brian Procel of the Los Angeles firm Miller Barondess LLP.

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New Medicare Scam Targets Part B Participants

Seniors should be leery of promise of free glucose meter

The attorney general of Nevada is warning seniors about a new Medicare scam....

logoNevada's attorney general is warning seniors that a new scam is targeting Medicare recipients, trying to obtain personal information that could be used for identity theft.

Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto has issued a consumer alert after a senior in her state reported an attempt to steal his Medicare number.

According to Masto, the scam worked like this: a caller reached the senior by telephone and told him they are eligible for new diabetic meters that are generally covered by Medicare under Medicare Part B.

The caller claimed to be a government agency representative and informed the Medicare beneficiary he was eligible for a new glucose meter. The caller then asked the beneficiary to confirm “you are who you say you are” and requested the beneficiary’s Medicare number.

Didn't fall for it

In this particular case, the Nevada beneficiary told the caller he was not comfortable providing that information over the phone and asked the caller to send a form to provide the information. The caller then promptly hung up.

“Luckily, this senior was aware enough to realize that the caller was a scammer looking for personal information in an attempt to victimize him,” said Masto. “Although seniors are becoming increasingly more vigilant in protecting

their Medicare numbers and other personal information, there’s always the possibility that a scammer calling a senior could persuade him or her to provide information that could open the senior to potential ID theft and medical identity theft.”

Research shows that people are usually more vulnerable to a scam if it involves getting something for free. Consumers should be especially wary of offers of free items that require you to provide personal or credit card information.

Medicare, or course, will never make unsolicited calls to a beneficiary. If seniors receive any phone calls such as this scam, they should report it to their state attorney general and the Medicare Fraud Line in Washington.

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What's On Your Mind? Michaels, Timeshare Solutions, VistaPrint

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Michaels, Timeshare Solutions, VistaPrint, Empty promises, A satisfied customer and Check's in the mail....

logoChain store Michaels recently disclosed that someone tampered with and compromised the debit card readers at a number of its stores in the U.S. This week we heard from one of Michael's customers who says she was impacted by the theft.

“My debit card information was stolen from Michael's store by someone and now I am missing almost $2,000 from my bank account,” Vivian, of Cranston, R.I. told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Whoever got my information charged foreign air fare from 2 different airlines, Swiss Air and JAT Airways. iIwas notified by Micheal's via email that someone had access to my information and I changed my PIN but it was too late.”

Vivian said the theft could have been worse. Her bank noticed fraudulent activity and froze her account, but not before the thieves took $2,000. Michael's, meanwhile is the defendant in a class-action lawsuit filed by an Illinois woman who says the retailer failed to protect consumers' debt card information.

Empty promises

Millions of Americans own timeshares. Almost as many are desperate to sell them. So desperate that they will believe a perfect stranger who calls and says, for a fee, he can deliver a buyer.

 “We got a call from TimeShare Solutions out of Florida,” Dennis, of Galveston, Tex., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They had buyers ready to buy our Wyndham property. We paid an upfront fee of $598 expecting to hear in the next day or so that our timeshare had been sold. So far, we have not received on phone call back. When we call them, they are not available to talk.”

Dennis is not likely to hear back in response to his calls. In this market, it is extremely hard to sell a timeshare, and buyers don't just materialize out of the blue. Companies that collect an upfront fee for an alleged buyer are simply scamming you. In fact, the latest wrinkle now are companies that will do you the favor of taking your timeshare off your hands. They don't pay you for it, of course, but you have to pay thousands of dollars in closing costs to get it off your hands.

A satisfied customer

VistaPrint has drawn its share of complaints over the years – especially for unauthorized charges – but they also have some customers who sing their praises, including Jeremy, of Madison, Ala.

“I have placed at least six different orders for business cards, each one a unique card layout,” Jeremy said. “They have all been excellent quality, shipped according to or faster than expectations, and my customers have been 110 percent pleased with their cards. I am also extra-cautious with any online transaction, perhaps this is why I didn't accidentally enroll myself in any recurring program charging my credit card each month. Perhaps due diligence would remedy some of these claims.”

Perhaps. Businesses have an obligation to post their terms in a clear and conspicuous manner. And as Jeremy points out, consumers need to pay attention.

Check's in the mail

There are pitfalls to buying a home warranty, which have been enumerated many times on this site. The company can go out of business, for one. Or, it can simply stop serving your area, without telling you.

“Nationwide Home Warranty sold me a five year home warranty contract on in 2009 for $1499.95 for service through 2014, said Olga of Huntingdon, Pa. “They never informed me that they have stopped serving my area. When I called them for a service issue under the warranty contract on August 2, 2010, they sent an email that they no longer serve my area and will refund the unused portion.

But at last report, Olga had not received her refund. And there's a good chance she would never known that her policy was no longer in effect if she hadn't called for service.

 

 

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