Current Events in September 2011

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2011

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

    Our daily look at consumer reviews

    Remember 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.

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

    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 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.

    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...

    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’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

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

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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.

      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

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

      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-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. 

      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...

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

      But economist says "don't go crazy"

      Good 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?”

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

      Insider Predicts October iPhone 5 Release

      Speculation builds that new phone will be out next month

      Okay, 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.

      Apple likely to release new iPhone in October...

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

      Our daily look at consumer reviews

      With 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.  

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

      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 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.

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

      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-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

      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...

      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 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.

      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.  

      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."

      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.   

      ---

      Sentiment analysis by NetBase

      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...

      Consumers' Top Turn-Off? Rudeness

      Uncivil behavior quietly sabotages bottom line, researchers find

      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.

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

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

      Our daily look at consumer reviews

      Some 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.

      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....

      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, 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

      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 ...

      Study: Adding Collectible Toy To Healthy Meals Make Them Desirable

      Kids' meal toys could be force for good

      Nutrition 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.

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

      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 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.

      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. 

      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.

      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.

      ---

      Sentiment analysis powered by NetBase

      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...

      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 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.  

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

      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 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.

      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...