1. Home
  2. News
  3. 2011
  4. September

News in September 2011

Browse by year

2011

Browse by month

Get trending consumer news and recalls

    By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Thank you, you have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

    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 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.

    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...
    Read lessRead more

    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 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.

    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...
    Read lessRead more

    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 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.”

    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 ...
    Read lessRead more

    Get trending consumer news and recalls

      By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

      Thank you, you have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

      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 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.”

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      Minnesota Sues Two For-Profit Colleges Over Aid Issues

      Joins feds, other states

      For 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.

      Two fore profit colleges face another state lawsuit...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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, adouble 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      Falls Still a Leading Cause of Fatal Injuries in Seniors

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

      Falls 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.”

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

      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. 

      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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      Wall Street Bear Predicts Sharp Drop For Gold

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

      In 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.

      Gold prices may be headed lower...
      Read lessRead more

      Free Checking Becoming Endangered Species

      More banks adding fees, raising minimum balance requirements

      Once 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.

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

      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, 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

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

      Our daily look at consumer reviews

      Shortly 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.

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

      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 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.  

      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?  

      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.

      Cain'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%.  

      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.  

      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.

      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.

      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. 

      ---

      Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

      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 ...
      Read lessRead more

      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'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.

      Its 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.

      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.   

      Blue line shows net sentiment

      Why 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."  

      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.

      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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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 ...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.”

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

      Gas Prices Down On Recession Fear

      Average price drops seven cents in last seven days

      There'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)
      Gas prices dropped seven cents a gallon in the last week...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.”

      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...
      Read lessRead more