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Consumers Leading Opposition To AT&T T-Mobile Merger

The people who use the products haven't been enthusiastic about the deal

Consumers have gone on record in opposition to the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile...

PhotoA lot of organizations endorsed AT&T's proposal to acquire and merge with rival T-Mobile. Even a group of 10 state attorneys general backed the deal.

But consumers, the people who actually use cell phones and pay the bills, have never been all that enthusiastic. In fact, you might say some have been absolutely hostile to the deal.

When the U.S. Justice Department filed an anti-trust lawsuit to block the merger, you could almost hear some ConsumerAffairs.com readers cheering. Readers like Jack, who describes himself as a company president from Miami, Fla., who depends on his Blackberry on business trips, wrote to ConsumerAffairs.com in July, complaining about billing problems with T-Mobile.

Cartel

“To leave T-Mobile and go to another company, unfortunately there is no alternative with the Blackberry emails overseas - only AT&T,” Jack told ConsumerAffairs.com. “But T-Mobile is going to merge with AT&T soon, it will create a cartel on the Blackberry emails overseas. I hope very much as a citizen of the USA that FCC will not approve the merger between T-Mobile and AT&T.”

Dustin, of Iowa City, Iowa, wrote in March about his regret at leaving T-Mobile for AT&T, unaware that the two companies were about to announce a merger.

“I have to dial a number five or more times regularly to get the call to go through,” Dustin said. “This is ridiculous, with the price of AT&T being one of the highest in the market, I expected better! I should have just grabbed a tablet from T-Mobile so I could Facetime my family while I'm on the road. Overall I am very displeased it is almost like I don't have a phone at all the way it lacks reception.”

'Less competition not the American way'

Other consumers have posted comments on our stories about the proposed merger. Commenting on our story about growing criticism of the deal, one poster named Dave said “Ask the T-Mobile users. We all know what saved AT&T. Apple did! That's how come they can throw all that money around. Less competition is not the American way.”

“This could raise cell phone rates for everyone, not just T-Mobile users,” another poster, Daniel, said. “Less compition means higher prices, its basic economics. Let's band together and stop this, everyone speak out.”

Another poster, Craig, chimed in with “AT&T + T-Mobile = better reception? Oh, that's a good one.”

A ConsumerAffairs.com analysis of about 1.5 million consumer postings on social media sites found consumer sentiment about AT&T roughly evenly divided.  In March, when the proposed merger was announced, consumers made about 10,000 negative comments about AT&T and about 11,000 positive ones.

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Chart shows positive sentiment (above) vs. negative (below)

Perhaps more telling are the sentiments expressed by about 2.3 million consumers about T-Mobile during the same period of time.  During March, about 20,000 consumers expressed positive sentiments about T-Mobile, compared to 7,800 negatives, as shown in the chart below.

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Real reason?

In our story quoting Free Press President Craig Aaron saying "We now know the truth: AT&T is willing to pay a $39 billion premium for one reason and one reason only — to kill off the competition," he got a big “amen” from Lisa, a reader in Utah.

“This bottom lines the real reason for the acquisition,” she said.

The Justice Department challenge was not unexpected, but it came a lot earlier in the process than many people expected. In the Wall Street Journal's "Heard On The Street," the business Bible noted that powerful political forces were lining up in favor of the deal. It called the government anti-trust suit a demonstration that “legal issues carried the day.”

Just because the government has challenged the merger in court, that doesn't mean it is dead. AT&T is expected to vigorously counter the suit.

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

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Marijuana Legalization Gets Another Boost

Black government employees say it's time to end the War on Drugs

The "War On Drugs" has been around a lot longer than most other wars the country has fought and a group of African-American government employees says it's ...

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There's increasing pressure to legalize marijuana.
 
The "War On Drugs" has been around a lot longer than most other wars the country has fought and a group of African-American government employees says it's time to declare victory and withdraw.
 
Blacks in Government (BIG), which represents government employees at the federal, state, county and municipal levels, overwhelmingly passed a resolution at its national delegates meeting last week calling for an end to what it called "the failed and racially biased 'war on drugs.'”
 
The resolution, which will be delivered to President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, calls for “alternatives to incarceration that may, in part, include a model to regulate and control the distribution of some drugs.”
 
The resolution pointed to the words of Maryland State Police Major Neill Franklin and U.S. Marshal Matthew Fogg, both members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of police, judges, prosecutors and prison wardens who support legalizing and regulating drugs.
 
BIG and LEAP have noted that African Americans constitute 53.5 percent of all persons who entered prison because of a drug conviction despite the fact that blacks are no more likely than whites to use drugs.
 
“I personally witnessed racially biased enforcement procedures when I ran a joint DEA task force,” said Fogg, a former U.S. marshal and a past BIG national first vice president. “When I requested equal enforcement of upscale suburban areas, I met internal resistance.”
 
The BIG resolution calls for “a federal investigation for solutions to eliminate the pretense and continued arrest and incarceration of African Americans at extraordinarily disparate rates for drug related charges.” 
 
In passing the anti-drug-war resolution, BIG joins other African-American groups that have taken similar positions, such as the NAACP, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and the National Black Police Association.
 
“The war on drugs has put blacks behind bars for drug offenses at more than ten times the rate of whites, even though the evidence consistently shows that blacks are no more likely to use or sell currently illicit drugs than whites are,” Fogg added. “It is time to end this virtual race war.”
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Feds Sue To Block AT&T Acquisition Of T-Mobile

Justice Department says consumers would be harmed by the deal

The U.S. Justice Department is attempted to block AT&T's merger with T-Mobile...

PhotoThe U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) has filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop AT&T from taking over rival T-Mobile. The government said the proposed $39 billion transaction would substantially decrease competition in the U.S. mobile industry.

Should the merger be completed, AT&T would be, by far, the largest U.S. wireless company with Verizon Wireless second. Sprint/Nextel would be a distant third. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, signaled the government's determination to prevent that large of a consolidation in the wireless industry.

“The combination of AT&T and T-Mobile would result in tens of millions of consumers all across the United States facing higher prices, fewer choices and lower quality products for mobile wireless services,” said Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. “Consumers across the country, including those in rural areas and those with lower incomes, benefit from competition among the nation’s wireless carriers, particularly the four remaining national carriers. This lawsuit seeks to ensure that everyone can continue to receive the benefits of that competition.”

Consumer activists had urged DOJ and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to intervene, to prevent the sale from taking place. In late July, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) went on record against the deal, in a filing with regulatory agencies.

'Not in the public interest'

"This transaction is not in the public interest," Franken said in his filing. "If approved, it would result in greatly reduced competition, the potential loss of thousands of jobs, higher consumer prices, and less innovation in technology. I urge the FCC and the DOJ to deny AT&T's application for approval of its acquisition of T-Mobile."

Franken's opposition to the proposed deal was not exactly a secret. He initially raised concerns about this merger during a statement on the Senate floor on May 4. Franken also questioned the impact of the merger on consumers at a Judiciary Committee hearing in May.

If DOJ needed further prodding to take its position, it may have come in early August when AT&T released a number of documents in its filing with the FCC.

Communications Daily, which was first to publish the documents, reported that in the filing, AT&T admitted that expanding its most advanced network to 97 percent of the country would cost only an estimated $3.8 billion. But the filing shows AT&T rejected that option, claiming there wasn’t a “viable business case” to justify the expansion.

Wireless' critical role

In its suit, the government pointed out that mobile wireless telecommunications services play a critical role in the way Americans live and work, with more than 300 million feature phones, smart phones, data cards, tablets and other mobile wireless devices in service today. Four nationwide providers of these services – AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon – account for more than 90 percent of mobile wireless connections. The proposed acquisition would combine two of those four, eliminating from the market T-Mobile, a firm that historically has been a value provider, offering particularly aggressive pricing, DOJ said.

“T-Mobile has been an important source of competition among the national carriers, including through innovation and quality enhancements such as the roll-out of the first nationwide high-speed data network,” said Sharis A. Pozen, Acting Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.“Unless this merger is blocked, competition and innovation will be reduced, and consumers will suffer.”  

The department said that it gave serious consideration to the efficiencies that the merging parties claim would result from the transaction but concluded AT&T had not demonstrated that the proposed transaction promised any efficiencies that would be sufficient to outweigh the transaction’s substantial adverse impact on competition and consumers. 

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JetBlue Fined for Violating Advertising Rules

Emirates fined for improperly limiting delayed baggage reimbursements

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) today fined JetBlue Airways $50,000 for violating federal aviation laws  prohibiting deceptive price adver...

PhotoThe U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) today fined JetBlue Airways $50,000 for violating federal aviation laws  prohibiting deceptive price advertising in air travel.  Emirates was fined $100,000 for improperly limiting  reimbursements for delayed baggage.

“When passengers shop for an airline ticket, they have a right to know the full price they will have to pay,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We expect airlines to treat their passengers fairly and will take enforcement action when our rules are violated.”

The Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office found that for a period of time in early 2011, JetBlue displayed fare advertisements on several websites that did not provide any information on additional taxes and fees.

Consumers clicking on the advertisements were taken to a page where a list of routes and prices were displayed, along with a statement that taxes and fees would be added to the fare. However, the statement was not a link, and consumers had to scroll to the bottom of the page or click a link next to each of the listed fares to see, listed in fine print, the amount of the additional taxes and fees they would have to pay. 

JetBlue’s website violated DOT rules requiring any advertising that includes a price for air transportation to state the full price to be paid by the consumer, including all carrier-imposed surcharges.

The only exception currently allowed is government-imposed taxes and fees that are assessed on a per-passenger basis, such as passenger facility charges, which may be stated separately from the advertised fare but must be clearly disclosed in the advertisement so that passengers can easily determine the full price they must pay.

Internet fare listings may disclose these separate taxes and fees through a prominent link next to the fare stating that government taxes and fees are extra, and the link must take the viewer directly to information where the type and amount of taxes and fees are displayed.

Under DOT’s recently adopted consumer rule that enhances protections for air travelers, carriers will be required, among other things, to include all government taxes and fees in every advertised fare beginning Jan. 24, 2012.

Emirates

In the Emirates case, the DOT said the Dubai-based airline limited compensation for lost, damaged, and delayed baggage to less than consumers were entitled under an international treaty.

“All air passengers, regardless of whether they are taking domestic or international flights, deserve to be compensated fairly for lost, damaged or delayed baggage,” LaHood said. “We will continue to take enforcement action when necessary to protect airline consumers.”

Under the Montreal Convention, an international agreement that sets liability limits for international air transportation, airlines are liable for damages caused by lost, delayed or damaged baggage up to a limit that is the equivalent of approximately $1,820 in U.S. currency unless the carrier has taken all reasonable measures to prevent the damage or it was impossible to take these measures.

The Convention forbids carriers from setting a lower baggage compensation limit for international flights, and does not allow carriers to refuse to provide compensation for jewelry, electronics or other specific types of items. U.S. aviation statutes require airlines to comply with the Convention.

Based on a consumer complaint received by DOT, the Department’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings investigated Emirates’ handling of baggage claims for flights to or from the United States and found numerous violations of the Montreal Convention.

In many cases, Emirates denied reimbursement for expensive items such as lost electronics, jewelry, and cameras. In its written responses to passengers, Emirates stated that its contract of carriage limited its liability for such items and incorrectly claimed that its practice complied with the Convention.

Emirates’ website also stated that the carrier was not liable for valuables damaged while in the carrier’s custody. In addition, the carrier often provided limited or no compensation for costs related to delayed baggage while claiming in responses to passengers that limiting compensation was allowed by the Convention.

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Gas Prices Rising Again

Traders pushing oil prices up on stimulus expectations

Hopes for an improving economy are pushing up gas prices...

PhotoThings are looking a little better for the economy than they were a couple of weeks ago, right? True, unless you happen to buy a lot of gasoline.

With sentiment on Wall Street beginning to turn bullish again, energy prices are going up. The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.617 a gallon, up nearly four cents in the last week, according to AAA's daily Fuel Gauge Survey.

The price of gasoline is down 9.2 percent from its May 5 high of $3.985 a gallon while the price of West Text Crude is down 12 percent from recent highs. Oil prices began dropping a few weeks ago when economic data suggested the U.S. economy was slowing down again. Now that the outlook has improved, somewhat, oil prices are climbing again.

More stimulus?

One reason the outlook has improved is the growing belief that the Federal Reserve will step in with a third round of stimulus. It may be no accident that the acceleration in oil prices began in the fall of 2010, just as the Fed launched its plan to pour liquidity into the economy. Some economists said that drove down the value of the dollar, thus making oil, which is purchased with dollars, more expensive.

From a supply standpoint, there seems to be plenty of oil. But there has emerged two different prices for it. Brent crude – much of which comes from the Middle East – costs about $26 a barrel more than oil from Texas. Unfortunately, the U.S. imports a lot of Brent, making gasoline from the refineries using it cost more.

Powerful rumor

Now, all oil seems to be headed higher again. A rumor sweeping Wall Street this week says Goldman Sachs purchased three million barrels of West Texas crude for February delivery, a very bullish move if true. Though unconfirmed, the rumor has been enough to spark buying in the oil market, pushing prices sharply higher Tuesday.

What all this may mean for the average motorist is an end to falling gasoline prices. We may have already seen the low, at least in this cycle. Even without hard data showing the economy is actually getting stronger, oil prices might continue to rise on traders' expectation of a cheaper dollar.

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HP Says It Will Produce More TouchPads

But will they still sell for $99?

After selling out quickly at a bargain price, HP is ordering more TouchPads...

PhotoWhen HP announced it was getting out of the tablet business earlier this month and slashed the price of its TouchPad, it set off a stampede of consumer demand. For a weekend, the company and it's product enjoyed an Apple-like buzz.

The company and its retailers, however, quickly sold out of the devices, since the 16GB tablet, which normally retailed for $399, went for the fire sale price of $99. In fact, many consumers were upset that they didn't get one after submitting their orders online.

“I could have bought one at $99 from other stores, but I didn't because they sent me a confirm email, making me think I successfully bought one,” Lei, of Terre Haute, Ind., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I missed this great opportunity because of their mistake.”

Well, maybe she didn't miss it after all. After selling out its entire inventory of TouchPads, HP apparently is ordering more. Mark Budgell, a blogger in HP's public relations department, says the absence of TouchPads is only temporary.

“We will have more available shortly,” Budgell wrote. “Please keep an eye on www.hp.com/go/touchpad-availability. We will have a link up soon where you can subscribe to be notified when these products are back in inventory.”

Will it still be bargain priced?

The TouchPad didn't sell particularly well until HP slashed the price by 75 percent. That raises the question, will HP sell the next batch of TouchPads at the old price or will it continue the fire sale price?

Budgell did not directly address that question, leaving the impression that bargain-hungry consumers will be able to snap up 16GB tablets for $99 and 32GB machines for $149. At those prices, PC Magazine called the TouchPad “possibly one of the best tech deals ever.”

Budgell did say that consumers who purchase TouchPads will continue to receive service and support from HP.

“We are fully committed to providing support and service of customers who purchased webOS devices,” Budgell wrote. “We will honor our product warranties and will continue to provide support via services like the webOS Butler, our free setup support service available to all purchasers of HP webOS products for the first 90 days after purchase.”

He also said that HP TouchPad owners can expect an over-the-air update that will enhance the platform and add functionality and a growing applications catalog.

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Seniors Warned About Telephone Scammers

Telemarketers pretend to be associated with Medicare

Another Medicare scam is targeting seniors...

Senior citizens, unfortunately, are common scam victims and a recent senior scam that has popped up in Arkansas involves Medicare.

Telephone solicitors have been calling Medicare beneficiaries asking for personal information, including bank account information and Social Security numbers. Other callers offer updated or replacement Medicare cards for a fee.

"It's never a good idea to give out personal financial information over the phone to a stranger, no matter how legitimate the reason seems to be," said Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. He issued a consumer alert to warn Medicare beneficiaries specifically about the possibility of fraud or potential scams concerning their Social Security Number and bank accounts.

Not associated with Medicare

The scam being reported in Arkansas is likely being repeated in other states.

The card offered in the new Medicare card pitch is, of course, not legitimate. Callers may use the names of fictitious companies such as National Medical Office, Medicare National Office and National Medicare or even state they are with the government. Beware if you hear any of these or similar names.

Also, the scam artists may ask senior citizens for bank information, including bank account numbers, which they then use to electronically withdraw money from a beneficiary's account.

It is against Medicare's rules to call a Medicare beneficiary and request bank account or other personal information, or cash payments. No beneficiary should ever provide that kind of information to someone who calls them, no matter how official the caller sounds.

To prevent this scam, seniors should follow these rules:

  • Never give out any personal information in person, over the phone, or on the Internet to people or companies with which you are unfamiliar. 
  • If personal information is requested, verify the request for information directly with the company or organization involved by contacting the entity using a telephone number from an independent source. 
  • Remember that legitimate federal Medicare organizations never attempt to collect sensitive information via telephone, email or unsolicited mail. This includes bank account information, Social Security numbers, addresses and Medicare numbers. 
  • Seniors or family members should call 1-800-MEDICARE to report any of these types of calls or go to www.stopmedicarefraud.gov to learn more about efforts to fight these types of scams. 
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What's On Your Mind? Sports Authority, Classmates.com, T-Mobile

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Sports Authority, Classmates.com, T-Mobile, Hard to quit, No guarantees and Another scam victim....

PhotoWe all love to feel we got a great deal. Mike, of Clearwater, Fla., said he found an Adidas tennis racquet at Sports Authority, marked down from $100 to $67. Thinking it was a great deal, he bought it.

“Later I saw that the average price for this racquet is about $65-$68,” Mike said. “I felt I was cheated. I complained on the website and got no response. I wrote to the company president and also got no response. I can only conclude from this lack of response that such misrepresentations are not uncommon. If I ever go back, I will check third parties before making a purchase.”

Sports Authority may have tried to sell the racquet at a premium price and found that it couldn't, so it may have indeed been “on sale.” Mike ended up paying the average price, so he shouldn't feel too bad. However, he is absolutely correct in his observation that he should do research on a product before buying it.

Hard to quit

Consumers often get angry when they find that a service they have subscribed to – perhaps only to receive a gift or discount – has auto-renewed their membership and charged their credit card again.

Classmates.com posted a charge to my Visa,” Maureen, of Chesterton, Ind., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The bank set up a conference call between the bank, them and myself. Scott said it was an automatic renewal. I had emailed them months ago to cancel. Scott said he saw the email but not the follow-up. Said they respond to emails with a 'how to cancel.' I never got this email. Of course, I can't prove it. They won't refund my $39.00. Nice to do to a almost 79 year old.”

Consumers need to understand that simply sending an email almost never cancels a subscription. Usually, one must wade through the website to find instructions. Apparently, in the case of Classmates, you must request the instructions to be emailed to you.

No guarantees

Just because you can't get a cell signal at your house doesn't mean T-Mobile, or any other mobile provider, is going to let you out of your contract.

"I had cell service with T-Mobile for about a year and then I could no longer get a signal,” Annissa, of Point Arena, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I spent a week with them trying to get them to figure out why and they could not. So finally one of the representatives told me either I keep my account and have no signal for four to six months until they merge with AT&T or turn it off. Well I told him I didn't want to pay for phone service I could not use. The representative told me that all I would have to do is mail in proof of residence and they would wave the fee. I did that and now they are saying that customer relations department denied me and that I would have to pay it because once I signed up with them they don't have to guarantee service.”

It's also another reminder not to take the word of a customer service representative. You have to read the service agreement.

Another scam victim

Bob, of Menomonee Falls, Wisc., was targeted by the fake payday loan scam, and unfortunately, bit on it.

“Someone called me saying I owed a $517 and if I didn't pay I was going to be charged with bouncing checks,” Bob said. “I paid $388.13. I was suppose to pay the rest today or I was going to be 'charged.' I tried to call the number and pay the rest and the number was disconnected. I feel really stupid and $388, is a lot of money for me.”

This scam shows no sign of going away, having spawned a number of copycats. Keep in mind if a “debt collector” starts threatening you with jail, or threatening your job, it's one of these scams.

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Why Isn't That Product Recalled?

Recall process requires both consumer and business input

One of the frequent questions readers pose to ConsumerAffairs.com, usually at the end of a detailed complaint, is “Why hasn't this product been recalled?”...

One of the frequent questions readers pose to ConsumerAffairs.com, usually at the end of a detailed complaint, is “Why hasn't this product been recalled?”

The answer, of course, is that it is up to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to issue a recall, and the agency must first hear from consumers about the issue, then conduct an investigation.

In cases where the manufacturer discovers the problem, there is a fast-track process for initiating a recall. In fact, manufacturers and importers bear a lot of responsibility in initiating most recalls.

Under the law, companies are required to report product hazards to CPSC. If companies are aware of product hazards but fail to report them, the companies risk serious civil and/or criminal penalties.

Filing a complaint

Consumers can, and should, report their experiences with an unsafe product at the CPSC website. On the main page there is a link for consumers to report an unsafe product. Clicking it will take you to a complaint form where you will be asked to describe the product and your experience with it. You will also be given the option of filing your report online, by mail, or by telephone.

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Filing the report will take between five and ten minutes, the agency says. Once filed, your report will be part of any investigation the agency undertakes into the product. Consumers should also report the problem to the manufacturer or importer, to make sure they are aware. If they are informed of a problem and fail to act, they can be held accountable.

Consumer product recalls fall in second quarter

While food recalls increased during the second quarter of the year, consumer product recalls were down, according to a report earlier this month by ExpertRECALL. Laceration risks were the leading cause of product recalls by the CPSC. Recalls of sports and recreational equipment increased for the third straight quarter, accounting for more than 20 percent of all CPSC recalls.

Food recalls are monitored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The leading cause of food recalls in the second quarter was undeclared allergens, accounting for 45 percent of all recalls.

“While we don’t see increased recall activity in every category, we can expect regulatory agencies to continue to beef up their oversight of both manufacturers and retailers, resulting in more recalls for the remainder of the year,” said Mike Rozembajgier, Vice President of Recalls for Stericycle ExpertRECALL. “Manufacturers and distributors need to keep a close eye on their regulatory agencies, as well as industry critics and consumer safety advocates because their persistence has often influenced government oversight, leading to more recalls.”

Stericycle ExpertRECALL is a company that manages consumer product, pharmaceutical, medical device, juvenile product, and food and beverage recalls.

The ExpertRECALL Index shows that children’s and infant products recalled during the second quarter caused 65 reported injuries. FDA enforcement reports documented 97 pharmaceutical recalls during the second quarter of 2011, a five-quarter high for the category.

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Bay Area Cities Gang Up to Warn About Cell Phone Radiation

San Francisco Mayor Signs Nation’s First Cell Safety Ordinance

Northern California is home not only to Google, Apple and other big players in the cell phone business but also to lots of consumer activists who fret abou...

PhotoNorthern California is home not only to Google, Apple and other big players in the cell phone business but also to lots of consumer activists who fret about the possible health effects of radio-frequency emissions.

Lobbying by the citizen groups is starting to get results.  

In Burlingame, just across the bridge from San Francisco, the city council has passed a motion to post guidelines on the city’s website to advise consumers how they can minimize their exposure to cell phone radiation. (Not talk so much, maybe?)

Admittedly, posting information on a website is not exactly taking it to the streets but in today's increasingly odd world, it's a victory of sorts.

Burlingame is not only a leader in the fight against inadequate safety warnings on websites.  It has also been blazing new trails in the struggle against noisy lawn implements.  The council has been considering banning or limiting the use of leaf blowers.  A public hearing on that proposal is set for Sept. 6.  

California already leads the world in warning consumers about dangerous chemicals.  Nearly every public place imaginable displays one of the "Proposition 65" warnings, made mandatory by the initiative of the same name.  If nothing else, it has been beneficial for the sign business. 

SF wants posters 

Burlingame’s action, if it can be called that, comes days after San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee signed an ordinance aimed at protecting the consumer’s right to know about the potential risks of cell phone radiation.

The San Francisco ordinance, the first of its kind nationwide, requires retail shops to display posters and distribute fact sheets to inform cell phone buyers about cell phone radiation and how to reduce their exposure to those emissions.

“San Francisco and Burlingame are true leaders in consumers’ rights,” said Renée Sharp, director of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) California office. “We hope this movement will spread throughout the state and nation. Cell phone users everywhere have, at the very least, a right to be informed about their potential exposure to radiation and how they can minimize it.”

Last May, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, classified cell phone radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Scientists convened by the agency cited evidence that long-term cell phone use might be associated with an increased risk for glioma, a type of malignant brain tumor.

Two months later, a study on cell phones' impacts on children’s health led by Swiss scientists found that children who used a cell phone for more than 2.8 years had an increased risk of brain tumors.

An article published July 28 in the Journal of Andrology linked cell phone radiation exposure to decreased sperm concentration, motility and quality in humans.

EWG has investigated the potential health effects of cell phone radiation for years. EWG’s free tip sheet lays out simple ways cell phone users can reduce their exposure to this radiation.

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Hurricane Damage? Good Luck Getting Fair Claims Payments

CFA warns homeowners will have to "dig deeper into their pockets"

The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) is warning homeowners they may not find it easy to get their insurance companies to pay up for damage caused by Hu...

PhotoThe Consumer Federation of America (CFA) is warning homeowners they may not find it easy to get their insurance companies to pay up for damage caused by Hurricane Irene.

Hurricane Irene could result in up to several hundred thousand claims for wind damage by homeowners but fewer than 100,000 federal flood insurance claims, CFA estimates.

Hurricane Katrina resulted in 1,200,000 wind claims and over 500,000 flood insurance claims. Payments for wind damage from Hurricane Irene will likely exceed $5 billion, while flood claims will not exceed $2 billion, in part because so few people purchase flood insurance in the area hit by Irene, compared to the region struck by Katrina.

In other words, Hurricane Irene is likely to result in wind insurance
losses of about one-sixth of those caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but under 10 percent of the flood claims of Katrina.

"Families will have to dig deeper into their pockets because insurers have been steadily increasing hurricane wind coverage deductibles and imposing other policy limitations," said J. Robert Hunter, Director of Insurance for CFA and former Federal Insurance Administrator and Texas Insurance Commissioner. “This liability shift to consumers may take some by surprise, since disclosures are often buried in renewal paperwork that consumers may not understand or even read,” he said.

“Because so many consumers experienced claims problems in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, we urge homeowners dealing with losses caused by Hurricane Irene to be vigilant with their insurance companies to ensure that that they receive a full and fair settlement,” Hunter said. 

As consumers prepare to contact their insurance companies in the wake of the storm, the Consumer Federation of America offered the following tips.

1.) Report your claim as promptly as possible as insurance companies generally handle them first come, first served.

2.) Once your claim is reported, be sure to get your claim number and write it down. Insurance company claims departments can locate your file easiest by your claim number. 

3.) When the insurance company sends out an adjuster to survey your damage, ask if he/she is an employee of the insurance company or an independent adjuster (I.A.) hired by them. If an independent adjuster, try to secure the name of the actual company adjuster that the I.A. is sending your information to or are they authorized to make claim decisions and payments on behalf of your insurance company.

Keep good records

When you file a claim, you should immediately start a notebook documenting contacts with your insurance company. List the date, time and a brief description of the exchange. If you need to
complain later, this information will be vital.

If an adjuster says he or she will come and does not, write it down. If an adjuster is rude, write it down.

Get out your inventory of possessions or try, at once, to list your possessions. Take pictures of your possessions before the storm and keep them in a safe place. If you later realize you have no pictures when you file a claim, don't forget that your family likely has pictures of rooms in your house (for example, from Christmas or other celebrations) that can be helpful in recreating a list of your belongings.

Obtain a repair estimate from a trusted local contractor to use as a guide in talking with the adjuster. Keep receipts from emergency repairs and any costs you incur in temporary housing. This
may be reimbursable under the "Additional Living Expense" portion of your homeowners' policy.

You may be entitled to money up-front for living expenses, such as hotel costs, if your home becomes uninhabitable. Insurers are usually very good about these initial payments, while the media is focused on the hurricane aftermath. Most claims problems, if they arise, come later, when bigger payments are sought.

Deciding whether to file a claim

You have paid your premium and are entitled to coverage. If you have a legitimate claim, do not hesitate to file it. Insurers treated many people poorly who filed claims for damages caused by Hurricane Katrina.

For example, after Hurricane Katrina, insurers pulled back from offering coverage along the coasts, dumping people into higher-priced, state-run insurance pools. They also cut coverage and raised rates substantially. However, this should not deter you from seeking fair compensation for losses caused by Hurricane Irene.

Indeed, insurers should face greater scrutiny by regulators because of the serious claims problems that occurred after Hurricane Katrina. CFA is calling on state regulators not only to closely monitor insurers to prevent claims abuses but to stop insurers from moving unjustifiably after claims are paid to increase rates and cut back on the coverage they offer.

There is no reason, actuarially, for insurers to raise rates or cut back coverage due to Hurricane Irene, which is a storm well within the projections of insurers’ current rate schedules. Insurers have already raised prices and cut back coverage along the East Coast of
America and no further price or coverage action is called for.

Consumers must also act to protect themselves. To do this, consumers must stand together and agree not to buy auto insurance and other coverage from any insurance company that refuses to
renew policies with consumers who make claims related to Hurricane Irene.

Consumers stood together after Hurricane Andrew, persuading Florida to pass a moratorium on the non-renewal of policies and to look carefully at rate increase applications. Consumers should fight any attempt to use hurricane claims as an excuse not to renew homeowners' policies and should complain to state regulators to assure that insurers do not take such actions.

Claim disputes

If the claim is denied or you feel the offer is too low, demand that the company identify the language in your homeowners' policy that served as the basis for denying your claim or offering so 
little. This approach has a number of benefits:

• The company may be right and you may not know it. Once they pinpoint the appropriate language in the policy, you should be able to make this determination. For example, you may have $400 in damage, but the company could well point out that you have agreed to a
$500 deductible.

• The company may have slipped new limitations into the policy and not adequately informed you. If you feel that you have been misled in this regard, it might be a good idea to consult an attorney. The introduction of percentage deductibles (up to 10 percent of the value of a home) will greatly shift the cost of Hurricane Irene from insurance companies to insurance consumers, as compared to earlier storms. The practice of shifting the cost of previously insured events back to consumers is acceptable, as long as consumers are clearly given the option to select the level of coverage they want with fully informed consent. 

• Another restriction new to many policies is a limit on replacement cost payments, which might come into play in the event that a home is totally destroyed. A typical cap is 20 percent above the face value of the policy. If costs surge because of the spike in demand in
materials or labor from a major storm like Hurricane Irene (or if the state does not monitor price gouging sufficiently) this limit might apply. For example, if a home would cost $200,000 to replace and that amount was the limit on the policy, the insurance company
would pay no more than 20 percent more, or $240,000. If the surge in construction costs due to extreme demand caused the price of replacing the home to jump to $300,000, the homeowner would be short $60,000.

• Once the insurance company tells you the reasons for its action, it cannot produce new reasons for denying payment or making a low offer at a later time. You have locked them in—a major advantage for the consumer.

• If you review the policy and find that, under a reasonable reading, you think you are entitled to the full amount of your claim as you read the language they relied upon, you will likely win if you go to court. Courts consistently rule that if an insurance policy is ambiguous, the
reasonable expectation of the insured party will prevail since the consumer played no part in writing the language of the insurance policy,

How to complain

If you feel that the offer is too low or the claim denial is wrong, the best process for getting your complaint resolved is as follows:

• Complain to more senior staff in the insurance company. Use the records you have kept since the claim process began. The more serious the insurance company sees that you are in documenting how you were treated, the more likely they will make a more reasonable offer.

• Complain to your state insurance department. All states will at least seek a response to your complaint from your company. A few states may actually intervene on your behalf with the insurance company in clear cases of bad claims handling. It is important to dispassionately
present your side of the story, using the notes you have been taking.

• See a lawyer. Now the notes you took are vital. In addition to an award covering your claim, if your treatment was particularly bad, the courts in many states will allow additional compensation when the insurance company acted in “bad faith.” Since insurance companies
take your money in exchange for their promise to make you whole when disaster strikes, they must act in utmost good faith in performing that obligation.

What isn't covered

Homeowners' policies do not cover flood, earthquake, tree removal (except when the tree damages the house) or food spoilage from power failures. Some insurers use an “anti-concurrent causation” clause in their policies that, insurers allege, removes coverage for wind damage if a flood happens at about the same time. CFA believes that these clauses are ambiguous, so if an insurer uses such a clause to deny your claim, read the provision carefully to see if you think it is
ambiguous and, if so, see an attorney right away.

What about flood claims?

The federal government underwrites flood insurance coverage, although insurance companies often service claims. Follow the same procedures as above, except direct complaints to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the government agency responsible for running the federal flood insurance program (1-800-427-4219, TDD# 1-800-427-5593).

The FEMA flood insurance program tips on handling claims are available online.  

Since the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is paid for by taxpayers, and often the same insurance company will handle the claim for both the wind and the flood damage, it is very
important that consumers verify that insurers do not attribute an unjustifiably large portion of the losses they experience to flood damage.

Consumers must be the first line of defense against
insurers shifting costs for wind losses to the NFIP. If you see such potential abuse by insurers, contact your U.S. Representative and Senators so that they can make sure that taxpayers are
protected.

"Not all insurance companies handle claims badly, so go into the claims process with an open mind," said Hunter. "Be vigilant though, or you run the real risk of being shortchanged," he concluded.

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Missouri Sues Dog Breeder Under New Cruelty Law

Action brought under Canine Cruelty Act

Missouri has taken action against another dog breeder it says was violating the law...

PhotoMissouri recently enacted a tough, new animal-cruelty law and officials have been busy enforcing it. The state this week brought action against a Richmond, Mo., dog breeder under the terms of the new law.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, in cooperation with the Missouri Department of Agriculture, filed a lawsuit against Jeannine Julian for violations of the Animal Care Facilities Act and the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act.

Koster said Julian owns JJ Kennel, a commercial breeder. Missouri Department of Agriculture inspections allegedly uncovered numerous violations of the law, including that Julian: 

  • repeatedly refused to allow Department of Agriculture inspections of her breeding facility;
  • failed to provide adequate veterinary care to animals who were in obvious medical distress;
  • failed to provide housing that protected the animals from injury;
  • failed to ensure that interior surfaces were free of excessive rust and that kennel doors were properly maintained;
  • failed to maintain adequate lighting, leaving some dogs in complete darkness;
  • failed to prevent excessive accumulation of feces and food waste in the primary housing enclosures and to provide uncontaminated, wholesome food to the dogs;
  • failed to have adequate employees to carry out the required level of husbandry practices, resulting in excessive feces throughout the outdoor runs; and
  • failed to pay a $100 reinspection fee required in the case of repeat violations of the ACFA.

Seeks injunction

Koster is asking the court to issue injunctions and a temporary restraining order prohibiting Julian from any further violations of the Animal Care Facilities Act or the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act and from conducting any commercial breeding activity until further order of the court; assess a $100 ACFA license reinspection fee; assess a civil penalty of up to $1,000 per violation of the Animal Care Facilities Act; and pay court costs.

The lawsuit marks the third case in which the state has enforced the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act, sometimes called the Missouri Solution, which was approved by the Missouri legislature and signed into law by Governor Jay Nixon on April 27, 2011.

The Act, the result of an agreement between the Missouri Department of Agriculture, commercial dog breeding and farming interests, and Missouri-based animal welfare organizations, strengthens standards for veterinary care and living conditions for dogs in commercial breeding facilities.

The Act also gives the Attorney General’s Office the authority to file criminal charges for “canine cruelty,” the authority to seek civil penalties for offenders, and to seek enhanced penalties for repeat offenders.

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What's On Your Mind? Kodak, Experian, TravelNow.com, MyGen Online

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Kodak, Experian, TravelNow.com, MyGen Online, No easy solution, Costly change in plans and Business 101....

PhotoWhen electronic devices constantly fail, it can be maddening. Especially if they are now, and expensive.

“I bought a Kodak 6150 all in one printer in Feb. 2011,” said Jackie, of Adelanto, Calif. “From day one the thing shuts off randomly, then turns back on randomly. Kodak just tells me to upgrade the driver, which doesn't work, or reset it. I found out early on they will not take it back and neither will the store where I bought it, Office Max.”

It does, indeed, sound like a driver issue, but if Jackie has tried that, maybe it's something else. We have found that taking equipment to a small, independently owned computer repair shop in your community – not one operated by a big chain store – often yields good results. The equipment is likely to be worked on by the owner, who might have more skill and experience than at other places.

No easy solution

Richard, of San Antonio, Tex., writes to say that he just discovered Experian has been billing his credit card each month this year.

“This company has been billing me for credit reports,” Richard told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I must have been tricked in to asking for a free credit report but did not read the fine print. I know they have been billing me since January of 2011 at the rate of $15.88 per month. No apparent way to contact this company to cancel or question the billing. I have had American Expresss block this company from any further billings.”

It goes without saying that Richard should have been more careful when asking for anything for free. There's usually a monthly charge involved. Beyond that, his resolution of this problem, unfortunately, isn't going to work.

If he blocks Experian's access to his credit card, they may turn the account over to collections, which will have a negative impact on his credit report. As far as they are concerned, it is a legitimate charge. Richard is going to have to show that it isn't. That's going to take some time and effort on his part.

Costly change in plans

Shelia, of Seeleys Bay, Ontario, wanted to book a five-night stay at a Courtyard by Marriott in Woodbridge, Virginia. She booked it through TravelNow.com, even though she said she wanted to make sure she could cancel the reservation if she needed to. She said she thought calling the site's 800 number would allow her to do that.

“We were offered a rate and we provided our credit card and were told we could cancel up to 24 hours prior to the check in time,” Shelia said. “We received a confirmation e-mail that indicated we couldn't cancel and that our credit card had already been charged. We tried vehemently to have the reservation cancelled and reissued with a cancellation provision. We were quite prepared to pay a higher rate for this option but were informed we would still be charged the $844.00 already charged to our credit card.”

Travelers need to understand that it may not be advisable to book hotel rooms using an online travel service, if you need flexibility in your travel plans. These sites almost never allow for changes because they get rooms at a steep discount and most of the time aren't allowed to make changes. If you need flexibility, always deal directly with the hotel yourself. You might pay a little more, but in some cases, you might not.

Business 101

With unemployment at stubbornly high levels, a lot of people are looking for ways to go into business for themselves. Often it's made to sound easy and inexpensive. Michael, of Collinsville, Ill., paid $200 to set up a website through MyGen Online.

“It is a networking marketing company that sets up a web site for its customers,” Michael told ConsumerAffairs.com. “This web site has four distinct areas; shopping, dating services, medical insurance and finally, travel. I supposedly have over 20,000 total views to my site without one sale. I asked for information about this. I wanted to know exactly how I can view and see what potential buyers did once entering my site. I also asked for steps in getting a refund very early on obviously without any progress.”

Michael says he is having a hard time reaching anyone in customer service and wants to cancel his arrangement. It's not clear that the terms and conditions allow him that option. As with any “business opportunity” or “work at home” enterprise, diligent research should come first, before any money changes hands.

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The Droid Bionic Is Coming ... Or Not

Never mind that Tweet, Motorola and Verizon say it's a hoax

Even before Google bought Motorola Mobility, there was a lot of excitement and buzz around the Droid Bionic, Motorola's latest attempt to get back into the...

PhotoEven before Google bought Motorola Mobility, there was a lot of excitement and buzz around the Droid Bionic, Motorola's latest attempt to get back into the smartphone race.

The release date of the much-anticipated phone has been a question mark, so interest peaked today with a Tweet from "@DroidBionic," saying the device would be released Sept. 8.

But hold on a second.  Although the Tweet claims to be the "official Motorola Droid Bionic Twitter page," it's no such thing, both Motorola and Verizon Wireless hastened to assure a Droid-starved public today.

So who is  "@DroidBionic"?  Things being what they are, it could be just about anybody.  Whoever it is can't spell or talk English good, which is what initially tipped off PCMag.com's Sascha Segan, who was -- as far as we can tell anyway -- the first byte-stained wretch to note the discrepancies.

Numerous other publications, including the usually reliable Dealerscope, fell for the phony Tweet. 

As for Verizon Wireless, its Web site is still saying the Bionic will be available in September but it's not being any more specific.  

Why the buzz?

Why is everyone getting so worked up over yet another smartphone?  Well, the Droid, we'll have you know, is the first dual-core 4G LTE smartphone, which should mean it will be the fastest and the most capable of doing somewhat amazing things.

Pre-Bionic, there hasn't been a smartphone that's both dual-processor and capable of running on Verizon's lightning-fast 4G network.  Put those two together and the result should be pretty awesome in terms of speed and page-loading (which are sort of the same thing but also sort of not).

Besides that, the Droid Bionic's 960-by-540 screen delivers higher resolution than the other LTE phones available from Verizon.  It may also deliver better battery life.

Of course, Samsung and HTC already make some pretty amazing 4G phones and both are no doubt working on dual-processor models.  But Motorola, a storied name in radio communications, has been on the sidelines the last year or so and everyone is pretty keyed up to see what wondrous things it may finally have wrought.  

Maybe that will happen soon.  Or not.

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Virginia Sues Mortgage Modification Company

R.L. Brad Street alleged charged customers $3,000 upfront

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has filed a lawsuit against R.L. Brad Street, LLC, a mortgage loan modification company based in Chesapeake, for a...

PhotoVirginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has filed a lawsuit against R.L. Brad Street, LLC, a mortgage loan modification company based in Chesapeake, for allegedly charging illegal advance fees of up to $3,000 before performing "foreclosure rescue" services for its customers.   

The attorney general alleges that R.L. Brad Street violated the Virginia Foreclosure Rescue Law by charging advance fees in connection with services to avoid or prevent foreclosure.

State law prohibits a supplier of foreclosure avoidance or prevention services from "charging or receiving a fee prior to the full and complete performance of the services it has agreed to perform, if the transaction does not involve the sale or transfer of residential real property." 

R.L. Brad Street allegedly collected fees of up to $3,000 in the form of checks made payable to Rhonda Wyland, the company's manager, from consumers before performing any services for them.  

Cuccinelli also alleges that R.L. Brad Street violated the Virginia Consumer Protection Act (VCPA) by failing to deliver on promises to assist consumers in obtaining mortgage loan modifications.

The Virginia Consumer Protection Act generally prohibits suppliers from using any deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise, or misrepresentation in connection with a consumer transaction. 

"In these difficult economic times, the last thing distressed homeowners need is to be cheated out of large sums of money that could otherwise be spent meeting pressing financial obligations. The advance fees collected should be refunded where services have not been completely performed," Cuccinelli said.

This is the fourth lawsuit filed by the Cuccinelli's office against Tidewater-based loan modification companies. The office continues to work with the Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs and the Virginia Bureau of Financial Institutions to identify and investigate companies thought to be violating the advance fee prohibition on foreclosure rescue companies.

Consumers who contracted with R.L. Brad Street for foreclosure prevention loan modification services on or after July 1, 2009, and who paid advance fees to the company before services were performed are encouraged to file written complaints with the Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs.  

The lawsuit was filed in the Chesapeake Circuit Court.  The lawsuit requests that the court enjoin R.L. Brad Street from violating the Virginia Consumer Protection Act and that fees paid be returned to consumers where services were not performed completely. The suit also seeks civil penalties of up to $2,500 for each violation.

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American Airlines Blew It As Irene Arrived

Study finds American was the worst at keeping customers informed

American Airlines kept its customers on hold for an average of an hour and a half as Hurricane Irene disrupted airline travel around the country -- by fa...

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Mississippi Steps Up Efforts Against Counterfeit Products

Establishes intellectual property crimes center

Mississippi is step up its campaign against bogus brands...

PhotoDo you care that the purse you bought with the Coach label was not produced by the upscale manufacturer, but rather a counterfeiter who sold it for $35?

Rather than being a good deal for consumers, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood says counterfeit goods harm businesses and consumers and in some cases, might even prove to be hazardous. Hood's state has just launched the Mississippi Intellectual Property Crimes Center (MIPCC), a new website to help consumers recognize and report “knock-off” items.

“Our new website, provides tips on how to spot counterfeit merchandise and what to do if you suspect merchandise is of questionable origin,” said Hood.  “The website also has a password protected zone specially designed for our law enforcement agencies.”

Mississippi's site was developed with assistance from the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C), the premier DOJ-funded training project for high tech law enforcement methods. Hood says Mississippi's site is the first of its kind for a state attorney general’s office.

“The NW3C has been a valuable training partner for our state’s task force,” Hood said. “In fact, the NW3C provided counterfeit prevention training at the Attorney General’s recent law enforcement conference in Jackson.

Not a victimless crime

Hood said Intellectual property crime hurts the economy by cheating legitimate retailers out of business and depriving local government of valuable sales taxes. It also poses health hazards in the case of “knock-off” medication and food items, which do not meet federal health standards and may contain dangerous ingredients or be produced under unsanitary conditions. Furthermore, revenue generated by counterfeit products often divert money to organized crime, terrorist activity and drug traffickers.

According to estimates by the Counterfeiting Intelligence Bureau (CIB) of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), counterfeit goods make up five to seven percent of world trade. That total has grown as a result of the recession, making consumers more likely to be tempted by seeming bargains.

The range of consumer goods that are counterfeited and sold as genuine is wide and includes watches, purses, movies and software, and even high-end sports cars like Porsches and Ferraris.  

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States, Feds Put Squeeze on Government Grant Scammers

Fifteen entities put out of business

Four states and the FTC have taken action against government grant scammers...

PhotoTelemarketers allegedly running a nationwide “government grant scam” have been ordered to stop making their phony pitches.

Attorneys general from North Carolina, the Federal Trade Commission, and the states of Illinois, Kansas and Minnesota have pursued the complex scheme in federal court in Kansas since 2009. Cooper and the other plaintiffs have now won court orders or settlements that resolve the case against fifteen defendants implicated in the scheme.

“Grant scams prey on people’s hopes and waste their money,” North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said. “We’re working to shut down these scams in North Carolina and across the country.”

The companies and individuals behind the scam used telemarketing and misleading tactics to convince consumers to pay for services that were supposed to help them win grant money from the government. Consumers who paid for the help never won any grants or received any money.

The Government Grant Scam is a play on the old Sweepstakes Scam. Potential victim is told they are being awarded a federal grant of $6,000 or $7,000, just because they are “a good citizen,” or because they pay their taxes on time.

A common ploy

ConsumerAffairs.com constantly hears from people contacted by these scammers, including Janet, of Rogers, Ark.

“All I needed to do was go to the nearest Western Union office, take a valid state ID and $199.00 as a security deposit,” Janet told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Then he proceeded to say that I was not to discuss the transaction with anyone at Western Union office or Western Union would charge me $1500.00 for the transaction.”

Fortunately, Janet didn't call for the scam, but thousands of people do.

The defendants

In this mutli-state action, the defendants include Real Estate Buyers Financial Network and Martin Nossov of Raleigh, N.C., are prohibited from illegal telemarketing and from making misrepresentations or misleading consumers under a permanent injunction issued by U.S. District Court Judge Julie A. Robinson.

Martin Nossov and his company have also been ordered to pay $5,373,106. Under a settlement agreement, Alicia Nossov ofRaleigh agreed to follow laws that govern telemarketing and fair business practices and will pay $126,894, the amount she allegedly made from the scam.

Defendants Affiliate Strategies, Landmark Publishing Group, Grant Writer’s Institute, Answer Customers, and Apex Holdings International, all of Overland Park, Kansas are permanently banned from telemarketing, misrepresenting products and their costs, misleading consumers, and pitching money-making opportunities under a default judgment issued by Judge Robinson. Defendants Brett Blackman, James Rulison and Jordan Sevy of Overland Park, Kansas worked with the companies and agreed to similar bans.

The companies’ assets are being liquidated and any proceeds will go to pay consumer refunds and cover the costs of bringing the case.

Judge Robinson also issued a default judgment against defendant Direct Marketing Services of Utah, banning the company from telemarketing, misrepresentation, misleading consumers, and pitching money-making opportunities. The company was ordered to pay $3.4 million.

Defendants Wealth Power Systems and Aria Financial Services of Utah are banned from marketing grant-related products and services, illegal telemarketing, making misrepresentations, and misleading consumers under a settlement agreement.  Justin Ely of Utah, who worked with the companies,agreed to a similar ban. The companies will pay $265,000, the total amount of their assets, toward consumer refunds and the costs of the case. If they’re found to misrepresent their assets, they will have to pay $3.4 million.

The states and the FTC are trying their case against remaining defendant Meggie Chapman in U.S. District Court in Kansas.

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What's On Your Mind? Bank of America, Pyrex, Readers Digest

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Bank of America, Pyrex, Readers Digest, Free Gift and Ka-pow!...

PhotoWe've endlessly reported the problems homeowners are having getting mortgage modifications. The stories are all very similar. They keep sending the requested paperwork only to be told it never arrived and they have it send it again. Lender personnel never have the same story, a fact that was reported to us in this horrifying post from Rick, of Nixa, Mo.

“Same complaint as every one else. I sent paper work to Bank of America three times, each time they said we dont have it all.,” Rick told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Then finally, he said, he found a customer service rep who seemed to be sympathetic and willing to help.

“She said 'email the paperwork to me and I'll take care of it,'” Rick said. “I've been talking with her for four months or so, with everything looking great. She says the paperwork is with the underwriter and and we should be approved any day now.

Then Rick called back and the customer service rep with whom he had been working was no longer there. He spoke to someone else who had some bad news.

“This person she says our house is set to be sold September15, which is two weeks from now,” Rick said. “I have had three heart attacks and will probably have one more before this is over.”

We're not sure what happened here, but the way it was handled seems especially cruel.

Ka-pow!

It appears that Pyrex dishes don't have to be in an oven to explode.

“I took my lunch in a glass pyrex container to work,” said Donna, of Mount Pleasant, S.C. “It exploded in a million pieces, it was just sitting on the counter. I'm just thankful I wasn't eating out of it at the time! Scary!! Why is this product still being sold?”

Donna might direct that question to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Free Gift

Companies often used free online offers as a way to enroll you into a membership program with a recurring charge. Sometimes they even send things through the mail.

“Without ordering anything, I received a box with the words written on it: CONTENTS: FREE,” Lori of Oregon City, Ore., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “So, i opened it and found a Reader's Digest book, a Sweepstakes Card, and a Portfolio Pamphlet of eight pages explaining their sweepstakes. But then I found out I had been added to their book club. This information was BURIED within the pamphlet! I never signed up for a book club. The paragraph said...you'll receive new volumes of great reading every two to three months for just $22.98 plus delivery and any sales tax. As promised, if you ever decide you don't want more books, just send us a note." They did not supply an address within the portfolio or a phone number for me to use to cancel...something which i didn't even order!”

If Lori didn't order anything from Readers Digest, she is under no obligation to send them any money, nor is she required to send back the book. It's hers to keep. Here's what the U.S. Postal Service has to say about these situations:

You, the consumer, may only legally be sent two types of merchandise through the mail without your consent or agreement:

Free samples which are clearly and conspicuously marked as such.

Merchandise mailed by a charitable organization that is soliciting contributions.

And in these two cases, you can consider the merchandise a gift if you wish. In all other situations, it is illegal to send merchandise to someone, unless that person has previously ordered or requested it.

 Unfortunately, the company is likely to turn the “unpaid bill” over to collections, requiring Lori and others to take the time to dispute it. But they will win.

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LivingSocial Faces Groupon-Style Expiration Date Lawsuits

Consumer protection laws ban expiration dates of less than five years on gift certificates

LivingSocial, always No. 2 to Groupon's No. 1, is keeping up with its big competitor in ways it might not want, falling prey to no fewer than five consumer...

PhotoLivingSocial, always No. 2 to Groupon's No. 1, is keeping up with its big competitor in ways it might not want, falling prey to no fewer than five consumer class action suits.

The suits, which were consolidated last week in federal district court in Washington, D.C., where LivingSocial is based, accuse the daily deals site of including illegal expiration dates on its gift certificates -- or coupons, as the daily deals sites prefer to call them.

The lawsuits were filed earlier this year in California, Washington state, Florida and the District of Columbia.  They will now move forward as a single action in D.C. federal court before Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle.

Plaintiffs say LivingSocial violated consumer protection laws that ban expiration dates of less than five years on gift certificates. The suit charges that LivingSocial knew that many of consumers would not use the certificates before the expiration date and would therefore lose their money.

"LivingSocial just doesn't do enough to make sure that consumers are aware of what their rights are, and they're not doing enough to communicate with their merchants," said attorney Christopher Carney, who filed the Washington state suit in February. 

LivingSocial, like Groupon, is expected to argue that its gift certificates are more like coupons.  Coupons can expire too but since they are free, there's no loss to the consumer.

LivingSocial also claims its promotional deals clearly indicate that they must be used within a limited time and are not deceptive.

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The Prius Grows Up - the Prius+ Seats Seven Green Consumers

Toyota needs a Prius that can grow as its customers' families expand

Sorry, no photos of the Prius+ yet The Porsche Cayenne, a hulking brute of an SUV, was about as welcome as the proverbial fly in the pun...

Photo
Sorry, no photos of the Prius+ yet

The Porsche Cayenne, a hulking brute of an SUV, was about as welcome as the proverbial fly in the punch bowl when it was introduced.  Owners of the angry little Porsche 911s and Boxsters scowled at the very notion of their beloved marque being plastered on a glorified German farm wagon.  (P.S., it's now the company's biggest seller).

But it's likely that storm of discontent was a mere spring shower compared to the reaction of Prius purists when confronted with the new seven-seat Prius+, set to be introduced at the Frankfurt auto show next month.

Yes, like other crossovers, the Prius+ has three rows of seats, one of which can be folded down to make room for large dogs, lawn furniture and what have you.  A family hauler, in other words.

It's what marketing types do all the time and is generally called a brand extension.  You have a little car that's fun, economical and appeals to young buyers?

Aging buyers

Great, but what happens as those buyers age, have children and maybe even get married?  Much as they loved their little Volkswagen, Mini or Porsche, they'll wind up in a Buick or other Hupmobile unless the love of their youth grows with them.

Thus we have VW Tiguans, Mini Clubmen and, now the Prius+.  You loved your Prius when you lived in that loft in Chelsea?  You'll love the Prius+ even more when you make the move to White Plains.

We have a press release here that has all the salient Prius+ details and measurements but it is, unfortunately, in metrics.  Suffice to say, it's pretty big, at least as far as Priuses go.

It is still a hybrid at least.  It sports a new compact lithium ion battery pack, stored between the front seats within the center console.  So don't let little Mason spill his box drink in there.

It has a 1.8-liter gasoline engine and an electric motor and is the first non-plug-in Toyota full hybrid to use the new compact lithium ion battery. Previous Toyota hybrids have used nickel-metal hydride batteries.

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Cell Phone Carriers Brace for Hurricane Irene

A perfect storm: high winds, floods, power outages, heavy usage

It used to be said that if tourists visiting New York looked at the local TV news their first night in town, they would spend the rest of their visit huddl...

PhotoIt used to be said that if tourists visiting New York looked at the local TV news their first night in town, they would spend the rest of their visit huddled behind the locked doors of their hotel room.

The same situation applies today to the 60 million or so Americans who are in the expected path of Hurricane Irene, a huge storm closing in on the East Coast and likely to leave a path of destruction from the Carolinas to New England.

There will be massive property damage and probably major loss of life.  And not only that, our cell phones may not work.  No one will be able to find the nearest Starbucks on their iPhone as they run for their lives before the approaching storm.

It used to be that landlines failed in times of emergency.  The most classic breakdown occurred when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas back in 1963.

No dial tone

So many denizens of Washington, D.C. raced for the phone that for hours after the event, it was nearly impossible to get a dial tone in and around Washington.

These days, everyone reaches constantly for their cell phones, fully expecting them to work regardless of whether the nation is under attack, flooded or being swept away by a massive dust storm. 

But the truth of the matter is that cell phones are, if anything, a bit less reliable than the old landline system.  The towers that run the system rely on electricity, after all, and while some have back-up generators, not all do.

Further, the cell phone antennas are mostly mounted on towers -- you know, things that stick up in the air.  They tend to blow down when the wind blows, fall over when the earth quakes and melt when surrounded by wild fires. Likewise, the fiber optic cables that tie the system together are vulnerable to floods, fire and wind damage.

But the most destructive factor of all is the avalanche of eager callers who grab their phones at the first sign of trouble and begin calling everyone on their "friends" list.  No telephone system is capable of handling 100% of its customers at any given time and the cell phone system is no exception.

Night and day

The major cell phone companies -- AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel -- all say they have been working night and day to prepare for Irene.  They're installed additional generators, ordered extra fuel and set up portable cell towers on wheels that can be deployed to replace permanent towers that have been knocked out of service.

So does this mean that everything will be OK?  

Not likely.  Things are seldom OK on the country's most overloaded cell phone networks.  New York City is infamous for having some of the most overloaded frequencies anywhere.  D.C., where everyone basically talks (and talks and talks) for a living, is not much better.

What's a consumer to do?  The short answer is to make contact with friends and family before the storm hits.  Say what you have to say: arrange a meeting place, devise a plan, say your last good-byes, whatever seems appropriate.  Then stay off the phone until the storm passes so that truly important calls can get through. 

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Michigan Patient-To-Patient Marijuana Sales Struck Down

State's attorney general sought ruling from appeals court

The Michigan court of appeals has struck down patient-to-patient sales of medical marijuana...

PhotoThe Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled that marijuana dispensaries conducting patient-to-patient sales of the drug are illegal and can be shut down under the state's public nuisance law.

The case arose from a legal challenge to a for-profit system of marijuana sales among patients at a Mount Pleasant, Mich., marijuana dispensary, Compassionate Apothecary. The ruling now stands as precedent for all other lower court cases in Michigan and carries immediate effect, according to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.

"This ruling is a huge victory for public safety and Michigan communities struggling with an invasion of pot shops near their schools, homes and churches," said Schuette. "The Court echoed the concerns of law enforcement, clarifying that this law is narrowly focused to help the seriously ill, not the creation of a marijuana free-for-all."

Impact to be quickly felt statewide

Schuette said he will send a letter to Michigan's 83 county prosecutors explaining that the ruling clearly empowers them to close dispensaries and provide instructions on how to file similar nuisance actions to close dispensaries in their own counties.

A three judge panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Compassionate Apothecary is in violation of the state Public Health Code and the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act (MMMA) in State of Michigan v. Brandon McQueen and Matthew Taylor, d/b/a Compassionate Apothecary, LLC. The Court concluded that:

  • The MMMA does not legalize marijuana;
  • The MMMA authorizes marijuana use only in "very limited circumstances;
  • The "medical use" of marijuana does not include the sale of marihuana;
  • The MMMA does not authorize marijuana dispensaries; and
  • The courts can infer that a dispensary's purpose is not to alleviate a debilitating medical condition. 

In March, Schuette joined Isabella County Prosecutor Larry Burdick in his appeal of the case, The Isabella County prosecutor's office sought to have Compassionate Apothecary, a medical marijuana club owned by two Mt. Pleasant residents, declared a public nuisance and closed on the grounds its activities violated the MMMA.  

The club allows patient-to-patient sales of marijuana, with the club profiting by taking a 20 percent commission.

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Food Day Lesson: Eat Real

Teachers prepare a healthy-eating curriculum for kids and parents alike

The organizers of Food Day have published a curriculum for teachers to use on Food Day, a nationwide grassroots campaign on October 24 to e...

The organizers of Food Day have published a curriculum for teachers to use on Food Day, a nationwide grassroots campaign on October 24 to encourage Americans to “eat real” and support healthy, affordable food grown in a sustainable, humane way.

The Food Day curriculum offers five lessons designed to teach children the importance of eating real, fresh food; cutting back on processed foods; and advocating for a healthier community.

It was developed by Pamela Koch and Isobel Contento, professors at Teachers College, Columbia University, and adapted from the Linking Food and the Environment Curriculum Series.

“Teachers should consider using this curriculum not just on Food Day, but throughout the school year,” said Contento. “Each lesson has many ideas for projects that students can do, along with numerous resource for teachers. It’s important that we teach health and nutrition in the classroom along with science, math and other subjects.”

Real foods

PhotoThe first lesson plan in the series covers how to “eat real.” Students will learn that real foods come relatively straight from a plant or animal and have the nutrients people need to stay healthy at every age. The lesson encourages students to become smart consumers who can choose a balanced, healthy diet.

The curriculum complements a few of Food Day’s six goals:

1. Reduce diet-related disease by promoting safe, healthy foods

2. Support sustainable farms & limit subsidies to big agribusiness

3. Expand access to food and alleviate hunger

4. Protect the environment & animals by reforming factory farms

5. Promote health by curbing junk-food marketing to kids

6. Support fair conditions for food and farm workers

The lesson plans are crafted for middle school students, but can easily be adapted for elementary and high school students.

“Educating young people about food and nutrition is critical if we are to prevent obesity and other diet-related diseases,” said Center For Science in the Public Interest executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “The lessons in this curriculum will help kids distinguish between real foods that promote health from junk foods that promote disease.”

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American Laser Skincare Providing Refunds In Pennsylvania

Agrees to make changes in refund policy

American Laser Skincare has reached a settlement with Pennsylvania...

PhotoAmerican Laser Skincare – formerly American Laser Center – has agreed to pay refunds to consumers in Pennsylvania, where it once  operated six clinics.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly said the company has paid more than $19,000 in consumer restitution and will pay restitution to any consumer who files a legitimate complaint within 60 days. The agreement stems from the state's action against the company's no refund policy.

The agreement with the state resolves allegations that the company withheld the entirety of pre-paid services plan funds when consumers discontinued services, and had ambiguous language regarding result guarantees.

Changes cancellation policy

The agreement also requires American Laser Skincare to change specific language regarding its Cancellation Policy, Appearance Plan, and Disclaimer. The company agreed to only retain a pro-rated service fee for written cancellations. These changes will be made in consumer contracts and promotional materials used within Pennsylvania.

While the agreement resolves complaints against the company in Pennsylvania, consumers in other states are unhappy as well.

“I paid them $4000 of the $2000 for a skincare and bikini laser,” Almeda, of Tempe, Ariz., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I made several calls and no return calls was made. I finally talked to Fay and she was still unable to convince the regional office to send me back my money. I am not happy with their customer service and I guess I have to contact my lawyer to initiate a lawsuit.”

According to their website, American Laser Skincare is the nation's largest and leading provider of laser based skincare services. The company provides treatments such as laser hair removal, body shaping, microdermabrasion, skin tightening, Botox, cellulite treatment and skin rejuvenation.

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Using Social Media In A Natural Disaster

Facebook, Twitter, can be effective communication tools

Social media can play a big role in communication after a natural disaster...

Photo
Irene's position Friday morning (NOAA map)

Last week’s earthquake on the East Coast may have been a preview of what to expect when Hurricane Irene roars up the East Coast this weekend.

When the ground unexpectedly started shaking from Virginia to Boston, panicked people overloaded cell phone circuits, and even some landlines couldn't handle the crush of calls. As a result, many people turned to Facebook and Twitter to communicate with friends and loved ones.

Jennifer Regina, a Rowan University adjunct professor of marketing and CEO of The Marketing of Everything, Washington Township, N.J., says social media can be an effective tool in a natural disaster.

“The best thing to do is also have an action plan in place for communicating with your loved ones during a natural disaster,” Regina said.

She suggests:

  • Have an agreed-upon plan of communicating. Make sure your family knows if you are going to be tweeting your condition or will be communicating via texting or Facebook.
  • Make sure you have your communication devices fully charged. Charge your laptop and cell phone to their full capacity every night. Even consider purchasing an extended or backup battery for your devices.
  • Pay attention to government and news agencies’ social media posts. Subscribe to their posts so they will be sent directly to your phone via text. Many state and local agencies are aggressively using their social media profiles to communicate quickly about disasters. Already hurricane evacuation information is spreading quickly through Twitter.
  • Establish agreed-upon times for your loved ones to post updates. For example, every hour update your health or the status of your location. Social networks also can be used to warn others of impending disasters. Many in New York City saw tweets from their friends in Washington, D.C. about an earthquake and seconds later felt it themselves. Many people stay glued to social networks to see how others are handling storms that are approaching and gleaning valuable tips.

 

“This weekend’s hurricane will be another example of how social media networks will help families communicate and governments issue warnings and updates,” Regina said.

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What's On Your Mind? Homelite, Enterprise, AT&T

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Homelite, Enterprise, AT&T, Kind of insulting, Watch what you say and the Consumer Product Safety Commission....

PhotoWhen a problem develops with a product, consumers sometimes discover it before the company's safety engineers. 

“I brought to the attention of Homelite that the gas lines on their Vac Attack 11 leaf blower, model ut08544, must be defective,” Mike, of Knoxville, Tenn., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Both lines that run from the carburetor and push bulb lead into the tank. At least one has a filter on it. When the lines deteriorated gas splashed out of the tank and got all over me and the blower. Fortunately there was no fire. I simply wanted the lines replaced with better material and would expect the company to take this situation more serious. I felt they did not!”

Mike was correct in reporting what he saw as a problem to the company. We suggest he also file a report with the Consumer Product Safety Commission.  Mike might want to note that some of the Vac Attack blowers have already been recalled for a different problem.

Kind of insulting

We're recounted some of the stories from rental car customers who say the companies have been quick to charge fees for damage to the vehicle, even though the customers swear there was none when they dropped it off. Now Hatti, of Staten Island, N.Y., writes to tell us of a new fee she encountered at Enterprise.

“I noticed an additional $100 on my bill when it came through on American Express, Hattie said. “I called and they said the car smelled so I was charged an extra cleaning fee. THIS WAS NOT TRUE.”

We can tell Hattie is not just upset about the fee, but also being accused of stinking up the car. Interestingly, she said she disputed the charge with American Express, which removed it from her bill because Enterprise failed to respond to their inquiries. Now, Hattie says, Enterprise has turned the disallowed charge over to collections.

Watch what you say

Remember that we've told you in the past you can't go by what a company sales person says, you have to see it in writing? That's true, but apparently companies like AT&T can hold you to a “verbal contract,” as Angela, of Santee, Calif., recently discovered.

“I was wrongly told I 'verbally' agreed to a an 11 month contract when this never happened,” Angela told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I had both Internet and mobile services with them and called to terminate my Internet services back on May 13th of 2011. I requested to speak with a manager because I did not agree with the final billing charges. I felt that since I was terminating half way through the month I did not think I should be charged for the whole month. The manager told me that was their billing policy but she understood my complaint and she informed me she would credit me $34 on my next phone bill. I thanked her and that is all she said, no further explanation, or talks about being in any long term contract with penalty fees.”

On Aug 23, when Angela called to terminate her phone she was told there would be a $135 early termination fee.

“I explained I was not under contract with them,” Angela said. “She then stated that I verbally agreed to contract with them for 11 months in order to get my $34.00 credit. This conversation never happened. I was never told that by getting this $34.00 credit that I would then be in verbal contract.”

Angela should ask to hear the recording of her accepting the terms and agreeing to a contract. It sounds like the customer service rep suckered Angela into taking an action that entered her into a contract. If so, that was pretty sneaky.

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Why Good Mortgage Modification Deals Go Bad

Lenders, homeowners often have trouble completing the mounds of paperwork that's required

Hoping to get a mortgage modification?  Think back to how much paperwork was needed when you bought your house or condo.  Nearly that much will b...

PhotoHoping to get a mortgage modification?  Think back to how much paperwork was needed when you bought your house or condo.  Nearly that much will be needed to successfully complete the modification process, but you won't have Realtors, mortgage brokers and closing attorneys to help.

In many cases, the approval process takes longer than many homeowners can afford. But one expert believes it doesn’t have to be that way, and that there are solutions for homeowners whose applications seem stuck in the mud.

“Applying for a loan modification can be an extremely stressful process,” said Stephfan Nurse, CEO of Consumer Education, makers of mortgage reduction software designed to help people through the modification process.

“Even if you send in your documents and your lender tells you everything is okay, you may still have a great amount of anxiety because you have no idea what the lender is doing with your file. You may not know what the next step is and how long it takes to move through each step in the process. Your lender may tell you what the next step is, but you may not understand why it will take so long. There are reasons, however, why the process can get stuck, and there are ways to move that process along, if you understand what goes on behind the scenes,” Nurse said.

Nurse's software promises to help smooth out the process by keeping track of the myriad details that so often derail modifications, even when both parties are eager to complete the deal and move on.

Tips to smooth the process

Nurse’s tips for making the process smoother include:

  • Account Numbers – It often happens that when you fax your paperwork to your lender, the lender either says they lost your paperwork or they just didn’t receive it all. This isn’t because they are incompetent. It’s because they receive thousands of faxes each day, and they use an image scanning technology to capture them all and place them in the appropriate file. In that system, a cover sheet that has your account number on it will get placed correctly, but the following sheets that lack your account number can be easily misplaced.
    The solution is to put your account number on every page of your paperwork, so they have a better chance of placing all your paperwork in your file.
     
  •  Complete the Paperwork – When your file gets assigned to a document manager, typically about 30 days after you first applied for the modification, the document manager’s job is to check to make sure all your required documents are ready to be submitted to the negotiator/specialist for review. If you have an incomplete file, even if you’re missing just one single required document, the document manager will note your account as having an incomplete file and move on to the next file to review.
    At this point, a generic letter is automatically mailed to your home requesting the additional information your file lacks. This letter can take up to two weeks to get to you, and then another two to four weeks before they look at your updated information. The key is to never send an incomplete package to your lender. It can lead to a delay or even a flat-out denial.
     
  •  Follow Up – Finally, follow up every week with your lender to make sure all the documents they have are up to date. Don’t worry about being a pest. After all, it’s your house on the line if things get stuck in neutral. If you do this consistently, you will avoid getting caught in the delay cycle.

“The process is like any other, and it can be rife with mistakes and bureaucratic snafus,” Nurse added. “But if you take the steps to reduce the opportunities for error, your application can move through the process much faster and you’ll have a much better chance at being approved.”

Nurse said his software uses the same algorithms as those used by lenders, so it is designed to help homeowners understand what it will take for them to be approved for a loan modification by their lenders or through HAMP, the federal program that's intended to help troubled homeowners.

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FTC Shuts Down 'Government Grant' Scheme

Defendants promised "guaranteed" $25,000 federal grant

The Federal Trade Commission, along with four state attorneys general, has shut down a fraudulent operation that allegedly took advantage of financial...

The Federal Trade Commission, along with four state attorneys general, has shut down a fraudulent operation that allegedly took advantage of financially distressed consumers by falsely promising them a “guaranteed” $25,000 grant from the federal government.

Several defendants have agreed to court orders settling the FTC and state charges, which bar all of them from the alleged deceptive conduct, ban some of them from certain types of marketing, and will result in judgments requiring them to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in consumer refunds.

In its July 2009 complaint, the FTC, jointly with the Attorneys General of Kansas, Minnesota, and North Carolina, charged that Grant Writers Institute, LLC and several related entities and individuals falsely told consumers that they were eligible for grants from the federal government.

The complaint alleged that the defendants’ false and deceptive claims that consumers are guaranteed or highly likely to receive grants violated federal law, state consumer protection laws, and the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule. The Attorney General of Illinois subsequently joined the action.

Since at least 2007, Grant Writers Institute made its phony pitch using postcards that it mass mailed to consumers across the country, the complaint charged. Consumers were told they were entitled to $25,000 in free government grant money, guaranteed.

Consumers who called a phone number on the card were pitched a $59 book titled “Professional Grant Writer ‘The Definitive Guide to Grant Writing Success.’”

The complaint charged that the defendants then called consumers who bought the book, trying to get them to pay hundreds of dollars or more for grant research, writing, or coaching services, falsely claiming a 70 percent success rate in securing grant funding for individuals.

Settlement details

The FTC and the states reached five settlement orders resolving charges against defendants James Rulison, Jordan Sevy, Brett Blackman, Justin Ely, Alicia Nossov, Wealth Power Systems, and Aria Financial Services. Under the settlement orders:

  • Rulison and Sevy are banned from marketing money-making opportunities; and prohibited from misleading consumers, making unsubstantiated claims, or failing to make material disclosures in connection with the sale of any goods or services. They also are prohibited from violating relevant state laws and the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule, and subject to a judgment of $27 million, which will be suspended due to their inability to pay.
  • Blackman and Ely are subject to the same prohibitions as Rulison and Sevy. In addition, under the settlement orders, they are permanently banned from telemarketing. Blackman is subject to a judgment of $27 million, and Ely to a judgment of $3.4 million; both judgments are suspended due to their inability to pay.
  • Alicia Nossov is barred from making misrepresentations related to the marketing and sale of any goods or services, and from violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule. She is subject to a judgment of $5.5 million, which will be suspended upon payment of $126,894.
  • Wealth Power Systems and Aria Financial Services are banned from marketing grant-related products and using grant leads, prohibited from making misrepresentations, and required to substantiate any claims related to the sale of any goods or services. They also are prohibited from violating the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule and related state consumer protection laws. The order imposes a $3.4 million monetary judgment, which will be suspended if they pay $265,000.

The suspended judgments against Rulison, Sevy, Blackman, Ely, Wealth Power Systems, and Aria Financial Services will become immediately due if any of them is found to have materially misrepresented any financial assets.

In addition, in late July 2011 the court entered default judgments against the following six defendants in the case: Apex Holdings International, L.L.C.; Affiliate Strategies, Inc.; Landmark Publishing Group L.L.C. (d/b/a G.F. Institute and Grant Funding Institute); Grant Writers Institute, L.L.C.; Answer Customers, L.L.C.; and Direct Marketing Systems, Inc.

Each of these corporations is banned from marketing money-making opportunities, and from telemarketing. They also are prohibited from making misrepresentations when offering products for sale, and required to substantiate claims and disclose information such as fees, costs, and terms and conditions related to any cancellation or refund policy.

The court also imposed a $27.2 million judgment against the first five default defendants and a $3.4 million judgment against Direct Marketing Systems to pay refunds to defrauded consumers, but the companies have no funds and the judgment was suspended. 

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Pressure Grows On Government To Stimulate Housing

Real estate market isn't recovering, despite hopeful signs

Real estate may offer the government the cheapest way to stimulate the economy...

PhotoAs it looks for ways to stimulate the economy, the Obama Administration is finding fewer options at its disposal, given the climate against spending in Washington.

But the White House is reportedly now considering long-standing proposals to boost housing, seeing it as the cheapest way to jump-start the economy. The New York Times reports one proposal under consideration would allow millions of “underwater” homeowners to refinance their mortgages at today's near-record low rates.

In addition to what it might mean for the economy, it's becoming increasingly clear that housing isn't recovering from the three-year downturn. The latest report from RealtyTrac, an online marketplace for foreclosed homes, shows that 31 percent of all homes sold in the third quarter were in some phase of foreclosure. That's a slight improvement from the first quarter.

Good news, if you're a buyer with cash

“With average prices on distressed real estate trending down and average discounts trending up, this report is clearly good news for well-positioned buyers and investors looking for bargain real estate that will build them wealth in the long term and often cash flow as rental real estate in the short term,” said James Saccacio chief executive officer of RealtyTrac. “Maybe less evident, however, is the good news in this report for distressed homeowners looking to sell, and even lenders saddled with large portfolios of delinquent loans.

Saccacio says the real estate market is beginning to focus on more efficiently clearing distressed homes. It's important for them to sell, he says, to provide more space for homes being offered at their market price. People buying distressed properties are saving, on average, 40 percent.

$85 billion in homeowner savings

A government plan to allow homeowners with government-guaranteed mortgages to refinance could save these homeowners an estimated $85 billion a year – a stimulus to the economy that wouldn't come from a direct government outlay. The challenge, of course, is figuring out how to actually do it.

The administration is reportedly also considering a plan to promote converting foreclosures to rental properties, to keep them from flooding the market. With a damper on supply, the reasoning goes, prices should stabilize.

Should prices stalilize, mortgage lenders might loosen their now very tight mortgage requirements, making more loans to credit-worthy buyers. According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), this would be the greatest housing stimulus of all, perhaps leading to the long-awaited recovery in the housing market.

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Is Your Desk Making You Sick?

Eating at your desk really isn't a healthy habit

Food safety experts are concerned too many Americans are eating meals at their desks...

Worker productivity has risen consistently in recent years as employees spend more hours on the job. Increasingly, that means many workers eat meals at their desk or cubicle. But that might not be the healthiest of habits.

According to a new survey by the American Dietetic Association and ConAgra Foods’ Home Food Safety program, 62 percent of Americans continue to eat lunch and snack throughout the day at their desks, while 27 percent typically find breakfast the first thing on their desktop to-do list. Late nights at the office even leave a small percentage - four percent - dining at their desktop for dinner.

Multitasking

“For many people, multitasking through lunch is part of the average workday,” said registered dietitian and ADA spokesperson Toby Smithson. “While shorter lunch hours may result in getting more accomplished, they could also be causing workers to log additional sick days, as desktops hide bacteria that can lead to foodborne illness.”

Companies tend to encourage employees to eat at their desks rather than leave the office. Someone eating a sandwich at their desk can still take calls and maybe even read a report or two. But this added productivity could come at the cost of more employee illness and added sick days.

Top of the Workplace To-Do List – Washing Hands and Surfaces

An office is not the cleanest of places. Adding food to that environment can be problematic.

According to the Home Food Safety survey, only 36 percent of respondents clean their work areas—desktop, keyboard, mouse—weekly and 64 percent do so only once a month or less. A study updated in 2007 by the University of Arizona found the average desktop has 100 times more bacteria than a kitchen table and 400 times more than the average toilet seat.

“Treat your desktop like you would your kitchen table and counters at home,” said Smithson. “Clean all surfaces, whether at home or work, before you prepare or eat food on them.”

Only half of all Americans say they always wash their hands before eating lunch. In order to reduce the risk of foodborne illness, Smithson recommends washing your hands before and after handling food with soap and warm water, and keeping your desk stocked with moist towelettes or hand sanitizer for those times you can’t get to the sink.  

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Feds Stop Mortgage, Debt Scams

Companies promised to help consumers but merely took their money

The Federal Trade Commission put an end to three schemes that claimed they would help consumers with their mortgage and debt problems, as part of settlemen...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has  put an end to three schemes that claimed they would help consumers with their mortgage and debt problems.  The agency reached settlements with defendants who allegedly claimed a bogus affiliation with government assistance programs.

Under the settlements, which are part of the agency’s ongoing effort to stop scams that prey on consumers in financial distress, the defendants are:

  • banned from marketing or helping others to market any mortgage assistance relief product or service;
  • prohibited from misrepresenting the available terms or rates for financial products and the potential to improve a consumer’s credit history or ability to obtain credit;
  • prohibited from representing the benefits of financial products without competent and reliable evidence to substantiate their claims; and
  • prohibited from making misrepresentations about any good or service, including claims of an affiliation with any government entity or program.  

They also are required to protect and properly dispose of customer personal information.

Truman Foreclosure Assistance, LLC.  The FTC alleged that the defendants bilked consumers out of thousands of dollars for phony mortgage relief and foreclosure rescue services. Settlement orders with two of the men behind the operation require them to pay $1.8 million, and ban them from marketing or helping others to market any mortgage relief and foreclosure rescue service.

Fedmortgageloans.com.  In this case, the defendants marketed debt relief services as well as mortgage assistance relief services, and the settlement bans them from marketing or helping others to market both mortgage assistance relief and debt relief products or services.

Making Home Affordable.  In its May 2009 complaint, the FTC alleged that the defendants impersonated MakingHomeAffordable.gov, a federal government website that helps eligible homeowners refinance or modify their mortgages.  The FTC previously settled with six other defendants and has now reached a settlement with the final defendant, Scott Lady.

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Recharge Your Cell Phone By Walking

Engineers find a way to capture energy from footsteps

Two mechanical engineers are developing a battery charger that uses energy generated by walking...

PhotoA major annoyance of modern life is reaching for your smartphone, only to discover the battery is low. Two engineers at the University of Wisconsin (UW) have created a solution – technology that recharges the battery while you walk.

Tom Krupenkin and Ashley Taylor call it “in-shoe technology,” which they say consists of a shoe insert that generates electricity from the wearer's footsteps.

In a paper appearing this week in the journal Nature Communications, Krupenkin and Taylor describe a new energy-harvesting technology that promises to dramatically reduce our dependence on batteries and instead capture the energy of human motion to power portable electronics.

"Humans, generally speaking, are very powerful energy-producing machines," said Krupenkin, a UW-Madison professor of mechanical engineering. "While sprinting, a person can produce as much as a kilowatt of power."

Foot power

Grabbing even a small fraction of that energy, Krupenkin points out, is enough to power a host of mobile electronic devices — everything from laptop computers to cell phones to flashlights.

"What has been lacking is a mechanical-to-electrical energy conversion technology that would work well for this type of application," he said.

As consumers well know, energy harvesting technologies are aimed at either high-power applications such as wind or solar power, or very low-power applications such as calculators, watches or sensors. There has been no solution for those vital, mid-level power needs.

"What's been missing," said Taylor, "is the power in the watts range. That's the power range needed for portable electronics."

Wearing an energy harvester

How would it work? A consumer would wear a special footwear-embedded energy harvester that captures energy produced by humans during walking, which is normally lost as heat. The shoe devicce would capture that energy and convert it into up to 20 watts of electrical power that can be used to power mobile electronic devices.

Unlike a traditional battery, the energy harvester never needs to be recharged, as the new energy is constantly generated during the normal walking process. And it gets better.

The energy generated by the footwear-embedded harvester can be used to directly power a broad range of devices, from smartphones and laptops to radios, GPS units, night-vision goggles and flashlights. Alternatively, the energy harvester can be integrated with a Wi-Fi hot spot that acts as a "middleman" between mobile devices and a wireless network.

Recharge wirelessly

This allows users to seamlessly utilize the energy generated by the harvester without having to physically connect their mobile devices to the footwear. The researchers says this dramatically reduces power consumption of wireless mobile devices and allows them to operate for much longer time without battery recharge.

"You cut the power requirements of your cellphone dramatically by doing this," saod Krupenkin. "Your cellphone battery will last 10 times longer."

Krupenkin and Taylor are hoping to commercialize the technology through a company they've established, InStep NanoPower. They say they hope to have their “foot power” battery charger perfected and on the market within two years.

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Investors Warned Of Gold Stock Scams

Inflated claims may lead the unwary to make unwise decisions

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) is warning investors about investment scams that promote gold stocks.With the price of gold bullion r...

PhotoThe Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) is warning investors about investment scams that promote gold stocks.

With the price of gold bullion recently at record levels, there has been a proliferation of blogs, websites, YouTube videos and Tweets centered on investing in gold. And while there are legitimate gold investments discussed online, FINRA is concerned that some investors may fall prey to gold-related investment scams.

These gold scams may center on inflated claims regarding the stocks of gold mining companies whose stock value is often based on gold reserves that are difficult to estimate, much less verify.

For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) took legal action against a mining company based in Florida for issuing false press releases claiming that a mining project in Ecuador contained gold reserves worth more than $1 billion.

Free lunch 

Gold investments may also be touted in free lunch seminars and pushed by boiler room operations.

The SEC charged six individuals for running a recent Ponzi scheme that used investment seminars to bilk 3,000 investors across the United States and Canada out of $300 million.

Separately, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) took three actions against precious metals firms, including charging a boiler room telemarketing firm that purportedly purchased more than $23 million of precious metals for their customers.

"Con artists are using the run-up in the price of gold as a hook to part investors from their money. Investors should think twice before investing in any gold investment promising exponential returns, or any company that claims it is a buyout target for other mining companies," said Gerri Walsh, FINRA's Vice President for Investor Education.

FINRA's Investor Alert cautions investors to be on the lookout for any pitch for a gold investment that:

  • claims to tie stock performance to the general rise in gold prices – a rise in gold prices does not guarantee a rise in the price of a gold company's stock;
  • uses scare tactics such as the threat of inflation or an economic meltdown;
  • makes speculative claims based on a new reserve's proximity to an existing reserve; or
  • centers on a company that has changed its name or trading symbol to align it more closely with gold – for example, one company that currently purports to engage in gold mining was originally incorporated to provide golfing opportunities on private courses to nonmembers.

FINRA also advises investors that while legitimate gold and ETF investments may be an acceptable diversification strategy, these investments can be quite volatile. A heavy concentration of gold investments can leave investors overly exposed and at risk of losing a substantial percentage of their money.

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Botox Approved for Some Types of Incontinence

Patients with spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis may benefit

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Botox injection to treat urinary incontinence in people with neurologic conditions such as spinal cord...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Botox injection to treat urinary incontinence in people with neurologic conditions such as spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis who have overactivity of the bladder.
 
Uninhibited urinary bladder contractions in people with some neurological conditions can lead to an inability to store urine. Current management of this condition includes medications to relax the bladder and use of a catheter to regularly empty the bladder.
 
The new treatment consists of Botox being injected into the bladder resulting in relaxation of the bladder, an increase in its storage capacity and a decrease in urinary incontinence.
 
"Urinary incontinence associated with neurologic conditions can be difficult to manage,” said George Benson, deputy director, Division of Reproductive and Urologic Products. “Botox offers another treatment option for these patients."

Cystoscopy

Injection of the bladder with Botox is performed using cystoscopy, a procedure that allows a doctor to visualize the interior of the bladder. Cystoscopy may require general anesthesia. The duration of the effect of Botox on urinary incontinence in patients with bladder overactivity associated with a neurologic condition is about nine months. 
 
The effectiveness of Botox to treat this type of incontinence was demonstrated in two clinical studies involving 691 patients. The patients had urinary incontinence resulting from spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis. Both studies showed statistically significant decreases in the weekly frequency of incontinence episodes in the Botox group compared with placebo.
 
In addition to its use to improve the appearance of facial frown lines, Botox also is FDA-approved to treat chronic migraine headaches, certain kinds of muscle stiffness and contraction, severe underarm sweating, abnormal twitch of the eyelid and a condition in which the eyes are not properly aligned.
 
The most common adverse reactions observed following injection of Botox into the bladder were urinary tract infection and urinary retention. Those who develop urinary retention after Botox treatment may require self-catheterization to empty the bladder.
 
Botox is marketed in the United States by Allergan Inc., of Irvine, Calif.
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Researchers: Scented Laundry Detergent Could Be Hazardous

Two carcinogens found in one brand

Researchers warn that scented laundry detergent have harmful chemicals...

PhotoManufacturers of laundry soap sometimes add chemicals to produce a pleasant scent, but new research suggests this aroma could have some serious negative effects.

Researchers writing in the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health say air vented from machines using the top-selling scented liquid laundry detergent and scented dryer sheet contains hazardous chemicals, including two that are classified as carcinogens.

“This is an interesting source of pollution because emissions from dryer vents are essentially unregulated and unmonitored,” said lead author Anne Steinemann, a University of Washington (UW) professor of civil and environmental engineering and of public affairs. “If they’re coming out of a smokestack or tail pipe, they’re regulated, but if they’re coming out of a dryer vent, they’re not.”

Steinemann is the same researcher who used chemical sleuthing to deduce what’s in fragranced consumer products. Her latest effort has focused on the air wafting from household laundry vents. Her findings build on earlier work that looked at what chemicals are released by laundry products, air fresheners, cleaners, lotions and other fragranced consumer products.

Manufacturers, it turns out, are not required to disclose the ingredients used in fragrances, or in laundry products.

The test

For the new study, researchers first purchased and pre-rinsed new, organic cotton towels. They asked two homeowners to volunteer their washers and dryers, cleaned the inside of the machines with vinegar, and ran full cycles using only water to eliminate as much residue as possible.

At the first home, they ran a regular laundry cycle and analyzed the vent fumes for three cases: once with no products, once with the leading brand of scented liquid laundry detergent, and finally with both the detergent and a leading brand of scented dryer sheets.

A canister placed inside the dryer vent opening captured the exhaust 15 minutes into each drying cycle. Researchers then repeated the procedure with a different washer and dryer at a second home.

Analysis of the captured gases found more than 25 volatile organic compounds, including seven hazardous air pollutants, coming out of the vents. Of those, two chemicals – acetaldehyde and benzene – are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as carcinogens, for which the agency has established no safe exposure level.

Can affect public health

“These products can affect not only personal health, but also public and environmental health. The chemicals can go into the air, down the drain and into water bodies,” Steinemann said.

The researchers estimate that in the Seattle area, where the study was conducted, acetaldehyde emissions from this brand of laundry detergent would be equivalent to three percent of the total acetaldehyde emissions coming from automobiles. Emissions from the top five brands, they estimate, would constitute about six percent of automobiles’ acetaldehyde emissions.

“We focus a lot of attention on how to reduce emissions of pollutants from automobiles,” Steinemann said. “And here’s one source of pollutants that could be reduced.”

It may come as no surprise, but Steinemann recommends using laundry products without any fragrance or scent.

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What's On Your Mind? Expedia, Golden Rule, SunTrust

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Expedia, Golden Rule, SunTrust, High cost of living and Hey, what happened to my money?...

PhotoWho do you trust when it comes to online reviews? If you trust the reviews posted on Expedia and other travel-booking sites, Rose, of Bayone, N.J., says you might be disappointed.

“I decided to book through Expedia for a vacation to Virginia Beach with my family, as I am not too familiar with some of the more 'local' hotels or resorts,” Irene told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The hotel I chose had a great price and on Expedia had good reviews. It wasn't until afterwards when my husband decided to root around the web to check other comments/complaints on the hotel when we realized not one other site had anything positive to say about this resort.”

Irene said her husband called Expedia to cancel the reservation and book another hotel, but discovered that wasn't allowed to do so. He could only do that in person, at the hotel. Irene isn't happy about paying the $200 cancellation fee, but also feels like she was misled.

“I would not have had to cancel had they been remotely honest about the hotel reviews,” she said.

High cost of living

Everyone knows that the cost of health care, and the insurance to pay for it, keep going up. Perhaps no one knows this more than Richard, of Alphretta, Ga.

"I just received a letter from Golden Rule, A United Healthcare Company increasing my annual healthcare premium by 25 percent,” Richard said. “This is on top of a 15 percent increase 10 months ago. I can't afford to be alive!”

We don't know that Golden Rule is different from any other health care provider. Some, however, will lock in rates for up to two years. Since it can sometimes be expensive to change policies, it's best to do a lot of research before making a change.

Hey, what happened to my money?

Here's a fairly common consumer complaint: a debit card purchase is made, usually at a gas pump, and the transaction places a hold on the consumer's account for much more than the purchase, causing overdrafts. It happened to Jean, of Greensboro, N.C., who said she had $82.61 in her SunTrust bank account with three pending items totalling $76.71. One of those was a $7 gas charge.

“The bank put a hold on the account for an amount that was not shown anywhere to me as the consumer,” Jean told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was not aware of the hold and then they took $108.00 fees from the account for overdraft.”

Why did that happen? It has to do with the way some debit purchases – gasoline in particular – are structured. The purchase is a two-step process. There's the authorization, to make sure the card is valid, and the settlement, where the merchant gets paid.

To make sure there is still enough money in the consumer's account to pay for the purchase when settlement time comes, the merchant places a hold of a larger amount – usually $100 – on the consumer's account. That's money the consumer cannot use until the hold is released.

It's a problem for Jean and other consumers who keep a very small balance in their checking accounts. Putting a hold on $100 will almost certainly throw them into an overdraft situation. When your account falls below $100, it's best to pay for things with cash, especially when buying gas.

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Gold Plunges 7% in Two Days - Has the Bubble Burst?

Whether it's market forces or pure panic, gold is starting to flake

Financial advisers and market watchers have been warning for months that the run-up in gold prices was a bubble.  And today the bubble is showing sign...

PhotoFinancial advisers and market watchers have been warning for months that the run-up in gold prices was a bubble.  And today the bubble is showing signs of leaking.

Gold hit a record high of $1,917 per ounce earlier this week, a 16% gain.  In an economy where almost nothing is doing much of anything, that's almost too good to be true.

And you know what they say about things that are too good to be true. 

Well, today, gold was at $1,773 per ounce last time we checked, down 7% in just two days.  Market watchers are looking for it to sink to $1,450 to $1,550 or so over the next few months, or maybe sooner.

Panic or profit-taking

So is it panic selling or is the smart money cashing in its chips and walking away from the table?  You get different answers from different analysts.

It doesn't really matter, since the net effect is the same: those who thought they could make money in a dismal bear market are finding out that they may just be on the end of the ship that is currently sticking out of the water but is soon to follow the bow in a dive to the bottom.

Or as Leo Larkin, equity metals analyst at Standard & Poor’s Equity Research, “We think gold got very, very overbought and we don’t think the correction is over,” according to Investment News.  “Long-term, we’re still bullish, but short-term, it has gotten frothy.”

Concerns over that frothiness has led many financial advisers to counsel to trim their exposure to gold, cutting future risk and taking a bit of sorely-needed profit in the meantime.  

Strong heart

Advisers have always warned that gold is not for the faint-of-heart. To do well long-term in gold, investors have to be willing to put up with 20% to 30% spikes and dips.  More importantly, they have to put emotion aside and be ready to jump ship when she starts to list. 

“Generally, gold and silver are too volatile for most investors to own in any size for long periods of time and through the natural declines. They would like to think they can handle it, but I know they cannot,” said Sam Jones, president of All Season Financial Advisors Inc., speaking with Investment News.

On the other hand -- there's always another hand, isn't there -- if you've been dying to buy gold but fearful of buying too close to the top, it may soon be time to jump on board. But keep that life preserver handy.

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Google Pays $500 Million in Prescription Drug Ad Settlement

Company allowed online Canadian pharmacies to advertise illegal importation

Google has agreed to forfeit $500 million for allowing online Canadian pharmacies to place advertisements through its AdWords program targeting consumers i...

PhotoGoogle has agreed to forfeit $500 million for allowing online Canadian pharmacies to place advertisements through its AdWords program targeting consumers in the United States, resulting in the unlawful importation of controlled and non-controlled prescription drugs into the United States.

The forfeiture, one of the largest ever in the United States, represents the gross revenue received by Google as a result of Canadian pharmacies advertising through Google’s AdWords program, plus gross revenue made by  Canadian pharmacies from their sales to U.S. consumers.

Consumer Watchdog said the problem of predatory and deceptive advertising on the Internet giant's services continues. Further enforcement action by regulators is needed, the group said.

"Google is highly motivated to turn a blind eye to all sorts of dubious advertising on its search engine because AdWords is such a cash cow," said John M. Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project. "For example, our study earlier this year found Google has become a leading purveyor of ads by scammers who prey on struggling homeowners."

The shipment of prescription drugs from pharmacies outside the United States to customers in the United States typically violates the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and in the case of controlled prescription drugs , the Controlled Substances Act.  

Google was aware as early as 2003, that generally, it was illegal for pharmacies to ship controlled and non-controlled prescription drugs into the United States from Canada.

Almost always ... 

The importation of prescription drugs to consumers in the United States is almost always unlawful because the FDA cannot ensure the safety and effectiveness of foreign prescription drugs that are not FDA-approved because the drugs may not meet FDA’s labeling requirements; may not have been manufactured, stored and distributed under proper conditions; and may not have been dispensed in accordance with a valid prescription. 

While Canada has its own regulatory rules for prescription drugs, Canadian pharmacies that ship prescription drugs to U.S. residents are not subject to Canadian regulatory authority, and many sell drugs obtained from countries other than Canada which lack adequate pharmacy regulations.

“The Department of Justice will continue to hold accountable companies who in their bid for profits violate federal law and put at risk the health and safety of American consumers,” said Deputy U.S. Attorney General James M. Cole.  “This settlement ensures that Google will reform its improper advertising practices with regard to these pharmacies while paying one of the largest financial forfeiture penalties in history.” 

“This investigation is about the patently unsafe, unlawful, importation of prescription drugs by Canadian on-line pharmacies, with Google’s knowledge and assistance, into the United States, directly to U.S. consumers,” said Peter F. Neronha, U.S. Attorney for the District of Rhode Island.

Significant step

“It is about taking a significant step forward in limiting the ability of rogue on-line pharmacies from reaching U.S. consumers, by compelling Google to change its behavior.   It is about  holding Google responsible for its conduct by imposing a $500 million forfeiture, the kind of forfeiture that will not only get Google’s attention, but the attention of all those who contribute to America’s pill problem.”

An investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Rhode Island and the FDA/OCI Rhode Island Task Force revealed that as early as 2003, Google was on notice that online Canadian pharmacies were advertising prescription drugs to Google users in the United States through Google’s AdWords advertising program.  

Although Google took steps to block pharmacies in countries other than Canada from advertising in the U.S. through AdWords, they continued to allow Canadian pharmacy advertisers to target consumers in the United States.  

Google was aware that U.S. consumers were making online purchases of prescription drugs from these Canadian online pharmacies, and that many of the pharmacies distributed prescription drugs, including controlled prescription drugs, based on an online consultation rather than a valid prescription from a treating medical practitioner.  

Google was also on notice that many pharmacies accepting an online consultation rather than a prescription charged a premium for doing so because individuals seeking to obtain prescription drugs without a valid prescription were willing to pay higher prices for the drugs.

Further, from 2003 through 2009, Google provided customer support to some of these Canadian online pharmacy advertisers to assist them in placing and optimizing their AdWords advertisements, and in improving the effectiveness of their websites.  

In 2009, after Google became aware of the investigation by the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FDA/OCI Rhode Island Task Force of its advertising practices in the online pharmacy area, and as a result of that investigation, Google took a number of steps to prevent the unlawful sale of prescription drugs by online pharmacies to U.S. consumers.  

Among other things, Google began requiring online pharmacy advertisers to be certified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy’s Verified Internet Pharmacy Practices Sites program, which conducts site visits; has a stringent standard against the issuance of prescriptions based on online consultations; and, most significantly, does not certify Canadian online pharmacies.  

In addition, Google retained an independent company to enhance detection of pharmacy advertisers exploiting flaws in the Google’s screening systems.

Under the terms of an agreement signed by Google and the government, Google acknowledges that it improperly assisted Canadian online pharmacy advertisers to run advertisements that targeted the United States through AdWords, and the company accepts responsibility for this conduct. In addition to requiring Google to forfeit $500 million, the agreement also sets forth a number of compliance and reporting measures which must be taken by Google in order to insure that the conduct described in the agreement does not occur in the future.

Mexican fugitive

The investigation of Google had its origins in a separate, multimillion dollar financial fraud investigation unrelated to Google, the main target of which fled to Mexico.  While a fugitive, he began to advertise the unlawful sale of drugs through Google’s AdWords program. After being apprehended in Mexico and returned to the United States by the U.S. Secret Service, he began cooperating with law enforcement and provided information about his use of the AdWords program. During the ensuing investigation of Google, the government established a number of undercover websites for the purpose of advertising the unlawful sale of controlled and non-controlled substances through Google’s AdWords program.

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Will Next Stimulus Be For Housing?

Some analysts say helping housing could help the economy

Some economists suggest stimulus for the housing sector...

PhotoWhile the economy has shown signs of recovery, it's far below expectations. Lately, there has even been concern that the economy is slipping back into recession.

There are indications a new round of stimulus could be coming from the Federal Reserve, the White House, or both. One economic analyst thinks the government is about to try a new strategy – stimulating housing.

"If you look at the economy, it is slowly coming back, but there is one area -- a massive area -- that has hit this economy for the last two years, and its housing," Don Hays, President and Chief Investment Strategist of Hays Advisory, said in an interview with the webcast Breakout. “He wants policymakers to try something new and different that will jump-start the entire economy, not just the banking sector. As much as stimulus has become a much harder sell in Washington, D.C. these days, I think a populist pitch to prop up housing might just catch on.”

Small efforts

The government has, in the past, provided some stimulus to the consumer sector. The home-buyers' tax credit and “cash for clunkers” program were relatively small programs, compared to the massive bank bailouts.

Hays says it's time for the government to try something bigger and bolder, to get housing back on track. He points to a proposal by fellow Wall Street analyst Dr. Ed Yardeni that would remove taxes from rental income for a decade, to encourage investors to buying up the surplus housing inventory. An increase in such demand, he says, would help prices recover. That, he says, would pave the way for more new construction.

Putting construction workers to work

"We have 2.2 million people in the housing construction industry that are still out of work and cannot get a job so that is the place that has to be stimulated," Hays said. "We think that is the one area that has not had the same long term encouragement."

Housing, indeed, has been a laggard in this economic recovery. Sales are down and home prices keep falling, trapping an increasing number of homeowners “underwater,” owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.

More loans, please

The real estate industry has, for months, begged lenders to make it easier for qualified buyers to get mortgages, but in recent months lenders have actually toughened loan requirements. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) says that has to change if housing – and the economy – are going to recover.

“A strong housing market recovery is essential to the nation’s economic strength,” said NAR President Ron Phipps. “The housing market is in a fragile recovery, and our goal is to ensure that regulatory or legislative changes help lead the way out of today’s economic struggles and not jeopardize the recovery.”

Stimulus, without spending money

NAR has been focusing lately on trying to head off government moves that it fears might make housing worse, such as elimination of the mortgage interest tax deduction. NAR also recently asked regulators to reduce what it calls “the overcorrection in underwriting standards” for mortgages from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and government-sponsored enterprises. That in itself, the group says, could stimulate housing, or at least remove the current drag.

 “Mortgage availability remains a concern, and borrowers continue to find it increasingly difficult to find affordable mortgage options,” Phipps said. “Requiring a higher down payment does little to reduce default risk, and only strips home buyers of their savings and increases the number of borrowers who are unable to purchase a home. We cannot have a viable housing market and economic recovery until creditworthy borrowers are able to obtain mortgage financing.”

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Is The iPhone Next Headed For Sprint/Nextel?

Rumor has it Sprint will be the third carrier to get it

Apple's iPhone is the source of several rumors this week...

Apple hasn't been making much news lately, but that hasn't stopped the rumors. In fact, it may have fed them.

The latest hot rumor is that Apple will make a version of its yet-to-be-announced iPhone 5 for Sprint/Nextel. The Wall Street Journal was first to report the rumor, based on sources. Analysts were quick to say the move would make sense for both parties.

Apple has already seen the benefits of adding Verizon Wireless as a carrier, selling 4.6 million iPhones to Verizon subscribers in six months. Technology analyst Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray estimates Sprint/Nextel customers would buy six million iPhones in the first year of availability.

CNET chimed in with the opinion that adding the iPhone to its offerings would almost certainly require Sprint/Nextel to end its unlimited data plan, as AT&T and Verizon have done.

The deal would also make a lot of sense for Sprint/Nextel, which will need some kind of advantage if the AT&T acquisition of T-Mobile is allowed to go through. Sprint/Nextel would become a small number three carrier behind AT&T and Verizon.

Cheaper iPhone 4?

The Sprint/Nextel hook-up is not the only iPhone rumor this week. It's also being reported that Apple is considering production of a cheaper iPhone 4.

When the iPhone 4 debuted a year ago, the iPhone 3GS – the model it replaced – was repackaged and sold for $49 with a two year service plan. Reuters reports Apple would follow the same formula with the iPhone 4, reducing the memory to 8GB.

That, of course, is all contingent on there being an iPhone 5. No one on the planet doubts that there will be, but the biggest rumor of all concerns when that product might launch and what it will look like. In the past, Apple has introduced new product in late June or early July, but those months passed without an iPhone 5.

Consensus opinion is that the launch will take place in October. The people at Apple, of course, are the only ones that know but they aren't talking – saying they never comment on rumor or speculation.

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Bogus Traffic Ticket Email Carries Virus

Tries to make the recipient click on attachment

A spam email saying you have a speeding ticket is a dangerous virus...

PhotoThere's a dangerous new spam email making the rounds, disguised as a traffic ticket from the state of New York. Those who follow its instructions and click on the attachment will download malware to their computer.

The email has the eye-catching subject line “Uniform Traffic Ticket.” The body of the email says a hidden camera clocked you speeding in New York City at 7:25 AM on July 5, 2011.

But you weren't anywhere near New York City on July 5. Then again, maybe you were. In either event, the email is designed to spark your fear, anger or curiosity enough to make you want to get to the bottom of this.

Attachment launches a virus

The message concludes by instructing you to print out the email's attachment and send it to court. And, if you don't know better, you just might do it.

“The attached file, called Ticket-O64-211.zip, contains a malicious Trojan horse, designed to download further malicious code onto your computer and compromise your security,” said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, a software security company.

The address on the email is @nyc.gov, but that's simply an alias, designed to increase the credibility of the message. Cluley says his company's anti-virus products identified the malware as Mal/ChepVil-A and the Trojan as Troj/Invo-zip.

Make sure you are protected

“Users of other anti-virus products would be wise to check that they are protected, as this attack is being aggressively spammed out right now,” Cluley wrote in his blog.

By downloading a Trojan, a computer user opens their machine up to being remotely controlled by a hacker. The hacker can use it as a “zombie” computer, sending out millions of other spam messages. It can also log key strokes, allowing the hacker to steal passwords and gain access to bank and other types of accounts.

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New Airline Passenger Protections Now In Effect

New rules cover lost baggage, delays, being bumped, full fee disclosure

New consumer protections for airline passengers  go into effect today, and should make flying more convenient and hassle-free for air travelers. The ...

PhotoNew consumer protections for airline passengers  go into effect today, and should make flying more convenient and hassle-free for air travelers.

The new consumer protections, finalized by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) earlier this year, include requirements that airlines refund baggage fees if bags are lost, increase compensation provided to passengers bumped from oversold flights, and provide passengers greater protections from lengthy tarmac delays.   

“The Obama Administration believes consumers have the right to be treated fairly when they fly,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.  “The Department of Transportation's new passenger protections will help ensure that air travelers receive the respect they deserve before, during and after their flight.”

Effective today, airlines will be required to refund any fee for carrying a bag if the bag is lost.  Airlines are already required to compensate passengers for reasonable expenses for loss, damage or delay in the carriage of passenger baggage. 

Under the new rules, airlines must now prominently disclose all optional fees on their websites, including but not limited to fees for baggage, meals, canceling or changing reservations, or advanced or upgraded seating. 

Being bumped

The new rules also double the amount of money passengers are eligible to be compensated for in the event they are involuntarily bumped from an oversold flight.  Previously, bumped passengers were entitled to cash compensation equal to the one-way value of their tickets, up to $400, if the airline was able to get them to their destination within a short period of time (within 1 to 2 hours of their originally scheduled arrival time for domestic flights and 1 to 4 hours for international flights). 

If they were delayed for a lengthy period of time (more than two hours after their originally scheduled arrival time for domestic flights and 4 hours for international flights), they were entitled to double the one-way price of their tickets, up to $800. 

Under the new rule, bumped passengers subject to short delays will receive compensation equal to double the one-way price of their tickets, up to $650, while those subject to longer delays would receive payments of four times the one-way value of their tickets, up to $1,300.  Inflation adjustments will be made to those compensation limits every two years. 

Tarmac delays

The Department of Transportation’s new rule also expands the existing ban on lengthy tarmac delays to cover the international flights of foreign airlines at U.S. airports, and establishes a hard four-hour time limit on tarmac delays for all international flights at U.S. airports. 

It also extends the three-hour tarmac delay limit for domestic flights, currently in place only at large-hub and medium-hub airports, to flights at small-hub and non-hub airports as well. All carriers subject to the tarmac rule will be required to report lengthy tarmac delays to DOT.  In all cases, exceptions to the time limits are allowed only for safety, security or air traffic control-related reasons.  

Carriers must also ensure that passengers stuck on the tarmac are provided adequate food and water after two hours, as well as working lavatories and any necessary medical treatment.  

Other measures

Additional measures under the new rule will take effect January 24, 2012, including:

·        Requiring all taxes and fees to be included in advertised fares.
·        Banning post-purchase price increases.
·        Allowing passengers to hold a reservation without payment, or to cancel it without penalty, for 24 hours after the reservation is made, if the reservation is made one week or more prior to a flight’s departure date.
·        Requiring disclosure of baggage fees when passengers book a flight.
·        Requiring that the same baggage allowances and fees apply throughout a passenger’s journey. 
·       Requiring disclosure of baggage fee information on e-ticket confirmations.
·        Requiring prompt notification of delays of over 30 minutes, as well as cancellations and diversions.

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Study: Small Firms Over-Paying For Health Insurance

Lack of information leads to lack of competition, researchers say

Researchers conclude small businesses overpay for health insurance by 29 percent...

If you work for a small business and have health insurance through your company, chances are both you and your employers are overpaying for health coverage.

That's the conclusions of a researchers James Rebitzer of Boston University School of Management, and Mark Votruba and Randall Cebul, both at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management, and Lowell Taylor of Carnegie Mellon University.

In a paper published in American Economic Review, they highlight the difficulties small employers have in searching for health insurance. Those difficulties, they contend, increase average health insurance premiums paid by small businesses by 29 percent. Naturally, where employees pay a portion of their health benefits, their premiums are also higher.

High plan turnover

When the four researchers began taking insurance markets’ vital signs a few years ago, one fact particularly captured their attention: small employer groups changed plans very frequently. This turnover was something of a puzzle.

“If markets are competitive, plans of similar value should be offered at similar prices,” said Votruba. “It’s costly to switch plans, so if employers are switching plans all the time, it suggests that something is impeding competition.”

The problem, they concluded, stemmed from an inability to easily comparison shop the different plans, a phenomenon economists refer to as “search frictions.”

Search frictions arise whenever consumers are unable to easily compare all the options available to them in the marketplace. This, Votruba, Cebul, Rebitzer and Taylor argue, is exactly the case for purchasers of individual and small group health plans.

Confusing options

"Consumers have hundreds, sometimes thousands, of different options, and each plan has its own unique set of benefit details,” Votruba said. “In this complex environment, it’s hard for consumers to find the plan that offers them the best value. What our paper shows is that this 'shopping problem' has important implications for how market competition plays out. If consumers have a hard time evaluating value, competition becomes less about value, and more about marketing."

Part of the problem stems from the fact there are very few sources of objective information and analysis of various health plans. Most experts who can provide this information are usually trying to sell their own plan.

No need for competition

How this works against consumers, the researchers say, is that all the companies selling health insurance can be less competitive and charge higher rates. Instead of competition forcing all insurers to offer similar plans at a similar low price, frictions enable many insurers to profitably pursue high margin/low volume strategies.

The net effect is that consumers end up paying more for their health insurance – 29 percent more on average in the small group market – and insurers spend more on marketing.

Because it's hard to find objective information about plans, employers are never quite sure they are getting the best deal. That can lead to frequent changes, as businesses drop one plan and go with another.

"High turnover rates undermine the quality of health plans by reducing insurers’ incentive to finance care that makes their policyholders healthier in the future," Cebul said. "Why spend money on wellness or disease management programs – programs which yield a return on investment only after several years – for a policyholder who probably isn’t going to stick around long?"

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Nexium, Prilosec Called Dangerous, Habit-Forming

Proton pump inhibitors are overprescribed, Public Citizen tells FDA in petition

Many widely prescribed stomach acid-reducing drugs can cause long-term dependence and should carry the strongest possible warning label, Public Citizen tol...

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Consumers Irate At Missing HP's $99 Tablet Deal

Retailers sell out quickly, leaving many disappointed consumers

Consumers are upset they didn't get a $99 HP TouchPad...

PhotoWhen Hewlett-Packard (HP) announced it was discontinuing its TouchPad tablet computer and slashed the price by 75 percent, it set off a stampede at retailers not unlike a post-Thanksgiving “Black Friday.”

And just like there are every Black Friday, there are plenty of unhappy consumers.

It's being widely reported today that consumers trying to purchase a $99 TouchPad online at Barnes & Noble got confirmations of their purchases, only to receive emails later telling them their order couldn't be completed. In truth, it was much the same story at other stores, both online and brick and mortar, as stores quickly sold out.

“I am able to place a new order any time, but there is no $99 deal any more,” Lei, of Terre Haute, Ind., told ConsumerAffairs.com, describing her experience at Walmart.com. “I could have bought one at $99 from other stores, but I didn't because they sent me a confirm email, making me think I successfully bought one. I missed this great opportunity because of their mistake.”

Confusion

Even people who showed up in person at stores, rather than take a chance of buying online, had similar frustrations. James, of San Diego, said he arrived at an Office Depot 30 minutes before it opened on Saturday and was first told the $99 tablets were “first come, first served.” Then, he said the store manager told him he had two TouchPads in stock, but they were on “hold” already.

“I stayed in my car right outside the store to make a phone call to any other Office Depots,” James said. “Five minutes before opening, another manager opens the door and tells two customers outside who came 15 min after me, 'I have two HP Touchpads left and you are the first two in line. After hearing this I asked the manager if those were on hold, and she replied that you can not put items on hold. I did not appreciate the lack of communication between the two managers.”

Finally, consider the plight of Derek, of Chatsworth, Calif. Derek said he ordered a TouchPad last week before HP cut the price, paying full price of $434. His credit card was charged and he was told he could pick up the tablet at a nearby Best Buy. But when he got there, there was no TouchPad waiting for him.

“Apparently they liquidated the item that morning and did not know what to do about my order,” Derek told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Derek said, not only did he not get a TouchPad, at any price, he still has a $434 charge on his credit card. 

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Growing Split In Michigan Over Marijuana

Kalamazoo charter amendment would de-emphasize marijuana arrests

Michigan Attorney General opposes Kalamazoo proposal to de-emphasize marijuana arrests...

PhotoMichigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has made it pretty clear he doesn't think much of the state's medical marijuana law, saying it is being abused by criminals.

Schuette, who took office last year, has drafted legislation to overhaul the law, making it strictly apply only to those who need it for medical treatment and not, as he contends, people who want to use the drug for recreation.

Different point of view

But some people in Kalamazoo seem to be moving in the other direction. City voters may consider a charter amendment instructing local police to treat marijuana offenses as the least important violation of law. In a letter to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Schuette said the proposed charter amendment would have the practical impact of police not enforcing state law and likely cause lawsuits against the city.

"It is simply unfathomable that we would ask police officers to look the other way when a crime is being committed," said Schuette. "The amendment is illegal and will send the signal that random marijuana use is acceptable."

In the letter to Snyder, Schuette recommended that the Governor not approve the charter amendment, as is his option during the charter amendment review process prescribed in state law.

Citizens petition

The proposed amendment was not offered by Kalamazoo city officials, but rather is the result of a citizens petition process. Enough local signatures were obtained to place the amendment on the ballot.

But despite its democratic origins, Schuette said telling the local police force to de-emphasize certain crimes is not legal, since it undermines the power of local police to enforce state criminal laws.

Schuette said the practical impact of the amendment is likely to be that law enforcement simply does not enforce state law that makes it illegal for non-medicial marijuana patients and caregivers to be in possession of marijuana.

Immunization from prosecution?

This concern was also raised by the Kalamazoo City Attorney earlier this year when he said that passage of the petition could be seen as an attempt to extend the immunization from prosecution and law enforcement currently enjoyed by lawful medical marijuana patients and caregivers to the general population.

Schuette went on to note that if the proposed charter amendment is passed by local voters, the revision could indeed be challenged in court.

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Sodium Linked to Cognitive Decline in Elderly

Sodium does more than damage the heart, researchers say

Canadian researchers say excessive sodium can lead to cognitive decline...

PhotoDoes losing one's memory and ability to think clearly have to be part of aging? Obviously not, as there are plenty of people in their 90s who are as sharp as a tack.

So what accounts for some older people retaining their cognitive ability and others losing it?

Canadian researchers pondering that question have shed some new light on the subject. They have concluded that older adults who lead sedentary lifestyles and consume a lot of sodium in their diet may be putting themselves at risk for more than just heart disease. They say they have found evidence that high-salt diets coupled with low physical activity can be detrimental to cognitive health as you age.

The study by researchers Baycrest in Toronto and Institut Universitaire de Gériatrie de Montréal, may have significant public health implications, emphasizing the importance of addressing multiple lifestyle factors that can impact brain health.

Sodium's impact on the brain

"We have generated important evidence that sodium intake not only impacts heart health, but brain health as well," said Dr. Alexandra Fiocco, a scientist with Baycrest's Kunin-Lunenfeld Applied and Evaluative Research Unit (KLAERU) and the study's lead investigator.

While low sodium intake is associated with reduced blood pressure and risk of heart disease, this is believed to be the first study to extend the benefits of a low sodium diet to brain health in healthy older adults.

The study followed the sodium consumption and physical activity levels of 1,262 healthy older men and women (ages 67 – 84) residing in Quebec, Canada, over three years. The adults were recruited from a large pool of participants in the Quebec Longitudinal Study on Nutrition and Successful Aging (NuAge).

Limit sodium to 2.300 mg per day

Most public health experts suggest people 14 years of age and older consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day in their diet. For the purpose of the study, low sodium was defined as being below that amount, while high sodium consumption was set at nearly 3.100 mg, of higher, per day.

Physical activity levels were measured using the Physical Activity Scale for the Elderly.

"The results of our study showed that a diet high in sodium, combined with little exercise, was especially detrimental to the cognitive performance of older adults," said Fiocco. "But the good news is that sedentary older adults showed no cognitive decline over the three years that we followed them if they had low sodium intake."

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What's On Your Mind? LAPD, Dish Network, Best Buy, Zicam

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: LAPD, Dish Network, Best Buy, Zicam, Sorry, no record of your call and No taste or smell....

PhotoIs there anything worse than having your car stolen? Keobes, of Los Angeles, Calif., says there is. Having your stolen car recovered but not finding out about it for three weeks.

“My car was stolen July 12 from outside my house and I filed a police report right away,” Keobes told ConsumerAffairs.com.“ My car was recovered the next day but we were not notified. It took about three weeks for us to get a letter saying the car was at the local impound garage. I now owe over $1,800 in storage fees.”

If stolen car victims are notified by U.S. Mail that their property has been recovered, we can see how there could be a lengthy delay. And all the while, the meter's running. Doesn't seem quite fair, does it?

Sorry, no record of your call

Edward, of Denver, Colo., got tired of waiting for Qwest to come install TV service so he called Dish Network to see if they could do it any faster. Dish said they could.

“Dish also stated that I could sign up now and cancel anytime without charge up until the install date,” Edward said. “Four days later, Qwest came, I called and cancelled Dish Network. Dish even said no work order had been generated yet so all is good, no charge. Now a month from that Dish sends me a bill for services from the sign-up date to now and it's twice the 'introductory rate.' They find no record of a cancelation and the bill is due.”

These kinds of things seem to happen a lot. A customer service rep tells a consumer something that doesn't turn out to be true and there is no record of their conversation. Perhaps Edward should try suing Dish Network in small claims court in Denver. This little-used tool usually causes large companies to capitulate, or simply not show up.

Oops, our mistake. That'll be $199

Did you know that when you take your computer in for service at Best Buy, and perhaps many other stores, they aren't responsible if they wipe all your data. Laura, of Miramar, Fla., didn't know that before she took her laptop to Best Buy, but wishes she had.

“On August 4th when I picked the laptop from Best Buy, I was told that the laptop had no programs,” Laura told ConsumerAffairs.com. “ Also, that I needed to purchase the restore disk from Best Buy for $199.00 and they would install the programs on the laptop. I was shocked to hear that, so I told the customer service representative that the laptop was under warranty. At that moment, she explained to me that I should have made a back-up DVD with my programs before taking it in for service.”

It may not be a completely unreasonable policy, but Laura is right – consumers should be asked if they have backed up their system and data before leaving a computer. Charging $199 to reinstall the programs is just adding insult to injury.

No taste or smell

Two years after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning about certain Zicam cold remedy products, we're still getting disturbing reports from consumers.

“I was sick with sinus congestion over 4th of July weekend and had been using Zicam nasal gel,” said Brian, of Nararre, Fla. “It worked pretty good but after three days I noticed I could no longer smell or taste anything. At that point I stopped using it and have not used any medication or nasal products since. My senses have still not come back.I hate to think think product caused this and hope t's not permanent but as it's August 22 now and I'm still without my taste and smell sense, I feel a bit concerned.”

Brian should be concerned, and he should see a doctor right away. In 2009 the FDA said consumers should stop using three products marketed over-the-counter as cold remedies because they are associated with the loss of sense of smell, a condition known as anosmia. Anosmia may be long-lasting or permanent.

The products are:

  • Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal Gel
  • Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal Swabs
  • Zicam Cold Remedy Swabs, Kids Size, a discontinued product

The FDA said it had received more than 130 reports of loss of sense of smell associated with the use of these three Zicam products. In these reports, many people who experienced a loss of smell said the condition occurred with the first dose; others reported a loss of the sense of smell after multiple uses of the product.

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HP's $99 Tablet Sells Out In Some Locations

Tech world swoons over previously panned device

HP's TouchPad tablet is selling out at its new $99 price...

PhotoIt just goes to show you, anything will sell at the right price.

In the tablet world, dominated by Apple's iPad, the HP TouchPad got no love. It was derided for its WebOS operating system and lack of pizazz, compared to its flashier rivals.

But what a difference a price cut makes. Over the weekend HP announced it was getting out of the tablet business and slashed the price of its TouchPad from $399 for the 16KB version to $99. Suddenly the unloved device was selling like hotcakes.

Many Best Buys and other retail outlets that normally have a hard time selling any TouchPads reported selling out in a few hours today. And no one in the tech world seems all that surprised.

Best tech deal ever?

“The $99 HP TouchPad is one of the best tech deals of the year – possible one of the best tech deals ever,” gushed PC Magazine. “Even though the touchPad's webOS may never see another product, the TouchPad is still a powerful, flexible tablet, and $99 - $149 for the 32GB – is a killer price.

What about the webOS operating system? Isn't the system, inherited by HP when it acquired Palm, pretty much headed for oblivion? Not so, says Stephen Dewitt, senior VP of Palm, who told Bloomberg News that HP is only getting out of the tablet market, not the software market.

J.R. Raphael, a blogger for ComputerWorld, said he went out over the weekend and bought a Touchpad, even though he already had an Android tablet, calling $99 “a steal for that kind of hardware.” He said, even if you just used it as an alarm clock, it was a good buy.

Android possibility

“Aside from the default webOS software, there's a very good chance I'll be able to install Android onto the TouchPad at some point in the foreseeable future,” Ralphael wrote. “Teams of Android enthusiasts like the gang from RootzWiki are already hard at work creating Android ports for the product.”

Business writers at Britain's Guardian newspaper note that HP is losing millions of dollars by refunding retailers the difference between the old price and the new price, but it's not clear the move is all that much of a disaster. After all, companies spend millions on highly ineffective television commercials that move little product.

In slashing the price, HP has transformed the TouchPad from a device no one wanted to a device everyone wants. And if the company quickly sells its complete inventory, it will have an instant customer base for software.

Should you buy one? The verdict in the tech world, at least, appears to be a resounding yes. If you can find one.

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Southwest Invades Atlanta's Hartsfield

Low-cost carrier launches service from world's busiest airport

Southwest Airlines launches service from Atlanta Feb. 12, 2012, its first foray into Hartsfield International Airport, the world's busiest airport and a lu...

PhotoSouthwest Airlines launches service from Atlanta Feb. 12, 2012, its first foray into Hartsfield International Airport, the world's busiest airport and a lucrative arena for Atlanta-based Delta.

Southwest's entry, part of its acquisition of AirTran Airways, will put severe pricing pressure on Delta and bring Atlanta trael consumers initial fares as low as $79 one-way.

"We're bringing especially great value to those of you who travel last-minute," Southwest President, Chairman, and CEO Gary Kelly told an  audience of business leaders today.

"Here in Atlanta, our fully refundable, walk-up fares will be, on average, more than 30 percent lower than anything currently in these markets. And we are bringing the flexibility Southwest Customers already enjoy in other cities because we don't charge a $150 fee simply to change your plans," Kelly said.

From Atlanta, Southwest initially will offer 15 nonstop departures each day to five destinations:

  • Baltimore/Washington (BWI),
  • Chicago Midway (MDW), 
  • Denver (DEN), 
  • Houston Hobby (HOU), and 
  • Austin, Texas (AUS), a route not previously served by AirTran Airways.

The nonstop flights make possible additional direct or connecting service between Atlanta and 48 destinations on Southwest Airlines.

The inaugural schedule also brings, for the first time, one-stop/no change-of-plane service between Atlanta and DallasLove Field on Southwest Airlines.

In a first step toward blending frequent flyer programs, Kelly announced top-tier members of both carriers' frequent flyer loyalty programs -- A-List Members of Southwest's All New Rapid Rewards and elite A+ Members of AirTran's A+ Rewards -- will enjoy some, limited reciprocal benefits when flying on either carrier beginning today.

A-List benefits include extra Rapid Reward points, Priority Boarding, access to priority security lanes, and more. On the flip side, Southwest A-List and A-List Preferred Members booking on AirTran will get Free Business Class upgrades, no baggage fees, and all other benefits that AirTran's elite Members enjoy.

Southwest Airlines is the nation's largest carrier in terms of originating domestic passengers boarded and has acquired AirTran Airways, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Southwest Airlines Co. With the addition of Atlanta, Southwest will serve 73 cities in 38 states.

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Verizon Strikers Return to Work ... for Now

But union members could hit the bricks again if talks don't go well

Union workers have called a truce in their 15-day strike against the company and will be going back to work tonight (Monday).  But if you have an ins...

PhotoUnion workers have called a truce in their 15-day strike against the company and will be going back to work tonight (Monday). 

But if you have an installation or trouble ticket pending, beware. The unions and company have not come any closer to an agreement, they've just agreed to call off the strike for now.  The unions could still go back on strike if the talks don't go well.

More than 45,000 workers from Virginia to New England went on strike to express their anger at what they saw as the company's refusal to bargain seriously.  The workers are members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).  They do everything from splicing fiber optic cable to working as customer service representatives.

The strike affects only Verizon's land-line businesses -- primarily local telephone service and FiOS, which have both been shrinking steadily as customers move to wireless phones and rivals including AT&T and cable companies.

It does not affect Verizon Wireless, a separate company.

The union workers are most upset about concessions the company is seeking on pensions, health care and job security, and it's not seen as likely that those issues will be resolved quickly.  

CWA President Larry Cohen said Sunday that the process will "take definitely weeks, not days" and said union members might have to return to the picket lines if there's no progress.

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Windows Can Be Overlooked Home Hazard

5,200 children fall out of windows each year

Pediatric researchers issue new warning about windows' danger...

PhotoWhile there are plenty of unsafe products that injure children, researchers say there is one dangerous product that gets little or no attention – the window.

A new study conducted by researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital found that approximately 5,200 children each year are hurt by falling from a window. A total of 98,415 children and adolescents were injured by falling from a window between 1990 and 2008, the years included in the study.

The study appears in the September 2011 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

One out of four hospitalized

“Window fall injuries are serious,” said the study’s senior author Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “In fact, one out of every four children in our study was hospitalized as a result of their injury. We know from successful programs in New York City and Boston that child injuries due to falls from windows can be prevented. We need to do a better job of protecting our children from these types of serious injuries.”

Not surprisingly, the study found that the younger the child, the more vulnerable they were to falling from a window. Children infants to four years of age accounted for 65 percent of the injuries. Their injuries also tended to be more serious.

Head injuries most common

Overall, the most common injuries were to the head and face region, and the most frequent injury diagnoses were soft tissue injury and brain/head injury.

In this study, more than 190 children each year fell from windows after gaining access to the window by climbing on furniture placed near the window. Therefore, the researchers say, furniture should be moved away from windows to help keep young children safe.

“In addition, it is important for parents to understand that window screens will not prevent a child from falling out of a window,” said Smith, also a professor of pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. “There were many children in our study who pushed a screen out of a window and then fell from the window.”

Prevention

To prevent injuries from window falls:

  • Install window guards on all second-story or higher windows in places where young children live or visit.
  • Remember that screens will NOT prevent a child from falling out of a window.
  • If windows are open, use window stops to prevent the window from opening more than 4 inches.
  • Move all furniture away from windows.
  • Remember that fire escapes, roofs and balconies are not safe places for children to play.
  • Educate older children on the dangers of climbing out of or jumping from windows.
  • Consider planting bushes or locating flower beds under windows to soften the landing surface, which may reduce the severity of injury in the event of a fall.
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GM Wants to Void Pre-Bankruptcy Warranties

"New GM" says it shouldn't be responsible for "Old GM" problems

New GM says it's not responsible for problems with cars made by Old GM...

General Motors (GM) has told a court it should not be responsible for warranty repairs for problems that pre-date its bankruptcy.

The carmaker made its case in a motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit filed to correct suspension problem in more than 400,000 Chevrolets produced for the 2007 and 2008 model years.

The case arose from the complaint of one consumer, Donna Trusky of Blakely, Pa. In her June 29 lawsuit, Trusky claims her Chevrolet Impala was flawed by bad rear spindle rods, which she said caused her rear tires to suffer excessive tread wear.

The suit, which seeks class-action status, accuses GM of walking away from its warranty responsibilities and demands that the carmaker make repairs to affected vehicles. In making her case, Trusky points out that GM did, in fact, repair the same problem on Chevrolet Impalas sold to police departments.

'Old GM's' problem

But GM says the faulty rods are not its responsibility. Company lawyers note the cars in question were manufactured by “Old GM,” the company before it declared bankruptcy in 2009. The court filing maintains that “New GM” has no responsibility to repair cars manufactured before the reorganization.

"New GM's warranty obligations for vehicles sold by Old GM are limited to the express terms and conditions in the Old GM written warranties on a going-forward basis," wrote GM lawyer Benjamin Jeffers. “New GM did not assume responsibility for Old GM's design choices, conduct, or alleged breaches of liability under the warranty."

The motion was filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit. It will be up to the judge in the case to decide whether “New GM” has to fix Trusky's car, and 399,999 others.

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What's On Your Mind? Thrifty, Verizon Wireless, eHarmony

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Thrifty, Verizon Wireless, eHarmony, Not holding up their end of the deal, Empty promises and Auto renewal....

PhotoConsumers who rent cars have to pay extra attention these days to make sure they don't end up paying for things they don't want. Pat, of Cummings, Ga., reports such an experience.

“Thrifty Car Rental charged me for insurance that I did not want and a per day charge for extra driver after telling us it was a one time charge,” Pat told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They will not take one cent off the bill because they said I signed the ticket. True, I did, but before I signed I asked the man if this was the same price as on my reservation and the answer was yes. My suggestion would be to stay away from Thrifty Car Rental.”

Our suggestion would be to read the rental agreement and not take the word of the person behind the counter. Sadly, that's the way it seems you have to operate in the current economic environment.

Not holding up their end of the deal

Who bears the responsibility if a wireless service doesn't work the way it's advertised? Right now, it seems the consumer does.

“I purchased an advertised 4G Broadband device from Verizon Wireless months ago,” said Robert, of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. “Every day of every week for the past four months the device malfunctioned, disconnecting me every time 10 minutes at a time, sometimes shorter.”

Robert said he has tried two replacement devices, both of which, he says, malfunctioned as well. He said he has downloaded every update and worked with Verizon's technical support. He finally gave up and cancelled the contract.

“I am being billed for an early termination fee on a device that never worked properly,” he said. I seek remedies as Verizon breached their contract in providing a 4G Device that worked properly or moreover work period.”

Breach of contract is usually argued in court, but cell phone disputes must be arbitrated, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. Robert should certainly try arbitration, even though consumers don't usually fare very well. Still, he seems to have a pretty reasonable case. Robert appears to have made a good faith effort to make the product work. Verizon appears to be unable to make the product work for him. Why is it fair to penalize him for that?

Empty promises

Here is another reason why you should immediately hang up on anyone who calls you and tells you they can help you get a mortgage modification.

“I was contacted by American Residential Law Group who said they could help me with a loan modification, Mark, of Hammond, Ind., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “After I agreed to pay them $1,500 they passed me to Summit Legal Group, who said they needed another $1,500 dollars to process my loan. I haven't heard from again now my home is in foreclosure and I'm about to lose it.”

If you need help with a mortgage modification, it's best to start with the government's site for helping homeowners. 

Auto renewal

Lots of consumers complain about auto renewals, especially the ones that are hard to switch form “auto” to “manual.” Sean, of Mooresville, N.C., finds eHarmony's renewal set-up especially hard to fathom.

“The policy seems design to be as obscure as possible,” Sean said. “Turning off the auto-renew is actually indicated as 'cancel subscription.' Once you figure this out it then take a series of five web pages and a survey to complete the process. Some of the questions in the survey are of the 'when did you stop beating your wife' kind, and seem designed to make you feel like you have failed in some way using eHarmony.”

Companies say they provide auto renewal so the consumer's service isn't inadvertently interrupted, but in reality, most are hoping you forget and just renew their service without knowing it.  

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Stonebridge Joins Vertrue in Iowa's Dog House

State charges "buying clubs" use deceptive sales tactics

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has filed a lawsuit against a Texas membership club, alleging the company used unfair and deceptive sales tactics to charg...

PhotoIowa Attorney General Tom Miller has filed a lawsuit against a Texas membership club, alleging the company used unfair and deceptive sales tactics to charge monthly fees for unwanted and unused memberships.

The lawsuit against Stonebridge Benefit Services, Inc.,  headquartered in Plano, Texas, alleges the company violated Iowa’s Consumer Fraud Act and Buying Club Memberships law.  The Buying Club Memberships law requires that membership sales transactions include specified notices, disclosures, and contracts.

“We allege that Iowans have paid for buying club memberships that they didn’t know they had and probably never used,” said Miller.

According to Miller’s lawsuit, Stonebridge has sold more than 50,000 memberships to Iowans, generating net revenues of about $4 million. 

Iowans who have contacted the Consumer Protection Division have claimed that they were enrolled in memberships without their knowledge or permission, and consumers later discovered that they had been billed for months or even years of unused memberships.

The memberships purport to offer savings on consumer goods, health and wellness products, and entertainment expenses.  Stonebridge has marketed several membership clubs, including:

  • BackPorch Home and Garden,
  • Everyday Bargains,
  • Experts-on-Call,
  • Fun Family Rewards/Select,
  • Home & Auto Protection Plan,
  • LeisurePlus/Select,
  • MotorPlus,
  • Perfect Home Rewards/Select,
  • Pet Club,
  • PlanPlus/Select,
  • Savings Solution, and
  • Savings2Go.

In many cases, according to Miller’s lawsuit, Stonebridge attracted consumers with free gift card or “cash back” offers to Iowans who placed online orders through other companies, such as JCPenney, or through telephone orders generated from television “infomercials.” 

Consumers were then enrolled in a membership program and billed monthly, often without their knowledge and consent.  According to the lawsuit, many of these consumers are older Iowans.

In a separate buying club membership case in March a Polk County Judge ordered Connecticut-based Vertrue, Inc. to pay more than $28 million in restitution, penalties and costs after ruling the corporation violated Iowa’s buying club law and used deceptive and unfair practices to market so-called buying club memberships to nearly a half-million Iowans over the last twenty years.  Vertrue has appealed the judgment.

“Free Trial Offer” Tips

  • Be wary of “free trial offers".  Get the details: Will you be billed automatically if you don’t cancel?  By when must you cancel?  How do you cancel?  Will you receive a mail notice?  Remember, they already may have your bank or credit card number to charge you.

  • Examine your credit card bills every month, and also your checking account, other financial accounts, and phone bills.  Watch for unauthorized charges, and dispute them at once, in writing.

  • Watch your mail and e-mail for notices that you will be billed unless you cancel.  These mailings may look like “junk mail.”

  • Beware of cashing a check that comes in the mail with a “free trial offer.”  The fine print may obligate you to future payments.
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Four Banks Fail Over the Weekend

Total for the year so far is 64, behind last year's pace

Four banks were seized by regulators over the weekend, bringing the total number of failures so far this year to 64.  In 2010, 160 banks went into rec...

PhotoFour banks were seized by regulators over the weekend, bringing the total number of failures so far this year to 64.  In 2010, 160 banks went into receivership, were merged with another financial institution, or closed their doors entirely. 

At the current rate, the total for 2011 could reach 106.  Currently, there are nearly 1,000 banks and other financial organizations on the troubled list. 

The latest banks to fail: 

Lydian Private Bank, Palm Beach, Florida, was closed by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Sabadell United Bank, National Association, Miami, Florida, will assume all of the deposits of Lydian Private Bank. As of June 30, 2011, Lydian Private Bank had approximately $1.70 billion in total assets and $1.24 billion in total deposits. In addition to assuming all of the deposits of the failed bank, Sabadell United Bank, National Association agreed to purchase essentially all of the assets.

First Choice Bank, Geneva, Illinois, was closed by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. Inland Bank & Trust, Oak Brook, Illinois, is assuming assume all of the deposits of First Choice Bank. As of June 30, 2011, First Choice Bank had approximately $141.0 million in total assets and $137.2 million in total deposits.

First Southern National Bank, Statesboro, Georgia, was closed by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Heritage Bank of the South, Albany, Georgia, is assuming all of the deposits of First Southern National Bank. As of June 30, 2011, First Southern National Bank had approximately $164.6 million in total assets and $159.7 million in total deposits.

Public Savings Bank, Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, was closed by the Pennsylvania Department of Banking. Capital Bank, National Association, Rockville, Maryland, will assume all of the deposits of Public Savings Bank. As of June 30, 2011, Public Savings Bank had approximately $46.8 million in total assets and $45.8 million in total deposits.

Depositors of the closed banks automatically become depositors of the banks which have assumed the failed banks' deposits. Deposits will continue to be insured by the FDIC, so there is no need for customers to change their banking relationship in order to retain their deposit insurance coverage up to applicable limits.

Depositors can access their money by writing checks or using ATM or debit cards. Checks drawn on the bank will continue to be processed. Loan customers should continue to make their payments as usual.

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Deceptive Car Ads Targeted by Washington State

Many car ads are confusing and misleading, attorney general charges

The Washington Attorney General’s Office says too many car ads violate consumer protection laws. The office announced eight settlements that are part...

PhotoThe Washington Attorney General’s Office says too many car ads violate consumer protection laws. The office announced eight settlements that are part of its ongoing work to steer dealers toward fair business practices.

“A car may be the most expensive purchase a Washington resident makes,” said Assistant Attorney General Mary Lobdell, of the Consumer Protection Division. “Unfortunately, many car ads are confusing or misleading. Buyers and businesses benefit when dealerships put straightforward advertising in the front seat.”

The settlements address a range of advertising violations. While allegations vary from dealer to dealer, the problems include:

·       Failing to properly disclose the vehicle service documentary fee

·       Advertising “free” merchandise and prizes without adequately disclosing that consumers would need to pay shipping and handling fees

·       Creating a false sense of urgency

·       Misrepresenting the number of vehicles offered for sale

·       Making statements that the dealer could not substantiate through its business records

·       Failing to provide disclosures required by the federal Truth in Lending Act

·       Offering a rebate that is not associated with a manufacturer or failing to disclose material terms in conjunction with a rebate offer

·       Failing to identify vehicles by VIN or plate number

·       Using terms not familiar to the general public

·       Failing to comply with the state’s Prizes and Promotions Act

Wrongdoing denied 

As is typical with consumer protection settlements, the allegations were resolved with agreements that don’t require the businesses to admit any wrongdoing but impose restrictions on their marketing practices. All the dealers denied any wrongdoing and cooperated with the Attorney General’s Office throughout the course of the investigation.

The cases include:

D and S Auto World, Inc., d.b.a. Shafer Motor Company and Auto Plaza USA II (Kennewick): The business agreed to advertise the documentary service fee as provided by law, to comply with other restrictions on its advertising practices and to pay $5,000 to reimburse the state for attorneys’ fees and legal costs.

Bulldog Motors, LLC , d.b.a. All Star Automotive Group (Pasco): The business agreed to comply with restrictions on its advertising practices and pay $5,000 to reimburse the state for attorneys’ fees and legal costs.

Grover Dykes Auto Group, Inc., d.b.a. Legacy Ford of Tri-Cities, Legacy Ford of Walla Walla and Legacy Ford of Pasco (Pasco): The dealerships agreed to advertise the documentary service fee as provided by law, to substantiate advertisement claims, to comply with promotional prize laws and other restrictions on its advertising practices and to pay $10,000 to reimburse the state for attorneys’ fees and legal costs.

L III, Inc., d.b.a. Consumer Auto Liquidators (Airway Heights): The business agreed to advertise the documentary service fee as provided by law, to substantiate its advertisement claims, to comply with promotional prize laws and other restrictions on its advertising practices and to pay $10,000 to reimburse the state for attorneys’ fees and legal costs.  It must also refund documentary service fees paid by consumers in which the fee was materially misrepresented or was not disclosed in advertising published since Jan. 1, 2010.

Haselwood Buick-Pontiac Company, d.b.a. Haselwood Buick Pontiac GMS Truck; West Hills Company d.b.a. West Hills Honda; Heartland Motor Company d.b.a. Heartland Toyota Scion(Bremerton): The dealerships are accused of using deceptive promotions including prize offers and “free” gas vouchers. The business agreed to comply with restrictions on its advertising practices and pay $10,000 to reimburse the state for attorneys’ fees and legal costs.

Parkway Auto Center, Inc., formerly known as Parkway Chevrolet, Inc. (Deer Park): The dealership is accused of using deceptive promotional prize offers and routinely issuing advertisements that don’t comply with Washington laws. The business agreed to comply with restrictions on its advertising practices and pay $5,000 to reimburse the state for attorneys’ fees and legal costs.

Bud Clary of Yakima, Inc., d.b.a. Toyota of Yakima and Bud Clary’s Discount Outlet (Yakima): The business agreed to advertise the documentary service fee, to comply with disclosure requirement, to disclose the number of vehicles available at an advertised price and to pay $5,000 to reimburse the state for attorneys’ fees and legal costs. It must also refund documentary service fees paid by consumers who purchased certain vehicles advertised in the Yakima Herald-Republic in November 2009 and February 2010.

Hahn Motor Company (Yakima): The business agreed to advertise the documentary service fee as provided by law and pay $5,000 to reimburse the state for attorneys’ fees and legal costs.

 

 

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Target Prepares to Launch Revamped Website

New site said to more closely resemble the in-store experience

After two years of development, Target is just about ready to take the wraps off its new Website, hoping to boost sales and catch up to Amazon, Walmart and...

PhotoAfter two years of development, Target is just about ready to take the wraps off its new Website, hoping to boost sales and catch up to Amazon, Walmart and other giant online retail sites.

It particularly galls Target, we suspect, that Walmart is the sixth-biggest Internet retailer with about $4.4 billion in sales, while Target is a distant 22nd, with $1.33 billion online sales last year.

Amazon.com is, of course, No. 1, with nearly $13 billion last year.  And, oddly enough, it's Amazon that has been running Target's site and fillings its orders for the last decade.

So why is Target bringing its Web retailing in-house after a successful run with Amazon?

Basically, it hopes to make Target.com more like being at an actual Target store and less like being at any of a number of online sites, according to Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel.

Steinhafel says the new site will be easier to navigate, will have faster check and, he hopes, encourage more customer loyalty. 

It's quite an undertaking.  For the last decade, Amazon has run the Target site, operated its warehouses, run the call center and handled all shipping and customer service.

Next week, Target will be throwing the switch -- quite a few switches, actually -- and taking over all those functions itself, no small task. Just to top it off, when the transition is complete, Target will no longer be selling on Amazon.com.

 

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Debt Collector Comes Calling on Saab

Troubled automaker faces repo proceedings

Sweden's Debt Enforcement Agency has started collection proceedings against Saab Automobile after the troubled automaker failed to meet a Tuesday deadline ...

PhotoSweden's Debt Enforcement Agency has started collection proceedings against Saab Automobile after the troubled automaker failed to meet a Tuesday deadline to pay two suppliers, a spokesman said.

Saab halted production in March when it ran out of cash.  It has been trying to raise more funds and has claimed it will be ready to restart production in a few weeks.  

But suppliers and other creditors are losing patience and the action by the Swedish agency followed complaints from at least eight of more than 100 creditors, Bloomberg reported.

Saab owes about $600,000 to Kongsberg Automotive AB, a Norwegian manufacturer of car-seat parts, and Infotiv AB, a Gothenburg, Sweden-based consulting firm, two of its biggest creditors.

Another $792,000 comes due in about a week, reports said.

The debt agency's proceedings can be stopped if Saab pays its debts. But if it doesn't, the company could be forced into bankruptcy.

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GM Unveils Plug-In Electric Cadillac

Second all-electric model planned for 2013

For years, Cadillac was the car of choice for those who didn't care what gasoline cost. General Motors (GM) has been trying to erase that image....

Photo
Cadillac Ciel (GM Photo)

For years, Cadillac was the car of choice for those who didn't care what gasoline cost. General Motors (GM) has been trying to erase that image and this week, took another step in that direction with the unveiling of a plug-in electric Cadillac.

The automotive press got its first look at the Cadillac Ciel at Pebble Beach, Calif. The vehicle seats four, has a 3.6-liter V6 engine and a lithium-ion battery. The Ciel is a prototype that will hit the market next year.

GM said it plans to bring out another electric Cadillac in 2013. Development is just underway so details are sketchy, but the car will be called the Cadillac ELR.

The Cadillac ELR will feature an electric propulsion system made up of a T-shaped lithium ion battery, an electric drive unit, and a four-cylinder engine-generator.

It uses electricity as its primary source to drive the car without using gasoline or producing tailpipe emissions, GM said. When the battery’s energy is low, the ELR switches to extended-range mode to enable driving for hundreds of additional miles. 

“The concept generated instant enthusiasm,” said Don Butler, vice president-Cadillac Marketing. “Like other milestone Cadillac models of the past, the ELR will offer something not otherwise present – the combination of electric propulsion with striking design and the fun of luxury coupe driving.”

Cadillac selected the name ELR to indicate the car’s electric propulsion technology, in keeping with the brand’s 3-letter international model naming convention.

GM did not immediately announce price points for the two electric Cadillacs, but it's first electric – the Chevy Volt – debuted with a sticker price in excess of $40,000.

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Gas Price Decline Stalls

Price at the pump shows little downward movement this week

Despite falling oil prices, gasoline prices remain fairly stable...

PhotoWhat's wrong with this picture? Oil prices have dropped like a rock in recent weeks amid signs that the global economy is slowing. Gas prices have barely declined.

While it is true there can be a significant lag between the oil futures market and the price of gas at the pump, gasoline prices have, in the past, tended to fall more quickly when it was clear oil prices were headed significantly lower.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.585 a gallon, down just two cents from last week, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. Today's average price is exactly the same as it was yesterday.

The average price of diesel fuel is $3.888 a gallon, down from $3.912 last Friday.

The stall in retail gas' downward movement coincides with reports this week showing a decline in U.S. gasoline stockpiles, despite little evidence of an increase in demand. An industry report shows refineries are producing a bit less gasoline, with capacity running at about 89 percent.

Two types of oil

The difference in price between oil produced in the U.S. and Brent crude, which comes mostly from the Middle East, might partly explain why gas prices haven't fallen very much. Brent prices have come down some, but not as much as U.S. oil. Many states – especially those on both coasts, tend to get their gasoline from refineries using Brent crude.

That's made for some interesting changes in the rankings of the most and least expensive gasoline. Notably, Connecticut and New York have more expensive gas now than Alaska and California.

The states with the most expensive gasoline today are:

  • Hawaii ($4.103)
  • Connecticut ($3.936)
  • New York ($3.884)
  • Alaska ($3.881)
  • Washington, DC ($3.837)
  • Washington ($3.772)
  • Illinois ($3.769)
  • Rhode Island ($3.766)
  • Oregon ($3.730)
  • California ($3.719)
  • Montana ($3.715)

 

The states with the least expensive gasoline today are:

  • Arizona ($3.349)
  • South Carolina ($3.382)
  • Missouri ($3.400)
  • Oklahoma ($3.434)
  • Tennessee ($3.445)
  • Arkansas ($3.451)
  • Virginia ($3.462)
  • Colorado ($3.463)
  • Mississippi ($3.464)
  • Louisiana ($3.468)
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Simple Test May Identify Stroke Risk

People with narrow neck artery could benefit

Researchers hope to develop an ultrasound test to give early warning of stroke...

PhotoOne of the dangerous things about strokes is they come on suddenly with few symptoms, until the person is actually having the stroke.

High blood pressure is one risk factor, but a new test may provide an early warning of stroke risk and save lives, researchers say.

A new study suggests a simple ultrasound test may help to identify people at high risk of stroke who have a condition called asymptomatic carotid stenosis, a narrowing of the carotid artery found in the neck. People who have this condition display almost no symptoms.

The study is published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

“There is debate over how to best treat people with asymptomatic carotid stenosis,” said study author Raffi Topakian, MD, of the Academic Teaching Hospital Wagner-Jauregg in Linz, Austria. “A procedure called carotid endarterectomy can reduce the risk of stroke, but there are risks and costs involved with the surgery. Identifying people with asymptomatic carotid stenosis who are at higher risk of stroke would help determine whether carotid endarterectomy is needed.”

The surgery removes the plaque buildup in the carotid artery, which is the main artery from the heart to the brain.

More fat than regular plaque

For the study, 435 people with asymptomatic carotid stenosis were followed for two years. They underwent ultrasound of the carotid artery and of blood vessels in the brain to determine whether two markers for high risk of stroke were present. The markers were signs of blood clots passing into the brain, and a type of carotid plaque called echolucent plaque, which has a higher fat content than other plaque.

Of the participants, 164 people had echolucent plaque, or 38 percent, and 73 people, or 17 percent, had at least one sign of a blood clot. Six percent, or 27 people, had both markers. During the study, 10 people had strokes and 20 people had transient ischemic attacks, or mini-strokes.

Six times the risk

The study found that people with the plaque in their carotid artery were more than six times more likely to have a stroke than those people without the plaque. People who had the plaque and signs of blood clots were more than 10 times more likely to have a stroke than those without both markers. The results remained the same regardless of high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and vascular disease.

So where does the test come in? Topakian says with more study, researchers should be able to develop a simple and reliable method for predicting future stroke in people with asymptomatic carotid stenosis and help to determine the best way to treat people with the disorder.

The test, he said, should be able to identify a high risk group as well as a low risk group.  

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What's On Your Mind? Hampton Bay, PeopleFinder.com, Western Renewal Service

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Hampton Bay, PeopleFinder.com, Western Renewal Service, Expensive information and Too much information....

Where there's smoke

PhotoAlan, of Anderson, Calif., reports what he thinks is a dangerous problem with his Hampton Bay ceiling fan, which he says he bought several years ago.

“The blades would not balance out, and Thursday, at 1:30 am, my daughters smelled plastic burning, they found the ceiling fan had stopped turning and when they turned on the lights there was smoke coming out above the light kit,” Alan said. “After being woke up I took it apart to find the motor had shorted and a bridge had melted above the light kit. Had this not been caught in time we would have lost our house to a fire.”

It might be worth noting than in late 2009, Hampton Bay recalled 2000 dehumidifiers because of a potential fire hazard. In any event, Alan should also report it to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, just in case there are other incidents reported.

Expensive information

How much would you pay to look up someone's phone number? Some people agree to pay a small fee to online services for this, only to find they have been enrolled in a membership with a larger, recurring charge.

“I paid PeopleFinder.com with a credit card,” Sherri, of Pangburn, Ark., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “It states you pay a one time fee of $4.95 to look up one number and you will receive information, name & address of who owns the phone of the phone number you are looking up. I got charged $4.94 plus $2.99 and NO name or address. When I call PeopleFinder.com they said it was not refundable.”

It's perfectly legal to sell this information but consumers like Sherri should realize there are free services, such as Switchboard.com, out there too.

Too much information

Western Renewal Service sells magazine subscriptions and has drawn a number of complaints from consumers, who say they are being charged for magazines they didn't order.

“The company stated I had either signed up for a 30 month subscription or signed up for that same subscription through a promotion in May 2011,” Chris, of Staten Island, N.Y., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I had 30 days to cancel the subscription but I learned about this for the first time on August 16th, 2011. The company said there was no way to cancel this service. I either had to pay $69.90 a month for 30 months or agree to $39.90 a month for 30 months. I requested more information on when and where i signed up for this. They stated i had to sign up for the subscription and they would give me the info about "the mainframe company". I was forced against my will to agree in order to find out this information.”

Ouch! Chris made an unforced error when he agreed to the outrageous demand that he “sign up” in exchange for getting the information to which he is entitled. In effect, he agreed to legitimize what was, in all likelihood, an unauthorized charge.

Consumers should remain wary. Other complaints about this company indicate they get the consumer's credit card information through third-party marketing agreements with other companies. Be very careful during online transactions. Don't Accept “free” offers or extra “discounts,” as that could be how you get signed up for a subscription.

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Suits Coming Home to Roost in Cargill Turkey Case

Oregon couple's suit cites company's long history of contamination

Cargill faces the first of what's likely to be a flock of lawsuits in connection with the recall of salmonella-contaminated ground turkey. The suit was fi...

PhotoCargill faces the first of what's likely to be a flock of lawsuits in connection with the recall of salmonella-contaminated ground turkey.

The suit was filed by parents whose baby girl was hospitalized with antibiotic-resistant salmonella poisoning from Cargill ground turkey that's been linked to the poisoning of 107 people in 31 states, one of whom died, Courthouse News Service reported.

Melissa Lee and Brandon Mullen-Bagby, of Troutdale, Ore., say their daughter, Ruby Jane Lee, became ill in June after eating spaghetti and meat balls containing ground turkey produced by Cargill.

Ruby, who was 10 months old at the time, had diarrhea and, when her fever spiked to more than 102 degrees, she was taken Kaiser Sunnyside Medical Center in Clackamas, Ore. The doctors there prescribed Tylenol.

Blood tests

Though the diarrhea persisted, Ruby's symptoms improved somewhat over the next several days. Then, on June 14, Lee took Ruby to the family's pediatrician at Kaiser, who ordered blood tests.

On June 15, the doctor called and told Lee to take Ruby to Doernbecher Children's Hospital immediately, saying that Salmonella Heidelberg bacteria she had ingested from the defendants' ground turkey product had gotten into her bloodsteam, and she needed urgent care.

Ruby spent seven days at Doernbecher. She was discharged on June 21 and continued her recovery at home

Cargill recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey products on August 4. The Salmonella involved in the outbreak is an antibiotic-resistant strain of Salmonella Heidelberg. As of August 5, 2011, investigators had collected antibiotic resistance information on isolates from four samples of ground turkey collected at retail and from nine (9) ill persons infected with the strain.

Lengthy history

The lawsuit notes that Cargill has a lengthy history of recalls and association with food-borne illness outbreaks, including:

  • 1993 - Cargill supplied meat to Northwest Sizzler restaurants that was implicated in an outbreak of E. coli involving 39 confirmed and 54 probable cases. Public health investigators said the illnesses were the result of cross-contamination between raw Cargill Tri-tips and salad bar ingredients.

  • 2000 - Cargill provided meat to Sizzler restaurants linked to an outbreak of E. coli illnesses that killed one person and sickened 62.

  • 2000 - Sliced turkey from a Cargill processing plant in Texas was found to be the source of a multi-state outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes. The company recalled 16 million pounds of turkey after reports of infection that eventually included seven deaths and 29 illnesses. Eight of the case patients were pregnant and three miscarriages/stillbirths were attributed to the contaminated turkey.

  • 2001 - Cargill ground beef patties tested positive for E. coli after a child from Georgia became ill. Three of the patties were purchased at Kroger and one from Sam's Club, but all of the ill children and the tested meat had genetically indistinguishable strains of E. coli.

  • 2002 - Antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Newport was found in ground beef from Emmpaq, a Cargill subsidiary. The CDC reported one fatality,47 illnesses and 12 hospitalizations linked to consumption of the ground beef. Emmpak recalled a record 2.8 million pounds of potentially contaminated ground beef.

  • 2007 - After Minnesota health officials traced 46 E. coli illnesses to ground beef patties, Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation recalled 845,000 pounds of frozen ground beef patties from retail locations across the U.S.

  • 2007 - Cargill recalled 1,084,384 pounds of ground beef after federal tests detected E. coli in the product. No illnesses were associated with this recall.

  • 2008 - Beef cheek produced by Beef Packers, a Cargill subsidiary, tested positive for E coli, prompting a 1,560 pound recall. No illnesses were associated with this recall.

  • 2009 - At least 40 cases of Salmonella Newport infection were linked to Beef Packen ground beef in the summer, sparking a summertime recall of 830,000 pounds of ground beef. Then, in December, more Salmonella illnesses tied to the producer's meat led to a recall of 20,000 pounds of products. Both recalls involved contamination with drug-resistant Salmonella bacteria.

  • 2010 - Cargill Meat Solutions recalled 8,500 pounds of ground beef after reports of illnesses caused by E. coli 026, a rare strain of the bacteria that produces the same Shiga-like toxin as more common strains. The meat was distributed by BJ's Wholesale Club.

  • 2011 - Cargill Meat Solutions recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey linked to an outbreak of drug-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg. Current outbreak numbers: one dead, 107 ill, 22 hospitalized.

Since 1993, Cargill has been the source of contaminated meat implicated in at least l0 major outbreaks, 10 deaths, three stillbirths and 366 illness, the suit charges.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Overtime Case Against AT&T Moves Forward

Mid-level managers claim AT&T owes them $1 billion in unpaid overtime

A U.S. District Court Judge in Atlanta has certified a class action by AT&T employees, enabling them to participate in class actions seeking some ...

PhotoA U.S. District Court Judge in Atlanta has certified a class action by AT&T employees, enabling them to participate in class actions seeking some $1 billion in unpaid overtime wages.

The decision by Chief U.S. District Judge Julie E. Carnes applies to the company's so-called "First Levels", who worked for the telecom giant in a 9-state region comprising FloridaGeorgiaMississippiTennesseeNorth CarolinaAlabamaLouisianaSouth Carolina and Kentucky.

The Georgia ruling is the third recent favorable class and collective certification decision achieved by Sanford Wittels & Heisler for Level One Managers. It follows two decisions in late 2009 and 2010 that opened the door for class actions against AT&T'sConnecticut subsidiary Southern New England Telephone Company (SNET) and AT&T's California subsidiary, PacBell.

The SNET case is scheduled for trial on October 3 of this year where AT&T's operating company has more than $60 million of exposure in that case alone.

Fair Labor Standards Act

All three suits allege AT&T and its subsidiaries violated the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and state laws by carrying out a companywide policy to wrongfully misclassify thousands of its Level One Managers exempt from overtime wages.

"Judge Carnes' decision gives the green light for aggrieved Level One Managers working for BellSouth to join their colleagues across the country to pursue the compensation they deserve for the all the overtime hours they've been expected to work for free," said Steven L. Wittels, Co-Lead Class Counsel.

AT&T, the eighth largest of the Fortune 500, has revenues of over $100 billion a year and employs 294,600 workers worldwide.

First Level "Managers" are ground troops in the multi-billion dollar operation, who perform primarily clerical duties and relay information between company management and its technicians in the field.

AT&T and its operating subsidiaries require these employees to work upwards of 60 hours a week, but claim that these workers do not deserve overtime pay.

"AT&T consistently violates federal and state laws in compensating its First Levels," said co-Lead Counsel Janette Wipper. "Although their job title includes the term "manager," these individuals manage nothing and have no management responsibilities. The company uses this job title merely as a means to extract from these employees more hours of work, without providing them any additional compensation."

The three class action complaints charge that against AT&T and its subsidiaries fail to pay Level One employees overtime wages for work in excess of 40 hours a week and eight hours a day; fail to provide these workers with mandatory meal periods and rest breaks; and fail to keep accurate records of the hours these employees work. 

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Texas Charges 143 Gas Stations Diluted Octane Content

More than 1,000 instances documented, state charges

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott today charged Petroleum Wholesale, L.P., Sun Development, L.P., and related defendants with unlawfully defrauding their ...

PhotoTexas Attorney General Greg Abbott today charged Petroleum Wholesale, L.P., Sun Development, L.P., and related defendants with unlawfully defrauding their customers by diluting medium and premium grade gasoline with regular unleaded fuel.

Because the premium gasolines sold at 143 of the defendants’ Texas-based locations were improperly diluted, the defendants are charged with falsifying octane levels, defrauding their customers and violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

The state uncovered the defendants’ fuel dilution scheme -– which is known as cross-dumping -– during the course of a prior enforcement action that charged the defendants with calibrating their gasoline pumps to deliver less fuel than was actually disclosed to customers.

According to today’s court documents, staff at the Attorney General’s Office discovered more than 1,000 instances in which the defendants illegally cross-dumped fuel at 143 locations across Texas. A majority of the documented cross-dumping incidents occurred at service stations in and around Harris County.

The cross-dumping incidents cited by the state occurred between 2005 and 2008. As of the filing date of the state’s enforcement action, the defendants have refused to provide the state with documents evidencing their conduct after 2008. 

Sunmart

In addition to operating Sunmart Travel Centers & Convenience Stores, the defendants also operate approximately 80 service stations that are licensed to sell fuel under branding agreements with three major fuel companies.

Because branded stations feature brand-name products with performance-enhancing additives -– such as fuel injection and valve cleaning products -– those gasolines are marketed for their superiority over other fuels.

As a result, when customers pay for a brand-name gasoline but actually receive generic or additive-free gasoline, they are being deceived about the nature of the product they are purchasing.

According to the state’s enforcement action, the defendants not only diluted premium grade gasoline but also sold unbranded fuel at branded stations. Further, the defendants hid this conduct from their branded fuel providers.

Conventional fuel

The Attorney General’s staff also uncovered evidence indicating that the defendants improperly sold conventional fuel in locations that required reformulated fuel.

Reformulated fuel, which includes detergents and oxygen, has a chemical composition that is intended to reduce carbon-monoxide emissions. The federal Clean Air Act requires densely populated areas that exceed certain air quality levels – such as Houston – to sell reformulated fuel.

The state’s enforcement action seeks a temporary and permanent injunction against the defendants as well as civil penalties of up to $20,000 for each violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

Today’s cross-dumping case is the state’s third enforcement action against Petroleum Wholesale. In November 2010, a Harris County jury rendered a verdict of at least $30 million against Petroleum Wholesale, L.P. and PWI GP, LLC for deliberately and illegally calibrating their gasoline pumps to deliver less than a full gallon of fuel.

A Harris County district court is currently reviewing the state’s motion to reinstate the jury verdict in that case. The first enforcement action was resolved in December 2009, when Petroleum Wholesale was ordered to pay $100,000 for failing to properly protect its customers’ personally identifying information – in violation of state identity theft prevention laws.

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New York: Finance Company Took Advantage of Soldiers

Rome Finance agrees to pay $3.5 million, SmartBuy still facing action

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has secured a $3.5 million settlement with a financing company that will result in hundreds of soldiers bein...

PhotoNew York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has secured a $3.5 million settlement with a financing company that will result in hundreds of soldiers being relieved of their financial debt. 

Rome Finance Co., Inc., of California operated as the financing company for SmartBuy, a storefront electronics retailer. Through its Bankruptcy Trustee, Rome Finance has agreed to relieve soldiers of their debt with that company and take the necessary steps to restore the credit history of hundreds of them. 

The Attorney General's office is engaged in ongoing litigation with the main retailer, SmartBuy and a number of its other finance companies.

"This company took advantage of service members using deceptive practices and roping them into high interest contracts and ruining their credit ratings," said Schneiderman. "While fighting overseas, this is the last thing these soldiers needed to be worried about at home."

Last year, the Attorney General's office began investigating a kiosk and small storefront at the Salmon Run Mall, near Fort Drum, when it appeared to be marketing specifically to soldiers.

Sales clerks would aggressively push the sales of electronic equipment such as laptops, gaming systems and flat screen televisions to soldiers.  At the time of the sale, SmartBuy sales representatives would not take cash payments for the merchandise and instead pressured soldiers to enter into payment contracts with hidden fees and exorbitant interest rates.

A larger scheme

The investigation revealed that the SmartBuy's Salmon Run Mall Kiosk was part of a larger scheme to defraud service members by deceptively reselling them computers and electronics at wildly inflated prices, and locking the soldiers into revolving credit agreements with undisclosed fees and very high interest rates--all paid directly from military paychecks to unlicensed lenders. 

SmartBuy purchased merchandise from stores like Sam's Club, Costco, and Walmart. The items were then marked up by 200 to 325 percent, then included an added interest of 10-25 percent. The interest rates averaged out at 244 percent.

The storefront, SmartBuy, abruptly ceased local operations in 2010 upon learning of the Attorney General's demands that it cease its deceptive business practices and  reimburse defrauded soldiers.  The Attorney General's office commenced suit against all involved parties in April 2010. 

Litigation is  currently underway in New York State Supreme Court in Jefferson County against the remaining solvent companies. The five affiliated entities include, Frisco Marketing of N.Y., LLC, doing business as SmartBuy and SmartBuy Computers and Electronics; Integrity Financial of North Carolina, Inc.; Britlee, Inc.; GJS Management, Inc.; and Rome Finance Co. LLC, all owned and/or operated by Fayetteville, N.C.-based John Paul Jordan, Stuart Jordan and Rebecca Wirt, and Concord, California-based William Collins and Ronald Wilson.

According to the terms of the Attorney General's settlement, Rome Finance Co., Inc., the first financing company to settle, will release approximately 995 soldiers who entered into contracts in the state of New York, or who sought protection in New York State.  The value of this first resolution with the bankrupt defendant is $3,530,090.58 of relieved debt, and represents a significant step forward in this litigation. 

The investigation revealed that hundredsof soldiers fell victim to SmartBuy's actions, including:

  • A US Army soldier who purchased an HP 6433 laptop in August 2007 - She was told the price would be $3,868.93.  She later found the exact same computer for $1,000.00.  Rome Financing would not allow her to pay off her balance early to avoid paying additional interest.  
  • A US Army soldier who purchased a Sony FS520 laptop in May 2005 -His base price was $3,208.93 not including 19.2% interest.  This laptop regularly retails for approximately $1,229.99.  He currently owes over $6,000.00 due to Rome Financing.  In June 2010, he started receiving messages on his MySpace account from a collection agent at Rome Finance.
  • A recently enlisted soldier purchased a computer to stay in touch with friends and family back home. He signed a contract to pay $126 a month plus fees. The loan turned out to be $3,446.92, plus additional undisclosed fees. The computer broke after 13 months.  When he complained about the high price and no warranty, he was offered a new laptop but only if he'd sign a waiver promising he would not take legal action. He declined.
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Wells Fargo Testing Charge For Debit Cards

Customers in five states will pay $3 a month

Wells Fargo is test marketing a $3 monthly debit card fee...

PhotoBanks, hoping to make up for lost fees from overdrafts and other sources, continue to find new ways to tack on fees. Wells Fargo says it is among the latest banks to charge a monthly fee for debit cards.

The bank said it will test-market a $3 monthly fee for a debit/ATM card beginning October 14. The fee will be applied to customers in several states and could be expanded nationwide later.

The fee will only be applied to consumers who use their debit cards to make purchases but do not make transactions at ATMs. It is those ATM transactions fees that provide banks with a larger source of revenue. The $3 monthly fee is designed, in part, to offset that lost revenue.

Wells Fargo is not the first bank to take this step and likely will not be the last. JPMorgan Chase, for example, has tested a monthly debit card fee in a single market in Wisconsin for most of this year.

Banks say they are reacting to more consumer-friendly regulations, as well as the Federal Reserve's decision to reduce the interchange, or “swipe” fee banks can charge merchants on each transaction.

 During the fierce debate between banks and retailers over the swipe fee, retailers promised that a reduced swipe fee would be passed along to consumers in the form of lower prices, but banks warned that consumers would end up paying the price in other ways. A debit card fee, it appears, is one of those ways.

Wells Fargo will test the new debit card fee in five states – Georgia, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. The bank said it will gauge consumer response before deciding whether to take the fee nationwide.

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What's On Your Mind? Budget, Sears, Credit Card Services, Verizon

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Budget, Sears, Credit Card Services, Verizon, Time is money, Hang up and Out of touch....

PhotoThis isn't the first time we're heard from a consumer who believes they were told one thing by a car rental agency, but when they signed an electronic document it turned out they agreed to something else entirely.

"When picking up my rental at Budget I declined any additional options,” Kathy, of Santa Cruz, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The agent then had me sign on an electronic monitor. I didn't realize until I was turning in the car that he had marked down that I wanted additional insurance, an additional charge of $127.73.”

On the old paper rental car agreements, there was a place where the customer initialed a box indicating they did not want the insurance. Seems to us that an electronic document should have that too.

Time is money

Donna, of New Kensington, Pa., said she purchased a new Kitchenaid dishwasher from Sears last November and has had multiple problems with it.

“First, the sliding drawer cracked,” Donna said. “ And now the entire control panel is fried. I am so disgusted mainly with this problem and also being that I have to have a repairman come only hours that are very inconvenient.”

It's not a matter of money, Donna says, since the appliance is still under warranty. It's the time she has to take off from work to be on hand when a repairman comes. After paying $700, she said she expected better.

Hang up

Ron, of Raymore, Mo., reports getting automated calls two or three times a month from Credit Card Services.

“I have contacted them requesting I be taken off their call list,” Ron told ConsumerAffairs.com. “No luck. I'm on the no call list.”

There could be a reason Ron is getting these calls. If he has had business contact with Credit Card Services within the last 18 months – including just a request for information – they can market to him under the Do Not Call law. However, if he has had no such contact, he needs to report these Do Not Call violations to Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who has aggressively enforced his state's Do Not Call law.

Out of touch

With so much emphasis on wireless communications these days, it's easy to forget millions of people are still dependent on land lines. Vera, of Rockaway Park, N.Y., is one of them. She says she has not had telephone or fax service since last Friday and so far, she says Verizon hasn't responded to her requests for repair service.

“I am a 77 old person who has medical problems and need to have access to a phone in order to request the required services such ambulance and other related services in case of need,” Vera said. “There are services provided to other homes in my neighborhood, and none at my home. I called Verizon numerous times and the only response was a recorded tape announcing that they are not able to provide services due to the strike.”

Strike or no strike, some states have statutory requirements for utilities to restore service within a set time. Vera should contact New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office to find out what the law says in New York.

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AT&T Filings May Cast Doubt On Its Main Pro-Merger Argument

Documents filed with the FCC weaken claim that merger is needed to expand 4G nationwide

AT&T may be its own worst enemy.   Opponents of the telecom giant's plan to take over T-Mobile are pointing to documents AT&T filed with the...

PhotoAT&T may be its own worst enemy.  

Opponents of the telecom giant's plan to take over T-Mobile are pointing to documents AT&T filed with the Federal Communications Commission last week that cast doubt on AT&T's claim that it can't build out its 4G LTE service nationwide unless it acquires T-Mobile.

Communications Daily, which was first to publish the documents, reports that in the filing, AT&T admitted that expanding its most advanced network to 97 percent of the country would cost only an estimated $3.8 billion. But the filing shows AT&T rejected that option, claiming there wasn’t a “viable business case” to justify the expansion.

Yet the company is willing to spend $39 billion on the T-Mobile takeover — 10 times as much. And the company is committed to paying T-Mobile $6 billion in total compensation if the deal falls through, $2.2 billion more than it would cost to expand its service.

Meanwhile, the consumer group Free Press obtained an AT&T fact sheet being used to lure support for the merger. The fact sheet features the claim that the proposed combination of AT&T and T-Mobile is the "rare case where 1 + 1 = 3."

"Only at AT&T does one plus one equal three. You can call it fuzzy math or you can call it lying, but AT&T's case for this takeover doesn't withstand scrutiny," said Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron.

"As the real numbers and facts come to the public's attention, support for this merger continues to unravel. The Department of Justice and the FCC have all the evidence they need to block this dangerous deal," Aaron said.

Competition killer

"We now know the truth: AT&T is willing to pay a $39 billion premium for one reason and one reason only — to kill off the competition," he said. "It would cost AT&T one-tenth of the merger’s cost to expand its network than to buy up T-Mobile. Yet AT&T is willing to pay a 900-percent markup to take out a lower-priced competitor and make sure it can lock in and gouge consumers in the future."

The only thing stopping AT&T from expanding its network is greed, Aaron said.

"AT&T has already told Wall Street it plans to cut investment by $10 billion if the deal goes through. And there has never been a merger that didn't lead to job cuts—or synergies, as AT&T calls them," he added. "At a moment when Washington claims to be all about job creation, policymakers are staring at a deal that will likely push another 20,000 workers into the unemployment line."

The growing anti-AT&T blowback may be having an effect. A Stifel Nicolaus poll of telecom analysts released late last week gave the deal only a 49.5 percent chance of being approved.

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Amazon Publishing Signs Best-Selling Author

Online bookseller fights back against publishing cartel

Amazon.com today announced that Amazon Publishing's first major acquisition by its New York imprint is the next book in Timothy Ferriss' No. 1 New York Tim...

PhotoAmazon.com today announced that Amazon Publishing's first major acquisition by its New York imprint is the next book in Timothy Ferriss' No. 1 New York Times best-selling "4-hour" series, "The 4-Hour Chef."

Amazon has been publishing books for several years and has allowed authors to self-publish Kindle ebooks but its new New York imprint is an effort to raise its profile by going after major authors likely to produce best-selling titles.  

A class-action antitrust suit last week accused five major publishers of colluding with Apple to raise the price of ebooks, a conspiracy that suit says worked so well that ebooks now cost as much or more than paperbacks.

When it introduced the Kindle ebook reader, Amazon was selling books for $9.99, far below the retail price.  When publishers reached their agreement to sell ebooks through Apple, they were able to force Amazon to raise its prices or lose its resale rights, the suit argues.

By publishing its own titles, Amazon regains the ability to charge whatever it wants.

The question, of course, is whether bookstores and other ebook sellers will carry Amazon's titles.  The New York Times today reports that some independent bookstores have said they do not intend to carry any books from the retailer, not wanting to give a dollar to a company they feel is putting them out of business.

But Larry Kirshbaum, who heads Amazon's new imprint, says no one in the book world should be worried about Amazon.

“Our success will only help the rest of publishing,” he told The New York Times.

Ferriss is author of the best sellers "The 4-Hour Body" and "The 4-Hour Workweek," the latter of which has been sold into 35 languages and has been on the New York Times best seller list for more than four years.

"The 4-Hour Chef," which is expected to be released in April 2012, will be published in print, enhanced digital and audio formats by the New York-based imprint of Amazon Publishing headed by Larry Kirshbaum. 

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What's On Your Mind? T-Mobile, Amazon.com, Miracle Ear, American Home Shield

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here's what's on consumers' minds today...

PhotoWhile a lot of groups, pro and con, have opinions about the proposed acquisition of T-Mobile by AT&T, Jack, a businessman from Miami, Fla., has added another issue to the debate. On his return from China, Jack said he became involved in a billing dispute with T-Mobile over roaming charges on his Blackberry.

“To leave T-Mobile and go to another company, unfortunately there is no alternative for the Blackberry emails oversea, except for AT&T,” Jack told ConsumerAffairs.com. “But T-Mobile is going to merge with AT&T soon, it will create a cartel on the Blackberry emails overseas. I hope very much as a citizen of the USA that FCC will not approve the merger between T-Mobile and AT&T.”

Jack should direct his concerns to the Federal Communications Commission and Department of Justice, which will have the final say about the proposed merger.

Seller beware

Millions of people use e-commerce sites like eBay and Amazon.com and rarely stop to think about the nature of some of these transactions – strangers dealing with strangers. All in all, it probably works remarkably well, but Dhana, of Pomona, Calif., has had a bad experience that gives him pause.

“I sold my text book through Amazon.com, Dhana said. “Amazon sent me an e-mail, telling me that buyer claimed he/she did not receive the product after a month and demanded a refund. The package was properly packed, sealed with the address printed from Amazon. How could this happen?”

Dhana said he lost both his book and his money, and has this advice.

“Sellers, beware, you have no idea what type of people you are selling your products to,” he said.

Another set of eyes and ears always helps

Deborah, of Shrewsbury, Mass., has a complaint about Miracle Ear. Besides dissatisfaction with the product, Deborah thinks the company took advantage of her 83-year-old mother.

“She signed for a sear credit card under the impression she was signing a form which stated she had a hearing examination,” Deborah told ConsumerAffairs.com. “This signature was 'requested' when her son-in-law left the room as he thought the appointment was over.”

Deborah's complaint is a reminder that it is always a good idea to have family members in a supportive role to witness business transactions involving elderly relatives, to help answer any questions.

Loopholes

Carlo, of Lake View Terrace, Calif., said he purchased a home warranty from American Home Shield three years ago but never used it until last month, when the toilets in his home backed up. According to his policy, he says, plumbing problems are covered.

“I contacted them, and they arranged to send somebody to look at the toilets,” Carlo said. “One toilet was not fixed and still backs up, and when I called them back to report the problem, they told me that my contract did not covered water sediments. I paid out pocket $60.00 deductible for them to show up and the report that the technician wrote does not mention any water sediment findings.”

Carlo thinks AHS made this up to avoid paying to fix the problem, but regardless, its an example of how these service contracts often leave consumers disappointed. The consumer thinks plumbing problems are covered, but they aren't, if they happen to be caused by sediments.

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Sham Breast Cancer Charity Organizers Plead Guilty

Money raised to fight breast cancer was spent on personal shopping and travel

Two guilty pleas were entered in a New York courtroom today in connection with a fundraising scheme that concocted a bogus charity, raised and then stole m...

PhotoTwo guilty pleas were entered in a New York courtroom today in connection with a fundraising scheme that concocted a bogus charity, raised and then stole more than $500,000 of donations intended to fight breast cancer, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced.

David Winston pleaded guilty to two felony charges related to the operation of the phony charity, Coalition for Breast Cancer Cures, Inc, and a for-profit fundraising arm, The Resource Center, which funneled donations to pay for extravagant travel, shopping and other personal living expenses.

His wife, Mindy Winston, pleaded guilty to one felony charge related to falsifying business records, specifically, a bank account for the sham charity.

Lavish lifestyle

“The Winstons supported a lavish lifestyle by using the hard-earned money donors gave to fight breast cancer,” Schneiderman said. “My office has no tolerance for this kind of exploitation, and we will hold accountable anyone who takes advantage of New Yorkers’ generosity and sympathies.”

David and Mindy Winston surrendered and appeared before the Acting County Court Judge for Nassau County, the Honorable Francis Ricigliano. David Winston pleaded guilty to one count of grand larceny, a Class D felony, and one count of scheme to defraud, a Class E felony, under a plea agreement. He will be sentenced at a later date to a term between 2 and 6 years. Mindy Winston pleaded guilty to one count of falsifying business record, a Class E felony, under a plea agreement. She will receive probation.

The Attorney General’s Office first filed a civil lawsuit against the Long Island-based fake charity in April 2010. The lawsuit alleged that the Winstons diverted more than $500,000 donated to fight breast cancer to pay for extravagant travel, shopping, and other personal living expenses. Some of the unlawful expenditures the Attorney General’s Office uncovered include:

  • Over $3,700 in personal hotel and airfare expenses;
  • Over $5,000 at restaurants including Peter Luger Steakhouse, Caesars Palace Mesa Grill, and Gotham Bar and Grill;
  • Over $7,700 in retail purchases at stores such as Louis Vuitton, Victoria’s Secret, Home Depot, Best Buy, Costco, CVS, Loehmann’s, and Target;
  • Over $8,000 for their daughter’s sorority dues and other university expenses and fees;
  • Over $1,300 for a spring break travel package;
  • Thousands of dollars on groceries, Netflix, and cable television.

The civil lawsuit, which is still pending, also alleged that the Winstons falsely claimed that the Coalition for Breast Cancer Cures was a registered nonprofit, mailed phony invoices to dupe donors, and repeatedly charged donors’ credit cards without authorization.

The Coalition for Breast Cancer Cures did not register with the Attorney General as a charitable organization and the Resource Center did not register with the Attorney General as a professional fundraiser, as required by law.

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How Financially Prepared Are You For Old Age?

Poll shows most Californians worry they can't afford it

New poll of Californians shows concern about the cost of growing old...

PhotoNo one likes to think about getting old, although most agree it beats the alternative. But though they don't like to think about it, Americans are, it appears, worrying about the cost of aging.

A new poll from the SCAN Foundation and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research shows Californians, regardless of political party or income level, were worried about the costs of growing older. Two-thirds of respondents said that they are apprehensive about being able to afford long-term care. Sixty-three percent worry as much about paying for long-term care as they do about paying for their future health care.

The poll, in its second year, tries to get a handle on health and long-term care issues facing middle-aged voters, given the state's current economic crisis and the rising number of Californians older than 60, a figure that is projected to nearly double to 12 million people in the next 25 years.

Hard to save

The poll found that consumers' ability to save for long-term care expenses is hampered by California's weak economy. Nearly half of respondents 40 and older said their household income has declined in the past 12 months, and 50 percent said they had to take money out of savings to meet their expenses.

Four in ten have had to cut down on the amount they spend on food in the past year.

"Californians need affordable options to age with dignity and independence so that they can live how they want in the place they call home," said Dr. Bruce Chernof, president and CEO of The SCAN Foundation. "With so many Californians struggling financially today, it is hard for them to think about the future, yet planning for future needs is an essential component of growing older and necessary for one's personal health, as well as the state's fiscal health, especially given the high cost of long-term care."

Fear of dependence

The poll found that the age-related issues causing respondents the most concern were loss of independence, losing memory or other mental abilities and an overall decline in health.

The costs associated with living with these potentially debilitating health conditions are high, yet Californians underestimate their potential need for support and services.

Sixty-three percent predicted they would need help, but according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 70 percent of Americans over the age of 65 will need long-term care services at some point in their lives, and more than 40 percent will receive care in a nursing home for even a short period of time.

Among other findings, 66 percent of respondents could not afford more than three months of nursing home care at an average cost of $6,000 per month in California. About four in ten could not afford a single month of care.

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Playing the Hits: Music Videos Finding a Home on the Web

40% of YouTube's audience watched music videos in July, comScore finds

What's new is sometimes old. Remember back in the day, when MTV was a video jukebox, playing lip-synched music videos 24/7? That might sound pretty ancien...

PhotoWhat's new is sometimes old. Remember back in the day, when MTV was a video jukebox, playing lip-synched music videos 24/7?

That might sound pretty ancient to today's YouTube-surfing video crowd, but guess what – more than 40% of YouTube's audience watched music videos in July, according to audience measurement company comScore, which starts publishing data on YouTube channel usage tomorrow.

ComScore found that Vevo accounted for 38% of YouTube's monthly viewers, making easily the most-watched channel. Warner Music was second with 20%.

“Consumers clearly view video as one of the most accessible, interesting and entertaining sources of content on the Web,” said Jack Flanagan, executive vice president of comScore Media Metrix. “The trends we’re witnessing indicate that online video is emerging from its infancy and entering the mainstream. Many publishers and advertisers are responding to this trend, which means advertising dollars will continue to migrate online where consumers can be targeted with efficiency.”

Youtube.com broke into the comScore Media Metrix Top 50 for the first time in July, debuting at number 40 with 16 million visitors, a 20-percent increase versus June.

Video mania also drove a two-fold increase in traffic to MySpace Videos, which had 20 million visitors, trailing only Yahoo! Video with 21.1 million visitors (up 28-percent from June).

ComScore's measurement is expected to help YouTube attract serious advertising dollars so it can compete more vigorously with network and cable broadcasters.

Some of the other top channels on YouTube include:

  • Demand Media, which publishes how-to information, 15.2 million viewers in July;

  • Associated Press, news and sports, 6.6 million;

  • Hearst Television, local TV news, 3.1 million; and

  • BBC Worldwide, TV news, 2 million.

Political matters

Meanwhile, back at the staid old Wide World Web in July, comScore Media Metrix noted a marked increase in traffic to political Web sites ahead of primary season, as well as the effectiveness of summer sweepstakes from McDonalds, Pepsi, Oprah and Publishers Clearing House that drove online traffic.

The25-percent increase in traffic to political Web sites, the largest-gaining category in July, was particularly noteworthy given the recent major upsets in political primaries in Connecticut, Georgia and Michigan.

CapitolAdvantage.com, a site dedicated to connecting organizations to national and state elected officials, rated among the top sites in the category with 927,000 visitors, a 4-percent increase from June. Political news sites also drove category increases, including independent news site Worldnetdaily.com, which increased 22 percent to 500,000 visitors; Voice of America News (voanews.com), which jumped 50 percent to 368,000 visitors; and NationalReview.com, which rose 11 percent to 350,000 visitors.

“The Internet is becoming an important political forum in this country, especially as video and blogging become more prevalent,” said Flanagan. “Politicians recognize the inherent ability of the Internet to connect people and ideas, and it will be interesting to observe activity at political sites as the November elections approach.”

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As Gold Moves Higher, Economists Caution Investors

The precious metal is near record highs; did someone say "bubble?"

Some advice from economists when it comes to buying gold...

PhotoDespite some sell-offs during the recent market turmoil, the price of gold continues to climb. But investors contemplating jumping on the bandwagon at these levels are hearing some cautionary advice from economists.

But wait a minute. Didn't we hear that same advice when gold pushed beyond $1,200 an ounce? Why should investors heed it now, when gold is approaching $1,800?

Some economists agree that gold has been a safe move for people who invested just a few short months ago.

"People believe that gold is a hedge against uncertain times," said Lloyd Thomas, an economics professor at Kansas State University. "In the long run, gold prices have kept pace with inflation. People are flocking to it."

With gains come risks

Thomas said the price might continue to creep higher as economic concern grows, but even so, maintains that the higher gold goes, the riskier it becomes.

From 1960 to the present, Thomas said, gold has gone up an average of 8 percent a year, while inflation rose at less than 4 percent a year. In the last 10 years, gold has gone up 17 percent a year.

"In the long run, gold has gone up," Thomas said. "But in 2000 the price of gold was $300 an ounce. It has gone up six-fold since then, and it might go up higher than what it is right now. It's gone up too fast -- it's a bubble."

Ann Coulson, an instructor for Kansas State University's personal financial planning program, said there are many ways individuals may choose to invest in gold, including jewelry, coins, bullion or gold bars, exchange traded funds, gold mining stocks, gold mutual funds and gold futures and options.

Best ways to buy gold

Jewelry and coins are typically not good choices, she said, and gold bars raise many storage and cost issues. Exchange traded funds give the investor the opportunity to own gold without an actual delivery, and gold mining stocks' value is only partially dependent on the value of gold. Diversified investment -- like gold mutual funds -- often offer the most protection, Coulson said.

Thomas compared his gold predictions to the housing market. People were lulled into thinking housing prices could never fall, but they fell more than 30 percent in most American cities.

"The same thing could happen to gold; it's not risk-free," he said. "In the last 10 years it's gone up 17 percent a year, but the price of things we purchase has only gone up three percent a year. That's unsustainable. It's my own opinion that gold prices will collapse -- I just don't know when."

Although the price of gold is high, it may be a good investment as the price continues to climb -- for now. Unlike investing in stocks or bonds, Coulson said, there is no income associated with gold. Money is made from buying low and selling high. She agreed that the price is destined to fall at some point.

Diversify

"Gold as a piece of a diversified portfolio might make sense, but if an investor invests solely in gold, that is a great risk," she said. "It is not a safe investment unless you are buying gold bars and burying them in your backyard, and even that is not safe because the price is dictated by what buyers are willing to pay for gold."

Since gold only makes money for an investor if they buy low and sell high, it makes sense to no gold's price history, and have an idea where it's going. Since there are no profits or earnings to consider, an investor can only try to guess how much more uncertainty and turmoil – the main driver for gold prices – lie ahead.

Below are the average price of gold, per ounce, over the last 40 years, according to the World Gold Council:

  • 1971 – 40.62
  • 1976 – 124.74
  • 1981 – 480
  • 1986 – 368
  • 1991 – 362.11
  • 1996 – 387.81
  • 2001 – 271.04
  • 2006 – 603.48
  • 2010 – 1224.53

How high will go gold in the future? No one can say for sure. Some analysts point out that the price of gold hit a record $850 an ounce in 1980. Adjusted for inflation, that price in 2011 dollars would be $2,500. But investors betting on hitting that price could simply be rolling the dice.

"When investors become more confident in the economy, gold will be less valuable as an investment," Coulson said. "I agree with Warren Buffett: gold has no utility, so as a long-term investment it's not a good choice."

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Samsung, Sub-Zero, Miele Top J.D. Power Study

More consumers researching appliances online before visiting the store, study finds

Samsung washers and dryers top the J.D. Power and Associates annual appliance survey of consumer satisfaction, with Sub-Zero taking the top spot for r...

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Gas Prices Fall More Slowly Than Oil Prices

Consumers still find fuel a bit pricey despite big drop in oil

Consumers find gas prices falling more slowly than oil prices...

PhotoCrude oil prices have plunged around 15 percent in the last couple of weeks but gasoline prices have not. Is there a reason for that?

Actually, there is. The biggest disconnect is the fact that we are talking about two very different markets.

When we read that crude oil prices have plunged from around $100 a barrel to around $85, this price action is taking place on a futures market. It is the price of crude oil, to be delivered to the buyer next month.

The gasoline prices we all pay are in a retail market. Gasoline is a product that was made from raw materials purchased a few weeks ago, refined and delivered to gas stations across the country. The retail price, in large part, reflects the costs that prevailed in the market before today.

Competition

Because gasoline is sold to consumers in a competitive environment, some retailers will shave their profit margins a bit to sell fuel for slightly less than the gas station down the street. When their costs fall, they try to recoup some of that profit by increasing their margins.

In addition, there now exist two different prices of crude oil. WTI, produced mostly in the U.S. southwest, is significantly cheaper than Brent crude, which comes mostly from the Middle East. The loss of Libyan output has made Brent 15 to 20 percent more expensive than WTI.

In the U.S., some states get gasoline refined from Brent rather than WTI. These states tend to be in the northeast, which makes gasoline there cost more. If Brent crude falls more slowly than WTI, this can affect the price of Brent-refined gasoline. While there is plenty of WTI available, supply bottlenecks prevent it from being easily and efficiently transported to some of these states now dependent on Brent.

But at least prices are falling

The good news for consumers is that gasoline prices, while slow to fall, will likely keep falling as these new, lower prices work their way into the system. Many oil industry analysts have long believed that crude oil prices have been artificially high in recent months because of the belief that the world economy is recovering and would soon need more oil than is currently available. Events of recent weeks have changed that thinking.

Now, the prevailing view is that the economy is actually slowing and could possibly dip once again into a recession.

It may also be no coincidence that oil prices began to escalate a year ago after the Federal Reserve announced “Quantitative Easing II (QEII), its policy of trying to stimulate growth by increasing the money supply. Oil traders viewed the policy as devaluing the dollar, which is the currency used to price oil. Therefore, they concluded, it would take more dollars to purchase the same barrel of oil. QEII ended in June and the Fed has not announced a QEIII.

Meanwhile, gasoline prices are slowly headed lower. The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.587 a gallon, according to AAA. That's down about 12 cents a gallon in the last 11 days, with the outlook for a continued steady decline as the summer driving season comes to a close.

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What's On Your Mind? Maytag, Key Bank, Dish Network

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Maytag, Key Bank, Dish Network, Security questions you might not be able to answer and Check's not in the mail....

PhotoJanet, of Charlotte, N.C., says she shares the complaints offered by many others about the Maytag Bravos washer, which she purchased in October 2009. She offers a virtual laundry list of things she doesn't like about it.

“Besides being overpriced, it's a washer that doesn't soak clothes, it develops a bad odor, it has silly things like unnecessary lights and music, you can't add an item once the wash cycle has begun without the cycle starting over from the beginning, it leaves washed items in twisted wads, the lid locks so you can't see what's going on inside,” Janet told ConsumerAffairs.com.” In addition, it damages items. I'll have to replace a full-sized blanket that it recently destroyed and now I can't trust that it'll wash things safely, which is a problem.”

Janet said she called the company's customer service department and was told she should have used the bulky item option instead of the regular cycle. But she said he had tried that before and had the same result. The machine isn't broken, Janet insists, it's just poorly designed.

Security questions you might not be able to answer

Companies are increasing their online security practices, which is a good thing. But sometimes the security is so good that even the consumer can't get through it. Travis, a Key Bank customers from Anchorage, Alaska, said he was trying to access his account and was given a series of security questions to answer.

However, these were not questions he had selected but questions the bank's security department set up by compiling public records.

“Customer support told me the issue was that they had implemented new security measures for customer safety,” Travis said. “I am naive, but I feel like if anyone is accessing my account without my permission that is a major security breach, no mater who it is that is doing the accessing. If this is being perpetrated by credit rating agencies, I am uncomfortable with that. I am only interested in doing business with my bank.”

Travis need not be concerned. No one but him can access his bank account information. The security measures are simply being toughened to prevent hackers from accessing his account, which is the real concern.

Check's not in the mail

We've heard of services like telephone and electricity being turned off for non-payment, but never have seen that as a feature of the service. But Andrew, of Naples, Fla., said when he signed up with Dish Network at a vacation home, he understood that the service would be turned off when he wasn't there for an extended time.

“The person at Dish that set this up said when you don't need one month just don't pay that month,” Andrew told ConsumerAffairs.com. “When you need it started just call and pay that month. First time I wanted the service stopped I didn't pay that month. Even without payment they left it on for two more months and wanted full payment to reconnect.”

It sounds like Andrew got some wrong information. When you don't pay a bill, a business doesn't know whether you just forgot, can't pay it, of want them to turn off the service for a month. That's why you always need to see a company's policy in writing and not depend on what a customer service rep tells you.

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Colorado Fines Florida-Based Debt Management Company

Enhanced Servicing Solutions agrees to $590,000 settlement

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers has obtained a $590,000 judgment against Orlando, Fla.-based Enhanced Servicing Solutions. Suthers said the company ...

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers has obtained a $590,000 judgment against Orlando, Fla.-based Enhanced Servicing Solutions. Suthers said the company engaged in unregistered debt management services for Colorado consumers.

The judgment, amounting to $500,000 in fines and $90,000 in consumer restitution, follows a complaint against the company and its president, Thomas Roland. The judgment does not resolve the allegations against Roland.

According to the complaint, Enhanced Servicing Solutions provided “back end” debt management services for the Johnson Law Group, another Orlando, Fla.-based company facing a lawsuit filed by Suthers' office.

 Enhanced Servicing Solutions failed to register with the state of Colorado to comply with the Colorado Debt Management Services Act.

According to the complaint, filed in Denver District Court, Enhanced Servicing Solutions ignored not only a December 17, 2010 letter from the state notifying it of Colorado’s registration requirements, but also did not respond to a January 25, 2011 subpoena.

Debt management companies are required by law to register with the state.

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FBI Warns Online Car Shoppers of New Swarm of Scams

Crooks sell cars they don't own, push non-existent "protection" plans

The FBI today is warning online vehicle shoppers to be extremely cautious because of a swarm of fraudulent vehicle sales and false claims of vehicle prot...

PhotoThe FBI today is warning online vehicle shoppers to be extremely cautious because of a swarm of fraudulent vehicle sales and false claims of vehicle protection programs (VPP).

In fraudulent vehicle sales, criminals attempt to sell vehicles they do not own. They create an attractive deal by advertising vehicles for sale at prices below book value. Often the sellers purport they need to sell the vehicle because they are moving for work or military deployments.

Because of the supposed pending move, the criminals refuse to meet the victim in person or allow a vehicle inspection, and they often attempt to rush the sale.

To make the deal appear legitimate, the criminal instructs the victim to send full or partial payment to a third-party agent via a wire transfer payment service and to fax the payment receipt to the seller as proof of payment.

The criminal then pockets the payment but does not deliver the vehicle.

Criminals also attempt to make their scams appear valid by misusing the names of reputable companies and programs. In fact, these criminals have no association with these companies, and their schemes give buyers instructions that do not adhere to the rules and restrictions of any legitimate program.

For example, eBay Motors’ VPP is a legitimate program whose name is commonly misused by these criminals.

The VPP is not applicable to transactions that originate outside of eBay Motors, and it prohibits wire-transfer payments. Nevertheless, criminals often promise eBay Motors VPP coverage for non-eBay Motors purchases and instruct victims to pay via Western Union or MoneyGram.

Live chat

In a new twist, criminals use a live-chat feature in e-mail correspondence and electronic invoices. As live-chat assistants, the criminals answer victims’ questions and assure them the deals are safe, claiming that safeguards are in place to reimburse buyers for any loss.

The criminals falsely assert that their sales are protected by liability insurance coverage up to $50,000. 

Automotive shoppers should exercise due diligence before engaging in transactions to purchase vehicles advertised online. In particular, shoppers should be cautious of the following situations:

  • Sellers who want to move the transaction from one platform to another (for example, from Craigslist to eBay Motors).
  • Sellers who claim that a buyer protection program offered by a major Internet company covers an auto transaction conducted outside that company’s site.
  • Sellers who push for speedy completion of the transaction and request payments via quick wire transfer payment systems.
  • Sellers who refuse to meet in person, or refuse to allow the buyer to physically inspect the vehicle before the purchase.
  • Transactions in which the seller and vehicle are in different locations. Criminals often claim to have been transferred for work reasons, deployed by the military, or moved because of a family circumstance, and could not take the vehicle with them.
  • Vehicles advertised at well below their market value. Remember, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

If you have witnessed this behavior or fallen victim to this type of scam, please file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, www.ic3.gov.

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Menthol Cigarette Debate Rages On

New study suggests menthol makes it harder to quit

The FDA is deciding whether to ban menthol from cigarettes...

PhotoDoes smoking a menthol-flavored cigarette brand make it harder to quit. Some say yes, some say no.

Now, researchers at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey (CINJ) and UMDNJ-School of Public Health add fuel to the debate. Their study finds that menthol cigarettes are associated with decreased quitting in the United States, and that this effect is more pronounced for African-Americans and Puerto Ricans.

The findings, which appear in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, are being released as the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products is currently considering banning menthol cigarettes after its own Tobacco Product Scientific Advisory Committee (TPSAC) concluded that “removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States.”

African-Americans object

Last fall the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC) formally opposed the FDA proposal to ban menthol cigarettes, charging it was a move directed against African-Americans.

"It is no secret that menthol cigarettes provide a distinctive taste that is preferred by many African Americans," NBCC President Harry Alford said. "In making a recommendation, it is my fervent hope that the committee not make a decision based on mixed information, decades-old marketing information, inconclusive studies or preconceived notions."

Earlier this year, a study funded by the National Cancer Institute concluded smoking menthol cigarettes made it no more likely the smoker would die of cancer.

Mixed results

Authors of this latest research note that previous studies regarding the impact of smoking menthol cigarettes and smoking cessation efforts have produced mixed results. But they say some research did not take into account the overall population of smokers, while other studies lacked focus on periods of successful smoking cessation and instead targeted attempts to quit.

“Because our evidence suggests that the presence of menthol may partially explain the observed differences in cessation outcomes, the recent calls to ban this flavoring would be prudent and evidence-based,” the authors conclude.

Some cigarette flavorings have already been banned, because they were favored by young, under-age smokers. The push to add menthol to that list picked up steam in June when a Stanford School of Medicine study called the use of menthol “predatory.”

According to that 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 FDA, meanwhile, is currently reviewing relevant studies on the subject and is expected to submit a proposal on menthol in cigarettes in the fall.

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AARP Marks Social Security's 75th Birthday

Earned benefits provide lifelong protection to American workers

With Sunday marking the 76th anniversary of the creation of Social Security, AARP is celebrating the lifelong protections that Social Security’s...

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Critics Step Up Attacks On AT&T Merger Plans

Company accused of trying to kill off competition

Critics of AT&T's plan to buy T-Mobile say a document undermines the company's case...

PhotoOne of AT&T's arguments for acquiring rival T-Mobile is that the combined companies will help it expand 4G LTE service to the entire country. But critics of the deal point to a document they say contradicts that.

Comm Daily has published a document it says is from AT&T's filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), admitting that expanding its most advanced network to 97 percent of the country would cost an estimated $3.8 billion. But the filing shows AT&T rejected that option, claiming there wasn’t a “viable business case” to justify the expansion.

So why, critics ask, is AT&T willing to spend $39 billion on the T-Mobile takeover — 10 times as much? And the company is committed to paying T-Mobile $6 billion in total compensation if the deal falls through, $2.2 billion more than it would cost to expand its service.

On Friday, the consumer non-profit Free Press said it obtained an AT&T "fact" sheet being used to lure support for the merger. The fact sheet features the claim that the proposed combination of AT&T and T-Mobile is the "rare case where 1 + 1 = 3."

Fuzzy math

Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron says, not only is it fuzzy math, but AT&T's case for this takeover doesn't withstand scrutiny.

“As the real numbers and facts come to the public's attention, support for this merger continues to unravel,” Aaron said. “ The Department of Justice and the FCC have all the evidence they need to block this dangerous deal.

Aaron claims the real reason AT&T is willing to pay a $39 billion premium for T-Mobile is to kill off the competition.

“It would cost AT&T one-tenth of the merger’s cost to expand its network than to buy up T-Mobile,” Aaron said. “Yet AT&T is willing to pay a 900-percent markup to take out a lower-priced competitor and make sure it can lock in and gouge consumers in the future. The only thing stopping AT&T from expanding its network is greed. One plus one does not equal three, but subtracting one competitor adds up to billions in profits for AT&T and thousands of Americans out of work.”

Largest mobile network

The combination of AT&T and T-Mobile would create, by far, the nation's largest mobile network. Verizon Wireless, currently the largest mobile provider, would be a distant second.

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse has been outspoken in his opposition to the proposed deal, saying if it is allow to proceed, it would not bode well for the U.S. wireless industry.

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Feds Consider New Rules On Advertising Unavailable Products

Grocery rule could be expanded to include other retailers

The FTC is considering changes to its rule on advertising unavailable food products...

PhotoConsumers tend to get annoyed when they see an advertisement for an item they want, but find the item is out of stock when they get to the store.

Frank, of Belmont, N.C., recently voiced such a frustration after a shopping trip to Dick's Sporting Goods.

“Advertised items have signs stating sale prices but different items are on the racks,” Frank told ConsumerAffairs.com. “In my instance, a rack of items stating shorts and shirts on sale. I took the shorts to the counter and they rang up much more than the price. I went to show the sales person when I got and she stated they were out of the ones on sale and had to put something on the empty rack.”

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is currently reviewing the agency's rules regarding advertised food items, with the possibility of extending it to other types of retailers.

The current rule prohibits food retailers from advertising products at a stated price unless the products are in stock and available during the effective period of the advertisement, or the ad discloses that supplies are limited or available only at some outlets.  It is not a violation if the retailer meets other conditions, such as offering a “raincheck” for the advertised products, or a comparable product at the advertised price.

The FTC is seeking comments on the costs and benefits of the Retail Food Store Advertising and Marketing Practices Rule, also known as the Unavailability Rule, which was originally enacted in 1971.

The FTC also seeks comment on whether the Rule should be repealed or left unchanged; amended to include drugstores, department stores, or other types of retail stores; or be changed to account for changes in technology or economic conditions since it was last updated in 1989.

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What's On Your Mind? Facebook, Express Scripts, Enterprise, US Search

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Facebook, Express Scripts, Enterprise, US Search, Not exactly express service, Across the pond and Costly informa...

PhotoDoes Facebook have a way to deal with people who impersonate other people on the site? Rose, a concerned mother from Overland Park, Kan., hasn't been able to find one.

“I have made multiple attempts to complain via email and via phone and cannot get any response, Rose said. “Someone has created multiple Facebook profiles in my daughters name. They are impersonating her. My daughter had a Facebook page that was actually her and they were harassing her on that page. We had to deactivate her actual account. We cannot deactivate the multiple fake accounts. We cannot get through to a person to make a complaint via email or phone.”

Rose said she has tried all the various "Help" options on the site but says she hasn't gotten anywhere. “I have tried to complain via every 'Report a violation' link on Facebook and it says it cannot be processed at this time. I just want these profiles deleted, and the harassment to stop. Why does Facebook have no conflict resolution process whatsoever? Are they not accountable for their service?”

With 750 million members and counting, the site may be getting a bit unwieldy. If anyone has any advice for Rose, let us know.

Not exactly express service

An increasing number of employee health benefit plans are using mail order pharmacies, in an effort to control costs. But Cheryl, of Stockton, Calif., finds it hard to get her medication in a timely fashion from Express Scripts.

“When I ask my doctor's office to fax a refill for medications to Express Scripts they never seem to get the fax--until it's been faxed two or three times,” Cheryl told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Very frustrating to wait several weeks only to find out they still don't have the faxed information. Sometimes I nearly run out of my meds. Then they ran out of one of my meds. I had to request a refill from my local pharmacy. I don't have any option as this is the mail order pharmacy provided by my insurance.”

Cheryl's complaint in not all that uncommon, and may be a sign that mail order pharmacies just don't have the personnel to keep up with the increasing demands.

Across the pond

There are often similarities between complaints from U.S. consumers, and those in other countries, about the same companies.

“We have read the comments about the practises of Enterprise Car Hire and the fact they charge after you have left the premises to correct so called minor dents in the car. Their claim against us is $750,” said WB of Castletown, UK. “This is just to let you know that they operate in a similar fashion in other countries, we are based in the UK. Customer Service is poor in our opinion and today we had an abusive debt collector on the phone. We had already paid for the dent when we took the car back about $210 and we got a quote from a reputable body shop that said it would only cost about $100. Enterprise are now claiming a further $600!”

U.S. and British consumers may have more in common than you might think. WB says ConsumerAffairs.com “is very helpful to us.”

Costly information

Loren, of Columbus, Ind., is upset because she found her credit card was charged $19.95 each month after agreeing to a one time charge of $.95 from US Search for a reverse telephone number.

“I was going through my checking account and found the charges,” Loren told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I called and the representative said he understands my frustration and he himself would never even use his card online. He said that the membership that you agree to is clearly stated on the webpage and it's not like they are trying to hide anything.”

Consumers need to understand that when they provide their credit card information for a very small purchase, it's almost certain that they are also being enrolled in a membership program that has a recurring charge. The US Search representative is correct, however. There is a clear explanation of the terms on the website. However, it does not appear until you are well into the purchase process. Still, consumers need to be aware and read everything carefully.

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What To Make Of Wall Street's Wild Week

Much of the blame falls on S&P, economist says

A Cornell economist blasts S&P for the U.S. debt downgrade...

PhotoSmall investors can only shake their heads as this week draws to a close on Wall Street. The stock market has been what some analysts have called bipolar.

Monday's over-600-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average was followed Tuesday by a more-than-400-point rebound. What happened in that two-day span? Not a lot, really.

Monday's huge sell-off was motivated, in large part, by Standard & Poor's downgrade of U.S. debt from AAA to AA+. By Tuesday morning, many investors had decided they had overreacted and the market snapped back.

Then Wednesday, the market sank again – this time over fears that European banks are teetering on the brink of default. But Thursday brought some mildly encouraging economic news, and stocks roared back Today, the Dow was up again by triple digits at midday.

Confused yet?

William Schulze, professor of Applied Economics and Public Policy at Cornell University, says investors can be excused if they are more than a little confused.

“Simply put, Monday’s stock market sell-off was a gut reaction based on fear, and Tuesday’s rebound was based on the realization that S&P is without a doubt incompetent,” Schulze said. “What they did in downgrading the U.S. credit rating was the equivalent of yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, setting off a panic when, in fact, they knew there was no fire.”

Schulze is especially critical of S&P, which alone among the ratings agencies took the U.S. credit rating down a notch. And, he says, their recent track record hasn't exactly been impressive.

Checkered past

“S&P, along with the other rating agencies, has been under investigation by Congress for giving AAA ratings to toxic mortgages that led to the 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession,” Schulze said. “In addition, S&P gave Enron high ratings on the day that it failed, and gave an A rating to Lehman Brothers just before it failed. S&P also missed Ireland, Iceland, Spain and Greece.

For small investors, being a spectator to all of this might be the prudent course of action. At least, you should be able to sleep better at night.

“The stock market will be unstable for some time, until people are reassured that the time for fear is over,” Schulze said.

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Apple's iPad Leaves Other Tablets in the Dust

Samsung, H-P, Motorola, Blackberry can't make a dent in iPad

When computer and smartphone makers saw the success of the iPad, they did what any self-respecting business what do: rushed to get into the fray. But it h...

PhotoWhen computer and smartphone makers saw the success of the iPad, they did what any self-respecting business what do: rushed to get into the fray.

But it hasn't turned out very well for the would-be competitors. Yes, iPad and Apple have their detractors but they have something else that's even more important: customers, lots of them.

Apple has sold 28.7 million iPads since the device was launched in April 2010. Analysts estimate that Apple controls at least two-thirds of the tablet market but admit the actual figure could be higher.

It's hard to get an exact comparison because competing manufacturers – Samsung, H-P, Motorola and Blackberry being the most prominent – so far haven't disclosed their sales figures, although they boast about how many units they have shipped to stores. Shipping isn't the same as selling, of course.

Amazon's Kindle isn't included in the figures because it's an e-reader, not a tablet computer.  The iPad is a tablet that makes a really nifty e-reader though.

First not always best 

Samsung was the first to jump into the tablet market after Apple and boasts of shipping two million Galaxy Tabs to wireless carriers and retailers. But now the company is locked in a patent dispute with Apple that threatens to shut down sales of the Galaxy in most of Europe.

Actually, for a product that has been so successful, the iPad's detractors are few and far between. In July 2010, a class action lawsuit claimed the iPad could overheat in bright sunlight. Less than a year later, a judge dismissed the suit, saying basically that the allegations were overcooked.

And while many electronic geegaws are quickly denounced by educators, there's been remarkably little grousing from teachers and parents about the iPad. In fact, mothers are positively aglow over their little darlings' quick adoption of mousing over, minimizing and so forth.

One study found that children today are likely to learn to navigate an iPad before they learn to tie their shoes.

Anti-Asian?

At one point last year, Andrew Cuomo, who was then the New York Attorney General (he's now the Governor) opened an investigation into whether Apple was discriminating against Asian customers. A state legislator had complained that Apple Store clerks subjected Asian customers to questions about passports and English proficiency.

The suspicion was that Apple was trying to prevent exports of the device to China. Nothing came of the probe, though, and Cuomo has moved on to bigger headaches.

ConsumerAffairs.com is shockingly bereft of consumer complaints about the iPad. One of the few we know of occurred when your faithful reporter was seated on a Virgin America flight at Dulles awaiting departure to LAX.

A fellow passenger squeezing by in the aisle remarked to his companion, "Look at that guy. He went and wasted his money on an iPad." (I informed him it was my company's money that had been spent. Whether it was wasted or not is open to debate).

This still puts the iPad a notch above the Kindle. While seated in the same situation a year or two before, I was minimally assaulted by a fellow passenger who slapped my Kindle as she passed by, declaring it "evil." I made no rejoinder in that case, as she was quite a bit bigger than I.

And by the way, neither one is much good in bright sunlight, for what that's worth.

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Feds Fight Fatigue Among Train Crews

New rules limit hours passenger train crews can work

The U.S. Department of Transportation has issued a new rule limiting the number of consecutive hours passenger railroad workers can be on the job. The new...

PhotoThe U.S. Department of Transportation has issued a new rule limiting the number of consecutive hours passenger railroad workers can be on the job.

The new Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulation will reduce risk and improve safety for the railroad industry, and for the first time, differentiate between freight and passenger service, officials said.

Designed to reduce accidents related to fatigue, the final rule applies “fatigue science” to employee work schedules to determine maximum on-duty periods and minimum off-duty periods. The Transportation Department said it is engaging in a broad initiative to bring scientific data into work scheduling, and the FRA rule is the first rule in that effort to be completed.

“Safety is job one, and by focusing our attention on proactive risk reduction strategies like these, we will be able to reduce the number of accidents on our railways”, said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “This new program will let us recognize and prevent fatigue problems for passenger train crews before they arise.”

Through the use of fatigue modeling tools and data on human alertness factors, this new rule will guide the scheduling of train crews to reduce the likelihood of a hazardous work schedule. This rule recognizes the difference between work during daylight hours and work during nighttime hours when fatigue is most likely to occur. The final rule includes:

• Maximum on-duty periods and minimum off-duty periods for passenger train employees including locomotive engineers and conductors.
• Requirements for railroads to identify schedule-specific risks of fatigue using an approved, scientifically validated, and calibrated bio-mathematical model of human performance and fatigue.
• Requirements for railroads to develop and carry out plans to mitigate fatigue risks before safety may be compromised.

The final rule also requires railroads to submit certain work schedules of their passenger train employees and fatigue mitigation plans to FRA for approval, and to provide fatigue training.

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9-1-1 System to Accept Texts, Photos and Video

FCC says changes will help first responders

The FCC plans new technology upgrades to the 9-1-1 system...

PhotoThe nation's 9-1-1 emergency system is going high-tech. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced planned upgrades to the system that will allow emergency personnel to receive texts, photos and even video through the system.

"Our emergency response networks are doing a phenomenal job," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a speech this week. "Across our country, they receive over 650,000 9-1-1 calls per day–over 240 million per year—and respond to them with professionalism and commitment."

America's first responders will soon be able to accept text messages, photos, and videos through emergency hotline 9-1-1.

Timed to 911 anniversary

Genachowski believes that new technology will make the system better. He said the FCC will will step up efforts to adopt the changes, known as New Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) by September, when the nation will observe the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

One might ask why someone would want to take the time to send a text, picture or video when their house in on fire, but Genachowski says there are times when that might be the only way to safely reach emergency personnel. He notes that NG911 began to take shape last November, prompted by the Virginia Tech campus shootings in 2007.

"Some students and witnesses tried to text 9-1-1 during that emergency and as we know, those messages never went through and were never received by local 9-1-1 dispatchers," Genachowski said at the time.

Logistical nightmare

However, in the comments section on that story, an emergency dispatcher warned of the logistical nightmare involved.

"Adding texting to this recipe would mean thousands of 'nEd hlp quick! Gas stition by the waiter.' What this does is creates a sense of urgency in the call center, as is should, but without the necessary means of obtaining the pertinent information—read: where and what. Instead, we get a 'first alert' so to speak, to start looking and wasting resources. Unless there is a way to couple geocoding with all SMS messages sent to a 911 call center then I can't see this working the way lawmakers intend," he wrote.

Genachowski says the FCC has been working on those issues and hopes to have them ready in time for a September roll-out. In the end, he says the NG911 system will support “seamless, end-to-end IP-based communication of emergency-related voice,text, data, photos, and video between the public and public safety answering points.”

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Maryland Files Charges Against Health Club

Accused of misleading consumers

Maryland has filed administrative charges against a health club...

The state of Maryland has filed administrative charges against a suburban Baltimore health club and its owner, claiming they arbitrarily discontinued services that had previously been provided, made false and misleading statements to consumers in regard to their cancellation rights, offered and charged improper fees, attempted to collect debts not owed and failed to post required security.

“Health clubs cannot stop offering the services they've promised and expect their members to continue paying for them,” Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler said. “In Maryland, health clubs cannot deceive consumers about their cancellation rights.”

The complaint alleges that in 2010, GRS Fitness, LLC, of Essex, Md., entered into an agreement with a second business, Health Tek Creations, LLC, to take over a health club facility located at 8502 Kelso Drive in Essex. GRS Fitness and Caplan changed the gym's name from Energy Fitness Center to Spunk Fitness Center and, in doing so, removed free weights and heavy lifting equipment from the facility.

Despite the significant changes, GRS Fitness, LLC and Caplan refused to allow members to cancel their membership.

False and misleading statements

Gansler says GRS Fitness, LLC and Caplan also made false and misleading statements about members' cancellation rights and continued to charge the higher monthly membership fee for Energy Fitness Center services that were no longer provided. As Spunk Fitness, GRS Fitness, LLC and Caplan advertise membership rates as low as $9.99, a significant difference from the rate previously charged to Energy Fitness Center members.

The charges also allege that, in regard to registration, GRS Fitness, LLC and Caplan, have failed to post security in an appropriate form.

The state is seeking a cease and desist order to prevent the health club from selling any health club services until they comply with the registration process, cease and desist from improper billing practices, and pay full restitution of all payments collected in violation of the Consumer Protection Act and Health Club Services law.

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What's On Your Mind? Citibank, AT&T, Lexus

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Citibank, AT&T, Lexus, Beyond the grave, Not a cheap fix, credit card companies and expensive cars....

PhotoIt seems no good behavior goes unpunished. At least, that's how Pam, of Winder, Ga., feels.

"Right before the credit card law went into effect Citibank raised my interest rate to 29.99% even though we have never been late paying them,” Pam told ConsumerAffairs.com. “When I complained about it I was told that they have to make money someway. They said a lot of people are defaulting on their credit card so they have to raise the interest rate on the ones that pay their bills. With that the payments also raised and now I can hardly pay my bills. If I paid late I could understand but I always pay on time.”

Two years ago the credit card companies did the math and took action to cushion what they expected to be a very high default rate during the recession. A lot of people like Pam, who had a manageable balance with their old rate, now have trouble paying their bills. It's a shame that carrying a credit card balance became the norm among consumers, because it's among the most toxic debt.

Beyond the grave

With intense focus on the bottom line, some companies apparently pressure their personnel to collect every dime that is owed, even if the debtor isn't around anymore. Sharp, of San Antonio, Tex., says his brother was killed in a car accident in May.

“My parents contacted AT&T June 13 to let them know he had passed and would no longer need their services,” Sharp said. “My mom was told by Dwayne, the billing specialist, that she needed to take care of a $321.13 phone bill that belonged to my brother. My mom told Dwayne she would not be paying for the bill and she was then told that the bill would be sent to collections and that my parents would then be held responsible for the bill.”

Sharp's parents aren't liable for their deceased son's cell phone bill, unless their names are also on the account -- and assuming the deceased lad was an adult. Instead, AT&T will probably have to collect it from Sharp's brother's estate. If the estate has no assets, then AT&T is out of luck.

Lawyers have a saying: death relieves all obligations.  

Not a cheap fix

Lexus, of course, is a highly regarded luxury car and many owners are very happy with them. But that's not to say there aren't exceptions.

“I started having 'resetting' of the navigation system in my 2006 RX330 about six weeks ago, with the issue occurring about every 1.5 hours,” David, of Henderson, Nev., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Now - it happens every 1.5 minutes. The issue does not interfere with the operation of the vehicle, but it is most annoying. Each time the system resets, the audio system is momentarily interrupted but the hands-free Bluetooth connection is killed, rendering it useless. I went to the Lexus dealer for a fix, assuming the problem would be minor - perhaps just a loose connection somewhere behind the dashboard. Surprise! They concluded that the 5-year old factory-installed nav system needs complete replacement at a cost of $1740.”

One of the problems with expensive cars is, the repairs can also be pretty expensive.

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Samsung TVs Tops in Sales ... and Complaints

With 35% of US/Canada market, Samsung remains the top-selling brand

Samsung, the world's largest flat-screen TV maker once again led the North American TV market in the first half of 2011, as demand for premium TVs continue...

Photo
Samsung monitors hard at work

First in sales, first in complaints?  Do the two always go together?

In the case of flat-screen TVs, that certainly seems to be the case.  NPD Group reports that Samsung, the world's largest flat-screen TV maker once again led the North American TV market in the first half of 2011, as demand for premium TVs continued to rise despite a poor economy.

Samsung held a commanding 35% of sales based on value of the units sold in the U.S. and Canada, NPD said.  

Could that be the reason complaints about Samsung TVs are such a hot item on ConsumerAffairs.com and other review sites?  We not only get hundreds of complaints but our Samsung pages are typically among the most heavily-viewed on our site.  We tried to ask Samsung that question but the company's media relations department did not return an email.

Samsung may not be responsive but the company's optimistic.  It says its dominance of the North American market is expected to continue as demand for its premium TVs remains strong.

Fried, frazzled

Ken of Atco, N.J. seems typical of the complainants, who seem to run into trouble at about the two-year mark.

"Purchased a 55" LED Samsung series 8000. TV is 2 years old. Base exploded 8/8. Contacted Samsung and waiting for the results. Looks like many have had this issue," Ken wrote Tuesday.

Kate of Mission Viejo, Calif., meanwhile, said her 42-inch Samsung didn't even make the two-year mark.

"We bought a 42-inch Samsung TV less than 2 years ago and yesterday it won't turn on anymore. Just called Samsung and they said that their 2008 models had problems with capacitators but their 2009 models are not covered or part of the problem!" Kate said. "All I know is, our TV should work more than 2 years. They told me to contact a service center to get it repaired. I've never had such an expensive product just quit on me. It's just unheard of."

Well, yes and no.  Flat-screen TVs may look like they're simpler than the boxy old cathode-ray tube models they replace but there's a lot of high-voltage circuitry on some very miniaturized boards.  That means lots of heat in a small space.

Ask your neighborhood TV technician, if you can find one, and he or she will tell you that flat-screen TVs need to be kept as cool as possible.  Ideally, they shouldn't be kept in cabinets that block the flow of air.

It's also important to have a high-quality surge protector to prevent damage from stray electrical spikes.

Samsung's advice

Although we couldn't get an answer from anyone today, a Samsung spokeswoman in July 2010 told our Chase Zacha:

"As a first step, we encourage customers who experience any issues with our TVs to call 1-800-SAMSUNG. Our customer service team will fully investigate and discuss each customers specific experience so that we can help identify the best resolution to fit each case. Customers' experiences with our products and service teams are of the utmost importance to us. When we see a problem frequently reoccur, Samsung takes the necessary steps to correct the issue."

As Samsung suggests, consumers should at least contact the company when they have a problem.  Some things are easily fixed and just because the TV doesn't work today doesn't mean it won't be working next week.  
 
In fairness, we have to note that the ConsumerAffairs.com newsroom is full of Samsung monitors, many of them several years old.  They're on 24 hours a day and no one can remember one of them failing (although one or two have met their fate through human error, usually involving coffee).
 
See Chase's earlier story for more tips and do-it-yourself suggestions. 
 
 
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Have Foreclosures Peaked?

Foreclosure activity hits 44-month low last month

Foreclosure activity was down dramatically in July...

PhotoFor weeks now, some brave contrarians have dared to suggest real estate might be beginning to turn around. While the news from that sector hasn't exactly been good, they say, it's been less awful. In other words, it's beginning to look like a bottom.

RealtyTrac today supplied some more less-awful news about the real estate market. The foreclosure marketer reports that foreclosure activity hit a 44-month low in July.

Foreclosure filings — which include default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions — were reported on 212,764 U.S. properties in July, a four percent decrease from June and a 35 percent decrease from July 2010. The report also shows one in every 611 U.S. housing units with a foreclosure filing during the month of July.

“July foreclosure activity dropped 35 percent from a year ago, marking the 10th straight month of year-over-year decreases in foreclosure activity and the lowest monthly total since November 2007,” said James J. Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac.

Not so fast

Wait a minute, skeptics are sure to say. Remember the robo-signing controversy that caused lenders to slam on the brakes when it comes to foreclosures? Aren't there millions of homes just waiting for a foreclosure notice?

True, but Saccacio says this delay just might prevent some of these impending foreclosures from ever taking place.

“It appears that the foreclosure processing delays, combined with the smorgasbord of national and state-level foreclosure prevention efforts — including loan modifications, lender-borrower mediations and mortgage payment assistance for the unemployed — may be allowing more distressed homeowners to stave off foreclosure,” he said.

To be clear, Saccacio said he is not suggesting the market is about to rebound. After all, he notes, this decline in foreclosure is not based on a recovering economy. If it were, that would be a cause for celebration. He sees the current housing market woes extending into next year and beyond.

“A stabilizing economy and improving job market are the long-term keys to a housing market recovery," he said.

Location, location, location

Meanwhile, housing continues to suffer in some areas of the country much more than others. Ten states accounted for 73 percent of U.S. foreclosure activity in July, led by California, where 56,193 properties had a foreclosure filing during the month — up four percent from the previous month but still down 16 percent from July 2010. Initial default notices in California were down 6 percent from the previous month, but REOs increased on a month-over-month basis for the second straight month and scheduled auctions were up 11 percent from the previous month.

There were a total of 22,377 Florida properties with foreclosure filings in July, down six percent from June and down 57 percent from July 2010. Initial default notices and scheduled auctions in Florida were both down on a monthly and annual basis in July, while REO activity increased eight percent from June but was still down 55 percent from July 2010. The month-over-month REO increase in July followed monthly increases in initial default notices and scheduled auctions in June.

An 18 percent monthly increase in foreclosure activity helped Georgia post the nation’s third highest foreclosure activity total in July. There were a total of 11,461 Georgia properties with foreclosure filings during the month, still down nine percent from July 2010. The overall increase in Georgia foreclosure activity was driven largely by a 25 percent month-over-month increase in REO activity.

Michigan foreclosure activity in July decreased 16 percent from the previous month and was down 42 percent from July 2010, but the state still documented the fourth highest state foreclosure activity total for the month — 10,894 properties with foreclosure filings.

Illinois REO activity increased 20 percent from the previous month, and the state documented a total of 10,627 properties with foreclosure filings in July. Texas REO activity increased 15 percent from the previous month, and the state documented a total of 10,571 properties with foreclosure filings during the month.

Other states with foreclosure activity totals among the nation’s 10 highest in July were Arizona (10,098), Nevada (9,930), Ohio (8,376) and Wisconsin (4,534).

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Anti-Trust Suit Charges Apple, Publishers Conspired to Raise Price of eBooks

Companies conspired to stop Amazon's below-market pricing strategy, suit alleges

An antitrust class action claims Apple conspired with five major publishers to raise the price of e-books, dominate the market and force Amazon to stop sel...

PhotoAn antitrust class action claims Apple conspired with five major publishers to raise the price of e-books, dominate the market and force Amazon to stop selling at a discount. The conspiracy worked so well that e-books now cost as much or more than paperbacks, the class claims, Courthouse News Service reported. 

The suit traces the history of e-books, noting that when Amazon introduced the Kindle back in November 2007, its “electronic ink” technology was such a hit that supplies of the original Kindle sold out in less than six hours.

Besides portability and instant delivery, e-books greatly reduce the costs associated with brick-and-mortar publishing. But the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, says large publishing houses quickly realized that e-publishing also represented a huge threat to their profit margins.

Amazon was selling Kindle e-books for $9.99 or less, while hardcover editions of the same books sold for more than $20. Faced with this threat to their business model, the suit says, publishers teamed up with Apple to “fight back in an effort to restrain trade and retard innovation.”

Restrain trade

Besides Apple, the suit names Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster. The named plaintiffs are Anthony Petru, of Oakland, Calif., and Marcus Mathis, of Natchez, Miss.

The suit charges the defendants with violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and various other anti-trust and consumer protection statues.

“Given Amazon’s first-mover advantage and ever growing installed user base, publishers knew that no single publisher could slow down Amazon and unilaterally force an increase in e-book retail prices. If one publisher acted alone to try and raise prices for its titles, that publisher would risk immediately losing a substantial (and growing) volume of sales,” the suit charges.

“Not wanting to risk a significant loss of sales in the fastest growing market (e-book sales), the publishers … solved this problem through coordinating between themselves (and Apple) to force Amazon to abandon its pro-consumer pricing.”

Support from Apple

The suit says the conspiracy would not have succeeded without Apple's support.

“Apple had strong incentives to help the [publishers] restrain trade and increase the price of eBooks. If Amazon continued to solidify its dominant position in the sale of eBooks, strong network effects would make it difficult to dislodge Amazon. Moreover, Amazon’s pro-consumer pricing meant that to enter the e-books market Apple would likely be forced to sell at least some e-books near or below its wholesale costs for an extended period of time.”

The Kindle was a threat not only to the publishers' business model but also to Apple's, the suit charges.

“Apple is competing to be – and has become – a dominant manufacturer of mobile devices, such as Apple’s iPod, iPhone and iPad devices. … Apple knew that if Amazon could establish the Kindle as the dominant e-book reader by subsidizing the purchase of e-books, Amazon could then use the Kindle platform (and its large installed user base) to distribute other digital media. Notably, Apple had successfully used a virtually identical strategy to gain a virtual monopoly on the distribution of digital music files through its iPod device and its associated iTunes store,” the suit argues.

The suit was filed by attorney Jeff Friedman of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, a Berkeley, Calif., law firm

 

 

 

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BPA: It's On The Money

Study finds chemical on nearly all the world's currencies

A study finds that BPA traces can be found on most of the world's currencies...

PhotoPrevious studies have found that bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical widely used in the packaging industry, shows up in grocery receipts. Since people sometimes put receipts in their wallets, it should come as no surprise that another study finds BPA is all over the world's money supply.

A study published in the American Chemical Society's journal Environmental Science & Technology says BPA has been detected on nearly all of the world's currencies. The amounts of BPA on dollars, Euros, rubles, yuans, and other currencies, are higher than in house dust, but human intake from currency is at least 10 times less than those from house dust.

Scientists Kurunthachalam Kannan and Chunyang Liao analyzed 156 pieces of paper money from 21 countries found that all contained traces of BPA. The report notes, however, that "estimated daily intake from paper currencies were 10-fold lower than those reported from exposures due to [indoor] dust ingestion in the United States."

Brazilian currency among highest levels

The highest BPA levels were in paper money from Brazil, the Czech Republic and Australia, while the lowest occurred in paper money from the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Levels in U.S. notes were about average.

Although a recent study found traces of BPA in U.S. currency, nobody knew until now about BPA in paper money worldwide.

Manufacturers use BPA to make polycarbonate plastics used in some consumer products, including water bottles, sports equipment, and household electronics.

Some studies have suggested that BPA acts as an endocrine disruptor — meaning it mimics the action of the sex hormone estrogen. Exposure to BPA has been linked to a variety of health problems.

Thermal paper receipts

Kannan and Liao also found that the most likely source of the BPA in the currency is the thermal paper used in cash register receipts. They showed that receipts can transfer BPA onto cash when placed next to it or when a receipt is touched before handling currency.

"Although high levels of BPA were measured in paper currencies, human exposure through dermal absorption appears to be minor," the article notes.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) believes that low levels of BPA are safe, but signaled last year that it is taking note of new research suggesting some health issues.

New interest at FDA

“Studies employing standardized toxicity tests have thus far supported the safety of current low levels of human exposure to BPA,” The agency said in January 2010. “However, on the basis of results from recent studies using novel approaches to test for subtle effects, both the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health and FDA have some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.”

Government health researchers are currently carrying on more studies on BPA. Meanwhile, the FDA said it is “taking reasonable steps to reduce human exposure to BPA in the food supply.”

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Michigan May Change Medical Marijuana Law

New legislation to be introduced in the fall

Michigan officials have proposed tightening the state's medical marijuana law...

PhotoState officials in Michigan who believe the state's medical marijuana law is being abused have revealed their strategy for revising the statute.

Miichigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, members of state and local law enforcement, prosecutors, representatives of the medical community and some members of the legislature have proposed a legislative package, including new laws to ensure safety on the roads and hold accountable criminals who abuse the state medical marijuana certification process.

Michigan is one of several states that has a law allowing marijuana to be prescribed for some medical uses, but Schuette maintains the law is so poorly written that it is being abused.

"This law has been hijacked by pot profiteers who threaten public safety on the roads and in our communities," said Schuette.

At a media event this week to announce details for the proposed legislation, Schuette introduced two Republican and one Democrat lawmakers who support the measure, along with Dr. Steven E. Newman, President of the Michigan State Medical Society, and various police officers.

Two laws at odds

Schuette noted confusing inconsistencies between the Michigan Motor Vehicle Code and the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act must be eliminated to preserve safety on Michigan roadways. A longstanding safety provision in the Michigan Motor Vehicle Code prohibits driving with any amount of marijuana in your system.

In contrast, the medical marijuana law prohibits only driving "under the influence of marijuana," a term which Schuette says is not defined in state law or by uniform scientific standards, and creates a different standard for medical marijuana users. This inconsistency, he says, has created confusion for law enforcement, and is currently under review by the Michigan Court of Appeals in the case, People v. Koon.

Schuette cited statistics recently released by the Michigan State Police which indicate that marijuana-related fatalities remain the most common drug-related automobile fatality, and that such fatalities are on the rise in Michigan.

"Driving with marijuana in your system is unsafe and jeopardizes the safety of our roadways," said Schuette.  "If you take drugs, don't take the wheel."

More tools for prosecutors

Schuette also proposed legislative reforms to the Penal Code that will give prosecutors and law enforcement the tools they need to crack down on criminals who exploit the loopholes of the medical marijuana law.

Schuette has proposed the creation of new crimes to crack down on criminal abuse of the medical marijuana certification system:

  • Make it a felony for physicians to knowingly falsely certify a debilitating medical condition for patients seeking to use medical marijuana;
  • Make it a felony to knowingly submit false information on an application for a patient or caregiver card;
  • Make it a felony to knowingly alter a patient or caregiver card;
  • Make it a felony to knowingly possess another person's card or to transfer or allow a person to use another person's card;
  • Prohibit felons from being caregivers (Currently only those convicted of drug-related felonies are prohibited); and
  • Make it a misdemeanor for a patient or caregiver to fail to report a lost or stolen card within seven days.

Schuette says the proposed regulation would also strengthen the hand of law enforcement, limit criminal access to medical marijuana, empower local communities to regulate marijuana facilities, ensure high standards for patient care, and avoid confusion and excessive litigation regarding insurance claims and coverage for medical marijuana users.

Schuette said he expects the bills to be introduced and considered by the legislature in the fall.

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What's On Your Mind? AT&T, PNC Bank, DIRECTV, Orbitz

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: AT&T, PNC Bank, DIRECTV, Orbitz, Wrong number, Take a number and Peeved parent....

One of the never-ending complaints about cell phones is reception. If you aren't close to a tower -- or if towers in your area are overloaded -- you'll have bad or no service.

“My AT&T contract was up in January this year,” Connie, or Peru, Ill., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I always had poor service at my home and at my mother in laws house, which is seven blocks north of mine. I went to AT&T when my contract was up this winter and inquired if I could get better reception and to look at an iPhone 3G. I was told that they had a new tower at St. Bede which is west of my home about 2 -3 miles and I should get reception now. Foolishly, I believed them, and have been having trouble since. They will not let me out of my contract without paying the early cancel fees.”

Unfortunately, Connie missed her opportunity to switch service providers in January. Consumers just can't rely on what sales personnel tell you about coverage. The only thing you can do is ask someone who lives nearby what provider they use and if they're happy. Even then it can be hit or miss.

Wrong number

Jennifer, of Niles, Ill., doesn't bank with PNC, but she talks to them several times a day. I seems when the data for a PNC customer was put into the system, someone mistyped that customer's phone number. The number in the system happens to be Jennifer's cell phone number.

“This customer of theirs has been defaulting on a line of equity loan since 2010, so, the PNC Bank collection representatives have been calling me every time ever since Jennifer said. “It is now 2011 August, and I still get calls from them several times throughout the day.”

Jennifer said she has tried explaining the problem to the callers, and even their supervisors, to no avail. The calls, several times a day, keep coming.

“They have been wasting my cell phone minutes time after time on top of wasting my time,” Jennifer said.

If Jennifer has tried to resolve the matter with supervisors without success, sadly, they only thing left for her to do is change her cell phone number.

Take a number

Whenever you cancel a service, the rep who is helping you should give you a confirmation number. Write it down, because you may need it later.

“In June I called DIRECTV to cancel my service as of July 1, 2011,” Susan, of Bethesda, Md., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I spoke to a nice lady who told me my billing cycle ended on the 21st of each month. So I told her I would average out my bill for the ten days I would be using their service and sent in that amount, $29.80. Today I received a bill in the amount of $151.84.”

Susan said she called and was told DIRECTV had no record of her cancellation.

“I told them I had been a good and loyal customer for years and wanted $122.04 removed from my bill,” Susan said. “I was told this was impossible. I than asked to be transferred to someone in the complaint or billing department. I was transferred to Angie who told me there was no solution.

Without a confirmation number, there probably isn't a way for Susan to show that she cancelled the service when she said she did. When cancelling a service online, make sure you print the confirmation page and file it away.

Peeved parent

David, of Wichita Falls, Tex., is angry at Orbitz and says he defies the company to challenge the facts.

“I had booked an airline/hotel/rental car package through Orbitz several weeks in advance and received an itinerary,” David said. “A few days prior to my flight, the itinerary was changed to the next day. I could not fly out the next day -- I would miss my only child's wedding, which is exactly what happened! To add insult to injury, Orbitz refused to assist me in obtaining even a partial refund or getting the flight rescheduled so I could at least visit the happy couple after the honeymoon.”

Yes, travel plans can sometimes get scrambled, but it seems you increase the odds of that happening when you try to do everything through one Internet site. Better to make your reservations directly with the airline, hotel and rental car or visit your local travel agent – especially when the travel is to a once-in-a-lifetime event.

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Option One Agrees to $125 Million in Massachusetts Mortgage Modifications

Settles charges of unfair lending, discrimination against Latino and African-American borrowers

Resolving claims of unfair and discriminatory lending practices, Sand Canyon (formerly known as Option One) will modify thousands of Massachusetts home...

PhotoResolving claims of unfair and discriminatory lending practices, Sand Canyon (formerly known as Option One) will modify thousands of Massachusetts homeowners’ loans and make a significant payment to the Commonwealth as part of a settlement valued at $125 million, Attorney General Martha Coakley announced.

The settlement requires the mortgage originator, a subsidiary of H&R Block, Inc., to pay $9.8 million to the Commonwealth and to direct American Home Mortgage Servicing, Inc. (“AHMSI”), the current servicer of approximately 5,500 Option One loans in Massachusetts, to institute an aggressive loan modification program that will provide an estimated $115 million in additional relief.

“Option One made loans that it knew were likely to fail and it discriminated against African-American and Latino borrowers,” Attorney General Coakley said.  “Its blatant disregard for prudent underwriting standards contributed to the economic downturn we still find ourselves in today.  Like our other cases against mortgage lenders and their Wall Street facilitators, this case holds this corporation accountable and provides much needed relief to homeowners.” 

32,400 loans

Option One originated approximately 32,400 loans in Massachusetts between 2004 and 2007, at which point the subprime market collapsed and it ceased its lending operations nationwide.  Many of Option One’s loans featured multiple “risk features” such as:

  • excessive debt-to-income ratios;
  • high loan-to-value ratios;
  • “stated income” or similar features that did not require borrowers to document their income or assets; and
  • underwriting that qualified borrowers based on their ability to make payments at an introductory, or “teaser,” interest rate instead of their ability to pay beyond the two- or three-year introductory period. 

The attorney general’s lawsuit alleged that the risk-layered loans were unfair because they posed an excessive risk of default and foreclosure, as evidenced by their very high loan default rate.  The lawsuit also asserted that Option One knew that loans with such risk characteristics were doomed to fail but that it originated them nonetheless in order to sell them to the secondary market and realize a profit. 

The attorney general also alleged that Option One’s discretionary pricing policies gave mortgage brokers free reign to charge excessive and unjustified fees, causing Black and Latino borrowers to pay more money, on average, for their loans.  In 2008, when the lawsuit was filed, it was the first by a state’s attorney general’s Office alleging civil rights claims against a subprime lender.  Option One originated loans to approximately 4,400 Black and Latino borrowers between 2004 and 2007.

Loan Modifications

Distressed borrowers, who still have an Option One loan, are eligible for loan modifications that include significant write-downs of principal balances and reduction of interest rates, depending on the prevalence of certain risk features in the loan.

Many Massachusetts borrowers will receive loan modification relief that includes significant principal forgiveness.  For borrowers struggling to make mortgage payments, who are 45 or more days delinquent on their loan, Option One will direct AHMSI, which services loans originated by Option One, to modify loans to achieve affordable monthly payments for borrowers.  Generally, borrowers’ monthly payments will be reduced to between 31% and 36% of their monthly income.

Borrowers who received the riskiest loans, burdened with a high debt-to-income ratio and a high loan-to-value ratio, will be eligible for an even greater monthly payment reduction.  The specifics of how much principal will be forgiven through each loan modification will depend on the characteristics of each loan at the time of origination.  Borrowers who received the riskiest loans will be eligible to have the outstanding principal balance on their loan reduced to 100% of the current value of their home, which in many instances has experienced significant depreciation since the loan was made.

“The modification program will make it easier for homeowners to keep their homes and even begin to acquire some equity,” Attorney General Coakley said.  “For several years now, many homeowners have been living underwater – owing more than their homes are worth.  This modification program will change that situation for many Option One borrowers, and corrects the unreasonable risks they were exposed to when the loan was made.” 

 Payment

In addition to agreeing to implement the loan modification program, Option One will pay $9.8 million to the Commonwealth. The settlement includes $8 million in consumer relief, $1 million for fees and costs, and $800,000 in exchange for a release of civil penalties.  The consumer relief will be used to rectify the negative impact of mortgage foreclosures and predatory and discriminatory lending practices, including providing direct restitution to Option One borrowers and implementing programs to mitigate the impact of the foreclosure crisis in Massachusetts.  

Latest settlement

Coakley has been a national leader in bringing actions on behalf of homeowners against companies relating to their role in the subprime market place.  Over the past three years, Coakley has obtained recoveries from Morgan Stanley, Goldman SachsCountrywide, and Fremont Investment & Loan, for their roles in the subprime lending crisis.  

As a result of these actions, her office has recovered more than $563 million in relief for investors and borrowers, helped keep more than 24,700 homeowners in their homes, and returned nearly $52 million in taxpayer funds back to the Commonwealth. 

 
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Illinois Wants National Recall of Fuel Gel Products

Recalling products "one by one won't cut it," state's AG declares

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan today called on the Consumer Product Safety Commission to immediately recall all fuel gel products in response to al...

PhotoIllinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan today called on the Consumer Product Safety Commission to immediately recall all fuel gel products in response to alarming reports of consumers who’ve suffered severe burns in accidents involving fuel gel.

Madigan also called on the CPSC to immediately ban the sale of fuel gel products and urged consumers to stop using the dangerous items.

“Recalling these items one by one won’t cut it,” Attorney General Madigan said. “In the midst of the summer season, many of these fuel gel products are already in people’s homes and backyards. We need to work quickly to alert consumers about the extreme dangers they pose.”

Earlier this summer, Madigan alerted consumers to the risk of severe and even life-threatening burns when using fuel gel products. The CPSC soon after recalled one fuel gel product made by Napa Home & Garden Inc.

The company has since pulled its products from store shelves, but fuel gel products by other manufacturers, including BirdBrain, Inc., Windflame Inc. and Jason Metal Products Inc., continue to sell online and in stores around the country.

Firepots

Fuel gel is poured into a firepot or similar vessel for use as a decorative flame or outdoor light. Madigan said reports have shown injuries resulted when fuel gel spilled or was poured into a pot in attempt to light or re-light the flame, causing the product to explode into a fireball.

When the gel contacts a person’s skin, it reacts similarly to napalm, making it nearly impossible to extinguish. Victims and witnesses indicate that traditional ways to put out a flame, such as dropping and rolling, don’t work. The flaming gel ignites other materials and does not stop burning.

Madigan said her office has received accounts of three fuel gel-related accidents in Illinois, and dozens of other injuries have been reported around the country.

In the Chicago suburbs last year, a 3-year-old girl was critically injured when a firepot containing fuel gel manufactured by BirdBrain Inc. spilled, causing severe burns to her head and face. Last month, a Chicago man suffered serious and extensive injuries when fuel gel manufactured by BirdBrain exploded, causing burns to his face and arms. Madigan said a mother of four from downstate Illinois was also reportedly burned when a fuel gel product exploded at a backyard birthday party.

Birdbrain

With the three known accidents in Illinois involving the BirdBrain brand, Madigan today subpoenaed the Ypsilanti, Mich.-based company, asking for any incidents reported to the company and for its Illinois sales and distribution information.

Madigan urged Illinoisans to immediately stop using fuel gel products. Any consumer who has suffered an injury in a fuel gel-related incident should immediately contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission. 

 

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Feds Knew of Salmonella in Cargill Turkey for Months But Did Nothing

77 illnesses, one death so far blamed on salmonella outbreak in ground turkey

Federal officials have known for months that there was a salmonella contamination problem with Cargill turkey but took no action until an outbreak resulted...

PhotoFederal officials have known for months that there was a salmonella contamination problem with Cargill turkey but took no action until an outbreak resulted in at least one death and 77 cases of illness, The Wall Street Journal reported today.

Cargill announced the recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey from its Springdale, Ark., plant last week, the third-largest meat recall in history.

Now it turns out that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had found a dangerous form of salmonella at the Cargill plant last year and this year found the strain four different times at stores selling the turkey, but did nothing.

"Routine"

Salmonella, USDA officials say, is not treated as a poisonous contaminant, unlike E. coli and other hazards. As long as no more than 49.9% of meat tests positive for salmonella, the situation is regarded as “routine,” officials said.

“The government’s failure to either alert the public or the company of the problem should be fully reviewed,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). She said the incident “shows a troubling lapse in coordination between federal agencies that are duty bound to protect the public.

“Government officials presented a confusing timeline indicating that they might have had preliminary evidence by late May linking the outbreak strain to test results from turkey products coming out of a Cargill plant in Arkansas,” DeWaal said. “The failure to issue a public alert earlier or to even notify the company shows a troubling lack of coordination that potentially contributed to the size and severity of the outbreak.”

CSPI petitioned USDA in May to declare certain strains of salmonella “adulterants” under the law, staff attorney Sarah Klein said. That would trigger new testing for the strains and make it less likely that contaminated products reach consumers.

“USDA has a responsibility to move proactively to prevent outbreaks, rather than just responding to them once they occur,” Klein said. “Furthermore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could help by stopping the use of antibiotics in healthy farm animals. That would reduce the growth of bacteria resistant to antibiotics used in human medicine.

The strain causing the current outbreak – salmonella Heidelberg – is proving particularly virulent and somewhat resistant to commonly-used antibiotics.

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New Facebook App Bypasses Texting Charges

Facebook Messenger already top app at iTunes

Facebook Messenger may make texting your friends less expensive...

PhotoHours after debuting in Apple's iTunes App store Tuesday, free Facebook Messenger became the number one downloaded app. It's already collected hundreds of reviews, if not all of them are exactly flattering. The app has an average 3.5 out of 5 stars. 

The app allows users to send and receive messages through Facebook, updating in real time. If you have a new message, it pops up.

Isn't that a lot like texting, you ask? Exactly. The app allows you to reach out and touch a Facebook friend for free, bypassing your cellphone provider's charge for texts.

"Messenger is a separate app, so it only takes one click to get to your messages or send a new one,” said Lucy Zhang, writing on the Facebook Blog. “Messages are delivered through notifications and texts, so your friends are more likely to get them right away.”

Not all your contacts are on Facebook? Not a problem. Zhang says you can use Messenger to reach all of your friends -- whether they're on Facebook or in your phone contacts. All you have to do is type the person's name.

Facebook Messenger is available for both iPhone and Android devices.

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What's On Your Mind? AOL, Verizon Wireless, Budget Car Rental, Baby Trends

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: AOL, Verizon Wireless, Budget Car Rental, Baby Trends, It pays to wait, if you can, Clock watcher and Safety conc...

PhotoAmerica Online (AOL) has a free service as well as the premium service you pay for. So, how could a free service draw a complaint? It did, from Linda, of Lynn, Mass.

“My email has disappeared,” Linda told ConsumerAffairs.com. The new mail says 'folder empty!' I have a free account, there is no way to get help from AOL without paying. I have tried online and telephone to receive help. This is a nightmare for me as all of my emails are gone, a are my contacts - many are very important. Also my saved folders, etc. I am a student and also in a job search currently and now I cannot even retreve important documents that were saved.”

It may be of little consolation to Linda now, but there are other, reliable free email services out there, including Gmail from Google. They are definitely worth a try.

It pays to wait, if you can

Mathew, of Reseda, Calif., says he had been a Verizon Wireless customer for a little over a year when his phone broke. Verizon sent him a replacement that he says was in bad shape. He said he called to register his disappointment and to request a new phone.

“They will send me a new phone and end my contract early and start a new one,” Mathew said. “That would mean I would buy a new phone and start a new two year deal with them. Now they say I owe them a phone?”

Mathew doesn't think it's right that he has to return his ld phone and pay $500 for a new one, but that's how most cell phone contracts work. Verizon and others say they subsidize the cost of the phone over the two-year life of the contract, which they say is why they require two years. Mathew should request instead that he be allowed to pay an early termination fee on his old contract and start a new contract with a subsidized phone. He would probably end up paying less.

Clock watcher

Here's some advice from TC, of Seattle, Wash. When you pick up a rental car early, the clock starts ticking, no matter what your reservation might say. TC rented the car from Budget for a week, noon to noon.

“They gave me the car two and a half hours early but failed to tell me that the week rental ended two and a half hours early,” TC told ConsumerAffairs.com.” A $380 bill turned into a $520 bill.”

TC's only hope is that the contract actually states that the car is to be returned by noon, not 10:30 a.m. And even then, it will probably be a battle to get the charge adjusted. 

Safety concern

The Baby Trend Velocity Jogger is a stroller designed for moms who want to jog while having their kids in tow. It's JPMA certified but Penny, of Atlanta, Ga., thinks its dangerous.

“I received my stroller as a shower gift in December 2010 but did not begin using it until June 2011,” Penny said. “After the first week, the front swivel tire began to shake violently. I tightened the wheel housing nut as instructed in the manual, which seemed to correct the issue. The next day, while out jogging with my infant, the front tire completely came off. The wheel housing on the top of the tire was totally crushed. I was shocked, upset and luckily, my baby wasn't hurt. I called Babies R Us and Baby Trend but I was told nothing could be done since it was past 180 days. As a new mom, I tried to read all safety reviews for all the products my newborn has received but unfortunately I didn't read the compliants about this stroller.”

If Penny believes the stroller is, in fact, unsafe, she should express her concerns to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which only investigates problems when consumers alert them to them.

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Apple Enthusiasts Beware! iPhones Attract Scam Artists and Crooks

Scams and thefts swirl around the popular devices; victims find little help

Apple iPhones are hot all right. So hot that they're becoming the principal players in a number of scams around the country. In Sa...

PhotoApple iPhones are hot all right. So hot that they're becoming the principal players in a number of scams and organized theft rings around the country.  And victims?  They find little help from Apple or anyone else.

In San Francisco, a consumer named Patrick reported being approached by a stranger who asked if he would like to make $100 “real easy.”

Sure, he replied, and Patrick soon found himself in a nearby Apple store with the stranger, who bought five iPhones and put them in Patrick's name, using Patrick's driver's license and Social Security number.

The stranger then gave Patrick $100 and drove off with the phones.

“Yesterday I got a bill in the mail for $450 from AT&T," Patrick told us. “I thought I was just helping them to purchase the phones. I mistakenly assumed that they would be billed for the service.”

Not long afterwards, Patrick was hanging around another Apple store, he said, when another stranger approached him with the same offer. Patrick said he sought out the store manager and told him what was happening.

Tough, said the manager, who said the practice is legal because the victim of the scam is willingly supplying his information.

“This is a scam and Apple is in on it,” declared Patrick. “The ones getting screwed are AT&T, Verizon and the person who will get a ding on their credit report.”

Fences

Store personnel are also implicated in a series of arrests in the Washington, D.C. area. The FBI recently busted three men who worked at local shopping mall cell phone kiosks in Virginia and accused them of purchasing stolen iPhones and reselling them at a profit.

The arrests were the result of an investigation into the theft of a large number of Apple products from riders on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's buses and trains, the FBI said.

Two of the men were later indicted by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., on charges of brokering 27 stolen iPhones and 14 Macbooks. Another was indicted for allegedly paying $16,000 to buy 28 stolen iPhones and 14 Macbooks.

Victims

And what happens to those whose iPhones are stolen? Besides losing their valuable little gadget, some consumers also have a hard time recovering their data.

“Having had my iPhone stolen, I called Apple to see how to get acess to my telephone numbers that have been safely backed up on my home computer,” said Brandon of Mountlake Terrace, Wash.

“Apple's representative told me that there was no way for me to get the phone numbers from iTunes without buying another iPhone or borrowing someone else's phone. I now have no access to all of the numbers that I thought were safely available on my computer in the event that I lost my iPhone,” Brandon said.

Dennis of Brooklyn, N.Y., had his iPhone for only two months before it was swiped. When he called Apple to explore his options, he was told he could buy a new phone at the full retail cost, get an older reconditioned one for $299 or switch to a non-iPhone.

“To be punished for having my iPhone stolen (punishment enough I think) is outrageous and a travesty,” fumed Dennis. “Being told I have to pay retail to replace a non-insurable phone has got to be the best scam going between Apple and ATT. I guess these replacements get counted towards the total iphone sold number that is often trotted out in the press.”

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Corn Belt Fertilizers Blamed for Gulf of Mexico 'Dead Zone'

Study finds fertilizer runoff fouls the Mississippi and, ultimately, the Gulf

A new study released today by the US Geological Survey shows that efforts to reduce nitrate levels in the Mississippi River Basin are having little impact....

PhotoA new study released today by the US Geological Survey shows that efforts to reduce nitrate levels in the Mississippi River Basin are having little impact. Nitrates come mostly from the over-application of chemical fertilizers on crops in the Corn Belt, fouling streams and rivers and eventually helping to swell the annual Gulf of Mexico "Dead Zone."

Corn lobbyists have been citing an analysis they commissioned in a bid to show that agriculture is not the source of nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River Basin, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, the Environmental Working Group charged.

"Gulf fishermen and residents all along the Mississippi River Basin must endure this insult to their water while the culprits continue to deflect blame. It is time for the corn lobby to acknowledge that their cropping system is a major source of water pollution and take responsibility for it," said EWG analyst Andrew Hug.

Large industrial grain operations blanket their fields with nitrogen fertilizer and animal manure. They help push an average of 164,000 metric tons of fertilizer down the Mississippi River into the Gulf each year, creating a low-oxygen Dead Zone of more than 6,765 square miles – an area larger than the state of Connecticut, EWG said.

The excess nitrogen triggers massive blooms of algae that block sunlight and ultimately die off, consuming oxygen and driving out or killing marine plants and animals.

Not corn

The corn lobby's study concludes that corn production can't possibly be causing the pollution problem because all of the nitrogen applied ends up in the corn, not in the water. However, that conclusion is based on an outdated figure for the protein (and therefore nitrogen) content of modern hybrid corn, the EWG study found. In the past, corn tested at 10 percent protein, but current measurements indicate that corn's protein content has dropped 20-30 percent.

Corn lobbyists have long blamed others for the nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River Basin, pointing the finger at urban lawns, golf courses and sewage treatment plants. But a previous USGS survey found that more than 70 percent of the nitrogen comes from agriculture, 52 percent from corn and soy production alone, EWG said.

Corn is the United States' largest and most subsidized crop, pulling in $77 billion in taxpayer dollars since 1995.

Today's USGS study details that nitrate transport to the Gulf of Mexico was 10 percent higher in 2008 than in 1980 and that none of the eight monitoring sites monitored showed any progress in nitrate reduction.

"The new USGS data clearly shows that we are making little progress in addressing nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River Basin. Instead of putting out faulty studies and blaming others, it is time for the corn growers to end the cop out and actually become the environmental stewards they claim to be. Taking responsibility for their actions would be a welcome first step toward restoring Mississippi River water quality," said Hug.

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Gmail 'Snooping' Amounts to Eavesdropping, Boston Case Claims

Non-Gmail users have not given their consent to Google's interception of their messages

Google can offer Gmail for free because it snoops on electronic messages that non-gmail accountholders send to people with accounts, and sells the informat...

PhotoGoogle can offer Gmail for free because it snoops on electronic messages that non-gmail accountholders send to people with accounts, and sells the information to use in targeted ads, a class action claims. 

Debra L. Marquis filed the case in Massachusetts Superior Court in Boston, alleging that Google's actions violate the Massachusetts Wiretapping Act, Courthouse News Service reported.

The suit seeks to represent all Massachusetts residents who do not have Gmail accounts but who have sent emails to a Gmail account holder.

Marquis charges that she and other non-Gmail users have not given their consent for Google to read their emails and that the practice therefore violates the state's wiretapping laws.

“Google intercepts, discloses or scans emails sent from non-Gmail users to Gmail users … acquires keywords or content from non-Gmail users' emails, and then sends ads related to those keywords or content,” the suit alleges. “For an example, an email exchange between a Gmail user and a non-Gmail user about cars would result in Google sending an ad for a car manufacturer to that Gmail user.”

Marquis said she has used AOL's email since the late 1990s. She seeks damages of $100 per day, injunctive relief and attorneys' fees.

 

 

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10 Year-Old Shows Hacking Can Be Child's Play

Pre-teen exposes security flaw in smartphones

A 10 year old girl has exposed a security flaw in smartphones...

Photo“CyFi,” the screen name for a 10 year-old girl from California, stole the show at the Defcon conference in Las Vegas, drawing security experts from around the world.

“CyFi,” whose real name has not been divulged, made headlines with her presentation in which she revealed her discovery of a flaw in smartphone security. The discovery stemmed from her impatience in playing a game in which virtual crops had to grow. She discovered she could make them grow instantly by simply advancing the device's clock ahead.

The youngster reported that it was fairly simple to get around the game's security measures designed to detect such cheating. She said she repeatedly disconnected her device from wifi and moved the clock ahead in small increments.

Potentially dangerous flaw

Security experts say there is a lot more at stake than simply cheating at a child's game. They say it is these kinds of flaws that allow hackers to run their own code, taking control of a device.

While PCs normally run some type of anti-virus software, security experts worry that too many mobile devices are unprotected. And given the proliferation of smartphones and tablets in the last two years, it's a good bet that hackers have taken note.

Some providers say they have that base covered. For example, Apple says iPhone users' data is protected with hardware encryption and enhanced data protection. The company says users can security access corporate networks with iPhones and iPads.

Makers of anti-virus products for PCs have also begun offering security tools for smartphones.

To keep their smartphones secure, consumers should:

  • Set a password for the phone, in case it gets lost
  • Download updates
  • Treat your phone like you would a computer
  • Be careful when downloading apps, downloading only from trusted sites
  • Don't enter sensitive information when connected to a public wifi
  • Enable a “wipe” feature on your phone, so you can remove data if you lose your phone
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How To Make Your Passwords More Challenging To Hackers

A password should make sense only to you (and maybe not even to you)

A video demonstration of how to construct a strong password...

PhotoHow vulnerable is your computer to hackers? The first line of defense is your password, but surveys consistently show that consumers are making it easy for hackers.

For starters, they tend to show a lack of imagination when choosing a password. For example, ABC123 is one of the more common passwords in use.

Computer users also tend to use the same password for all their accounts. Once a hacker figures out the password to one account, they usually can find their way into the rest of your accounts.

Security experts say the best passwords are comprised of a random series of letters and numbers, something almost impossible for a hacker to crack. Sometime like YBN6FZ, for example.

But how in the world would you remember such a combination? You wouldn't, of course, unless the combination makes sense on some level, unknown to anyone else.

In this video, Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos Security Software, explains how it can be done.

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oBaz Takes Group Buying to the Next Level - Group Haggling

Want something? Get your friends together and go for it

A Chicago-based start-up is hoping to go Groupon one better, by letting consumers put together their own unique deals. oBaz.com, which formally launc...

PhotoA Chicago-based start-up is hoping to go Groupon one better, by letting consumers put together their own unique deals.

oBaz.com, which formally launches today after several weeks in begta, aims to help individuals get unique deals on products and services they actually want.

oBaz, short for online bazaar, lets anyone create their own group of like-minded buyers looking to get a good price on the same product or service. oBaz hagglers then reach out to merchants with the group sale opportunity to get the best possible deal.

As one oBaz insider explained it to ConsumerAffairs.com: "Instead of being business driven, it will be initiated by the consumer. General buyers forget that Groupon is an advertising model directed by merchants to get new customers in the door. oBaz is the opposite; they allow you to create your own offer on something and the more people you recruit, the better chance the haggler has to get your deal."

The oBaz haggling team leverages the size of the group through negotiations, which users build up with tools for inviting others to the group via Facebook, Twitter and e-mail. The group is then closed to the public after the best offer is posted.

Users are encouraged to join groups for anything they want because only group members are emailed access to the offer. However, group members are under no obligation to buy if they’re not happy with the deal.  

Outsourced haggling 

“Getting deals on what you want is a pain, oBaz eliminates the haggling and shopping-around that most people either dislike or simply don’t have time for,” said oBaz CEO and co-founder Brian Ficho, who also served as a founder-in-residence at Chicago-based high-tech investment fund Lightbank.

“oBaz is entirely buyer-driven—we’re here to help you find what you’re looking for, not just push what today’s advertiser is offering.”

How it works

With oBaz, its founders say, anyone can get awesome deals on almost anything. Step 1 is to visit oBaz.com and tell oBaz what you want. Step 2 is to either join an existing group (if there is one) or create a new group around that item or service.

Step 3 is to build your group—oBaz provides tools and incentives to users to invite friends and grow the group. Each group has 7 days to build to a critical mass (usually around 25 people, but this varies depending on the item).

Once a group is large enough, the oBaz negotiators go to work haggling the group a deal. Once the deal is found, it is posted to the site and users have 24 hours to buy. Deals are redeemed directly on merchants’ websites or in-store using promotional codes or printed coupons.

oBaz is ideal for virtually any product or service - businesses can even use the site to procure office equipment, supplies and other services.

Recent group deals on oBaz beta include: $300 off a Nikon camera kit that normally retails for $900; $130 Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses for just $80, $120 off a BOB Stroller; 50 percent off an online GMAT course; a free $45 coin purse when buying a Longchamp Tote; and a lacrosse stick that retails for $105 sold through oBaz for $30.   

“The beauty of oBaz is that whatever you’re looking for, there’s a good chance others might want it too,” Ficho said. “We handle the unwanted task of haggling to secure the best possible offer.”

By recruiting new members to join their buying groups, oBaz members not only have a better chance of getting a great deal, but they also earn points and status within the oBaz community.

Better for businesses?

For businesses, oBaz drives customers with intent to buy at zero up-front cost. The site issues unique promotional codes or coupons to customers who redeem them in-store or on the business’s website. oBaz allows businesses to tailor offers that make sense for them. oBaz also makes it easy for businesses to offload excess inventory and reach new customers in a fun, social, yet private way.

oBaz raised seed funding in June 2011 from Lightbank, the Chicago-based high-tech investment fund created by Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell, co-founders of Groupon. Lightbank invests money, time and expertise to help innovative businesses achieve dynamic growth.

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What's On Your Mind? Bank of America, Virginia Fast Auto Loans, IRS

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here's what's on consumers' minds today...

PhotoWhere does the line fall between clever direct mail marketing and deception? Whereever it is, Cindy, of Littleton, Colo., thinks Bank of America (BOA) has crossed it.

“I received a letter in the mail from Bank of America with the following stamped notice, in red, on the front of the envelope: "REMINDER NOTICE/Sign and return the form inside,” Cindy told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The return envelope was stamped, in red, PROCESS IMMEDIATELY.”

Cindy said her family had a checking account with BOA so she quickly opened the envelop. Instead of a bill, she said she found a second attempt to sell her accidental death insurance.

“I find this to be deceptive,” Cindy said. “I can see how some, particularly seniors, would sign this and return without really looking at the material inside. Very deceptive.”

An ill-advised loan

Eric, of Falling Waters, W.Va., says he is about to lose his wheels. He and his wife took out a car title loan – very similar to a payday loan, except that a vehicle title is used as collateral. After paying off two previous car title loans with the company, Virginia Fast Auto Loans, Eric says he suffered a financial setback.

“I told them we cant pay and if they have to to come pick up vehicle,” Eric said. “They keep calling and harassing us to make a payment. I've recently learned that theses loans were not legal in West Virginia. What can I do? Can they legally take my vehicle?”

Ordinarily, yes. But in West Virginia, maybe not. State Attorney General Darrell McGraw has aggressively taken on payday lenders, which are illegal in West Virginia. McGraw just happens to be investigating Fast Auto Loans and in April, sued the company for refusing to turn over records in defiance of a subpoena. Here's what McGraw has to say about car title loans:

"We cannot prevent consumers from traveling to other states to get ill-advised title and payday loans," McGraw said. "But when companies contact West Virginians who allegedly default on the loans, they must obey our state’s debt collection laws. If companies break these laws, my office will not hesitate to intervene."

Eric should call McGraw's office ASAP. He may end up losing his car, but at least the company will have to obey the law if it takes possession.

Where's my refund?

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) raised a lot of hopes among air travelers last month when, after the federal airline tax expired, the agency said some travelers who paid the tax were due a refund.

“Paid for two airline tickets June 8 and while vacationing the news gave information about the FAA charging these tickets with a tax that needs to be refunded back to us, the customer, for both roundtrip tickets,” Darcelle, of Brighton, Colo., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I'm filing this complaint just in case we ever see this refund.”

Sorry, Darcelle, you won't see a refund. The IRS just announced that, in its opinion, consumers aren't due a refund after all.

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Is Monitoring Kids' Online Activity A Waste Of Time?

Psychologist says parents would do better with dialog

A psychologist outlines positives and negatives about facebook and children...

PhotoWhile there are computer programs that allow parents to monitor their children's online activities, at least one psychologist thinks they are a waste of time.

Dr. Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, served up that opinion recently at the 119th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, in a panel on social networking.

“If you feel that you have to use some sort of computer program to surreptitiously monitor your child's social networking, you are wasting your time,” Rosen said, “Your child will find a workaround in a matter of minutes.”

Indicator

That's not to suggest parents should ignore their children's use of the Internet. How teens use social networking sites, he says, can be an indicator, both positive and negative. But you have to come at it from a level of trust and understanding.

“You have to start talking about appropriate technology use early and often and build trust, so that when there is a problem, whether it is being bullied or seeing a disturbing image, your child will talk to you about it,” Rosen said.

He encouraged parents to assess their child’s activities on social networking sites, and discuss removing inappropriate content or connections to people who appear problematic. Parents also need to pay attention to the online trends and the latest technologies, websites and applications children are using, he said.

“Communication is the crux of parenting. You need to talk to your kids, or rather, listen to them,” Rosen said. “The ratio of parent listen to parent talk should be at least five-to-one. Talk one minute and listen for five.”

Heavy Facebook use not a good sign

In his presentation, Rosen said teens who use Facebook more often show more narcissistic tendencies while young adults who have a strong Facebook presence show more signs of other psychological disorders, including antisocial behaviors, mania and aggressive tendencies. If you child always seems to be on Facebook, he says, that could be a wakeup call.

He said daily overuse of media and technology has a negative effect on the health of all children, preteens and teenagers by making them more prone to anxiety, depression, and other psychological disorders, as well as by making them more susceptible to future health problems.

But there are also some positives. Online social networking can help introverted adolescents learn how to socialize behind the safety of various screens, Rosen says. Social networking can also provide tools for teaching in compelling ways that engage young students.

“While nobody can deny that Facebook has altered the landscape of social interaction, particularly among young people, we are just now starting to see solid psychological research demonstrating both the positives and the negatives,” Rosen said.

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Class Action Calls Match.com a 'Scam'

More than 90% of potential dates are "phantoms," suit charges

More than 90 percent of the potential dates on Match.com are canceled subscribers, people who never subscribed, duplicates, or phantoms the company created...

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IRS Flip-Flops on Ticket Tax

Congressional fiddling created confusion, caused furloughs and delays

It was just a few days ago that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was telling airlines they should refund federal ticket taxes they collected while the ta...

PhotoIt was just a few days ago that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was telling airlines they should refund federal ticket taxes they collected while the taxes had expired due to Congressional inaction.

But the tax was reinstated on Friday through a Congressional maneuver and now the IRS says travelers will not be getting a refund.

"Passengers who purchased tickets prior to July 23 and traveled between July 23 and the date of enactment of [Friday's] legislation are not entitled to a refund of the airline ticket excise tax. Additionally, the IRS intends to provide relief for passengers and airlines with respect to ticket taxes that were not paid or collected because of the lapse."

In other words, no refunds but also no retroactive payments by passengers whose airlines did not charge them the tax during the time it was not in effect. 

Boondoggle

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives declined to approve what would normally be a routine reauthorization of the measure unless new rules were adopted to make it more difficult for FAA personnel to unionize. 

The action led to fuloughs of some FAA workers, delays in construction projects and layoffs for workers employed by contractors.  Federal employees will probably get their back pay but employees of contractors will most likely be out of luck.

“I’m very disappointed that Congress adjourned without passing a clean extension of the FAA bill,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last week. “Because of their inaction, states and airports won’t be able to work on their construction projects, and too many people will have to go without a paycheck. This is no way to run the best aviation system in the world.”

The tax in question generally is imposed on the “amount paid” for commercial air transportation. When a person purchases a ticket for air transportation, the airline collects the federal passenger air transportation excise taxes from the purchaser and then later pays the collected amount over to the IRS. 

The amount of tax collected from the purchaser is shown on the purchaser’s receipt as a separate line item, often labeled “federal taxes.”

The taxes include: 

  • The 7.5 percent tax on the base ticket price;
  • The domestic segment tax of $3.70 per person per segment (a single takeoff and single landing);
  • The international travel facilities tax of $16.30 per person for flights that begin or end in the U.S., or $8.20 per person for a flight that begins or ends in Alaska or Hawaii; and
  • The 6.25 percent tax on the amount paid for transporting property by air.

The whole affair put a kink in airport operations. The Federal Avaiation Administration (FAA) furloughed more than 4,000 employees in 35 states and halted numerous construction projects at airports around the country.

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45,000 Verizon Workers Go On Strike

Workers from Virginia to New England hit the bricks

For the first time since 2000, Verizon workers have gone on strike.  The Communications Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Elec...

PhotoFor the first time since 2000, Verizon workers have gone on strike.  The Communications Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) walked out Sunday afternoon after contract talks broke down.

"Since bargaining began on June 22, Verizon has refused to move from a long list of concession demands," the CWA said in a prepared statement. "As the contract expired, nearly 100 concessionary company proposals remained on the table.

"As a result, CWA and IBEW have decided to take the unprecedented step of striking until Verizon stops its Wisconsin-style tactics and starts bargaining seriously," the statement continued.

The strike affects field technicians and call center workers at Verizon offices from Virginia to New England.  It does not affect workers at Verizon Wireless, which is a joint venture of Verizon and Vodafone. 

The striking employees work on "land-line" services -- telephone, DSL and FIOS.  All but FIOS have been shrinking steadily in the last decade as consumers increasingly turn to wireless phones and cable television.

Photo
A rally at Verizon headquarters
in New York. (CWA photo)

CWA and IBEW have about half as many members at Verizon today as they did in 2000, due to constant layoffs and job eliminations which Verizon says are necessary to stay competitive.

Deep concessions

Verizon is seeking deep concessions. It wants to freeze pensions, tie pay increases more closely to job performance, make it easier to fire employees for cause and require workers to contribute $100 or more a month toward health-plan premiums. The company also wants to eliminate the Veterans Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day holidays.

The union says the company's demands are unreasonable.

"Verizon continued to seek to strip away 50 years of collective bargaining gains for middle class workers and their families," the unions said. 

"CWA and IBEW members are prepared to return to work when management demonstrates the willingness to begin bargaining seriously for a fair agreement. If not, CWA and IBEW members and allies will continue the fight," the CWA said on its Web site.

Verizon said it has planned for the strike and will be using management and non-union personnel to fill in.

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Are You Addicted to Your Smartphone?

Survey finds smartphone addiction is increasing rapidly

What's the one device you can use while driving, eating, going to the bathroom, feeding your baby, donating blood or having a profound and soul-searching d...

PhotoWhat's the one device you can use while driving, eating, going to the bathroom, feeding your baby, donating blood or having a profound and soul-searching discussion with your significant other?

Yes, of course, it's the smartphone, the addiction of choice for a fast-increasing percentage of the world's population.  Take, for example, a recent study in Britain, which found: 

  • Over a quarter of adults and nearly half of all teens now own a smartphone;
  • 37 per cent of adults and 60 per cent of teens are "highly addicted" to them;
  • Smartphones are beginning to affect social behavior.

The study from the British research firm Ofcom found that over a quarter of adults (27 per cent) and almost half of teenagers (47 per cent) now own a smartphone.

Most (59 per cent) have acquired their smartphone, which includes devices such as iPhones, Blackberrys and Android phones, over the past year.

Users make significantly more calls and send more texts than regular mobile users (81 per cent of smartphone users make calls every day compared with 53 per cent of "regular" users).  Teenagers especially are ditching more traditional activities in favor of their smartphone, with 23 per cent claiming to watch less TV and 15 per cent admitting they read fewer books.

And when asked about the use of these devices, 37 per cent of adults and 60 per cent of teens admit they are "highly addicted."

In the bathroom and at the dinner table

The rapid growth in the use of smartphones – which offer internet access, email and a variety of internet-based applications – is changing the way many of us, particularly teenagers, act in social situations.

The vast majority of smartphone users (81 per cent) have their mobile switched on all of the time, even when they are in bed, with four in ten adults (38 per cent) and teens (40 per cent) admitting using their smartphone after it woke them.

Over half (51 per cent) of adults and two thirds (65 per cent) of teenagers say they have used their smartphone while socializing with others, nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of adults and a third (34 per cent) of teenagers have used them during mealtimes and over a fifth (22 per cent) of adult and nearly half (47 per cent) of teenage smartphone users admitted using or answering their handset in the bathroom or toilet.

Teenagers are also more likely to use their smartphone in places they’ve been asked to switch their phone off such as the movie theater or library – with 27 per cent admitting to doing so, compared with 18 per cent of adults.

Work/life balance

Ofcom’s research found that the line between work and social time is also becoming increasingly blurred.  Thirty per cent of smartphone users say they regularly take part in personal phone calls during working hours, compared with 23 per cent of regular mobile phone users. 

However, smartphone users are more likely to take part in work calls while on holiday or vacation.  Seventy per cent say they have ever done so, with a quarter (24 per cent) admitting to doing so regularly, compared with just 16 per cent of ordinary mobile phone users.

Generation App

The research also looked at the popularity of applications, or ‘apps’, among smartphone users and found that just under half (47 per cent) of adult smartphone users have downloaded an app – with many people taking advantage of the availability of free apps.

Teenage smartphone owners are more likely to have paid for an app download (38 per cent) than adult owners, amongst whom just a quarter (25 per cent) had paid for an app.

Teenagers are most likely to part with their pocket money for games, with a third (32 per cent) having paid for at least one game. Music is the next most popular genre amongst teens with 22 per cent having paid for a music-based app.

Adults are also most likely to pay for games (15 per cent) and music (8 per cent) apps, with maps/ navigation following close behind (7 per cent).

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What's On Your Mind? Cuisanart, eMachines, Vacation Property Resellers

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Cuisanart, eMachines, Vacation Property Resellers, Do some homework first, Now you tell me and Want out of your g...

PhotoWe continue to hear from consumers who think their Cuisinart coffeemakers are fire hazards.

“I too had the same experience with Cuisinart Coffee Maker Model #DCC1100,” Karen, of Laguna Beach, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “It started to smoke and if we had not unplugged it, I'm sure it would have started a fire. We will contact Cuisinart about the problem, but it looks like they sVacahould be concerned.”

Karen is right to report the problem to the company, but she should take the additional step of reporting it to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It sounds like the kind of problem the agency should look into, and the more they hear from consumers who've had the problem, the more likely they are to investigate.

Do some homework first

The technology world is constantly changing, creating something of a challenge for computer shoppers. It's almost dangerous to buy a computer without doing some research first, as Sherri, of Vancouver, Wash., discovered after an impulse purchase of a eMachine PC at her local Walmart.

“Put it this way, if Walmart was giving eMachine computers away absolutely free, it wouldn't even be worth the gas you would waste driving there,” Sherri said. “This computer freezes up constantly, when it is actually 'working' it's slower than a man getting ready to go to his in-laws.”

When shopping for a computer, it's best to seek more than one opinion on a product. There are a number of computer and technology sites that are constantly posting reviews. A savvy computer shopper will take advantage of them.

Now you tell me

Paul, of Shelton, Wash., is another timeshare owner who paid a company an upfront fee to sell his timeshare, only to regret it.

“I was contacted by Vacation Property Resellers in September,2010,” Paul told Consumeraffairs.com. “I was told the company could put my timeshare in a sales rotation and could be sold in a short time. I called periodically to check on progress but could not contact my original sales agent, but did get 'Jim' to answer the phone. I was told of tough times in timeshare resales. Now the phones are not in service.”

Tough times indeed. Timeshare owners need to know there is almost know market for timeshares in this economy. Paul is out $869 and is still stuck with his timeshare.

Want out of your gym contract?

Gym memberships are notoriously hard to get out of. But Vanessa, of Steelton, Pa., has a very different problem with her local Gold's Gym. The gym's child care department has told her not to bring her three year-old child back, ever. That led to a meeting between Vanessa and her husband and the gym's child care manager and facility manager.

“During this conversation the manager was rude to the point of telling us we were bad parents by saying 'that's bad parenting' to everything that was being said about my three year-old,” Vanessa said. “The only 'help' he offered was to cancel my membership which I made clear I was not interested in doing.”

We have no way of knowing what actually went on in the child care area with Vanessa's child, but it seems if you want to get out of your gym membership, perhaps the best way to do it is to enlist the help of an unruly three year-old.

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Lawmaker Blasts GOP Over Food Safety

Says House Republicans are weakening food inspection system

A Connecticut lawmaker blasts Republicans over cuts to food safety system...

PhotoRep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT), Ranking Member on the Labor, Education, Health, and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee and a strong food safety advocate, says “I told you so.”

As Cargill announced a recall of nealy 36 million pounds of ground turkey Wednesday, DeLauro said it was a reminder that the nation needs to strength, not weaken, its food safety system.

“This massive recall is yet another example of how critical it is to fully fund and support the agencies that are responsible for protecting our food supply,” DeLauro said. “It has been over four months since the first illness was identified and yet we just identified the facility and we still do not know definitively where the contamination occurred.”

Latest outbreak

The voluntary recall came amid the backdrop of a nationwide Salmonella outbreak that has sickened 78 consumers and killed one person in California. The current investigation centers on a single Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation plant in Springdale, Arkansas and distributed to consumers across the country.

DeLauro said she has consistently pushed for more resources for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other agencies that inspect the food supply.

“But the House majority has slashed funding for the FDA and USDA, choosing to preserve tax cuts for the wealthy over investing in and improving our food safety system,” the lawmaker said. “By cutting their funding, we have limited their effectiveness and asked FDA and USDA to do more with less, and the impact of these cuts is starkly clear with this most recent recall.”

DeLauro said it is only because of the work of state and local health departments, the USDA, and CDC using creative traceback techniques involving the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System that regulators were able to identify this outbreak and trace it to a single plant.

“In addition, the simple fact that this outbreak involves a foodborne bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics heightens the risk to the health of American consumers,” she said. “The length of time already passed and the volume of this recall are outrageous, and it has already claimed the life of one American.

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Postal Service Faces Pension Fund Default

The Postal Service continues to lose money and is in danger of default

Last week the burning question was whether the U.S. Government default on its debt. Today, a perhaps more pressing question is “Will the U.S. Postal...

PhotoLast week the burning question was whether the U.S. Government default on its debt. Today, a perhaps more pressing question is “Will the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) default on its debt to the U.S. Govrnment?

USPS announced today its losses for the latest quarter total $3.1 billion, raising the possibility of default if the red ink continues.

The quarterly loss of $3.1 billion compares to a net loss of $3.5 billion for the same period in FY 2010, as losses pile on top of one another. Total mail volume for the period declined to 39.8 billion pieces for the quarter, compared to 40.9 billion pieces in the third quarter of FY 2010.

USPS said the third quarter revenue “reflects the anemic state of the economy during the past three months.” Additionally, it says the growth in electronic communications continues to erode core first-class mail volume. Net losses for the nine months ended June 30 amount to $5.7 billion in 2011 compared to $5.4 billion in 2010.

Post office closings

The mail service recently announced plans to cut its budget by targeting 3,700 postal facilities for closing. But it apparently needs to do a lot more cutting.

The more immediate problem is a scheduled $5.5 billion payment to the postal employee pension fund that is due next month. The postal service doesn't have the money. Unless Congress does something to postpone the payment, or relieve it of its responsibility, USPS says it will be in default.

“We continue to take aggressive actions to reduce costs and bring the size of our infrastructure into alignment with reduced customer demand,” said Postmaster General and CEO Patrick Donahoe.

Some of those steps were outlined last month with USPS announced the targeting of branches for closing. It plans to expand its “village concept,” whereby post office functions are farmed out to local businesses, where consumers are already doing business.

Village concept

Instead of a post office, consumers would buy their stamps and drop off mail at an area retail establishment.

“By working with third-party retailers, we’re creating easier, more convenient access to our products and services when and where our customers want them,” Donahoe said. “The Village Post Office will offer another way for us to meet our customers’ needs.”

UPSP says it seek a “smaller, leaner and more competitive” postal system – and one, presumably, that can be operated with present revenue.

But just as many other large businesses discovered years ago, pension liabilities can be a crushing expense. Promises were made in labor negotiations that the present management is finding almost impossible to fulfill, giving the transition to electronic mail and private delivery services.

Until modern times, USPS was the U.S. Post Office Department, part of the executive branch of government. That changed in 1971 with passage of the Postal Reorganization Act, in which it was designated as an independent organization.

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Grandparent Scam Gets Scarier

Callers now know specific information about the families they're trying to defraud

The Better Business bureau reports a new twist on the Grandparent Scam that involves the caller already knowing detailed information about the family it is...

The Better Business bureau reports a new twist on the Grandparent Scam that involves the caller already knowing detailed information about the family it is trying to defraud.

At least six complaints from consumers in California's Central Valley victims have been received in the last two weeks.

The original scam generally worked like this -- the grandparent receives a distressed phone call from who they believe is their grandchild. The supposed grandchild typically explains that they are travelling in Canada and have been arrested or involved in an auto accident and need the grandparent to wire money to post bail or pay for damages — usually amounting to a few thousand dollars.

The scammers’ basic tactic is to pose as a grandchild and let the unsuspecting grandparent fill in the blanks. For example, the scam caller might say, “It’s me, your favorite grandchild,” to which the grandparent will guess the name of the grandchild it sounds the most like, and then the call proceeds from there.

Specific name

In the updated scam, callers identify themselves by  name as a particular family member. They say they are being held in jail in Mexico and they need bail money wired immediately. They lace their conversation with correct references by name to other family members, increasing their credibility. One caller even knew that the real person being impersonated had a twin who was born two minutes later.

Law enforcement officials contacted by the BBB are not certain how perpetrators are obtaining the inside knowledge or phone numbers for victims.

Victims should file a complaint with the FBI. Northern Valley residents should contact Herbert Brown, Special Agent in Charge, in Sacramento at 916-481-9110. Southern Valley victims should contact Steven Martinez, Los Angeles FBI Assistant Director in Charge, at 310-477-6565.

To protect themselves from this scam, and other scams that may use a distressed loved-one tactic, BBB is advising people to remain calm and confirm the status of the individual by calling them back directly or verifying the story with other family members before taking any further action.

Developing a secret code that is known only within the family is also recommended.

The BBB also encourages people to limit the amount of personal information shared on social media sites and to only “friend” people they personally know themselves.

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ACLU Challenges Debtors' Prisons in Michigan

Constitution prohibits jailing defendants too poor to pay fines

The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging “pay or stay” sentences imposed on five persons across the state who were illegally jailed fo...

PhotoThe American Civil Liberties Union is challenging “pay or stay” sentences imposed on five persons across the state who were illegally jailed for being too poor to pay court fines.

In each instance, the judge failed to hold a hearing that would prove the individual was too poor to pay, or give the defendant the option of a payment plan or community service.

“Long thought to be a relic of the 19th century, debtors’ prisons are still alive and well in Michigan,” said Kary Moss, the ACLU of Michigan’s executive director. “Jailing our clients because they are poor is not only unconstitutional, it’s unconscionable and a shameful waste of resources.

"Our justice system should be a place where freedom has no price and equality prevails regardless of a defendant’s economic status.”

The announcement is the result of a nearly two-year investigation into modern-day debtors' prisons in Michigan. Over the last two weeks, ACLU attorneys witnessed district and circuit court judges dole out “pay or stay” sentences in seven counties - Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Montcalm, Muskegon, Kent and Ionia. The ACLU’s clients represent dozens of poor defendants who are being jailed at increasingly alarming rates for failing to pay legal debts they cannot afford.

The U.S. and Michigan constitutions forbid debtors’ prisons and the jailing of individuals who cannot pay court fines and fees because they are poor.

“In the face of mounting budget deficits, states are aggressively targeting poor people, and minorities often bear the burden,” said Elora Mukherjee, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “These modern-day debtors' prisons impose devastating human costs, waste taxpayer money and create a two-tiered justice system.”

Too poor to pay

The ACLU is challenging the sentences of five individuals who were jailed for being too poor to pay fines, fees and costs related to criminal offenses. Although each defendant is willing to pay fees over time on a payment plan or perform community service, the judges never gave this option. As of today, two individuals have been released as a result of the ACLU’s intervention.

Kyle Dewitt, 19, was sentenced to three days in jail by Judge Raymond Voet of the 64A District Court in Ionia because he is unemployed and unable to pay $215 in fees related to a ticket for catching a fish out of season. After ACLU intervention, Dewitt was released from Ionia County Jail on Wednesday pending a trial.

Kristen Preston, 19, was sentenced to 30 days in jail by Judge Voet because she could not afford to pay a $125 alcohol assessment fee stemming from a minor in possession (MIP) charge. On Wednesday, Preston was released after ACLU intervention. She awaits sentencing for the MIP charge.

Dorian Bellinger, 22, was sentenced to 13 days in jail by Judge Robert Brzezinski of the 16th District Court in Livonia because he could not afford to pay $425 in fines and costs related to a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge.

Dontae Smith, 19, was sentenced to 41 days in jail by Judge Joseph Longo of the 43rd District Court in Ferndale because he could not afford to pay $415 in connection to several driving offenses, including driving with a suspended license and impeding traffic.

David Clark, 30, was sentenced to 90 days in jail by Judge Randy Kalmbach of the 27th District Court in Wyandotte because he could not afford to pay $1,250 in fees and costs related to charges for spanking his girlfriend’s son on the buttock. Clark’s girlfriend was charged with the same misdemeanor offense; however, her parents paid her costs, and she was therefore not jailed.

In 2010, Michigan was among the states featured in an ACLU report, “In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons.” The report detailed the way courts, in the face of budget cuts, target poor people who have already served their criminal sentences to pay fines or face jail time.

While many judges view the collection of legal debt as a critical revenue stream, there is no evidence such sentences increase revenue, as the costs of incarcerating indigent defendants for failing to pay generally exceed the amount owed.

 

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Wells Fargo, Fannie Mae Sued in Reverse Mortgage Case

Class action seeks to head off illegal foreclosures and evictions

A class action suit filed in San Francisco federal court on behalf of reverse mortgage borrowers and their survivors is designed to head off illegal f...

PhotoA class action suit filed in San Francisco federal court on behalf of reverse mortgage borrowers and their survivors is designed to head off illegal foreclosures and evictions.

The suit seeks a declaration of the rights of class members, as well as an injunction prohibiting illegal foreclosures and evictions, and damages for breach of contract.

The case involves the alleged failure of Wells Fargo Bank and the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) to accord the surviving spouses and heirs of reverse mortgage borrowers the right to purchase the property for its appraised value after the loan becomes due and payable, either because of the death of the borrower or for some other reason.

The representative plaintiff is Robert Chandler of Elk Grove, CA, whose mother, Rosemary, died in 2010, five years after obtaining a reverse mortgage. Like many other heirs, Chandler was never given notice of his right to purchase the property for its current value.

When Chandler expressed an interest in purchasing the property at that price, Wells Fargo told him that he would have to pay off the full mortgage balance. This is contrary to the explicit terms of the contract his mother signed with Wells Fargo and federal reverse mortgage law.

Wells Fargo, acting on behalf of the owner of the mortgage, Fannie Mae, then proceeded to foreclose on the Chandler home. Finding no one willing to buy it for the same market price that Chandler was willing to pay, Fannie Mae then began efforts to evict Chandler from the property, which his family has owned since the 1940s.

Congress designed the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage program with the explicit goals of helping seniors to access the equity in their homes, without facing a threat of losing their homes. A key part of the program is an insurance fund that every reverse mortgage borrower pays into, which ensures that their survivors can purchase the property at the current market value, should real estate prices fall.

The class action seeks to ensure that any heir of a reverse mortgage borrower who wants to purchase their family home, as Chandler does, will be able to do so.

Not an isolated case

“Mr. Chandler’s case is not an isolated one," said Jean Constantine-Davis, a senior attorney with AARP Foundation Litigation. "In the wake of HUD’s reversal of its rule on the rights of surviving spouses and heirs earlier this year, we have been contacted by many, many others facing the same problem. It is difficult to understand why reverse mortgage lenders continue to deny them their contractual and legal rights.”

In March, AARP Foundation Litigation and the law firm of Mehri & Skalet filed suit in federal court alleging that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had abandoned long-established federal rules that guaranteed that an heir or surviving spouse would never owe more than the home was worth at the time of repayment.

One month after the AARP suit was filed, HUD reversed itself, and reinstituted the HUD policy to the fairer practice of not requiring payment that exceeded the updated value of the home.

“We are committed to the cause of survivors of reverse mortgage borrowers who want to keep their family homes," said Steven A. Skalet of Mehri & Skalet.  "No one should lose a home because lenders fail to observe the explicit purchase provisions of the reverse mortgage program.  If defendants insist on breaking those rules, we intend to hold them to account.”

Michael Ng of Kerr & Wagstaffe LLP, another law firm involved in th4e case, said Wells Fargo’s actions are "not just wrong, they are economically irrational.

"Even though elderly borrowers paid for insurance that protects the bank against the downturn in the housing market, Wells Fargo insists on evicting family members from homes that will go unsold and unoccupied,” Ng said.

The new suit alleges that, despite HUD’s correction of its rules, the defendants are still failing to give notice to surviving spouses and heirs of their rights to purchase the property for the lower value, and are foreclosing and seeking to evict an heir who is attempting to pay off the current fair market price on an underwater home.

A reverse mortgage is a loan that allows older homeowners to convert the equity in their homes into cash. It is the “reverse” of a traditional mortgage, in which the borrower repays the borrowed sum on a monthly basis. Reverse mortgage borrowers receive money in the form of a loan that must be paid back out of their home equity.

Reverse mortgage borrowers are not required to make monthly or other periodic payments to repay the loan, other than payment of property taxes and home insurance premiums. Instead, the loan balance increases over time and the loan does not become due and payable until one of several specific events occur, for example, the last homeowner dies, moves permanently, or sells the home.

The loans are insured under the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) program, and because of the complexity of the program and because it is specifically tailored to meet the needs of those 62 and older, Congress included special protections for HECM borrowers.

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iPhone Is Now Top-Selling Smartphone

Samsung a close second in IDC rankings for second quarter

IDC reports Apple is now the top selling smartphone maker...

PhotoIn the technology world, no company has been hotter than Apple. That trend continues as the research firm IDC reports Apple has supplanted Nokia as the world's top smartphone manufacturer in the second quarter of 2011.

According to IDC, Apple shipped 20.3 million iPhones during the second quarter, giving it a 19.1 percent market share. That achievement is impressive when you consider that in the second quarter of 2010, Apple shipped 8.4 million iPhones, and had a 13 percent share of the smartphone market.

In the last year the iPhone has increased its stature as the must-have mobile device. It didn't hurt that in the first quarter of this year, Verizon Wireless – with its much larger subscriber base – started selling the iPhone in the U.S. Prior to that U.S. consumers could only use an iPhone on AT&T's network.

iPhone 5

The iPhone 4, Apple's latest model, is growing a bit long in the tooth by technology standards, since it was introduced 13 months ago. Apple has not confirmed when or if it will issue an update, but rumors suggest the iPhone 5 will be out by October.

While Apple has a good second quarter, so did Samsung. The equipment maker was second in sales with shipments of 17.3 million units, for a 16.2 percent share of the market. It's improvement over the second quarter of 2010 was even more dramatic, with shipments rising 380 percent.

Of course, Apple achieved its numbers on one model – the iPhone. Samsung produces and sells a variety of different model smartphones. IDC said Samsung achieved most of its success, however, on its high-end devices, such as the Galaxy S.

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What's On Your Mind? Sprint, Toyota, Pearle Vision, MyLife.com

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Sprint, Toyota, Pearle Vision, MyLife.com, Sour note, Unauthorized charge and When it rains, it pours....

PhotoThere's nothing more embarrassing that being in an important business meeting and have your cell phone go off. But what if that happens when you've set the device to silent?

“This all started when I heard a faint ringing noise that wouldn’t stop,” Karthik, of Cincinnati, Ohio, told ConsumerAffairs.com. “At first, I didn’t even suspect my mobile device, a Sanyo Zio SCP 8600. After several days of searching, I almost gave up. One fine morning, I was at an official meeting and the noise started. To my embarrassment, the noise was indeed coming from my cellphone, that was silenced! After attempts at silencing the phone again, I ended up shutting down the device, and that is how I keep it at work now!”

Karthik says she has spent countless hours with Sprint trying to pinpoint the problem, to no avail. Anyone else have that problem?

When it rains, it pours

Louis, of Asssonet, Mass., bought a 2010 Toyota last year and really likes it, except for one thing.

“When it rains the sunroof leaks and Toyota has not been able to explain to me what the issue is,” Louis said. “I have reproduced the failure/leak many times at home and took pictures of the issue. But the dealership seems to do nothing about the problem. Any support and help on this issue please feel free to comment. All I want is an explanation why some cars leak and some don't.”

Toyota owners should feel free to chime in, but a sunroof leak could be caused by any number of flaws, included a mismounted window and a damaged gasket. Water can find the tiniest hole. The bigger issue is the repair. Louis says the car is still under warranty, so he should insist that the dealer repair it.

Sour note

Mark, of Jacksonville, Fla., went to Pearle Vision for glasses, informing the optometrist the main reason he needed them was for reading music.

“It's usually a little more than arms length,” Mark told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I showed her by stretching my arm out. The glasses were ready in a little over a week. The fitting did not go well as the glasses were way off. Focal range was about six inches from my nose. The prescription was changed without a new exam. The second pair was worse as the first because it moved the focus to four inches. But, I was told by the professional Pearle Vision associate the distance was ideal for reading a book. Was offered the opportunity to return on another day for a re-exam by the other optometrist. I declined.”

Mark said he returned to an optometrist he had used in the past and was happy. Generally, that's the way it is with healthcare providers. Some you like more than others. Some listen to you, others don't.

Unauthorized charge

Consumers get very upset when they think they are using a “free” service, or are on a “free trials,” only to have charges show up on their credit cards.

"I did a search on MyLife.com for a lady that crossed the pacific with me in1963,” said Paul, or Huger, S.C.. “I did not join the site or give them any credit card information but they were able to hack my account and stole without my consent $14.95 for a Mylife people search. I have no idea how they got my debit card info because I did not provide it to them. This is wrong and very misleading.”

Paul may feel like a hacking victim, but he probably isn't. Chance are he got to the MyLife site by doing an online purchase with another company. It's common practice for one company to share credit card information with “marketing partners.” The consumer has no idea the second company can charge them for something. Paul should be able to ask MyLife to provide a proof of purchase.

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Oil Prices Plunge, Will Gas Prices Follow?

They will if history repeats itself

With the economy on the brink of a recession, oil prices plunge...

PhotoFor months economists and industry analysts have said market fundamentals did not support $100 a barrel oil, yet oil prices stubbornly hovered around that level. Now, that seems to have changed, big time.

As Wall Street went into a free fall this week, so did oil prices. Light sweet crude for September delivery fell below $89 a barrel at midday. Even Brent crude, which has remained much more expensive that U.S. oil, dropped nearly three percent today.

Stocks and oil are down for much the same reason. Recent economic data suggests the U.S. economic recovery has stalled. Data from other countries has also been disappointing, convincing the markets that another global recession is possible.

Less demand for oil

With economies in recession, the reasoning goes, there is less need for oil, so that present supplies, which have remained plentiful, can be stretched even farther.

If oil continues to fall, consumers can expect to see lower gasoline prices. In the futures market, where wholesalers buy their fuel to sell to gas stations, reformulated gasoline for September delivery was down about four percent in today's trading.

Gasoline at the retail level, of course, is slower to react. The national average retail price of self-serve regular today is about $3.70 a gallon, according to AAA, and has been in that range over the last few days. Chances are, that average price should begin dropping over the next few days.

A repeat of 2008?

How low will it go? It all depends on whether fears about a recession actually come true. One only has to rewind the clock to about this time in 2008 to see a parallel. After gasoline prices peaked at over $4 a gallon in July, the economy went into a freefall in September. By the end of the year, gas prices were well under $2 a gallon.

This year gas prices peaked right under $4 a gallon in early May, with the economy showing signs of weakness at the end of July. Is there a link between $4 a gallon gas and a recession? That's something for economists to argue about.

What can't be argued is that $4 a gallon gas places a heavy burden on consumers, many of whom are operating on the same, or less income over the last few years. No one wants to see a recession, but for consumers, relief at the gas pump may be a silver lining.

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Big Banks Still Charging Stiff Overdraft Fees

Fifth Third Bank charges highest rate, equalling 3,259% APR

One year after the Federal Reserve required banks to get customers’ permission to charge overdraft fees on debit card transactions, fees charged by b...

PhotoOne year after the Federal Reserve required banks to get customers’ permission to charge overdraft fees on debit card transactions, fees charged by banks have not dropped for what amounts to short-term loans, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) reports.

While some banks have modified the order in which they process payments from accounts, most banks continue to pay the largest transactions first, which can drive up overdraft revenue at the expense of struggling families.

CFA surveyed overdraft fees at the 14 largest banks and found only Citibank and HSBC not charging overdraft fees for debit-card and ATM transactions.

“Bank overdraft fees at the largest banks remain steep, ranging from $33 to $37, and far exceed the typical $20 debit card overdraft,” said Jean Ann Fox, director of financial services for CFA.

“Some banks have hiked the number of overdraft fees consumers can rack up in a single day to as many as ten, costing consumers as much as $370 in just one day.”

BB&T doubles fees

In the last year, BB&T doubled the number of overdraft fees it charges per day, capping fees at 8 per day, and Regions Bank raised its daily limit from 4 to 6 per day. Only TD Bank reduced the number of fees per day from 6 to 5.

The CFA survey found two-thirds of the largest banks pile on second and multiple fees if consumers do not repay overdrafts in just a few days. SunTrust charges a second $36 fee after seven days while JP Morgan Chase adds $15 after each five-day period an overdraft remains unpaid.

Overdrafts and fees must be repaid immediately to avoid extra fees or as soon as the next paycheck or benefit check hits the customer’s account. Banks repay themselves directly out of the consumer’s funds, making overdrafts balloon payment loans and the top priority for scarce family funds.

Most large banks solicit their customers to opt in to paying g overdraft fees for debit card purchases and ATM withdrawals that could be denied for no fee. Notable exceptions are Citibank, which never charged overdraft fees for debit card and ATM transactions, and HSBC which no longer permits overdrafts by debit card at the cash register or ATM.

Bank of America does not permit debit card overdrafts for single purchases, but in the last year resumed permitting consumers to overdraw at the ATM at a cost of $35 per transaction.

Manipulating payments

Manipulating the order of processing payments from accounts results in more fees for consumers who struggle to make ends meet. In 2010 almost all major banks processed payments largest to smallest or reserved the right to do so.

In the last year, three banks improved the order in which they process payments from accounts. Citibank now processes checks smallest to largest and will begin processing ACH payments smallest first in October. Fifth Third and Wells Fargo made changes in the order in which some transactions are paid which should lessen the number of overdraft fees triggered. But most banks haven’t improved their posting process.

“Banks extend credit when they pay overdrafts with the bank’s money,” Fox noted. “If the cost is computed as for a payday loan, banks are charging triple and quadruple-digit rates to borrow money when all the fees are added up.”

The highest cost of a $100 overdraft loan repaid in two weeks, if computed as a closed-end payday loan, is 3,259% APR at Fifth Third Bank, 2,799% APR at RBS Citizens, and 2,574% APR at PNC Bank. There is no legal limit to the size of overdraft fees, the number of fees banks can charge, or the length of time consumers have to repay these loans.

“Consumers need stronger protection from abusive overdraft fees and practices,” Fox said. “Regulators should prohibit banks from manipulating payment processing order to drive up overdraft fees and should require banks to offer consumers the lowest cost overdraft coverage for which they qualify. Banks should be prohibited from charging for overdrafts triggered by debit cards that can be denied at no cost to consumers,” she urged.

The Comptroller of the Currency is accepting comments through August 8 on proposed guidelines for bank overdraft practices and other loans based on bank accounts. Consumers can use an easy comment form provided by the Center for Responsible Lending to tell the OCC about needed overdraft reforms.

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FDA Approves First Treatment for Scorpion Stings

Venemous scorpions found mostly in Arizona, victims are usually children

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Anascorp, the first specific treatment for a scorpion sting by Centruroides scorpions in the United Stat...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Anascorp, the first specific treatment for a scorpion sting by Centruroides scorpions in the United States.

Venomous scorpions in the U.S. are mostly found in Arizona. Severe stings occur most frequently in infants and children, and can cause shortness of breath, fluid in the lungs, breathing problems, excess saliva, blurred vision, slurred speech, trouble swallowing, abnormal eye movements, muscle twitching, trouble walking, and other uncoordinated muscle movements. Untreated cases can be fatal.

“This product provides a new treatment for children and adults and is designed specifically for scorpion stings,” said Karen Midthun, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. “Scorpion stings can be life-threatening, especially in infants and children.”

Horse plasma

Anascorp is made from the plasma of  horses immunized with scorpion venom. Anascorp may cause early or delayed allergic reactions in people sensitive to horse proteins. The manufacturing process for Anascorp includes steps to decrease the chance of allergic reactions and to reduce the risk of transmission of viruses that may be present in the plasma.

The effectiveness of Anascorp was based on results from a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 15 children with neurological signs of scorpion stings. These signs resolved within four hours of treatment in the eight subjects who received Anascorp, but in only one of the seven participants who received the placebo.

The most common side effects were vomiting, fever, rash, nausea, itchiness, headache, runny nose, and muscle pain. In total, safety and efficacy data was collected from 1,534 patients in both open-label and blinded studies.

Anascorp was designated as an Orphan drug by FDA and received priority review.

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Cargill Recalls 36 Million Pounds of Ground Turkey

Latest food safety safety crisis sickens 79, kills 1

Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation, of Springdale, Ark., is recalling 36 million pounds of ground turkey products that may be contaminated with a multi-dru...

PhotoCargill Meat Solutions Corporation, of Springdale, Ark., is recalling 36 million pounds of ground turkey products that may be contaminated with a multi-drug resistant strain of Salmonella Heidelberg, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said.

A total of 79 persons in 26 states are known to have been infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Heidelberg. At least one has died.

The products subject to recall today bear the establishment number "P-963" inside the USDA mark of inspection, and include the following:

Ground Turkey Chubs - Use or Freeze by Dates of 2/20/11 through 8/23/11

  • 10 lb. chubs of Honeysuckle White Fresh Natural Lean Ground Turkey with Natural Flavorings

  • 10 lb. chubs of Unbranded Ground Turkey w/ Natural Flavoring 2 Pack

  • 80 oz. (5 lbs.) chubs of Riverside Ground Turkey with Natural Flavoring

  • 10 lb. chubs of Natural Lean Ground Turkey with Natural Flavorings

  • 16 oz. (1 lb.) chubs of Fresh Lean HEB Ground Turkey 93/7

  • 16 oz. (1 lb.) chubs of Fresh HEB Ground Turkey 85/15

  • 16 oz. (1 lb.) chubs of Honeysuckle White 93/7 Fresh Ground Turkey with Natural Flavoring

  • 4-1 Pound Packages of Honeysuckle White Ground Turkey with Natural Flavoring Value Pack

  • 16 oz. (1 lb.) chubs of Honeysuckle White 85/15 Fresh Ground Turkey

  • 48 oz. (3 lb.) chubs of Honeysuckle White 85/15 Fresh Ground Turkey

85% Ground Turkey - Use or Freeze by Dates of 2/20/11 through 8/23/11

  • 19.2 oz. (1.2 lb.) trays of Honeysuckle White 85/15 Ground Turkey

  • 19.2 oz. (1.2 lb.) trays of Honeysuckle White Taco Seasoned Ground Turkey Colored with Paprika

  • 19.2 oz. (1 lb. 3.2 oz.) trays of Kroger Ground Turkey Fresh 85/15

  • 48.0 oz. (3 lb.) trays of Kroger Ground Turkey Fresh 85/15

  • 20 oz. (1.25 lb.) trays of Honeysuckle White 85/15 Ground Turkey

  • 48.0 oz. (3 lbs.) trays of Honeysuckle White 85/15 Ground Turkey Family Pack

  • 16 oz. (1 lb.) trays of Honeysuckle White 85/15 Ground Turkey

  • 19.2 oz. (1.2 lbs.) trays of Honeysuckle White Seasoned Italian Style Ground Turkey with Natural Flavorings

  • 20 oz. (1 lb. 4 oz.) trays of Safeway Fresh Ground Turkey with Natural Flavorings * 15% Fat
    (NOTE: Sold in Texas only at Randall's and Tom Thumb, Use or Freeze by 03/12/11 through 05/05/11)

93% Ground Turkey - Use or Freeze by Dates of 2/20/11 through 8/23/11

  • 19.2 oz. (1.20 lb.) trays of Honeysuckle White 93/7 Lean Ground Turkey

  • 48 oz. (3.0 lbs.) trays of Honeysuckle White 93/7 Lean Ground Turkey Family Pack

  • 19.2 oz. (1.2 lb.) trays of Fit & Active Lean Ground Turkey 93/07

  • 19.2 oz. (1.2 lbs.) trays of Giant Eagle Ground Turkey Fresh & Premium Lean

  • 19.2 oz. (1 lb 3.2 oz.) trays of Kroger Ground Turkey Fresh Lean 93/7

  • 20 oz. (1.25 lb.) trays of Honeysuckle White 93/7 Lean Ground Turkey

Ground Patties

  • 16.0 oz. (1 lb.) trays of Honeysuckle White Ground Turkey Patties with "Use by" or "Freeze by" dates of 2/20/11 through 8/23/11

  • 16 oz. (1 lb.) trays of Kroger Ground Seasoned Turkey Patties Fresh 85/15, with "Use by" or "Freeze by" dates of 2/20/11 through 8/23/11

  • 16.0 oz. (1 lb.) trays of Shady Brook Farms Ground Turkey Burgers with Natural Flavoring with the following "Use by" or "Freeze by" dates: 07/09/11, 07/10/11, 07/11/11, 07/15/11, 07/16/11, 07/21/11, 07/22/11, 07/24/11, 08/01/11, or 08/04/11

Frozen Ground Turkey - Production Dates of 2/20/11 through 8/2/11

  • 16 oz. (1 lb.) chubs of Honeysuckle White Ground Turkey with Natural Flavoring

  • 16 oz. (1 lb.) chubs of Spartan Ground Turkey

  • 48 oz. (3 lb.) chubs of Honeysuckle White 85/15 Ground Turkey

  • 40 lb. Bulk Packed Ground Turkey with Natural Flavoring for Food Service Use Only

The products were distributed nationwide. Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation requests that consumers who may have purchased these products return them to the point-of-purchase. When available, the retail distribution list(s) will be posted on FSIS' website at www.fsis.usda.gov/FSIS_Recalls/Open_Federal_Cases/index.asp.


To prevent salmonellosis and other foodborne illnesses, wash hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw meat and poultry, and cook poultry—including ground turkey—to 165° F, as determined with a food thermometer.

This recall follows a July 29, 2011 FSIS Public Health Alert that was initiated due to concerns about illnesses caused by Salmonella Heidelberg that may be associated with use and consumption of ground turkey. A total of 79 persons infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Heidelberg have been reported from 26 states between March 1 and August 3, 2011. The outbreak strain of Salmonella Heidelberg is resistant to several commonly prescribed antibiotics.

Among the ill persons with available information, 22 (38%) have been hospitalized and 1 death has been reported. As a result of the epidemiologic and traceback investigations, as well as in-plant findings, FSIS determined that there is a link between the Cargill ground turkey products and this illness outbreak. FSIS is continuing to work with CDC, affected state public health partners, and the company on the investigation.


Consumers with questions about this recall should contact Cargill's consumer relations toll free telephone number at 1-888-812-1646. 

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New Jersey Targets Mortgage Modification Schemes

Seven firms face administrative actions

New Jersey steps up the pressure on mortgage modification companies...

PhotoMore states appear to be taking aim at businesses that lure desperate homeowners into mortgage modification plans, only to leave the homeowners in worse shape financially.

New Jersey reports administrative actions against seven businesses for illegally offering mortgage modification services to homeowners in dire financial straits. State law requires that anyone providing these services in New Jersey be licensed as a Debt Adjuster by the Department of Banking and Insurance, or be otherwise authorized.

The seven companies served with a Notice of Violation are:

  • Dunwell Financial Services, LLC - Jersey City
  • Home Mitigation Group - Matawan
  • Loss Mitigation Consultant Services - Paulsboro
  • Rose MM, LLC - Newark
  • Save Americas Mortgages Corp. - Fort Lee
  • TWI Corp. - Winter Garden, Fla.
  • Continental Associates, Ltd. - Commack, N.Y.

Not licensed

The Division of Consumer Affairs filed Notices of Violation against what it called “illegitimate businesses,” which offered mortgage loan modification services even though they were not licensed to do so in New Jersey. The State is seeking $35,000 in civil penalties and $49,434 in consumer restitution from the companies. The amounts sought in consumer restitution represent the fees paid by approximately 10 consumers for mortgage loan modification services.

The Notices of Violation also provide that the companies, cited for violating the state’s Consumer Fraud Act and Debt Adjustment and Credit Counseling Act, must cease and desist from offering debt adjustment services. The companies have the option of contesting the Notice of Violation and requesting a hearing.

Making a difficult situation worse

“We do not want homeowners who are already struggling to make mortgage payments victimized by unlicensed persons offering services that they cannot lawfully provide,” New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow said. “Unlicensed companies most often make a difficult situation worse for homeowners, and we will continue to go after these firms.”

A mortgage loan modification involves changing the terms of an existing loan – for example, by lowering the monthly payments, adjusting the interest rate, extending the length of the loan, or in some cases decreasing the unpaid balance.

To weed out the bad actors preying on distressed homeowners, a number of states, including New Jersey, have written laws limiting the types of businesses and organizations that can offer mortgage modification services.

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Class Action Claims Microsoft Double-Bills Xbox Subscribers

Automatic subscription renewal not authorized in contract, suit charges

Microsoft double-bills subscribers to its Xbox Live Gold service, an online multiplayer game system with 23 million subscribers, an irate customer says in...

PhotoMicrosoft double-bills subscribers to its Xbox Live Gold service, an online multiplayer game system with 23 million subscribers, an irate customer says in a federal class action.

In the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, Ryan Graves of Bloomington, Ind., says he bought his first Xbox 360 video game console in December 2005. He later signed up for Xbox LIVE Gold, a prepaid subscription service which allows its 23 million members to play against each.

Graves used his debit card in January 2010 to sign up for the $49.99 annual subscription and said he did not recall authorizing an automatic renewal of his subscription.

In June 2010, Graves canceled his debit card and in January 2011, his prepaid Xbox LIVE Gold subscription ended and Microsoft terminated his access.

Shortly thereafter, Graves signed up for a new one-month free Xbox LIVE Gold subscription and, when that ended on March 4, 2011, he purchased a new annual subscription for $64.19 and gave Microsoft his new debit card number.

Upon reviewing his checking account statement in April, Graves found that Microsoft had billed him for two separate $64.19 transactions on March 4.

But Graves had agreed to only one of those charges – the new subscription. Microsoft debited his card not only for the new subscription but also for the one that had ended in January 2011.

Graves called Microsoft customer support and was told that the company would investigate. After a number of conversations, a Microsoft representative informed him that the company considered the matter "resolved" and would give him two years of Xbox service.

Graves objected, saying he did not want and did not order a two-year subscription.

The suit charges that Microsoft routinely renews Xbox subscriptions without permission and charges it with breach of contract, unjust enrichment and violations of the Electronic Funds Transfer Act.

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Airbnb Rental Horror Story Keeps Getting Worse

Another victim tells a tale of bizarre apartment vandalism

A typical Airbnb listing Would you use the Internet to make a date with a perfect stranger? To buy a car sight unseen? Send a money order for a fe...

Photo
A typical Airbnb listing

Would you use the Internet to make a blind date? To buy a car sight unseen? Send a money order for a few thousand dollars to collect millions of dollars in a sweepstakes you didn't enter?

OK fine, but would you use the Internet to rent your apartment to a perfect stranger?

Believe it or not, people do this every day using Airbnb.com, a site that takes the Web sharing concept to new heights. Basically, Airbnb lets you rent your house or apartment to someone you've never met and whose identity you are not given.

Of course, Airbnb has never met this person either but, taking a page from the dating site playbook, claims it thoroughly checks the references of would-be renters.

It didn't work out so well for a San Francisco blogger known as "EJ." She rented her apartment last month while she was out of town on a business trip. When she returned, the place had been trashed and EJ hastened to the keyboard to describe the damage in chilling detail.

EJ's renters not only trashed the apartment and stole numerous valuables. They also took the time to thoroughly investigate her personal documents, thus gaining access to account numbers and other data useful for future identity theft adventures.

Sincerest regrets

Airbnb dutifully expressed its regrets and vowed to tighten up its procedures going forward and police said they had a suspect in custody.

Now a second Bay Area Airbnb member, Troy Dayton, is telling a similar story, claiming his Oakland apartment was rented three months ago by a drug addict who trashed the place and left it littered with meth pipes, Techcrunch reports.

The latest account calls into question Airbnb's initial claims that EJ's experience was the first it knew of – "our first major incident in over 2 million nights" as the company put it.

Perhaps none of this would be worth the buzz it has generated except that Airbnb is one of the current hot items in the online business. The company raised $112 million recently on an estimated valuation of $1.3 billion – not bad for what amounts to a classified-ad site.

Hoping to rescue its reputation, and valuation, Airbnb now says it will provide $50,000 worth of protection to Airbnb hosts. The company also says it will beef up its user verification profile process and integrate profiles with social sites, allowing hosts to view potential guests prior to agreeing to rent to them.

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Gold Prices Surge To New Highs

Investors looking for safe haven

Gold prices continue to set new record highs...

PhotoConsumers who sold their gold jewelry last week may wish they had waited a few days. The price of the precious metal has surged this week amid signs of economic weakness in the U.S. and Europe.

The New York price of gold at midday was up $26 to $1,668 an ounce. It's up over $50 an ounce so for this week.

While gold prices have been surging, stock prices have been tanking. Wall Street has taken a beating this week, virtually ignoring the resolution of the much-worried-about debt ceiling debate and instead focusing on future growth prospects.

It hasn't happened overnight

Gold prices have been going up for years, but the sudden acceleration takes place against a backdrop in which the U.S. Congress waged an contentious debate before finally increasing the U.S. borrowing limit. As that vote was nearing its deadline, daily economic data suggested U.S. economic growth is slowing down, much faster than anyone expected. A growing number of economists concede the possibility the U.S. could slip into a double-dip recession.

Investors aren't the only ones loading up on gold. It was revealed this week that South Korea's central bank bought the precious metal. It's noteworthy because the bank had not bought gold in the last 13 years.

Flight to safety

"People want gold for safety," Frank Lesh, a trader at FuturePath Trading LLC in Chicago, told Bloomberg News.

Weakness in the dollar and the euro is also sending investors to gold, which even at its record level seems cheaper than some of the “safer” currencies, like the Swiss Franc.

Will gold go even higher or is it a bubble that one day will burst?

Many analysts think gold still has plenty of room to run. They note that in 1979, gold prices peaked at over $800 an ounce. Adjusting for inflation, an ounce of gold in 1979 should cost over $2,500 today.

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Big Brother Wants a Longer Memory

Feds want ISPs to keep one year's data on every customer

Consumers lately seem paranoid about advertisers “tracking” their Web activities to deliver more relevant ads. This is child's play compared to...

PhotoConsumers lately seem paranoid about advertisers “tracking” their Web activities to deliver more relevant ads. This is child's play compared to a proposal that won approval in the House Judiciary Committee recently.

The committee voted to approve a bill that would require internet service providers (ISPs) to retain data on every customer to allow the government to identify and track their online activity for one year.

Amendments added to the bill expanded the data retention requirement to include not only internet protocol addresses, but also customer names, addresses, phone records, type and length of service, and credit card numbers.

The measure is being portrayed as a weapon against child pornography but  privacy groups and committee members said the bill goes overboard.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) called it “a radical contradiction of the core American value that we are innocent until proven guilty” and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) said he was "not convinced it will contribute in any meaningful way to prosecuting child pornography,"

"Power grab"

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) called it an "unprecedented power grab by the federal government - it goes way beyond fighting child pornography."

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) pointed out that while the measure was portrayed as fighting child pornography, the data would be available for many other uses, including copyright prosecution and divorce cases.

“This data will be made available to law enforcement officers without a warrant or judicial oversight, and is a convenient way for law enforcement to get powers they couldn't get in the Patriot Act, said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

Privacy advocates testified that collecting and retaining additional data on Internet users greatly increases the risk that hackers will get access to that data and use it for data theft and electronic surveillance.

“Security experts have made clear that the best way to prevent loss or misuse of sensitive personal information is to avoid gathering or storing it in the first place,” said Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

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What's OnYour Mind? Dish Network, Netflix, AOL, Readers Digest

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Dish Network, Netflix, AOL, Readers Digest, Timing is everything, Parting is such sweet sorrow and Tricky marketi...

PhotoAlmost all subscription services that involve hardware have a one or two year minimum service requirement, or they impose an early termination fee. Most consumers try to avoid these at all costs.

“I called Dish Network July 28th 2011 about canceling service in the near future,” Shawn, of Hillsborough, N.C., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was informed that I was not bound to any contract at the time of the call.”

That's just what he wanted to hear. So after making arrangements, Shawn said he called on August 2nd to cancel the service.

“I was informed that there will be a fee for canceling service, even after being with the company for 2 1/2 years,” Shawn said.

Shawn doesn't understand how a week ago he had no contract but now he does. He spoke to two different customer service reps and obviously one is mistaken.

If Shawn hasn't made any changes to his plan in the last two years, he can probably cancel without paying the fee, but he will have to talk to at least one more customer service rep, and maybe a supervisor or two.

Timing is everything

If you got mad at Netflix for raising prices and want to cancel, keep in mind that the service bills in advance.

“When Netflix announced their 60 percent price increase to begin the fall of 2011, I immediately cancelled my service,” Laura, of Kalamazoo, Mich. “This happened to be one day after my account was charged for the coming month. I cancelled through their website and never saw any notice that there would be no refund for unused service, which they claim when I called today was printed on the cancellation screen. Every other company that I have ever done business with, automatically calculates and issues a refund for any unused portion of service that was paid in advance. Three weeks went by and I didn't see a credit posted to my debit card account, so I called their customer service number to inquire on the refund. This is when the extremely rude service rep told me that cancellations made online will not receive a refund; that customers must call to cancel in order to receive a refund.”

Getting money back from companies these days always seems to be a struggle. If you are going to cancel, it may be best to do it at the end of your billing cycle.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

AOL is a legend when it comes to difficulty in separating yourself from their services. Harry, of Savannah, Ga., is finding it difficult to establish a cut off date.

“I cancelled my service with AOL on May 4, 2011,” Harry told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They have continued to bill me every month $25.90 on my visa card. My last payment was suppose to be for April because the next billing cycle had not gone through for May. When I called them June 22, 2011 they said I had to pay one more month because that it was I owed them (some bogus back pay). They have taken $25.90 out of my credit card every month and every month I pay off my crdit card so there was no back charges they had not been paid.”

Harry isn't alone. Others have continued to have the same difficulty, but there are ways to effectively terminate the service, outlined here.

Tricky marketing?

Magazine marketers have a large bag of tricks to persuade you to subscribe. The first challenge is to get you to open the envelop containing the sales pitch. Robert, of East Brunswick, N.J., doesn't care for the way Readers Digest goes about it.

“Today I received a form to subscribe,” he said. “My problem is the envelope in which it came. A normal white envelope with a bright orange box with black letters saying "ACCOUNT NOTICE". I think that a person seeing this would obviously open it quickly, thinking they had a problem. What really annoys me is that, in my case, my neighbor was taking in my mail for a few days while I was away. This highlighted box certainly can draw attention and, unless you open the envelope and see that it's only an invitation to subscribe, there could be a negative connotation.”

Robert wants to know why these kinds of tactics are used. The simple answer is, it's harder and harder to sell magazines these days. Robert shouldn't worry too much. Most people, probably including his neighbor, recognize these kinds of envelopes for what they really are.

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With Broadband, Is Speed All That Matters?

Researchers say consumers need additional information about ISPs

Researchers propose "nutrition label" for broadband service...

PhotoThe Federal Communications Commission is out with its report on broadband speeds, finding that Internet Service Providers (ISP) in the U.S. largely deliver on their promises, a contention some consumers might argue.

But is speed the only way to judge an ISP's performance? Researchers at the Georgia Tech College of Computing argue that in addition to measuring speed, regulators should require a broadband “nutrition label”—easy-to-understand information about service-limiting factors—and users need better ways of measuring the performance their ISPs are delivering,

Out of some 2 billion Internet users worldwide, about 500 million are residential broadband users, and recent figures show that two-thirds of U.S. households are hooked up to high-speed Internet. Generally speaking, these customers’ throughput—the “width” of their Internet pipeline—lives up to speeds advertised by their ISPs, says the FCC report, “Measuring Broadband America.”

How does it handle multi-tasking?

But many home Internet users simultaneously run multiple applications that each use network resources, and the behavior of one application can affect the performance another application receives, according to Nick Feamster, associate professor in the School of Computer Science at Georgia Tech.

“People should care about more than just throughput,” Feamster said. “Optimal network performance depends on several other factors, but measuring these important metrics and explaining them to consumers is challenging. It goes back to transparency—we want to give users the information that will help them make the best decisions about which service plan to purchase, and to give them ways to verify that they’re getting the level of service that they’re paying for.”

Feamster and his Ph.D. student, Srikanth Sundaresan, consulted with the FCC on its study data, which was gathered from about 10,000 homes across the United States and involved many different ISPs. Their recommendations incorporated data from both the FCC study and from an independent study, Project BISMark, a new open-source router platform that allows users to continuously monitor the performance that they are getting from their ISP.

Doesn't tell the full story

“We found that performance of U.S. ISPs more consistently matches their advertised promises than the ISPs in other countries—they do a pretty good job,” Feamster said. “But at the same time, those advertisements are based on performance metrics that don’t tell the full story about how users’ applications will actually perform. Throughput might have been the dominant metric when the debate was dial-up versus broadband, but it no longer gives the complete picture about application performance.”

Feamster sees the issue of broadband performance this way: while your connection to a webpage might be lightning fast, and use only a fraction of your bandwidth, how does it perform when you are running several functions at once? And do some functions work better than others?

For example, a user might be streaming a high-definition movie while making a video call over Skype—or when many other users are simultaneously on the network, that’s when performance can suffer.

Sometimes the network gives preference to activities or users with the biggest bandwidth appetites and leaves the rest foraging for scraps.

Latency

One key factor, says Feamster, is “latency,” a general term that refers to several kinds of delays incurred in the processing of network data. For instance, in the “last mile” of connectivity to a household—the final leg of connectivity from the ISP to the home—data errors and packet loss often crop up at a disproportionate rate, and these can significantly impair activities like streaming video or voice over IP services. To minimize this problem, ISPs often perform error correction in the last mile, which comes at the cost of some additional delay.

“They’re basically introducing a time lapse that, if you scaled it out to the appropriate physical distance, would equate to half the width of the country,” Feamster said. “So, if you’re a gamer and you chose your service plan based solely on throughput speed, you might not receive the level of service you expected.”

That could explain why many consumers feel they are not getting the performance from their ISP that they expect. The connection may be fast, but isn't up to the demands of that particular consumer's use of it.

Feamster and Sundaresan also found that certain cable and DSL modems can introduce excessive latency, depending on the activities and applications that users are performing in their homes.

Bufferbloat

“Any user who has noticed that certain activities like uploading photos can render the network unusable has been a victim of excessive buffering, or ‘bufferbloat,’” Feamster said.

In addition to proposing an Internet “nutrition label” that would detail network performance in terms of throughput, latency and other measurements, Feamster and Sundaresan have included mechanisms in the BISMark router to give priority to latency-sensitive applications like Skype so that they might function normally while their hungrier counterparts eat up the remaining bandwidth.

If throughput can be thought of as the number of lanes on the Information superhighway, the new technique in the BISMark router provides an “HOV lane” for voice and video traffic, so that the real-time traffic doesn’t get stuck waiting for your photos to finish uploading.

“Consumers need better tools for understanding whether their home network is performing as well as it should. A major part of making this possible is giving users an easy way to monitor their home network activity and performance over time, which is our vision for the BISMark router,” Feamster said.  

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Medicare Cutbacks Hit Nursing Homes Hard

11% reduction is just the beginning as deficit reduction efforts intensify

Nursing homes are bracing for an unexpected 11 percent reduction in Medicare reimbursement. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced ...

PhotoNursing homes are bracing for an unexpected 11 percent reduction in Medicare reimbursement. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the rate reduction late Friday, taking the nursing-home industry by surprise.

CMS said the sharply lower rates will “correct for an unintended spike in payment levels and better align Medicare payments with costs.” Nursing home executives say the cuts will make it even more difficult to provide appropriate levels of care.

"From our perspective, this is totally unacceptable," Sun Healthcare Chief Executive William Mathies said, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The government defended the cutbacks.

“CMS is committed to providing high quality care to those in skilled nursing facilities and to pay those facilities properly for that care,” said CMS Administrator Donald M. Berwick, M.D.  “The adjustments to the payment rates for next year reflect that policy.”

Stocks feel faint

Whether the cuts – which CMS prefers to call “adjustments” – negatively affect patient care remains to be seen, but they certainly put nursing home stocks into intensive care.

Sun Healthcare's stock price was off 43% Monday. Skilled Healthcare Group, which had earlier put itself up for sale, withdrew its sales offering after concluding that the company was no longer worth enough to make a sale worthwhile.

Just the beginning

Although it occurred just as Congress was finally reaching agreement on a debt ceiling and deficit reduction plan, the CMS action was not directly tied to that controversy.

However, anyway you look at it, the health care industry is in for huge cutbacks under the deficit reduction plan approved by Congress over the weekend. Under that plan,  a bipartisan Congressional committee must find a further $1.5 trillion in savings, beyond an initial $900 billion. If the committee cannot agree on at least $1.2 trillion in savings, automatic cuts kick in starting in 2013. Medicare would face big cuts under this scenario.

The prospect of years of whittling away at Medicare and Medicaid is already causing severe heartburn among seniors and their advocates.

“Over the next few months, policymakers must avoid making hasty decisions that would lead to deep cuts and irreversible changes to Medicare, shifting greater costs to beneficiaries—half of whom earn less than $22,000 per year—and reducing access to care,” said Joe Baker, president of the Medicare Rights Center.

“Changes to Medicare and Medicaid must address the root cause of the programs’ increasing costs, which is rising costs in the health care sector overall. Only by promoting shared sacrifice can we avoid balancing the budget on the backs of older Americans, people with disabilities and their families,” Baker said.

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Can America Ever Pay Off Its National Debt?

Over the last 60 years, it hasn't made much of an effort

There's little evidence the U.S. ever plans to pay off its rising debt...

PhotoNow that the drawn-out battle to raise the national debt ceiling is finally behind us, some people might be wondering how the U.S. will ever manage to pay off its $14 trillion and counting national debt.

The answer is, it probably won't, if history is any guide.

For those brave souls who want to see how the U.S. got so deep in the hole, the Treasury Department has an area of its website devoted to the nation's debt, showing the total on a year-by-year basis. While it's easy to be overwhelmed by the numbers, it makes instructive reading.

What becomes apparent, even to the most casual observer, is that in almost every year since World War II, the national debt has gone up. In good times and bad, the U.S. Government has borrowed more money.

Crisis spending

In June 1941, six months before America was thrust into World War II, the national debt stood at $48.9 billion. When war came, the government had to borrow massive amounts of money, mostly through the sale of “war bonds,” to raise funds to support the war effort.

By June 1946, with the war finally won, the federal debt stood at $269.4 billion, more than five times what it was five years earlier. During the post-war years that followed, as America returned to prosperity and rebuilt Europe, the debt remained at about that level. Despite the country's return to prosperity, the large war-time debt was not paid down.

In fact, except for a couple of years in the 1950s when it went down slightly, the debt steadily rose over the next half-century. It stood at $288.9 billion in June 1961, six months into the presidency of John F. Kennedy. In 1966, after President Johnson launched a “War on Poverty,” a ground war in Vietnam and Medicare, the national debt was still just $319.9 billion.

The national debt rose sharply during the inflation of the 1970s, hitting a half-trillion dollars on Gerald Ford's watch in 1975 and $907 billion during Jimmy Carter's last year in office, in 1980.

The $1 trillion mark

The debt passed the $1 trillion mark during Ronald Reagan's second year in office and surpassed $2 trillion four years later, after tax cuts and massive defense spending.

The debt had doubled again by the time Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. And while the 1990s were a time of robust economic growth and a booming stock market, the U.S. did nothing to reduce its debt, though its growth slowed noticeably over Clinton's eight years.

During George W. Bush's administration, the national debt nearly doubled again, from $5.8 trillion to $10 trillion.

Why didn't the U.S. pay down it's debt after World War II? The U.S. economy was much bigger than before, and many felt $250 billion or so wasn't such a big deal, since it was about the same percentage of the economy in 1950 as $49 billion was before the war.

As the economy grew in the 1950s and 60s, the size of the debt, as a percentage of the overall economy, continued to get smaller, even as the numbers got bigger. Now, however, the economy isn't growing very much, and the debt becomes bigger in terms of numbers and as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Unpleasant

As every consumer knows, paying off debt isn't all that pleasant. It requires using present resources to pay for things consumed in the past. In political terms, it would probably require Congress to raise taxes and cut spending, with the resulting surplus going, not for new spending that would please constituents and stimulate the economy, but to retire debt. Not a formula for winning re-election.

With the debt ceiling now at $16.4 trillion, will Congress ever start paying down the debt, just as consumers are paying off their credit cards?

Stranger things have happened, but over the last 60 years, paying off the national debt hasn't been one of them.

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Feds Focus On Turkey As Salmonella Outbreak Source

One dead, 76 sickened so far

The government is investigating ground turkey as a possible source of a Salmonella outbreak...

PhotoA nationwide Salmonella outbreak has killed one consumer in California and sickened at least 76 others in 26 states, but federal food safety officials have not yet positively identified its source.

However, officials at the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) believe the source of the contamination could be ground turkey. The agency has issued a public health alert while its investigation continues.

The alert reminds consumers of the critical importance of following package cooking instructions for frozen or fresh ground turkey products and general food safety guidelines when handling and preparing any raw meat or poultry.

In particular, while cooking instructions may give a specific number of minutes of cooking for each side of the patty in order to attain 165  degrees internal temperature, consumers should be aware that actual time may vary depending on the cooking method (broiling, frying, or grilling) and the temperature of the product (chilled versus frozen) so it is important that the final temperature of 165 degrees must be reached for safety. Don't rely on the cooking time for each side of the patty, but to use a food thermometer.

Ground turkey and ground turkey dishes should always be cooked to 165 degrees F internal temperature as measured with a food thermometer; leftovers also should be reheated to 165 degrees F.

Focus on Cargill plant

Though the FSIS has not identified a possible source of the contamination, the New York Times reports Cargill has confirmed that it has been contacted by the Agriculture Department (USDA) and asked to provide information to the investigation. The Times quotes a Cargill spokesman as saying the company is cooperating with the probe.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is partnering with state health departments to monitor the outbreak. The CDC has identified the strain as Salmonella Heidelberg, and confirmed that it is likely caused by eating ground turkey.

Public health investigators are using DNA “fingerprints” of Salmonella bacteria obtained through diagnostic testing with pulsed-field gel electrophoresis, or PFGE, to identify cases of illness that may be part of this outbreak, the agency said.

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Are We Headed For Another Recession?

Some economists think we are

Recent economic data suggests a double dip recession is possible...

PhotoThe “R” word has cropped up again this week. While attention was fixed on Washington's last-minute maneuvers over a debt-ceiling deal, a spate of economic data has raised questions about the U.S. economy's strength and the possibility of another recession.

Last Friday the government reported that the economy grew at a much lower than expected rate in the second quarter. On Monday data on June manufacturing was shockingly weak. Today the government reported consumers are spending less than expected.

Dumping stocks

As a result, traders on Wall Street sold stocks and bought bonds and gold, fearing the U.S. is sliding into a double-dip recession. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was off more than 100 points at mid-day and appeared headed for an eighth straight losing session.

Keep in mind that, for most of the year consumers have been spending a dollar a gallon more for gasoline than they did a year ago. That takes a big bite out of household budgets and keeps consumers from spending in other areas. In June, even spending for services was down sharply.

“This part of the economy normally grows solidly and consistently and the failure to do so is a clear sign that people are still extremely cautious,” said economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa. “Of course, to be able to spend a lot of money you need to make a lot of money and income growth is extremely weak. Wage and salary income was actually down in June.  As for inflation, the declining gasoline prices led to a drop in costs.”

Didn't end for some

A recession is defined as two straight quarters of negative economic growth. The last two quarters have seen growth, but barely. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew a paltry 1.3 percent in the second quarter and a nearly non-existent 0.4 percent in the first quarter. If the GDP were a pulse rate, the patient would likely be on life support.

Officially, the Great Recession ended two years ago, but for millions of Americans, it hasn't ended. Unemployment stubbornly remains above nine percent. Consumers, unsure about their job security and their ability to get a new job, put off spending. All of this has led to speculation that the U.S. is about to take a double-dip.

Jon Lonski, the chief economist at the Moody's ratings agency, is among the economists who thinks we're about to experience another round of negative economic growth. He warns Washington's deficit cutters that cutting spending too much could actually make a recession more likely.

In an article titled “10 Signs of a Double Dip,” The Atlantic notes the biggest drag on the economy remains the still floundering real estate market. It notes that “weakness in the real estate market hurts the real estate industry, construction, finance and net wealth.”

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Feds Find Broadband Services Approaching Advertised Speeds

FCC studied residential Internet service delivered to consumers in March

It may not seem like it when you're waiting for a YouTube selection to load but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says broadband providers are ge...

Photo
Julius Genachowski

It may not seem like it when you're waiting for a big file to load but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says broadband providers are generally living up to their promised speeds.

The agency studied residential Internet service offered by 13 large broadband providers – including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner – to subscribers during March. It found that Internet connections were generally within 80 to 90 percent of advertised maximum speeds.

The FCC set up an online speed test where consumers can check their Internet speed. Results of the tests were incorporated into the performance audit released today.

All three popular wired broadband delivery methods – fiber-optic cable, cable modems and DSL – do a good job of delivering promised speeds, even during peak periods, the study found.

But, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski noted, while existing broadband customers are generally well-served, nearly a third of Americans do not have service.

“That's nearly 100 million Americans who are being bypassed by the benefits of broadband. This is the broadband adoption gap,” Genachowski said.

Flying blind

While about 20 million Americans live in areas not served by broadband, many of those who are not yet connected lack the information they need to pick the service that's right for them, he said.

“While there's a flood of information to help consumers pick the right computer or gadget, when it comes to picking the service that brings those devices to life, consumers are largely flying blind,” Genachowski said. “80% of consumers don't know what speed they subscribe to. If you check your monthly broadband bill for specifics about the speed of your service, there's a good chance you won't find that information there. And if you did, it might not be in a language you can understand.

“How many people know what a megabit is?” he asked.

Genachowski, who spoke at a Best Buy store in downtown Washington, D.C., said the study released today was part of the agency's attempt to demystify the process and provide consumers with reliable information about the level of service available in their community.

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Men Becoming Coupon-Conscious, Study Finds

Male shoppers' appetite for coupons driven by technology

You don't normally think of men sitting around clipping grocery coupons from the newspaper but a survey finds that men are nevertheless becoming not just s...

PhotoYou don't normally think of men sitting around clipping grocery coupons from the newspaper but a survey finds that men are nevertheless becoming not just savvy shoppers but also astute coupon collectors.

In a survey conducted for Coupons.com, 59 percent of men said they redeem coupons when shopping, up 8% over last year.

Maybe this isn't surprising, given the success of Groupon, LivingSocial and other daily deal sites but men's changing behavior isn't limited to the daily deal sites, according to the Coupons.com study, which also found men's use of all types of coupons on the rise.

"Men are changing their shopping behaviors as a result of many things, including that coupons are for so much more than groceries," said Jeanette Pavini, Coupons.com household savings expert. "They are not going through the newspaper clipping away, but instead finding alternative sources which include online, at sites such as Coupons.com, and mobile phone apps such as Grocery iQ."

Pavini said the steady development of new applications is likely to fuel rising usage of coupons, real and virtual, by male shoppers.

"Men don’t want to pull out a stack of coupons so the fact that they can save coupons right to store loyalty cards through ‘Save-to-card’ is a huge plus,” she said.

Highlights from the study:

Redeemed a coupon

2010

2011

Men

51%

59%

Women

70%

70%

Redeemed a newspaper coupon

 

 

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44%

51%

Women

61%

73%

Redeemed an online coupon

 

 

Men

30%

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Women

37%

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Coupons.com offers online coupons from major national marketers, including A&P, CVS, General Mills and Kellogg's.

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Honda Civic Gets Trashed by Consumer Reports

Magazine dumps the Civic in favor of the Hyundai Elantra

Consumer Reports says it can no longer recommend that consumers buy the Honda Civic, one of the top-selling compacts in the U.S. But the non-profit magazin...

PhotoConsumer Reports says it can no longer recommend that consumers buy the Honda Civic, one of the top-selling compacts in the U.S.

The non-profit magazine said the newly-redesigned Civic is "less agile and with lower interior quality" than previous models.

"It also suffers from a choppy ride, long stopping distances, and pronounced road noise," said the magazine, which has recommended the Civic for 20 years and made it a "top pick" in five of the last 10 years.

Instead, the magazine chose the 2011 Hyundai Elantra as its top small-car choice, praising its roomy interior and impressive fuel economy. The Civic finished 11 out of 12 cars rated by Consumer Reports, trailed only by the Volkswagen Jetta.

"While other models like the Hyundai Elantra have gotten better after being redesigned, the Civic has dropped so much that now it ranks near the bottom of its category," said David Champion, who headed the magazine’s test center.

Honda disagreed, saying the new Civic "excels in areas that matter to small-car customers, including fuel efficiency, safety, and reliability."  

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Delta Will Refund Ticket Tax Payments

Other airlines still pondering how to handle unexpected windfall

After a scolding from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Delta Air Lines says it will process tax refunds for customers who were charged for a federal tax...

PhotoAfter a scolding from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Delta Air Lines says it will process tax refunds for customers who were charged for a federal tax on airline tickets that lapsed when Congress failed to renew it.

Other airlines are still trying to figure out what to do about the unexpected windfall, which occurred after Congress failed to vote on extending the federal ticket tax, which amounts to about $61 on a $300 ticket.

Customers who purchased a ticket before July 23 paid a tax that is no longer in effect. The IRS said airlines should return the money to consumers.

"The IRS will continue to work with the airline industry to address issues relating to the collection and payment of the taxes involved,” the agency said in a July 28 statement. “Taxpayers do not need to take any action at this time. The IRS will provide further guidance on this issue in the near future.”

But, as always, there's a catch, the IRS warned.  If you buy a ticket before the tax is reinstated but travel after it goes back into effect, what happens?

Answer: Nobody knows.

"The legislation could either impose tax on all travel occurring after its enactment or provide an exemption for passengers who purchased tickets during the period when the tax was not in effect," the IRS said in a statement on its Web site.

Quite a mess

Delta had originally said it would book $4 million to $5 million in additional daily revenue and had no plans to change its ticket prices, even though the tax was no longer in effect. Now the airline says it will issue refunds.

Alaska Air says it wants to make it easy for customers to get refunds but hasn't figured out how to process it through its ticketing system. Other airlines are still studying the issue.

Meanwhile, the unintended bonanza for passengers is putting a kink in airport operations. The Federal Avaiation Administration (FAA) has furloughed more than 4,000 employees in 35 states and halted numerous construction projects at airports around the country.

“I’m very disappointed that Congress adjourned without passing a clean extension of the FAA bill,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last week. “Because of their inaction, states and airports won’t be able to work on their construction projects, and too many people will have to go without a paycheck. This is no way to run the best aviation system in the world.”

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives declined to approve the reauthorization unless new rules were adopted to make it more difficult for FAA personnel to unionize. 

 

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Ford Recalling 1.1 Million Trucks Over Gas Tank Issue

Metal straps securing fuel tanks can break

Ford is recalling 1.1 million pick-up trucks because gas tanks can fall off...

Ford Motor Company is recalling as many as 1.1 million pick-up trucks because metal straps securing the fuel tanks are prone to corrosion and can break.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which announced the recall, said it involves certain 1997 through 2003 model year Ford F-150, 2004 model year Ford F-150 heritage, 1997 through 1999 model year F-250 less than 8,500 lbs. gross vehicle weight rating (gvwr), and 2002 and 2003 Lincoln Blackwater vehicles manufactured from June 20, 1995, through August 4, 2004.

The affected vehicles were originally sold, or currently registered in, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia.

Severe corrosion

Prolonged exposure to road deicing chemicals may cause severe corrosion of the fuel tank straps which secure the tank to the vehicle, the agency said.

As a result of the corrosion, one or both straps may fail allowing the fuel lines to separate from the tank, or in some cases, causing the tank to contact the ground. either scenario may result in a fuel leak presenting a fire hazard.

In late April a ConsumerAffairs.com reader, Rebbecca of Lorain, Ohio, said she filed a complaint to NHTSA after she said the fuel tank fell off her 1999 Ford F-150.

Lucky break

“Luckily we were breaking for a red light when it happened,” she said. “The entire family was in the vehicle.”

In early May NHTSA announced it was investigating those Ford fuel tanks and had expanded its probe to include earlier models.

NHTSA says Ford will notify owners and instruct them to take their vehicles to a dealer to have the fuel tank straps replaced with straps that have increased corrosion protection. Early in this campaign, if replacement straps are not available, dealers may install a cable support under the strap as an interim repair or a steel reinforcement over the existing strap as a permanent repair, the agency said. Any repairs will be performed free of charge.

The safety recall is expected to begin on or about September 12, 2011. Owners may contact Ford Motor Company customer relationship center at 1-866-436-7332.

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Debt Settlement Infomercial Producers Settle Colorado Charges

Company accused of misleading listeners

An infomercial producer has settled charges with the Colorado Attorney General...

You're driving along, listening to the radio, and a program comes on featuring a guest who says it's easy to walk about from your debts. All you need is a clever debt-settlement service.

Intrigued, you write down the toll-free number at the next traffic light and give the company a call. The experience, however, doesn't quite work out as advertised. In fact, you end up in worse shape than before.

How could that radio station broadcast a program that was so misleading? That's what Colorado Attorney General John Suthers wanted to know. The program about debt settlement, it turns out, was not produced by the station that aired it but by an infomercial producer, who bought time on the station and aired it.

Suthers filed suit last year against Real Talk Network and its principals, charging them with deceptive marketing. He's now reached a settlement with the company, requiring it to pay $226,414 – with most of that going to consumer restitution.

The settlement resolves charges that the company’s infomercials falsely promised, through deceptive infomercials and seminars, that they could help consumers get out of debt and pay off their mortgages in less than 10 years.

Static

Real Talk Network isn't the first debt relief company, posing as a broadcaster, to run afoul of consumer authorities. Earlier this year three companies and their owner, who allegedly falsely claimed they could help consumers quickly eliminate their credit card debts and stop calls from debt collectors, were banned from the debt relief business under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

According to the FTC’s complaint, The Hermosa Group and Financial Future Network deceptively advertised debt relief services, in English and Spanish radio and television ads, claiming that consumers could pay thousands less than what they owe on credit cards.

The defendants themselves did not provide any debt relief services. Instead, the advertising was meant only to generate sales leads -- the names and phone numbers of consumers who called the defendants’ toll-free number -- which the defendants sold to debt relief providers or other sales lead generators.

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What's On Your Mind? Just Flowers, Capital One, Old Republic Home Warranty

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Just Flowers, Capital One, Old Republic Home Warranty, The answer is the same as an hour ago and Temperature's ri...

PhotoMike, of Fayetteville, Ga., is in the doghouse, and he blames Just Flowers.

“Placed an order to be delivered to my wife on our anniversary,” Mike told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Placed the order the day prior, and was assured that it would deliver the next day.”

But the next day came and there was no deliver.

“I even called Just Flowers at about 4 PM to let them know the delivery had not arrived yet --- the CSR didn't do any checking, just said that they have until 6 PM to deliver and he was sure it would arrive by then.”

But 6 PM came and went and Mike said there was no delivery. He says he's still fighting with Just Flowers for a refund, but now has a slightly bigger problem.

“My wife assumes that I forgot our anniversary,” Mike said. “'Nuff said, yes?”

The answer is the same as an hour ago

Kathleen, of Schuyler Falls, N.Y., says she is on a payment plan with Capital One, trying to pay down their credit cards. It's hard, she says, because her husband has been cut back to part-time because of the economy.

“They call daily, not once but almost every hour to hour and a half everyday,” Kathleen said. “I can time them, whether or not we tell them to check their records. Then we're told 'oh yes, we see that, thank you.' The emotional stress this causes daily is now too much. The constant harassment is now out of control.”

There are no legal limits on the number of times a day a debt collector can call, but if Kathleen believes it to be harassment, she should start keeping a log of the calls and report it to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office.

Temperature's rising

Denise, of Richmond, Va., recently learned some of the limitations of having a home warranty, that is supposed to pay when things like air conditioners break.

“I lost my air conditioning on May 20 and notified Old Republic,” Denise told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They started a file on me and contacted an HVAC company in Richmond, who sent a mechanic over the next day. He told me I needed a new compressor, and that he would notify Old Republic of this. So far so good.”

When she hadn’t heard anything in a couple of days – with temperatures 90 degrees and higher in Richmond – Denise said she called. The mechanic had not even turned in the paperwork yet, she was told.

“The next day I called again,” Denise said. “He had turned in the paperwork but I was told he had “forgotten to specify the model of compressor.”

After repeatedly spending more than a half-hour on hold with each call, and sending her children to a neighbor's house to spend the night because of the heat, Denise took matters into her own hands.

“Finally I told one of the customer service operators that I had been in touch with an HVAC company I have used in the past in Richmond, who would fix my compressor the next day, and her response was 'sure you can call them, we just won’t reimburse you for the charges,'” Denise said.

That, in a nutshell, is pretty much the limitation of a home service warranty. The homeowner has no control over who does the repair and when they do it.  

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Gay Marriage Highlights Inequities in Tax Laws

Anti-tax rhetoric likely to be put to the acid test as gay couples assert their rights

We don't want to be the cause of any wedding bell blues but all the gay newlyweds in New York State need to keep in mind that the state's new same-sex marr...

PhotoWe don't want to be the cause of any wedding bell blues but all the gay newlyweds in New York State need to keep in mind that the state's new same-sex marriage law doesn't cut much wedding cake come tax time.

While New York and a growing number of smaller states now recognize gay marriage, the Internal Revenue Service does not, thanks to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits all federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages.

That means that same-sex couples are likely to face higher tax bills for health care, harsher estate-tax treatment and higher tax preparation costs.

This apparent inequity drew little attention when only a handful of relatively small states allowed gay marriage. But New York is not only the nation's third-most-populous state, it's also home to many of the richest, most influential and most litigious gay Americans.

After all, in a time when most state legislatures can't agree on whether or not to turn the lights on when it gets dark, New York's lawmakers and governor put up little resistance to legalizing same-sex marriage, thanks to a well-organized and very well-financed lobbying effort by the gay community.

This influential group is not likely to return meekly to the closet when it's time to cough up the annual tax payment. Count on some skillful use of the GOP's anti-tax rhetoric when New York's gay community takes the tax fight to Capitol Hill – and when the Obama Campaign's fundraisers come calling.

Health care

Perhaps the biggest inequity gay couples currently face involves company-paid health benefits. With many large employers paying for family health insurance for all married employees, those in same-sex marriages find themselves having to pay additional income tax on the benefits provided to their same-sex partners.

Some businesses now offer to reimburse employees for the additional tax they incur on such benefits but that raises the question of whether the reimbursement is taxable as income.

Of particular interest to affluent gay couples is the estate tax – or the "death tax," as the Tea Party and GOP call it. Currently, a heterosexual spouse can inherit money and property from a deceased marriage partner without tax penalties if the estate is under $5 million. Any amount over that is taxed at up to the top rate of 35 percent.  

Gay couples receive no such benefits and any assets left by one homosexual partner to another are subject to full taxation.  The "taxation without representation" argument is older than the United States and -- except for its feudal treatment of the District of Columbia -- is one that Congress finds difficult to resist.  

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American Express, Verizon Team On Phone Payment System

Will your smartphone replace plastic?

Verizon and American Express introduce a new payment system...

PhotoPlastic replaced cash. Could your smartphone be replacing plastic? American Express and Verizon Wireless are betting it might.

The financial services and telecom giants say they are teaming up on a digital payment and commerce platform that will allow consumers to order and pay for goods by typing in their phone number on select smartphones and tablets.

The two companies plan to integrate Serve, an existing commerce platform, on several Verizon products. In the next few months, Verizon Wireless customers will be able to establish Serve accounts that will enable them to make payments and redeem offers for goods and services directly from their mobile phones and tablets using Serve.

Phone number authenticates

Serve works by authenticating a mobile number, then allowing a customer to make a purchase on-screen. Verizon Wireless customers who have Serve-enabled devices will be able to buy goods and services on their mobile phone in just a few clicks.

The two companies say businesses will benefit as well. Merchants who accept Serve mobile payments will see faster processing and settlement,” they say. The Serve card is currently accepted by the millions of merchants in the United States who accept American Express.

Since coupons are all the rage now, American Express and Verizon Wireless will also hop on that bandwagon. They will collaborate to source, distribute and simplify redemption of online and mobile offers with participating merchants through the use of the Serve account. For example, as customers redeem certain offers or coupons using their mobile phones, the credit may automatically appear in their Serve account.

Payfone

The two companies are also working with Payfone to support Serve checkout on Verizon Wireless devices. Payfone's pre-authorization and routing features will guide Verizon Wireless customers who use the Serve application make mobile payments simply and securely.

"Our collaboration with Verizon highlights the speed at which Serve is evolving to reach a wide audience," said Dan Schulman, group president, Enterprise Growth, American Express. "Verizon Wireless customers will soon be able to complement their busy lifestyle with a trusted payment platform that delivers a fast, flexible and secure way to manage their day-to-day mobile purchases, and together we're taking the necessary steps to make mobile commerce a reality."

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Survey: Internet Explorer Users Less Intelligent

Explorer users don't take kindly to the study

A Canadian company has caused controversy by suggesting Internet Explorer users aren't as smart...

Photo
An IE user?

In a survey that has set off heated conversations in the blogosphere, a Canadian research firm has concluded that consumers who use the Internet Explorer web browser have, on average, lower IQs than those who use Firefox, Chrome or other browsers.

AptiQuant Psychometric Consulting Co conducted free online IQ tests last month, with more than 100,000 people taking part. The company then recorded the scores and matched them up with the web browsers they used.

“A significant number of individuals with a low score on the cognitive test were found to be using Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) versions 6.0 to 9.0,” the company said. “There was no significant difference in the IQ scores between individuals using Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Apple’s Safari; however, it was on an average higher than IE users.”

Smart people's browers?

Individuals using Opera, Camino and IE with Chrome Frame scored even higher.

“These data support the hypothesis that the IQ score and the choice of web browser are related,” the company said.

AptiQuant said its findings have “important implications and identify reasons behind the continuous use of outdated browsers, that has been bugging the web developers and IT companies since the last decade.”

Fighting words?

In other words, the firm seems to be suggesting, IE users aren't exactly the sharpest crayons in the box.

Those who are partial to Microsoft's web browser aren't taking this lying down. Within 24 hours of the survey's release, an IE users group has threated AptiQuant with a lawsuit. AptiQuant CEO Leonard However said his email inbox is jammed with hate mail.

Blogger Leo Sigh called the AptiQuant “an idiotic company” and that most studies of this nature “are a waste of money.”

In its press release, AptiQuant appeared to express some IT frustration with Microsoft's browser.

“Any IT company involved in web development will acknowledge the fact that millions of man hours are wasted each year to make otherwise perfectly functional websites work in Internet Explorer, because of its lack of compatibility with web standards,” the company said. “The continuous use of older versions of IE by millions of people around the world has often haunted web developers. This trend not only makes their job tougher, but has also pulled back innovation by at least a decade.”

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Purina ONE Vibrant Maturity 7+ Dry Cat Food Recalled

May be contaminated with Salmonella

Nestlé Purina PetCare Company is recalling a limited number of 3.5- and 7-pound bags of its Purina ONE Vibrant Maturity 7+ Dry Cat Food from a singl...

PhotoNestlé Purina PetCare Company is recalling a limited number of 3.5- and 7-pound bags of its Purina ONE Vibrant Maturity 7+ Dry Cat Food from a single production run and shipped to customers in 12 states in December 2010. 

This is being done because some bags of the product have been found to be contaminated with Salmonella.  Only Purina ONE Vibrant Maturity 7+ Dry Cat Food with both the “Best By” date and the production code shown are included in this voluntary recall : 
 

Product Name

Bag size

“Best By” Date &     Production Code*   

Bag UPC Code

Purina ONE Vibrant Maturity 7+

3.5 lb.

   MAY 2012  03341084

17800 01885

Purina ONE Vibrant Maturity 7+  

3.5 lb.

MAY 2012  03351084

17800 01885

Purina ONE Vibrant Maturity 7+

7 lb.    

MAY 2012  03341084

17800 01887

Purina ONE Vibrant Maturity 7+  

7 lb.    

   MAY 2012  03351084

17800 01887

 

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

The product was distributed to customers located in California, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin, who may have further distributed the product to other states.

Nestlé Purina PetCare Company became aware of the contamination as a result of samples that had been collected in several retail stores.

No additional Purina cat or dog products are involved in this voluntary recall.  No other Purina ONE brand products are involved.   Only Purina ONE Vibrant Maturity 7+ brand products which match the “Best By” dates and production code above are included in this recall.

Consumers who have purchased Purina ONE Vibrant Maturity 7+ Dry Cat Food products with these specific “Best By” Date and Production Codes should discontinue feeding the product and 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 you 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 or visit www.purina.com.

 

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10 Attorneys General Back T-Mobile Acquisition By AT&T

Break from other consumer advocates who oppose the deal

10 attorneys general say the AT&T merger with T-Mobile should go forward...

PhotoFrom the minute the proposed deal was announced, some consumer advocates spoke out in opposition to AT&T's plan to purchase T-Mobile.

The proposed deal would create the nation's largest cellular provider, easily eclipsing current number one Verizon Wireless, and consumer advocates warned consumers would pay the price. But not all consumer advocates agree.

Around the country, 10 attorneys general have spoken up in favor of the deal. The group, led by Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a Democrat, and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, a Republican, calls on the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission to expeditiously review and approve the proposed merger.

Will benefit consumers

The state officials contend the merger will create new capacity for the combined company, leading to better phone service and faster data downloads for consumers. The attorneys general join 26 governors, other state and local elected officials, 10 national unions, major high-tech and venture capital firms and other national organization in calls for federal regulators to approve the merger.

"There are significant economic and public benefits to this merger, and I'm proud to work with my fellow attorneys general to communicate our concerns to the DOJ and FCC," McDaniel said. "My primary concern is my hope that federal regulators do not require the divestiture of much-needed spectrum capacity."

More broadband

In their letter, the attorneys general cited AT&T's commitment to deploy "Long-Term Evolution" wireless broadband to more than 97 percent of the U.S. population as a result of the merger. LTE is a next-generation technology that supports faster wireless broadband speeds and has fewer delays. The spectrum capacity AT&T would acquire will be critical to serving those needs.

In the letter to DOJ Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, the attorneys general urged approval of the merger "with appropriate and carefully-crafted merger-specific remedies and conditions… [that] may be needed to protect competition and the public interest without unduly delaying the merger or undermining the synergies, economies or benefits of the merger."

In addition to McDaniel and Shurtleff, attorneys general from Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming signed the letter.

Others oppose

Consumer advocates who oppose the proposed deal say it will stifle competition and lead to higher prices and there are plenty of public officials who agree. In March, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said he is launching a full-scale review of AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile, citing tjhe possibility of higher prices for consumers.

Last week Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) formally asked regulators to reject the proposed deal, calling it bad for consumers.

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Sweepstakes Scammers Replace Moneygram With Green Dot

Victims told to send money using pre-paid cards

Con artists have updated the old sweepstakes scam...

PhotoFor years, people running a sweepstakes scam would instruct their victims to send money using a Western Union Moneygram, since it was untraceable and the funds not retrievable.

But now it appears schemers have updated the scam, substituting pre-paid debit cards as a way to take money from their marks.

In Oregon, Attorney General John Kroger has noticed the trend, with consumers reporting suspicious callers promising sweepstakes winnings but instructing potential victims to purchase a prepaid credit card to cover "taxes" or "fees" associated with collecting their cash prize.

For example, Kroger says one Oregon resident was contacted on his cell phone last week by a con artist who asked him to purchase three $1,000 Green Dot MoneyPak credit cards. In order to collect his sweepstakes prize, the man was told he must call an Idaho number and read the serial numbers off the back of the cards.

Old story

Bogus sweepstakes and lottery offers have been around forever, and while many easily see through these too good to be true schemes, many others fall victim to them. Often, they are precisely the people who can least afford to lose money.

These operations are often run by perpetrators located outside the U.S. – making it very difficult for law enforcement agencies to track them down. In 2010 officials received 1,054 complaints about international money schemes, with $1,999,323 in reported losses – more than double the $707,783 reportedly lost in 2009.

Kroger offers the following advice to consumers when it comes to unsolicited telephone calls, mail or e-mail about a sweepstakes or lottery:

  • Never pay to play in a sweepstakes.
  • Never pay money to claim a prize.
  • Do not give out your prepaid credit card number to someone you don't know (learn more about Green Dot prepaid cards).
  • Participating in a foreign lottery is illegal and such lotteries often have close ties to organized crime.
  • Beware of fake organizations that go by names similar to more widely-known groups in order to trick consumers.
  • Government agencies do not sponsor sweepstakes.
  • Beware of requests for information about your income, credit card ownership, or bank accounts as a condition of participating in a sweepstakes or lottery.
  • Do not participate in sweepstakes or respond to advertisements that resemble a check, bill or invoice.
  • Destroy fake sweepstakes or lottery offers by shredding or deleting them.

Why the change?

Sweepstakes scammers have moved to pre-paid money cards because law enforcement has waged an extensive information campaign, warning consumers about the dangers of using Western Union to send money to people you don't know. Moneygram locations now routinely provide warnings about possible scams.

Consumers should not be tricked, just because scammers have updated their old tricks. It's still the same of scam.

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What's On Your Mind? VW, Chase, All-Star Products, Best Buy

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: VW, Chase, All-Star Products, Best Buy, Obstacle course, What part of “cancelled” don't you understand and Being ...

PhotoPeople who own Volkswagens tend to love them. And Amy, of Strathmere, N.J., liked her VW Beetle a lot until she had to keep replacing the back windows.

“I purchased a new 2004 VW Beetle and had to replace the back windows three times in the past six years,” Amy told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The window cable package with labor will easily cost a $1,000.00. I have spoken to many VW Beetle owners and every single VW owner says the same thing; they like the car but have had to replace the back windows. VW refuses to acknowledge this as a recall and will not offer full/partial payment for this part.”

ConsumerAffairs.com has, indeed, received some complaints lately about the Beetle's rear windows, along with transmission woes. If anyone has any insight into this problem, let us know.

Obstacle course

Getting a home mortgage modification apparently isn't getting any easier. From the very beginning, we have received complaints from consumers who say they have been required to repeatedly fax documents to the loan servicer, only to have their application seem to fall through the cracks. Apparently, not a lot has changed.

“I have been dealing with Chase trying to get a loan modification since January 2011,” said Dan, of Brentwood, Calif. “I have had the same results as the other folks complainin, which is no results, just keep sending paperwork over and over again. “Is there anybody we can complain to to get some closure on this process? I'm ready to give up, which is what Chase wants me to do.”

Dan might try complaining to the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which oversees the government's mortgage modification program. Also, the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is open for business, and overseeing mortgage matters is one its responsibilities.

What part of “cancelled” don't you understand?

In June Manya, of Bryans Road, Md., said she ordered a product from one of All-Star Product Group's Website, but immediately afterward changed her mind and tried to cancel. Though she says the process was not easy, she was able to do it well before the product was scheduled to ship.

“On June 20th, 2011, I canceled the order and received a confirmation number,” Manya told ConsumerAffairs.com. “On July 26, 2011, I was charged $89.85 for the order and it went into shipping with FedEx. This is a case of credit card fraud because they have my credit card info they billed at will on a canceled order.”

Because Manya has a confirmation number for her cancellation, she should be able to resolve the issue with the company. However, she should also immediately contract her credit card company, explain the situation, and report it as an unauthorized charge.

Being an informed consumer

Consumers often complain about a store's return policy, although many are not unreasonable, if the consumer is aware of the policy and acts accordingly.

“This deals with Best Buy's return policy which only allows us to 45 days to return defective merchandise,” Mel, of Mason Neck, Va., said. “I bought a camera battery charger and did not test it until after the return period, per the receipt had expired. While the item is warranted for a year; Best Buy will not take it back and deal with the manufacturer after the stated short period. I've learned not to purchase from Best Buy or to test and use it immediately. I'll use Best Buy as a last resort even if the price is higher elsewhere.”

While Mel is obviously miffed, he seems to realize that the whole episode could have been avoided had he immediately tested the merchandise before he purchased it. As things stand, he can still get his money back from the manufacturer, since the product is under warranty for one year.

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