Current Events in June 2011

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    California Adds Sales Tax To Internet Sales

    New law targets and other out-of-state retailers

    California 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, 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.

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

    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.

    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.

    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...

    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 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."

    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...

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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 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.

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

      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-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.

      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-...

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

      Fed raises cap from 12 to 21 cents

      The 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.

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

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

      Our daily look at consumer reviews

      Once 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 “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

      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.


      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,, 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 “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.

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

      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 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. 

      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...

      What Ever Happened To MySpace?

      Social networking site reportedly going for fire sale price

      Remember 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 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.

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

      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 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. 

      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...

      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. 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.

      NORML, 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."

      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....

      Pending Home Sales Jump In May

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

      A 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. 

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

      Michigan Attorney General Targets Medical Marijuana Law

      Says it sanctions criminal activity

      Michigan 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.

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

      Infiniti G35, Nissan 350Z Recalled

      Clutch may cause car to move unintentionally

      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.

      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...

      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 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

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

      Physicians Dropping More Privately Insured Patients

      Doctors increasingly turning down private health insurance plans

      Thanks 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.

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

      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 “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.


      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.

      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...

      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.

      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.

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

      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 General Darrell McGraw has sued Scotts Depot fashion photographer Stephen R. Ross and his WV Modeling Agency.

      McGraw’s suit, filed in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County, details repeated violations of the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act by Ross and his modeling agency. It demands an immediate halt to the illegal activities as well as full refunds of fees paid by affected customers. 

      McGraw’s office alleges that Ross promised but failed to produce photographs he had taken of customers, to create books featuring sets of modeling photographs known as "portfolios," and to obtain modeling jobs for any of his customers. 

      In one case, a Charleston woman hired Ross to act as a modeling agent for her teenage daughter. She paid Ross $1000 for a fashion shoot and assistance in building the girl’s portfolio. The woman also entered her daughter into a modeling pageant, to be arranged and promoted by WV Modeling, that was cancelled several times and ultimately never occurred. In a flyer promoting the pageant, Ross misrepresented that his company was conducting a model search for top New York agencies including Ford Models, MC2, and Icon Models. 

      "Sadly, an entire industry has developed to fleece those who dream of becoming a model," Attorney General McGraw said. "These enterprises prey upon people’s hopes while betting on consumers’ lack of knowledge about how the modeling industry really works."

      McGraw’s office began investigating Ross and his WV Modeling Agency, also known by several other names, after receiving complaints from consumers in the Kanawha Valley area.

      Ross, who claims to be a fashion photographer and model trainer and agent, promises to schedule fashion shoots and assist consumers in building their photograph portfolios. He also claims that he has connections with some of the top modeling agencies in the country. The investigation by McGraw’s Consumer Protection Division of Ross showed a history of not delivering on those assurances.

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