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Debt Collector Ordered to Stop Abusing Consumers

Collector also deceived its small-business clients, FTC charges

At the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a U.S. district court has halted an operation that allegedly subjected consumers to abusive debt-collection...

PhotoAt the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a U.S. district court has halted an operation that allegedly subjected consumers to abusive debt-collection practices and deceived the small-business clients for whom it collects. 

The order also freezes the operation's assets and appoints a permanent receiver to run it while the FTC moves forward with the case.

As part of its continuing crackdown on scams that target consumers in financial distress, the FTC filed a complaint against six individuals and three companies involved in a Van Nuys, California-based debt-collection operation doing business as Rumson, Bolling & Associates

The FTC complaint charges that the defendants, in collecting debts on behalf of their clients:

  • harassed and abused consumers by threatening physical harm and death to them and their pets, threatened to desecrate the bodies of deceased relatives, and used obscene and profane language; 
  • improperly revealed consumers' debts to third parties, such as the consumers' employers, co-workers, neighbors, and family members;
  • falsely threatened consumers with lawsuits, arrest, seizure of their assets, or wage garnishment; and
  • falsely claimed that consumers would be liable for legal fees incurred in the collection of the debt.

According to the FTC complaint, using the slogan “no recovery, no fee,” the defendants promised small businesses and other potential clients that they would collect debts on contingency, charging a fee only when they successfully collected a debt. 

But in many cases, the defendants allegedly collected money from consumers on a client’s behalf and then kept more than they were entitled to, sometimes keeping all the money for themselves, instead of forwarding what was owed to the client. 

In some cases, the defendants asked clients for additional fees, purportedly for legal expenses in filing a lawsuit that would “guarantee” the successful collection of a debt.  Many clients paid these fees, but the defendants failed to file the promised lawsuits and the clients never received any money in satisfaction of the debt in question.

The FTC charges that these practices violate the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

 

 

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Chrysler Recalls 2012 Models With 3.6l Engines

Engine may seize and cause a crash

Chrysler is recalling 2012 models equipped with a 3.6-liter engine. The connecting rod bearing can fail, which could cause the engine to seize and lead to ...

Chrysler is recalling 2012 models equipped with a 3.6-liter engine. The connecting rod bearing can fail, which could cause the engine to seize and lead to a crash.

Vehicle Make / Model:   Model Year(s):
     CHRYSLER / 200   2012
     CHRYSLER / TOWN AND COUNTRY   2012
     DODGE / CHARGER   2012
     DODGE / DURANGO   2012
     DODGE / GRAND CARAVAN   2012
     DODGE / JOURNEY   2012
     JEEP / GRAND CHEROKEE   2012

 

Chrysler will notify owners of the affected models and dealers will replace the engine free of charge.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-853-1403.

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Bank Greets Swipe Fee Rule With Debit Card Fee

New, lower swipe fee rule takes effect tomorrow

Bank of America is imposing a $5 monthly charge for debit cards...

PhotoThe Federal Reserve's new “swipe fee” rule, expected to significantly cut into bank profits, takes effect tomorrow, and at least one bank has already revealed plans to recoup some of its losses.

Bank of America says it will impose a $5 a month charge on customers who have a debit card and use it to make a purchase, as nearly all do. They aren't alone. Wells Fargo and Chase are testing similar fees while Region's Financial and SunTrust are also adopting debit card fees.

The banks hope the fees help offset expected losses from the new rule, known as the “Durbin Amendment,” which lowers debit card swipe fees charged merchants from 44 cents to 24 cents per transaction.

$6 billion loss in revenue

PhotoIn June, the Fed adopted the rule which takes effect tomorrow. According to industry estimates, the change could cost banks more than $6 billion a year. Banks are still trying to make up for the more than $5 billion loss of overdraft fees.

Those fees have dropped after the Fed adopted a rule requiring bank customers to “opt-in” to the so-called overdraft protection, under which banks honored all purchases that overdrew customers' accounts, but charged a hefty fee for the service.

Banks and retailers waged a fierce lobbying war earlier this year as Congress debated what to do about the swipe fee. Retailers claimed it was excessive and resulted in higher prices for consumers. Banks scoffed at the notion that large retailers would pass the savings from a reduced swipe fee to consumers.

In the end, the retailers won, with Congress slashing the fee to 11 cents per transaction, but leaving it up to the Fed to adjust it. The Fed compromised, adjusting the new fee to 24 cents.

Criticism of Bank of America

Retailers were also quick to pounce on Bank of America's announcement of the debit card fee. The Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) charged Bank of America and other large banks had been imposing hidden fees on consumers for years. Now, the group said, the fees are in the open.

“Swipe fee reform will rein in these fees, increase transparency and allow consumers to see the costs associated with the various payment options and make decisions accordingly,” said Katherine Lugar, executive vice president for public affairs at RILA.

She cited Federal Reserve data that she said showed big banks collect a profit of 1100 percent every time a debit card is swiped.

'Explosion' of fees

“These fees have exploded over the past decade and last year cost merchants nationwide nearly $20 billion,” she said.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), who authored the swipe fee legislation, also weighed in on the new Bank of America debit card fee.

"After years of raking in excess profits off an unfair and anti-competitive interchange system, Bank of America is trying to find new ways to pad their profits by sticking it to its customers,” Durbin said. It’s overt, unfair and I hope their customers have the final say.”

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What's On Your Mind? PUR Water Filters, Apple, Holiday Inn Express, T-Mobile

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: PUR Water Filters, Apple, Holiday Inn Express, T-Mobile, Bad timing, Where there's smoke and Use it or lose it....

PhotoWith more consumers trying to avoid buying water in plastic bottles, water filers are gaining in popularity. But Kevin, of Athol, Mass., says he has had consistent bad luck with PUR water filers.

“First unit lasted maybe two years, then started serious leaking around casing where it swivels,” Kevin told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Bought a second one thinking maybe I had done something to cause the leak, same exact leak started, sprays water everywhere. It will stop if I put upward pressure on the unit, but I shouldn't have to. These units aren't cheap. They will not be getting a third chance from me.”

Kevin's complaint does not seem to be an isolated. Several other consumers have recently reported the same problem to ConsumerAffairs.com.

Bad timing

Apple products are known to be a bit expensive. They can also be expensive to repair.

“My iPad was purchased on Sept. 8, 2010 and given to me as a gift at Christmas,” said Anne, of Croton on Hudson, N.Y. “The day after it left the one year warranty period, it developed a screen defect, an unmovable large black line the width of a pixel, permanently mars the screen. I have maintained it in pristine condition, the line appeared without cause. Apple wants $300 to fix the defect and insists that it can do nothing because the iPad is out of warranty -- by 22 days.”

Some companies actually offer a brief grace period for problems that occur just outside of warranty, and it's a policy that probably engenders a lot of consumer good will. Anne said she had been thinking of buying a $2000 MacBook, but is having second thoughts now.

Where there's smoke...

We received an interesting complaint from Philip, of Northport, Ala., about Holiday Inn Express, specifically about the hotel chain's no-smoking policy. Like many hotels, Holiday Inn Express attaches a $200 charge to your room bill if you smoke in a non-smoking room. But how do they know if you light up? That's the crux of Philip's complaint.

“I have stayed at this hotel since its opening with no problems,” Philip told ConsumerAffairs.com. “On checking in I know that one of the forms you have to sign is the no smoking policy and the requisite fine you will incur, so I use the designated smoking areas outside the hotel if I need to smoke. On receiving my credit card bill at the end of the month, attached to my hotel bill statement was a $200.00 smoking fee for this particular stay. There was no notice of this charge sent to me in e-mail. Upon calling the hotel to inquire why I was charged the extra fee I was told that I had smoked in my room when I know for a fact I did not.”

Philip said he repeatedly tried to speak with the hotel manager but could not. He said he was told that the house-keeping staff “smelled cigarette smoke in his room” and concluded that he had broken the rules. This does seem a bit arbitrary, since someone smoking outside would likely have the smell of smoke on their clothing, which could be transferred to an enclosed space, like a hotel room. Consumers who smoke should be aware of these policies when they check into hotels and stay in a no-smoking room.

Use it or lose it

Cheryl, of Spring Hill, Fla., says she is a senior living on a fixed income, so she doesn't want to spend a lot for a cell phone – just something for emergencies. She opted for a pre-paid phone from T-Mobile.

“Initially I bought $100 worth of minutes, feeling it would last,” Cheryl said. “After more than a year, the balance was $69. On September 26, I was forced to buy more time or lose the balance. I purchased $10 plus balance equaling 657 minutes. But that's good for only 90 days, at which time I will be forced to buy more time. This is a scam. How can T-Mobile force customers with prepaid phones to buy time plus lose the balance of money/minutes purchased?”

We checked T-Mobile's website and under the pay-as-you-go plan, it clearly states that the minutes purchased have a finite shelf life. It doesn't explain why, but our guess is that the company doesn't want you on their network if you aren't spending money. The minimum they'll accept appears to be $100 a year. All things considered, maybe not a bad deal for a cell phone.

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Looking for AT&T Supporters? Just Follow the Money

Campaign contributions go to politicians who toe the line, Free Press reports

Less than a week after seven attorneys general joined the Justice Department suit to block the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, 10 other attorneys gen...

PhotoWhen you see an aging celebrity hawking an osteoporosis medication on TV, you don't believe that person actually uses the product or knows anything about it, now do you?

Of course you don't, and you should bring the same skepticism to statements made by politicians on behalf of big corporations and special-interest groups.

Which brings us to the subject of AT&T; and its attempt to portray its proposed takeover of T-Mobile as pro-competitive.  Maybe it is, but don't take anybody's word for it.

Case in point: on Sept. 16, the attorneys general of seven states joined the U.S. Justice Department suit to block the merger.  Just a few weeks earlier, ten other state attorneys general had backed the merger, and they followed up on Sept. 21 by encouraging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Justice Department to speed the merger on its way. 

Follow the money

Attorneys general are the chief law enforcement officers for their states, so how could they disagree so completely?  Good question. As always in politics, the answer can be found by following the money.

The AT&T-friendly; AGs represent Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming, and the AGs from Michigan and South Dakota are the only ones in the group who have not benefited from AT&T;’s largesse, the consumer group Free Press reports.

The other eight have collectively received $28,490 in AT&T; contributions, according to data gathered by Follow the Money, a campaign-finance database created by the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics.

This places them in the company of pretty much everyone who has voiced support for the merger.

In the first half of 2011, AT&T; lobbying spending jumped by 30 percent, to $11.7 million.  Much of that pile of cash went to Congressmen, including 15 who signed a letter to President Obama urging him to support the merger, Free Press said.

The Congressmen signing those letters received more than $570,000 in campaign contributions from AT&T.;

And last Tuesday, 100 House Republicans signed a similar letter to Obama; all but one of these lawmakers have received donations from AT&T; employees, for a whopping total of $963,275, Free Press added.

Business as usual

Think this is a yawner?  Just business as usual?  Well, maybe so.  After all, the U.S. telecommunications business has always been heavily regulated and you could argue that the companies that have been around forever are better at lobbying lawmakers and drumming up "grassroots support" than they are at building cell towers or making sure calls don't get dropped.

Back in the days when state utility commissioners still wielded a lot of power over telephone companies, the process resembled an old-style Tammany Hall as telcos and their hired guns ran around town passing out money to charities, "civic organizations," churches, schools and just about anyone else who would agree to come to a PUC hearing and testify in favor of whatever the phone company was after.

Then along came "deregulation," which really amounted to a federal power grab.  The state PUCs lost their ability to nickel-and-dime the phone companies and a lot of local-level influence peddlers found their free lunch had evaporated.

But log-rolling hadn't gone away.  It had just moved to Washington.  Congress, after all, is better able to absorb large sums of money than any pipsqueak local agency and has no qualms about doing so. 

Now and then, the telcos will return to the places of their births to spread a little change around but the action these days is all on Capitol Hill, as this tawdry little episode reminds us. 

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Cosmetics Industry Backs Away from Formaldehyde in Hair Straighteners

Expensive salon products pose a risk to consumers

Think straight hair is to die for?  You may be right.  And for the first time, the mainstream cosmetics industry agrees with yhou. Citing t...

PhotoThink straight hair is to die for?  You may be right.  And for the first time, the mainstream cosmetics industry agrees with yhou.

Citing the undisputed health risks of formaldehyde, frequent consumer complaints and a lack of evidence of safety, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel, a scientific advisory board established by the major American cosmetics manufacturers, has effectively disavowed expensive salon products sold by a handful of small companies such as the Los Angeles maker of Brazilian Blowout.

The federal Food and Drug Administration has yet to bar formaldehyde from hair straighteners, even though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Safety has labeled it a known human carcinogen.

However, last month the FDA issued a formal warning that publicly admonished Brazilian Blowout. The agency declared the company’s hair-smoother adulterated, because it contained dangerous levels of formaldehyde, and misbranded, because it claimed to be free of formaldehyde.

OSHA gets involved

Last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency charged with overseeing workplace safety, escalated its warning to hair salons and employees after investigators found that two popular brands of hair straighteners exposed salon workers to dangerous levels of formaldehyde.

OSHA officials also instructed the manufacturer of Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution, one of the products that failed OSHA’s tests, to stop suggesting that OSHA tests had found its product safe. Brazilian Blowout’s hair-straightener, though labeled “formaldehyde free,” was found by OSHA to contain significant amounts of the chemical.

"Misleading or inadequate information on hazardous product labels is unacceptable," said OSHA Assistant Secretary Dr. David Michaels. "Salon owners and workers have the right to know the risks associated with the chemicals with which they work and how to protect themselves."

Though OSHA singled out Brazilian Blowout and Brasil Cacau Cadiveu, an investigation earlier this year by the Environmental Working Group uncovered 15 companies that claimed to use little to no formaldehyde, yet whose products contained substantial amounts of the chemical. As a result of its investigation, EWG urged the federal Food and Drug Administration to ban formaldehyde as an ingredient in hair straighteners.

FDA declines to act

The agency declined to do so, responding that it was “looking to [the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel] to get additional information … that we need to be able to take an action. Right now we are not there.”

It is unclear how the industry panel’s assertion that no level of formaldehyde can be considered safe will affect FDA’s decision-making on a possible ban, EWG said.

An April 2011 survey by EWG found dozens of top salons still promoting formaldehyde-laced hair straighteners despite the mounting evidence of the risks to stylists and clients.

"The incentive to downplay mounting health concerns is substantial when you can charge several hundred dollars for a single treatment," said Thomas Cluderay of the Environmental Working Group. "Until regulators pull the plug on Brazilian Blowout, I think it's clear the company is prepared to do just about anything to peddle these products."

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Study: Tobacco Companies Hid Data About Radioactive Particles In Smoke

Researchers say industry had the information in 1959

Researchers at UCLA have leveled a serious charge at U.S. tobacco companies. For more than 40 years, they say, tobacco companies knew that cigarette smoke ...

PhotoResearchers at UCLA have leveled a serious charge at U.S. tobacco companies. For more than 40 years, they say, tobacco companies knew that cigarette smoke contained radioactive alpha particles that can cause cancer, but kept their findings from the public.

The analysis of dozens of previously unexamined internal tobacco industry documents, made available in 1998 as the result of a legal settlement, allegedly reveals that the industry was aware of cigarette radioactivity some five years earlier than previously thought and that tobacco companies, concerned about the potential lung cancer risk, began in-depth investigations into the possible effects of radioactivity on smokers as early as the 1960s.

Aware in 1959

"The documents show that the industry was well aware of the presence of a radioactive substance in tobacco as early as 1959," the authors write. "Furthermore, the industry was not only cognizant of the potential 'cancerous growth' in the lungs of regular smokers, but also did quantitative radiobiological calculations to estimate the long-term lung radiation absorption dose of ionizing alpha particles emitted from cigarette smoke."

The researchers say the study, published online Sept. 27 in Nicotine & Tobacco Research, adds to a growing body of research detailing the industry's knowledge of cigarette smoke radioactivity and its efforts to suppress that information.

"They knew that the cigarette smoke was radioactive way back then and that it could potentially result in cancer, and they deliberately kept that information under wraps," said the study's first author, Hrayr S. Karagueuzian, a professor of cardiology who conducts research at UCLA's Cardiovascular Research Laboratory, part of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "Specifically, we show here that the industry used misleading statements to obfuscate the hazard of ionizing alpha particles to the lungs of smokers and, more importantly, banned any and all publication on tobacco smoke radioactivity."

Carcinogenic alpha radiation

The radioactive substance — which the UCLA study shows was first brought to the attention of the tobacco industry in 1959 — was identified in 1964 as the isotope polonium-210, which emits carcinogenic alpha radiation. Polonium-210 can be found in all commercially available domestic and foreign cigarette brands, Karagueuzian said, and is absorbed by tobacco leaves through naturally occurring radon gas in the atmosphere and through high-phosphate chemical fertilizers used by tobacco growers. The substance is eventually inhaled by smokers into the lungs.

The study outlines the industry's growing concerns about the cancer risk posed by polonium-210 inhalation and the research that industry scientists conducted over the decades to assess the radioactive isotope's potential effect on smokers — including one study that quantitatively measured the potential lung burden from radiation exposure in a two-pack-a-day smoker over a two-decade period.

Despite the potential risk of lung cancer, the study maintains that tobacco companies declined to adopt a technique discovered in 1959 and then another developed in 1980 that could have helped eliminate polonium-210 from tobacco. The 1980 technique, known as an acid-wash, was found to be highly effective in removing the radioisotope from tobacco plants, where it forms a water-insoluble complex with the sticky, hair-like structures called trichomes that cover the leaves.

The real reason?

And while the industry frequently cited concerns over the cost and the possible environmental impact as rationales for not using the acid wash, UCLA researchers uncovered documents that they say indicate the real reason may have been far different.

"The industry was concerned that the acid media would ionize the nicotine, making it more difficult to be absorbed into the brains of smokers and depriving them of that instant nicotine rush that fuels their addiction," Karagueuzian said. "The industry also were well aware that the curing of the tobacco leaves for more than a one-year period also would not eliminate the polonium-210, which has a half-life of 135 days, from the tobacco leaves because it was derived from its parent, lead-210, which has a half-life of 22 years."

"We used to think that only the chemicals in the cigarettes were causing lung cancer," Karagueuzian said. "But the case of the these hot spots, acknowledged by the industry and academia alike, makes a strong case for an increased probability of long-term development of malignancies caused by the alpha particles. If we're lucky, the alpha particle–irradiated cell dies. If it doesn't, it could mutate and become cancerous."

Karagueuzian said the findings are very timely in light of the June 2009 passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which grants the U.S. Food and Drug Administration broad authority to regulate and remove harmful substances — with the exception of nicotine — from tobacco products. The UCLA research, he said, makes a strong case that the FDA ought to consider making the removal of alpha particles from tobacco products a top priority.

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Feds Ban Spammer Who Sent 'Mind-Boggling' Number of Messages

Text messages offered supposed help with mortgage modification

An enterprising individual who allegedly sent millions of illegal spam text messages to consumers is banned from sending any unsolicited text messages, und...

PhotoAn enterprising individual who allegedly sent millions of illegal spam text messages to consumers is banned from sending any unsolicited text messages, under a settlement agreement with the Federal Trade Commission entered by a federal court.

According to the FTC complaint filed in February 2011, the marketer sent a “mind-boggling” number of unsolicited commercial text messages pitching mortgage modification services to consumers, and misrepresented that he was affiliated with a government agency.

The FTC alleged that many consumers had to pay fees to their mobile carriers to receive the unsolicited text messages. The FTC also alleged that the marketer advertised his text message blasting services by sending consumers illegal spam. The agency charged him with violating the FTC Act and the CAN-SPAM Act. 

The complaint states that the text messages instructed consumers to respond to the messages or visit various websites advertised in the messages.

One of the websites, loanmod-gov.net, claimed to provide “Official Home Loan Modification and Audit Assistance Information,” and displayed a photo of an American flag.

The agency alleged that the defendant collected information from consumers who responded to the text messages – even those who responded by asking to be removed from his list – and sold it to third parties, claiming the consumers were “debt settlement leads.”

The settlement bans the defendant, Phil Flora, from sending or helping others send unsolicited commercial text messages, and bars him from making false or misleading claims about any good or service, including misrepresentations that he, his representatives, or any other person is affiliated or associated with a government agency. The order also bars him from violating the CAN-SPAM Act.

The settlement order imposes a judgment of $58,946.90. 

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Kindle Hopes Its Fire Will Singe the iPad

Tablet war heats up as giant retailer soups up its ereader

Until now, Amazon's Kindle has been basically an ereader -- something you could use to view the virtual versions of those odd boxlike things they used to c...

Until now, Amazon's Kindle has been basically an ereader -- something you could use to view the virtual versions of those odd boxlike things they used to call books, leaving the hipster crowd to jam, groove, chat and game play (as playing games now seems to be called) on the iPad.

The Kindle Fire aims to change all that, providing nearly as much spark for a lot less scratch.  The Fire is to the old Kindle what Lady GaGa is to Doris Day, filled with sound and fury and signifying, well, that's another question.

It's a little smaller than the iPad, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  And it costs a lot less, $199 compared to the iPad's starting price of $499.

Or as Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos put it on Amazon's home page today: "There are two types of companies: those that work hard to charge customers more, and those that work hard to charge customers less. Both approaches can work. We are firmly in the second camp."

Verbose

But don't call the Fire cheap, Bezos cautions.

Photo"Kindle Fire brings everything we’ve been working on at Amazon for 15 years together into a single, fully-integrated experience for customers – instant access to Amazon’s massive selection of digital content, a vibrant color IPS touchscreen with extra-wide viewing angle, a 14.6 ounce design that’s easy to hold with one hand, a state-of-the-art dual core processor, free storage in the Amazon Cloud, and an ultra-fast mobile browser – Amazon Silk – available exclusively on Kindle Fire," he continued, on an apparent quest to construct the longest sentence in a non-scholarly journal.

Bezos is betting he can succeed where such giants as H-P and Samsung have failed.  He's betting he can unseat Apple as King of Tablet Valley.

But, you say, Apple has all those wondrously sleek stores.  Yes, but Amazon has its wonderfully ubiquitous Web site, which exists in a few billion more places than Apple's stores.  

Both companies, of course, have lots of product, although you can't buy a lawn mower at Apple last time we checked.  Apple may have more music in its iTunes section but with Spotify and the like becoming more common, does it matter?

Which brings up the question of whether any of this matters.  Two wars drag on in foreign lands, the economy remains moribund, candidates for top office become weirder by the year, the Obama Administration has locked the public out of its own malpractice database and everyone with a DVR missed the last few minutes of The Good Wife because a ball game ran over.

There are those who think this fascination with gadgets that are really, when you get right down to it, little more than toys is just something folks use to take their minds off weightier matters.

You know what?  They might be right.

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British Survey Finds Online Romance Scams Are Widespread

More people fall victim than are reported to the police, researchers say

Joyce, of Brooklyn, N.Y., met what she thought was the “perfect man” on Match.com. From New York, like her, he had a wonderful profile and &ldq...

PhotoJoyce, of Brooklyn, N.Y., met who she thought was the “perfect man” on Match.com. From New York, like her, he had a wonderful profile and “model” good looks. Though they had never met in person, romance quickly blossomed.

“He told me he is a sergeant in the army and is in Iraq,” Joyce told ConsumerAffairs.com. “This went on for a month; the romancing, the love letters and texts and instant messages. Then, he couldn't come home as planned since he was going to Afghanistan.”

But the man told Joyce he had a very special gift for her that would arrive by U.S. Army courier. He sent Joyce the contact information for the courier, with instructions to email him when he arrived in the States.

But the courier called Joyce first. He was stuck at at airport in Ghana and could not leave the country without a special stamp that cost $3,000. Could Joyce send the money?

Her heart broken, Joyce hung up the phone, realizing immediately that there was no man in love with her, only a scammer trying to steal $3,000.

Joyce was lucky

Despite the heartache, Joyce is lucky she saw the scam for what it was before she had sent thousands of dollars to a stranger. Others aren't so fortunate.

A British study, led by researchers at the University of Leicester, reveals that over 200,000 people living in Britain may have fallen victim to online romance scams – far more than had been previously estimated. The study is believed to be the first formal academic analysis to measure the scale of this growing problem.

In the online romance scam criminals set up fake identities using stolen photographs - often of models or army officers - and pretend to develop a romantic relationship with their victim. This is often done using online dating sites and social networking sites.

At some point during the relationship they pretend to be in urgent need of money and ask for help. Many victims have been persuaded to part with large sums of money before their suspicions are aroused.

Under-reported crime

Researchers found that 52 percent of people surveyed online had heard of the online romance scam when it was explained to them, and that one in every 50 online adults know someone personally who had fallen victim to it.

"Our data suggests that the numbers of British victims of this relatively new crime is much higher than reported incidents would suggest,” said Monica Whitty, co-author of the study. “It also confirms law enforcement suspicions that this is an under-reported crime, and thus more serious than first thought.”

The British study would also suggest that there are hundreds of thousand of U.S. victims as well. Law enforcement officials caution anyone using an online dating site to be very careful in dealing with people you know only through written communication.

Keep in mind that scammers will spend weeks – even months – setting up their victims until they feel the time is right to ask for money.

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Activist Group Challenges New Net Neutrality Rules

Objects to leeway granted wireless networks to control traffic

The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) new rules maintaining Net neutrality have been challenged from an unlikely source.Though major telecommunic...

PhotoThe Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) new rules maintaining Net neutrality have been challenged from an unlikely source.

Though major telecommunications firms don't like the concept, they have yet to express their objections in court. Instead, the activist group Free Press has been the first to file a legal challenge, a week after the Federal Register published the new rules.

The group filed the action in the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, asking for a review of the FCC's December 2010 Open Internet order. Free Press is challenging what it called “the arbitrary nature” of rule provisions that provide less protection for mobile wireless Internet access than they do for wired connections.

"When the FCC first proposed the Open Internet rules, they came with the understanding that there is only one Internet, no matter how people choose to reach it,” said Matt Wood, Policy Director of Free Press. “The final rules provide some basic protections for consumers, but do not deliver on the promise to preserve openness for mobile Internet access. They fail to protect wireless users from discrimination, and they let mobile providers block innovative applications with impunity.”

No discrimination

Under the FCC's Net neutrality rules, networks are not allowed to discriminate against content, charging one provider more than another because of the nature of the content. But because telecommunications companies argued wireless networks, by their nature, have limits on their bandwidth, the rules provide more leeway for managing wireless networks. Wood says the distinction isn't real.

"Our challenge will show that there is no evidence in the record to justify this arbitrary distinction between wired and wireless Internet access,” he said. “The disparity that the FCC's rules create is unjust and unjustified. And it's especially problematic because of the increasing popularity of wireless, along with its increasing importance for younger demographics and diverse populations who rely on mobile devices as their primary means for getting online.”

The FCC proposed the rules last December. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowsk said they were based on more than 100,000 comments collected from all types of interested parties.

Major network providers have been staunchly opposed to most Net neutrality provisions. Broadband providers pushed to include language in the policy that would not encumber them when it comes to managing their networks or charging different prices for different levels of service. Wireless network providers objected to being lumped in with wired networks under any Net neutrality rules.  

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What's On Your Mind? Trilegiant, Fancy Feast, Response Mortgage, Best Buy

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Trilegiant, Fancy Feast, Response Mortgage, Best Buy, Smelly food, Strange one and Not what he thought it was....

Trilegiant is one of those companies that handle those promotional “free” offers on the Internet that end up charging your credit card each month for something you didn't ask for and don't want. John, of Wurstboro, Conn., has just realized that Trilegiant has been charging his credit card each month for several years.

“I called my credit card company and they told me the only way to get this fraud to stop was to cancel the card they were charging and they would send me a new one,” John told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I did that. They showed up on my next bill with the new card. I finally contacted the Connecticut Better Business Bureau who assured me that this nonsense would cease. I'm now monitoring my bills much more closely. Shame on me for not doing it sooner.”

John is right to feel sheepish for not noticing the unauthorized charge sooner, but he is mistaken if he thinks the Better Business Bureau can do anything about his problem. It can't. But maybe a call to Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen's office might help. And as for the charge showing up on the new credit card, that probably happened because the credit card company didn't change the number on the account. In a fraud case, they should have.

Smelly food

Kathryn, of Nashville, Tenn., feeds her cats Fancy Feast Tender Beef Classics because one cat is diabetic and it's all he can eat. Lately, Kathryn says the food has a much different smell, but says Purina told her nothing has changed.

“My other cat will not even come near the food,” Kathryn said. “I used to give her a little bit of it every morning - and she won't even come near it now. Thank god my other cat is still eating it and he is fine - but I just want to know why this smells the way it does now. This is the only thing my cat can eat. If they've changed something, I need to know!”

Kathryn needs to take a can of the food, with the label listing the ingredients, to her vet and get a professional opinion. And if any other cat owners have some advice for Kathryn on this topic, let us know.

Strange one

We get lots of complaints about mortgages. This one, about Response Mortgage Services, is a little different.

“Two weeks prior to closing I was instructed to pay for a home inspection,” Charles, of College Place, Ore., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Several days later I tried to inform the loan officer of the results and found that the loan officer switched employers and cancelled my loan. Never notified anyone, accused her employer of the action and has been unavailable ever since. The two banks she worked for have made it clear that this was her action alone.'

This is indeed odd, but appears to be the action of one individual. Surely Charles is entitled to knowing why his mortgage, which obviously had been approved, was suddenly cancelled. If no good reason is forthcoming, he should be able to complete the process with another loan officer.

Not what he thought it was

We're not big fans of cell phone insurance policies, but as expensive as these devices are, we understand why people buy them. Only some people don't realize what they're actually buying. George, of Bordentown, N.J., says he bought his wife an iPhone 4 back in May at Best Buy, and was talked into buying the Best Buy insurance, with the sale rep telling him theirs was superior to Verizon's because they replace phones with new ones, not refurbished ones.

“Well my wife's ihome button stopped responding,” George said. “So I took it to Best Buy and explained to them what happened. They in turned told me I have to give it to GeekSquad for repair. When I told them about the insurance they said I was misinformed and they don't replace phones, they send them out to be fixed. They said I would also have to pay $150 as a deposit for a loner phone. When I asked to see that phone I was shown a flip phone. Are you kidding me!! A $600 phone, and you give me a four year old flip phone that is free? I spend 16 bucks a month for this insurance policy, and for what?”

That would have been a question to ask before buying the insurance. Keep in mind that $16 a month over a two year contract is $384. That would go a long way toward purchasing a new phone.

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Reebok To Pay $25 Million To Settle Deceptive Ad Charges

Claimed its shoes toned legs and butt just by walking

The FTC settles deceptive advertising charges with Reebok...

PhotoThe ads for Reebok EasyTone and RunTone shoes made it sound like toning your body is as easy as lacing up a pair of sneakers. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says it isn't, and has brought deceptive advertising charges against the apparel maker.

As a result, the FTC says Reebok has dropped the claims and has agreed to a $25 million settlement with the agency.

“This settlement is a big benefit for consumers who bought shoes based on claims that they would result in a stronger body,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Vladeck said much of the $25 million will go to a fund to offer refunds to consumers who bought EasyTone and RunTone shoes. If you think you might be eligible for a refund, the FTC has set up a website to explain the refund process. 

A consumer's experience

Tonia, of Berkley Heights, N.J. May be one of those seeking a refund. She complained about Reebok EasyTone last year, saying they weren't very good shoes.

“I paid $100 for a pair of sneakers in which the pod literally deflated after two months of wearing approximately an hour a day,” Tonia told ConsumerAffairs.com “I emailed Reebok directly and got a the run around from various people in their customer service department.”

Reebok’s EasyTone walking shoes and RunTone running shoes have retailed for $80 to $100 a pair, while EasyTone flip flops have retailed for about $60. Ads for the shoes claimed that sole technology featuring pockets of moving air creates “micro instability” that tones and strengthens muscles as you walk or run.

Unsupported claims

According to the FTC complaint, Reebok made unsupported claims in advertisements that walking in its EasyTone shoes and running in its RunTone running shoes strengthen and tone key leg and buttock muscles more than regular shoes.

The FTC’s complaint also alleges that Reebok falsely claimed that walking in EasyTone footwear had been proven to lead to 28 percent more strength and tone in the buttock muscles, 11 percent more strength and tone in the hamstring muscles, and 11 percent more strength and tone in the calf muscles than regular walking shoes.

Beginning in early 2009, Reebok made its claims through print, television, and Internet advertisements. The FTC says the claims also appeared on shoe boxes and displays in retail stores. One television ad featured a very fit woman explaining to an audience the benefits of Reebok EasyTone toning shoes. She picks up a shoe from a display and points to a chart showing the muscles that benefit from use of the shoes, while a video camera continues to focus on her buttocks. She says the shoes are proven to strengthen hamstrings and calves by up to 11 percent, and that they tone the buttocks “up to 28 percent more than regular sneakers, just by walking.”

“The lesson for advertisers is don't make claims that can't be substantiated,” Vladeck said.

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Feds Admit They Removed Malpractice Data to Protect Physicians

Public database, built and maintained with public funds, now closed to the public

An agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has admitted that it is concealing a publicly-owned malpractice database to protect phy...

PhotoAn agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has admitted that it is concealing from public view a publicly-owned malpractice database and admits that it is doing so to protect physicians' "privacy," at the expense of the patients and taxpayers whose tax dollars were used to compile the information and who expect their government to provide them with the information they need to protect themselves from unscrupulous and incompetent physicians.

"Federal law mandates that information about individual physicians remains confidential," Martin Kramer, a federal employee who works as a spokesman for the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), told Medscape Medical News, a trade journal for healthcare professionals. "We have a responsibility to make sure federal law is being followed."

In fact, the database in question --  the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) -- does not reveal information about individual physicians.  It was established by an act of Congress at taxpayer expense in 1968 to give hospitals, insurers, state medical boards, and other government entities a way to check up on physicians, dentists, and other licensed healthcare professionals.

Although the database does not reveal physicians' names or other "confidential" information but reporters and other investigators have sometimes managed to put together information from various sources to identify information about specific doctors.

“We are troubled that the Obama administration appears to have placed the interests of physicians ahead of the safety of patients,” Association of Health Care Journalists President Charles Ornstein said.  in a news release. “Attempting to intimidate a reporter from using information on a government website is a serious abuse of power.”

Slipshod oversight

More commonly, reporters, patient advocacy groups and activists have used data from the NPDB to highlight the failures and, occasionally, successes of the state licensing organizations that are supposed to oversee physicians and protect the taxpayers who own the data in the NPDB from harm.

An incident that apparently contributed to the HRSA decision was an investigative story in the Kansas City Star by reporter Alan Bavley, about the death of Maribeth Chase, an elderly Kansas woman who did not know the neurosurgeon who operated on her had been sued at least 16 times by his patients.

Chase went into a community hospital for relatively routine surgery to remove blood pooling on her brain.  She awoke paralyzed and unable to speak and died a few days later, the Star reported.  The surgeon settled with Chase's family for $1 million.

While consumer groups and journalism organizations have protested HRSA's decision to make public information private, one notable fan of the action is the American Medical Association (AMA).

AMA supports cover-up

The AMA said it considers the NPDB an unreliable source of information about the overall qualifications of physicians.

"The AMA has long opposed public access to the National Practitioner Data Bank and welcomes the decision to stop posting its public data file online to prevent breaches of physician confidentiality in the future," AMA President Peter Carmel said in a written statement to Medscape Medical News. "Duplicate entries, inaccurate data, and inappropriate information in the NPDB provide, at best, an incomplete and haphazard indicator of a physician's competence or quality."

The data that the AMA and HRSA want to hide from the public includes such "confidential" information as:

  • Payments in medical malpractice cases (settlements as well as jury awards)
  • Adverse actions on licensure, clinical privileges, and membership in professional societies
  • Adverse actions taken by the Drug Enforcement Administration
  • Exclusion from Medicare and Medicaid
  • Criminal convictions

Journalism group posts the info

Despite the government cover-up, the Investigative Reporters and Editors, a professional organization headquartered at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, has published the August version of the database, the last one made available to the public, on its Web site.

 

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Lawsuit: Cows Were Killed to Raise Milk Prices

Dairy industry milks consumers by restricting supplies, suit alleges

A Los Angeles law firm has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of consumers alleging that various dairy companies and trade groups slaughtered more...

PhotoA Los Angeles law firm has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of consumers alleging that various dairy companies and trade groups slaughtered more than 500,000 cows to help inflate the price of milk.

The suit filed by Hagens Berman alleges that the National Milk Producers Federation, Dairy Farmers of America, Land O’Lakes, Inc. and Agri-Mark, Inc. combined to form Cooperatives Working Together (CWT) in order to fix the price of milk in the United States.

CWT is a massive trade group representing dairy producers throughout the country who produce nearly 70 percent of the milk consumed in the United States.

The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, alleges that between 2003 and 2010, more than 500,000 cows were slaughtered under CWT’s dairy herd retirement program in a concerted effort to reduce the supply of milk and inflate its price nationally.

According to the complaint, the increased price allowed CWT members to earn more than $9 billion in additional revenue. The case was initially researched and developed by Compassion Over Killing, a national animal protection organization.

Shameful killing 

“We believe this case serves two important causes,” said Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman. “A resolution to this case will protect consumers from artificially-inflated milk prices and also will prevent the unnecessary and shameful killing of tens of thousands of cows each year.”

“The dairy industry has consistently shown its lack of regard for animal welfare and the environment,” said Compassion Over Killing general counsel Cheryl Leahy. “Now it’s milking its own consumers by unlawfully jacking up prices. The dairy industry must be held accountable for these illegal profits.”

The complaint further alleges that the program, which paid smaller farm owners to kill their entire dairy cow herds, unfairly increased the profits of agribusiness giants.

Effects last years 

Dairy herd retirement ended in the summer of 2010, but CWT’s tactics may affect the price of milk for years, according to the lawsuit. The end of the program came shortly after Land O’Lakes agreed to pay $25 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed against the United Egg Producers and its members.

That case alleged that egg producers were encouraged to reduce their flock size as part of a program disguised as an animal welfare initiative.

Compassion Over Killing (COK) is a nonprofit animal protection organization based in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Since 1995, COK has worked to end the abuse of animals in agriculture through undercover investigations, public outreach, litigation, and other advocacy programs. COK is on the web at COK.net.

 

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Health Insurance Now Costs More Than a Ford Fiesta

Higher costs for both employer and employee

We all know that health care costs are going up, but consumers who receive benefits through their employers might not realize how much.The employee's por...

PhotoWe all know that health care costs are going up, but consumers who receive benefits through their employers might not realize how much.

The employee's portion of the cost is deducted from her paycheck, and might not be that noticeable on a regular basis. The employee may be oblivious to the employer's portion, but rest assured the employer is aware and considers it part of the employee's compensation package.

The Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust (HRET) track the costs of employer-sponsored health plans and now put the average annual cost of family coverage at more than $15,000, the equivalent of a new Ford Fiesta. Employer-sponsored insurance covers about 150 million people in the U.S.

Key findings

The key findings from the 2011 survey, conducted from January through May 2011, include increases in the average single and family premiums, as well higher enrollment in high deductible health plans with savings options (HDHP/SOs).

The 2011 survey includes new questions on the percentage of firms with grandfathered health plans, changes in benefits for preventive care, enrollment of adult children due to the new health reform law, and the use of stop-loss coverage by firms with self-funded plans.

The average annual premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance in 2011 are $5,429 for single coverage and $15,073 for family coverage. Compared to 2010, premiums for single coverage are 8 percent higher and premiums for family coverage are nine percent higher. That nine percent rate compares to a three percent increase in 2010.

Up 113 percent since 2001

According to Kaiser, average premiums for family coverage have increased 113 percent since 2001. Betty, of Marina, Calif., has found her Aetna policy is rapidly going up in price.

“I received a notice a few months ago that my son's insurance premium was being increased $25,” Betty told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The increase started July 2011. I just received a letter on August. 20, 2011 that his insurance premium is being increased again $27, beginning in November 2011.”

With health policies continuing to rise, it becomes a problem for consumers, like Betty, who haven't had a raise in a while.

“Our wages have not increased for at least the last 3 years,” Betty said. “We are barely able to pinch pennies now.”

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What's On Your Mind? Wells Fargo, Whirlpool, Samsung

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Wells Fargo, Whirlpool, Samsung, Three weeks too late and Capacitor plague....

PhotoArnett, of Norfolk, Va., says he went to his Wells Fargo branch to withdraw money from his acount. A few days later, he noticed his account balance was minus $36.

“I didn't understand how I could overdraft by pulling money out with a teller,” Arnett told ConsumerAffairs.com. “A few days after that I noticed my account was -$71.00. I called the bank's customer service number and got a women named Donna. I asked her why was my account overdrawn $71.00 and she explained that I had withdrawn more than I had in the account. I asked how could I take money out that wasn't there to begin with and why would the teller not just tell me the funds I was requesting were not there. Donna said it was up to me to know what I had in my account and not the teller's job.”

Arnett thinks he was set up by the bank so it could collect an overdraft fee. Another explanation could be there was money in the account when he made the withdrawal, but that subsequent checks posting later that day put him over. Whatever happened, that wasn't a particularly helpful handling of his inquiry.

Three weeks too late

There's nothing more aggrevating than having your new appliance go down three weeks beyond the warranty date. Should companies show some leniency? It's clear consumers think they should.

“I called to find out if they could assist me with my Whirlpool dishwasher,” said Connie, of Liverpool, N.Y. “The only thing they would assist in was arranging a fill cost repair. No other suggestions. I would of meet them half way paying half the bill but nothing, just I'm sorry and we can't help. Not standing behind there product.”

Connie's dishwasher is beyond the warranty date so Whirlpool is well within its rights to deny any coverage. However, it seems that if companies would show a little leniency – especially when the product is just days out of warranty – it would go a long way in building customer loyalty.

Capacitor plague

Kevin, of Scottsdale, Ariz., is another victim of “capacitor plague,” the habit of capacitors in LCD flat screen TVs to fail.

“I bought a 40" Samsung LCD (LNT4069F) in 2008,” Kevin told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I started having the clicking/starting problem a few weeks ago. Did some research and saw that it's most likely a defective capacitor used by the manufacturer. Call Samsung. Their response? We don't cover this problem, good luck. This TV is barely 5 years old, obviously defective, and the company won't fix it? Unacceptable. Will not be doing business with this company in the future.”

Actually, Kevin is lucky to have gotten five years of trouble-free viewing. Very often this type of failure occurs just out of warranty. The good news for Kevin is this should not be an expensive repair. TV service people are very experienced at swapping out capacitors.

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California Will Charge Online Sales Tax

Measure is intended to pave the way for Congressional action

Gov. Brown greets politicos as he signs "landmark" sales tax legislation As California goes, so goes the nation and California is going ...

Photo
Gov. Brown greets politicos as he signs "landmark" sales tax legislation

As California goes, so goes the nation.  Well, so it's said anyway.  

And just to prove it, California is going to start collecting sales tax from online retailers, a move Gov. Jerry Brown says will "create tens of thousands of jobs and inject hundreds of millions of dollars" into the state's moribund economy and spur the rest of the nation to follow in its footsteps.

How will more taxes create more jobs, you may ask.

Well, as the man once known as Gov. Moonbeam explains it, the measure will "level the playing field between online retailers and California's brick-and-mortar businesseses."

The California Board of Equaliziation has estimated that the state loses more than $1 billion a year from uncollected sales tax on online purchases, some $83 million of that from Amazon alone.

A compromise

Earlier this year, you may recall, Amazon threatened to pull out of California, closing any offices or distribution centers there and jettisoning its 25,000 online affiliates in California, independent Websites who sell Amazon products through ads on their sites.  The measure Brown signed into law last Friday is a compromise measure that is more to Amazon's liking.

But back to the jobs question.  How will raising taxes create jobs, other than jobs for more state bureaucrats?

Well, as Gov. Brown explains it, the state law -- authored by Assemblyman Charles Calderon -- really is intended to spur Congress into action, the theory being that when Congress sees California taking action, it will fall in behind.

So how does that create "tens of thousands of jobs?"

Well, see, the state won't actually begin collecting the new online sales tax until Sept. 15, 2012.  And in exchange for that one-year window, Amazon has promised Gov. Brown it will create 10,000 full-time jobs and hire 25,000 seasonal employees by the end of 2015.

Just what those jobs will be and where they will be located is -- we guess -- in the cloud somewhere but no one down on earth seemed to have an answer today.   

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Obama Urged to Stand Fast on Kids' Nutrition

Food manufacturers working to undermine voluntary guidelines on marketing to children

The Obama Administration should resist the food and advertising industries’ pressure to torpedo voluntary nutrition guidelines for foods ma...

PhotoThe Obama Administration should resist the food and advertising industries’ pressure to torpedo voluntary nutrition guidelines for foods marketed to kids,  academic experts said today.

In a letter to President Obama, 75 physicians, psychologists, nutritionists, and marketing experts from universities around the country urged Obama to ensure that the Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Food Marketed to Children completes its work and finalizes the congressionally requested marketing guidelines.

“You and the First Lady have helped Americans understand that child nutrition and obesity are national health concerns, with one in three children either overweight or obese,” the scientists wrote. “While numerous factors contribute to obesity and children’s poor diets, food marketing plays a key role.”

Junk-food advertisers, in the guise of the Sensible Food Policy Coalition, have attacked the voluntary guidelines as an assault on the First Amendment, a point debunked by top Constitutional experts, and claimed that adopting the voluntary guidelines would result in job losses, based on a flimsy industry “study,” the letter said.

Providing media relations work for the coalition is former White House communications director Anita Dunn. Industry lobbyists have prevailed upon House appropriators to add language blocking the IWG, though the Senate Appropriations Committee has reaffirmed its support for the IWG.

Comprised of officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the IWG released draft nutrition guidelines and marketing definitions in April. Nutrition and health advocates praised the guidelines, which recommended reasonable ceilings on the amounts of sodium, added sugars, and unhealthy fats and proposed minimum amounts of fruit-, vegetable-, or whole-grain-based ingredients in foods marketed to kids.

But even though those guidelines are totally voluntary, junk-food advertisers are waging a campaign of disinformation aimed at getting the government to withdraw them, the letter's signers said.

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FDA: Avoid Oysters from Hood Canal Area

The succulent bivalves may contain Vibrio bacteria

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers not to eat raw oysters harvested from an area of Hood Canal in Washington State following an out...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers not to eat raw oysters harvested from an area of Hood Canal in Washington State following an outbreak of illness in that state caused by Vibrio parahaemolyticus bacteria.

Raw oysters harvested from “growing area 4” in Hood Canal from August 30 to September 19 have been linked to three confirmed and two possible cases of Vibrio parahaemolyticus illness.

All of the ill persons reported consumption of raw oysters.  There have been no reports of hospitalizations or deaths resulting from consuming the oysters.

The Washington State Department of Health has closed the growing area associated with the illnesses. Commercial oyster harvesters and dealers who obtained oysters from this growing area have initiated a recall and notified their commercial customers in affected states of the recall.

Shipping and other records provided by Washington State indicate that oysters harvested from this area were distributed to establishments in 23 states and four foreign countries. Washington State authorities have notified those states involved of the recall.

Those who have recently purchased oysters should check with the place of purchase and ask if they were harvested from the affected growing area.

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Feds Fine Virgin Atlantic for Advertising Violations

Internet ads didn't properly display information on taxes and fees

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has fined Virgin Atlantic Airways, an airline based in the United Kingdom, $50,000 for violating federal aviati...

PhotoThe U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has fined Virgin Atlantic Airways, an airline based in the United Kingdom, $50,000 for violating federal aviation laws and the Department’s rules prohibiting deceptive price advertising in air travel. 

“When passengers buy 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 price advertising rules are violated.”

For a period of time, Virgin Atlantic displayed advertisements on the Internet that did not provide direct access to information on taxes and fees that were in addition to the base fare. Instead, consumers who clicked on the advertised fare were taken to a page showing sample routes and prices where the type and amount of taxes and fees could be found in fine print only after scrolling to the bottom of the page.   

Virgin Atlantic’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. The rules apply to both U.S. and foreign carriers as well as ticket agents.

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

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Study: Teens Not Getting Enough Sleep

Lots of health problems and risky behaviors associated with sleep deprivation

Ask any teen just about anything and you're likely to get a mumbled reply.  Chances are good the kid's not rude, just sleepy. A new study finds that ...

PhotoAsk any teen just about anything and you're likely to get a mumbled reply.  Chances are good the kid's not rude, just sleepy.

A new study finds that almost 70 percent of high school students are not getting enough sleep on school nights, a problem that's linked to a variety of health-risk behaviors, including physical inactivity, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, fighting, and being sexually active.

High school students participating in the 2007 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey were asked, “On an average school night, how many hours of sleep do you get?” 

Responses were categorized into insufficient sleep (less than 8 hours), and sufficient sleep (8 or more hours of sleep) as the recommended number of hours of sleep suggested for this age group by the National Sleep Foundation 

Researchers found that 68.9 percent of adolescent responders reported insufficient sleep on an average school night.  Students who reported insufficient sleep were more likely to engage in the health-risk behavior than students who reported sufficient sleep. There was no association found between insufficient sleep and watching 3 or more hours of television per day.

Insufficient sleep was associated with the 10 health-risk behaviors examined below:

  • Drank soda or pop 1 or more times per day (not including diet soda or diet pop)
  • Did not participate in 60 minutes of physical activity on 5 or more of the past 7 days
  • Used computers 3 or more hours each day
  • In a physical fight 1 or more times
  • Current cigarette use
  • Current alcohol use
  • Current marijuana use
  • Currently sexually active
  • Felt sad or hopeless
  • Seriously considered attempting suicide                              

“Many adolescents are not getting the recommended hours of sleep they need on school nights.  Insufficient sleep is associated with participation in a number of health–risk behaviors including substance use, physical fighting, and serious consideration of suicide attempt,” said Lela McKnight–Eily, PhD, Division of Adult and Community Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).. 

“Public health intervention is greatly needed, and the consideration of delayed school start times may hold promise as one effective step in a comprehensive approach to address this problem.”

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When It Comes To Savings Goals, Less Is More

A single savings goal yields better results, researchers say

Back in the 1980's, multi-level marketing (MLM) recruiters enticed prospects by trying to get them focused on one material desire they could satisfy with a...

PhotoBack in the 1980's, multi-level marketing (MLM) recruiters enticed prospects by trying to get them focused on one material desire they could satisfy with all the wealth they would earn selling soap or vitamins to their family and friends.

MLM didn't work out all that well for most recruits, but financial planners say the concept of focusing on one material goal is a very effective device. But instead of using it for an unrealistic enterprise, they suggest consumers use it as a motivator for saving money.

Two researchers at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management have found that those who want to save are more apt to keep socking money away and more of it too, if they have just one goal in mind.

Limit yourself to one goal

“If you have only one goal it puts you in a more action-oriented mindset and helps you save more,” said Min Zhao, an assistant professor of marketing who co-authored the study with marketing professor Dilip Soman. “Too much thinking about which goal is more important keeps people from acting.”

The study looked at a range of different research subjects, including modest households in rural India, middle-income Canadian dads, and working professionals living in Hong Kong.

Avoid trade-offs

Results consistently showed that a single savings goal worked better than multiple goals. Individual studies also found single goals worked particularly well when it was harder to save. Having multiple goals resulted in people thinking about trade-offs between goals, rather than focusing on implementing their savings plan.

The findings suggest that financial or savings advisors may want to take a different tack with their clients. Banks sometimes advertise a list of reasons to save, but such a message could “backfire” says the study, because that introduces multiple goals, leading to eventual failure in clients’ savings plans.

“The most common mistake is to emphasize numerous reasons to save,” Zhao said. “They should revise their approach.”

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Minnesota Sues Two For-Profit Colleges Over Aid Issues

Joins feds, other states

Two fore profit colleges face another state lawsuit...

PhotoFor profit colleges continue to come under official scrutiny since their students often tap taxpayer supported aid programs. In Minnesota, state officials claim Education Management Corporation (EMC) crossed the line.

EMC, 80 percent owned by Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs Capital Partners and other private equity funds, operates Argosy University and Art Institutes International in Minnesota. The state has filed suit, claiming the company illegally collected state taxpayer-financed student aid.

The suit, filed by Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, alleges that EMC’s for-profit colleges were ineligible to receive the state financial aid because the company paid incentive compensation to its recruiters based on the enrollment of new students, in violation of federal law.

Avoiding the hard sell

“Incentive payments by for-profit colleges to their recruiters are illegal because they can lead to a hard-sell atmosphere where students are sometimes hustled to enroll in expensive programs paid for by taxpayer-backed student loans, hurting both students who are trying to better themselves and taxpayers who must pick up the tab if the loans default,” Swanson said.

In August, the U.S. Justice Department and several other states sued EMC in Pennsylvania, claiming the company falsely certified compliance with provisions of federal law that prohibit a university from paying incentive-based compensation to its admissions recruiters that is tied to the number of students they recruit. At the time of the suit, a spokeswoman for the company vigorously denied the allegations.

In her suit, Swanson said EMC uses a variety of media to advertise its schools. Students who express interest in enrolling at an EMC college are contacted by EMC recruiters. Federal law prohibits for-profit colleges from paying “any commission, bonus or other incentive payment” to any person engaged in student recruiting, which is based either directly or indirectly on the recruiter’s success in enrolling new students.

Points for recruits?

The lawsuit alleges that the compensation paid by EMC to its student recruiters violated this ban. The lawsuit alleges that the company used a matrix to compensate their student recruiters, which converted the number of new students a recruiter enrolled into points and used the recruiter’s point total to determine his or her salary, thus making incentive payments to recruiters based upon the number of new students enrolled in violation of federal law.

Swanson has recently begun to take a harder look at for-profit colleges, which have also come under scrutiny at the federal level. She cites U.S. Senate data indicating that 76 percent percent of for-profit college students attend institutions owned by Wall Street investors.

According to Swanson, some for-profit colleges target students who are the first in their family to go to college or who don’t have much money or experience with higher education. The GAO and others have sharply criticized the recruiting practices of some for-profit colleges.

Undercover probe

For example, in an undercover investigation of 15 for-profit colleges (including Argosy University-Chicago), the GAO found that all 15 colleges made deceptive or questionable statements to undercover applicants, such as misrepresenting the applicant’s likely salary after graduation and not providing clear information about the college’s graduation rates.

The lawsuit asserts claims under Minnesota’s False Claims Act, which became effective July 1, 2010. The Act allows the state to pursue fines and damages against entities that knowingly present, or cause to be presented, false or fraudulent claims for payment or approval to the State of Minnesota. The other states that filed suit against EMC are Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, and California.

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Problems Getting Pregnant? Try These Tips

OB/GYN offers steps to avoid fertility drugs

The World Health Organization reports that roughly one in six couples will struggle with infertility and about 70 percent of them will turn to fertility dr...

PhotoThe World Health Organization reports that roughly one in six couples will struggle with infertility and about 70 percent of them will turn to fertility drugs or in vitro-fertilization. But it doesn’t have to be that way, a New York City OB/GYN insists.

"Many couples struggling to achieve pregnancy can conceive naturally by following some simple guidelines before resorting to expensive and potentially hazardous fertility medications," said Dr. Amos Grunebaum, a double board certified OB/GYN. "Infertility can increase stress among couples and, unfortunately, often times leads them to prematurely opt for fertility drugs or IVF.

"In many cases, fertility can be improved and pregnancy can be achieved naturally by following some simple steps," Grunebaum said.

Her tips include:

Pinpoint Your Fertile Window

As you might already know, in order for conception to take place, you must ovulate and at least one vital sperm needs to fertilize the egg within 12-24 hours of the egg being released from the ovary. Because sperm can only live for 5-6 days in the female reproductive tract and only a small number of sperm will even survive the long journey, it is recommended that couples plan to have intercourse several times in the days leading up to ovulation as well as on the day of ovulation.

To do this optimally requires that you have a good idea of when you will ovulate each cycle. Ovulation Predictor Kits (www.early-pregnancy-tests.com) are a popular method for predicting ovulation. OPKs detect the presence of luteinizing hormone (LH) in your urine. Approximately 12-36 hours before ovulation occurs, the amount of LH in your body "surges".

By testing with OPKs, you can identify this LH surge, which allows you to know that ovulation is just around the corner and that you are in your fertile window. 

Restore Your Hormonal Balance

If you have irregular periods, your path to parenthood might end up being a long, tiresome journey. For women with chronic irregularity, it is likely that there is an underlying hormonal imbalance that is impacting the frequency of ovulation and/or menstruation.

The herb commonly known as Chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus), included in the fertility-enhancing supplement FertilAid for Women, is frequently used to help women restore hormonal balance and cycle regularity. The active compounds found in Chasteberry help to promote fertility by decreasing prolactin levels in the body. 

Check His Swimmers

Did you know that up to 40 percent of males suffer from low sperm count? Now, if the idea of heading to the urologist for a sperm count test is a bit intimidating to your partner, you might suggest that he get an at-home sperm test, like SpermCheck Fertility (www.fairhavenhealth.com).

SpermCheck, is a fast, accurate, affordable and simple method for determining if his sperm count is within "normal" range (above 20 million sperm per milliliter of semen is the accepted standard for "normal" sperm count) in the privacy of your own home. 

Transform Your Diet

Leave those junk foods on the shelf, and try to incorporate more whole grains, vegetables, colorful fruits (for the antioxidant compounds found in these foods) and lean sources of protein in your diet. 

Shed Those Extra Pounds

– Your optimal BMI (body mass index) is between 18.5 and 25. A BMI above 25 decreases your chances getting pregnant and increases pregnancy complications.

It is best to lose the unwanted pounds before actively trying to conceive, as weight loss causes toxins (that had been stored in your fat cells) to be released into your body. To ensure the healthiest pregnancy possible, you will want to achieve your optimal weight before becoming pregnant. 

Quit it

Quit using tobacco and drink alcohol only in moderation. 

Exercise But Don’t Overdo It

A healthy lifestyle definitely includes regular exercise, so if you are more couch potato than marathon runner, stepping up your exercise habits will go a long way in improving your overall health and enhancing your fertility. 

Chill out

According to many fertility experts, chronic stress can certainly be a fertility buster, as it causes the body to be in "fight or flight" mode constantly, which suppresses reproductive hormones. Again, yoga is your friend here, as is acupressure or acupuncture.

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Seniors Suffer in Silence as Economy Stumbles

Older adults severely affected by economic downturn

Recently released data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the overall number of older adults living in poverty has increased. Even more significant is t...

Recently released data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the overall number of older adults living in poverty has increased. Even more significant is the number of seniors who have experienced an increase in economic insecurity—or those simply living on the edge.

Seniors with incomes below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) rose from 33.7% (13,023,000) in 2009 to 34.6% (13,549,000), and those living below 100% of the FPL saw a modest, yet significant, increase from 3.4 to 3.5 million. Numbers do indicate that some individuals aged 65 and older have seen a rise in their incomes, mostly due to Social Security, as more and more Boomers reach retirement age.

“What the numbers have shown us is that economic insecurity for older adults has definitely increased,” said Sandra Nathan, senior vice president for Economic Security at the National Council on Aging (NCOA). “We need legislative and policy changes that take into account the needs of all age groups in poverty—while not forgetting those who are living on the edge, struggling every day just to pay for food, medicine, transportation, and a place to live.”

The current official poverty measurement system also needs an update, NCOA believes. Developed in the early 1960s, the Federal Poverty Level measures poverty by comparing a family’s income to a threshold level of need, which is based on food consumption patterns of 1955 and does not reflect current living standards. The measure of income evaluated against this threshold does not reflect tax liabilities, out-of-pocket spending on health care, and other significant costs, nor does it account for important forms of public assistance. As a result, it does not adequately reflect who is poor.

If a more modernized measure of poverty were used, there would likely be an even larger proportion of older individuals living in poverty. This data was reflected in the National Academy of Sciences Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance released in 1995.

“The reality is that there is an unseen crisis occurring in this country today,” said Nathan, “and that is rising economic insecurity among older Americans.”

More than 13 million older adults live in or on the edge of poverty, on less than $22,000 each year. These seniors live one bad break, one accident, or one layoff away from economic disaster. And with continued cuts in federal, state, and local programs serving older adults, we can expect to see even more seniors struggling to make ends meet.

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Falls Still a Leading Cause of Fatal Injuries in Seniors

Making homes safer, staying in shape can help reduce the risk

n recognition of Falls Prevention Awareness Day, Commissioner of the Department for the Aging (DFTA) Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, Commissioner of the New York Ci...

PhotoFalls are the leading cause of fatal injuries for Americans aged 65 and older. More than 18,000 older Americans die every year because of a fall, and the rate has risen dramatically over the last 10 years.

Although the risk of falls increases with age, it can be reduced by steps such as fixing trip and fall hazards in the home, reviewing and eliminating unnecessary medications, getting annual eye exams and staying in good physical shape.

Aging organizations and public health agencies are urging seniors and those who are for them to take these steps to reduce the risk of injury:

  • Engage in a physical activity regimen that includes balance, strength training, and flexibility components.
  • Consult with a health professional about getting a falls risk assessment.
  • Have their medications reviewed periodically.
  • Get their eyes checked annually.
  • Make sure the home environment is safe and supportive. 

It's important to install grab bars in showers, remove throw rugs and other obstacles that could cause an older person to trip and route electrical cords so they are not in the way.

The federal government’s newly released National Prevention Strategy recommends a guideline to provide individuals and families with the knowledge, skills, and tools to make safe choices that prevent violence and injuries, specifically citing fall prevention in older adults.

The Strategy lists numerous prevention techniques, including having seniors “engage in regular physical activities to increase strength and balance to help prevent falls.” The full report is available at www.HealthCare.gov/center/councils/nphpphc.

“Although a number of federal agencies have been focusing on fall prevention, it’s exciting to see it included in the National Prevention Strategy,” said Lynn Beattie, vice president of Injury Prevention with the National Council on Aging (NCOA). “With a renewed national focus on prevention, an increasing awareness of the issue of older adult falls, and the growing availability of proven falls prevention programs and interventions, our hope is to greatly raise the awareness of the growing number of falls among older adults in this country.”

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FBI Warns Against Pointing Lasers at Aircraft

St. Louis man arrested after pointing his laser at a police helicopter

Misuse of hand-held laser pointers is a growing safety problem for aircraft and federal officials are stepping up their efforts to apprehend offenders.&nbs...

Misuse of hand-held laser pointers is a growing safety problem for aircraft and federal officials are stepping up their efforts to apprehend offenders. 

One of those snared recently is Justin Stouder, 24, who was aiming a laser pointer at a distant tower from his suburban St. Louis yard one April evening in 2010 when a police helicopter appeared in his line of sight more than a mile away.

At the time, Stouder had no idea that his decision to point the laser at the helicopter was a federal felony—or that the beam of light might have serious consequences for the pilot and his crew.

“It’s equivalent to a flash of a camera if you were in a pitch black car at night,” said St. Louis Metropolitan Police Officer Doug Reinholz, the pilot on patrol that night when Stouder’s green hand-held laser “painted” his cockpit. “It’s a temporary blinding to the pilot,” he said during a recent news conference highlighting the danger of lasers directed at airplanes and helicopters.

Interfering with the operation of an aircraft is a crime punishable by a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and laser incidents are on the rise.

Since the FBI and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began keeping records of laser events in 2004, “there has been an exponential increase every year,” said Tim Childs from the Federal Air Marshal Service, who serves as a liaison officer with the Bureau on laser issues.

Seven per day

In 2009, there were 1,489 laser events logged with the FAA—that is, pilots reporting that their cockpits were illuminated by the devices. The following year, that figure had nearly doubled to 2,836, an average of more than seven incidents every day of the year. And the overwhelming number of the incidents involved green lasersespecially dangerous because the human eye is most susceptible to damage from the yellow-green light spectrum.

Hand-held lasers—about the size of fountain pens—are used legitimately by astronomy hobbyists and in industrial applications. Anyone can purchase one, and technology has made them inexpensive and more powerful. Lasers costing as little as $1 can have ranges of two miles—strong enough to target a variety of aircraft.

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Wall Street Bear Predicts Sharp Drop For Gold

'Dr. Doom' says prices could hit $1,100 an ounce

Gold prices may be headed lower...

PhotoIn financial circles Marc Faber is known as “Dr. Doom,” partly for his newsletter, the “Gloom, Boom and Doom Report,” as well as his famously bearish outlook.

Faber was well in front of most analysts on his predictions of crashing housing and stock markets, and now he's warning gold prices could be set for a significant spill. In an interview on cable business channel CNBC today, Faber said gold got ahead of itself when nervous investors pushed its price up over $1,900 an ounce.

"We're now close to bottoming at $1,500, and if that doesn't hold it could bottom to between $1,100-$1,200," Faber told CNBC.

Gold prices are down about three percent in today's trading, at about $1,600 an ounce. Faber said he wouldn't be surprised to see a 40 percent correction when all is said in done, mainly because of severe weakness in the global economy.

Gold prices have been climbing for several years, but picked up momentum this year as more and more consumers – frightened about the prospects for the future – decided to put some or all of their assets in gold. While gold stocks and ETF's have gained ground in recent weeks, the demand for physical gold, which often carries a still markup, has also increased.

According to Faber, the big drop probably won't happen right away. He thinks it will be a long-term phenomenon. In fact, the noted bear thinks both the gold and stock markets will enjoy a rebound this week as traders realize that last week's heavy selling – which gave Wall Street its worst week since 2008 – was overdone.

What does Faber see as the reason for his long-term pessimistic outlook? It has nothing to do with Europe and whether or not Greece will default. While attention has been riveted to that drama, he says China's economy has been quietly slowing down.

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Free Checking Becoming Endangered Species

More banks adding fees, raising minimum balance requirements

Fewer banks are offering free checking, according to a Bankrate.com survey...

PhotoOnce upon a time, banks attracted customers with the promise of a free checking account. In return, the bank snagged a customer for the long-term, who might also need to borrow money to purchase a home or vehicle, or need other financial services the bank provided.

These days, banks are on the prowl for fees and a checking account provides a target-rich environment. As a result, only 45 percent of non-interest checking accounts are free, down from 65 percent in 2010 and the peak of 76 percent just two years ago, according to Bankrate.com's 2011 Checking Study.

"The decline of free checking is in full swing, however, savvy consumers can take advantage of an increasing amount of fee waivers, most commonly with direct deposit," said Bankrate's senior financial analyst, Greg McBride. "Ninety-two percent of non-interest accounts are either free or can become free."

Balance requirements growing

Consumers are finding that when it comes to fees, both interest and non-interest checking accounts are seeing big increases. Some banks offer free checking but require a minimum balance throughout the cycle to maintain them. The study shows the balance required to keep a free checking account truly free is going up.

On interest-bearing checking accounts, the balance required to avoid the fee jumped 43.9 percent to $5,587 from $3,883, though these balances are increasingly permitted to be held in other accounts and not strictly in the checking account.

On non-interest accounts, the sharp decline in free accounts means 60 percent more accounts now carry fees and balance requirements. The average monthly fee is $4.37, up from $2.49 last year, and the balance required to avoid it is $585, more than double the $249 from one year ago.

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Best and Worst States for a Divorce?

If you're in a hurry, Idaho and Nevada lead the pack

We hope you're not planning a divorce but if you are, you may want to give a little consideration to where you should file.  There are 50 states, afte...

We hope you're not planning a divorce but if you are, you may want to give a little consideration to where you should file.  There are 50 states, after all, and the laws are different in each one.  

If both you and your spouse are longtime residents of the same state and likely to remain so, it's probably easiest to file in that state.  But there are other considerations, including alimony.

Some states are much more likely to award stiff alimony -- or maintenance -- payments than others.  The divorce information site Splitstown surveyed the laws in all 50 states and identified Colorado and Massachusetts as the states most likely to impose crushing alimony payments.

Colorado awards large maintenance payments regardless of how long a couple has been married.  And Masschusetts has an alimony law that is generally regarded as antiquated and hopelessly vague, Splitstown's Jon Hood reported.

Residency

Then there's the question of residency.  If, after reviewing your state's laws you decide that it will take too long or cost too much to file for divorce there, you may want to go somewhere else.  But where?

There's no such thing as a quickie divorce anymore, unless you're willing to go to the Dominican Republic or Haiti, but Nevada and Idaho have the shortest residence requirement -- a mere six weeks.

The most restrictive residency requirements are in the East -- New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Maryland, Rhode Island and South Carolina.  They all require that at least one spouse be a resident of the state for a full year before filing for divorce.

 

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Netflix Inks Streaming Content Deal With DreamWorks

Netflix edges out HBO

Netflix, which earlier this month lost an important content deal with Starz Entertainment, has just signed a deal with DreamWorks Animation to stream its m...

Netflix, which earlier this month lost an important content deal with Starz Entertainment, has just signed a deal with DreamWorks Animation to stream its movies online.

In perhaps a sign of the way things are going, DreamWorks' deal with Netflix replaces its content arrangement with HBO. In an interview with the New York Times, DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg called it “a game-changing deal.”

“We are really starting to see a long-term road map of where the industry is headed,” Katzenberg told the Times.

Needed boost

The DreamWorks deal comes at an opportune time for Netflix. Earlier this month Starz Entertainment broke off negotiations to renew its streaming content deal with Netflix. It wasn't so much that Netflix's offer of $300 million wasn't enough, Starz indicated that it was bothered by the fact that Netflix offers unlimited access to its content for $7.99 a month while cable and satellite providers – who are also Starz customers – charge much more.

Last week Netflix announced a two-year non-exclusive licensing agreement with Discovery Communications, which will allow members to instantly watch prior-season series and specials, including an expanded selection of additional seasons of popular series from Discovery, TLC and Animal Planet, as well as Investigation Discovery, Science and Military Channel. Among the highlights are Discovery Channel's Man vs. Wild, TLC's Say Yes to the Dress, and Animal Planet's River Monsters and other titles from Discovery's program library.

"Discovery Communications has always been platform agnostic and committed to satisfying curiosity on all consumer distribution platforms supported by a strong economic model," said Rebecca Glashow, senior vice president, Digital Distribution, Discovery Communications.

Consumer discord

Netflix is in need of a little good news as it copes with some consumer discord over its decision to split off its DVD-by-mail from its streaming service. Previously, consumers got both for $7.99 a month. Now, the services are operated by two separate companies, both of which charge a monthly fee.

A survey by Frank Magid Associates suggests Netflix recent decisions have, indeed, created some challenges. A survey conducted just before the price change announcement shows a large number of consumers with only moderate satisfaction around their Netflix service and lack of satisfaction with the selection of the streaming content.

For example, nine percent of current subscribers say they are going to cancel instead of switching to a new plan. An additional 7% of current subscribers say they will cancel, unrelated to the price change.

Improvement needed

"A major reason that many consumers are not happy with their Netflix service is due to the quality of the content selection in the streaming service," said Mike Vorhaus, President of Magid Advisors, a unit of Frank N. Magid Associates. "Netflix will need to improve the breadth and timeliness of their streaming content to re-build major consumer momentum."

Who stands to benefit from any Netflix erosion? According to Vorhaus, it's Redbox, the company that operates DVD vending machines outside high-traffic retail locations. According to the survey, almost 60 percent of Netflix subscribers also used Redbox.

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What's On Your Mind? Hollywood Video, Anchor Hocking, Geico, Discount Tire

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Hollywood Video, Anchor Hocking, Geico, Discount Tire, Birthday surprise, Contact info and Upselling....

PhotoShortly after Hollywood Video went out of business former customers began getting collection letters, claiming they still owed for late or unreturned DVDs or games. Because of a legal settlement, many of those letters should have stopped.

“I just received a collection letter today stating I owed over $150,” Kimberly, of Woonsocket, R.I., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They gave me a list of video games, some of which I never even rented. I always returned my rentals paid my debt and rented a new game. I was never made aware of any charges lingering on my account. The store I rented from would not let me rent unless i had a zero balance, so I don't understand where these charges are coming from. Any advice would be great. Thank you!”

There are two issues here. One is whether the debt is real, and Kimberly insists it isn't. The second is what the collection has done to Kimberly's credit score. In May a number of states, including Rhode Island, reached a settlement with Hollywood Video's trustees concerning these collections attempts. The settlement addressed the fees and interest tacked onto the alleged debt, but not whether the debt was real or not. $150 sounds like a lot of money to just be late fees. Kimberly should contact Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin's office. 

Birthday surprise

Tracey, of Wilson, N.C., said she baked a birthday cake for her six year-old when her Anchor Hocking baking pan exploded as soon as she removed it from the oven.

“Shards of glass went everywhere, ruining the cake, cupcakes that were on the counter, and causing a huge and dangerous mess in my sink and on my counters and floors,” Tracey said. “My poor dogs heard me scream and came running into the kitchen; I'm waiting to see if their feet bleed.”

Tracey said she won't use glass baking dishes any longer, using metal pans instead. Unless you own a glass baking dish 20 years old or older, that might be good advice.

Contact info

Some insurance companies are harder to deal with than others when you're involved in an accident. E.G., of Sacramento, Calif., reports a problem with Geico.

“Was hit by another car who has Geico,” E.G., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I have been unable to contact them by phone. It seems like they have contracted with www.numsvc.com who wants to charge $6.99 just to get a phone number to be able to report a claim. After reading several of the comments about Geico it only makes sense that they are acting like one of the "offshore" insurance companies from the '80s & '90s, you know the ones that will take your money for 'insurance' but never be there when you need them.

It sounds like E.G. did a Google search for Geico and clicked on a sponsored link, not Geico's website. Happens all the time. Geico's general claims toll-free number is 1-800-861-8380.  Also, E.G. should report the accident to his own insurance company, which might pursue this on his behalf.

Upselling

Have you ever gone to a business to buy something specific and the sales person makes a strong pitch for you to purchase more than you intended. It's called “upselling,” and businesses use it to pump up their profits. Eloria, of Houston, Tex., says she ran into an extreme case of upselling at a local Discount Tire store.

“I took my car in for tire rotation, a package that came with my tire purchase,” Eloria said. “I Informed the attendant that I wanted back tires to front and vice verse. He insisted on making an 'appraisal,' then informed me the only way they could rotate would be if I purchase two new tires. I told him I was unable to do so at this time due to finances, to just rotate and I'll make new purchase next month. Told me he couldn't do it. I realize economic times are bad for all of us, but trying to 'make' me buy new tires based on false info is shameful.”

But it seems to be a widespread practice. Too many businesses these days believe the pathway to profitability is to keep squeezing the consumer just a little more.

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Can Herman Cain Deliver? Consumers Think So

Cain's Florida straw poll win shocks party elders

He likes to compare himself to Rodney Dangerfield, saying he doesn't get the respect he deserves from party leaders.  But pizza magnate Herman Cain's ...

PhotoHe likes to compare himself to Rodney Dangerfield, saying he doesn't get the respect he deserves from party leaders.  But pizza magnate Herman Cain's Florida straw poll victory may force GOP leaders -- and the press -- to take him a bit more seriously.

It may be, of course, that Cain is polling well simply because he is still a relative unknown, though a seemingly likeable one, while sometime front-runners Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann's warts have been exposed in gory detail.

But whatever the reason, Cain has maintained a stunningly positive net sentiment with consumers for the last 12 months, according to a ConsumerAffairs.com analysis of nearly 3 million consumer comments on Facebook, Twitter and other blogs and social media.  

Photo
Blue line shows net sentiment

While Cain was a virtual unknown a year ago, he enjoyed an approval rating approaching 100% among the few consumers who were aware of him.  A year later, he is at 80%, having never dipped below the 50% mark, despite a few well-publicized gaffes.

What do consumers like about him?  

Photo

 

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Like Lilly, consumers who commented on the media we sampled seem to find Cain to be a take-charge, no-nonsense businessman possessed of a magnetic personality and -- something rare these days -- a sense of humor that he often turns on himself.

PhotoCain's 9-9-9 tax plan also resonates well because of its simplicity and apparent fairness.  He has proposed:

  • a 9% flat tax on business with a deduction for investments, purchases and dividends;
  • a 9% flat income tax with a deduction for charitable contributions; and
  • a 9% national sales tax, which would significantly expand the tax base by collecting taxes from consumers who currently pay little or no tax.
Like most of the candidates, Cain experienced a bump in August, when the Iowa straw poll got everyone's attention.  Most candidates collected gobs of both positive and negative comments as potential voters began sizing them up.  Cain, on the other hand, may have found Ronald Reagan's secret stash of Teflon.  He collected very few strongly negative comments in August, or any other time for that matter. 

Romney fading?

While the pizza business may be small change to Mitt Romney, the onetime private equity fund baron would no doubt like to exchange trendlines with Cain.  Although Romney has managed to stay in positive territory for the last year, he started at a relatively modest 55% last September and today, coming off a straw poll win in Michigan, is at an anemic 29%.  

Photo
Blue line shows net sentiment
  

Perry gets thrown

Then there's Gov. Rick Perry, one of the few candidates who actually has a job at the moment and who has proven himself to be a vote-getter, at least in Texas, where he is currently serving an unprecedented third term as governor.

But if politics is like a rodeo -- and who's to say it isn't? -- Perry has a hard time staying upright in the saddle of public sentiment. He started the year as an unknown in the "other" 49 states and has had a wild up-and-down ride ever since.  

Photo
Blue line shows net sentiment

However, judging from the 720,000 comments we analyzed, Perry's lows are lower than his competitors and his highs -- well, they're lower too.  He has never broken the 40% barrier and currently is back in the dust at 3%. 

About the best he can hope for now is that he gets out of the ring before a mule kicks him.

Bumpy ride

Though hardly a cowgirl, Michele Bachmann has also had a bumpy ride, falling into negative territory twice in the past year, hitting what may have been her peak -- 54%  -- in August, then plunging back nearly to zero in late September.

 Photo

Above the fray

Then there's Ron Paul, the candidate nearly everyone likes but few vote for. He may be the Adlai Stevenson (Don't know the name? Look it up!) of this generation -- the guy who seems too smart, too pure, too idealistic to be President.  

His trend line more closely resembles Herman Cain's than that of any other candidate, hovering in positive territory all year as his loyal fans stay loyal but most everyone else wanders off in another direction. If the obstetrician-turned-politician can't find a way to slap-start his campaign, it may die aborning.

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Usual caveats 

Unlike opinion sampling, which chooses supposedly representative individuals to serve as stand-ins for others of theoretically like mind, the sentiment analysis portrayed here looks at millions of comments by "real" people.  It uses no extrapolation and does not assume that one Akron tire worker's opinion mirrors others. 

There is no scientific basis for this kind of reporting.  It simply does what journalism has always done -- collects, collates and passes along the comments, hopes, fears and malaise of those who pass by our listening post.

On the other hand, there is no coercion, reward or arm-twisting, as has been known to occur at straw polls.  

Take it for what it's worth. 

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

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Fiat Pulls Even With Mini Cooper as Consumers Cheer Them On

The little cars are winning high marks from U.S. consumers

Less is more?  That's perhaps the feeling Fiat is trying to create around its tiny Fiat 500, introduced to these shores earlier this year.  Fiat...

PhotoLess is more?  That's perhaps the feeling Fiat is trying to create around its tiny Fiat 500, introduced to these shores earlier this year. 

Fiat's advertising during its return to the U.S. has been handled by Impatto Custom Marketing, which among other things created the somewhat noteworthy TV ad that shows a Fiat 500 at a drive-in theater.  

The ad carries the tagline: "Simply More."  But for Impatto, it's going to be simply less.  The Southfield, Mich., agency has been shown the door by Fiat, which didn't announce a successor or offer any explanation for the switch.

Impatto also created the tagline, "Life is Best When Driven," which is still being used by Fiat.

Of course, it hasn't always been true that Fiats are best when driven, since the batch that infested U.S. highways back in the 1960s and 1970s were often to be found broken down by the side of the road, up on the lift at the local garage or simply sitting forlorn and forgotten in a lonely driveway.  (Your faithful reporter has spent time sitting in the median of the 405, back when there was such a thing, and in the blazing desert somewhere west of Indio while buzzards circled overhead and lived to tell the tale).  

Fashion accessory

That was then and this, as we all know, is now.  Fiat, which you may recall now owns Chrysler, has been treating the 500 more like a fashion accessory and less like a car.

PhotoIts dealers call their showrooms "studios" and try to locate them in ritzy shopping districts instead of endless suburbia.  The car's trim lines include “Pop” and “Lounge.” Even Jennifer Lopez has been recruited to sing the little car's praises.

Fiat is chasing BMW's Mini Cooper, another little car that features lots of spiff, a hefty price tag and is, one must admit, a blast to drive, and has already drawn just about even with Mini in the sales race, an impressive start for a brand that's basically unknown to its target audience in the U.S.

Both cars are tearing up the track as far as consumer sentiment goes.  We analyzed more than 500,000 consumer comments on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere and found Fiat pinning the needle with a net positive sentiment around 60% for the past 12 months.

Photo
Blue line shows net sentiment

 

The Mini Cooper does even better, holding a net sentiment that's roughly 80 percent positive in a study of 160,000 consumer comments.   

Photo
Blue line shows net sentiment

PhotoWhy do consumers like these little cars so much?  As the pie charts show, Mini drivers find the cars to be fast and fun to drive.  A few -- stick-shift drivers no doubt -- even called them "good exercise."  

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Fiat fans tended to be more enthralled with the car's looks, its technology and the awards it has won for its body and engine designs.

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Whatever the reason, sales are good.  Fiat, which now has 102 dealerships in the U.S.  sold 11,088 of 500 cars through the end of August, an impressive showing for an unusual car being marketed by new dealers to an audience that is largely unfamiliar with the brand.

Does all this bode well for Alfa Romeo, another storied nameplate that will be joining Fiat in the New World in a year or two?  Alfa at one time had a fanatical following in the U.S., even though its cars were only slightly more likely to remain in motion than the Fiat but as the 500 has shown, the American Dream isn't just for humans.

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Should You Build Savings Or Pay Off Debt?

Consumers believe debt reduction is more important

The Great Recession has taught consumers at least two lessons. You need more savings and less debt. But which objective should you take on first? "People ...

PhotoThe Great Recession has taught consumers at least two lessons. You need more savings and less debt. But which objective should you take on first?

"People often debate which is more important, to be debt free or to have a robust savings account, and the answer is both," said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the National Foundation For Credit Counseling (NFCC). "As important as it is to handle debt responsibly, the truth of the matter is that the unplanned emergency is inevitable, and savvy consumers will recognize this and prepare for it."

Falling savings rate

History has shown that the rate of savings increases during difficult economic times, as consumers begin to cut back on their purchases. Correspondingly, savings typically decline during good economic times as is evidenced by the rate of savings falling below 1.0 percent before the last recession which began at the end of 2007. Even though the savings rate has recently climbed to approximately 5 percent, it is far less than the savings in some years past.

For example, in January 1959, the first month that the Bureau of Economic Analysis provided savings data, the personal savings rate in the United States was 8.3 percent of disposable income. That works out to the average person saving approximately one-month's take-home income per year.

Using credit for emergencies

One reason people don't feel they need to save as much has been access to credit. But in the last three years, access to credit has been drying up.

"Credit replaced savings as the family's safety net, with some arguing that savings was unnecessary since they could charge or borrow their way out of any unplanned event," Cunningham said. 

Times are different now, and consumers know it, with the new normal for credit shaping up before our eyes. Access to credit has diminished totally for some, while credit lines have been lowered for others, making reliance on credit as a rescue tool in an emergency not an option for many.

Consumers choose debt reduction

Within the context of this new reality, NFCC recently conducted an online poll, asking consumers which they thought was more important – building up savings or paying down debt. By an overwhelming margin – 89 percent to 11 percent – respondents said paying off debt was more important.

NFCC says consumers appear to have learned their lesson about over-spending. Now, the organization says, they need to focus on the other side of the equation: saving.

The best use of the money that was previously going to pay off creditors is to begin or build up personal savings in the following five key areas:

  • Rainy day fund - covers the everyday life emergencies such as home or vehicle maintenance, insurance co-pays and deductibles, etc.
  • Income replacement account - sustains you in the event of a job loss, major medical event, divorce, etc.
  • Downpayment for a mortgage - a significant downpayment will put you in a better buying position, as well as lower the amount you have to borrow
  • Known future expenses - plan in advance for upcoming major expenses such as education, vehicles, vacations, etc.
  • Retirement - start planning today to secure your tomorrow, as even small amounts of money invested over time can make the difference in how you live during your senior years


"In bad times, people save out of a fear of tomorrow, and in good times they spend as if there were no tomorrow," said Cunningham. "To turn this savings/spending cycle into financial stability, consumers should recognize the unarguable importance of savings and develop a systematic plan to meet their personal savings goals."  

NFCC is a non-profit organization that refers clients to member credit counselors, not to be confused with for-profit companies that charge an advance fee on the promise of helping you "settle" your credit card debt.

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Congressmen: USPS Needs New Business Model, Not Closure

Bipartisan group suggests using Post Offices as retail outlets

Congressmen Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and  Don Young (R-AK), joined by 73 other bipartisan members of Congress, have written Postal Regulatory Commis...

PhotoCongressmen Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and  Don Young (R-AK), joined by 73 other bipartisan members of Congress, have written Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) Chairwoman Ruth Goldway to urge the PRC to reject thousands of Post Office closures in favor of reforming the Postal Service’s business model.

Instead of cutting service, the bipartisan letter drafted by Connolly and Young said Congress should remove the strictures imposed on the Postal Service by the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, such as an onerous retirement prefunding requirement and prohibition on reasonable retail activity within postal facilities.
 
“We have been presented with a false choice of closing post offices and slashing the workforce or letting the Postal Service go bankrupt,” Connolly said.  “There are better alternatives. The Postal Service’s unparalleled retail network is a competitive advantage, but that advantage can’t be leveraged because of the 2006 law that prohibits the Postal Service from even selling many postal-related products.  We need to change that law.”

In addition, the letter proposed refunding the Postal Service’s pension overpayment to avoid the Postal Service’s pending technical default.

“Too many Americans rely on dependable postal service for us to not act on this issue,” said Young.  “Getting rid of burdensome regulations and cutting the red tape will allow the Postal Service to operate more like a business in the future. My hope is that Congress takes advantage of this opportunity to strengthen the Postal Service without hurting rural Americans.”

Connolly and Young emphasized that eliminating Post Offices and cutting service would undermine the Postal Service’s competitiveness and the $1 trillion private sector mailing industry.

“This Constitutional institution must be strengthened, not eviscerated, because it continues to improve quality of life for our constituents while creating more than a trillion dollars of private sector business activity," the Representatives said.  Widespread closure of post offices should be rejected in favor of more thoughtful reform that fixes the errors of the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act and finally allows the Postal Service to behave like a business and ensures the requirement to provide universal service is fulfilled.”

 
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Gas Prices Down On Recession Fear

Average price drops seven cents in last seven days

Gas prices dropped seven cents a gallon in the last week...

PhotoThere's good news and bad news for motorists. The good news is, gasoline prices are going down. The bad news is, gasoline prices are going down because the market is convinced we're going to have another recession.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.540, down from $3.611 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's three and a half cents a gallon less than a month ago.

The average price of diesel fuel today is $3.877 per gallon, down from $3.898 a week ago.

Oil prices responded to the same market forces that drove stock prices off a cliff this week. Fears of a global recession pushed oil prices below $79 a barrel in Thursday's trading.

In its weekly report, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said gasoline stockpiles rose by 3.3 million barrels last week, despite increased exports by U.S. refiners. U.S. refineries operated at about 88 percent capacity during the week.

This week the states with the cheapest gasoline are mostly in the southeast and southwest, with Missouri supplanting South Carolina as the state with the most bargain-priced fuel. The most expensive gasoline this week is found in the northwestern states.

The states with the most expensive gasoline today are:

  • Hawaii ($4.235)
  • Alaska ($3.997)
  • California ($3.909)
  • Washington ($3.884)
  • Connecticut ($3.857)
  • New York ($3.835)
  • Oregon ($3.833)
  • North Dakota ($3.774)
  • Idaho ($3.751)
  • Montana ($3.731)

 

The states with the least expensive gas this week are:

  • South Carolina ($3.288)
  • Missouri ($3.263)
  • Tennessee ($3.338)
  • Arkansas ($3.404)
  • Oklahoma ($3.417)
  • Texas ($3.363)
  • Louisiana ($3.374)
  • Mississippi ($3.375)
  • Alabama ($3.388)
  • Virginia ($3.395)
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An Emergency Preparedness Plan For Your Pet

Animal groups offer advice

When Pennsylvania residents were asked to evacuate their homes during the recent flooding, many were suddenly faced with the problem of what to do with the...

PhotoWhen Pennsylvania residents were asked to evacuate their homes during the recent flooding, many were suddenly faced with the problem of what to do with their pets. Many had never really given it a thought.

Fortunately, 20 teams of volunteers sprang into action, opening and managing 29 temporary animal shelters across the state during the height of the recent flooding, and some of those animal shelters still remain open.

"We encourage all those with domestic animals to make a plan before emergencies happen,” said Joel Hersh, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Animal Response Team. "Prepare your home, business or farm for an emergency before the emergency occurs.”

Rapid response

Based on principals used by emergency managers, Animal Response Teams involve a coordinated effort between government, corporations and animal organizations. The goal of the organization is to have a rapid, coordinated and effective response to any emergency affecting animals, with the hope of decreasing any health or safety threat to animals or humans.

Advice for preparing your animals for a disaster are similar to ones for humans. The Southeast Area Animal Control Authority (SEAACA) has provided a list of tips to help pet owners keep their animals safe in case of a natural disaster or emergency. From earthquakes and fires to tornadoes and beyond, emergency situations can occur without notice and pose significant threats, especially to pets that may not be able to take care of themselves in such situations.

Tips

Some of SEAACA’s tips include:

  • Keep a Kit. Make sure your emergency kit also includes items for your pet, such as appropriate pet food, water for at least three days, medications, emergency phone numbers (your own, your veterinarian’s information, family members who can take care of your pet, etc.), medical records, photos of your pet, extra identification tags, and any other information you think will be helpful. Place your emergency kit in a place that has easy access, for instance somewhere close to an exit door or garage.
  • First-Aid. In addition to conventional items used for humans, your first aid-kit should include flea and tick medications, latex gloves, and even a first-aid book or pamphlet geared toward animals.
  • Check It. Create a checklist of relevant items that will help your pet survive an emergency (include the items here in your checklist). Keep this checklist close to your emergency kit or with your personal belongings, to make sure you don’t forget anythinng.
  • Toys & Treats. Keep chewing toys, blankets, bedding, and other items that your pet loves. If your pet can play with something familiar, she or he could feel more relaxed during an emergency situation.
  • Something to Carry. Keep a pet carrier and/or litter box with newspaper, paper towels, bleach or cleaning solution, and plastic bags. If you need to evacuate your home, you’ll want to be able to take care of your pet’s needs.
  • Stay In. If the emergency entails environmental smoke or loud sounds in your neighborhood, bring your pet inside and try to keep them in a safe, quiet place.
  • Make Arrangements. Well in advance of a disaster, try to set up arrangements at a local kennel, friend’s house, or other appropriate place in case you need to take your pet to a temporary boarding home.
  • Microchip. When pets have a microchip, they can be more easily reunited with owners during a disaster or emergency. Make sure your pets’ contact information is current. SEAACA provides microchipping services to pet owners throughout Southern California.


“Disasters and emergencies are scary for people, but they can extremely traumatic for animals that depend on their pet owners for safety,” said SEAACA Executive Director, Dan Morrison. “By preparing ahead of time and making a few arrangements, pet owners can be more confident that their beloved animals will have the support they need in case of an emergency.”

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What's On Your Mind? The Hartford, Cuisinart, Samsung, Facebook

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: The Hartford, Cuisinart, Samsung, Facebook, Too Hot, Coming around and 'Not a spammer'....

PhotoRemember Hurricane Irene? The storm that roared up the East Coast at the end of August may seem like a distant memory for some. But it's still very real if your life hasn't returned to normal. Tammy, of Clinton, Md., says falling trees damaged her home and three vehicles, while knocking down power lines. She says her insurance company, The Hartford, has been less than helpful.

“The adjuster did not inspect the property until September 7,” Tammy told ConsumerAffairs.com.  “My son and I were unable to remain in the home as there was no power and Pepco would not reconnect the lines until electrical work was complete.  Hartford stated I would have to pay for the tree-cutting and removal, the electrician, contractor, the loss-of-use expenses and and submit for reimbursement.  The total cost thus far is almost $8,000 and I have yet to receive one penny from Hartford after submitting receipts and paid invoices as instructed.

"My funds are down to $32 and I can no longer afford the hotel we were staying in.”

Tammy should call the office of Maryland's Insurance Administration to find out if this kind of delay is normal. Doesn't sound like it should be, even after a natural disaster.

Too Hot

For months, some U.S. consumers have reported problems with the Cuisinart coffeemakers. Here's a similar report from north of the border.

“My Cuisinart coffee maker is about one year old,” said Shelley, of Coldstream, British Columbia. “I was in my home office when I could hear a crackling sound coming from the kitchen. My coffee maker was smoking and the coffee in the pot, about a cup, was actually boiling! I could smell a terrible burning plastic smell. I unplugged the unit and smoke continued to come from the element and the back of the unit. I thought I was going to have to throw it outside! Thank goodness I was home.”

If you have one of these coffeemakers, it might be wise to unplug it when it's not in use.

Coming around

Owners of flat screen TVs are well aware of capacitor plague, when these small electronic components fail, rendering the expensive TVs useless.

“On Sept 18 my 46 inch Samsung TV started clicking when I tried to turn it on,”John, of Grand Junction, Conn., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I got online and found that Samsung had bad capacitors in the TV`s that were made in 2008. I called them and was told they were no longer repairing the TVs free. The next day I brought it into a repair shop and had three bad capacitors replaced at a cost of $89.45. On Sept 22 I received a call from Samsung and was told they would make the repair. I told the lady that I just paid to get it repaired. She said for that reason she couldn't reimburse me.”

John said he doesn't understand why Samsung won't reimburse him if they were willing to pay for the repair. Most certainly, there is probably a company policy that explains it. What we find most interesting is that Samsung is willing to pay for out-of-warranty repairs to TVs with bad capacitors. Samsung owners should remember this if, and when, their TVs fail.

'Not a spammer'

Candace, of Anaheim, Calif., is angry that Facebook has flagged her as a spammer. It happens, she says, when she sends friend requests that receive no response.

“I was logged out one day, and forced to log in again to an insulting prompt, which informed me that I must be a spammer, and such, I could not request friends or send messages for 7sevendays,” Candace said. “Then I was forced to agree not to send friend requests or messages to people I don't know - something I was NOT doing!”

Candice also expressed frustration that there is no way to contact someone as Facebook. She isn't the first person to express that frustration.

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FTC Sues to Stop Phony 'Free Trial,' 'Risk-Free' Offers

Consumers lost $450 million at the rate of $79.95 per month in negative option deals

A federal court, acting on a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has halted an online conspiracy that allegedly took in more than $450 mi...

PhotoA federal court, acting on a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has halted an online conspiracy that allegedly took in more than $450 million from consumers in the United States and several other countries, and froze the alleged ringleader’s assets, pending trial.

The scheme allegedly lured consumers into “free” or “risk-free” offers for weight-loss pills and tooth whiteners, and then billed them for things they did not want or agree to purchase, providing false or misleading information to merchant banks in order to acquire credit and debit card processing services.

Companies allegedly involved in the scheme include:

  • 1021018 Alberta Ltd.
  • Just Think Media
  • Credit Report America
  • eDirect Software
  • WULongsource and Wuyi Source
  • Terra Marketing Group
  • SwipeBids.com
  • SwipeAuctions.com
  • Selloffauctions.com
  • Coastwest Holdings Ltd.
  • Farend Services Ltd.
  • JDW Media, LLC
  • Net Soft Media, LLC
  • True Net, LLC

The court order granting a preliminary injunction against Jesse Willms and 10 companies he controls stems from the FTC’s ongoing crackdown on online fraud. Pending trial, it bans the defendants from selling products or services that feature a “negative option,” in which the seller interprets consumers’ silence or inaction as permission to charge them, or “continuity plan” in which consumers are sent regular shipments of merchandise until they cancel.

The preliminary injunction also prohibits the defendants from offering any products as a “free trial” or “bonus”; misrepresenting costs of a product or any cancellation policy; failing to disclose the amount and timing of fees and the terms and conditions of any refunds; making misrepresentations about the benefits or safety of products; misrepresenting any product endorsement or testimonial; and charging consumers without their express consent.

Teeth whiteners

According to the FTC’s complaint, filed in May, Willms and his companies deceived consumers with offers of “free trials” for various products online, including acai berry weight-loss pills, teeth whiteners, and health supplements containing resveratrol (the supposedly healthful ingredient in red wine), as well as for a work-at-home scheme, access to government grants, free credit reports, and penny auctions.

Consumers were often charged for the “free” trial plus a monthly recurring fee, typically $79.95. Consumers were also charged monthly recurring fees for the so-called bonus offers.

The court found that the FTC showed enough evidence in the case to justify freezing the assets of Willms and his companies. It stated, “Not only has [the FTC] shown a likelihood that Defendants have engaged in misleading marketing practices, but it has also shown that Defendants have moved substantial funds to offshore companies and bank accounts. . .”

Specifically, the court stated that Willms admitted to establishing several holding companies in Cyprus to facilitate international merchant banking, and that email exchanges show that funds were likely transferred from Willms’ accounts to Cyprus and possibly for the purpose of hiding assets.

The FTC recently filed an amended complaint adding two defendants to the action, Elizabeth Graver and Mobile Web Media LLC, a company Graver allegedly established to help Willms acquire credit and debit card processing services.

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Specialized Components Recalls Bicycle Forks

The brake component can disengage

Specialized Bicycle Components Inc., is recalling about 14,200 bicycles equipped with carbon forks.  The brake component housed within the bicycle&rsq...

PhotoSpecialized Bicycle Components Inc., is recalling about 14,200 bicycles equipped with carbon forks.  The brake component housed within the bicycle’s carbon fork can disengage from the fork and allow the brake assembly to contact the wheel spokes while rotating, posing a fall hazard.

The company has received two reports of the brake component disengaging from the carbon fork. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves the following nine, 2011 model year bicycles with Advanced Group carbon forks: Sirrus Expert, Sirrus Comp, Sirrus Elite, Vita Expert, Vita Comp, Vita Elite, Vita Elite Step Thru, Tricross Sport, Tricross, and Tricross Comp. All bicycles have the brand name “Specialized” on the lower front frame tube. The model name is on the top tube.

Authorized Specialized Retailers sold the bicycles nationwide from June 2010 through August 2011 for between $700 and $2,000. They were made in Taiwan.

Consumers should immediately stop riding these bicycles and return them to an authorized Specialized retailer for a free repair or replacement carbon fork.

For additional information, contact Specialized toll-free at (877) 808-8154 from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the company’s website at www.specialized.com

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Next Bicycles Recalled

The chain can break

Bridgeway International is recalling about 91,000 Next brand bicycles.   The bicycle chain can break, causing a rider to lose control and fall. ...

PhotoBridgeway International is recalling about 91,000 Next brand bicycles.   The bicycle chain can break, causing a rider to lose control and fall.

The firm is aware of 11 reports of incidents, including nine reports of injuries, including lacerations and contusions.

This recall involves “NEXT”-branded men’s 26-inch hybrid bicycles. The bicycles are red or orange. “Power X” and “Suspension” are printed on the frame. Model numbers LBH2611M and LBH2611M2 are included in this recall. The model number is located on the frame between the pedals.

Walmart sold the bicycles from February 2011 through July 2011 for about $100. They were made in China.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycle and contact the company for a free repair.

For additional information, contact Bridgeway International at (877) 934-3228 anytime or visit the firm’s website at www.powerxbike.com

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Journalism Groups Make Malpractice Database Public

Obama Administration blocks doctor discipline records, threatens reporter

A few days ago, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) abruptly blocked public access to an online database that anonymously tracks state-b...

PhotoA few days ago, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) abruptly blocked public access to an online database that anonymously tracks state-by-state records of physician malpractice, medical errors and medical discipline.

Consumer groups protested but three journalism organizations have gone them one better -- by posting the database on a Website maintained by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).  

“The removal of the Public Use File — whose very name means for public use — eliminates a valuable tool for journalists whose goal is to educate and protect the public. This database has allowed reporters to uncover flaws that have toughened legislation, and without a doubt, saved the lives of patients across the country,” said IRE Board President Manny Garcia.

The National Practitioner Data Bank has been used by reporters for many years to investigate issues involving lax oversight of physicians.  It has been the only comprehensive national source of reliable data on medical malpractice and other matters reported to the NPDB. 

The version of the data that has traditionally been publicly available does not identify doctors, but contains other important information that allows journalists, researchers, consumer organizations, scholars and others to look for trends in disciplinary actions.

The data has for years been part of IRE’s Database Library, which obtains federal government data and makes it easier for journalists to use. The IRE database is normally available only to journalists who are IRE members but IRE has opened it to the public in response to HHS' action.

The Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) have joined IRE in filing protests with HHS.

Reporter threatened

The journalism organizations also criticized a threatening letter sent by the Health Resources and Services Administration, an HHS agency, to a Kansas City Star journalist who used the database for a recent story. The agency warned the reporter that he could be liable for $11,000 or more in civil fines for violating a confidentiality provision of the federal law.

“We are also stunned that a public servant has the hubris to threaten a health care reporter for doing his job,” Garcia said. “HRSA should be delighted that journalists are using public information to help save lives.”

AHCJ President Charles Ornstein said he was puzzled by HRSA’s sudden action because reporters have used the public version of the data bank for years to assist in their reporting and learn additional details about physicians they already had been researching.

“We are troubled that the Obama administration appears to have placed the interests of physicians ahead of the safety of patients,” Ornstein said in a news release. “Attempting to intimidate a reporter from using information on a government website is a serious abuse of power.”

SPJ President Hagit Limor stated that “in one stroke, the very administration that promised greater  transparency excluded information of obvious public value to patients across this country, information that had been accessible to journalists for years. This is clearly outrageous.”

To access the data, go to the NPDB download page. There are instructions for how to download the data through an FTP client or the online site.

AHCJ has collected several stories showcasing how journalists have utilized the database to report on malpractice cases and disciplinary action taken against doctors. 

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A 'Man Cave' Doesn't Detract From Home's Resale Value

But economist says "don't go crazy"

Building a man cave in your home won't reduce resale value...

PhotoGood news for husbands who happen to be sports fanatics. Your wife's veto of your idea to build a man cave in the basement, decorated in homage to your sports teams, might not be all that justified.

At least, not if she uses the reason that the room would sink your home's resale value.

“As long as you don’t make it too specific, there tends to be a resale market for man caves,” said Stephanie Rauterkus, Ph.D., professor of accounting and finance in the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) School of Business. “No matter how crazy you get, there tends to be at least one or two other people in the world who have that same kind of craziness.”

Knows from experience

She should know. Not only is she an economist, but she, her economist husband, Andreas Rauterkus, and their two kids hole up in their man cave each weekend.

“For ours I didn’t want to put a Bearcat claw on one wall, because even though it’s just paint, somebody who is not a Cincinnati fan may go ‘Uggggghhh, I gotta paint and do this and that’” said Rauterkus, author of the 365 Days on a Budget blog. “Plus, down here even if you go Alabama or Auburn you have a 50/50 chance of having a team that turns somebody off of buying your house.”

Being passionate about your interests is good, Stephanie Rauterkus says, “but there is a way to do it that doesn’t get you into too much financial trouble.” First and foremost, Rauterkus says, don’t go crazy with it.

  • Rule One: Stay sane with the cost. Only spend what you can afford.
  • Rule Two: Stay sane with the decor. In case you move or your team preferences change.
  • Rule Three: Stay sane with the decision. Sleep on it as you would for all major purchases.

“Sports is all about emotion and that is how we get into trouble — when the emotions kick in,” said Rauterkus. “But when it comes time to write the check or plunk down the plastic somehow you have to get the emotion out. You have to ask yourself: is this a smart decision? What are the long-term ramifications?”

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Insider Predicts October iPhone 5 Release

Speculation builds that new phone will be out next month

Apple likely to release new iPhone in October...

PhotoOkay, the release of the next generation iPhone is now officially the worst kept secret in business.

Former Vice President Al Gore, a member of the Apple board of directors, said he believes the “new iPhones” will be here next month. Gore was speaking at Discovery Invest Leadership Conference in South Africa, when he let the news slip.

Apple declined to comment and has said nothing officially about when the iPhone 5 will be released, preferring to let rumors and buzz build around the iconic product. Even without Gore's loose lips, most industry analysts have long predicted an October launch, with one even pinpointing the expected launch date as between October 3 and 5.

Still a mystery

The real unknown is what kind of device the iPhone 5 will be. Normally, Apple updates this product between June and July, but failed to do so this year. Some have speculated on a major upgrade from the iPhone 4, while others has suggested minor tweaking of the current model.

The iPhone 4, introduced in July 2010, is a 3G device. Since its introduction, competitors have turned out a number of 4G phones that take advantage of the faster networks the major carriers are beginning to roll out. It is hard to believe Apple would update its best-selling device without making it 4G.

Two iPhones?

This week J.P. Morgan analyst Mark Moskowitz told Fortune Magazine he's predicting two new iPhones before the year ends. One he calls the “iPhone 4-plus. The other, he says will be a significant advancement.

Regardless of when Apple decides to update it's iPhone, it continues to gobble of market share in the smartphone sector. While Wall Street has sunk in recent weeks, Apple stock is up along 20 percent in the last month.

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What's On Your Mind? AT&T, Hertz, Lenovo, Chase

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: AT&T, Hertz, Lenovo, Chase, Keep your paperwork, Check the calendar and Another nightmare....

PhotoWith all the emphasis on mobile phones, it's easy to forget about old fashioned landlines. Many people depend on their residential telephone- not a wireless device – for vital communication, and they miss it when it isn't there.

“I have been complaining to AT&T for two months that my landline does not work,” Mary, of Canterbury, Conn., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “We checked the inside wiring and the problem is outside. No dial, static on phone. Cannot receive calls and make outgoing calls. I am being billed for phone calls. I have not had service for two months--how could I make these calls? The customer service reps are very rude. There is approximately $86.00 not I do not owe. I am billed for phone service I do not have.”

Two months is too long to wait for a repair, so something is obviously not right about this. In fact, Connecticut's utility regulators earlier this year leveled a $745,000 civil fine against AT&T, claiming the communications giant failed to meet a quality service standard when it comes to repairs. The standard requires the company to make repairs to at least 90 percent of out-of-service problems reported within a 24-hour period. In too many cases, say state officials, consumers were left without phone service for much longer periods. Mary could start by filing a complaint with the Connecticut Public Utilities Department

Keep your paperwork

Consumers report being nickeled and dimed – actually a lot more than nickels and dimes – by nearly all the rental car agencies. Especially troubling are extra changes for refueling when the consumer has taken pains to return the car full of gas.

“Before returning my rental vehicle I refueled at the nearest gas station to ensure it had a full fuel tank,” said Samuel, of Las Vegas, Nev. “The serviceman verified the tank to be full upon return to Hertz Rent A Car in Denver on August 29. I was checking my credit card account on September 17 and I found an unauthorized charge from Hertz for the amount of $95.69 charged on September 13. On September 19, I received a letter from Hertz stating when the car was serviced 10.3 gallons of fuel were needed to fill up the tank.”

Samuel said a Hertz attendant verified a full tank. Surely that is noted somewhere in the paperwork. If Samuel still has his paperwork, he should be able to straighten this out. The lesson is to hold on to your rental receipts for several months.

Check the calendar

Patricia, of Cumming, Ga., experienced a system crash on her Lenovo laptop on September 20. It was made all the worse because she lost work she had just completed and would be out of action the following day because of jury duty.

“I spent last night recreating the work that I had just lost on it, so when I went to jury duty this morning I wouldn't be thinking about recreating the work that was due,” Patricia told ConsumerAffairs.com. “After returning from Jury Duty I called Lenovo customer service. Turns out my warranty expired yesterday. They said there wasn't anything they could do for me. Since I didn't call last night before midnight I was just out of luck.”

Patricia is angry at Lenovo, but in fairness to the company, the warranty was up, even if she only missed it by hours. The company might have made a friend for life if they had honored it anyway, but chances are no one at the level she was dealing with could make that call.

Another nightmare

Over the past three years we have read about all kinds of problems homeowners have experienced while going through the modification process. Often it includes a lack of communication with the loan servicer. Nancy, of Napimo, Calif., says she thought she had things worked out with Chase when she started making mortgage payments in July. But the bank wouldn't accept her payments.

“Every month I would spend hours on the phone with them with no explanation and disputing the fact any payments were being made,” Nancy said. “I finally went to the bank in person to make a payment and they also rejected payment, telling me my house sold in March 2011.”

While that news was shocking, Nancy said the confusion continued because she has now received a notice of foreclosure. Shouldn't she have received that before her house was sold? Nancy should speak to someone in California Attorney General Kamala Harris' office.  

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Cadmium in Children's Jewelry to be More Tightly Regulated

Cheap metal jewelry may contain potentially harmful traces of the toxic chemical

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) will begin restricting the use of cadmium in children's jewelry unless ASTM International - formerly known as...

PhotoThe Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) will begin restricting the use of cadmium in children's jewelry unless ASTM International - formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials - adopts voluntary standards by Dec. 16, 2011, Courthouse News Service reports.

In a notice published in the Federal Register, the agency says it is acting in response to a petition from the Empire State Consumer Project, Sierra Club, Center for Environmental Health and other organizations.

Earlier this year, it was reported that children who mouth or swallow jewelry containing cadmium may be exposed to as much as 100 times the recommended maximum exposure limit for the toxic metal.

"Our hope is that the potential hazards of cadmium-laden jewelry will be taken seriously. While the bioavailability of cadmium from many items was low, the amounts of cadmium obtained from other items were extraordinarily high and clearly dangerous if these items were mouthed or swallowed by children," said Jeffrey Weidenhamer of Ashland University in Ohio, author of a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Recent recalls

There have been several recent recalls of children's jewelry. In May 2010, Claire's Stores recalled about 19,000 "Best Friends" charm bracelets, made in China and retailing for about $12, because they contained unhealthy levels of cadmium. Earlier in the year, FAF Inc. recalled about 55,000 children's necklaces sold at Wal-Mart.

For his study, Weidenhamer's team tested 69 pieces of cadmium-laden jewelry, mostly charms and necklace pendants, many designed for children and imported primarily from China. Most items sold for less than $5 each and were purchased in 2009 and 2010.

Of 34 pieces of jewelry tested under mouthing conditions, one piece (a football pendant) yielded 2,109 micrograms of cadmium-more than 100 times the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)-recommended limit of 18 micrograms for maximum exposure through mouthing. Eight other pieces exceeded the 18-microgram limit.

The petitioners asked that the CPSC declare that any toy metal jewelry containing more than trace amounts of cadmium by weight be declared a banned hazardous substance, because of concerns that children could put the jewelry in their mouths, exposing them to the substance, which can be toxic.

The commission granted the petition and directed its staff to begin drafting the measure unless ASTM drafts acceptable voluntary standards.

"Extremely toxic"

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines cadmium as “extremely toxic” and cautions that due it its “low permissible exposure limit,” overexposures may occur even when only trace amounts of the metal are present.

Several deaths from acute exposure have occurred among welders who have unwittingly welded cadmium-containing alloys or worked with silver solders, the agency noted. Most acute exposures occur in mining and smelting operations.

For the general public, the primary source of exposure to cadmium in dietary, as trace amounts may be present on some foods. Smoking tobacco can also increase the cadmium burden.

ASTM presently prescribes standard test methods to identify cadmium in glass tumblers, ceramic surfaces, glazed ceramic tile, porcelain enamel and ceramic foodware, among others, but does not address children's jewelry specifically.

 

 

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Can't Pay Your Alimony? Don't Panic

The scenario is not unusual and there are solutions, but prompt action is needed

Everything was going along fine after the divorce.  You were making your alimony and child suppport payments but then along came the next corporate do...

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OnStar Doesn't Give Up Easily ... Sometimes

Even after it's canceled, OnStar keeps tracking you, but won't help you

You can run but you can't hide.  Not easily anyway. OnStar is notifying its customers that it keeps a record of the speed and location of OnStar-equi...

PhotoYou can run but you can't hide.  Not easily anyway.

OnStar is notifying its customers that it keeps a record of the speed and location of OnStar-equipped cars, even after drivers discontinue their monthly service.

Why?  It might find a buyer for the data.

Adam Denison, a spokesman for the General Motors subsidiary, said OnStar does not currently sell customer data, but it reserves that right.

“What’s changed [is that if] you want to cancel your OnStar service, we are going to maintain a two-way connection to your vehicle unless the customer says otherwise,” Denison told Wired. Denison said the information is in "an anonymized format."

The company has begun sending emails to its six million account holders informing them of the update to its privacy policy. 

Denison also said that by keeping the connection current, it will make it "easier to re-enroll" if customers decide they just can't live without OnStar, which offers emergency and navigation services.

On the other hand ...

While OnStar is eager to keep dibs on you just in case that information might be worth something to somebody, it's not so eager to help out when its former subscribers need help, our readers tell us.

Tim of Prince Edward Island, Canada, told us of an incident involved a friend who had temporarily cancelled his subscription because of a financial downturn. 

"He put one of his daughters in her car seat and was going around the other side with his other girl and his little one locked the door. It is 25 degrees today, and he was 35 minutes outside the city on a Sunday," Tim said.

"He pleaded with Onstar to press the button to unlock the door, but they wouldn't do it. This is criminal, and charges should be brought on them. This was a child in danger, with serious consequences," Tim complained.

Read more about OnStar

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Forget Congress, Google Has Big Public Perception Problems

The onetime darling of the cyberworld is seen as a bully

Google finds itself in the hot seat today as the Senate opens anti-trust hearings into the Internet giant's conduct.  But even worse than a ritual Cap...

PhotoGoogle finds itself in the hot seat today as the Senate opens antitrust hearings into the Internet giant's conduct.  But even worse than a ritual Capitol Hill grilling is consumers' increasingly sour opinion of what not long ago was seen as the little search engine that could.

No longer so little, Google is being portrayed by such industry rivals as Nextag, Yelp and Expedia as a powerful force that squashes competitors by hurling them into searchland oblivion while elevating search results for Google's constantly expanding array of products and services.

"Anybody who's in any kind of business even remotely related to the Internet has to worry these days that Google will wake up one morning and crush them," said an executive at a successful but relatively small Internet company.  "If Google decides it likes your business, it will simply come in and take it away from you."

No shoes

Some of the critics testifying today would go even further than that. The CEO of Nextag, Jeff Katz, has complained that Google won't even let his company bid on ads that appear next to search results for running shoes.  (Google owns Zappos, which sells shoes).  

Companies in the travel, mortgage and loan sectors say Google is shoving their search results aside to make way for its own, but few will comment publicly for fear of antagonizing Google.

Although the world of search engines and Internet marketing is fairly obscure, consumers are increasingly paying heed to the criticisms, as reflected in an analysis of more than 81,000 comments posted by consumers on Facebook, Twitter and other popular Internet sites over the last year.  The most common comments are reflected in this comment cloud.  Remarks interpreted as positive are shown in green, negative in red.

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Positive spin

For its part, Google has quickly mastered the art of putting a positive spin on business practices that could just as easily be described as predatory, depending on the observer's viewpoint.

"We understand with success comes scrutiny, and we're looking forward to the hearing and answering any questions senators may have about our business," a Google spokesman said about today's session.

Previously, Google has defended its decision to move into certain sectors -- comparison shopping for loans, for example -- by saying that it provides consumers with a better product than the companies it allegedly pushes aside.

But do consumers see it that way?

ConsumerAffairs.com's computerized sentiment analysis of 81,000 consumer comments indicates an overall net sentiment that is, perhaps surprisingly, largely negative, dipping to as low as -45% last November, when anti-trust rumblings began gaining in volume.  The trend took a positive turn in the last few weeks but remains highly volatile and could suffer even greater erosion from today's hearing.  

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An analysis of the top 10 anti-trust concerns expressed by consumers finds that 76% used the word "abuse" to describe Google's business practices, as in "abuse market power," "abuse dominance" and "abuse dominant position."

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There's little doubt Google remains spectacularly more popular than Congress but any whiff of blood in the water can bring down the wrath of politicians eager to be seen as protecting the iconic Little Guy.  Google has amassed a huge D.C. lobbying team in recent years.  Today will test the talents of those spinmasters and influence peddlers, a phrase that for some reason has fallen into oblivion just when it is needed most.   

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Sentiment analysis by NetBase

 

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Consumers' Top Turn-Off? Rudeness

Uncivil behavior quietly sabotages bottom line, researchers find

Consumers who encounter rude behavior at a business often never return...

If you read very many consumer complaints, it won't be long before you find examples of anger at what the consumer believes to be rude treatment by an employee.

For example, Adrian, of Miami, Fla., had just purchased a bed frame at a Rooms To Go store when he realized store employees had damaged it while trying to load it in the truck.

“They said I can exchange it if I liked but they didn't have any frames with drawers, so I just wanted my cash so I can go somewhere and buy another frame,” Adrian told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They told me they couldn't give me the cash back and that they would send me a check through the mail in seven to eight business days. A manager named Ugo didn't even apologize for the inconvenience and was very rude. So i told him 'so I have to suffer because you guys messed up' and he replied 'yes sir you do.' I will never shop there again.”

“I will never shop there again” is almost always a part of this kind of complaint, and new research shows consumers who say this really mean it. Rather than reporting what they consider rude behavior to a supervisor, they simply take their business elsewhere.

Rudeness is widespread

Approximately one-third of consumers surveyed reported they're treated rudely by an employee on an average of once a month and that these and other episodes of uncivil worker behavior make them less likely to patronize those businesses, say researchers from the University of Southern California and Georgetown University.

Workplace incivility includes a range of behaviors, prompting the researchers to study the prevalence of incidents where customers witness an employee behaving uncivilly, the effects on consumers of witnessing such behavior and the subsequent level of anger and desire to hold employees accountable for their actions.

The team surveyed 244 consumers and found that incivility is widespread. Consumers recalled incidents involving an uncivil employee in many industries, and particularly in restaurants and retailing. Uncivil outbursts, as well as rude behavior directed at customers and other employees were in some cases witnessed once a month by approximately one-third of the survey participants.

In the dark

Furthermore, managers may not be aware of how frequently their customers witness an employee behaving uncivilly because consumers seldom report the behavior to employers – although a majority of the respondents went home and told friends and family members about the incident, and many publish details of the incident on Internet sites like ConsumerAffairs.com. But without reports, managers are unable to address the issue with employees, the researchers note.

The study found that witnessing employee incivility makes customers angry and creates desires to "get back" at the perpetrator and the firm. Customers are less likely to repurchase from the firm and express less interest in learning about the firm's new services. For managers who are made aware of the offending behavior, their own harsh treatment of the employee can also prompt negative reactions from consumers.

It should be noted that civility is a two-way street, and that often under-trained and over-worked employees respond with rudeness when they encounter one too many rude consumers at the end of a long day. All the more reason, the researchers say, for businesses to better train their employees and provide the support they need to maintain their composure.

"Regardless of the perpetrator or the reason, witnessing incivility scalds customer relationships and depletes the bottom line," report the co-authors, Georgetown University Assistant Professor of Management Christine Porath and USC Professors of Business Administration and Marketing Debbie MacInnis and Valerie S. Folkes.

Best response

According to Porath and Folkes, the best response is a simple apology, which the researchers found was a just and proper response from both the employee and the supervisor. But the preferred solution is the establishment of training programs that foster employee civility in order to prevent harmful outbursts.

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What's On Your Mind? Sirius XM, Vizio, Whirlpool, Citibank

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Sirius XM, Vizio, Whirlpool, Citibank, Getting results, Feeling wrung out and Holding on to her money....

PhotoSome companies are organized into departments that aren't very well connected. As a result, one department often doesn't know what's happening in another. Michelle, of Oakdale, N.Y., is convinced Sirius XM is one such company.

“Since July 11, 2011 I have been trying to get Sirius XM Radio to credit my account, Michelle told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The company cashed my check on July 11 but never credited it to my account. I have been harassed by emails, phone calls and billing statements. Even my parents who do not have the same email or phone number have been getting emails and calls. I have tried to get Sirius to stop calling and emailing them but they do not. I have spoken to representatives and managers numerous times and never get a straight answer. I have even mailed them the information they requested as well as tried to fax the information but the fax number never works. I have tried to get a corporation number but Sirius tells me that there is no number. I have been told by several managers that they do not even have a phone number that they have to email their corporate office. When ask to speak to someone higher up they tell me that they are in a meeting. I have been dealing with this issue and just want it resolved. I am paying for a service and being harassed by Sirius that I have not paid.”

It does sound like Michelle needs to escalate. Sirius' media relations phone numbers are here . The corporate office in New York can be reached at (212) 391-0774. We're sure they would love to hear about Michelle's problem.  Or maybe not.

Getting results

Speaking of getting results, it takes persistence, intelligence and wit to get a big company to listen and give you what you deserve, and it can be done. We were frankly amazed by the review submitted this week by Alexis, of Tamarac, Fla., who reports being put through an excruciating ordeal by Vizio's customer service department when she sought to repair her TV that was still under warranty. Finally, after emailing the company's IT Director, CEO and head of public relations, Alexis said she got results.

“The next morning, I received a call from someone at Vizio who identified himself as Harley,” Alexis said. “It was not necessary to send more pictures, he told me, he would personally be overseeing the matter, he already was in the process of making arrangements for a TV repairman to come out to my home. He said that the process would take 7-10 days as they had to procure an expensive part. Why, I asked him, do you pre-suppose that a part would be needed or even which part? He answered, oh, we already know what the problem is, it's happened before.”

Alexis said she emailed the three Vizio executives to personally thank them for intervening on her behalf, and says she hopes her experience will benefit others. The takeaway lesson is to not allow yourself to be blocked out by customer service personnel but to go straight to the top.

Feeling wrung out

Andrea, of Malta, N.Y., is another unhappy owner of an expensive washing machine.

“I purchased a Whirlpool Cabrio in 2009,” Andrea told ConsumerAffairs.com. “It worked so-so over the years but recently stopped completing cycles, citing false load balance errors and leaving towels and sheets sopping wet a the end of a cycle. Three repair appointments later, and still no success. I am thoroughly disgusted that such an expensive machine only lasts four years. Based on the service tech's attitude toward the machine and other consumer comments, I'm guessing I will have to replace it.”

Andrea says she spent $250 in repair costs but she might try another repair person before giving up on her expensive washer. A second opinion never hurts.

Holding on to her money

Getting a refund from a big company these days is like getting blood from a turnip. They just don't want to write a check. Jacqueline, of San Antonio, Tex., says she overpaid her Citibank card account by $600.

“When I closed the account, I made sure that I double checked all the numbers for the last 12 months,” Jacqueline said. “Unfortunately for me I had overpaid this account and now I cannot get them to answer me on my request for a refund. I have sent two letters and am now sending a third letter after several months.”

If Jacqueline has a statement showing the credit, or other documentation that shows Citibank owes her money they have thus far failed to repay, she should sue them in small claims court in San Antonio. The company will quickly refund her $600 rather than send a lawyer to Texas, only to lose anyway.

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Google Introduces Wallet App on Sprint

Pay for your grande latte with your phone

Google Inc. has rolled out its mobile-payments application on Sprint Nextel Corp.’s network, and said it’s teaming up with Visa Inc., Discover ...

PhotoGoogle Inc. has rolled out its mobile-payments application on Sprint Nextel, teaming up with Visa, Discover and American Express to make the service more widely available.

Google Wallet, which turns your smartphone into a sort of electronic checkbook, lets you pay for goods and services by tapping a smartphone on a small reader at checkout.  

The service currently works with Citi MasterCard but will spread quickly to others, Google is predicting.

Google says it has rolled out Google Wallet to all Sprint Nexus S 4G phones through an over-the-air update.  If that includes you, just look for the “Wallet” app. Here’s a demo of Google Wallet in action, provided by Google:

"Our goal is to make it possible for you to add all of your payment cards to Google Wallet, so you can say goodbye to even the biggest traditional wallets. In fact, we’ve got a video of our first customer, someone who is ready to replace his famously over-stuffed wallet. We hope Google Wallet gives him “serenity now,” Google said on its blog.

Then again ...

Of course, not everyone thinks this will take the world by storm.

"Consumers won’t save money by paying with a mobile phone. The same fees and interest rates for consumers and interchange fees for retailers will apply to mobile payments," said  in his Connecticut Watchdog blog. "Retailers are also reluctant to spend the money to buy the equipment necessary to link your cell phone to their cash registers."

On the other hand, Christina Warren of Mashable has been using Google Wallet around New York City for the last six weeks with generally good results.

"Thanks to its partnership with Mastercard, the NFC chip built into the Nexus S 4G works with any of the thousands of PayPass merchants. This means that if you are in a taxi cab or at Walgreens, you can just tap or wave your phone to make your payment," Warren said.

Warren says that while the “tap and pay” method of payment is handy, the most potentially valuable feature is what Google is calling SingleTap. "The SingleTap experience means that users can combine their coupons, loyalty cards and payment method all with one tap," she said.

As an added enticement, Google is pairing its Google Offers (a Groupon-like deals program) with a loyalty rewards and purchase points programs tied to Google Wallet. Google says daily deals and coupons will be sent to people's inboxes. You can then use Google Wallet to skip pulling out the loyalty cards and coupons and instead just tap your phone in front of an NFC reader.

Predictably, not everyone is enthused. Privacy advocates say the Wallet will create a lifetime trail of transactions that can be mined by marketers and, potentially, the government. 

"Stores can user information about your Doritos purchases to rearrange their wares; Google could push coupons via its new Google Offers service; your health insurance company might be interested in your sodium intake," said a poster called jfruhlinger on Slashdot

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Study: Adding Collectible Toy To Healthy Meals Make Them Desirable

Kids' meal toys could be force for good

Adding Collectible Toy To Healthy Meals Make Them Desirable...

PhotoNutrition and child obesity activists have long complained about fast food kids' meals that include a toy, arguing it only serves to reinforce unhealthy eating habits.

But what if the promise of a toy could be employed to encourage children to eat healthy food? Would that be easier to swallow?

Bans on toys with fast-food kids' meals have sprung up in California and are under consideration in New York, as well as in other cities and regions, and even in South Africa. Anti-ban efforts to avoid such governmental bans are underway in Arizona and Florida.

Missing from the debate are hard data on the influences that meal deals actually have on children, particularly preschool-aged ones, and whether toy offerings might be adjusted to encourage healthy eating, say researchers Anna McAlister of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and T. Bettina Cornwell of the University of Oregon.

A toy makes it taste better

Their study found that children - preschoolers, ages 2 to 5 - can be influenced to prefer a healthy food choice - in this case a meal of soup, mixed vegetables and milk - when a toy is seen as one that is missing from their collectible set. In addition, 73 percent of the participating parents reported that they would be OK with such an approach, whereas 92 percent were strongly against the use of collectible toys with traditional, less-healthy fast-food meals.

"The study tells us that the inclusion of a collectible toy influences the children's perceptions of how the food is going to taste, and whether they will like it," said Cornwell, a professor of marketing in the University of Oregon Lundquist College of Business. "What was interesting to us - even more than we expected - was that the presence of the collectible toy moved the healthier food option up to the point that it was just as likable as the fast-food offering."

The findings of a new study come during a time of debate over obesity in the United States -- about one-third of adults are now obese, as are 17 percent of children ages 2-19, notes the Centers for Disease Control -- and the growing belief that toys with fast-food meals only serve to put fatty, calorie-dense selections into the mouths of children.

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Despite Medical Marijuana Laws, Pot Arrests Soar

FBI reports police vigorously enforcing the law

Even as a number of states have enacted laws allowing the medical use of marijuana, arrests for marijuana-related offenses are on the rise, according to th...

PhotoEven as a number of states have enacted laws allowing the medical use of marijuana, arrests for marijuana-related offenses are on the rise, according to the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report.

The report, released this week, shows police made 853,838 marijuana arrests in 2010. The annual arrest total is among the highest ever reported by the agency and is nearly identical to the total number of cannabis-related arrests reported in 2009

According to the report, marijuana arrests now comprise more than one-half - 52 percent - of all drug arrests in the United States. An estimated 46 percent of all drug arrests are for offenses related to marijuana possession.

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Most frequently mentioned words in a survey of 2.9 million mentions

Consumer attitudes about marijuana are still highly conflicted but have been trending positively over the last year, according to a ConsumerAffairs.com analysis of more than 2.9 million comments in Facebook, Twitter and other social media and blogs. 

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Blue line shows net sentiment

'Minor possession offenders'

"Today, as in past years, the so-called 'drug war' remains fueled by the arrests of minor marijuana possession offenders, a disproportionate percentage of whom are ethnic minorities," National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Deputy Director Paul Armentano said. "It makes no sense to continue to waste law enforcements' time and taxpayers' dollars to arrest and prosecute responsible Americans for their use of a substance that poses far fewer health risks than alcohol or tobacco."

Of those charged with marijuana law violations, 750,591 (88 percent) were arrested for marijuana offenses involving possession only. The remaining 103,247 individuals were charged with "sale/manufacture," a category that includes virtually all cultivation offenses.

The increasing marijuana arrests come in spite of state laws allowing patients to use marijuana with a doctor's prescription. But at least one such state, Michigan, is re-evaluating that law amid officials' charges that it is being abused.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is leading a crackdown on what he says are violations of the state's medical marijuana law. Most recently, Schuette charged a Lansing marijuana dispensary owner with violating Michigan election law for allegedly offering free marijuana to citizens who registered to vote as an inducement to influence their manner of voting.

Recreational use

Schuette has charged the medical marijuana law is being used to sell pot for recreational use and has proposed legislation to close what he says are loopholes in the law.

Whatever their feelings about marijuana, consumers remain wary of the substance because of its illegality.  In an analysis of 15,900 consumer comments about mairjuana's attributes, its illegality was by far the most frequently cited.

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While medical marijuana laws seem to suggest states are taking a more lenient approach to the drug, the FBI statistics suggest police continue to vigorously enforce drug laws.

By region, the percentage of marijuana arrests was highest in the Midwest (63.5 percent of all drug arrests) and southern regions (57 percent of all drug arrests) of the United States and lowest in the west, where pot prosecutions comprised only 39 percent of total drug arrests.

By contrast, NORMAL points out that, where marijuana arrests were the highest, arrests for heroin and cocaine were lowest.

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

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Budget Cuts Could Slice Benefits for Pregnant Women, Infants

WIC provides food, counseling and referrals to 9 million women and children

WIC — the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — is one of those programs that everyone says they suppo...

PhotoWIC — the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — is one of those programs that everyone says they support.  After all, who could be against providing nutritious food, counseling and referrals to low-income pregnant women, new mothers and their children.

For at least the last 15 years, Administrations and Congresses of both parties have provided sufficient funding for WIC and leaders of the current Congress have reiterated this commitment rhetorically.

But there are mounting questions as to whether they will live up to it, or whether eligible low-income women and children will be denied WIC assistance in fiscal year 2012.

WIC serves roughly 9 million low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children under age 5 who are at nutritional risk. Extensive research shows that WIC improves birth outcomes, reduces child anemia, and improves participants' nutrition and health. It is widely regarded as one of the most effective of all social programs.

Unlike other key low-income nutrition programs, such as SNAP (formerly called food stamps) and school meals, eligible WIC recipients have no entitlement to benefits. If funds are insufficient, eligible applicants are put on a waiting list.

Large cut

The appropriations bill for fiscal year 2012 that the House passed on June 16 contains a large cut in funding that would force the program to turn away more than 700,000 eligible low-income women and young children next year. The House appropriations bill reduces WIC funding from $6.734 billion in fiscal year 2011 to $6.001 billion in fiscal year 2012, a cut of $733 million.

During the House floor debate on the bill, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), chair of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, stated that the funding reduction would not affect participants, because contingency and carryover funds (funds provided but not used in fiscal year 2011) woulc be available. 

But the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (BCPP) say it doesn't buy Kingston's theory.  It says its estimates reflect the use of all contingency funds, as well as use of the carryover funds from fiscal year 2011, to close funding shortfalls — and the funding level would nevertheless result in the estimated participation cutback of 700,000 women and children.

Adding to the problem are the rising poverty levels in the Unigted States.  Census data issued earlier this month show that the share of children living in poverty rose to 22 percent in 2010, the highest level since 1993.

In addition, the Agriculture Department announced on September 7 that in 2010, nearly one of every four children (23.6 percent) living in a household with a child under age 6 lived in a household that was "food insecure" — that is, had difficulty affording sufficient food at some point during the year.  

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Suit Charges MacBook Pro Won't Stay Charged

Power supply is inadequate to fully charge the machine's battery, class action alleges

The 15- and 17-inch 2011 MacBook Pro computers have defective batteries that drain during use even when the AC adapter is plugged in, making the computer d...

PhotoThe 15- and 17-inch 2011 MacBook Pro computers have defective batteries that drain during use even when the AC adapter is plugged in, making the computer die unexpectedly, a class action claims in Solano County, California, Court, Courthouse News Service reported.

In the suit, Alex Tomek of Solano says he bought a new 17-inch MacBook Pro on February 28, just a few days after the new model was released amidst Apple promises of "huge leaps in performance."

But Tomek said he soon learned that the supposed leaps in performance were counter-balanced by a steep decline in battery life, to the point that his and other consumers' machines sometimes shut down even when they were plugged into an outlet.

Inadequate power supply

The reason, says Tomek, is that the 85-watt power adapter supplied with the machines is not up to the job of powering the the 2.3 gHz Intel Core 17 processor and its accompanying AMD Radeon graphics processor, despite Apple's advertising which promised that users would be able to "surf the web wirelessly for up to 7 hours on a single charge."

Tomek says consumers have been complaining about the problem since the machines were released but have received no satisfaction from Apple, which the suit alleges has "failed and refused and continues to faill and refuse to provide adequate customers service ... to cope with this defect."

One consumer who posted a complaint on ConsumerAffairs.com is Laxman of Mumbai, India:  "I bought a 15" Apple MacBook Pro on the 29th of April 2011. It had display problems as it goes blank or turns off during a normal PC work. On the 25th of July, it completely switched off, so I went to its service center," he said.

"The service center said it has a battery problem and they would get the battery replaced within 2 days. Since then, I had been going to its service center for the battery because they said to come back after two days," Laxman recounted.

The suit charges Apple with negligence, breach of warranty, misrepresentation and unfair business practices.  It seeks the usual array of damages.

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Pennsylvania Snags SAS Group for Internet/Infomercial Complaints

Company's "free" products weren't free and shipping charges were excessive, state charges

The Pennsylvania Attorney General has reached a civil settlement agreement with SAS Group, Inc., a New York-based business that sells a wide range of consu...

The Pennsylvania Attorney General has reached a civil settlement agreement with SAS Group, Inc., a New York-based business that sells a wide range of consumer products through infomercials and over the Internet.

The settlement resolves allegations that the company promoted products as “free” when in fact shipping and handling fees often exceeded the value of the products.

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A selection of SAS Group's products

On its Web site, SAS Group says its "worldwide network of experienced professionals makes us uniquely qualified to create and effectively execute programs that promote and sell products 'ON TV', on the internet and at retail, through credit card syndication and direct response print advertising."

The company's product line-up includes many names well-known to late-night TV viewers including Simoniz car wax, the Buttoneer sewing aid, Leather Miracle tear repair and many others.

Credit card info

Attorney General Linda Kelly said that consumer orders were placed over an automated phone system, which took credit card information before they were provided with a total purchase price.

After the credit card information was entered, consumers were allegedly told that they would have to pay additional shipping and handling fees. Consumers were not able to cancel their order nor were they able to disconnect the call without being charged for the items they inquired about.

Kelly said that consumers who stayed on the line were offered an array of supplemental “free” promotional products. However, SAS charged shipping and handling fees for those free products that far exceeded the actual cost for shipping and handling and in many instances reflect the actual cost of the item.

Two boxes

Additionally, SAS shipped items in two boxes, when the items would have fit in one box, charging consumers double shipping fees.

Kelly said that SAS has agreed to pay restitution to consumers who filed complaints with the Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, pay civil penalties and fines. SAS also agrees to fully comply with Pennsylvania’s Consumer Protection Law.

Consumers who believe they are entitled to restitution in this case should file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection within 60 days. Complaints filed online at www.attorneygeneral.gov or by calling the Bureau of Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-441-2555.

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Nevada Goes to War Against Bank of America

Attorney General seeks to terminate earlier Countrywide settlement

The Attorney General of Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto, is turning up the heat in her battle with Bank of America and its subsidiary, Countrywide Mortgage....

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Getting A Mortgage Is Increasingly Difficult

Lenders toughen underwriting standards to prevent defaults

Home prices are down 50 percent or more from their bubble highs in some markets. Mortgage rates are at historic lows. Rents are skyrocketing in some areas....

PhotoHome prices are down 50 percent or more from their bubble highs in some markets. Mortgage rates are at historic lows. Rents are skyrocketing in some areas.

Sounds like a recipe for a rebound in the housing market, doesn't it? Only it isn't. Home sales remain in the gutter and more and more consumers, who insist they can afford to buy a house, say they simply can't get a mortgage.

“I have been trying to buy a home in the state of Florida for at least a year and never got past an accepted contract,” Anthony, of Kingston, Wash., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “During that time I have been pre-qualified two to three times by Bank of America.

That was then, this is now

Anthony says he is a long-time Bank of America customer, having paid off two previous mortgages. He said the bank had even contacted him in the past to see if he were interested in applying for a loan. With a credit score right around 800 and pension income, Anthony would seem to be the kind of applicant banks would compete for.

“On August 12, 2011 I finally received an accepted contract, contingent on loan approval,” Anthony said. “This is when my problems began. The unanswered e-mails and unreturned phone calls are too many to list. I received an e-mail stating they needed an extension on the Sept 15, 2011 closing date, then they told me that and they needed a full 30 days to close. I went to seller to get extension and got it. I faxed it to them and upon receipt by them was immediately told they couldn't close on the 19th. Not only that, they couldn't give me a new closing date.

Good start goes downhill

Paul, of Miami Lakes, Fla., says the loan process with Quicken got off to a promising start. After that, however, he says the underwriters began asking for what he says was “weirder and weirder documents.”

“Finally, two weeks prior to closing, they refused to make the loan,” Paul said. The reason? A W-2 and a 1040 extension form weren't good enough to prove my income. They wanted the filed 1040 or nothing! Their underwriters seemed unable to form common-sense opinions on numerous prior documents, this one just being the latest. I have a 760+ credit score, but that wasn't good enough for underwriting.”

Building on this theme, Mary, of Orland Park, Ill., reports PNC Bank underwriters have demanded what she calls “unnecessary documentation which have no bearing on securing this loan.” Mary and her husband are no strangers to real estate transactions. She says the one with PNC was for a second home.

“My husband's credit score is over 800 and mine is over 750,” Mary told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I feel as if we are being harassed by the bank and almost discouraged from borrowing money when we can clearly afford to do so.”

The old lending standards would do

Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, has pleaded with lenders to make more loans. He says if banks would simply return to the lending standards in place before the housing bubble, home sales would surge by 15 percent.

Why don't they? The reasons may not be so simple. Industry officials say loan underwriters are being overly cautious out of fear of being sued for mortgages that default. Like generals fighting the last war, banks appear to be qualifying only top applicants for top properties, out of fear anything less would set off another housing crisis.

The lenders say their new standards are working – for them. They point proudly to the fact that fewer than two percent of the mortgages written in 2009, for example, have gone to foreclosure, compared to about 11 percent for loans made in 2006.

While that is indeed a good record, Realtors say these increasingly tough standards are choking off the money supply the housing industry desperately needs to recover.

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What's On Your Mind? Just Flowers, Progressive Insurance, Chantix

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Just Flowers, Progressive Insurance, Chantix, Not happy with the response and Scary experience....

PhotoHere's another consumer who reports a delivery problem when using an online florist.

“I placed an order on September 11 for flowers to be delivered for a birthday on September 19, Olga, of Baton Rouge, La., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “There was more than enough time for the order to be filled. However, the florist did not receive the order until the afternoon of September 19, after deliveries were made. The owner is dropping the flowers off on her way home. When Just Flowers was contacted,they only had excuses and justifications for their incompetence. No apologies!They are in the same time zone as the delivery!”

While many online florists do a good job of filling orders, it's not uncommon for orders to fall through the cracks, and if it's your order, it's a big deal. It may take a little extra effort to locate a local florist in the area you want to make a delivery, but your chances of having a smooth, trouble free delivery might be better. In Olga's case, the local florist went above and beyond the call of duty to help a customer. She would have been better off dealing with her in the first place.

Not happy with the response

The commercials for Progressive Insurance feature the always helpful Faye, but Otto, of Miami, Fla., says Faye is nowhere to be found when he needs her.

“My wife's car was hit by another vehicle and she called the police,” Otto said. “The other person was guilty and it was written in the police report. They don't care. Tomorrow is going to be a week since we called a Progressive representative and "there is nothing they can do at the moment". We left the car at the body shop because there is a noise in the front wheel but they can't even send the adjuster. They can't pay for the car rental either.”

It might be time for Otto to have a chat with an attorney, in case this turns ugly.

Scary experience

Chantix, a drug to help people quit smoking, has a number of potential side effects, including severe depression. Justice, of Charlotte, N.C., has the following scary experience to report:

“I started taking Chantix following a bout with pneumonia in April 2008,” Justice told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I was warned about increased depression and told to notify my doctor if depression worsened as I am bipolar. After 21 day of taking Chantix I went 92 consecutive days with zero sleep - literally none! On night four at 1:10 AM I had a very violent seizure. I quit breathing completely and my husband had to do rescue breathing to get me back. I was taken to the ER where at 5 AM I had another violent seizure and then another at 7AM. I was put on Dilantin and luckily I have had no further seizures. I have been left with a permanently fogged brain. I was an adult A student headed to graduate school when this occurred. Now, I lost four years of education. I can no longer access the information. My Name Compartment is fried, as I refer to it. I have panic attacks everyday all day. My neurologist did tests and I have no underlying seizure disorder. I am unable to leave my home and basically barricaded myself indoors. I lost all desire to communicate with anyone outside of my trusted circle of family and friends. I have also developed multiple allergic reactions to medications I could once take to control my bipolar and to control pain following surgery. Now, the only pain medication I can take is hydrocodone for surgery! Oh boy try that people! I used to only have one bout of depression a year at best and now I have them monthly.

Justice claims Chantix has ruined her life. And to top it off, she says, she still smokes.

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John Deere Recalls Lawn Tractors with Kawasaki Engines

The engine can overheat and start a fire

John Deere is recalling about X300, X300R and X304 series tractors.  The cooling fan (A) installed on top of the front mounted Kawasaki engine in the ...

John Deere is recalling about X300, X300R and X304 series tractors.  The cooling fan (A) installed on top of the front mounted Kawasaki engine in the lawn tractor can break. If the cooling fan is not operational, the engine can overheat causing the surrounding plastic to melt, creating the risk of fire and serious injury.

There have been 163 reported failures, including 83 reports of engine melting or engine fires and one report of a minor burn injury following a fan failure fire.

Photo

This recall involves John Deere X300, X300R and X304 Select Series™ Lawn Tractors with Kawasaki FS541V engines manufactured between September 20, 2010 and July 21, 2011 within the following serial number ranges listed below. The model number is on both sides of the tractor hood, and the serial number can be found on the machine frame near the front right tire.

1M0X300B++M180001 thru 1M0X300B++M180600
1M0X300C++M180001 thru 1M0X300C++M208330
1M0X300E++M180001 thru 1M0X300E++M180718
1M0X300F++M180001 thru 1M0X300F++M180888
1M0X300G++M180001 thru 1M0X300G++M183700
1M0X300H++M180001 thru 1M0X300H++M180145
1M0X300J++M180001 thru 1M0X300J++M180106
1M0X304A++M180001 thru 1M0X304A++M184936
1M0X304B++M180001 thru 1M0X304B++M180696
1M0X304C++M180001 thru 1M0X304C++M180054

John Deere dealers sold the lawn tractors in the U.S. from September 2010 to August 2011 for between about $3,000 and $4,000.  They were made in the United States.

Customers should stop using the mowers immediately and contact a John Deere dealer to make arrangements to have the engine cooling fan replaced. All registered owners of the recalled mowers will be directly notified by John Deere.

For additional information, contact Deere & Company at (800) 537-8233 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturdays ET or visit the firm’s Web site at www.johndeere.com

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Feds Take Down Malpractice Database

No explanation given for removal of data that has been public for 15 years

For more than 15 years, researchers, reports and policymakers have been able to access an online database that anonymously tracks physicians’ re...

For more than 15 years, researchers, reports and policymakers have been able to access an online database that anonymously tracks physicians’ records of malpractice, medical errors and medical discipline.  

But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) abruptly took the database down recently, without offering an explanation or saying when or if it will return. 

In a letter sent to the agency, Public Citizen says the database should be restored immediately. 

“We find it ironic that at a time in which other parts of HHS are becoming more transparent and even proposing to make detailed ratings of health care entities and providers available to the public, HRSA appears to be restricting access to information mandated by law to be made public,” said Dr. Michael Carome, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “The database has been very valuable to Public Citizen, researchers, scholars and writers. HHS should restore it immediately and keep it up to date.”

The National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) Public Use Data File has been the only comprehensive national source of reliable data on medical malpractice and other matters reported to the NPDB.

The public use file, which is updated quarterly, doesn’t contain physician names or even exact malpractice payment amounts, dates of payments or actions, practitioner ages or years of graduation. Rather, all these variables are provided only in broad ranges in the system.

Public Citizen and other organizations have used it to analyze trends in malpractice payments, to identify and report to HRSA potential compliance problems with reporting to the NPDB, and to identify state medical boards that failed to discipline physicians that had been disciplined by hospitals for serious infractions, such as being an “immediate threat” to health or safety of patients.

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Michaels Pays $1.8 Million To Settle Deceptive Marketing Charges

New York

Consumers often complain that stores make it seem they are getting a bargain when they really aren't. In New York, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman...

PhotoConsumers often complain that stores make it seem they are getting a bargain when they really aren't. In New York, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said a two-year investigation of Michaels Stores, Inc., provides a case in point.

Schneiderman says his probe showed Michaels engaged in deceptive advertising practices by misleading consumers into thinking they were receiving steep discounts over a two year period. As part of a settlement with the state, the company will change its advertising practices and contribute $1 million in art and craft supplies to public schools throughout New York State, in addition to $800,000 in civil penalties.

"For years, Michaels duped consumers into thinking they were receiving huge discounts, when in fact, they were simply paying the regular store price," said Schneiderman. "Through deceptive advertising practices, this company violated the law and took advantage of hardworking consumers trying to save money.  In addition to the civil penalties, the company is paying for their actions by providing $1 million in school supplies for hundreds of school districts statewide."

Price confusion

The price of items in the store, compared to those on the tags, is an issue for at least one Michaels customer.

I picked up a picture that was in front of a $5.00 sign but it had a price tag on it for $9.99,” Renae, Chester, S.C., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “At the register I asked the cashier to make sure it was $5 before I bought it. It scanned for $19.97. Then she scrapped off the $9.99 sign and left after telling me what a great deal that was for $20 because it was originally a $60 picture.”

Michaels is well known as a specialty retailer of arts, crafts, scrapbooking and custom framing. Its 48 stores throughout New York State are frequented by parents, students and teachers to purchase school supplies, Schneiderman said.

As a result of the Attorney General's settlement, Michaels will be required to give back to the public schools in communities which their stores are located. The settlement will benefit as many as 724 school districts throughout the state.

50 percent off...of what?

The investigation began in 2009 when the Attorney General's office began tracking the 50 percent off marketing materials where Michaels advertised its "Custom Framing" as a sale product for at least 104 consecutive weeks. The law prohibits sales that are never ending.

Investigators throughout the state collected newspaper flyers, online flyers, in-store banners and signs advertising the custom framing. Michaels advertised in at least one of these forms every day for two years. The ads stated that custom framing was either at least 50 percent off or a certain dollar amount off.

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Restoring Consumer Confidence Key to Economic Recovery

"Trust deficit" hurting recovery in housing, mortgage executive argues

Political candidates and incumbents offer a never-ending menu of tax cuts, tax increases, jobs programs, financial stimuli, less regulation, more regulatio...

PhotoPolitical candidates and incumbents offer a never-ending menu of tax cuts, tax increases, jobs programs, financial stimuli, less regulation, more regulation and governmental "reform."

But what's most needed to get the economy moving again is consumer confidence, according to Mortgage Bankers Association President David Stevens, who blames the media for a relentless drumbeant of negative headlines.

"You don't see stories about good buying opportunities out there.  You only see stories about foreclosures," Stevens said at a recent economic conference sponsored by the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors.  "Actually, real delinquences are lower than they were a year ago but you don't see that in the headlines."

Today's delinquency rate is 8.44 percent versus 9.85 a year ago and the foreclosure rate is 4.43, down from 4.57, with 51% of all foreclosures in just five states, he said.  

Demographics

Location, location, location is the traditional mantra of the real estate business but demographics, demographics, demographics should be the second verse, according to Stevens, who said a massive population boom will create a "huge shortage of housing" over the next few decades.

"The Echo Boom, born from 1981 to 1991, is going to cause an extraordinary demand for homes.  They will be more urban, more Latino and will marry later but it is a huge generation and its impact with be huge," Stevens predicted.

Whether that generation winds up renting or buying will be a major factor in the nation's future economic well-being, he said.

If government regulations or onerous lending standards result in homebuyers needing a 20% down payment, "That's nothing more than saying you can buy a home if you're rich.  If you're not, you're going to a renter for life," Stevens said.

Blame game

While the housing bubble collapse was indeed traumatic, Stevens said there's plenty of blame to go around; while the financial services industry wrote too many bad loans, it wasn't the only villain. 

Consumers made mistake, he said:  "Consumers who thought homes were a piggy bank; occupancy fraud, where consumers say they're going to occupy a house when in fact they're going to rent it; and also income fraud."  That behavior was caused by consumers chasing 10 percent annual appreciation rates, he said.

Lawsuits and onerous regulations are now stymying the recovery, along with lack of consumer confidence, Stevens cautioned.

"There's a never-ending pile of lawsuits against anybody who can be sued," contributing to a lack of available credit, Stevens said.  "There's so much concern about litigation that lenders are putting guidelines in place that are higher than anyone requires simply to protect themselves against litigation."

As for pending and proposed regulations, Stevene had kind words for Richard Cordray, President Obama's nominee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Stevens said Cordray, the former Ohio Attorney General, is "a great guy who understands the issues."

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Beware the 'Financial Recovery Awards' Scam

Canadian scam targets flood-damaged areas

New Jersey warns flood victims about financial recovery scam...

PhotoHurricane Irene, followed quickly by Tropical Storm Lee, soaked wide areas of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions of the country, causing widespread flooding.

Like so many natural disasters, this one is also bringing out the scammers.

In New Jersey, the Division of Consumer Affairs is warning consumers about a “Financial Recovery Awards” scam mailing sent to homeowners in flood-affected areas. For example, homeowners in Little Falls, N.J., received a mailed letter that begins, “STATEMENT OF YOUR BENEFITS,” and states, “The Payment Security Administration (PSA) has determined that you shall receive entitlements and a Financial Recovery Award of up to $27,500.00.”

The letter asks recipients to mail a “Benefit Consent Form” to a post office box in Canada, along with a “Processing Fee” of $29.97 paid by check, money order, or credit card authorization. Consumers who don't look closely might think they are being offered disaster assistance. They aren't.

Read the fine print

The fine print on the back page includes language about sweepstakes rules. State and federal law, however, are clear that that no sweepstakes can require consumers to make a payment in order to receive a prize.

“Consumers should be extremely cautious with any request that they send money to an unknown person or business,” said Thomas R. Calcagni, Director of New Jersey's Division of Consumer Affairs. “By sending a check, you are giving the recipient your bank account information and the bank’s routing number. With this information, or with an authorization to charge your credit card, you expose yourself to unauthorized withdrawals of your hard-earned money.”

Signs of a scam

Calcagni noted that consumers should beware of any mailer or advertisement that, like the “Payment Security Administration” mailer, has any of these signs of a possible scam:

  • Offering huge prizes in exchange for small, up-front payments;
  • The use of an official-sounding but unverifiable name; for example, if an Internet search reveals that an agency by that name may not actually exist;
  • Fine print that includes unclear or confusing language; or
  • The request that payments be sent outside the United States.

“Anyone who receives this mailer should immediately contact the Division of Consumer Affairs,” Calcagni said. “The residents of New Jersey’s flood-affected areas have experienced enough stress and suffering, without the additional insult of being scammed.”

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What's On Your Mind? Old Spice, Tracfone, Advertising Checking Bureau, Payless

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Old Spice, Tracfone, Advertising Checking Bureau, Payless, Mostly satisfied, Suspicious and How much, really?...

PhotoOld Spice aftershave has been around forever it seems, but lately has raised its profile with a series of clever TV commercials. Rich, of Shaelr, Pa., tried the Old Spice deodorant, and says he had a very bad reaction.

“After using the deodorant a couple of times I experienced a slight burning throughout the day,” Rich told ConsumerAffairs.com. “After I recently used it, I noticed a red ring around my armpits. It is the most uncomfortable pain and nothing that I do will help ease it.”

We'll keep an eye out for similar reports but so far, we have seen only one other case. It sounds like it could be an allergic reaction -- or Rich may simply have sensitive armpits.  Simple solution: switch to another deodorant.

Mostly satisfied

After seeing mostly bad experiences cataloged online, Kerry, of Ames, Iowa, thought it would be fair to relate her overall good experience with Tracfone, a low-cost cell phone provider.

“I have had one for several years, and renew it one year at a time,” Kerry said. “There has never been a problem and two years ago we purchased one for my mother, too. She also has had no problems. On the other hand, I have never tried to transfer the number to another phone or had to deal with customer service, which seems to be the source of most complaints. For the price it has been a very good service for us.”

Kerry says her one complaint is that when you turn the phone on, sometimes it doesn't find a signal right away. Though annoying, she says she puts up with it because, as she says, “Compared to a much more expensive full-service plan, it's a minor inconvenience.”

Suspicious

Rebates seem to be a constant source of consumer irritation. The rebate makes the advertised price of the product lower, so it seems like a bargain, but the consumers must jump through a series of hoops in order to redeem the rebate. Many, like Ginger, of New York, N.Y., thinks some rebates are actually impossible to collect.

“I was supposed to get a $400 rebate for the Canon Rebel and the printer that I purchased from Buydig.com,” Ginger told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I mailed out two UPC codes and the copy of my receipt, but they wanted the original receipt so I mailed that out as well via certified mail. I tracked and confirmed with U.S.P.S., but as per the record, they tried to deliver my certified mail to this company so they left a notice to them. 15 days later, no one from Advertising Checking Bureau bothered to check my certified mail in which my original receipt was enclosed! Therefore, U.S.P.S. sent it back to my address! However, one week later, A.C.B. send me another notice stating they couldn't honor my rebate because I did not send them the original receipt! How can they say this! They rejected my mail in the first place!”

This could be a case of a delivery error, or something else. Ginger's next step should be to file a report with the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs.

How much, really?

Tina, of Canon City, Colo., was looking for a bargain on rental cars. She says she thought Payless Car Rental offered it, based on what they told her.

“My total was to be $100.59,” Tina said. “When I arrived and went to the pick up my car they charged me $279.57. I was told that Arizona REQUIRED a certain insurance, even though I had already checked with my insurance company and they covered rental cars, and that Arizona REQUIRED a daily tax. None of this was stated when I made my reservation.”

Consumers often have the same complaint when booking airline travel, since baggage fees aren't included in the far. This is something the Federal Trade Commission might take a look at.

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Postal Service Can't Count on Public Support as it Scrounges for Funds

Both the agency and its workers are unpopular with voters, weakening their position with Congress

      The postman always rings twice? Don't count on it. He may not be ringing at all unless the Postal Service finds a way to survive be...

PhotoThe postman always rings twice? Don't count on it. He may not be ringing at all unless the Postal Service finds a way to survive beyond the next few months, when it faces a series of potential financial calamaties.

The biggest calamity – email – has, of course, already occurred. The only remaining question is not whether the Postal Service fails but how long and ugly its demise will be.

The most immediate problem for USPS is a $5.5 billion payment due this month to the postal workers pension fund. There is no money to make the payment and it appears likely USPS will default.

Beyond that, USPS is in danger of running out of operating funds early next year, thanks to all the first-class mail that's no longer being sent. 

USPS likes to remind us that it is the nation's second-biggest “private” employer, after Walmart. But it's about as private as the Defense Department when it comes down to who gets stuck with the bill -- you do -- for the Postal Service's pension payments and other unavoidable liabilities. But then you already knew that, didn't you?

Few friends

While we could be generous and say the Postal Service is a victim of the times, it has also been incredibly slow to face up to its future, or lack of same, and one of its biggest failings has been the miserable way in which it handles customer complaints. Basically, it ignores them … and that's on a good day. ConsumerAffairs.com is awash in complaints from consumers whose complaints have been met with open hostility, followed by stunning inaction.

The result is that in its hour of need, the Postal Service has few friends willing to speak up for it, as a ConsumerAffairs.com analysis of consumer sentiments shows.

We analyzed roughly 83,000 comments about the Postal Service on Facebook, Twitter and other social Web sites, blogs, microblogs and so forth. Using computerized sentiment analysis, we found a dismal net sentiment over the past 12 months, one that seldom rises into positive territory and quickly plunges into an overall negative sentiment of 23% by the end of August, when consumers made 1,100 negative comments and 690 positives.

Photo
Blue line shows net sentiment

To say that consumers are wildly enthusiastic about their mail service and willing to go to great lengths to preserve it would be overstating the case several hundredfold. Consumers are, at best, neutral about the agency and it doesn't appear likely, based on the comments we sampled, that they're likely to mount a campaign to save it at taxpayers' expense.

Photo 

One of the thousands of Tweets we analyzed came from @illuminatedNO who complained that the USPS tracking system is “awful.”

Photo

He and many other consumers complained that the USPS system of tracking is unreliable and imprecise: “They know when it left and when it gets (if it ever does) to the destination. That is not a tracking system. I predict they will be out of business or taken over by a private entity by 2015,” said Mike Funderburk in a Facebook posting.

Competitors

It's not really possible to compare USPS sentiment to its closet competitor, since its closest competitor is the Internet -- specifically, email. However, in the parcel and overnight letter delivery business, United Parcel Service and Federal Express have taken huge bites out of what business the Internet left behind. And although there is no shortage of complaints about lost and damaged shipments, late deliveries and other problems, both companies rank much higher in consumer sentiment than the Postal Service.

We found roughly 12,000 comments about UPS on social media and blogs. Big Brown was in positive territory for most of the 12-month period, peaking at a positive net ranking of 80% in February.

Photo
Blue line shows net sentiment

FedEx's overall trend is a bit more erratic but the total number of comments over the 12-month period was only 1,200, making it difficult to draw any firm conclusions.

Photo
Blue line shows net sentiment

Postal workers

And finally we come to the postal workers, a heavily unionized, politically powerful work force that is quick to remind Congress of how many votes it can turn out and also quick to remind taxpayers – with rather questionable accuracy – that they are supported entirely by purchases from customers, a claim that ignores the monopolistic powers granted to the USPS and the government's readiness to bail out the workers' pensions.

Postal employees are, after all, the Little People we are all quick to say we admire. No one could possibly be against continuing to support the Postal Service in the style to which it has become accustomed, right?

Wrong, according to the 68,000 consumer sentiments we measured over the last year. Net sentiment was a dismal -51% in August and ventured into positive territory for only a brief time in October 2010 before plummeting back into the dungeon of public approbation, as shown in this graph:

Photo
Blue line shows net sentiment

Most of the resentment towards postal workers is reflected in the commonly-held belief that their jobs are not very intellectually or physically challenging but are nevertheless poorly performed, often  with a notable lack of pride, accuracy and timeliness, as in this Tweet from @psyborg_007:

Photo

Much as we hate to say it, this is the time for that old bromide: it's hard to find anyone willing to say anything good about postal workers, as in this sampling of comments we found around the blogosphere:

Photo 

Whether fair or not, negative sentiment on this scale will make it difficult for vote-hungry politicians to fashion a generous and speedy bail-out for the postal workers. That's not to say it won't happen but, with the Tea Party crusading against government spending, it will be politically treacherous for elected officials to be seen as lavishing funds on such an unpopular group of workers.

It's easy for those whose jobs seem exceptionally secure to fall into a pattern of ignoring or, worse, responding snappishly to their customers' and patrons' complaints and inquiries.  But as history makes all too clear, there is no such thing as exceptional security and dedicating oneself to customer satisfaction and simple human kindness is, at the very least, inexpensive insurance against the unexpected. 

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

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Seven States Sue to Block AT&T's T-Mobile Takedown

Transaction would "substantially lessen competition," states argue

Seven states today joined the federal government in its effort to block AT&T Inc.’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile USA Inc., saying the $39 bil...

PhotoSeven states today joined the federal government in its effort to block AT&T Inc.’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile USA Inc., saying the $39 billion deal would "substantially lessen competition."

The U.S. Department of Justice filed its civil antitrust lawsuit on August 31, seeking to enjoin the acquisition.  It amended the complaint today to add the seven states -- New York, California, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Washington -- as plaintiffs.

“Blocking this acquisition protects consumers and businesses against fewer choices, higher prices, less innovation, and lower quality service,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

AT&T’s acquisition of T-Mobile would reduce the number of national competitors to three and eliminate a company whose low pricing and product innovation have made it an aggressive competitor in the mobile wireless telecommunications marketplace, the states said.

“We applaud the attorneys general who joined the Justice Department's suit today to block AT&T’s takeover of T-Mobile. They deserve praise for standing up to AT&T and standing with their citizens," said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a D.C. public interest group.

"They understand that families can’t afford to shoulder the burden of higher bills that would result from the merger, and that states struggling with unemployment can’t afford to stand aside while corporations kill competition and put people out of work. This lawsuit is yet another blow to AT&T and a victory for the public," Aaron said.

Four competitors

Four nationwide providers – AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon – account for more than 90 percent of mobile wireless connections. According to the complaint, AT&T and T-Mobile compete head to head nationwide. They also compete nationwide to attract business and government customers.

In addition, wireless customers across the country face similar choices from the four national competitors regardless of whether local or regional carriers also compete in any particular local area.

The complaint also describes the competitive limitations of regional providers, resulting from their lack of national networks. Similarly, it concludes that entry by a new provider would be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, requiring among other things nationwide spectrum, the construction of a nationwide network, scale economies arising from having tens of millions of customers, and a strong brand.

AT&T’s efforts to increase its own already substantial scale economies through this transaction underscore the difficulties any new entrant would have in entering in a timely manner and with sufficient scale to thwart the competitive harm resulting from the proposed acquisition, the suit argues.

The complaint also concludes that the defendants have not been able to demonstrate merger-specific benefits that would sufficiently outweigh the proposed merger’s anticompetitive effects.

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Kansas City Man Convicted of Attempted $100 Million Fraud Scheme

Investors were offered "bonded promissory notes," which are non-existent

A Kansas City, Mo., man has been convicted of creating false obligations and of mail fraud as part of an attempted $100 million fraud scheme.  Denny R...

PhotoA Kansas City, Mo., man has been convicted of creating false obligations and of mail fraud as part of an attempted $100 million fraud scheme.  Denny Ray Hardin, 52, of Kansas City, was found guilty of 21 charges contained in a May 5, 2010, federal indictment.

Hardin produced and issued numerous “Bonded Promissory Notes” (BPNs), which are completely fictitious financial instruments that Hardin claimed to be backed by an account with the U.S. Department of Treasury.

Hardin falsely claimed that he was authorized by the U.S. Department of Treasury to produce and issue the worthless documents, which he claimed had monetary value and could be used to eliminate debt, court documents indicated

Hardin claimed to have produced and issued more than 2,000 bonded promissory notes, totaling more than $100 million, from September 2008 to September 2009, for himself as well as for his girlfriend, his daughter, and many customers who paid a fee, said Beth Phillips, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri.

Hardin created the notes on his computer and used them to attempt to discharge student loan debts, to purchase a car and a house, and for other personal items and debts. Hardin charged purchasers of the notes a fee—initially $100 per note, which was later increased based on the amount of debt Hardin falsely claimed to be discharged by the note.

Private bank

Hardin falsely claimed that he was authorized to issue the bonded promissory notes because he was a private banker. As part of his scheme to defraud both the individuals for whom he created BPNs and the creditors to whom he issued BPNs, Hardin claimed that he had created his own private bank—The Private Bank of Denny Ray Hardin, which operated out of his residence.

Hardin defrauded customers by selling them BPNs with the false promise that these fictitious instruments can discharge debts. Hardin defrauded creditors by presenting them with worthless BPNs.

Hardin operated a website for the purpose of marketing BPNs to potential purchasers. On his website, Hardin claimed that BPNs had been accepted by various institutions, which was false. Hardin marketed this scheme by spreading false stories to make his fraud sound legitimate and to try and force creditors into accepting BPNs through threats of legal action.

As part of the fraud scheme, Hardin would mail a BPN to creditors, along with various other documents that included a letter from Hardin stating that the account had been paid in full by the note. When he was notified that the BPN had been refused as payment, Hardin threatened the creditor with a lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Gary A. Fenner found Hardin guilty of 11 counts of creating fictitious obligations and 10 counts of mail fraud at the conclusion of a bench trial that began Monday, Sept. 12, 2011.

Under federal statutes, Hardin is subject to a sentence of up to 25 years in federal prison without parole, plus a fine up to $250,000 for each count of creating fictitious obligations, a sentence of up to 30 years in federal prison without parole, plus a fine up to $1 million, for each of the four counts of mail fraud affecting a financial institution, and a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison without parole, plus a fine up to $250,000, for each of the remaining counts of mail fraud. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled after the completion of a presentence investigation by the United States Probation Office.

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New Invention Could Prolong Smartphone Battery Life

Researchers say it could extend battery life an average of 54 percent

Researchers say they know how to make smartphone batteries last longer...

PhotoOne of the many considerations consumers make when selecting a smartphone is its battery life. But a new invention just might level the playing field, making that less of a consideration.

University of Michigan computer science and engineering professor Kang Shin and doctoral student Xinyu Zhang have invented what they call a "subconscious mode" for smartphones and other WiFi-enabled mobile devices could extend battery life by as much as 54 percent for users on the busiest networks.

Still being tested

The researchers will present their invention at the ACM International Conference on Mobile Computing and Networking next week in Las Vegas. The approach is still in the proof-of-concept stage and is not yet commercially available.

Even when smartphones are in power-saving modes and not actively sending or receiving messages, they are still on alert for incoming information and they're searching for a clear communication channel. The researchers have found that this kind of energy-taxing "idle listening" is occurring during a large portion of the time phones spend in power-saving mode -- as much as 80 percent on busy networks.

More efficient listening

The researchers say they have simply tried to make smartphones perform this idle listening more efficiently. It's called E-MiLi, which stands for Energy-Minimizing Idle Listening.

To find out how much time phones spend keeping one ear open, Shin and Zhang conducted an extensive trace-based analysis of real WiFi networks. They discovered that, depending on the amount of traffic in the network, devices in power-saving modes spend 60 to 80 percent of their time in idle listening. In previous work, they demonstrated that phones in idle listening mode expend roughly the same amount of power as they do when they're fully awake.

"My phone isn't sending or receiving anything right now," Shin said, lifting his power-skinned iPhone, "but it's listening to see if data is coming in so I can receive it right away. This idle listening often consumes as much power as actively sending and receiving messages all day."

How it works

Here's how E-MiLi works: It slows down the WiFi card's clock by up to 1/16 its normal frequency, but jolts it back to full speed when the phone notices information coming in. While it's fairly easy to slow a device's clock to save energy, the hard part, Shin said, is getting the phone to recognize an incoming message while it is in this slower mode.

"We came up with a clever idea," Shin said. "Usually, messages come with a header, and we thought the phone could be enabled to detect this, as you can recognize that someone is calling your name even if you're 90 percent asleep."

44 percent power reduction

When used with power-saving mode, the researchers found that E-MiLi is capable of reducing energy consumption by around 44 percent for 92 percent of mobile devices in real-world wireless networks.

Widespread changes in the industry would be required to make all of this a reality. In addition to new processor-slowing software on smartphones, E-MiLi requires new firmware for phones and computers that would be sending messages.

They need the ability to encode the message header -- the recipient's address -- in a new and more detectable way. The researchers say they have created such firmware, but in order for E-MiLi use to become widespread, WiFi chipset manufacturers would have to adopt these firmware modifications and then companies that make smartphones and computers would have to incorporate the new chips into their products.

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Want to Crush the Middle Class? Just Eliminate the Mortgage Deduction

Economy recovering but Congress could still squash it, economist warns

While Democrats ramp up calls to tax the rich and the Tea Party fulminates over excessive government spending, the chief economist for the National Associa...

PhotoWhile Democrats ramp up calls to tax the rich and the Tea Party fulminates over excessive government spending, the chief economist for the National Association of Realtors worries about something more basic: the home mortgage deduction.

It's among the sacred cows being mentioned as a possible sacrifice on the altar of deficit reduction, a move  Lawrence Yun says would be a disaster.

"Limiting the mortgage interest deduction would crush the working class in resort areas and damage consumer confidence to buy a home in middle-class areas," Yun told the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors today.

"Housing can't go lower than this," Yun said.  "There will be some slight increases over the next two years.  Home values and sales will show slow but steady growth, again fueling small business start-ups."

Small business jobs

What do home values have to do with small business start-ups?

Most small businesses are started by entrepreneurs who risk their own money.  Few have enough cash on hand to fund a new business over the few years it often takes to hit profitability, so they tend to use the equity in their homes, Yun noted.

Few argue that rising home values fuel consumer confidence and encourage consumers to make big-ticket purchases like cars and homes. But Yun said it's too often overlooked that small businesses -- the largest source of new jobs -- are mostly fiinanced by home equity.

"Any discussion of limiting the interest deduction would be very, very harmful to home equity building," he said.  "We need to fight hard to be sure the housing deduction is not changed."

Smart money

Yun also showed signs of frustration with the current obsession with gold prices.  While many investors rely on gold as a hedge against inflation, Yun said the "smart money" -- wielded by cash-rich investors who have been successful for decades -- is a major force in the housing market's slow recovery.

Fully 35 percent of home sales today are all cash, Yun said.  It would normally be about 8 percent.

"Who makes these purchases?" Yun asked.  "People with money.  They're generally one step ahead, so this is a very reliable sign of a rising market."

Obviously, some regions of the country are in better shape than others.  North Dakota is doing well and Texas is "fully recovered," Yun said, while northern industrial states like Michigan are having a 10-year depression.

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Court Halts Amino-Acid Supplement Sales by Two Minnesota Companies

CHK Nutrition, NeuroResearch Clinics alleged claimed their supplements could cure diseases

Two Minnesota companies whose Web sites allegedly claimed their amino-acid products could cure or mitigate disease have agreed to stop selling the suppleme...

PhotoTwo Minnesota companies whose Web sites allegedly claimed their amino-acid products could cure or mitigate disease have agreed to stop selling the supplements.

West Duluth Distribution Co., a corporation doing business as CHK Nutrition, and NeuroResearch Clinics Inc., both of Duluth, Minn., signed a consent decree of permanent injunction in the Minnesota U.S. District Court.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration charged that the the companies violated the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act by claiming that CHK Nutrition’s amino-acid products could cure, mitigate, or treat diseases.

The consent decree prohibits the defendants from distributing any of their amino-acid products into interstate commerce unless and until they remove the drug claims from their websites. The defendants also agreed to hire an expert to review the claims they make for their products and certify that they have omitted all violative claims.

Under the decree, FDA can order the defendants to stop distributing their amino-acid products if they fail to comply with the Act or the terms of the decree. 

"By ensuring that CHK Nutrition and NeuroResearch can’t distribute these unapproved products, FDA is helping to prevent health risks for consumers that might take these drugs or delay other important treatments,” said Dara A. Corrigan, the FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. “Until these companies meet FDA requirements, they will no longer be able to process or distribute their products." 

"Amino-acid therapy"

The FDA conducted an inspection of CHK Nutrition and NeuroResearch Clinics in July 2010. During that inspection, an FDA investigator observed evidence of the coordination of the sale of CHK Nutrition’s products with claims that such products are effective treatments for “neurotransmitter diseases.”

In September 2010, the FDA reviewed CHK Nutrition’s website and observed a link to NeuroResearch Clinics’ website containing extensive discussions about “amino-acid therapy” for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, fibromyalgia, and others.

Despite FDA warnings to stop making unapproved drug claims, CHK Nutrition and NeuroResearch Clinics did not do so.  The FDA conducted a follow-up review of the companies’ websites in February 2011 and found an ongoing connection between the sale of CHK Nutrition’s products and claims that they can be used to treat diseases.  

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Latest Listeria Alert: Rocky Ford Cantaloupes

FDA warns consumers not to eat Rocky Ford cantaloupe shipped by Jensen Farms

The FDA is warning consumers not to eat Rocky Ford Cantaloupe shipped by Jensen Farms and to throw away recalled product that may still be in their home. ...

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Study: TV Watching Reduces Parent-Child Communication

Reading does a better job of enhancing communication

Since Howdy Doody first danced across a flickering black and white screen, social scientists have warned of the negative influences of television on childr...

Since Howdy Doody first danced across a flickering black and white screen, social scientists have warned of the negative influences of television on children.

Now physical scientists are weighing in on the subject, with researchers in Ohio suggesting that watching TV can lead to less interaction between parents and children, with a detrimental impact on literacy and language skills.

The researchers compared mother-child communication while watching TV to reading books or playing with Toys to reveal the impact on children's development.

The study, conducted by Amy Nathanson and Eric Rasmussen from Ohio State University, focused on 'maternal responsiveness' to reveal differences in the way mothers communicate with their children while engaged with books, toys, and TV.

Mother's response has important impact

"Maternal responsiveness describes the quality of responses that a mother provides to an infant when they interact," said Nathanson. "When a mother and child are focusing on the same object, be that a book, toy or TV show, the mother's response can have an important impact on their child's understanding and self perception."

By explaining and describing objects or new words and images, or by prompting conversation through questions, maternal responsiveness can help to engage a child with the activity. The parent can also provide positive feedback and encouragement to a child, or repeat what the child has said to help familiarize them with certain words or sights.

"Mothers who are responsive to their infant's communication promote a positive self-perception for the child as well as fostering trust in the parent. Positive responses help the child learn that they can affect their environment," said Nathanson. "However, if maternal responsiveness is absent, children learn that their environment is unpredictable and may become anxious, knowing that their bids for attention or help may be ignored."

The authors explored the interactions of 73 mother–child pairs. The average mother was married, in their early thirties and had a bachelor's degree, while half were not employed. The children ranged in age from 16 months to 6 years.

The results demonstrated that who mothers co-read books communicated significantly more with their children than mothers watching TV. The amount of communication involved in reading was not significantly higher than playing with toys. However, the quality of maternal responsiveness was higher in books than toys.

Reading improves communication

The team found that when reading a book with their children parents used a more active communication style, bringing the child into contact with words they may not hear in every day speech, thereby improving their vocabulary and grammatical knowledge. In contrast watching TV resulted in significantly fewer descriptions and positive responses than mothers playing with toys.

"Reading books together increased the maternal communication beyond a level required for reading, while watching TV decreased maternal communication. This is significant when we consider the amount of time young children spend watching TV. In some cases children are left alone to watch TV, missing out on any parental communication at a critical stage in their development," said Nathanson. "We would encourage parents to regularly substitute TV for other forms of entertainment to ensure frequent and positive interaction with their child."

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What's On Your Mind? Credit One, Toshiba, Home Depot, Walmart

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Credit One, Toshiba, Home Depot, Walmart, Disposable TV, Caught in the middle and Not even close to an express li...

PhotoCynthia, of San Francisco, has a Credit One bankcard and isn't very happy about it. She thinks the bank targets consumers who have seen their credit scores fall due to unemployment, foreclosure, or other economic factors.

“They charge you $9.95 if you want to make a payment by phone, even if its to avoid a late fee of $25.00 on the due date,” Cynthia told ConsumerAffairs.com. “And they use Eastern Standard Time, so if your payment on the west coast is not made by the EST deadline, then you are also issued a late fee, even if on same day of due date. There are sneaky fees at every turn.”

If you ask the banks, they'll tell you they must charge a premium to offset the added risk of lending in the subprime market. It still doesn't lessen the aggravation for consumers.

Disposable TV

Here's another consumer with an LCD flat screen TV that didn't last very long. In the case of Preston, of Sayville, N.Y., three years.

“I purchased a Toshiba 32" IHD LCD television model 32A500U in 2008,” Preston said. “In July, 2011, the picture feature failed completely although the audio was functional. I took the unit to a factory authorized repair shop; paid $50 for an evaluation of the problem, and was informed a week later that it would cost $300 to make the repairs. As this is almost the cost of a new TV, I declined. I then called and wrote Toshiba requesting some financial assistance in repairing the unit. Their response in all requests was that since the unit was outside their one-year warranty, there was nothing that could be done.”

As we have previously reported, it seems flat screen TVs are becoming a disposable product.

Caught in the middle

There's really no way a consumer can know that the chain store where they bought a new kitchen and the contractor the store hired to install it are in the midst of a major spat. Sandra, of Virginia Beach, Va., says she suddenly ended up in the middle.

“I had no idea the contractor, and Home Depot, were in the middle of a contract dispute, Sandra told ConsumerAffairs.com. The contractor explained the situation when he was out installing everything that he could before counter tops were installed. The rest, had to be done after countertops installed.”

But by then the contractor was history and Sandra said she had a hard time getting Home Depot's attention.

“I decided it was time to seek out legal representation,” Sandra said. Once I made that decision, I let Home Depot know what I was about to do, and they have finally gotten back to me, and are trying to resolve this mess.”

Sandra probably couldn't have anticipated she would be caught in the middle of this dispute, but she seems to have found an effective way to resolve it. Threatening to bring an attorney into the picture usually gets things back on track.

Not even close to an express line

Allan, of Breaux Bridge, La., seems exasperated with his local Walmart. Getting off from work late at night, he says he goes to the 24-hour Walmart because its about the only thing open at 10:30 pm. The problem, he says, is the store is always crowded at that hour but usually, only two check-out lines are open.

“Why even be open if you can't staff the registers?” Allan asks. “Surely you can hire more people. And if not, surely you can cross train people to work a register when its busy. I shop there often, two, three nights a week, and its always the same thing. Last night I stopped counting after 34 people waiting in line.”

With a 9.1 percent unemployment rate, it would see that there should be plenty of applicants if the store wanted to staff up.

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Study: ADHD Increases Risk Of Serious Injury For 5th Graders

Inattentiveness may make these kids accident prone, researchers say

Injury kills more 11-year-olds in the U.S. than all other causes combined, and a new study from UAB shows ADHD almost doubles the risk of serious injury am...

PhotoInjury kills more 11-year-olds in the United States than all other causes combined, and a new study from University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) shows ADHD almost doubles the risk of serious injury among this age group.

“We found that children with more ADHD symptoms, those in the 90th percentile, are nearly twice as likely to get hurt as those with symptoms in the 10th percentile,” said David Schwebel, Ph.D., director of the UAB Youth Safety Laboratory and lead author.

In this group, boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to be injured.

ADHD is a problem with inattentiveness, over-activity, impulsivity, or a combination. For these problems to be diagnosed as ADHD, they must be out of the normal range for a child's age and development.

Commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder

ADHD is the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder of childhood, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It affects about 3three to five percent of school aged children. ADHD is diagnosed much more often in boys than in girls

The research, published in the September/October Academic Pediatrics, studied 4,745 fifth-graders from Houston, Los Angeles and Birmingham. Serious injury is defined as one that requires medical attention; more than half of the injuries included broken bones.

“These are children that no longer have adults or parents or teachers watching over them all the time, which means they have to make decisions on their own,” Schwebel said. “Children with ADHD are impulsive, inattentive; they may not notice things because their mind is wandering, and they’re hyperactive so they’re always moving and getting into things.”

5.4 million children

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says 9.4 percent, or 5.4 million, children ages 4-17 in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD. Schwebel, professor in the UAB Department of Psychology, says this study will improve injury-prevention strategies for millions of mental health practitioners, pediatricians, parents and children.

“Medication, seeing a psychologist and getting treatment for ADHD will reduce the risk and the symptoms,” Schwebel said. “In some cases you can make the child aware and get them to think about what they’re doing so they will slow down and be more careful. It won’t work for everyone, but it certainly can’t hurt to try.”

This study is part of UAB’s Healthy Passages research, a decade-long program funded by the CDC, designed to help families, health-care providers, schools and communities develop effective policies and programs to keep children and adolescents healthy.

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H&R Block Pulls Back From 'Instant Refund' Loans for Another Year

Republic, Jackson Hewitt, Liberty still making high-cost, short-term loans

H&R Block says it will not offer refund anticipation loans (RAL) during the 2012 tax season, winning plaudits from consumer activists and putting the h...

PhotoH&R Block says it will not offer refund anticipation loans (RAL) during the 2012 tax season, winning plaudits from consumer activists and putting the heat on its competitors to do likewise.

“H&R Block did the right thing by deciding to ‘just say no’ to RALs,” said Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “We have criticized these loans as high-cost and risky for over a decade, and we are pleased that Block has actively decided not to offer them.”  

An RAL is a short-term loan based on a taxpayer's anticipated federal tax refund. RALs were critical to taxpayers when IRS refund delivery times took up to eight weeks. But, with recent modernization efforts, the IRS estimates taxpayers will wait two weeks or less for their refunds in 2012, making RALs less attractive.

RALs can be astonishingly expensive; earlier this year, one bank charged $61.22 for a RAL of $1,500, which translates into an APR of 149 percent. RALs target low-income taxpayers, especially recipients of the Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax break for working poor families.

$600 million

In 2009, RALs skimmed over $600 million from the refunds of 7.2 million American taxpayers.

Jackson Hewitt and Liberty Tax Service both continued selling RALs last year, using Republic Bank & Trust as their lender. 

That may not last forever, however.  The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has taken action to stop Republic from making RALs, and is seeking to impose a $2 million fine for alleged widespread legal violations in Republic’s RAL program.

However, Republic has appealed the FDIC’s action to an Administrative Law Judge and the appeals hearing is not until February 2012. In the meantime, Republic has decided to defy the FDIC and continue to make RALs in early 2012.

“We think Republic’s decision to make RALs for 2012 is both bad for consumers and foolhardy for the bank,” said Peter Skillern, executive director of Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina. “We are astonished that a bank would continue to offer these risky, abusive loans to consumers in the face of an explicit directive by their federal regulator to stop."

Other solutions

H&R Block said it will offer its clients low-cost financial alternatives to the RAL, such as refund anticipation checks (RAC). A RAC is not a loan. It is a product for taxpayers who want to deduct the cost of tax preparation from their refund.

The customer's RAC proceeds can be deposited onto a reloadable H&R Block Emerald Card that is accepted at more than 1 million ATMs nationwide. It is an especially useful product for unbanked taxpayers looking for a low-cost way to establish a year-round banking relationship, the company said.

H&R Block stopped offering RALs in 2011 after regulators directed its third-party lending bank to stop funding the product. However, some smaller tax preparation firms were still able to offer RALs due to different regulations imposed on their lending banks. H&R Block said it strongly believes this regulation should be consistent across the tax preparation industry.

"The expertise of our tax professionals and our superior client service resulted in H&R Block growing new clients by nearly 19 percent last year -- even without a RAL," said Bill Cobb, H&R Block's CEO. 

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Goldstar, Comfort-Aire Dehumidifiers Pose Serious Fire Risk

Over $1 million iin property damage linked to the recalled units

LG Electronics Tianjin Appliance Co., in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), is urging consumers to check if they have rec...

Photo
Fire damage at this home in Valparaiso, Ind., was blamed on a dehumidifier.

LG Electronics is urging consumers to check if they have recalled Goldstar or Comfort-Aire dehumidifiers.

The firm is re-announcing the recall of about 98,000 of the dangerous dehumidifiers that pose a serious fire and burn hazard, and are believed to be responsible for more than one million dollars in property damage.

The power connector for the dehumidifier’s compressor can short circuit, posing fire and burn hazards to consumers and their property.

The dehumidifiers were first recalled in December 2009 following eleven incidents, including four significant fires. Since that time, the company has received sixteen additional incident reports of arcing, smoke and fire associated with the dehumidifiers, including nine significant fires. No injuries have been reported. Fires are reported to have caused more than $1 million in property damage including:

  • $500,000 in damage to a home in Gibsonia, Pa.
  • $200,000 in damage to a home in New Brighton, Minn.
  • $183,000 in damage to a home in Hudson, Mass.
  • $192,000 in damage to a home in Valparaiso, Ind.
  • $139,000 in damage to a home in Salem, Ohio
  • $129,000 in damage to a home in Brielle, N.J.
  • $ 95,000 in damage to a home in Philadelphia, Pa.

Because of the severity of the risks, CPSC and LG Electronics are concerned with the lack of consumer response to the recall. Only two percent of the 98,000 consumers who purchased these units have received a free repair, which means that consumers and their property remain at serious risk.

Anyone who has the recalled dehumidifiers is strongly encouraged to immediately stop using them, unplug them, and contact LG Electronics for the free repair.

Photo

The recall involves the 30 pint portable dehumidifiers sold under the Goldstar and Comfort-Aire brands. The dehumidifiers are white with a red shut-off button, controls for fan speed and humidity control, and a front-loading water bucket. “Goldstar” or “Comfort-Aire” is printed on the front. Model and serial number ranges included in this recall are listed in the table below. The model and serial numbers are located on the interior of the dehumidifier, and can be seen when the water bucket is removed.

Brand Model No. Serial Number Range Sold at
Goldstar GHD30Y7 611TAxx00001 through 08400
611TAxx08401 through 40600
612TAxx00001 through 20400
612TAxx21001 through 30600
Home Depot
Goldstar DH305Y7 612TAxx00001 through 00600
701TAxx00001 through 16800
702TAxx00001 through 03000
Walmart
Comfort-Aire BHD-301-C 611TA000001 through 001697
612TA000001 through 004200
701TA000001 through 000578
710TA000001 through 000599
Various retailers, including Ace
Hardware, Do It Best and Orgill Inc.

The recalled dehumidifiers were sold at The Home Depot, Walmart, Ace Hardware, Do It Best, Orgill Inc., and other retailers nationwide from January 2007 through June 2008 for between $140 and $150. They were manufactured in China.

For additional information about the recall and for the location of an authorized service center for the repair, contact LG toll free at (877) 220-0479 between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, and between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. CT on Saturday, or visit the firm’s website at www.30pintdehumidifierrecall.com

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John Deere Recalls Lawn Tractors

Brake failure may cause loss of control

John Deereis recalling about 5,200 D100 lawn tractors. Hardware used to hold the brake assembly to the transmission housing can break. This can cause ...

PhotoJohn Deere is conducting two recalls of various lawn tractor models.

Brake problem

The company is recalling about 5,200 D100 lawn tractors. Hardware used to hold the brake assembly to the transmission housing can break. This can cause the brakes to fail, posing an injury hazard due to loss of control.

The recalled lawn tractors are green with yellow seats and mower decks. Model D100 tractors are included in this recall. The model number is located on both sides of the tractor’s hood. Tractors with the serial numbers below are included in this recall. Serial numbers are located under the right rear fender.

  • 1GXD100A…BB051247 thru 1GXD100A…BB053312
  • 1GXD100E…BB114388 thru 1GXD100E…BB139599

John Deere dealers, Lowe’s, and Home Depot stores sold the tractors nationwide, except California, from October 2010 through September 2011 for about $1,500. They were made in the U.S.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled lawn tractors and contact the company for a free hardware inspection and repair.

For additional information, contact Deere & Company at (800) 537-8233 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday and between 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET Saturday or visit the firm’s website at www.johndeere.com

Blade assembly

The company is also recalling about 15,500 tractors because the hardware used to hold the mower blade brake assemblies on the mower decks can break. This can cause the mower blades to spin longer than normal after the operator turns off the power, posing a laceration hazard.

The recalled lawn tractors are green, with yellow seats and mower decks. Model numbers D100, D110, D120, and D130, all with a 42-inch Edge™ Cutting System mower deck, are included in this recall. The model number is located on both sides of the tractor’s hood. Lawn tractors with the serial numbers listed below are included in the recall. The serial number is located under the right rear fender.

Model Serial Numbers
D100 1GXD100A…BB050246 thru 1GXD100A…BB051508
1GXD100E…BB104567 thru 1GXD100E…BB114387
D110 1GXD110A…BB051350 thru 1GXD110A…BB054905
1GXD110C…BB010187 thru 1GXD110C…BB010413
1GXD110E…AB106157 thru 1GXD110E…AB106342
1GXD110E…BB106358 thru 1GXD110E…BB115481
D120 1GXD120A…BB101040 thru 1GXD120A…BB101642
1GXD120C…BB010026 thru 1GXD120C…BB010035
1GXD120E…BB101959 thru 1GXD120E…BB102750
D130 1GXD130A…BB050470 thru 1GXD130A…BB052004

John Deere dealers, Lowe’s, and Home Depot stores sold the tractors nationwide from December 2010 through September 2011 for between $1,500 and $2,000.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled lawn tractors and contact the company for a free hardware inspection and repair.

For additional information, contact Deere & Company at (800) 537-8233 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday and between 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET Saturday or visit the firm’s website at www.johndeere.com

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Best Buy's Customers Love It But Don't Come Around Much Any More

Amazon and big-box discounters biting into Best Buy's sales

Best Buy may have won the hearts and minds of consumers but it appears to be losing the battle for their money, as customers defect to Amazon and other onl...

PhotoBest Buy may have won the hearts and minds of consumers but it appears to be losing the battle for their money, as customers defect to Amazon and other online retailers or trudge over to the Walmarts of the world.

No question Best Buy has won the Last Man Standing battle, outlasting Circuit City, which surrendered and went out of business a year or so ago. But the victory party had hardly ended when sales took a sickening plunge.

Sales were off 30 percent in the second quarter this year, setting off a race for the exits by investors who are fearful that Best Buy's bright and attractive stores and its emphasis on customer service are no longer the qualities consumers are looking for.

As discretionary income dries up and the American middle class gets whittled down to a workable size, consumers are increasingly not willing or able to pay for a nifty shopping experience and on-site service.

"The consumer is willing to trade customer service for the best possible price," said one analyst quoted by the Wall Street Journal. Not only are consumers increasingly becoming bargain hunters, they're also cutting back on discretionary purchases, including the computers, big-screen TVs, games and gizmos that are Best Buy's bread and butter. 

Nothing personal

Sure enough, a ConsumerAffairs.com analysis of nearly 11 million consumer comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social media and blogs finds consumers feeling generally positive about Best Buy despite the chain's falling sales.

Using computerized sentiment analysis of about 2.3 million postings, we found Best Buy easily maintaining a net positive sentiment over the last 12 months, peaking at 60% positive in July but beginning what may be either a descent or a dip to below 40% by early September.

Photo
Blue line shows net sentiment

Amazon also maintained a consistently positive net sentiment for the year, generally around 60%, dipping occasionally to just above 40%, as shown in this graph based on about 8.6 million consumer postings.

Photo
Blue line shows net sentiment

What's to like?

What is it that consumers like about these retailing giants? Perhaps surprisingly, in a world where most retail loyalty programs are little more than yet one more detail to keep track of, Amazon customers are wild about its "Prime" program, which costs a hefty $79 per year.

Photo

The enthusiasm for Prime comes blazing through in our sample of consumer postings. 

Photo

"I love being an Amazon Prime member. Free 2nd day shipping :)! I think it's freeness ends soon though so I need to be careful," enthused @HK-Barbie on Twitter. Actually, HK-Barbie, 2nd-day shipping is still free for almost all purchases. (You should still be careful though.)

Best Buy customers, meanwhile, are evenly divided between the chain's gift cards and its "deals" at 20% each.

Photo

Fiddling

So is Best Buy vainly trying to hold back the tide? Maybe not. Besides brightening its stores, it's making them smaller and putting even more emphasis on personal service from its in-store employees, dubbed "blue shirts," and its Geek Squad, which will make house calls to set up and fix computers, TVs and the like.

Amazon doesn't do any of that but then neither do Costco, Walmart or other discounters who have been eating ever-larger bites of Best Buy's lunch.

Best Buy has also been beefing up its online presence. Consumers can order merchandise online and pick it up at the local Best Buy (though why that is better than just ordering from Amazon and letting somebody else lug it up to your house a day or two later is debatable). It has also commissioned a virtual Geek Squad, called "Twelpforce," which offers technical advice through Twitter.

All dressed up …

So in the end, will Best Buy wind up as likeable, clever and attactive but somehow unable to get a date? Time, as they say, will tell.

---

Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

 

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Target's Missoni Roll-Out Crashes Website

Partnership with Italian designer draws overwhelming traffic

Target's Missoni Roll-Out Crashes Website...

PhotoTarget's website is back online today after a crush of traffic Tuesday caused it to crash several times during the day. The reason for the increase in visitors was the retailer's roll-out of its Missoni apparel.

For days Target had created a buzz about its partnership with the Italian luxury knitwear designer. The partnership has created a limited number of items that will be sold exclusively through the discount retailer.

The anticipation produced a flood of web traffic to the company's site Tuesday, the day the items were first offered for sale. It was exactly the kind of response marketers dream of, but unfortunately, the company's web servers just couldn't handle it.

Visitors to the site read a message saying "Woof! We are suddenly extremely popular. You may not be able to access our site momentarily due to unusually high traffic. Please stay here and we'll try to get you in as soon as we can!"

Excited

Today, visitors see a message that reads “Missoni for Target! Yep, it's that Missoni. We're excited too.

The New York Times critiqued the product launch, calling the website crash “a rare misstep.” It wasn't just people shopping online who experienced difficulty. Consumers traveling to Target stores Tuesday reported the stock quickly sold out. Target said some stores would be restocked but provided few details.

The Missoni label on clothing usually runs up the price to hundreds or thousands of dollars, but it has produced a number of less-expensive items for Target. The offering includes a $40 skirt, silk floral dresses for $30, bath towels for $13 and a $600 patio set.  

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Beware Royalty Resource Network Scam

Using small newspaper ads to ensnare victims

Just because something is advertised in a legitimate media doesn't mean it isn't a scam. That's the message West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw i...

Just because something is advertised in a legitimate media doesn't mean it isn't a scam. That's the message West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw is delivering to consumers about ads produced by the “Royalty Resource Network” (RRN), which he calls “a scam operating out of Canada.”

McGraw says ads, appearing in area publications, offer promises of “fast and easy loans.” McGraw says the ads claim
that the company charges no application, processing or consulting fees for loans ranging from $2,500.00 up to $1 million. In reality, consumers are required to send in advance a portion of the funds they intend to borrow, usually through a wire service such as Western Union or Money Gram. Once the funds are picked up, RNN’s fake loan officers disappear with the cash, McGraw says.

Using small newspapers

The Attorney General notes that this type of scam surfaces frequently on the Internet. This time, he says, the criminals are using smaller newspapers and publications. In this particular instance, a large ad was ordered and placed in a West Virginia newspaper using a stolen credit card. Not only were consumers scammed – so was the newspaper.

“Consumers should use extra caution when responding to any sort of advertisement regarding lending and finance,” McGraw said. “Thieves will use newspapers, websites, e-mails, telephone calls – any medium at their disposal – to help you part with your hard-earned money. “No legitimate company or organization will require you to wire money in advance using a wire transfer service in order to qualify for a loan, grant or any other financial aid.” 

Hard to trace

By using free e-mail accounts, disposable cell phones and remotely routed toll-free numbers, scammers are able to open up and close shop in a matter of days. The toll-free number used by RRN, the swindlers who also operated as the Vintage Consumer Network and Forum Family Services, now rings as a fast busy signal. 

McGraw’s Consumer Protection Division has referred complaints received against Royalty Resource Network, Vintage Consumer Network, and Forum Family Services, as well as other across-the-border advance-fee loan scams, to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, a joint task force of the Ontario Provincial Police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Competition Bureau Canada. 

Consumers in other states should be vigilant against the scam as well.

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Consumers Pile Up Second Quarter Credit Card Debt

Analyst calls increase 'staggering'

Credit card debt dropped in July but rose sharply in the three previous months...

PhotoLast week's consumer credit report from the Federal Reserve showed a drop in consumer credit card debt in July. But numbers buried deep in the report showed July's slowdown followed a dramatic plastic binge in the second quarter.

In its analysis of data for the second quarter of 2011, CardHub.com reports consumers ran up a staggering $18.4 billion in credit card debt in the April through June period. To give you an idea of how significant that is, the July 2011 total is 66 percent more than consumers accumulated in the same quarter in 2010 and 368 percent more relative to the second quarter of 2009.

Based on the results of this study, CardHub.com’s latest projection is that consumers will end 2011 with around $54 billion more in credit card debt.

The study focused on consumer debt data from the Federal Reserve’s G19 report in conjunction with quarterly charge off data to determine how much consumer debt actually increased when you consider the amount of bad debt written off the books.

Worrisome

Like the first quarter of 2010, consumers ended the first quarter of 2011 with a significant net decrease in credit card debt. However, in subsequent quarters they proceeded to wipe out any reduction. What’s worrisome about 2011, according to the financial website, is that they seem to be doing it at a faster rate than ever.

Last year ended with a net increase in debt of $9.1 billion, which practically erased the net decrease of $10.0 billion in 2009. In contrast, 2011’s projected $54 billion increase in debt puts consumers on a very alarming trajectory, the company said.

Some might see the renewed credit card spending as a sign of confidence, but consumer confidence surveys this year have actually shown a steady decline in confidence. What appears more likely, according to some economists, is that consumers are using plastic to meet basic expenses, and that much of the increase in credit card spending could be purchases of more expensive gasoline.

The Fed's report last week suggests the alarming trend has been reversed, at least for one month. In July non-revolving credit, which includes auto loans and loans for educational purposes jumped $15.4 billion. However, that was offset by a $3.44 billion decline in credit card spending.

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Obama Tax Plan Would Hit Municipal Bonds

Charitable contributions could also be affected by limiting deductions on the "rich"

Lost in the din of the talking heads is a key element of President Obama's plan to pay for his proposed $447 billion job-creation package: he wants to curb...

PhotoLost in the din of the talking heads is a key element of President Obama's plan to pay for his proposed $447 billion job-creation package: he wants to curb the amount of interest "high-income" taxpayers can deduct for municipal bonds, and limit deductions for charitable contributions.

Income from municipal bonds would be included in a proposed cap on deductions, possibly curbing demand for state and local government securities, one of the primary ways governments finance building infrastructure.

“We’ve got to decide what our priorities are,” Obama said as he released the legislative text yesterday. “Do we keep tax loopholes for oil companies -- or do we put teachers back to work? Should we keep tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires -- or should we invest in education and technology and infrastructure, all the things that are going to help us out-innovate and out-educate and out-build other countries in the future?”

Just a few days ago, state and local governments sent a letter to the 12 members of the so-called "Super Committee" that has been charged with balancing spending and revenue.

“In a world in which there are likely reductions to domestic discretionary and perhaps even mandatory and entitlement spending, it is critical that this tool be preserved in order for us to protect our investments,” said Michael Bird, federal affairs counsel for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“NCSL truly understands that if you are going to do serious deficit reduction and debt-management control, we are going to have to make a contribution to that reduction, and since federal funding will therefore diminish potentially in the future, the retention of tax-exempt financing becomes all that more important,” Bird said.

The money Obama is trying to raise would be used to offset part of the cost of cutting the payroll tax for employers and some lower- and middle-income taxpayers, along with infrastructure programs. Republicans say they may be willing to support some of the tax cuts but are skeptical about the spending and tax increase proposals.

Taxing the "rich"

The biggest chunk of revenue in the jobs package, about $400 billion, would come from capping at 28 percent the itemized deductions and certain exclusions for individuals earning more than $200,000 a year and married couples earning more than $250,000.

That's not going down well with charities, who might be hit hard by limits on itemized deductions.

"This is the very last moment in time that you would think it would be productive to limit the funding of the charitable sector,” said Andrew Schulz, vice president of the Council on Foundations in an interview with Investment News.

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Who Liked the 9/11 Ads? You Did

Consumers loved the Clydesdale tribute

The airwaves were full of 9/11 tribute ads over the weekends, and critics were quick to label them mawkish, exploitative, crass commercialism and syrupy, j...

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Feds Probe Headlight Problem in Chrysler Minivans

Lights can go out without warning

Auto safety regulators are opening an investigation into complaints that Chrysler minivan headlights go out unexpectedly. The National Highway Traffic Saf...

PhotoAuto safety regulators are opening an investigation into complaints that Chrysler minivan headlights go out unexpectedly.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has received 1,541 complaints from consumers about the problem, including two reports of crashes, one of which caused a minor injury.

Drivers have reported that the headlights turn off and stay off indefinitely. Toggling the headlight switch can sometimes get them to come back on, but not always.  

Additionally, vehicle owners have complained that the lights sometimes blink and flicker.

Vehicles included in the investigation are:

Vehicle Make / Model:

   

Model Year(s):

     CHRYSLER / TOWN AND COUNTRY

   

2005

     CHRYSLER / VOYAGER

   

2005

     DODGE / CARAVAN

   

2005

     DODGE / GRAND CARAVAN

   

2005

NHTSA said it needed to “further evaluate this issue” before deciding whether a recall was warranted.

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Record Number Of People Living In Poverty

Census Bureau report shows 2.3 percent decline in real income

The Census Bureau reports a record number of Americans are living in poverty...

photo
1930s Bread Line by the Brooklyn Bridge (Library of Congress photo)

With the economy in weak recovery mode since officially emerging from recession in 2009, it might come as no surprise that more Americans are living in poverty.

The U.S. Census Bureau confirmed it today, reporting that in 2010, median household income declined, the poverty rate increased and the percentage without health insurance coverage was not statistically different from the previous year.

According to the report, real median household income in the United States in 2010 was $49,445, a 2.3 percent decline from the 2009 median. The nation's official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, up from 14.3 percent in 2009 ? the third consecutive annual increase in the poverty rate.

There were 46.2 million people in poverty in 2010, up from 43.6 million in 2009 ? the fourth consecutive annual increase and the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published.

Real income declines

Since 2007, the year before the most recent recession, real median household income has declined 6.4 percent and is 7.1 percent below the median household income peak that occurred prior to the 2001 recession in 1999. The percentages are not statistically different from each another, the report notes.

Economic conditions have also made it more likely that a family member would move in with you, created a so-called doubled-up household. Doubled-up households are defined as households that include at least one "additional" adult: a person 18 or older who is not enrolled in school and is not the householder, spouse or cohabiting partner of the householder.

Doubled-up households

In spring 2007, prior to the recession, doubled-up households totaled 19.7 million. By spring 2011, the number of doubled-up households had increased by 2.0 million to 21.8 million and the percent rose by 1.3 percentage points from 17.0 percent to 18.3 percent.

The number of people with health insurance increased to 256.2 million in 2010 from 255.3 million in 2009. But between 2009 and 2010, the percentage of people covered by private health insurance declined from 64.5 percent to 64.0 percent, while the percentage covered by government health insurance increased from 30.6 percent to 31.0 percent. The percentage covered by employment-based health insurance declined from 56.1 percent to 55.3 percent.

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What's On Your Mind? VistaPrint, T-Mobile, Paula Deen Cookware, Nationwide

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: VistaPrint, T-Mobile, Paula Deen Cookware, Nationwide, Rigid policy and Depends on the definition of hurricane....

PhotoConnie, of Muscatine, Iowa says she was surprised when she opened her bank statement and saw an automated withdrawal of $382.80 by VistaPrint that she says she didn't authorize.

“I cannot reach these people,” Connie told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Apparently, I have ordered from them before but I did not authorize anything recently. I received a phone call from someone about magazine subscriptions but I told them I was not interested. They told me they would send me a letter in five days to review but it never came. I am really ticked off. It is a good thing my retirement check had just been deposited to cover this.”

If the withdrawal was not authorized, Connie should not pay it. She should contact her bank's fraud department and have them sort it out by asking for a proof of purchase.

Rigid policy

Cellular phone companies hit consumers with a hefty early termination fee when they end their contracts before they are up, but most companies make rare exceptions. In T-Mobile's case, that exception appears to be pretty much cast in stone.

“T-Mobile policy states that if one moves overseas the termination fee will be waved,” Marie, of Monterey, Calif., said. “I moved overseas, canceled my T-Mobile service, provided them with my new address, got the last bill, paid it. A month later I got a bill with the termination fee that I am still fighting a year later.”

The problem, apparently is that T-Mobile requires a utility bill within 30 days of moving overseas. Marie said she didn't have a utility bill because they were living with her husband's parents for two months before they found a place on their own.

“I provided T-Mobile with a stamp from my passport showing when I arrived to Germany, my medical bills that show that I was overseas and finally the rental agreement that started 60 days after we arrived. T-Mobile denied these docs stating that they needed a utility bill.”

T-Mobile obviously wants to make sure people it lets out of their contracts have actually moved overseas and are not just taking a long vacation. Seems like their should be some alternative to a utility bill, however.

Hot dish

Paula Deen is the deeply southern host of a TV cooking show has put her name on a set of high end copper cookware. Not everyone using the product is happy.

“I purchased a Paula Deen saucepan and used it for about a year regularly before it melted onto my glass stovetop, causing the stovetop to explode and shrapnel to be sent flying everywhere,” Erin, of Wisdom, Mont., told ConsumerAffairs.com.

A chef has pointed out that many consumers may not realize that these sauce pans are designed to be used with very low heat. Use too much heat and you could have a mess like the one Erin describes. Maybe Paula should do a show about that.

Depends on the definition of hurricane

When is a hurricane not a hurricane, and why does it matter? Just ask Linda, of Virginia Beach, Va. Earlier this month, when Hurricane Irene churned up the Atlantic Coast, Linda's roof suffered damage. But Nationwide denied Linda's claim, invoking the “hurricane clause” in her policy. Turns out she isn't covered for hurricane damage.

But was Hurricane Irene actually a hurricane when it hit Linda's house? Linda claims it wasn't.

“The National Weather Service called for winds to not come close to the 74mph sustained winds needed to qualify for a hurricane," Linda said. "The winds we experienced were sustained at 40mph, with gusts 55-57mph in this area.”

Her house was damaged by a really bad storm, not a hurricane, Linda says. So far, Nationwide isn't buying it. Linda says her deductible has been raised from $1000 to $10,000.

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Aftermarket Auto Lights Distributor Agrees to Guilty Plea

Company conspired to fix prices of aftermarket products, Justice Department charges

Have you priced a replacement headlight for your car lately? Many of them cost about as much as a used car once cost. One reason may be a global price-fixi...

PhotoHave you priced a replacement headlight for your car lately? Many of them cost about as much as a used car once cost. One reason may be a global price-fixing conspiracy that's being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department.

The investigation put one on the scoreboard today when Maxzone Vehicle Lighting Corp. agreed to plead guilty to a one-count felony charge and pay a $43 million fine in U.S. District Court in San Francisco today.

The government says Maxzone conspired with others to suppress and eliminate competition by fixing the prices of aftermarket auto lights, which are installed in a car after a collision or as accessories or upgrades . The department said that Maxzone, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Taiwan-based aftermarket auto lights manufacturer Depo Auto Parts Industrial Co. Ltd., participated in the conspiracy from about April 2000 to about Sept. 3, 2008. 

$43 million fine

Under the plea agreement, which is subject to court approval, Maxzone has agreed to pay a $43 million criminal fine and to assist the department in its ongoing investigation into the aftermarket auto lights industry. 

According to the charge, Maxzone and co-conspirators participated in a conspiracy in which the participants met and agreed to charge prices of aftermarket auto lights at certain predetermined levels.  According to the court documents, the participants in the conspiracy issued price announcements and price lists in accordance with the agreements reached, and collected and exchanged information on prices and sales of aftermarket auto lights for the purpose of monitoring and enforcing adherence to the agreed-upon prices. 

The department said that the conspirators met in Taiwan, the United States and elsewhere for their discussions.

Maxzone is the second U.S. distributor of aftermarket auto lights to be charged in connection with the department’s ongoing investigation. On Aug. 30, 2011, the department announced that Sabry Lee (U.S.A.) Inc. was charged and had agreed to plead guilty. 

Maxzone is charged with violating the Sherman Act, which carries a maximum penalty of a $100 million criminal fine.  The maximum fine may be increased to twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss suffered by the victims, if either of those amounts is greater than the statutory maximum fine.

 

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Payday Lender Ordered to Stop Garnishing Paychecks

South Dakota lender faces trial on charges it illegally garnished wages

A South Dakota payday lender has agreed to stop garnishing consumers' wages pending trial on charges the garnishments were illegal. The Federal Trade Comm...

PhotoA South Dakota payday lender has agreed to stop garnishing consumers' wages pending trial on charges the garnishments were illegal.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint alleges that Payday Financial, LLC, doing business as Lakota Cash and Big Sky Cash, along with other defendants, illegally attempted to garnish consumers’ wages without obtaining a court order, to collect payments on payday loans. 

As a result, the defendants illegally revealed consumers’ supposed debts to their employers and deprived consumers of their right to dispute the debts or make payment arrangements, the FTC alleges.

According to the FTC, defendant Martin A. Webb operates Payday Financial, LLC, and several related businesses in Timber Lake, South Dakota.  

Short-term, high-fee loans

The defendants offer short-term, high-fee, unsecured payday loans of $300 to $2,525 to consumers throughout the country, advertising on television and through websites such as www.bigskycash.com and www.westernsky.com.

The FTC complaint alleges that when a consumer does not pay back a payday loan on time, the defendants send documents to his or her employer that mimic those used by federal agencies collecting debts owed to the government in an attempt to garnish the consumer’s wages. 

Under federal law, the government can directly require employers to garnish wages for debts it is owed without a court order.  But private creditors must obtain a court order before garnishing a debtor’s wages.  The complaint charges the defendants with violating the FTC Act by:

  •  misrepresenting to employers that the defendants are legally authorized to garnish an employee’s wages, without first obtaining a court order;

  • falsely representing to employers that the defendants have notified consumers about the pending garnishment and have given them an opportunity to dispute the debt; and

  • unfairly disclosing the existence and the amounts of consumers’ supposed debts to employers and co-workers without the consumers’ knowledge or consent.

The complaint further alleges that the defendants have violated the FTC’s Credit Practices Rule by requiring consumers taking out payday loans to consent to have wages taken directly out of their paychecks in the event of a default, and have violated the Electronic Funds Transfer Act and Regulation E by requiring authorization for electronic payments from their bank account as a condition of obtaining payday loans.



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Toothpaste Shortfall Enrages Consumer

Even extreme squeezing can't dislodge the last bit of toothpaste, suit charges

Do you ever feel frustrated, ripped off and generally mistreated when the last little bit of toothpaste just won't come out of the tube? This really annoy...

PhotoDo you ever feel frustrated, ripped off and generally mistreated when the last little bit of toothpaste just won't come out of the tube?

This really annoys Jonathan Rothstein, a Californian who takes his dental hygiene very seriously. He's been using Procter & Gamble's toothpastes that come in the “Neat Squeeze” container to keep his pearly whites gleaming but he's become outraged by how much of the product stays in the tube.

It's at least 20 percent, Rothstein estimates, and he's not willing to take it any longer, so he's filed a class action lawsuit against P&G on behalf of the millions of other victims who may not even recognize their plight.

Rothstein may be onto something but then again, he may be a man ahead of his time.  ConsumerAffairs.com conducted an analysis of more than 400,000 mentions of the word "Crest" on Facebook, Twitter and other social media and blogs over the last year and found that almost none of them had anything to with toothpaste.

Of the roughly 440 consumers who made comments about Crest toothpaste, most were positive, as the chart shows:

Photo
Net sentiment about Crest remains positive throughout the 12 months studied

There are, of course, other P&G toothpastes packaged in the allegedly nefarious Neat Squeeze packaging but after squeezing the social media tube so hard and extracting so few comments, we decided that perhaps this was not a matter of burning public import, at least at the moment.

Rothstein's suit, filed by the Houston law firm Caddell & Chapman, alleges that P&G is not only aware of the shortcoming but positively gloats about it by placing this instruction on the toothpaste label:

“The Neat Squeeze dispenser has a unique inner bag that empties itself as you squeeze in the middle. When the package gets lighter and is harder to squeeze, it's time to buy more Crest.”

What P&G fails to explain, Rothstein grumps, is that the full volume of toothpaste will not be dispensed, no matter how hard the consumer squeezes. In fact, as Rothstein sees it, once the dispenser becomes “lighter” and “harder to squeeze,” it has effectively shut down, taking any unused toothpaste with it.

Knife attack

At this point, the frustrated consumer is left with no alternative but to attack the offending packaging with scissors or a knife.

But in so doing, P&G's promise of “Less Mess” is shown to be yet another shameless lie, Rothstein argues.

But wait, there's more.

Rothstein notes that the Neat Squeeze dispenser states on the label the net weight of the toothpaste the tube contains – but cruelly gives no hint that the consumer will be denied access to the entire amount.

Not wanting anyone to miss the point, Rothstein's lawsuit explains in great detail that P&G benefits when consumers run out of toothpaste, as they are then likely to go forth and purchase additional toothpaste.

The suit charges P&G with fraudulent concealment, breach of warranty, unfair competition, false advertising, negligent misrepresentation and other travesties and seeks the usual cornucopia of damage awards. 

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

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Predicting How Diet and Exercise Affect Weight

Online simulation helps researchers find best diet-exercise combinations

Everybody knows that some people seem to lose weight quickly while others who follow the same diet and exercise regimens progress much more slowly. ...

PhotoEverybody knows that some people seem to lose weight quickly while others who follow the same diet and exercise regimens progress much more slowly. 

Weight loss is a complicated process but researchers say they have created a mathematical model—along with an accompanying online weight simulation tool—of what happens when people of varying weights, diets and exercise habits try to change their weight.

The model challenges long-held assumptions about weight loss.

Organizations promoting weight loss often state that eating 3,500 fewer calories or burning them off exercising will result in a pound of weight loss. But the reality is a lot more complicated than that.

A growing body of evidence shows that the body’s metabolism can change as you lose weight and alter your exercise habits. These changes can  differ significantly from one person to the next,  depending on age and other factors.

Computer simulation

A research team led by Dr. Kevin Hall of NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) set out to develop a computer simulation taking metabolic changes into account.

They designed their model to accurately simulate physiological differences between people based on gender, age, height and weight, as well as body fat and resting metabolic rate. To test the model, the researchers compared predicted weight changes to actual changes in people. Their results appeared on August 26, 2011, in the Lancet.

The team found that people’s bodies adapt slowly to changes in dietary intake. The simulation highlights how long it takes for the body to reach a new steady weight after a dietary change.

Heavier people can expect greater weight change with the same change in diet, but reaching a stable body weight will take them longer.

The model also revealed a potential simplified method to approximate weight loss in an average overweight adult. For every pound you wish to lose, permanently cut 10 calories from your current intake per day. At that rate, it will take about a year to achieve half of the weight loss, with 95% of the total weight change within about 3 years.

Online tool

An online simulation tool based on the model will enable researchers to accurately predict how body weight will change and how long it will likely take to reach weight goals based on a starting weight and estimated physical activity. The tool also allows researchers to plan for a weight loss phase followed by a weight maintenance phase.

“This research helps us understand why one person may lose weight faster or slower than another, even when they eat the same diet and do the same exercise,” Hall says. “Our computer simulations can then be used to help design personalized weight management programs to address individual needs and goals.”

The researchers hope to continue refining the tool and using it to gain insights into what changes are required to achieve and maintain goal weight.

For example, a comprehensive mathematical model of human metabolism was used recently to design an NIH clinical trial comparing the effects of reducing fats versus carbohydrates in obese adults.

The online tool isn’t meant as a weight-loss guide for the public. The program can run simulations for changes in calories or exercise that would never be recommended for healthy weight loss. People should consult with their physician prior to embarking on a diet plan.

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AT&T Responds To Justice Department Lawsuit

Argues deal won't hurt consumers

AT&T has responded to the government's antitrust suit against it...

PhotoLawyers for AT&T have filed their response to the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust suit that seeks to block the wireless carrier's acquisition of rival T-Mobile.

The document contends the government has failed to make its case that allowing AT&T and T-Mobile to merge will create a wireless monopoly that will harm consumers.

“The Complaint largely ignores the significant competition from established providers such as Verizon Wireless and Sprint, innovative upstarts such as MetroPCS and Leap/Cricket, and strong regional providers like US Cellular and Cellular South, among others,” the lawyers write. “The Department does not and cannot explain how, in the face of all of these aggressive rivals, the combined AT&T/T-Mobile will have any ability or incentive to restrict output, raise prices, or slow innovation. Now can it explain how T-Mobile, the only major carrier to have actually lost subscribers in a robustly growing market, provides a unique competitive constraint on AT&T.”

Takes issue with government conclusion

The Justice Department suit noted that the proposed merger would create, by far, the U.S.'s largest wireless company, giving it and second largest Verizon dominance over the marketplace. As a result, the suit contends, service is likely to get more expensive for consumers. AT&T argues just the opposite.

“Blocking this transaction will not help T-Mobile or its customers, but the transfer of T-Mobile’s network capacity and infrastructure to AT&T, a healthy competitor, will enhance competition for all, now and in the future,” the document says.

AT&T argues that any anticompetitive effects of the merger are more than outweighed by significant efficiencies. AT&T further responds that the burden of proof is on the government that “the net effect of the transaction is to substantially lessen competition.”

There's a lot riding on the outcome. If AT&T loses it will not only lose the market share, bandwidth and customer accounts the T-Mobile deal would bring, it will also have to pay T-Mobile owner Deutsche Telekom a $3 billion fee and surrender some spectrum space to T-Mobile.  

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What's On Your Mind? Wildblue, Philips, Ethan Allen, Trilegiant

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Wildblue, Philips, Ethan Allen, Trilegiant, Smoking TV, When no means yes and Can you handle the truth?...

PhotoS, of Edgewood, Texas, says he's a little surprised at all the negative reviews from consumers unhappy with the service from Wildblue, a satellite Internet provider. He thinks a lot of people take the service not understanding what it is. It's all a matter of being realistic, he says.

“No, you cannot download movies, it IS NOT DSL, but it is a million times faster than dial up,” S told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Two years ago we had a rebound child come home. He exceeded our usage and we were cut back to a slower speed. He was used to DSL and didn't know the rules of using our service. We upgraded to a higher package and our usage was restored. If you want to be treated with kindness and respect you have to treat people that way. Sorry so many have issues, but we love our wildblue and are looking forward to the bigger, faster satellite.”

For consumers in rural areas, sometimes satellite is the only alternative to dial-up, even if it doesn't provide the full capacity of full broadband. As long as satellite Internet providers don't make unrealistic claims in their marketing, S makes a valid point.

Smoking TV

Here's another report of a flat-screen TV that overheats to the point that it starts smoking. Rafal, of Virginia Beach, Va., reports the problem occurred in his 47 inch Philips LCD set.

“The problem is with the power board and from what I am reading on here many people have the same problem,” Rafal said. “This power board - or similar - is used in many models of Philips TVs and it should be recalled as soon as possible. This TV is dangerous!”

Rafal says he's reported the incident to Philips. We suggest he also report it to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Can you handle the truth?

We increasingly hear from consumers who say a company representative gave them information, upon which they based their buying decision, which turned out not to be true. Roy, of Columbia, Md., says he wished personnel at Ethan Allen had just told him the truth.

“After an order was written up for a sofa and chair, the saleslady was asked if our old sofa and chair could be picked up at the time of delivery,” Roy told ConsumerAffairs.com. “She assured us that they could. When delivery was made, we were told they did not do that. We were left with a living room full of furniture to the point that we cannot walk in our living room now. I am 75 and unable to move the furniture on my own. We would not have made this purchase without a means to remove the old furniture. Basically, the saleslady lied in order to make a sale.”

It happens all the time, it seems.

When no means yes

Many consumers who get signed up for recurring membership charges in a negative option pitch are outraged because they say they were never aware they were agreeing to have their credit cards charged each month. Charles, of Raleigh, N.C., is outraged because he was aware of the pitch but was signed up, even though he insists he clearly told them no.

“I was sent a membership card from Auto Vantage through Trilegiant Corporation,” Chareles said. “I am charged a fee of $16.99 on this month's statement. I did not agree to their service when asked. I declined immediately. I am cancelling that membership today. I am including the fee for this month. I would like to get a refund or apply the fee to next month's payment which is $222.87.”

Charles needs to contact his credit card company and tell them to dispute the charge. The credit card company should demand a proof of purchase. If Charles is correct, Trilegiant won't be able to provide one.

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Feds Taking Another Look At Mortgage Modification Programs

Officials hope to help more struggling homeowners

The federal government is considering changes to its mortgage modification program...

Three years into a stubborn foreclosure crisis, the Federal Housing Finance Administration (FHFA) said it is considering changes to the government's home refinancing programs to make them available to more consumers

The focus of attention is the administration's Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP), introduced more than two years ago with the aim of helping homeowners avoid foreclosure by refinancing their mortgages to more affordable terms.

The program covers only mortgages owned or guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac and originated before June 2009. To be eligible, borrowers must be current on their payments and have a current loan-to-value ratio (LTV) between 80 and 125 percent.

An essential element of this program is the allowance to carry forward into the new loan any existing private mortgage insurance from the prior mortgage or, if no mortgage insurance existed, none would be required for the refinanced mortgage.

Less than expected results

As of June 30, 2011, more than 838,000 borrowers had refinanced through the HARP program – many fewer than expected or eligible for the program.

“In the meantime, continued declines in house prices and recent declines in mortgage interest rates to historic low levels suggest that more households could benefit from this program and, importantly, such refinances could reduce the Enterprises' credit risk,” said FHFA acting director Edward DeMarco.

Since the beginning of the mortgage modification efforts, frustrated homeowners have written to ConsumerAffairs.com, detailing how difficult it is to work with loan servicers to alter the terms of a mortgage. Those complaints still roll in on a daily basis.

Matthew, of Los Angeles, Calif., wrote last week that his duplex is now in foreclosure. He said he began modification efforts with Chase in October 2009.

“In February 2010, Chase said I qualified for HAMP and I was told to make trial payments,” Matthew told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Every payment has been made on time and I continue to send in my payments along with updated paperwork showing the rental unit as part of my income with every package. All the while, Chase adds penalties and late fees while compounding the difference between my loan modification payments and my original payments.”

Crushing blow

Earlier this year, Matthew said he was approved under the HAMP program and promptly sent in his final paperwork. Then came the crushing blow.

“I was told Chase had denied my loan modification since I lived in a duplex,” Matthew said. “I told them that that I always had disclosed it was a duplex and that I had always reported my rental income. In July 2011, Chase requested that I send in more proof that I lived in the duplex --I had already sent in my phone and gas bill. I sent in another utility bill and called again. Chase said my modification had been denied and did not give a reason. On August 31, 2011. I was sent an Acceleration Warning saying I owe $36,242.86.”

While change may, in fact, be in the works it may come too late for Matthew and thousands in his same situation.

“FHFA is carefully reviewing the mechanics of the HARP program to identify possible enhancements that would reduce barriers for borrowers already otherwise eligible to refinance using HARP,” DeMarco said. “If there are frictions associated with the origination of HARP loans that can be eased while still achieving the program's intent of assisting borrowers and reducing credit risk for the Enterprises, we will seek to do so.”

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Robo-Caller Seeks Access To Bank, Social Security Data

Scam surfaced in Massachusetts this month

Scammers are using a robo-caller to obtain consumers' personal data...

With so many scams now being executed with the help of the Internet, we often forget that the old-fashioned telephone is still a powerful tool for fraudsters.

Add a “robo-caller,” and a scammer who can send out millions of spam emails can also hit thousands of vulnerable consumers with a phone call. Posing as a bank or government agency, these scams seek to gain access to consumers’ banking and social security information.

Scam shows up in Massachusetts

“There are widespread reports from consumers who have received the automated phone calls asking people to enter their debit or credit card number,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. “We are warning people not to provide any personal banking information based on an automated phone call. If you receive one of these automated calls, you should immediately hang up.”

Based on information and complaints received from consumers, Coakley said she believes the scam is new and just got started in early September. Bank customers, non-customers, and employees have received automated robo-calls typically between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. These calls have frequently contacted consumers on their cell phones.

What to listen for

According to people who have gotten these calls, a typical script goes like this:

“This is a call from NAME Bank. Your Mastercard account has been locked. Please press 1 now to unlock.”

The recording then instructs the individual to enter his or her debit card number in order to activate it. There have been additional reports that consumers are now being asked for their social security numbers.

Originating numbers for these phone calls include, but are not limited to:

  • (508) 475-1394
  • (214) 232-0615
  • 1262 (just a four digit number)

 

Many calls are from Unknown, Restricted, or Private numbers.

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Google Buys Zagat, Moving Further Into Content

Search giant increasingly competes with content providers it indexes

Google has acquired Zagat, the survey company and multimedia publisher known best for its print guides to local restaurants. As Google spins it,...

PhotoGoogle has acquired Zagat, the survey company and multimedia publisher known best for its print guides to local restaurants.

As Google spins it, the acquisition strengthens its local-search arsenal, helping it compete with other review sites, like Yelp, OpenTable and TripAdvisor.

You may recall that Google tried to buy Yelp for about half a billion dollars a few years ago.  It reportedly paid less than $66 million for Zagat, which would seem to be a bargain.

Zagat, though well-known for its printed guidebooks, is a relatively small presence on the Web, with an estimated monthly audience of barely more than 600,000 compared to Yelp's 15 million.

But small though Zagat may be, the deal means that Google is taking ownership of another big chunk of content, raising questions about how fairly it will direct searches to its competitors in the content field.

How neutral?

The acquisition could give “search neutrality” advocates — and possibly even the Federal Trade Commission — more reason to be skeptical of how neutral Google's search results really are.

Even some Google fans have expressed concern about the deal.  Journalism Professor Jeff Jarvis, author of  “What Would Google Do?” is quoted by Gigaom as worrying aloud about the potential conflicts the deal presents.

"Google buying Zagat as a content company would concern me. It would bring channel conflict and put Google in the content-creation instead of the content-linking business, competing with the other side of links and raising conflict-of-interest questions," Jarvis said, according to Gigaom.

On the official Google Blog, Marissa Mayer, the company’s vice president of local, maps and location services, wrote: “Moving forward, Zagat will be a cornerstone of our local offering — delighting people with their impressive array of reviews, ratings and insights, while enabling people everywhere to find extraordinary (and ordinary) experiences around the corner and around the world.
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Walmart Revives Layaway, Just in Time for Christmas

Other discounters have been eating Walmart's Christmas cookies

Walmart is bringing back layaway … sort of. The big retailer axed layaway five years ago, saying most consumers preferred to use credit cards. But t...

Walmart is bringing back layaway … sort of. The big retailer axed layaway five years ago, saying most consumers preferred to use credit cards. But that was before the U.S. economy took a wrong turn and the lower-income families who are Walmart's core consumers began ratcheting back their spending.

So now, Walmart says it is reviving layaway, but only for the holiday season and only for electronics and toys, the most popular holiday gift categories.

Walmart, which has been losing customers to dollar stores and other discount outlets, is also trying to make some calendar adjustments, in effect jump-starting the holiday shopping season. It will begin stocking Christmas items in September, a month earlier than usual, hoping to cajole shoppers into the holiday-buying spirit.

A Walmart spokeswoman has more details about the program in this video.

Whether Walmart extends the program beyond the holidays remains to be seen. Many of its competitors have been offering layaway programs of varying complexity in recent years. Kmart last year gave customers 12 weeks to pay for layaway purchases and Toys R Us began offering layaway during the 2009 holiday season. It has expanded the program since then.

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Bank Of America Not Closing Additional Branches

Charlotte TV station issues retraction of previous story

Bank of America Denies it is closing additional branches...

PhotoDespite current financial problems, Bank of America (BOA) said it has no plans to close additional branches, as had been reported.

WCNC-TV in Charlotte, N.C., reported Wednesday that BOA would close 600 of its 5,900 branches in an effort to streamline operations and drastically cut costs. The TV news report cited unnamed sources.

Thursday, however, the station issued a retraction and said it regretted the error.

Earlier this week, BOA's CEO Brian Moynihan laid out a plan to reorganize the company's management, aligning the company's operating units with its three core customer groups: individuals, companies, and institutional investors.

Moynihan appointed David Darnell and Tom Montag to the newly-created positions of co-chief operating officers, accountable for all of the company's operating units. This reorganization is effective immediately.

"Today is a significant step in the continued transformation of our company," Moynihan said on Tuesday, when he announced the change.

Moynihan called the changes “de-layering and simplifying at the sale in which we operate.” He says the move removes a layer of operatins management and aligns company leaders with customer groups. He said it's part of Project New Bank of America.

BOA reported a loss of $8.8 billion in the last quarter, much of it tied to its acquisition of Countrywide Financial, one of the nation's largest marketers of subprime mortgages during the housing boom. As recently as last month, US Bancorp sued BOA to force the bank to repurchase mortgages sold by Countrywide in 2005.

That suit claims Countrywide ignored its own underwriting guidelines when it made those loans, which it packaged and sold to US Bancorp for $1.75 billion.

Since 2008 a number of states have also sued Countrywide, including Oregon, Michigan, Indiana and West Virginia. Fifty state attorneys general are also attempting to hammer out a settlement with major banks, including BOA, over accusations of fraud, related to using robo-signers to execute foreclosure documents.

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Consumer Credit Rises in July

But credit card spending drops

Consumer credit rose in July 2011...

PhotoAmerican consumers used more credit in July, according to the latest accounting by the Federal Reserve.

Despite a weak economy, consumers were willing to increase their credit spending by nearly $12 billion. Non-revolving credit, which includes auto loans and loans for educational purposes jumped $15.4 billion.

However, that was offset by a $3.44 billion decline in credit card spending. The revolving portion of consumer credit, which includes credit cards, $792.5 billion after the five percent decline.

Since the credit meltdown of late 2008, consumers have generally been scaling back their credit card purchases, and in many cases it hasn't been voluntarily. Early in 2009 many credit card issuers began an aggressive campaign to lower credit limits and, in some cases, close consumers' credit card accounts.

At the same time, many consumers have begun making more prudent use of credit cards and many consumers have curtailed spending in general. While credit card use rose in May and June, some analysts think July's numbers represent a return to “normal” activity.

The drop in credit card spending in July coincides with other economic data that emerged during the month suggesting the U.S. economy was slowing again. If consumers are becoming more cautious about spending, and about adding to their credit card balances, it could present some serious headwind for the recovering economy.

According to the Fed's figures, credit card debt peaked in 2008 at $957.5 billion. It is now 17.2 percent lower, a sign that consumers continue to pay down their credit card balances.

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What's On Your Mind? Capital One, National Lottery Board, Tronix Country, Sprint

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Capital One, National Lottery Board, Tronix Country, Sprint, Lottery scam, Stop the payments and Bad assumption....

PhotoR, of Clifton Springs, N.Y., along with her husband, recently applied for "no hassle" credit cards from Capital One, thinking they'd be convenient and easy to use. The very first month, she says, their bills arrived in the mail, with no delay by the post office, judging by the postmark, just one day short of the due date for payment!

“Although we mailed our payment the same day, we were charged late fees,” R told ConsumerAffairs.com. “When we contacted the company to complain and ask why our bills were not mailed to us until it was already too late for us to timely pay, we were told that the company does not take responsibility for the timing of billing and refused to cancel the late charges!”

But hold on. The CARD Act, which took effect February 22, 2010, requires issuers to give card account holders "a reasonable amount of time" to make payments on monthly bills. One day probably isn't going to pass that test.

Interestingly, R says the Capital One rep suggested it would be best if she just paid the late fee in order to retain her good credit.  If R still retains the statement envelop with the postmark, she should send a copy of it, along with her complaint, to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Lottery scam

Look out for this scam: a caller from the “National Lottery Board” tells you the good news that you have won a big prize. But to collect is going to cost ya.

“He says I won some money but I need to send $2,000 to U.S. Customs, in order to receive the money, because it is coming from Costa Rica and any money coming in or out of the country requires a fee,” said Lashun, of Inglewood, Calif.

Hopefully Laushun didn't send the money. If so, it's money down the drain. Remember, you can't win a lottery you didn't enter.

Stop the payments

Dealing with the death of a parent is never easy, particularly when there are financial matters you don't expect. Danielle, of Montgomery, Ala., said she had a bad experience with Tronix Country when she learned her late father had an account with the company.

"Tronix has been taking money from my father's account and I notified them he passed and that I had a couple of questions for the manager,” Danielle told ConsumerAffairs.com. “To my dismay they wouldn't tell me who they were or what they did because i didn't know at the time. They refuse to let me speak to a manager or cancel his account.”

Tronix Country is a finance company for people with poor or little credit, specializing in financing computers and TV sets. They have a business model similar to Blue Hippo, which went out of business following a number of lawsuits. Chances are, Danielle's father had been making payments on equipment he had yet to receive. Danielle should close her father's bank account, or place a block on further withdrawals, as soon as possible.

Bad assumption

A cell phone is a lot like a credit card. If you lose it, someone else can use it to run up charges on your account. Fior, of the Bronx, N.Y., lost his cell phone shortly after cancelling his Sprint account. He didn't worry about it since he had just closed his account.

“When I received my bill I noticed that I have an $88.00 charge of data roaming in the Dominican Republic,” Fior said. “I called Sprint for an explanation and they said that someone may have used that device in the Dominican Republic. I told them that couldn't have happened because I cancelled my service on Jul. 27 and who ever used that device used it on August 2nd.”

That's when Fior learned his account remained active through the billing cycle, which ended August 24. When cancelling a mobile phone account, make sure you know when the account goes off line and protect your mobile devices until then.

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Critics Charge FDA Fails to Address Surgical Mesh Risks

Public Citizen: Treatment for pelvic organ prolapse should be recalled

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) proposed partial remedy to protect women from the dangers of surgical mesh products that are used in pelvic ...

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) proposed partial remedy to protect women from the dangers of surgical mesh products that are used in pelvic repair procedures does not go far enough to protect public health, Public Citizen said in testimony delivered today before an FDA advisory committee.

The FDA should recall all surgical mesh products made of non-absorbable synthetic material that are used during transvaginal surgery to repair pelvic organ prolapse (POP) – a common condition in women – because the products offer no significant benefits but expose patients to serious risks and the potential for permanent life-altering harm, Public Citizen told the FDA’s Obstetrics and Gynecology Device Panel.

Public Citizen petitioned the FDA in late August to recall these surgical mesh products immediately and impose more stringent approval requirements in the future. The agency has since proposed reclassifying the products as class III medical devices, which would intensify the approval process for future products.

However, the FDA also appears ready to allow a grace period for manufacturers of current such mesh product to keep them on the market and require companies to conduct further studies.

Public Citizen maintains that further studies of the current mesh products would be highly unethical because there is sufficient data showing that these products are ineffective and harmful, and there should be no further delay in removing these products from the market.

“The FDA’s belated proposal to reclassify non-absorbable surgical mesh products specifically designed and labeled for transvaginal repair of POP to class III and require post-marketing approval evaluations is a step in the right direction, but this action alone is insufficient,” said Dr. Michael Carome, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

“To properly protect public health, the FDA also must immediately ban all such mesh products currently available and require manufactures to recall these dangerous and ineffective devices," he said.

Recklessly endanger

“A grace period allowing continued marketing of these devices would recklessly endanger women,” said Dr. Daniel S. Elliott,  a urologic surgeon specializing in female urology and POP at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a co-petitioner on Public Citizen’s petition.   “There is sufficient data available for the currently marketed mesh products for transvaginal repair of POP indicating that the risks of serious complications from these devices far outweigh their benefits.”

POP involves bulging or descent of one or more of the pelvic organs, such as the bladder, rectum or uterus, into the vagina, sometimes past the opening of the vagina. This common condition is due to weakness in the connective tissue and muscles that surround and support the pelvic organs. Most women with POP have no symptoms.

For symptomatic patients, treatment can involve surgical or non-surgical interventions; in surgical procedures, non-absorbable mesh often is implanted transvaginally (through incisions and punctures made through the wall of the vagina) with the intent of reinforcing the tissues around the pelvic organ that prolapsed and increasing the longevity of the repairs.

In 2010, approximately 300,000 women in the U.S. had surgery to repair POP, 75,000 of whom had surgical mesh transvaginally implanted, according to the FDA. Public Citizen estimates that approximately 67,500 of these procedures used non-absorbable mesh.

But the mesh offers no clinically significant benefits and has high rates of serious complications, which may or may not be able to be fixed with additional surgery, Public Citizen said in its August petition.

If you've had a surgical mesh procedure using either Johnson and Johnson or Cook products, tell ConsumerAffairs.com about it. 

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Mortgage Rates Fall To Record Low

But that doesn't mean you can get a rock-bottom rate

Mortgage rates fall to another record low...

If you want to buy a home or refinance one, it would seem there's no better time than now. Mortgage rates have fallen to an all-time low, according to Freddie Mac.

In the week ending today, the average rate for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage fell to 4.12 percent, down from 4.22 percent. The average 15-year loan is now down to 3.33 percent.

But as you begin to eagerly shop mortgage companies for one of those bargain rates, you might have a hard time finding one quite that low. The lowest rates are reserved for consumers with the most stellar credit ratings. Credit that is only “excellent” often results in a slightly higher rate.

Meanwhile, a report by SmartMoney suggests the recent spread in rates has less to do with credit scores and more to do with higher profit margins at some lenders. The report cites data from Informa Research Services as saying lenders in the last month have added as many as two percentage points to their profit margins.

Applications down

So, while the rates sound very enticing, some consumers decide not to borrow when they find the loan will cost more than they thought. The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports mortgage applications fell 4.9 percent from the previous week in the week ending September 2.

“Heading into the Labor Day weekend, the 30-year rate was at its second lowest level in the history of our survey, and the 15-year rate marked a new low in our survey,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s Vice President of Research and Economics. “Despite these rates however, refinance application volume fell for the third straight week, and is more than 35 percent below levels at this time last year. Purchase application volume remains relatively flat at extremely low levels, close to lows last seen in 1996.”

The refinance share of mortgage activity decreased to 77.1 percent of total applications from 77.8 percent the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity remained unchanged at 7.1 percent of total applications from the previous week.

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Report: Bank Of America To Close 600 Branches

Struggling bank announced 'streamlined' management earlier this week

A Charlotte TV stations reports Bank of America is closing 600 branches...

PhotoStruggling with rising legal costs from mortgage-related litigation, Bank of America (BOA) is reportedly preparing to close 10 percent of its branches.

WCNC-TV in Charlotte, N.C., reports BOA will close 600 of its 5,900 branches in an effort to streamline operations and drastically cut costs. The TV news report cited unnamed sources.

Earlier this week, BOA's CEO Brian Moynihan laid out a plan to reorganize the company's management, aligning the company's operating units with its three core customer groups: individuals, companies, and institutional investors.

 "Today is a significant step in the continued transformation of our company," Moynihan said on Tuesday, when he announced the change.

De-layering

Moynihan called the changes “de-layering and simplifying."  He said the move removes a layer of operatins management and aligns company leaders with customer groups. He said it's part of Project New Bank of America.

BOA reported a loss of $8.8 billion in the last quarter, much of it tied to its acquisition of Countrywide Financial, one of the nation's largest marketers of subprime mortgages during the housing boom. As recently as last month, US Bancorp sued BOA to force the bank to repurchase mortgages sold by Countrywide in 2005.

That suit claims Countrywide ignored its own underwriting guidelines when it made those loans, which it packaged and sold to US Bancorp for $1.75 billion.

Since 2008 a number of states have also sued Countrywide, including Oregon, Michigan, Indiana and West Virginia. Fifty state attorneys general are also attempting to hammer out a settlement with major banks, including BOA, over accusations of fraud, related to using robo-signers to execute foreclosure documents.

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What's On Your Mind? Banfield Pet Hospital, Cuisinart, Aetna

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Banfield Pet Hospital, Cuisinart, Aetna, Where there's smoke, Taking nothing for granted and Won't take no for an...

PhotoPets are almost like members of the family for most people, and when they get sick, the concern is deep and real. Thats why many pet owners get very upset when they don't feel their pet got the best medical care.

"My daughter took her cat to Banfield Pet Hospital because she was throwing up all the time and losing weight,” Cheryl, of Burien, Wash., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They ran a lot of blood work and said there was nothing wrong with her. She gradually got worse over the next year and a half. I took her to another vet and she was diagnosed with a cancerous growth on her kidney, causing her to be so sick. They said it was inoperable and she had to be put down. If Banfield had diagnosed her properly in the first place, her life may have been able to be saved.”

Cheryl also doesn't understand why her vet bill was $1,100 for two visits, when the hospital was unable to help her pet.

Where there's smoke...

D., of Hazlet, N.J., is the latest consumer to contact us about what she sees as a potential fire hazard in her Cuisinart coffee maker.

“My Cuisinart DCC1100 started smoking and smelling like an electrical fire,” D. said.” I unplugged it and put it outside. I called Cuisinart to see if there was a recall they said no, but it was still under warranty, so they would send me a new one. Now I am reading all these other complaints. There is a problem with this coffee maker.”

D. did the right thing when she contacted the company about the problem. Now, she needs to take the additional step and inform the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Taking nothing for granted

There's nothing simple about health care these days. Anthony, of San Diego, Calif., has an Aetna health insurance policy that he says is supposed to cover 100 percent all “routine” physical exams.

“Now I have received a bill from the lab facility stating that I owe money on two procedures performed, Anthony told ConsumerAffairs.com. ”After speaking with Aetna, they are stating that it is my responsibility to verify all procedures and lab work done to see whether they consider it 'routine' or not, and if they will cover it. It appears Aetna is now picking and choosing whatever procedures they want to cover in order to reduce their costs.”

Health insurance companies do, indeed, change their policies from time to time, and though it seems like a bother, the prudent thing is to check with your insurance company before each procedure to find out what is and is not covered. Beyond that, Anthony should check into the process for appealing a denial of claims. If his policy does, in fact, cover the procedure, perhaps he can have the denial reversed.

Won't take no for an answer

Lee, of Colorado Springs, Colo., got a telemarketer call from Mortgage Investors Corporation saying they could provide competitive terms on a mortgage refi. Thinking she had nothing to lose, she agreed to a meeting with a sales representative in her home. Big mistake, she now says.

“This was only supposed to take about 20 to 30 minutes of our time,” Lee said. “This pushy sales person stayed for over three hours trying to get us to sign a document. “We said no, not interested. We like what we have currently better. He called his supervisor to talk to my husband still we said no. Since this meeting from this company we continue to be called every day, three times a day. I;m sick of the calls and I told them how I felt about their tactics and to stop calling. It stopped for 2 weeks and now started again I feel very harassed and angry over this. I have blocked the numbers and they still find a way to call!

Here's a tip: if you allow a sales person into your home to make a sales presentation, they almost have to make a sale in order to keep their job. In-home pitches are almost always a bad idea. In Lee's case, she needs to report what she feels is harassment to Colorado Attorney General John Suther's office.

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Consumer Complaint Email Scam Targets Small Businesses

Email claims to be from the Federal Trade Commission

Well-run, conscientious businesses usually react with concern when they get a consumer complaint. Scammers, it seems, are using that quality trait against ...

PhotoWell-run, conscientious businesses usually react with concern when they get a consumer complaint. Scammers, it seems, are using that quality trait against them.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says it has become aware of a scam in which the fraudster uses the agency's name in a spam email. According to the FTC, the email gets its victims' attention with the following subject line:

URGENT: Pending Consumer Complaint

The body of the email says that a complaint has been filed against the company with the FTC. It provides a link to follow to find out the details of the complaint. If you were a business person who is concerned about how you are perceived by your customers, you might be tempted to click on the link.

Nasty surprise

But instead of getting information about an unhappy customer, you would download malware onto your computer.

The FTC says anyone getting such an email should delete it.

Malware, short for "malicious software," includes viruses and spyware to steal personal information, send spam, and commit fraud. Criminals create appealing websites, desirable downloads, and compelling stories to lure you to links that will download malware – especially on computers that don't use adequate security software.

But you can minimize the havoc that malware can wreak and reclaim your computer and electronic information.

If you suspect malware is on your computer, stop shopping, banking, and other online activities that involve user names, passwords, or other sensitive information.

Confirm that your security software is active and current. At a minimum, your computer should have anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and a firewall.Once your security software is up-to-date, run it to scan your computer for viruses and spyware, deleting anything the program identifies as a problem.

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Minnesota Sues Five Internet Payday Lenders

Warns consumers these loans can bring a number of problems

Minnesota has sued five online payday lenders...

The state of Minnesota has filed separate lawsuits against five Internet-based payday lenders, accusing them of charging interest rates that violate state limits.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson said the loans were made to cash-strapped Minnesota borrowers and were were marketed as providing “cash between paydays.” Swanson said the loans carried unlawfully high annual interest rates of up to 782 percent percent and were often illegally extended from paycheck to paycheck, trapping the borrower in a cycle of expensive debt.

The Attorney General warned Minnesotans against taking out loans over the Internet from unlicensed lenders, citing a growing list of complaints to her office from consumers who have done business with such companies.

“Many people are living paycheck to paycheck right now, and unlicensed Internet lenders offer easy credit. This credit comes with a hefty price tag and often leaves a rash of problems in its wake,” Swanson said.

Other headaches

But Swanson said that the problems with these loans is not just the interest rate. In recent months, she says, consumers who have taken out or even just explored the option of short term loans from unlicensed Internet companies have experienced the following types of problems:

  • Unauthorized withdrawals. When consumers take out an online loan, they must provide their banking and personal information. Some consumers report that unlicensed lenders made unauthorized withdrawals from their accounts, sometimes of hundreds of dollars.
  • Unlawful debt collection tactics. Consumers report that some online lenders and their collectors use illegal debt collection tactics, such as threatening that the consumer will be taken to jail and prosecuted for a financial crime, or attempting to illegally garnish their paycheck.
  • Phony collection scam. Some consumers who did not even take out a payday loan, but who only explored the option online, report being hounded by overseas scam artists who threaten to have them arrested if they do not pay, even though the consumer does not owe any money. These scam artists contact the consumers, often impersonating attorneys or law enforcement, demand large payments, and frequently attempt to scare or intimidate consumers into paying with threats of arrest or legal action against them or their families.

The five companies against which the lawsuits were filed are Flobridge Group, LLC of Utah; Integrity Advance of Delaware; Silver Leaf Management of Utah; Sure Advance, LLC of Delaware; Upfront Payday of Utah.

The Internet payday loan industry is estimated to have a total loan volume of $10.8 billion in 2010.

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AARP Picks Best Employers for 50+ Workers

Scripps Health, Cornell, NIH take top sports

Scripps Health, a major hospital and health care provider in Southern California, has been recognized as the top company in the 2011 AARP Best Employers fo...

PhotoScripps Health, a major hospital and health care provider in Southern California, has been recognized as the top company in the 2011 AARP Best Employers for Workers Over 50 program.

Scripps succeeds Cornell University, which placed second this year, as 2011’s number one finisher in the decade-long program.

Cornell joins other perennial top employers, National Institutes of Health (NIH) (#3) and First Horizon National Corporation of Memphis (#4), along with newcomer West Virginia University as fifth among the 50 honorees named today by AARP. The program completed its tenth awards designation since the 2001 launch.

“Scripps Health, Cornell and other employers on the list consistently recognize the value of, and have demonstrated exemplary policies for older workers,” said Jean Setzfand, AARP’s Vice President for Financial Security, in announcing the winners. “These companies and institutions deserve to be honored after their years of progressive practices that both meet the needs of mature workers and benefit their organizations as well.”

Scripps Health, with five hospital campuses and nearly two dozen clinics and coastal medical center sites, has been honored by AARP seven times over the last decade.

In addition to an array of alternative work arrangements such as flex-time, a phased retirement program, and a formal job rotation program, Scripps has a strong wellness program and generous health benefits for retirees under and over age 65.

In addition, the health system has designed a program that assists employees from age 50 to 70 as they move toward retirement. At the same time, Scripps maintains an on-going relationship with retirees to facilitate their return when temporary job opportunities develop.

Encore Cornell

Cornell University, a six-time honoree by AARP, has a multi-pronged “Encore Cornell” program, which provides retirees with workforce opportunities in addition to enrichment activities and resources.

“Encore Hire” and “Encore Volunteer” connect retirees with temporary employment and volunteer opportunities at the University and in the community. “Encore and More” provides retirees with information on resources, classes and events to support personal growth.

Finishing third, NIH offers broad health benefits and emphasizes financial education with pre-retirement classes and formal courses as part of a program that helps employees manage their finances at each stage in their careers. NIH participates in jobs fairs to seek out mature workers for openings.

“AARP is encouraged by these companies that have set a positive example and capitalized on the experience of working with older workers, especially given the difficult economy that has impacted employers and employees alike,” said Setzfand.

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AT&T, Sprint Battle May Go Into Extra Innings

With Congress back in session, both sides take off the gloves

AT&T's battle to take over T-Mobile has moved across town, from the the U.S. District Court to Capitol Hill, where Sprint -- the carrier that has the m...

PhotoAT&T's battle to take over T-Mobile has moved across town, from the the U.S. District Court to Capitol Hill, where Sprint -- the carrier that has the most to lose -- is launching an advertising and lobbying campaign to preserve its unexpected late-game advantage over powerhouse AT&T.

Sprint threw the first pitch yesterday, with a lawsuit challenging the merger and echoing the Justice Department's arguments. It followed up today with full-page ads in The Washington Post and other inside-the-Beltway publications, reminding lawmakers that if the AT&T/T-Mobile merger is approved, AT&T and Verizon will control 77.6% of the wireless market in the United States. 

Easy-to-read icons compare that to the market share of the two leaders in other industries -- 18% in oil, 36.3% in airlines, 27.5% in banking, and so on.

Photo

AT&T is far from conceding, however.  Its general counsel, Wayne Watts, has been telling reporters the company will "vigorously contest" the Justice Department's suit.

A surprise

Last month's Justice Department lawsuit to block the $39 billion deal came as a surprise to nearly everyone.  AT&T, which has already absorbed most of the independent Bell companies created by the historic 1982 AT&T break-up, has accumulated more experience in the care, feeding and lobbying of regulators and legislators than the rest of the telecommunications industry combined.

AT&T boosted its spending on lobbyists by 30% to $11.7 million in the first six months of the year, Bloomberg News reported, but lobbyists aren't much help in the courtroom. Its PAC gave $805,000 to federal candidates, more than any other company, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Lobbyists are plenty helpful on the Hill though, and Congress is back in town so AT&T and Sprint may have to go into extra innings.

Lots at stake

There's a lot riding on the outcome.  If AT&T loses -- which seems almost impossible to those who've been around the track a few times -- it will not only lose the market share, bandwidth and customer accounts the T-Mobile deal would bring, it will also have to pay T-Mobile owner Deutsche Telekom a $3 billion fee and surrender some spectrum space to T-Mobile.

Consumers have a lot at stake as well, although none of the options are exactly overwhelmingly favorable:

  • a combined AT&T/T-Mobile might improve service in rural areas, but then again it might not;
  • Sprint would be severely weakened by an AT&T/T-Mobile lash-up which is most likely bad news for its customers;
  • rejecting the merger preserves the status quo, which is hardly ideal.

Might it be better if Sprint bought T-Mobile? you ask.  Maybe, but it might also be better if the sun rose in the West tomorrow. The question is so hypothetical it's almost not worth discussing.  

For now, consumers are probably best advised to react with extreme skepticism to anything anyone says.  About anything. 

 

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Sprint Sues To Block AT&T/T-Mobile Deal

Action follows similar suit by Justice Department

Sprint sues to block the AT&T acquisition of T-Mobile...

PhotoThe competitor with perhaps the most at stake in a merger of AT&T and T-Mobile has gone to court to try and stop the deal in its tracks.

Sprint/Nextel has filed suit in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia in a bid to stop the proposed $39 billion acquisition from taking place. It joins the U.S. Justice Department, which filed a similar suit, in arguing the proposed union of the nation's second and third largest mobile companies is anti-competitive.

Sprint/Nextel, which would become the third-largest mobile company behind AT&T and Verizon Wireless -- and with a much smaller piece of the pie proportionally -- said the deal would take the industry back to the 1980s, when just two firms dominated the industry, and consumers paid high prices.

"By acquiring T-Mobile, AT&T would be removing a low-price and innovative maverick competitor that provides particularly disruptive competition," Sprint argued in the suit. "The injuries to Sprint and the public at large would be irreparable if the merger were completed."

Echoing the government

Sprint made many of the same arguments against the deal as voiced by the government in last week's suit. 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.

AT&T has argued that the merger would actually benefit consumers, saying it would allow the combined companies to more quickly expand wireless broadband services across the U.S.

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Netflix Losing Streaming Content From Starz Entertainment

Starz apparently concerned consumers don't pay enough to view content

Starz is pulling its streaming content from Netflix...

PhotoNetflix offers subscribers instant access to movies and TV shows through online streaming, which is quickly replacing DVDs-by-mail, the company's original service.  

But a lot of the streaming selections are old, third-rate ... or both.  Much of the newer, better content comes  from Starz Entertainment. Now Starz has announced it is ending its affiliation with Netflix at the end of February.

The two companies had been in contract renewal negotiations late last month, but Starz, LLC, President and Chief Executive Officer, Chris Albrecht says those talks are over.

“When the agreement expires on February 28, 2012, Starz will cease to distribute its content on the Netflix streaming platform,” Albrecht said.

It's not clear that the talks broke down over Netflix' offer. The video rental company had offered a reported $300 million to renew the agreement. Rather, Starz apparently broke off over the talks over the relatively small amount of money Netflix charges consumers for its service.

Too much value for consumers?

“This decision is a result of our strategy to protect the premium nature of our brand by preserving the appropriate pricing and packaging of our exclusive and highly valuable content,” Albrecht said. “With our current studio rights and growing original programming presence, the network is in an excellent position to evaluate new opportunities and expand its overall business."

Netflix charges consumers a flat $7.99 a month for unlimited streaming of its video content. That is well below the price charged by cable and satellite TV providers, who are also Starz customers.

The loss off the Starz contract leaves Netflix with a gaping hole in its streaming content, but the company doesn't appear to be worried.

“We’ll take the money that we were going to spend on Starz and spend it on other content,” Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey told AdWeek.

There have been suggestions that Netflix might begin producing original content, much like HBO and other prime-tier cable channels.

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Facebook Posse On the Trail of Pepsi

False rumor campaign urges God-fearing consumers to boycott Pepsi

Changing logos is always tricky. Even not changing your logo can be tricky, as Pepsi has been reminded recently. The Internet has lately been bubbling over...

PhotoChanging logos is always tricky. Even not changing your logo can be tricky, as Pepsi has been reminded recently. The Internet has lately been bubbling over with posts about a "patriotic can" that Pepsi supposedly produced with an edited version of the Pledge of Allegiance.

What was supposedly left out of the Pledge of Allegiance? According to a Facebook post by Brenda Franklin Shelton, it's the words "under God."

Photo

We don't know where Ms. Shelton gets her information but Pepsi says it has never produced a patriotic Pepsi can, with or without a photo of the Empire State Building, the Pledge of Allegiance or anything similar.

The hoax has been floating around the Web for at least nine years, according to Pepsi. Its origin is unclear but it keeps popping up from time to time.

There is a slight bubble of truth amidst all the froth but it has nothing to do with Pepsi. In November 2001, Dr. Pepper – not related to, co-owned by or affiliated with Pepsi – wanted to honor those killed and injured in the 9/11 attacks, so it produced a can design featuring the Statue of Liberty with the words "One nation … indivisible" above it.

Perhaps lending credence to the old saw that no good deed goes unpunished, Dr. Pepper was subjected to the slings and arrows of consumer outrage for a few months, again by those who have trouble telling the Empire State Building from the Statue of Liberty but object to excerpting a few words to conjure up the spirit behind the Pledge of Allegiance.

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Just when Pepsi was recruited to be the new bad guy isn't clear but a ConsumerAffairs.com analysis finds that over the last 12 months, Pepsi's reputation has taken two big dips, one in March, when Shelton posted her false alarm, and another that began in July and continued through the end of August.

Although she missed her chance to spread false information in March, Alisha Gifford hopped right on the bandwagon on August 10, sending a rather hastily-composed warning to her many Facebook friends and asking them how fast they could "preposterous this."

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Does anybody care about this? Maybe not. After all, Pepsi is not a very controversial subject and our search of Facebook, Twitter and so forth found only 210,000 people discussing Pepsi over the last 12 months.

The conspiratorially-minded might imagine that this is some sort of blackmail stunt and that someone will (or, shhh, don't tell anyone, already has) demanded big bucks to turn off the faucet of unfounded lies and boycott demands.  

Our computerized sentiment analysis of the Facebook postings, Tweets and other Web blather leaves no doubt that a boycott is what the Great Pepsi Conspiracy is aiming for.

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Perhaps the false postings being feverishly distributed by Brenda Shelton, Alisha Gifford and friends are harmless but over time, they lend credence to those who seek to dismiss all consumer comments on the Web as hogwash, piffle and nonsense.

Kind of hard to argue with that in this case.

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Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase
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Lawsuit Blames SimplyThick For Death of 4-Month-Old

Child died one day after FDA issued a warning about the product

A Texas couple says say their 4-month-old son died from eating bacteria-tainted SimplyThick, a formula additive, just one day after the U.S. Food and Drug ...

PhotoA Texas couple says say their 4-month-old son died from eating bacteria-tainted SimplyThick, a formula additive, just one day after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned against using the additive in infants born before 37 weeks..

The parents sued SimplyThick, a thickening agent for management of swallowing disorders, Thermo Pac, and Respiratory Instruments dba Medco Medical Supply in Dallas County Court.

Heather Harris and Brandon Flowers say their child, Brayden, was born January 27, 2011, and was prescribed SimplyThick by his neonatologist to help with his digestion.

The suit says that after taking SimplyThick, Brayden developed diarrhea, constipation and apnea.

On May 24, without warning, the couple found Brayden comatose in his crib. He was rushed to a nearby hospital and died two days later at the age of 17 weeks.

FDA warning

On May 23, the FDA warned new parents, caregivers and health care providers not to use SimplyThick in foods given to infants born before 37 weeks, warning that it could cause a a life-threatening condition characterized by inflammation and death of intestinal tissue.

“Brayden was killed by SimplyThick. He ingested the tainted, bacteria-ridden, poisonous batch of product that was improperly manufactured and sold to the public,” the suit charges. It seeks damages of $5 million.

FDA said it first learned of adverse events possibly linked to the product on May 13, 2011. As of last weekend, the agency was aware of 15 cases of the condition, known as NEC, including two deaths.

The cases involved premature infants who were fed SimplyThick for varying amounts of time. The product was mixed with mothers’ breast milk or infant formula products.

Illnesses have been reported from at least four different medical centers around the country. The illnesses of which FDA is aware involve premature infants who became sick over the past six months.

SimplyThick was added to the feeding regimen of those infants who later developed NEC to help with swallowing difficulties stemming from complications of premature birth.

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Postal Service Running Low on Time and Money

Bail-out time? The "independent" USPS needs $5.5 billion ... fast

The Postal Service says it much slash spending or go out of business...

PhotoCould you face life without the U.S. Postal Service (USPS)? You might have to, warns Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe as he looks to Congress for a bail-out.

Donahoe is also asking Congress for  permission to implement a drastic plan to reduce costs. The immediate problem for USPS is a $5.5 billion payment due this month to the postal workers pension fund. There is no money to make the payment and it appears likely USPS will default.

Beyond that, Donahoe says the agency is in danger of running out of operating funds early in the new year. To rectify the situation, Donahoe, a former member of the postal workers union himself, wants permission to break the no-layoff clause in the workers' current contract.

To cut costs, Donahoe wants to eliminate 220,000 jobs. As many as 100,000 would be cut through attrition while layoffs would eliminate the rest. The president of the postal workers union, as you might expect, has strongly objected.

Earlier this year USPS announced plans to close 3,700 postal facilities and has asked permission to eliminate Saturday mail delivery.

Politically unpleasant

Even lawmakers who profess cutting government agency budgets might find this a bit sobering, coming at a time when unemployment is high and the economy struggles to produce new jobs. Historically, closing post offices and reducing services have been politically unpalatable for lawmakers in whose districts the cuts are taking place.

Without the ability to cut its costs, or obtain a huge infusion of revenue -- from, guess who, taxpayers -- Donahoe says USPS will not be able to go on delivering the three billion pieces of mail it handles each week.

USPS has been fighting a battle with red ink almost since Congress broke it off as a pure government agency and made it independent in 1971. Prior to that time it was a government department completely supported by taxpayers.

USPS says that unlike its competitors, Federal Express and United Parcel Service, USPS delivers first class mail for a uniform, low rate anywhere in the country. It currently employs more than 500,000 people, making it the second largest U.S. employer after Walmart.

In the event USPS did shut its doors, consumers might have to transmit documents electronically or pay the significantly higher rates charged by shipping companies.  

On the other hand, if the USPS officially went out of business -- which is highly unlikely -- there's little doubt that one or more entrepreneurial ventures would move in to take over at least some of its functions.  

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Bugs Without Borders: Bed Bugs Spreading Out, Digging In

The little pests travel undetected and become very attached to their new homes

What pest is popping up just about everywhere these days? Presidential candidates, you say? Perhaps, but we were actually thinking of bed bugs. A new surve...

PhotoWhat pest is popping up just about everywhere these days? Presidential candidates, you say? Perhaps, but we were actually thinking of bed bugs. A new survey finds that the pesky devils are steadily taking over new territory.

The study, conducted by the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky, surveyed U.S. pest management professionals and found that 99 percent of respondents encountered bed bug infestations in the past year. More than eight of out ten said  that bed bug infestations are increasing across the country.

This represents a sharp increase in prevalence as only 11 percent of respondents reported receiving bed bug calls more than 10 years ago.

One of the most significant findings is that bed bug encounters have become much more common in public places than the previous year, in some instances increasing by 10, 20 or nearly 30 percent.

“The increase in bed bug encounters is likely due to a combination of factors, but one thing is clear — this pest shows no signs of retreating,” noted Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for NPMA. “Of most concern are the places where pest professionals are encountering bed bugs, such as schools, hospitals, and hotels/motels.”

Public vigilance is vital to controlling the spread, she said.

“Increased public awareness, education and vigilance are key in detecting and preventing bed bug infestations as these pests tend to travel undetected from place to place, breed quickly and remain one of the most challenging to treat,” added Henriksen.

Highlights

Here are several key highlights from the 2011 Bugs Without Borders Survey:
 
1. Nearly all professional pest management companies have received bed bug calls in the past year, as the insect spreads to nearly every corner of the country.

2. While nine out of ten respondents have treated bed bugs in apartments, condominiums and single-family homes in 2011 and 2010, in the past year reports of bed bug encounters have become more common in many other places. College dorms, hotels, nursing homes, office buildings, schools and daycare centers, hospitals, public transportation and movie theaters have all seen inicreased infestations.

3. Bed bugs continue to be the most difficult pest to treat, according to 73 percent of survey respondents. By comparison, 17 percent pointed to ants, nine percent said cockroaches and one percent said termites were the most difficult pests to control.   

4. Six out of 10 respondents consider bed bug infestations a year-round phenomenon, while approximately 25 percent say that summer is the time of year when they receive more bed bug calls. 

5. Visual inspection remains the most common method pest professionals use to determine if a bed bug infestation exists. However, the use of canines has grown from 16 percent to 43 percent in the past year. 

6. Despite the many warnings that bed bugs are not a DIY pest, 25 percent of customers attempt to treat bed bug infestations by themselves before calling a professional. This number has decreased from the 38 percent who elected to treat bed bugs by themselves in 2010. 

Bed bugs are the size and color of a flat apple seed, like to travel and will hide in suitcases, boxes and shoes to be near a food supply (humans). In addition to the mattress and headboard, bed bugs can be found behind baseboards, electrical switch plates, picture frames, wallpaper, upholstery and in furniture crevices. 

More information can be found at AllThingsBedBugs.org.

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Florida Man Ran Cramming Scheme From His Jail Cell

Telephone customers bilked out of $35 million

Crime does pay, but the payout sometimes carries a hefty price tag, as Willoughby Farr, 46, of West Palm Beach, Fla., has learned.Farr has been sentenced...

Crime does pay, but the payout sometimes carries a hefty price tag, as Willoughby Farr, 46, of West Palm Beach, Fla., has learned.

Farr has been sentenced to 262 months – roughly 21 years – in prison and three years of supervised release for perpetrating a “cramming scheme,” which was designed to place charges on consumers’ telephone bills for collect calls that were not made. 

According to court documents, from April 2003 to December 2005, Farr used three West Palm Beach companies – Nationwide Connections Inc., Access One Communications Inc., and Connect One Communications Inc. – to defraud consumers.  

Through these companies, Farr arranged for telephone companies to falsely bill consumers for approximately $35 million in collect calls.   Because the charges typically appeared on the last page of consumers’ telephone bills, many did not notice and paid the charges without complaint.

Farr pleaded guilty in May 2010 to two counts of mail fraud related to the scheme.   In pleading guilty, Farr admitted that he committed the crimes while he was incarcerated in the West Palm Beach County Jail.  

Hid his ownership

Investigators said Farr hid his ownership of the three firms from jail officials.   He also hid his ownership because other firms had cut off his ability to bill for calls due to consumer complaints and the fact that state regulators had sued him for illegitimate billing.  

“When the unscrupulous and the dishonest line their pockets with consumers’ hard-earned money, we will hold them accountable,” said Tony West, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division of the Department of Justice.   “As this sentence demonstrates, the Justice Department has put a priority on protecting the public from fraudulent schemes.   This case should also remind consumers to carefully review their telephone bills for unauthorized charges.”

In February 2006, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) brought a cramming suit against several firms and individuals, including Farr. That suit resulted in a $34,547,140 civil judgment against Farr.

“The Postal Inspection Service did a superb job investigating this case,” said Wifredo A. Ferrer, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. “The FTC first uncovered this scheme and brought it to the Justice Department’s attention.   The case demonstrates the effectiveness of cooperative law enforcement efforts which can put an end to fraudulent schemes, and then bring wrongdoers to justice.”

“Crammers like Farr are eager to post bogus charges to consumers’ accounts,” said Inspector in Charge Henry Gutierrez.   “The Postal Inspection Service will work tirelessly with its law enforcement partners to deter fraudulent use of the mails and to protect the American consumer.”                   

 

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Honda Recalls Nearly 1 Million Cars

Power-window switches can overheat

Honda is recalling nearly 1 million cars to repair problems with power windows and computer equipment. The recall, which includes 962,000 cars worldwide, ...

PhotoHonda is recalling nearly 1 million cars to repair problems with power windows and computer equipment.

The recall, which includes 962,000 cars worldwide, follows the recall of more than 2.3 million Hondas last month to fix automatic transmission problems.

The latest recall includes Fit compacts, CR-V and City models in Japan, China, the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.

The problem involves defective power-window switches. A Honda spokeswoman said there were nine reported cases of vehicles catching on fire in Japan and China because of the power-window problem. She also said two people reported light burns after touching overheated switches.

Honda is also recalling 26,000 CR-Z hybrid models in Japan, the U.S., Canada and other markets because of defective programming of electronic-control units.



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Suit: Safeway's Kona Coffee Is Mostly Not From Kona

Class action charges supermarket misleads coffee consumers

Safeway advertises its Safeway Select Kona Blend coffee "as if Kona beans are the major portion of the Kona Blend," but they actually contain "only a very ...

Safeway advertises its Safeway Select Kona Blend coffee "as if Kona beans are the major portion of the Kona Blend," but they actually contain "only a very small portion of Kona beans," according to a federal class action, Courthouse News Service reports. 

PhotoIn the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Chanee Thurston of Benicia, California, says that until this year, the Kona Blend labels did not disclose that any of the beans came from anywhere but the Kona region of Hawaii.

“This is a significant omission since the majority of the coffee beans in the Kona Blend Coffee are sourced from regions other than the Kona region of Hawaii,” the suit alleges.

The label now says that the “delicate and smooth flavors of our Kona beans combine in perfect harmony with our Latin American beans to create this fragrant cup.”

A dedicated purchaser of the disputed coffee since 2006, Ms. Thurston took as gospel Safeway's assertion that she would “revel in the unmatched taste of savory beans from Hawaii's big island” when, in fact, she was reveling mostly in the taste of savory beans from elsewhere.

Although the suit gives no indication that Ms. Thurston ever failed to revel in the blend, it asserts that she paid more for the Kona Blend because she thought it consisted mostly of Kona beans and that she and other consumers were deceived by Safeway into paying more than they would otherwise have been willing to pay.

The suit notes that Kona coffee is the name given to a variety of coffee cultivated only on the slopes of Mount Hualalai and Mauna Loa in the North and South Kona districts of the island of Hawaii. The Kona districts are 22 miles long and 2 miles wide and annual production is small, causing the “high-end gourmet coffee” to be priced higher than lesser beans.

The suit seeks damages on behalf of all consumers who purchased the Safeway Select Kona Blend during the time in question.

 

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Nevada Seeks To Amend Countrywide Settlement

Claims lender materially breached original judgment

Nevada hopes to bring new litigation against Countrywide Financial...

PhotoSince filing suit against Bank of America and its subsidiaries, including Countrywide Financial, the state of Nevada says it has found evidence of additional violations regarding mortgage lending practices. The state is asking the court to allow it to amend its original complaint and void the original judgment.

The complaint was filed in response to reports from homeowners about the obstacles they faced when trying to obtain a mortgage modification. The updated complaint lists additional claims relating to mortgage origination and servicing and continues to assert violations of the Consent Judgment entered into between the State of Nevada and Countrywide to resolve Countrywide’s liability for fraudulent mortgage lending, marketing and servicing.

Familiar pattern of complaints

That judgment found that Countrywide failed to provide loan modifications to eligible borrowers, failed to make decisions on loan modifications, on average, within sixty days of receiving requests from homeowners, and initiated foreclosure actions while consumer’s modifications requests were pending.

In addition, the amended complaint contains new allegations that Bank of America violated the Consent Judgment, namely that Bank of America increased consumers’ interest rates and monthly payments, even though the Consent Judgment allows only modifications that decrease consumers’ interest rates, actually leaving consumers worse off.

The amended complaint also asserts that the bank required consumers to provide extensive documentation – including pay stubs, tax returns, and sworn affidavits -- to qualify for modifications, despite the Consent Judgment’s promise of streamlined modifications.

Materially breached the agreement

Based on the original and new violations, the state of Nevada added a new request for relief – that the court find Bank of America to have materially breached the Consent Judgment, allowing the state to terminate the Judgment.

In the filing, the state said it considers the bank's “disregard for their duties under the Consent Judgment so pervasive that they constitute a material breach warranting dissolution of that Judgment.”

After two and a half years of lost implementation – of borrowers denied modifications, discouraged by repeated and futile efforts to obtain help, or already subject to foreclosure – the state says it no longer can get the benefit of its original settlement with Defendants.

Free to bring new charges

Upon terminating the Consent Judgment, the state would be released to pursue its original claims against Countrywide for consumer fraud in originating, marketing and servicing mortgage loans.

In that regard, the complaint alleges that Countrywide failed to disclose and affirmatively misrepresented that loans like its Payment Option Adjustable Rate Mortgages (“Option ARMS’) and Hybrid Adjustable Rate Mortgages (“Hybrid ARMS”) were originated at low teaser raters, in effect only for a short time, and that payment on these loans would increase dramatically – often more than double the original rate – when the teaser period expired or the loans reset or recast.

In addition, the state says Countrywide did not disclose that consumers who made only a minimum payment, based on that low teaser rate, would experience negative amortization, which would cause them to fall deeper in debt. These features, which the state says made the loans unaffordable, created the need for many Nevada customers of Bank of America to seek loan modifications.

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Consumers Cautioned About Debit Card Phishing Scam

Scammer poses as employee of Wells Fargo

Consumers are rightly concerned when they are told there is a problem with their debit card. But they should also be a bit skeptical, depending on the sour...

PhotoConsumers are rightly concerned when they are told there is a problem with their debit card. But they should also be a bit skeptical, depending on the source of that information.

In Oregon, consumer officials report a surge of complaints about telephone calls claiming to be from Wells Fargo Bank. The caller tells consumers that their debit cards are locked and that they should provide their debit card number to bank security in order to unlock the cards.

Of course, it isn't Wells Fargo calling – it's a phishing scam.

Oregon Attorney General John Kroger says legitimate financial institutions will never ask you for debit card, bank account or social security numbers, or for sensitive information, like your username or password, over the phone or by email.

To guard against these schemes, never respond to phone calls or emails soliciting personal information. If you suspect it might be legitimate, pick-up the phone and call the company to confirm.

Do not click on any links embedded in phishing emails. They may contain viruses or malware designed to steal your personal information.

Also, make sure your computer has up to date anti-virus software.

The Attorney General's Consumer Hotline received nine complaints since late August from the Portland area and the Willamette Valley about this scam. Kroger says this is a significant number of calls for such a short period of time.

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What's On Your Mind? T-Mobile, Citibank, Dish Network

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: T-Mobile, Citibank, Dish Network, Check's not in the mail, Bad reception and bad information....

PhotoJennifer, of Pueblo, Colo., says T-Mobile gave her some bad information that resulted in her entering into a contract she didn't want. And it all revolves around the proposed AT&T merger with T-Mobile that now looks to be in doubt.

As Jennifer explains it, she had been a T-Mobile customer for seven years with three lines, none of which were under a contract. She said she called T-Mobile to have the third line removed.

“The young lady in the retention department told me that when AT&T takes over T-Mobile in two months, anyone without a contract would be shut off and would have to look for new service, and the package I have is no longer available, so I would have to agree to a new minutes package if i wanted to stay with T-Mobile and not have to search for a new phone company,” Jennifer told ConsumerAffairs.com.

With it put to her in those terms, Jennifer said she felt she had no alternative but to agree to a new contract. Then came last week's anti-trust suit by the Justice Department to block the merger.

“Now knowing the merger is not going through, I just got off the phone with T-Mobile who is now unwilling to help and reset my plan and contract even though it was given under completely false information,” Jennifer said. “On top of that, they are unwilling to pull the call and listen to what i was told, and the fact that i told the retention department several times that i didn't want to have to be wrapped into a new contract.”

It's not too surprising that T-Mobile is unwilling to undo Jennifer's contract. However, it's interesting that she was told, in effect, that she would have fewer options after the merger. Seems to make the case of the critics who maintain the merger is a bad deal for consumers.

Check's not in the mail

Here's a tip for Citibank rewards card customers: if you want to redeem your points in the form of a check, Margaret, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., tells us you could be looking at a lengthy delay.

“Today I made three attempts to speak to someone and was disconnected each time,” Margaret said. “I called back pretending to want to redeem points and reached some one who told me the third party they have cutting the checks is having a problem. She couldn't tell me what the problem was however, she did say it would take five to six weeks to receive the check even though program says it takes up to three weeks.”

But Margaret says it you redeem your points in a pre-paid card, it only takes about a week.

Bad reception

Satellite TV is supposed to be comparable to cable, at least as far as reception is concerned. But Ronald, of Lexington, N.C., noticed a difference when he switched from Time Warner to Dish Network about seven months ago.

“Everytime it rains my TV goes out and the screen says lost signal,” Ronald told ConsumerAffairs.com. “I have been calling Dish Network for as long as I have had it. At first they would tell me that my signal was fine, then they told me to call the installer that put the system in for them and I did not know how to get in touch with him and I should not have to it should be up to dish network to get the installer back out here.”

It does, indeed, sound like an installation problem. If the dish is not properly aligned with the satellite, the slightest atmospheric disturbance will cause interference. Ronald should still have the paperwork from his installation, with the installers name and address.

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Consumers Rally Around Apple in Wake of Jobs' Retirement

Iconic executive's departure doesn't dim enthusiasts' love for the company

Steve Jobs' sudden retirement as CEO of Apple shocked the stock market, rattled the company's employees and sparked endless thumb-sucking op-eds by columni...

PhotoSteve Jobs' sudden retirement as CEO of Apple shocked the stock market, rattled the company's employees and sparked endless thumb-sucking op-eds by columnists of all stripes.

But if anyone thinks Jobs' retirement is an ill omen for the Apple brand, it may be time to think again. 

A computerized analysis of consumer sentiment by ConsumerAffairs.com finds that positive sentiment peaked during August, when Jobs announced that he was stepping aside because of chronic health issues.

An analysis of 27 million sentiments expressed over the last year on Facebook, Twitter and other social media and public forums finds that positive sentiment hit a high for the year in August, when Jobs made his announcement.  

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Positive & negative consumer sentiments about Apple

During August, nearly 50% of all analyzed comments were positive while slightly less than 20% were negative -- about 170,000 positives  against 64,000 negatives in August. Typical comments:

  • "Apple will be fine thanks to his leadership."
  • "Apple is incredibly solid thanks to him." 

 

The most frequent comment in August was: "Apple all the way," expressed by hundreds of consumers in various venues.  An exact count was not possible because of variations in punctuation and spelling.

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While the positive comments tended to focus on Jobs and his leadership, negative comments mostly revolved around technical and pricing issues.  A few samples:

  • Apple freaks me out
  • Apple is screwing over web developers with iOS 4.3

 

Many of the comments deemed negative actually concerned external events that had afflicted Apple, including an attack by hackers.  The most frequent negative comment was a re-post of a previously published headline: "Apple suffers from hackers' Mac attack."
 
Consumer reviews submitted to ConsumerAffairs.com, which tend to be negative for all companies and products, were fairly typical in August. Most concerned problems with iPhones, MacBooks and other Apple products.
 
A California consumer said he left his iPhone on the seat of a BART train.  After watching the train -- and his phone -- leave the station, he went to an Apple store, only to learn that he would have to shell out $600 for a new phone.
 
Several consumers, including Paul of Raleigh, N.C., reported experiencing "kernal panics" on their MacBook Pros but complained that the Apple Store "genius" disputed their diagnosis and said it was a failed logic board.
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What's On Your Mind? Hertz, Kia, Emerson

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Hertz, Kia, Emerson, Clarification needed, Luckier than she knows and Is it supposed to work like this?...

PhotoMichael, of Irvington, Va., had an experience with Hertz car rental that he describes as both good and bad. On the bad side, he said he returned the car with a full tank of gas, filling up at a station at the airport before dropping off the car. Yet, he said he was charged $23.23 for gasoline.

“When I called to complain, without hesitation they removed the charge, Michael told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Seems a bit suspicious.”

Michael wonders how many people don't bother to call up and protest the charge. He also said he was required to stay an extra day for business and was charged the same amount for one day as for the preceding four. But was there something good about his Hertz experience?

“When we arrived at the airport for our return flight a very nice employee noticed that one of our group was on crutches and said, 'Stay in the car, I will deliver you to the airline counter,'” Michael said.

Unfortunately, that one act was not enough to overcome his overall negative impression of what he called the company's “short term, bean-counter thinking.”

 Is it supposed to work like this?

We often hear from consumers who were in accidents and their airbags did not deploy. Recently, we heard from Kevin, of Greenville, N.C., who swerved to miss a child and struck a utility pole with his 2010 Kia.

“The airbags did not deploy, and my seat-belt did not lock when brakes were hit,” Kevin said. “The airbag sensor and seat belt had to be replaced along with a list of other things. $9,000 plus worth of damage. My face hit the steering wheel and my jaw was broken as well as two front teeth and number 9 tooth were dislodged. I have to have implants placed for my front two teeth. I spoke with the Kia dealearship and they said it has to hit in a certain spot to go off, just because it hit the front does not mean the airbag will deploy.”

It's true that airbags don't deploy in every collision. Believe it or not, this is partly a safety measure.  Airbags can cause, as well as prevent, injuries, so the thinking is that they should deploy only in truly major accidents.  See our special report on airbags for more information.  Kevin might also want to review complaints about Kia airbags.  He may want to consult a personal injury attorney to discuss his options.

Clarification needed

Jacqueline, of Bridgeville, Pa., purchased an Emerson LC320EM81 TV set in November 2010, meaning it is not quite a year old.

“Now it won't turn on,” Jacqueline told ConsumerAffairs.com. “Walmart refuses to take back and Emerson wants more money for the repair than for the TV, yet I have a warranty for 12 months!!! Simply outrageous!”

While we understand that retailers like Walmart don't get involved in manufacturer's warranty issues, we're a little puzzled why the 12-month manufacturer's warranty does not cover what sounds like a faulty power supply. Jacqueline needs to seek a clarification and explanation from Emerson.  Emerson may be claiming that the power supply was damaged by a power surge.  If the warranty excludes power surges, Jacqueline may be out of luck.

Remember: All electronic equipment needs to be connected to a surge protector, not just computers.

Luckier than she knows

Barbara of Grants Pass, Ore. was excited when she received a post card telling her she had been awarded a complimentary 8 days/7 nights cruise for two. She was given a number to call for “bonus airfare.”

“I have called the number at least 15 times, and all I get is a click and a blank line,” Barbara said. “I was excited to get to cruise with Carnival , but was upset about this treatment. What do I do from here? Is this a scam?

It almost certainly is. No one, that we know of, is handing out free week-long Carnival cruises, plus “bonus airfare.” Most likely, the scam has already been shut down, which is why Barbara fortunately got no answer to her 15 calls. Most likely, she would have been asked to provide a credit card or bank account number to pay for some small fee, and the scammer would have stolen it.

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Tests Find Roundup Weed-Killer Widespread in Water, Air

Chemical was found "consistently" in air and water samples

Glyphosate, one of the most heavily used weed-killers in the world, has been found in air, rain and rivers in two states examined by government scientists....

PhotoGlyphosate, one of the most heavily used weed-killers in the world, has been found in air, rain and rivers in two states examined by government scientists.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, glyphosate, also known by its trade name Roundup, has been “commonly found in rain and rivers in agricultural areas in the Mississippi River watershed.”

"It is out there in significant levels. It is out there consistently," said Paul Capel, environmental chemist and head of the agricultural chemicals team at the USGS, Reuters reported.

Capel said more tests were needed to determine how harmful the chemical, glyphosate, might be to people and animals. 

He said glyphosate was found in every stream sample examined in Mississippi in a two-year period and in most air samples taken. Tests were also done in Iowa.

Humans and animals are being exposed to the chemical both through inhalation and water, the study found.

Other studies have raised concerns about the rise of resistant "super weeds" that have developed defenses against Roundup.

Introduced in 1974

Monsanto Co. introduced glyphosate 1974, branding it as Roundup.  It was quickly adopted by farmers growing corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops.

Monsanto followed up with genetically-engineered corn, soybeans and cotton that are resistant to Roundup, enabling farmers to douse their crops with the chemical.  The Roundup resistant seeds were branded as Roundup Ready.

Most of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the United States are now part of the Roundup Ready system.  That has given rise to concerns that humans, plants and animals are being exposed to high concentrations of the chemical despite uncertainty about its health effects.

Who knew what when?

Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook has written Hugh Grant, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Monsanto Company, asking him when the company had reason to believe glyphosate would extensively contaminate water and air and if the company had conducted tests of its own.

"Monsanto notoriously hid PCB contamination in Alabama for decades," Cook observed.

"We are asking that in this case, the company tell the public what it knew about glyphosate contamination, and when it knew it," Cook said. "It is inconceivable that a company with Monsanto's scientific capacity did not predict, and examine, the possibility of air and water contamination by glyphosate."

In 2001 and 2002, EWG compiled a series of internal documents showing Monsanto withheld for years its knowledge of widespread PCB contamination of water and soil in Anniston, Alabama.

Then-Washington Post journalist Michael Grunwald chronicled the scandal in his seminal report: Monsanto Hid Decades of Pollution

"We believe that Monsanto has a special obligation to ensure that glyphosate does not pollute the drinking water of Americans living in farm communities," Cook said in his letter. "We urge you to disclose results of any testing for glyphosate in drinking water that Monsanto has performed or commissioned in areas where your product is heavily used."

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Beware Travel Scams This Labor Day Weekend

Fraudsters are active on high-travel holidays

"Travelers should remain on guard for surprise requests for credit card information and high pressure sales tactics that don't correspond with advertised d...

Photo
Rosie the Riveter, Labor Day Icon

The Labor Day Weekend will find millions of Americans on the road, traveling to visit friends or taking that last summer fling. It's a good time to remind travelers to be on guard against assorted travel scams.

"Criminals will take advantage of tourists in new and unfamiliar environments," said Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. "Travelers should remain on guard for surprise requests for credit card information and high pressure sales tactics that don't correspond with advertised deals."

The Michigan Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division recently received a report from law enforcement regarding a bait-and-switch scam used by several souvenir stores located in the same area.

The retailers advertised personalized souvenirs at a low price. Tourists would order the souvenir, and when they returned to pick it up, they were told the item was far more expensive than initially advertised. Consumers were pressured to pay the higher price under threat of report to local police.

Guard your card

Consumers also need to be extra careful with their credit card information. Schuette warns criminals will pursue underhanded avenues to obtain credit card numbers from unsuspecting tourists.

This scam can occur through unsolicited phone calls at hotel rooms indicating tourists need to provide their credit card number again due to a billing glitch.

Fraudsters will also slide flyers under hotel room doors advertising cheap restaurant delivery deals. When tourists order the food by telephone, criminals will collect their credit card information and never deliver the food.

Tips

How can you protect yourself while traveling? Follow these steps:

  • When faced with a "bait-and-switch" scenario, don't allow yourself to be intimidated. Be firm, but calm, and demand the rate that you were promised or the item that you agreed to order.
  • Be prepared to walk away if you don't get what you were promised. Chances are, if the business or individual is faced with losing a paying customer, they will agree to give you the deal as promised.
  • Take time to review all the details to ensure you know what you are purchasing before you buy. Ask if there are any additional fees not reflected in the advertised price.
  • Make sure you read all documents carefully before signing.
  • Once you have checked into a hotel, if you receive flyers under your door, or a call from the hotel's front desk, always check with the hotel's front desk in person, prior to placing an order or providing your credit card number or other personal identifying information.
  • Whether you are traveling or not, never provide personal information in response to an unsolicited phone call, email, or advertisement.
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What's On Your Mind? EZ Lube, BlockShopper.com, RCA

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: EZ Lube, BlockShopper.com, RCA, Maybe should have chosen a different model and Too much information?...

PhotoWhen you take your car in for service at an advertised price, doesn't the shop have to discuss it with you if its personnel think you need an upgraded level of service? Brandi, of Studio City, Calif., certainly thinks so.

“I needed an oil change in my 2008 Honda Fit,” Brandi told ConsumerAffairs.com. “EZ Lube had a sign out front advertising $18.99 for an oil change. I went in, asked for just an oil change at the advertised price, they took the car and did the service. Afterwards, they give me an invoice for $43 and said my car needed the premium oil! They didn't even ask me if I still wanted them to do the service!”

Brandi says she would have told them she didn't need premium oil and to not perform the service. She thinks it's a classic bait & switch. If she wants to pursue it, she should file a complaint with the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs.

Too much information?

With the Internet these days, you can find all kinds of information. Traci, of Chandler, Ariz., is particularly concerned about information on a site called BlockShopper.com.

“I asked to have my personal information removed from this website and was denied,” Traci said. “Just because this information is 'public record' does not mean that everyone wants this information advertised on BlockShopper.com.”

What's this all about? BlockShopper describes itself as a local news and market data service for current and aspiring homeowners, home buyers and home sellers, meaning it covers real estate news. Real Estate transactions, by definition, are news and newspapers print them all the time.

Traci, and many others writing to ConsumerAffairs.com, object to their names being published as part of a real estate transaction, with many expressing concern about their safety. It will be interesting to watch how this plays out. While the proliferation of this kind of information might seem invasive to some, it is public information and publishing it is protected by the First Amendment.  Everyone wants privacy but do we really want secrecy?

Maybe should have chosen a different model

Max, of Toronto, Ont., really wanted the RCA LCD TV at Zeller's in Toronto. The only problem was, the last unit left was the floor model.

“They told me it comes with the full one year manufacturer's warranty,” Max told ConsumerAffairs.com. “They gave me the box and manual and when I got home the remote didn't work. I went back to the store they said they don't have another remote to give me. Have been given the run around by RCA, told to call many different numbers, and finally Curtis in Canada. Curtis told me that this model of TV is no longer supported by them, and that they took over from RCA in Canada and they don't warranty this model. Zellers won't take it back, even though it's only two weeks old, RCA says the model number stamped on the back of it is not correct, Curtis says they don't support or warranty this model. The TV works, but the remote doesn't, and several of the features on the TVhave to be accessed on the remote, meaning a universal remote won't solve the problem. I have no idea what to do.”

If Max got a “floor model” or “open box” discount on the TV, the receipt might say “all sales final.” If so, he's probably out of luck. But if he paid full price, someone – Zellers, RCA, or Craig – should take it back because it is clearly a defective product. He may require some legal assistance to sort this one out. Max's experience should make us all a bit leery of buying a floor model, or the last unit in the store. There may be a reason it's the last one.

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States Challenge Backpage.com Over Sex Trafficking

46 attorneys general want prostitution ads taken down

Attorneys general from 46 states want t online classified site Backpage.com to disclose information on its alleged attempts to remove sex trafficking adver...

Attorneys general from 46 states want t online classified site Backpage.com to disclose information on its alleged attempts to remove sex trafficking advertising, especially that which could involve minors. 

In the past three years, there have been more than 50 cases in 22 states involving the trafficking or attempted trafficking of minors through the site, the AGs said.

Photo

In a letter to the site’s lawyers, the 46 attorneys general say that Backpage.com claims it has strict policies to prevent illegal activity. However, the attorneys general say they have found hundreds of ads on Backpage.com’s regional sites that are clearly for illegal services.

"It does not require forensic training to understand that these advertisements are for prostitution,” the attorneys general wrote.

The letter further claims that the hub for illegal sex ads is a magnet for those seeking to exploit minors. Additionally, the attorneys general reminded Backpage.com of a 2010 request from Cuccinelli and nearly two dozen attorneys general asking that the adult services site be voluntarily taken down.

“Traffickers who exploit runaways and other kids should not be given a tool that makes the process easier,” Virginia Attorney General Ken  Cuccinelli said. “The only way for Backpage.com to completely stop child sex trafficking on its site is to take down the adult services advertisements altogether and to monitor its pages so such posts do not pop up elsewhere on the site.”

Coercion of minors

Cuccinelli added that it is difficult to know whether the person advertised is being coerced, regardless of his or her age. In many cases involving trafficking on Backpage.com, law enforcement officials found that minors were, in fact, often coerced to appear in advertisements.

Prosecutors in Benton County, WA, are handling a case in which teen girls say they were threatened and extorted by two adults who marketed them on the site. One of the adults rented a hotel room and forced the girls to have sex with men responding to the online ads.

$1 and up

Backpage.com is owned by Village Voice Media, LLC. The multimedia company, which also owns 13 weekly newspapers in the United States, admits its involvement in advertising illegal services. In a meeting with staff at the Washington State attorney general’s office, Village Voice board member Don Moon readily acknowledged that prostitution ads appear on the site.

In a June 29 article published nationally by the Village Voice, the corporation criticized those concerned about child sex trafficking as “prohibitionists bent on ending the world’s oldest profession,” acknowledging that, as a seller of adults services ads, “Village Voice has a stake in this story.” Industry analysts suggest that Village Voice’s stake in adult services advertisements is worth about $22.7 million in annual revenue.

While Backpage.com has ramped up its effort to screen some ads for minors, the attorneys general involved in the letter believe that “Backpage.com sets a minimal bar for content review in an effort to temper public condemnation, while ensuring that the revenue spigot provided by prostitution advertising remains intact.”

Series of requests

The letter from Cuccinelli and the attorneys general makes a series of requests to Backpage.com, asking that the company willingly provide information in lieu of a subpoena. For example, to substantiate the claim that the company enforces policies to prevent illegal activity, the attorneys general asked that Backpage.com describe in detail its understanding of what precisely constitutes “illegal activity,” and whether advertisements for prostitution fall into that category.

The attorneys general also asked how many of the advertisements in the adult section submitted since Sept. 2010 were individually screened, how many were rejected, and how many were removed after being discovered to be for illegal services. 

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California Senate Approves BPA Ban for Baby Bottles, Sippy Cups

Bill now heads back to the General Assembly for a final vote

The California State Senate has voted to ban bisphenol A (BPA) from baby bottles and sippy cups sold in California.  The Toxin-Free Infants and Toddle...

PhotoThe California State Senate has voted to ban bisphenol A (BPA) from baby bottles and sippy cups sold in California.  The Toxin-Free Infants and Toddlers Act(AB 1319) now heads back to the General Assembly for a final vote.

“Today’s action by the Senate is further proof that the interests of California’s children can have a voice in Sacramento,” said Renee Sharp, head of the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) California office.

"Today's vote to eliminate BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups is part of re-asserting California's leadership on environmental health protections,” said Martha Dina Argüello, Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles. “As physicians and health advocates, we need measures like AB 1319 to help reduce exposure to BPA since babies and children are most vulnerable to endocrine-disrupting chemicals."

“Banning the dangerous chemical BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups is just the kind of protective measure the CA Legislature should be spending it’s time and energy on," said Elisa Odabashian, West Coast Director of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.

The legislation, sponsored by Environmental Working Group and authored by State Assembly member Betsy Butler (D-Marina Del Ray) and State Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), would bar BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups made or sold after July 1, 2013. It would also require manufacturers to use the least toxic alternative substance for these products.

Last week, Deborah Raphael, director of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control sent a letter to Butler expressing support for the legislation “in light of the information available regarding the potential health effects of bisphenol A.”

In addition to EWG, the legislation was co-sponsored by Consumers Union, Black Women for Wellness, and Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles.

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Americans Drinking Too Many Sugary Drinks

Public health groups hope to cut average consumption to three cans per week

How many sugary soft drinks is too many?  There's no single answer but a coalition of health and consumer groups would like to see Americans reduce th...

PhotoHow many sugary soft drinks is too many?  There's no single answer but a coalition of health and consumer groups would like to see Americans reduce their consumption to three cans per week.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association and more than 100 other groups are mounting a campaign to educate Americans about the risks of consuming too much sugar.

Sugary drinks are the single largest source of calories in the American diet and account for half of all added sugars consumed. And unlike any other food or beverage, only sugary drinks have been shown to have a causal role in promoting obesity.

Each additional sugary drink consumed per day, according to one study, increases the likelihood that a child will become obese by about 60 percent. A reason that sugary drinks are conducive to obesity is that the calories in beverages aren’t as satiating as solid foods.

The American Heart Association recommends that people limit their intake of sugary drinks to about 450 calories per week, or about three 12-ounce cans. Average consumption is now more than twice that.

“Life’s Sweeter’s goal is to broaden the battle against sugary drinks from health experts to civic organizations, youth groups, civil rights groups, and others,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D. “The enormous health and economic benefits that would result from drinking less ‘liquid candy’ will be supported by a broad cross-section of America. Not since the anti-tobacco campaigns has there been a product so worthy of a national health campaign.”

Empty calories

The campaign’s web site, fewersugarydrinks.org, invites individuals and families to take the Life’s Sweeter challenge to drink fewer or no sugary drinks.

In addition, the campaign is encouraging employers, hospitals, and government agencies to adopt policies that would reduce soda consumption. Besides carbonated soda, the campaign targets fruit-flavored beverages with little or no juice, sweetened iced teas, lemonades, energy drinks, and so-called sports drinks such as Gatorade.

“Campaigns like Life’s Sweeter with Fewer Sugary Drinks and our own local efforts will help raise awareness of the harmful consequences of consuming too many sugary drinks, which add empty calories to our diets, inches to our waistlines, and risks to our health,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Director of Public Health and Health Officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Many big cities are already campaigning to reduce soda consumption. In New York City, for instance, officials have run hard-hitting ad campaigns connecting soda to weight gain, and highlighting the sugar content of soft drinks. 

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AARP: 1 in 11 Older Americans At Risk of Hunger

Nearly 9 million 50+ Americans face "food insecurity"

AARP says a study finds that nearly 9 million Americans 50 and older face the risk of hunger according to new research commissioned by AARP Fou...

PhotoAARP says a study finds that nearly 9 million Americans 50 and older face the risk of hunger. The report found more than nine percent of older Americans were at risk of hunger in 2009—a 79 percent increase since 2001.

The research, produced by James P. Ziliak of the University of Kentucky and Craig Gundersen of the University of Illinois, is the first of its kind to examine hunger risk among people age 50 to 59—the youngest of the baby boomers.

Because they are typically too young for Social Security and too old to qualify for programs designed for families with children, this age group can be hit particularly hard in bad economic times. In 2009, 4.9 million 50- to 59-year-olds were at risk of hunger, representing a staggering 38 percent increase over 2007.

“For the first time, we have a fuller picture of hunger risk among all Americans 50-plus. But sadly, it’s far more bleak than before,” said AARP Foundation President Jo Ann Jenkins. “The recession has taken an especially large toll on older people—particularly those in the middle class. Between 2007 and 2009, the most dramatic increase in food insecurity was among those with annual incomes more than twice the poverty line.”

PhotoJenkins announced the new research at the Meals On Wheels Association of America (MOWAA) annual conference in Chicago.

The AARP Foundation report builds on earlier research commissioned by MOWAA to examine hunger among people 60 and older. AARP Foundation is working with hunger relief organizations, like MOWAA, to combat the growing problem of hunger among older Americans.

The report also examined hunger trends among older African Americans and Hispanics, finding that the risk of hunger remains alarmingly higher among these groups than whites.

The risk of hunger for African Americans and Hispanics in their 50s was twice that of whites over the years studied. In addition, the study provided detailed analyses of hunger risk across states and major metropolitan areas, finding that hunger risk was notably higher among those residing in the South.

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FBI Warns of Bogus Check Scam

Checks appear to be issued by UT-Battelle LLC

The Knoxville Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is warning consumers about a check scam that has cropped up in East Tennessee, possibly...

The Knoxville Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is warning consumers about a check scam that has cropped up in East Tennessee, possibly targeting individuals who have advertised on Craigslist.

The scam involves counterfeit checks, which appear to be issued by UT-Battelle LLC.  They range in amount from $2,200 to $3,000 and have been sent to multiple individuals in various states.

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The checks are sent via FedEx to specific victims directing them to deposit the checks into their personal checking accounts. The victim is instructed to keep a portion of the deposit proceeds and send the remaining funds back to the sender.

By the time the bank notifies the depositor the check is fraudulent, the depositor may have already sent the remaining funds back to the sender.

Personally identifiable information can readily be obtained from many different sources. However, early indications suggest some of the individuals who have received the UT-Battelle checks have either had items listed for sale on Craigslist or have responded to ads posted there.

The FBI advises the public to be aware of such fraudulent schemes and to be diligent when receiving checks or solicitations in the mail or via e-mail. The FBI encourages the public to protect themselves and avoid becoming a victim of these types of scams.

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Seniors Warned About Medicare Scams

Telemarketers seek seniors' personal data

Senior citizens should be on the lookout for Medicare scams....

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 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.

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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Demand For Small Used Cars Surges

High gas prices make small a lot more attractive

Edmunds.com reports small car sales are up...

PhotoThere's really no surprise here. Gasoline prices go up, and so does demand for small, fuel-efficient vehicles.

That's not all that went up. So did the sticker price on small cars sitting on the used car lot. An analysis by Edmunds.com reveals that consumers paid about 10 percent more for used three-year-old compact cars in July than in January.

By comparison, prices for this segment rose just 1.6 percent over the same period in 2010, and 1.1 percent in 2008, the last time gas prices crept over $4/gallon.

Good deal on an SUV

Don't really care what gasoline costs? Then you could have found a bargain-priced SUV. Used three-year-old large traditional SUVs saw a small drop in price - 3.2 percent, on average - from January to July. And apparently there are plenty of people who have figured out the trade off in price of car and price of gas works in their favor. This segment of the market demonstrated much more stability than it did in 2008, Edmunds says, when the price of used three-year-old large traditional SUVs plummeted 23 percent during the first seven months of the year.

"In 2008, consumers reacted to rising gas prices by running away from SUVs; in 2011, they reacted by running toward small cars," said Richard Arca, used car analyst at Edmunds.com. "This year's pricing trends are also affected by the March earthquake in Japan, which for some time made it very difficult to find, for example, a new Toyota Prius or Honda Civic. That created a very aggressive market for similar used models."

Holding their value

According to Edmunds.com data, the price of a new 2010 Toyota Prius bought in July 2010 depreciated just 4.3 percent after one year, while the price of a new 2010 Honda Civic depreciated five percent over the same period. By comparison, the average price for all new 2010 models depreciated 28.9 percent during that time.

Overall, used car prices have climbed 4.3 percent from January to July this year. In 2010, prices rose 3.0 percent over the same period.

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Fake Lottery Scam Still Making The Rounds

Makes new appearance in West Virginia

Protect yourself from the fake lottery scam...

The fake lottery scam is one of the oldest of cons, usually preying on desperate people willing to believe that Fortune has finally smiled on them. Only, it never does.

Since the fake lottery, or sweepstakes scam works so well, scammers are still using it. It usually works this way:

A potential victim is contacted by phone or mail and told they have won a rather substantial cash prize in an international lottery. The scammer usually tries to build excitement in the victim, asking them how they will spend the money and urging them to celebrate.

It's only then that the scammer reveals the victim must pay a fee – often several thousand dollars – to secure release of the funds. It's either described as taxes or a processing fee.

Showing up in West Virginia

West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw this week warned residents of his state that the sweepstakes scam has been showing up more than usual.

One recent victim in Bluefield, West Virginia, was targeted by thieves in Jamaica who in October of 2010 called him asking for "taxes" in the amount of $400.00 in order to collect his $10 million lottery prize. Once he made an initial payment, they contacted him repeatedly over a ten-month period with stories of unexpected bank charges and other fees, until they had collected more than $40,000.00.

Each time, they convinced him the winnings were real, using personal information about him which anyone can obtain over the Internet. Unfortunately, the victim has only Social Security to support him, is disabled, and badly needed the income as the only support for his hospitalized wife and extended family members. Having borrowed thousands from friends to make the foreign payments, McGraw says the victim is now facing foreclosure after failing to pay his mortgage for over four months.

Scammers use small pieces of information


"Since we hear of unexpected windfalls from legitimate lotteries, people can be easily convinced an exciting new opportunity is valid when it is not,” McGraw said. “Unfortunately, the convenience we all enjoy from modern technology is also convenient for thieves – scammers are more convincing when armed with small pieces personal of information about us, right from the Internet." 

Since most victims are seniors, caregivers and loved ones should make sure they understand that they could not have won a lottery or sweepstakes if they didn't enter. Here are other things seniors, and others, should know to avoid becoming a victim:

  • Don’t act immediately. High pressure calls or emotional pleas are danger signs of fraud. Get all information and consider it carefully.
  • Be wary of requests to send a payment by wire service or private courier. The company may be trying to avoid detection from postal inspectors or to get your money before you have a chance to change your mind.
  • Don’t pay if it’s free or if you have won. Paying a fee to claim a prize or get something free is another danger sign of fraud.
  • Check it out. If you are not familiar with the company, check its track record with your state or local consumer protection office. Even if there is no information about the company, you can get helpful advice.
  • Do not believe promises of easy money. No one can legitimately claim you will make large earnings from business opportunities with little or no work, promise high returns on investments with little or no risk, or guarantee that you will win a lottery or sweepstakes.
  • Don’t provide your Social Security number unless you’re applying for credit or employment. Using your personal information, crooks can steal from you and impersonate you to steal from others.
  • Beware of recovery services. These are often scams designed to take your last dime by falsely offering to get money back that you lost to a fraudulent scheme - for a fee. There is no charge for filing a complaint with a government agency 
  • Follow the rule of thumb: If a deal is too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.
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Arizona 'Charity' Fundraiser Barred From Iowa

Attorney General uses recorded calls to crack down on fraud

Iowa has barred another charity telemarketer from the state...

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has secured a court order barring another charity telemarketer from calling consumers in his state.

The order was granted in Miller's suit against Americans With Disabilities, LLC, a Phoenix, Arizona for-profit company, and its owner, Dale R. Sieck. In the suit, Miller says the company used “blatant lies” about disabilities to elicit funds from Iowans.

An Iowa judge ordered the company to pay a $2,000 penalty to a state elderly victim fund, for the investigation and prosecution of frauds against older Iowans.  Though a consent judgment, the judge also barred telephone solicitor Jeffrey A. Balke, who solicited on behalf of the company, from future telephone and mail solicitations directed to Iowa consumers.

Recording calls to a senior citizen's number

Miller has targeted telemarketers who cross the line in soliciting funds, allegedly for a charitable cause. Months ago his office obtained the registered telephone number of an elderly Iowa citizen and has been recording the calls made to it.

On June 3, Miller filed a lawsuit against Americans With Disabilities, after the Consumer Protection Division allegedly recorded Balke’s telephone call on the undercover phone line.  Miller says Balke sought money on behalf of Americans With Disabilities by falsely claiming that he was blind and seeking a guide dog, that he served in the Vietnam War and was exposed to Agent Orange, that his daughter recently died of cystic fibrosis, and that he is a native Iowan.  A Consumer Protection Division investigation determined that none of these claims by Balke were true.

Americans With Disabilities, LLC, a for-profit company and not a charitable organization, sells products by phone, including $45 tins of cookies, and purports to use its profits to help disabled people.  A company product insert stated that it makes “a special effort to enable handicapped or otherwise disadvantaged workers” by paying “a great percentage” of sales proceeds to workers who “have had trouble in obtaining employment in the mainstream workforce.

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What's On Your Mind? Best Buy, Wells Fargo, Maytag

Our daily look at consumer reviews

Here is what's on consumer's minds today: Best Buy, Wells Fargo, Maytag, Paying to pay, Short life, Scam Alert and Publishers Clearing House....

PhotoWhat do you do if the expensive device you just purchased seems to have a minor flaw and the store offers an exchange? The answer, in most cases, is to take them up on it.

“I purchased a Galaxy Tab 10.1 from Best Buy and discovered it had a problem with water residue or some other material under the screen,” John, of St. Petersburg, Fla., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The manager offered to exchange it but it was operating normally otherwise so I opted to think it over. Less than a week later the unit had problems accessing certain programs and I returned it, but Best Buy now refused to refund or replace, citing the fact that the 14 day warranty period had expired. In fact the receipt did not show tablets under the 14 day provision and everything else was 30 days. I contacted the CEO of Best Buy with no resolution.”

In hindsight, John should have jumped at the chance to exchange the tablet early on. The reason? The presence of water may make it hard to make a claim under the manufacturer's warranty, even though it was there when he bought it. Problem is, he can't prove it.

Paying to pay

It seems banks are beginning to make more of their income on fees, rather than making loans. Most overdraft fees are now gone, but other fees have taken their place.

“I was a very happy Wachovia customer and then Wells Fargo changed all of Wachovia's systems to theirs in August,” said Tara, of Charlotte, N.C.

One change is a two day period between the time a customer pays a bill online and the time it's posted to the payee.

“I am a teacher and am only paid once a month on the 31st,” she said. “My mortgage is due on the 1st without a grace period and Bank of America charges $25 to just pay my bill any other method than online bill pay transfer. So now I either have to pay Wells Fargo $15 per bill to have the ability to pay the bill on time, or Bank of America $25. Isn't charging me interest enough? Do I really have to pay to pay a bill?”

Tara said she attempted to work out another arrangement with Wells Fargo but was unable to do so. Maybe this is a good time to remind consumers that there is a wide choice of banks and credit unions. Usually, consumers will find more consumer-friendly terms at small, community banks and credit unions.

Short life

Whether it's big screen TVs or washing machines, expensive appliances just don't seem to last as long as they once did.

“I bought a Maytag diswasher less than two years ago,” R., of Schaumburg, Ill., told ConsumerAffairs.com. “The Maytag repairman just informed me the control panel, the control board and harness were burnt and needed to be replaced with parts alone costing over $300. I said no thanks ,paid him the $99 service call fee and called Maytag to see if they would help. Nope,they pretty much said tough luck.”

This is not an uncommon complaint, and makes one wonder why designers put fragile electronic systems in appliances that fill with water.

Scam Alert

Laura, of Las Vegas, wrote to us because she thought she missed out on winning $100.

I got a text saying to call Publishers Clearing House, as I was a $100 winner of a Walmart card,” Laura said. “I responded about 11 am and the conversation was OK untill we got to the part about my credit card. When I stated I lost my job and then my credit cards, the lady got really bitchy. She said without a credit or debit card you are not eligible for the promo. Let me tell you I sat on the floor and cried buckets. One hundred dollars would go a long way to an unemployed mom.”

The woman was a scammer, not someone with Publishers Clearing House. Laura can thank her lucky stars she didn't have a credit card. If she did, that scammer would have placed unauthorized charges on it. Publishers Clearing House does not send text messages, by the way.  

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